Red Fern Farm builds resiliency through diversification

Farm and Food

Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice, owners of Red Fern Farm, have built resiliency in their operation to overcome challenging weather.

Nestled in a heavily wooded area just south of Grandview, Iowa, Red Fern Farm offers a unique experience for customers to harvest their own Iowa-grown fruits and nuts.

The owners grow a variety of fruit and nut trees—including chestnuts, persimmons, heartnut, pawpaw, and Asian pear. Their primary market is a “you pick” business throughout the summer, where customers schedule a time to pick from the trees and pay per pound harvested.

“Chestnuts are our cash cow—we have 50 to 800 pounds a day harvested in good years,” Tom said.

Tom and Kathy met at Iowa State University where they both earned degrees in fisheries and wildlife biology. To get their start in this business, they went on a journey of purchasing land and envisioning the future for that land, which needed to include protection for wildlife and the environment.

“Our ‘aha’ moment was when we were thinking of our little bit of wilderness and how we could be good stewards to the land, and maybe make a living off of the land we own and manage,” Kathy said. “We wanted to put permanent ground cover in place, but put in a species that provides income as well.”

After realizing the intense upkeep chestnut trees require—due to invasive species and the lack of protection for the trees, Tom and Kathy were overcome with happiness when a neighbor offered to sell them land containing established fruit and nut trees. In 2000, the farmers purchased the land and trees, which began the journey to their current operation.

Soil health on their land is important to Tom and Kathy. They make certain there is ground cover underneath all of their trees so the soil does not erode during rain events. The farmers also avoid monocultures by planting a diversity of species, which improves the health of organisms in the soil, as well as the soil itself.

“We are proud of our work and the fact that we are sustaining a living off of this land,” Kathy said of the progress they’ve made with their operation.

They also pride themselves on sharing their story, in hopes they can assist others who are interested in how tree crops build resiliency and how an operation can be successful.

Tom’s advice for others trying to start a business like Red Fern Farm is simple.

“Start small, grow gradually, and keep your day job,” he said. “It takes a minimum of 10 years to be able to quit off-farm jobs and farm full-time.”