Mentorship Program Builds Lasting Networks in Rural Iowa

Harvesting Our Potential mentee Katie Melcher holds mentor Catie Palmer's young son at Prairie's Edge Farm.

Harvesting Our Potential mentee Katie Melcher holds mentor Catie Palmer's young son at Prairie's Edge Farm.

Caite Palmer is a seasoned participant with WFAN’s Harvesting Our Potential (HOP), a program that serves aspiring and beginning women farmers. She and her husband own and operate Prairie’s Edge Farmin northeast Iowa’s Driftless region, a landscape well suited for raising grassfed cattle and sheep. Caite first became involved with HOP in 2015 while mentoring with farmer Shanen Ebersol who raises a variety of animals with her family in southern Iowa. “I was already further into business planning, so it was immensely helpful to me to work with a successful business woman and rancher,” Caite says. “After that experience, I was interested in being on the other side of it.”  

She applied to be a mentor for the 2019 season and encouraged Katie Melcher, nearby beginning sheep farmer, to apply to the program to serve as her mentee. “We were introduced through family connections,” Caite says. “With Katie getting into sheep with her family and her interest in developing her marketing and promotion, the mentorship made perfect sense. We both also have two young children, husbands with off-farm jobs. Katie works off of the farm as well and I’m seeking additional work. So, we have a lot of mutual life circumstances.” 

Katie and her husband have been raising sheep, also in the Driftless region, for the past five years, the first three of those spent growing the flock. “This is the first year we’re marketing our animals through direct sales,” Katie says. “I was interested in the HOP program to understand how to grow the business through marketing. Ultimately, we’re trying to figure out how many animals we’re going to have that the market can support and how to start with what we have already and do it better.” 

In the spring, both women worked to set Katie’s goals and objectives for the season, which included learning about rules and regulations of on-farm and market produce and meat sales, smaller scale farm agribusiness and marketing, and efficiencies for production and farm processes. Goal setting is a process all mentees in HOP go through with their mentors, which helps build communication, define expectations, and even refine a mentor’s objectives for the season. “It was really helpful to have a game plan in mind for what we both wanted to get out of it,” Katie says. 

Sheep and lone chicken at Prairie's Edge Farm.

Sheep and lone chicken at Prairie's Edge Farm.

Creating Stronger Markets Through Education

Although Caite and her husband raise cattle as well, she sees sheep as a great fit for women in particular. “For one, they’re easier to handle,” she explains. “The cost to buy into this type of business is a lot lower and facilities and infrastructure are easier to deal with. And, I don’t know anyone who’s been seriously injured by sheep.” 

Katie agrees that sheep are a great fit for her and her family. “I’m not a huge fan of goats—I don’t like the way they look at me”, she says, with a laugh. “And we still get the benefits of clearing overgrowth in the woods. Also, it’s safer for the kids to run in the pasture without having to worry about cattle running them down.” 

Both women want to find ways to collaborate with others in the industry in building a more robust niche market in the region. “Our area is not strong in lamb marketing,” Katie explains. “Part of our work is to educate and build lamb sales. There are a lot of lamb raisers, but no one wanting to sell them so we have to travel a distance to get a good price. If we can get a lamb producers network in the region, that would really help. We could share the costs of sending our animals for processing.” 

Caite agreed more education is needed. “We know the demand exists,” she says. “The average American eats ½-pound lamb per year, but much of that is imported. More consumer education as well as educating meat processors and veterinarians is needed to help build a stronger local market.”

Mentorships Provide Ongoing Support, Positive Role Models for Children

Connecting women with similar farming interests and businesses, like sheep raising and marketing, is important for a variety of reasons. “It’s nice to have other people who are in a similar boat,” Caite says. “There’s a lack of understanding from the general public about what it’s like to have two small kids and do a market, (or) what it means to be self-employed in a business like this. A lot of weeks we’re paying more for childcare than we’re making at market. And it’s hard to find childcare in rural areas, even for a date night.”

As an existing farmer, “it’s still really helpful to have mentors,” she added. “There are experienced farmers who continue to have challenges and are always learning. I still check-in with my former mentor occasionally. She helped me understand the importance of a healthy balance of competitiveness and cooperation in this business. It’s important to have the support of other women in that balance to have the certainty of connections in the community.” 

Though the 2019 HOP mentorship season has ended, it was clear that Caite and Katie will continue partnering together into the future. “We will keep working on Katie’s goals and objectives whether she wants to or not,” Caite said with a chuckle. “All of the goals weren’t quick check-offs—they are long-term.” 

“It’s so vital to have our children, both girls and boys, seeing successful role models of women working together, farming together,” she added. “This is one of the greatest values I see in programs like Harvesting Our Potential.” 

Funders Make Harvesting Our Potential a Reality 

Funders for Harvesting Our Potential, like Simply7 and its Fund Her Farm initiative, are essential partners in creating learning opportunities for aspiring women farmers and further training for mentors. This initiative helps empower women in agriculture and has been a pivotal source of support for HOP for multiple years. Their funding contributions have allowed women like Caite and Katie to create not just singular mentorship experiences but lasting support networks into the future. 

For more information on how to be a part of Harvesting Our Potential as a mentor, mentee or funding partner, contact program coordinator Wren Almitra, wren@wfan.org.