When Ashley and Zachary Wenke viewed the 7.5-acre tract of land up for sale just north of Barnes City in Poweshiek County, right away they knew it was perfect — the first place they’d seen outside of town that fit their budget.

Hoping to grow and raise their own food to supplement their family’s grocery needs, they soon learned that many of their friends and family were just as interested in locally grown products and asked if they’d be willing to grow food for them as well.

“We began sharing and selling surplus, and by the end of the second year, we had a small cashbox stand for our project,” said Ashley. “By year three, we started attending farmers markets with product and have been adding and expanding since.”

Fast forward to 2023 and the start-up, family-run homesteading journey has grown to include meat, produce, eggs and honey to surrounding communities. Egg-laying hens, beekeeping and planting 80 fruit trees were part of the plan, followed by pork and poultry offerings, mainly provided at local farmers markets and through online channels. They also own a milk cow and a 10-plus-head Dexter cow/calf herd.

The Wenkes shared their en­trepreneurial adventure and advice for start-up niche farming to a group of enthusiastic, prospective growers and producers at the second annual Acres of Opportunity conference hosted by Iowa Farm Bureau in Ames March 11.

Amanda Van Steenwyk, Iowa Farm Bureau's farm business development manager, said the conference drew 262 attendees from 66 counties across the state to Iowa State University on a snowy Saturday. She said the program was again a success, providing beginning farmers and others interested in diversifying their crop and livestock operations with guidance from business experts and farmers.

“Our members expressed they wanted additional educational opportunities outside of the traditional crops and livestock for Iowa,” said Van Steenwyk. “Acres of Opportunity for the last two years has provided that information direct from Iowa producers themselves. The lessons learned and resources available are very valuable to hear from farmer to farmer.”

Meat and egg layers

The Wenkes focused their presentation on the benefits and challenges of raising meat and egg layer chickens. They first bought egg layers from Zach’s parents, and the meat birds were one of the first sources of protein they had space to raise themselves.

They advised interested farmers to understand the initial care and cost involved when raising a small flock for their family and then expand to find opportunities to earn income. “A good brooder and set up is essential,” Ashley said.

“Losses to predators are a huge loss of profit, and another important factor is the limited number of processors approved for resale in the State of Iowa."

Joining the Wenkes in presenting were experts on building a farm brand, beginning farm loan programs, growing a cut flower or produce farm, and raising meat goats. 

Sara Todd with The Holton Homestead in Elkhart shared the importance of local honey production and tips on how to get started in beekeeping.

“The number one crop pollinator is honeybees, and 75% of local crop production — nuts, fruits, vegetables — relies on pollinators,” Todd said.

With declining bee populations and fewer wild honeybees, local beekeepers have taken on a larger role in keeping pollinator numbers steady. A myriad of diseases, environmental conditions and shrinking natural habitat continually threaten the survival of bees.

Todd recommended interested novice beekeepers enroll in a class before investing in bees and equipment, and learn more from online educational products available from the Central Iowa Beekeepers Association (CIBA).

“And plant those pollinator friendly plants — fruit trees, wildflowers, anything that produces a flower that would be a resource for the bees,” Todd said. 

Taking the first step

Iowa Farm Bureau President Brent Johnson applauded those in attendance for taking the first step toward potential business development. 

He shared his own journey launching a precision agriculture consulting business and some initial concepts he theorized even as a young ag student at Iowa State University. 

Good intentions are worthless and tomorrow is overrated, he said.

“You can talk all you want to, but actually put your words into action,” Johnson said. “I encourage you to take these steps. It’s not always easy; it’s more often more difficult to do but I guarantee you it’s worth it.”

Like Clayton Mooney, who shared the year over year growth of his start-up six-stack vertical growing system indoor produce company, Clayton Farms, that has seen a 500%-plus surge in production each of the last two years. 

With markets expanding from Ames into the Twin Cities and Chicago, Mooney unveiled at the conference plans to open his first drive-through restaurant, Clayton Farms Salads, in Ames this month that will offer salads and smoothies from products grown on-site.

What advice would he offer to anyone considering a start-up?

“Sell the prototypes,” he said. Don’t wait to theorize and perfect a product before offering it to paying customers.

“That was a really hard lesson for us to learn,” he said. “The sooner you get it in front of your customers for actual feedback, the better.”

Van Steenwyk said planning for the 2024 Acres of Opportunity conference already is underway. “The location and date will be announced soon,” she said.