Shea Velez-Westphal explores passion for farming with mentors, grandmother

by Ash Bruxvoort

Shea Velez-Westphal remembers moving to Iowa from southern California when she was six years old. Her family lived on her grandfather’s farm. When she first arrived, Shea said she didn’t like the taste of the water, the smell of the livestock, or being out in the country. It was a completely different environment from the one she had before they moved. Yet, it only took her a few weeks before she started to embrace it.

“Over the past few years I’ve become more interested in farming and spent time doing research,” Shea said. The research led her to attend the Harvesting Our Potential Beginning and Aspiring Farmer Learning Circle in Solon, Iowa, during the spring of 2017. “This learning circle appealed to me because I’ve found it hard to get information catered towards beginning farmers. It was a very open, inclusive environment where I felt comfortable asking questions.”

Exploring Farming Through On-Farm Mentorships

One resource Shea learned about was Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Labor4Learning program, which sets beginning farmers up with employment on farms. This is a great opportunity for aspiring farmers to learn and earn an income. Shea was placed on Rolling Acres Farm, a vegetable CSA run by Denise O’Brien in Atlantic, Iowa. She worked full time through the month of August.

She said the experience was very impactful. “Denise and [her husband] Larry welcomed me like family. She was very receptive to questions, which made me feel comfortable. She made sure I saw and tried all different kinds of things while I was there. I was able to reflect on what I wanted to do and explore different avenues of farming,” she said. Denise introduced Shea to other women farmers and women working in food and agriculture. Shea met Ellen Walsh-Rosmann, owner of FarmTable Delivery and Milk & Honey restaurant in Harlan, she went to an organic research station, and she got to learn about beekeeping among many other things.

On the farm, Shea was particularly interested in chickens, crop rotations, cover crops, and season extension. She said two big takeaways were how much farming is a community activity where farmers reach out to each other for advice, share resources, and ideas, and support each other. She said she appreciated how everything on the farm was in a constant state of use and reuse.

Shea also had the chance to work with Denise’s farm partner Amber Mohr at Fork Tail Farm. Denise and Amber have been farming together for four seasons and originally came together through WFAN’s Harvesting Our Potential Program.

“Since Amber is a new farmer she has a different perspective on what steps to take and financing your farm business,” Shea said. “She balances work part-time with farming, raising her children, and is continuing to grow the farm. Since Denise and Larry have done this work for a long time it was nice to see someone in the earlier stages and talk with Amber about her journey thus far.”

Connecting Social Work to Food and Agriculture

Shea has worked at a youth shelter in Cedar Rapids for five years. The shelter serves a wide variety of youth ages 11-17. This year she started a small garden for the kids at the shelter, which continued to spur her interest in farming.

“Some of the kids I work with come from very urban environments. They haven’t had exposure to things like gardening or farming. Many weren’t initially interested in the garden but as they began to see things grow they become more invested in the garden. When it’s time to harvest the vegetables the kids get so excited to see how big the veggies have become. They want to cook with them and eat them. They have a sense of ownership and pride,” she explains.

Shea said her dream is to have a small farm and nonprofit organization that would have an after-school program for local youth. She said the program would enable kids to have a safe place to learn, grow, and play. The program would teach kids important life skills like growing food, cooking, making healthy choices, good work ethic, and maintain good routines. Shea would like the program to create a sense of belonging and family for the youth. She would like to end each evening with a family style meal where the kids can have a healthy meal created from the food they grow on the farm. They would be able to take seeds to grow food at home. They also would be able to take fresh produce home to their families at the end of the night.

Generations of Women Caring for the Land

Shea’s 77-year-old grandmother, Sharon, visited the farm as well. It was a powerful experience for Shea. Both of her families have agricultural ties and her grandmother grew up on a farm in southern Iowa. Shea enjoyed watching her grandmother on Denise’s farm and working alongside her.

“She’s moving and shaking all of the time. She’s a very influential person in my life, like my soulmate. She was picking raspberries, harvesting radishes, helping sort, wash, and pack produce. We watched the sunset and went to local restaurants. It was really cool to see it through her eyes and be able to share my experience on the farm with her.”

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.