Two farms no more than a mile away from each other are hidden away in the vast rolling hillsides north of Newton, raising cattle and sheep and selling their high- quality meat to customers at prices that are oftentimes cheaper than nearby grocery stores. Regardless of the difference in price and the advantages of purchasing a locally sourced good, the meat isn’t flying off the shelves.
Customers are still buying meat from Frahm Farms — which is found at the retail shop and modern day mercantile Esther & Co., 122 N. Second Ave. W., in Newton — but not at the rate Regina Frahm and daughter-in-law Tessa Frahm would hope. But they are not discouraged. This is what the industry and market look like, Regina says, and it is up to them to overcome the hurdles.
Frahm Farms is the foundation for Esther Purl Fibers and Esther & Co., which is owned Regina. The mother-and-daughter-in-law duo are joined by their husbands in the farming venture, but the two women are making the push to make Frahm Farms a sustainable source of not only meat but wool as well. The family is also preserving the farmland for its original purpose.
Both farms have been in the Frahm families since the 1800s, Regina says. Her farm in particular was owned by her husband’s great-grandfather, who immigrated from Germany and promptly began raising sheep. The two farms have always had cows and sheep grazing the land. Compared to most “normal” farms, the 400-acre Frahm Farms is a smaller operation.
With 24 head of cattle and 94 head of sheep scattered around that land, Regina and Tessa are trying to make sure Frahm Farms is financially productive and is successful in the large markets controlled by factory farms. In their area, most farms who own the ground farm the ground. That is not the case for some other areas in Jasper County, Regina says.
“You have these huge farmers that have thousands of acres scattered all over the place, and a lot of times it is investors that never even see the property,” Regina says. “Our goal is to figure out how to make this sustainable … How do we sustain what’s always been here and what’s always been in the family to keep it going for our grandchildren to hopefully someday be able to have the ground.”
Traditional farming has changed, and more women like Regina and Tessa are getting into the family business. Long ago, a farm wife had her “egg money” or “butter money,” but Regina says that is not the case anymore. To find a family that 100 percent supports their family through the farm alone and with no outside sources would be impossible these days, she added. It’s extinct.
“So that’s what we’re trying to come up with,” Regina says. “We want to be involved because our husbands work off the farm. We work off the farm … How do we generate income? We don’t want to be the generation to lose the farm. My in-laws work their tails off. They kind of brought this farm back from some financial hardships from back in the ‘60s and ‘70s to make it productive.”
How do Regina and Tessa survive in the 2020s? It requires some risk and a bit of creativity. And hard work. Frahm Farms may add more cattle in the coming years and find aways to make the sheep more profitable. At some point Tessa may even farm full-time to maintain the products Frahm Farms produces: beef, lamb and wool products.
“Who knows what else it will be down the road?” Regina says. “…We need to be able to support ourselves off of what we do here.”
Educating the general public about local farmers may be the key to that sustainability. Regina says when Jasper County citizens spend money in their community it stays in their community and goes back to the consumer faster. It’s a cycle, she says, and it is one Frahm Farms needs to be a part of. So far, its big aspirations are proving successful with meat sales.
“It’s going well!” Regina says. “Again, it’s about educating people and getting people to know our products are out there. It’s getting people to follow through when they ask for things … Anytime we have to do something different than what we normally do or if it’s not instantly at our fingertips, you don’t pursue it. We have to continue pursue things and figure out how to do it.”
Farming has taken on more corporate-like, industrial qualities in the past few decades. Surviving in this landscape of new agriculture is difficult, and neither Regina nor Tessa know the answers on how to get past it or to overcome that seemingly untouchable force. But Regina and Tessa have seen how much their families have worked to keep their farms going. They’ve those stories.
“We’re not afraid of hard work,” Regina says. “I guess the lofty part of this is how do you build something like this? I think someday all of those big corporate entities that buy up ground simply because they need a deduction, they’re the ones that are changing the landscape of farming the most. But they’re also the ones that are going to cause its demise.
“If we stay small and we stay creative, we can offer a quality product down the road because we haven’t jumped off and put it into somebody else’s hands.”
There was a time when farming was small and provided directly to its communities. Frahm Farms lives by that lost art.
Maintaining the old way of farm life while still carrying on with other duties like raising a family or working a full-time job outside the cattle yard isn’t always easy, but it is the life Tessa always pictured for herself. She grew up with her dad helping his dad farm and raise horses in the Le Grand area. It is a great way to raise a family, she says.
“Farm kids learn great values,” Tessa says. “My husband has always wanted to farm since the day he was born. He was born to farm. It’s just that pride, that Iowa farm pride of passing it down from family to family. You want your children to do the same thing you did and keep it going. It’s also a joyful life. It’s a hard life. But it’s a joyful life.”