Although only a handful of students in the Sustainable Agriculture Graduate Program aspire to be farmers, alum Dana Jokela (MS ‘16) has taken the skills and knowledge he acquired at Iowa State to create a growing business at Sogn Valley Farm. After completing his first successful season as a full-time farmer last year, Jokela looks forward to a fruitful 2017 in which he can continue to expand his agricultural enterprise.
Jokela operates the 14-acre Sogn Valley Farm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, on a 360-acre plot that has been in his family for three generations. While Jokela primarily grows organic fruits and vegetables to support a CSA program, as well as for local farmers markets, restaurants and co-ops, he and his wife, Karin, also diversify their farming operation by raising native plants for use in restoration projects and home pollinator gardens.
“It’s pretty magical being able to put a seed in the ground that’s half a millimeter across and three months later it covers eight feet of ground and yields a hundred pounds of food,” Jokela said. “I get a lot of pride out of growing that food for my community, and if I do my job right and I’m responsible in my farming practices, I’m doing a good thing for the earth, as well.”
In the coming year, Jokela wants to sell more to nearby colleges, grow peppers for local hot sauce makers, stage more on-farm community events and increase production of cherry tomatoes grown in high tunnels. In the years after, he also hopes to develop an educational component at Sogn Valley Farm, a concept that he credits to his experience working at Iowa State as both researcher and Student Organic Farm Graduate Consultant.
“What I got most from the program was the mentality of looking at the decisions I’m making and trying to evaluate whether they’re achieving what I want them to achieve,” Jokela said. “When I see a discrepancy in the performance of two different plantings of the same crop, I have a different perspective now that I went through my master’s program and conducted research. What might be influencing these things? Planting date? Soil conditions? Variety? Thinking through that process has probably given me a leg-up.”
Despite Jokela’s success, vision and enthusiasm, farming remains a challenging career. For example, Jokela and his wife aim to expand their labor force but struggle to find reliable employees, especially in the peak harvest month of September. In preparing for the Saturday morning farmers market, the couple also wakes up at 2:30 a.m. At times, Jokela said, it feels as if he works three full time jobs, and yet he loves his profession and encourages more young people to become involved in producing food.
“Work for others as long as you can, as long as you need to,” he said. “See different types and models and work full seasons. Make mistakes on someone else’s dime and don’t have any illusions about how much work it will be to run a farm.”