Reaching the Next Generation of Black Farmers in Iowa


Mike Cook and Haseeb Muhammad work on a tractor April 30 in preparation for planting at Cook’s workshop near Waterloo. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

They say if you can see it, you can be it.

That’s why black farmers and some farm groups in Iowa are working to show young people of color how they can live off the land.

Haseeb Muhammad, 18, from Waterloo, started working with Mike Cook last summer, mowing and doing other gardening work. Next, Muhammad visited Cook’s produce farm, where he planted seeds, weeded, watered, and later helped bring the harvest of cantaloupe, tomatoes, squash, green beans, and other produce to market. urban farmer from Waterloo.

“I never really thought about farming,” Muhammad said. “Once I went to Mr. Cook, he showed me how a young black man could make a career out of it.”

More than 30% of Iowa farmers have not identified a successor, according to a 2019 survey of Iowa farm families by Iowa State University. These farmers, whose average age was 61, believe a son or daughter will take over operations, but sometimes these children – in their 30s and 40s – have not worked on the farm as adults and turned to other professions.

And often farmers are reluctant to develop succession plans, said Melissa O’Rourke, extension farm management and agribusiness specialist for the ISU.

“When you talk about a successor, you’re admitting that you’re going to get old and die and that’s such a difficult thing for people,” she said.

“The other reason people don’t talk about it or are reluctant to talk about it is that they just don’t want to give up control. It’s part of not coping with aging. If I give up control of my assets and my decision-making, I admit that I may not always be able to do so.

These challenges are particularly acute on large farms that use a lot of automation because there aren’t as many roles on the farm for the younger generation, O’Rourke said. But they can also affect farmers with fewer acres — which is the case for many black farmers in Iowa.

Farm education

Cook, 65, of Waterloo, is a third generation farmer from Black Hawk County. A mechanical engineer by profession, Cook first planted sweet corn in 1985 and used the profits to buy equipment for traditional row crops.

Now he farms 120 acres of corn, soybeans and produce. He anticipates that his eldest daughter, Nicole, will take over with her husband in the years to come. For now, Cook is using his farm as a classroom to teach machines, entrepreneurship and hard work.

Cook met Muhammad last year while teaching an advanced manufacturing course at TechWorks Campus in Waterloo. In this course, high school students are introduced to robotics, computer-aided design, and electrical work, among other subjects, and they learn to use manufacturing equipment, such as calipers, rulers, and scales.

“I noticed that as I showed them some of the products that John Deere made, they were interested, they were riveted,” Cook said. He (Muhammad) is one of the two that I noticed to have an interest. “

The teenager called Cook back to himself. Intelligent, but easily distracted. More interested in making plans with friends than making plans for his future.

Cook invited Muhammad to his land, which transformed from a field of leftover cornstalks in early spring to a field of lush green soybeans in midsummer. The relationship developed over the seasons, with the teenager helping Cook change the tractor’s oil and tires ahead of planting season.

“It teaches you the work ethic,” Cook said of farming. “It teaches you that the more you invest in it, the more you get out of it.”

Mike Cook and Haseeb Muhammad, February 8, examine equipment on Cook’s farmland near Waterloo. Muhammad, then a senior at Waterloo East High School, worked with Cook on repairs in his workshops and other tasks around his farm. The two first met in a class Cook teaches at Hawkeye Community College. Muhammad is interested in agriculture as well as mechanical engineering. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

impostor syndrome

Celize Christy wanted to study veterinary medicine at ISU, but when she got there in 2012, she realized that most of her fellow animal science students were white and from rural backgrounds.

A native of Dallas and a first-generation student born to immigrants from Panama, Christy, now 29, felt like an impostor.

“As brown and black people, when we talk about agriculture, growing food, when we think about history, people growing and growing food in rural areas, those areas don’t have not always been a safe place for brown and black bodies,” she said. “As someone who embodies a brown and black body, you bring all of that with you.

Feeling like an outsider, Christy struggled to make friends until she earned a second major in global research. She got involved in the Latinx student organization, which changed her perspective.

“Not only did I find a community, but I saw that we’re all trying to help each other succeed,” she said.

Christy graduated from UIS in the spring of 2016, then enrolled in a graduate program in rural sociology and international agricultural development at Penn State University.

Celize Christy, outgoing Novice Farmer Training Coordinator at Practical Farmers of Iowa. (photo sent)

She earned her master’s degree in 2018 and went to work for Practical Farmers of Iowa, a Des Moines-based nonprofit that represents a diversity of Iowa farmers interested in sustainability.

As the Beginning Farmer Training Coordinator, Christy has been able to help new farmers through many of the same challenges she has faced.

“I identify with people who are just trying to navigate the system,” she said. “My heart always sings when I’m able to connect someone to resources.”

Practical Farmers of Iowa has worked to expand community programming to be more inclusive of farmers of color with field events hosted by black and Latino farmers and offering more programs in Spanish, Christy said.

Celize Christy, outgoing Novice Farmer Training Coordinator at Practical Farmers of Iowa, addresses participants during a 2021 Farm Field Day, (Lydia English/Practical Farmers of Iowa)

Christy recently accepted an organizing position with the HEAL Food Alliance, a national coalition of organizations representing more than 2 million rural and urban farmers, food chain workers and public health advocates.

Haseeb Muhammad works on a tractor April 30 in preparation for planting at farmer Mike Cook’s shop near Waterloo. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

pay ahead

This summer, back in Waterloo, Muhammad helps Cook plant green beans, sweet corn and Crenshaw melons, a yellow-green melon similar to a cantaloupe.

Muhammad plans to move to the Des Moines area in the fall when he enrolls in engineering classes at Des Moines Area Community College. He hopes to transfer those credits into a four-year engineering program, like electrical engineering at ISU, he said.

“Mr. Mike encouraged me more to go this route,” Muhammad said of engineering. But his experience working the dirt showed him that there are other options.

Cook said he mentored teenagers like Muhammad because he had family and non-family mentors when he was growing up.

“If I get five minority kids saying they want to be an engineer because Mike Cook helped, then when the good Lord comes I have no regrets,” he said.

Black Farmers Series

This story is the second in a series The Gazette reports on black farmers in Iowa and the challenges they face. We will focus on topics such as representation in national and local farmer groups and how to tap into new markets. If you have a suggestion of a farmer or other source we should contact, email Erin Jordan at [email protected]

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