Iowa Farm Bureau Leadership Award recipients honored for their passion for farming, helping their communities and the next generation thrive.

The three winners of the 2024 Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Leadership Award are reaching beyond their fencerows to build stronger rural communities in addition to putting in long hours needed to grow their own farms.  

James Hepp of Calhoun County, Nate Hofmann of Linn County and Kaitlyn Porter of Franklin County have taken very different paths on the journey to establish their farming operations, but they share a common vision in helping their communities, churches and the next generation of farmers to thrive. 

Hepp is a first-generation farmer who has grown his farm by building a network that began in high school. Hofmann said he felt called to continue a farm that’s been in his family for five generations. And Porter, who was raised on a self-described “hobby farm,” is carving her own path with a purebred Simmental seedstock cattle herd along with corn and soybean acres.

In addition to farming, all three said they feel a duty to serve Farm Bureau and other organizations in their communities.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Leadership Award was created in honor of former Iowa Farm Bureau President Bob Joslin, known for his support and encouragement of young farmers. 

The award recognizes young farmers, ages 18 to 35, who are actively contributing to their communities and demonstrate leadership within their county Farm Bureau and other groups. 

Hepp, Hofmann and Porter will be recognized at the 2024 Iowa Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in December. In addition, the Iowa Farm Bureau will provide $2,000 community grants to local nonprofits designated by each of the award winners.

Starting from scratch

Farming skipped a generation in James Hepp’s family, but he hasn’t let that deter him from chasing his dreams. Instead, it has provided him with fresh perspectives that allow him to test innovative ideas to work more efficiently and profitably, potentially providing Hepp’s two young sons, who he raises with his wife, Paige, the opportunity to farm some day.

Hepp attended college at Northwest Missouri State and worked as a crop insurance agent when a retiring farmer, whose son was a friend of Hepp’s in high school, offered him an opportunity to crop-share 160 acres. 

As that relationship grew, other area farmland owners took notice of Hepp’s work ethic and offered more opportunities to rent farm ground.

“I was very lucky to get the opportunity,” Hepp said. “He’s been very good to work with and open-minded too.”

Hepp grows corn, soybeans and rye with a strong focus on conservation and sustainability. He utilizes no-till and strip tillage practices and seeds cover crops on nearly one-half of his acres. Hepp also hosts field days to share his knowledge about improving soil health with other farmers. He’s found that cover crops improve weed control, allowing him to reduce herbicide use and improving return on investment (ROI).

“When you’re a first-generation farmer, you have a lot to learn. You also don’t do things because they’ve always been done that way,” he said. “With me, ROI is really big. I’m going to cut my herbicide in half. That means more money, and it’s good for the environment too.” 

Hepp joined the Calhoun County Farm Bureau board soon after returning from college and quickly moved into leadership roles. He is currently in his second year as president and also enjoys teaching youth about farm safety and ag careers. Outside of Farm Bureau, Hepp volunteers for the local fire department and served on his church council.

“It’s important for me to give back,” says Hepp. “I want to help, and hopefully it reverberates back and, when I need help, someone will help me.” 

Hepp is donating his community grant to the Hometown Heroes Memorial Ride in Rockwell City, which honors public safety professionals who were killed in the line of duty. Funds raised from the ride support those interested in public safety careers, support families of first responders facing hardship and provide equipment for local safety departments.

Bridging the divide

Farming on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, Nate Hofmann has plenty of opportunities to interact with suburban neighbors who didn’t grow up around agriculture. He also is a frequent contributor to local media for stories on agriculture and hosts field trips from local schools. 

“Being this close to Cedar Rapids, I’ve become aware that there’s a lot of urban neighbors that don’t know what’s going on out here on the farm,” he said. “I think it’s important to share what’s going on and why it’s going on. Hopefully, we can work with them and mitigate their fears about agriculture and what we’re doing on the farm.”

He invites his church congregation to his farm every year to experience the innovations and advancements in farming firsthand.

“Not many of the people that go to my church are familiar with farming, so it’s just a joy to have them out on the farm,” he said. “I think they’re familiar with an old-fashioned version of farming, and they’re surprised how much of a modern farm we have today.”

Hofmann farms with his dad and brother, raising corn, soybeans and cattle. He studied agriculture at Kirkwood Community College and Iowa State University before returning home to farm.

“Legacy is really important to me,” said Hofmann. He and his wife, Johanna, have two young boys. 

“My family’s been farming here for five generations, and I want my kids to have the opportunity to grow up in agriculture.”

Hofmann became involved with Farm Bureau nearly 15 years ago, developing a strong interest in policy issues. He has held several county board positions, currently serving as voting delegate. 

“My goal has always been to serve the membership and the industry,” said Hofmann. “I was passionate about it and found purpose in that. 

“Policy is something that has always fascinated me ever since I got involved in the organization. Linn County is pretty urban, and we’ve had a lot of conversations with our county supervisors. We’ve had some challenges over the years, but we’ve developed a good relationship.”

Hofmann is awarding his community grant to Tooth Brushers and Balaam’s Donkey, an organization that provides dental care to individuals in assisted-living facilities. This cause became personal for Hofmann after a livestock-related injury led him to undergo dental work after losing three teeth, underscoring the importance of dental health.

Teaching future leaders

Kaitlyn Porter found her calling as a farmer and FFA advisor at West Fork High School, blending a lifelong dream of teaching with her passion for agriculture.

“I knew I always wanted to be a teacher. I just wasn’t sure of what yet, and it just kind of worked out that ag was the thing I like,” she said. “I guess you put two-and-two together, and I get to do what I love every single day.”

In addition to teaching, Porter grows corn, soybeans, hay and has a purebred Simmental seedstock herd. While growing up on a hobby farm, her passion for agriculture was ignited through FFA in high school.

Today, she works to help her students find their own passion and equip them with the leadership skills needed to propel them to a successful future.

“I think everyone has a different opinion of what a leader looks like,” she said. “There’s always a leadership role for everyone depending on what we’re working on. It’s kind of like a puzzle. Everyone has a piece, and it’s just how you put it together.”

She also works to expose her students to ways policy affects farmers and how they can become advocates for agriculture.

This year provided a real-world example as Porter met with lawmakers to support legislation to reinstate the livestock capital gains tax on breeding livestock, which was passed by the Iowa Legislature and signed into law.

“Because I am a seedstock operation, that directly affects me in every way,” she said. “We had some really heavy conversations with some legislators, and it was eye-opening.”

As a member of the Franklin County Farm Bureau board, Porter draws on her educational background to connect with her community at library events, county fairs and Ag Day events with local schools.

She also sells direct-to-consumer beef, again utilizing her teaching background to educate customers on how her cattle are raised, even “pampered.”

“Animal care is something that’s really important on my operation, all the way from the beginning of their life to the end,” she said.      

She’s also active with the local Extension council, Iowa Simmental Association and the Kyle Porter Foundation, which honors her late husband, who was killed in a farm accident in 2020. 

Porter is using her community grant to support the Kyle Porter Foundation, which provides scholarships and supports initiatives that benefit local youth. 

“It helps fund different projects Kyle would be passionate about to keep carrying on his legacy,” she says. “I think he would be proud of the work we’re doing.”