Since inheriting their northeast Iowa family farm in 2009, Carol Bouska, Peg Bouska, Ann Novak, and Sally McCoy have forged a future for the land and the next generations by establishing a strong vision and defined goals.
While none of them live on Highland Farm today, it is the family’s heart and soul, past and future. It is where their father, Edward Bouska, was born and where he died. Where their mother, Elmarie, would join them in their playhouse tucked into the woods, and they all would run around barefoot.
The farm was diverse and self-sustaining. It had fields of alfalfa, corn, and soybeans. There were cattle, pigs, horses, chickens, and a large garden that supplied food for the family of eight and projects for 4-H.
It may not be the home for the family anymore, but it remains a hub. During summer holidays and even Christmas, the sisters and their families reunite at their farm to celebrate, of course, but also to work on projects that help sustain the farm. Edward and Elmarie taught their children to be leaders and to help others, and they encouraged them to become educated. These values helped the sisters during the succession process.
“When we get together, we have fun and we have serious conversations,” says Ann, who lives in Washington. “We had a long history of our dad saying, ‘Well, when I’m gone…’ and we would roll our eyes. But you don’t hear that a lot from other families. They don’t talk about their legacies.”
Peg, who still lives in Iowa, adds, “Our parents were very concerned and encouraged us to talk about death and be upfront with the issues we could face, so we were given really good guidance and modeling from them.”
Developing a Plan
The sisters had two other siblings: Mary Jane, who passed away in 1991, and Jack, the oldest and only brother, who was involved in the succession planning before his death.
“We realized early on that it was really important to plan out our succession,” says Carol, a Minnesota resident. “We were concerned about fractionalization and if, when the five of us would not be here, the land would be divided into smaller little parcels for the next generation.”
The family sought advice from legal experts and formed a partnership in 2013 so that each sibling had a share. Having the partnership in place early was fortunate as Jack died suddenly the next year.
Peg, who works in the medical field, has experience with living wills and advanced care directives. “One of the things we say is we want to talk about plans at the kitchen table and not at the bedside in the hospital. It’s the same with our situation where if we hadn’t made decisions before Jack died, we would have just been in dire straits.”
The sisters started by defining goals. They separately worked through Practical Farmers’ Legacy Letter Project workbook by Teresa Opheim and then came together to review. What they found were many ideas and values that overlapped.
The Bouska family’s legacy goals include:
- Increase biodiversity and improve soil, water, and air quality
- Use the farmland to help stem the tide of land consolidation
- Provide safe and healthy food
- Keep family harmony
- Contribute to the health of the local community
The vision they share is that of becoming a regenerative farm by 2030. The principles of regenerative farming they work to implement are:
- Limit disturbance
- Armor the soil
- Increase biodiversity
- Keep living roots in the soil
- Integrate animals
“We all believe that part of our legacy to our children is not just to give them land; it’s to show them how to be responsible and work together by thinking through issues and maintaining that family harmony. They see what hard work that it is, but it’s almost an invaluable gift to them,” Carol says.
A Regenerative Present And Future
After their parents retired, the animals were sold, the land was rented out and mostly pared down to corn and soybeans.
In the past six years, the sisters have transitioned to a no-till farm, incorporated cover crops, and planted 4,500 trees. They’ve restored a wetland area and plan to add 37 acres of prairie strips this year, which will provide wildlife habitat and sequester carbon.
None of these could happen without the support of their tenant farmer, who has been farming the land for 40 years and is like a member of the family.
“We’ve educated ourselves a lot, but also recognize that we are not farmers. [Our tenant] knows the farm better than we do, and we have to recognize that we are not doing the work of farming and dealing with pressures,” Carol says.
His daughter now farms with him on the Bouska land. In meetings with their tenants, the sisters discuss their goals and the farming practices needed to achieve them to ensure there is transparency and respect for their future, too.
“When we wrote our legacy letters on our own, there were so many similarities in the delight of the senses, like walking outside and smelling fresh-cut hay, having a healthy lifestyle, being part of a family unit, and learning from the chores or jobs we had on the farm” Peg says. “We want that for future generations.
“We’d like to see kids running around, enjoying the healthy air and water, learning how to grow food, and teaching others,” she says. “We felt like our parents were progressive in a lot of ways in their thinking and modeling, and we’d like to see the land used in a way that not only improves the soil but invigorates the community and life of all who are involved in it.”
A Team of Resources
When we realize something is outside of our understanding or we just can’t resolve an issue, we ask or hire someone to help,” Carol Bouska says.
For example, the siblings utilized Rena Striegel, president of Transition Point Business Advisors, in family workshops to find commonalities. One of those was to implement a regenerative model on the farm. The Bouska siblings hired Paula Westmoreland and Lindsay Rebhan of Ecological Design to create a design and transition plan. Both experiences were invaluable in navigating their path forward.
The NRCS and FSA professionals in the county, who already had strong relationships with Ed and Elmarie Bouska, remain crucial resources in addition to the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The cost-sharing opportunities have enabled projects on the farm such as the wetland restoration and planting of trees, cover crops, and prairie strips.
“We’re still learning about how a regenerative model is economically sustainable,” Carol says. “This is not a hobby. This has to work for the farmer.”
The sisters are also members of Climate Land Leaders, a group of landowners whose mission is to provide community and support to help farmland owners mitigate the climate crisis and enhance rural vitality. Members of this group — currently around 60, who own about 20,000 acres — hold each other accountable to their goals and lend expertise when it’s helpful.
“Over the years, we’ve realized how the climate is changing and we’re committed to using our land asset to make a difference,” Carol says. “We’re concerned about the land and the water. We want to move away from emissions while also building our soil to sequester carbon.”
Within Climate Land Leaders is the equity subcommittee in which the landowners discuss the privilege of owning land once in-habited by indigenous peoples, the responsibility to become educated on equity issues, and the ways in which they can lift up others.
“We talk about beginning farming and how it’s so difficult with the price of land and equipment,” Peg Bouska says. “We’re focused on the rural community because we grew up there and care about its revitalization. We’d like to see less consolidation and more farmers in the community.”