OTTUMWA — Six generations of farming have earned one Ottumwa family an award for its dedication to the land.
Maurice and Melissa Gardner, along with their son Jared, his wife Heather and their two boys, Logan and Cody, gathered in their dining room to reflect on the farm's 168-year history. The farm sits six miles east of Cargill Eddyville and just west of the power plant.
The land has been farmed by the Gardners since the original 160 acres were purchased by Joseph Gardner and his first wife, Clarissa, on Jan. 25, 1845, when they came to southeast Iowa to homestead, Maurice said.
"What the courthouse told me when I dug into the information was that they purchased the land with a land grant from the president," Heather said.
The Gardners will receive the Heritage Farm Award at the Iowa State Fair this month. Through the years, the farm has passed down from Joseph to Jim to Quigley to Charles to Maurice and now to Jared.
Jared tackles the day-to-day operations of the farm while Maurice works at Cargill Eddyville.
Any farm that has been family-owned for 150 years or more receives the award. This year, 67 family farms across the state will receive the award, adding to the 583 family farms that have already received the award since the program launched in 2006. At least 40 acres of the original farmland must still remain in the family in order to qualify for the award.
"Each year, I think the numbers will go down, but they've stayed really steady each year," said Becky Lorenz, program coordinator for the Heritage Farms Program.
The Gardner's farm is comprised of grain and livestock.
"We have a lot of ground that's rolling and needs to be in grass, so the cow herd and the calves have always been an important part of the operation," he said. "We contract feed hogs with Cargill, and the rest is corn and beans. Diversification is important for this size of farm."
That diversity is just as important in incorporating new technology, Heather said, including new farming methods, soil conservation, crop rotation and cover crops — something new the Gardners tried this year.
"Cover crops greatly reduced and almost eliminated soil erosion when the more conventional tilled ground was more severely eroded by the big Memorial Day rains we had," Maurice said.
With three 500-year floods since 1993 and a severe drought last summer, the family has learned to manage its risk through crop insurance, contracting feed hogs with Cargill and hedging cattle.
The difficulty in handing down family farms is financial, he said, since many times brothers or sons no longer live on the farm.
"We just did a buy-out from my brother two or three years ago and part of that was keeping it in the family," he said. "That's the difficulties that farm families are having now is the transition between generations.
"But I work with lots of farm families, and there's a lot of effort to keep family farms in the family if there's somebody in the family that wants to operate it."
While Lorenz said family farms would appear to be a thing of the past, that's not reflected in the number of century (owned for 100 years or more) and heritage farms she sees every year.
"I get turned around when I see the numbers each year still holding steady," she said. "I just think it's amazing that we still have this many every year. All their hard work to keep it in the family — and there's so many things that can come up, weather, economy — it's so important to them, so this is a great way to honor them."
Most families have a "visceral attachment" to their land, Melissa said.
"It used to be considered a way of life; it's more of a business now," she said. "But it was originally a way for someone to make a living for his family and provide for his children."
Maurice agreed, saying family farms are systemic and a "way of life."
Melissa hopes the farm will stay in the family, though Jared nodded toward his boys: "It all depends on these two."
"You never know," Maurice said. "The future's a hard thing to see. But the land ... it's a piece of property that the value won't go to zero. The value will fluctuate but it'll never go to zero, like currency or stocks."
But, he noted, a family doesn't have to operate the farm to own it due to an increasing trend of absentee ownership.
The Gardners previously received the Century Farm Award in 1976, when it was 131 years old. The family will head to the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 13 to be honored alongside the 66 other heritage farm families.
"There's a sense of pride that goes with maintaining ownership for that long of time," Maurice said. "There's a lot of history in those 168 years."
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