Paige and James Hepp finish field work at their Rockwel

Paige and James Hepp finish field work at their Rockwell City area farm. The Hepps are proponents of agriculture advocacy. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Group expands opportunities to share ag stories

January 20, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

When the construction of a hog barn was announced in north Iowa, an acquaintance approached Val Plagge expressing their dismay, even though the barn wasn’t slated for Plagge’s farm near Latimer. 

The acquaintance and Plagge shared some common ground – they were both mothers who took their children to the library for story time. That’s where they met. They had talked about a variety of topics previously, bonding over the trials and tribulations of motherhood. Plagge also became a credible source of farm and food-related topics for this mother, so it became natural that she would approach her with the concern. 

Plagge, in a sense, had trained for this conversation. She’s been a CommonGround volunteer for years, sharing her personal experiences on the farm and the relevant science and research to help consumers sift through the myths and misinformation surrounding food production. 

“It’s not necessarily about what they come at you with to begin with as to why they’re upset. But if you ask questions and have an engaging conversation, you can figure out the root of their concern,” Plagge says. 

The real root of the woman’s concern, Plagge learned, was that traffic related to the new hog barn would impede with the mother’s established running route. 

With the tools in hand from CommonGround training, Plagge reassured the mother that the traffic wouldn’t be burdensome, and she would still be able to enjoy her scenic country run. 

This was just one conversation of many that Plagge has had with consumers. She got her start in ag advocacy in earnest in 2012 after she and her husband Ian were selected to participate in the American Soybean Association/DuPont Young Leaders program. 

“After the first session of that program, we were inspired to tell our story more,” Plagge says. 

Since 2012, Plagge has shared glimpses of their farm life in their blog, “Corn, Beans, Pigs and Kids,” reflecting on all they raise and grow on their multi-generational farm in Franklin County. 

She’s expanded her presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, growing their audience and, through her volunteer work through CommonGround, connection with consumers. 

CommonGround, funded through the United Soybean Board and the National Corn Growers Association, is a community of women in agriculture sharing their passions for the farm while also providing insight on how food is produced. 

“It’s about having conversations with consumers,” Plagge says. “Females are typically the ones making household food decisions, so for those consumers to talk to another female that’s also making those decisions, producing the food or involved with food production, it’s a neat opportunity for consumers and CommonGround volunteers.” 

Being the voice 

Paige Hepp was raised on her family’s multi-generational farm in Treynor. From there, she was sharing stories from her family’s farm, admiring the outreach efforts of Sara Ross, a farmer, wife and mother in Minden. CommonGround became an opportunity for Hepp to take an active role in ag advocacy. 

“I got involved because I wanted to be that voice of agriculture, especially for women. It’s a very male-dominated industry, so it’s nice to have that women’s perspective because it’s a lot different,” Hepp says. 

She married James, a first-generation farmer sharecropping with another farmer near Rockwell City. James and Hepp are working with the farmer to someday make that farm their own. 

She says CommonGround is expanding opportunities to tell their farm story beyond their local community. 

“I’m not just speaking to the farming community, but to consumers as well. I want them to understand where their food comes from and how we’re taking care of the ground we’re raising our crops on,” Hepp says. 

Pivoting through a pandemic 

Though COVID-19 has hindered efforts to host events in person, CommonGround has pivoted by reaching out through social media platforms. CommonGround Iowa’s Ladies Linked Week on Facebook brought together more than 1,000 women to share everything from farm tours, favorite holiday recipes and how-tos in home décor. It’s one example of CommonGround’s work in connecting women and consumers through shared interests. 

“As an individual, I’m not just the farm,” Plagge says. “It’s a huge part of my life and at certain times of the year it probably really is what I am, but there are other parts of me. CommonGround helps weave it all together.” 

Building community 

Hepp says she’s found a community of supportive women by being involved in CommonGround. 

“I recently got married and moved 2.5 hours north away from family and friends, so I’ve been missing a community per se. The CommonGround group has been a community of gals I can lean on, even if it’s virtually because of COVID-19.”

Want to share your farm story but don’t know how? Here are a few tips: 

1. Start by posting a video or photo of your morning chores. “There’s a lot of people who think they know what’s going on on your farm, but you’re the only one who really knows,” Plagge says. “Sharing on your own social platforms, even if it’s your Facebook page to your own family and friends, is a starting point.” 

2. Just start. “We need to share everyone’s farm story, no matter how small they think it might be,” Hepp says. “It could be really liberating, even for others to hear your story.” 

3. Diversify your content. “Farming isn’t the only thing we do, so make sure you’re sharing all of your passions,” Plagge says. “Anytime you can share pictures of kids or dogs or yourself, those go over really well.” 

This story was originally published in the January 2021 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.