(Rural Realities is an ongoing series of stories about the lived experiences of Catholic Iowans in our rural communities in the Diocese of Davenport. The first story features Mitch Hora, a young Washington County farmer.)
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Twenty-five-year-old farmer and agronomist Mitch Hora holds a fistful of microbe-rich soil in his hand, explaining how good soil management contributes to the stewardship of God’s creation and success on the farm.
Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the trade wars that preceded it, the seventh-generation farmer in Washington County relishes his partnership with creation and the opportunity to inspire other farmers to enhance their soil’s productivity. “You do it (farming) because you love the lifestyle and caring for creation,” said Mitch, a Catholic who attends St. Joseph Church in East Pleasant Plain with his wife Tympest.
His mission is sustainable, profitable farming that acknowledges stewardship of the earth, which God entrusts to the people who populate it. However, Iowa and the rest of the nation need more young farmers to move this mission into the future. Mitch, a graduate of Iowa State University, is among just 8 percent of the nation’s farmers who are 35 years old or younger, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics (2017).
During a Q&A with Minnesota Public Radio last August, a listener asked Mitch, “How do new farmers enter the market, particularly if they do not inherit land?” Mitch said he purchased some land with the help of the Beginning Farmer Program (https://tinyurl.com/ybyuuljg), which assists new farmers with securing low-interest loans. On his own small farm, he conducts various trials to enhance its economic feasibility.
Mitch also works with his parents, Brian and Theresa Hora, who farm 700 acres in Washington County. This spring, Mitch and his dad planted corn, soybeans, rye, barley and mustard, to demonstrate the importance of diversity in farming practices.
“Dad has been no-tilling since the mid-1980s. Lots of farmers in Washington County have been no-tilling for 30 or 40 years,” Mitch said. “The hotbed for soil health is Washington County.” He and his dad use cover crops to absorb moisture and hold on to nutrients so they don’t leave the farm and end up in tributaries.
Cover crops add expense to the operation and can “screw up corn and soybeans,” Mitch said. “Cover crops cost us $15 to $20 an acre. The farm economy is so bad right now that you can’t afford to take that loss in the short-term. We’re doing this for the long haul,” he added. “I’m trying to optimize how we can make money in the short-term, too.”
Mitch also started up his own consulting and soil data company, Continuum Ag, because he is an entrepreneur and needs more income than a small farm operation provides. Farmers, consultants and agriculture businesses here and abroad use Continuum Ag’s independent data analytics systems to improve sustainable farming outcomes. The pandemic has affected business for the short-term, Mitch said, including delay in receiving product from India. Much of the business involves communication by internet, and that usage has increased. He maintains optimism for his business and farming in general.
Hands-on work continues on the farm, his laboratory, in a sense. On a beautiful, early June day, Mitch and his dad were out in the fields. “We’re experimenting with a real-time soil sensor that will relay moisture and temperature information to the ‘cloud’ (an internet-based system for storing and accessing data). It’s constant monitoring of our fields,” Mitch said.
When asked what his son brings to the farming operation, Brian quipped, “lots of new challenges.” Then he noted Mitch introduces plenty of new products and technology. Brian, in turn, provides his son with wisdom gained from 35 years of farming (he is also an ISU graduate). For example, Brian assesses the particularity of product application. Just because a product worked well on crops in California doesn’t guarantee successful application to crops in the Midwest, Brian said. While farming is a demanding occupation, “It’s still a good way to make a living.”
Mitch sees himself as a sponge, absorbing knowledge from his dad and other farmers and ag industry representatives. He synthesizes that knowledge into sustainable agriculture ideas to share with farmers worldwide. For example, the farmers he works with in South Africa have access to equipment and land but not to state extension agriculture education services, which Mitch can tap into. Continuum Ag assists the South African farmers with the education piece.
His research and experiments with cover crops fuel his understanding of sustainable farming practices that also aim to benefit farmers’ bottom line. Iowa has some of the best farm ground in the world “because this used to all be prairie that had living plants at all times. … it was always pumping carbon into the soil. Now we’ve gotten away from that by planting corn and soybeans because that’s what we make money off of. But we’re trying to bring back some of that natural prairie, too.”
He said the economy of scale has “taken away some of our opportunity to have diversity in our cropping systems. We’re trying to bring that back. On our farm last year, we raised corn, soybeans and wheat. In 2020 we have corn, soybeans, rye, barley and mustard.”
Matt Russell, executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, a non-profit organization that emphasizes good stewardship of the earth, calls Mitch a “partner with creation. Mitch is a great example of a young farmer who is excited about what he is doing with his own farm and helping other farmers with the same kind of creative problem solving.”
Mitch is not familiar with Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,” which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. He does live out its message through his understanding of humankind’s connectedness to God and God’s creation, Matt said.
“It’s all about being grateful for what we have and taking care of God’s creation,” Mitch said. “We need to be grateful for the opportunities and don’t take it for granted. We are lucky enough to farm in Iowa and be in agriculture. It’s a noble cause.”
Priest likes young farmer’s approach
Father Charles Fladung of St. Mary Parish in Solon was watching the YouTube Channel “MN Millennial Farmer” in which two young farmers — Minnesotan Zach Johnson and Iowan Mitch Hora — talked about farming practices. Ever since, the priest has been following Mitch’s work on social media, including his podcast “Field Work” (www.fieldworktalk.org). “He’s promoting the soil and protecting it, keeping snowmelt and rainwater in the ground where it needs to be,” Father Fladung said. “I also appreciate his willingness to go out there (and share his knowledge and ideas). Usually a farmer will respect an older farmer. To be a younger farmer doing this is helping to break down barriers.”