Joy Mast Miller Understands Importance of Diversity for Viable Family Farm Operation

by Ash Bruxvoort

Joy Mast Miller grew up at farmer’s markets from the time she was 4. She grew up on a farm in Leon, Iowa, during the 1980’s Farm Crisis. Her parents diversified their business in order to keep the farm, including strawberries and a bakery. Joy says the people skills she had to learn working at markets from a young age were just one of the valuable lessons she learned on the farm.

Today, Joy and her husband Craig are working alongside Craig’s parents to diversify their own family farm operation, with an eye for balance between economics and sustainability. They raise bull calves from bucket-bottle to market, goats, non-GMO corn, soybeans, and hay. This year they added a few acres of edible black beans, which they have an outlet for. She said this is the first year that everything they’ve planted is non-GMO and while they mainly sell their livestock at the sale barn their dream to connect directly with consumers.

Learning Circle Helps with Networks for Women Farmers

Joy attended the Beginning and Aspiring Woman Farmer Learning Circle in Solon, Iowa, this spring with Mary Glaspie from Iowa County FSA. Encouraging Joy to attend the learning circle is just one way Mary has connected Joy to resources. She says that if Mary gets permission from two parties she can get the clients together. This kind of networking is very helpful, says Joy.

“Networking and face-to-face contact, whether it’s through your local FSA and through the learning circle, helps you feel like you’re not alone,” she says.

Throughout the learning circle, Joy says she became aware of many resources. She was also comforted to realize so many women had similar questions to her. She found the information about online marketing particularly timely as she’s looking at selling two butchered steers direct to consumers. She said she has the paper resources from the learning circle so that if she has an idea in the future she knows who to reach out to.

Growing Up During the Farm Crisis

“My dad was also crippled so he had a lot of obstacles. He was probably the ultimate example of determination and overcoming obstacles and being able to troubleshoot and provide,” said Joy. “Anything that is normal for me to do he had to take an extra step. So that was definitely very influential for me. My dad's life motto was "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." I have embraced this as my own motto as I encounter the challenges of life.”

She said her experiences growing on the farm gave her a great work ethic and patience when trying new things. “Sometimes we like to just keep doing the same thing because it’s what we know how to do,” she says. “To keep the farm going I think we need to be willing to step away from the norm.”

Joy eventually left her family’s farm to attend nursing school, for practical reasons and because she hoped to be a voice of reason for her father. Later she met her husband, Craig, a farmer. They moved to Craig’s family’s farm in June 2015. Joy continues to work as a nurse two days a week. Craig is on the farm full-time and does some custom combining and a small amount of mechanic work.

The farm was historically a dairy farm, but in 2012 the dairy cows were sold. Now, Joy, Craig, and his parents are looking for new markets and ways to diversify their operation, with an eye for balance between economics and sustainability.

Looking Forward Towards Farm Viability

Joy visited three vegetable farms during the learning circle, which she says reminded her of her childhood. “I look around at what they’re doing and I know it’s a lot of work,” she says. But she goes on to talk about how much she loves the farming lifestyle.

“There are easier ways to make a living, but this is what we want for our family.” Joy and Craig have two sons, Dexter, 2.5, and Tyrell, 8 months. She said the farming lifestyle is already ingrained in Dexter.

“They learn so much on the farm. They learn mechanics, basic survival skills. It’s a lot of work to be on the farm but the ability to live side by side with your kids makes it so worth it.”

WFAN’s program for beginning and aspiring women farmers, Harvesting Our Potential, is made possible by generous support from the Iowa Women’s Foundation and Ag Ventures Alliance.