By Tamsyn Jones
Guthrie County farmer Earl Hafner of Panora received the 2018 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award at PFI’s recent annual conference in Ames.
This award is granted each year to someone who has shown exemplary commitment to sustainable agriculture, generously shared his or her knowledge with others, and been influential in efforts to foster vibrant communities, diverse farms and healthy food.
Earl farms with son Jeff at Early Morning Harvest and Hafner Inc., a 2,000-acre diversified farm, which includes certified organic row crops and grass-fed cattle; hogs; small grains; vegetables and tilapia raised in an aquaponics greenhouse; pastured poultry for egg production; honey; flours milled on-site from certified organic wheat, rye, buckwheat and corn raised on the farm; and value-added products made from their cereal grains.
While the Hafners use cover crops and extended rotations to help build soil health, the diversity of enterprises on the farm is a reflection of Earl’s belief that farm sustainability must encompass not just land stewardship, but economic resilience as well.
“Sustainable means you survive through all conditions,” he says. “The farm has to pay its way whether you’re paying 18% interest like we did in the ’80s, or you have $3 corn. The farm has to sustain itself and the family.”
Vital art of observation helpful
That mentality — and the kind of diversified farm that was a natural extension of it — was common when he was growing up on the farm in the 1940s and ’50s. He adds that, back then, sustainability had an entirely different meaning — one related to farmers’ ties to both the land and the surrounding community.
“In the ’40s and ’50s when you talked about sustainability, it meant the farmer’s ability to observe his soil, his crops and his livestock in order to have a healthy farm, because he did not have all this modern technology,” Hafner says. “It was also a matter of commonality between farms. Back then, there was a farm every quarter-section, every half-section. There were a lot of farmers to trade ideas with — much like Practical Farmers of Iowa does today — that helped farms to survive, and observation was key to everybody’s survival.”
In the late 1990s — a time when crop technology was moving rapidly toward chemical-based farming and genetically modified crops — Earl started switching his farm to organic, and has been certified organic for about 20 years.
Diverse ventures start as hobbies
In 2011, Earl and Jeff opened Early Morning Harvest, which added the aquaponics greenhouse, chickens and on-farm milling to their suite of commercial enterprises. These ventures had started as personal hobbies.
Jeff had returned from his second tour in Iraq, where he studied aquaponics and agriculture. Meanwhile, Earl had been making his own breakfast cereal and was inspired by the possibility of turning cereal grains — which the Hafners already raised — into homemade flour.
“It was a hobby that went wild,” Earl says. “We started on a personal level, but we started getting calls for 500 pounds of cornmeal. We were getting enough requests for more volume that we put in a bigger mill.”
HONORED: Earl Hafner received the 2018 Sustainable Ag Award from PFI for pioneering a path in diversified sustainable agriculture on his family’s Guthrie County farm, and generously sharing his knowledge and information with others.
Now, Early Morning Harvest’s flours and value-added products can be found in stores across Iowa. Earl and Jeff have also cultivated markets for their tilapia. Their customers believe it tastes better than typical tank-raised fish, Earl says. And they direct-market their vegetables to customers via a weekly email newsletter.
“Earl is an innovator, and has done many diverse agricultural projects,” says Donna Prizgintas, a PFI member from Ames, who nominated Earl for the award. “He has a frog in every pocket, and is one of the nicest men I know.”
Serving on PFI’s board of directors and helping mentor beginning and aspiring farmers, Earl and his farm’s accomplishments are an extension of his personal beliefs about farming, resiliency and taking the well-being of people, animals and the land seriously.
This humility is also a core part of his character, say PFI leaders who know him well. When PFI Board President Mark Peterson, of Stanton, notified Earl that he had been chosen for the award, Earl didn’t believe it at first. Earl recalls, “I was giving a tour in the greenhouse, and I said, ‘Bologna. There’s got to be better, smarter people than me.’ When Mark said the board voted on me, I had to step back and think. I consider myself blessed my whole life, and receiving this award is a part of that.”
Visit practicalfarmers.org to learn more and to view a list of past award recipients.
Jones writes for Practical Farmers of Iowa.