John and Beverly Gilbert of Iowa Falls received the 2017 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award at the recent PFI annual conference. This award is granted each year to an individual or couple who’ve shown exemplary commitment to sustainable farming, generously shared their knowledge with others and been influential in efforts to foster vibrant communities, diverse farms and healthy food.
John and Beverly operate Gibralter Farms, a 770-acre diversified row crop, dairy and livestock farm, with two sons, John C. and Greg, along with their respective wives, Sarah Gilbert and Barb. In addition to growing traditionally bred corn, soybeans, hay, oats and a variety of annuals for forage, the family milks 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cattle, and raises antibiotic-free, pasture-farrowed pigs to sell to Niman Ranch.
Advocates for conservation
The farm, which sits along a mile of Southfork, a tributary of the Iowa River, also features a restored shallow water wetland, a prairie marsh remnant, woodlands and numerous conservation practices meant to help protect soil and water quality including terraces, extensive grass headlands and waterways, and stream buffers.
John and Beverly are vocal advocates of conserving Iowa’s soil and water quality and of the importance of restoring and investing in the future of rural communities. They have mentored several beginning and aspiring farmers over the years, hosted field days and tours on their farm, and participated in on-farm research through PFI.
“This award has real meaning coming from Practical Farmers, because for more than 30 years, PFI members have always unwaveringly walked the walk,” John says. “The real test of how productive agriculture is, is measured by how many people it can support and from that perspective, a lot of areas of our state are not that productive.”
He adds, “The mindset has gotten so focused on raising corn and beans that not many understand the potential of this landscape to support people. I have long thought that if we can’t replace the number of people we have farming, there are serious problems ahead for society. Rural culture is fading fast in many places, and throughout history, rural areas produced the people who have innovated, been leaders and really made a difference long term in the greater society.”
Committing to community and land stewardship and ensuring the farm can support multiple families and generations are key reasons why PFI board member Wendy Johnson feels the Gilberts deserve to receive this award. “John and Beverly epitomize the ‘Get along, don’t go along’ PFI motto,” says Johnson, who farms with her family near Charles City. “Their farming system, management and decision-making encompass all that is or should be good about Iowa: its air, water and soil. They protect these elements alongside creating a viable farming business for multiple families. Their farm is what PFI means to me: a sustainable farm on all levels.”
Award reflects entire family
John emphasizes that the farm’s accomplishments are thanks to a family effort. “We’re accepting this recognition on behalf of the whole family. The farm is what is being recognized, and it’s the dedication of the family and all the people who’ve helped us over the years that have gotten us where we are today.” The Gilberts also have a son, James, of Lakewood, Colo., and a daughter Kate, of Ames, who have also helped on the farm.
John credits his late father, who ceased plowing in the 1960s and always kept diverse crop rotations and livestock, with serving as a model and inspiration. And while John served as a soil and water conservation district commissioner with Hardin County for 14 years, he cites Allyn Hagensick, of Hampton, with introducing the family to Practical Farmers of Iowa and altering the course of the farm. “We bought our Buffalo cultivator from Allyn in the mid-1980s, and he helped us get it set right,” John says. “He saw our field across the road where we’d interplanted some beans into rye. That was one of our early experiments, and he started telling us about this new group.”
John accompanied Allyn to one of PFI co-founder Dick Thompson’s field days, and then later to one of PFI’s early annual meetings. The subsequent learning and networking helped the Gilberts implement ridges, rotational grazing and pasture farrowing, and make vital connections to Niman Ranch, which opened up a critical market, permitting the Gilberts to maintain pigs as an enterprise.
“It was one of those serendipitous things where being in the right place at the right time and the right person started talking changed your trajectory,” John says. “Part of it is like shooting an arrow: If you turn the bow just a little bit, it makes a big difference where it goes.”
He emphasizes the family’s farming practices have evolved over time, through a process of trial and error, and that they are still learning. “I consider sustainability to be a journey, not a destination. We’re on the journey, hopefully, heading in the right direction.”
To learn more, visit practicalfarmers.org.
Jones is outreach and publications coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa in Ames.