Vanessa Trampel, left, Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Advisory Council chair, awards Ashley Wenke, right, of Pleasant Grove Homestead the top-place Grow Your Future Award prize.
By J.O. Parker
Ashley Wenke of Pleasant Grove Homestead in rural Montezuma near Barnes City was named Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s “Grow Your Future” Award first-place winner at the organization’s Young Farmer Conference held Feb. 2-3 in Des Moines. Wenke takes home a $7,500 grand prize to expand her direct-to-consumer produce and meat business.
Wenke, along with her husband, Zachary, grow more than 40 different crops and produce including cut lettuce, potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes and strawberries in addition to meat birds and laying hens at their farm.
In 2023, they sold more than 1,200 meat chickens at farmers markets and food cooperatives. Through the Iowa Local Food Purchasing Assistance Program, their farm provided $9,000 of fresh fruits and vegetables to local food pantries in 2023 and continues to supply 90 dozen eggs weekly to meet nutritional needs of the community.
They also offer honey and pork products. The couple also owns a family milk cow.
The operation sells goods at three farmer’s markets in Oskaloosa, Montezuma and in Sigourney as well as two cooperatives and other outlets.
The couple also offers a CSA (community supported agriculture) option that is currently serving 40 families with a weekly subscription box of meat and produce.
The Pleasant Grove Homestead consists of 6.5 acres and includes 80 fruit trees, one-quarter acre of strawberries and four tunnels (greenhouses) that allow the couple to grow fresh vegetables year round. There are also two 200-foot by 400-foot garden beds.
“Everything is 100 percent homegrown,” said Wenke.
The Wenkes plan to use their winnings to purchase stainless steel tables, shelves for their walk-in cooler/freezers, and harvest crates for deliveries. These items are expected to increase their farm’s efficiency by 30 percent to better meet their growing customer bases’ needs.
“These items should increase our efficiency in getting items to market by about 30 percent as well as improve the sanitation,” noted Wenke. “Originally, we intended to use the funds for a salad spinner but through our previous media promotion of the event, we were able to secure a used model.”
The Grow Your Future competition helps young farmers, ages 18-35, amplify their niche market, unique ag service or specialty business. Contestants submitted a video application in August of 2023. A public vote held in December during Iowa Farm Bureau’s annual meeting narrowed the contestant pool from five selected applicants to three. The three finalists then participated in a live pitch-off in front of 550 Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Conference attendees.
In winning the top prize, Wenke had to provide a seven minute pitch evaluated by judges and voted by the 500 plus attendees at the conference. They also were required to participate in a 10 minute interview with a panel of judges.
“During the public voting, we were so excited to see the number of people in our local community rallying around us and supporting us with their daily votes,” said Wenke. “This award not only allowed us to receive funds to grow our operation, but we were also able to share our experience and growth with others across the state who are interested in similar work to ours.”
In second place, Carly Zierke of Sweet Season Farm in Winneshiek County won $5,000. Zierke and her husband, Ethan, sell produce via subscriptions and collaborate with another local farm to diversify their offerings. Bobbi Jo Berg, from Recipes from French Creek in Allamakee County, who creates freezer meals with locally sourced ingredients, including eggs from her own farm, took third place and a $2,500 prize.
“This competition is another example of how our grassroots organization works,” noted Amanda Van Steenwyk, Iowa Farm Bureau farm business development manager. “Five years ago, our young farmer committee wanted to highlight and support fellow farmers who were thinking outside the box and meeting consumer demand in niche markets. Since then, we’ve been able to award money to farmers who raise crickets, grow mushrooms, have direct-to-consumer businesses and offer agri-tourism opportunities. It's been great to elevate entrepreneurs who are strengthening agriculture and their local communities.”
To learn more about the Grow Your Future Award, visit www.iowafarmbureau.com/GrowYourFuture.
For more information on Pleasant Grove Homestead, visit the businesses website at pleasantgrovehomestead.com or social media pages.