New Year, New Projects, New Inspiration



From helping Vets to helping neighbors and small businesses, 2024 is all about growth at Halfacre Farm.

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It’s amazing we’re already getting the farm spun up for a new year after spending our first full season there last year. That was a long year, yet short in some respects. The two big extended heatwaves definitely made time drag on, and some “new and exciting” aches and pains reminded me of my age.

Exhaustion sets in during the fall, and our bodies are showing some wear, which makes getting up every morning a challenge in itself. If only we were in our twenties and still invincible, right? If I were still a young man, I wouldn’t have the judgment or skills to manage this farm the way I am now. Younger me didn’t have the wherewithal to seek wise counsel or find a way to perform a physical task without going straight to brute force. 

Taking a look back at everything we accomplished over the season, it feels like there wasn’t enough time for everything. We wanted to finish building the outdoor extension on our poultry pens so we’d have more and better accommodations for raising new hatchlings for our egg laying flocks, and another winter will pass without new siding and doors on our bird barn. Somewhere in the door pocket of our mighty Subaru lies a ‘to do’ list a mile long.

But the calendar marches on, and now we’re indoors planting for the year ahead. Our makeshift “greenhouse” is a spare bedroom in our farmhouse we’ve filled with around 100 trays of vegetables and flowers germinating and growing for the upcoming season, not to mention the space taken up by shelving and LED grow lights needed for the effort. We really need to finalize plans for a greenhouse and then find the time to build it.

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Before we know it, It’ll be time to put these seedlings in the ground, and the Post Office will be calling us every couple weeks to come and pick up the Cornish Cross chicks we ordered for our meat bird flock. One of our favorite things is pulling newly hatched chickens, ducks and turkeys from the incubator. We’re planning to double the size of our chicken egg laying flock this year from 200 to 400, plus hatching replacements for the current flock. Last year, we hatched around 100 turkeys from our own heritage breeding stock, and we will increase this to at least 200 this year, just to meet more of the demand we have for them. This is a massive effort, yet Lydia and I never tire of hearing peeps from the incubator as the little ones emerge from their shells.

I had the privilege of being interviewed by Greg Peterson for the Urban Farm Podcast recently, where we discussed not only what we’re doing here at Halfacre Farms and why we’re doing it, but also what we’re doing to inspire and educate new farmers and gardeners. 

Part of our outreach has been working with the Orbis students in the Ankeny, IA school district to help develop a working manual and pathway for those seeking an agricultural career, using regenerative agriculture as a business model. My mentor, Ray Meylor, has been hosting these students, as well as Future Farmers of America and 4-H members, at the Cherry Glen Learning Farm

Our water quality in Iowa is quickly becoming a public health crisis. Agricultural runoff from industrially-grown crops is raising the nitrate and phosphorus levels in our waterways, not to mention the damage being done by impaired watersheds on farm properties. 

Cherry Glen Learning Farm is a model watershed mitigation farm which uses processes developed by Iowa State University and the Army Corps of Engineers to capture, hold and reclaim precipitation. There, Meylor is capturing water runoff from the farm fields and neighborhoods adjacent to his property to slow, hold, and soak up water and nutrients. The nutrient-rich runoff used to clog ditches and drain tiles with mud and debris, eventually flowing into Saylorville Lake Reservoir, a major water drinking source for the Greater Des Moines Area. 

In this way, rather than treating runoff as a nuisance, Meylor is using it to nourish fruit and nut-bearing trees and vegetables. He’s also filtering it through native prairie plants. He keeps his gardens and trees well supplied with wood chips as mulch and food for hungry soil microorganisms. As surface runoff makes its way to his ten acre parcel from the properties to the east and north of his, it encounters first an apple and nut tree orchard before crossing native plantings of prairie grasses and ending up in a retention pond which he uses to irrigate his many tree saplings (he’s participating in an American Chestnut reestablishment trial) and vegetable gardens. The old creekbed runs through more restored prairie from his retention pond southwest to his front ditch, from where it then flows another half mile to the reservoir. 

This process could be replicated in other yards, gardens and farms. Meylor has seen his soil organic content soar from .5% to nearly 13% since he purchased this property nearly fifteen years ago. Increasing organic matter in soils can reduce flood events, combat drought, purify water, and stabilize rain cycles. Considering how many Iowa farms have 1% soil organic content, this is an amazing feat, and he has documented it from the beginning and all along the way. 

On a personal note, having my own farm has healed my mind and body in ways I’m just beginning to understand. As an Army Veteran diagnosed with PTSD and suffering from Gulf War burn pit exposures, I’ve found that getting my hands in the soil in a beautiful setting and being physically active has been transformative.

We have been working with Cherry Glen Learning Farm and a core group of farming Veterans to revive a chapter of a Veteran farming organization to help new farmers get access to land, mentorship, and a roadmap to success. We’re hoping to use Veteran service organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a resource, since many members in small towns own farms who could benefit from watershed management and lend space to new farms. There are programs available for established farms to continue receiving conservation reserve payments on land they’ve leased or sold to beginning farmers, Veterans, women, and traditionally socially disadvantaged and underserved groups. 

On a personal note, having my own farm has healed my mind and body in ways I’m just beginning to understand. As an Army Veteran diagnosed with PTSD and suffering from Gulf War burn pit exposures, I’ve found that getting my hands in the soil in a beautiful setting and being physically active has been transformative. I can personally attest to the healing that these things provide, and the latest research supports it. According to the last study I read, researchers believe we have an acute sensitivity to environmental toxins, and being in relatively pristine environments tends to soothe these ailments. Grounding (putting bare feet on soil) and just sticking your hands in healthy soil is said to have a healing effect on your own microbiome, and I believe it. 

As for us and our little farm, we’d like to invite beginning farmers to pitch their microenterprises to us and see if they fit under our umbrella. If they do, perhaps they can incubate their business on our property, or maybe partner our businesses. 

The new year ahead can and should be a year of inspiration. Encourage yourselves to grow your favorite kitchen herbs in a pot on your patio, or start asking around your community if there’s anyone interested in growing a few crops in your backyard. That’s how I began, blooming where I was planted. Let’s make 2024 the year we rebelled against the system by growing more food and community.

Joe’s Homesteading Helpers

I have to pitch two books I think every new homesteader should read. The first is Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps by Goodchild and Thompson (available on Amazon), a book first published in 1941 that still holds a lot of valuable information about raising food from a Great Depression-era mindset. The next is a new book by a fellow Veteran called Scrapsteading: Prosperous Homesteading on Any Budget (also available on Amazon). Having been an urban homesteader who went broke, I’ve found these two books greatly inspiring. 

This is the book which began the Victory Garden movement and first inspired me to urban farming. If you’re having difficulty sleeping at night and long for Army logistics reports, The War Garden Victorious, by Charles Lathrop Pack (you guessed it, available on Amazon) might be of interest as well. After reading this book, one can no longer see a lawn and not imagine how bountiful it could be with vegetables, fruits and backyard poultry.

Joel Salatin and his collaborators have created another book to inspire those constrained to the city to farm at whatever scale they can with Polyface Micro, a guide to raising small livestock at home (available on Amazon).

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Joe Villines
Joe Villines
Joe Villines is a father, husband, US Army veteran and co-owner of Halfacre Farms at Armadillo Acres with his partner Lydia in Indianola, IA. He attended college for commercial horticulture to further a lifelong interest in growing food. Villines was a photojournalist and broadcaster in the Army Reserve where he served tours in Bosnia, Iraq, Kuwait and other assignments all over the world. Exposure to world strife and world agriculture informed his resolve to raising animals and crops using holistic methods for sale locally.
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