CHARLES CITY | Wendy Johnson grew up on a farm near Charles City, but it wasn't until her mid-30s and living in California that she realized just how much the farm meant to her.
"I felt a strong connection," Johnson said.
That connection started to form in 2002 when she began coming back to Charles City each year to help her father with harvest. In addition to helping, Johnson said she also returned each fall so she could "still have an idea what goes on on our farm and agriculture."
Then in 2009 Johnson's grandmother, Thema Johnson, died. Her grandfather, Herbert Johnson, had died years earlier and Johnson realized that her parents, Erwin and Yoshiko Johnson, were aging.
"I felt the farm would die because there would be no heir to continue on," Johnson said, noting that her sister, who lives in Long Beach, Calif., had no interest in returning to the farm.
Also deciding Iowa would be a better place to start a family, Johnson decided to give up her job as a copy writer and teaching English as a second language and move back.
She told her then-boyfriend Johnny Rafkin about her plans and that he could come back to Iowa with her. A California native, Rafkin had never been east of Las Vegas before but came with Johnson in September 2010. He proposed that winter and they later married. They now have a 17-month-old daughter, Vivienne Rafkin, and live on Johnson's grandparents' former farm near Charles City.
Johnson and her father farm about 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans and rent another 200 acres. Johnson and Rafkin also have a 30-head sheep herd.
"I'm learning," Johnson said about farming. "It had been 18 years since I'd lived here. It's a high learning curve."
Johnson said she took some agronomy classes when she returned and has connected with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). Erwin also serves as a mentor.
"They have been a really good source of information," she said about PFI.
Johnson said the organization holds the same values as she does when it comes to making sure farmers are taking good care of the soil and environment. PFI is constantly researching farming techniques, such as cover crops, which she hopes to use in the future.
"Now that I have my feet wet and starting to learn the basics of farming, I'm looking at options," she said.
That could include fewer inputs, fewer chemicals, cover crops, different crop rotations, specialized pork like Niman Ranch, a cow-calf herd, organic crops or other niche markets.
"My vision is to transfer some acres into organic," Johnson said.
Whatever the couple decides on, Johnson said it still has to be profitable. She noted that they're high on labor but low on assets.
While Johnson is still learning about various aspects of farming such as markets and management, she's happy with her decision to move back to her grandparents former farm.
"I really enjoy the entrepreneur part of it," she said adding that she also likes playing the parts of a mechanic, engineer, manager and other roles. "All the different hats a farmer has to wear -- I like that challenge."
While it's been quite an adjustment for Rafkin, particularly the weather and rural aspect, he also likes it in Iowa.
"(I like) the freedom of it," he said. "You don't have to punch a clock but it's not a Monday-through-Friday job, either."