A break in the rain on Sunday, October 17 provided beautiful weather for the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network (NIFF) to tour Humble Hands Harvest and enjoy a potluck and bonfire. Over 30 farmers from around the region (and a few guests from as far away as Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico) met to see Hannah Breckbill and Emily Fagan’s vegetable operation north of Decorah and learn about how they started their business. The event was co-sponsored by Iowa State Extension and Outreach, Region 4 and Practical Farmers of Iowa.
As the group toured the farm, Hannah and Emily shared the history of Humble Hands Harvest. After working on farms in Decorah and in Texas, Hannah Breckbill started Humble Hands Harvest in 2013. Like many beginning farmers, Hannah wasn’t able to start with her own piece of land, so she was flexible and rented property.
In 2016, Hannah was operating Humble Hands at Sliwa Meadow Farm along the Upper Iowa River. This site had served her well, until devastating floods rolled in at the height of harvest in August and destroyed over half of her farm, including fall crops that were scheduled to serve her Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members. Weather related disasters are unavoidable in farming, but the flood was a real catastrophe.
Dedicated to farming, Hannah was not deterred, but she was prompted to seek higher ground on property that she could own and in which she could make permanent investments. She also realized she would need a farm partner to make those dreams a reality.
Fortunately, after working on a farm in Colorado, Emily Fagan had moved to Decorah in 2016 to work with Erik Sessions at Patchwork Green farm. In Decorah, Emily was reunited with Hannah, who is her second cousin. The two decided to become farm business partners.
They found a new home for Humble Hands Harvest on an undeveloped hay field and purchased a few acres from a supportive group of community members. Over time, more of the surrounding land will be purchased. With help from family and friends and the enthusiastic Decorah community, the pair raised funds through a GoFundMe campaign for infrastructure.
In under a year, Hannah and Emily have built that infrastructure- erecting a deer fence around the 2 acres of vegetables, drilling a well, building a greenhouse, installing a cooler in a repurposed delivery truck, and bringing in electricity to power it all. They have already planted some perennial crops, like asparagus and berries, and plan to plant nut crops in the coming years and graze the sheep herd in the nut orchard. They also aim to install a high tunnel to extend their growing season.
The pair have also extended their markets; they wholesale to the Iowa Food Hub and to Hidden Stream Farm, serve CSA members in Decorah and Rochester, and sell at both the Decorah and Cedar Rapids Farmers Markets.
Fellow farmers and community members were amazed at the evolution of this farm, the serendipity of the partnership, and all the hard work and accomplishments of this past year.
Back at the greenhouse, the group enjoyed a delicious potluck with all the flavors of the fall harvest. Before the sun set, farmers set individual goals and swapped them with a partner to help provide encouragement and accountability, and then settled in to savor the warmth of a bonfire on a crisp, clear fall evening.
If you’d like to learn more about Humble Hands Harvest or become a customer, you can find them at the Decorah Farmers Market or learn more at their website humblehandsharvest.com or check out their facebook page: facebook.com/HumbleHandsHarvest/.
If you’re a local food or niche farmer (whether aspiring, beginning, transitioning, or established) who wants to make connections, find common interests, collaborate, and learn with peers, the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network meets monthly and is open to all. Contact Kayla Koether (email@example.com or 563-382-2949) for more information.