Mike Cook and Bob Recker

Cultivating Variety within the Coronary heart of Waterloo


By Taylor Hintch

Mike Cook and Bob ReckerBecause the Eighties, Mike Prepare dinner and his household have labored to construct a worthwhile enterprise rising row crops, fruit and veggies on a patchwork of smaller plots.

Engineer and farmer Mike Prepare dinner has taken his profession to immense heights however has at all times stayed grounded within the soils of Black Hawk County, Iowa.

A 3rd-generation farmer, Mike’s grandfather, McKinley Prepare dinner, moved to Waterloo in 1925 and farmed along with working for the Illinois Central Railroad for 50 years. Round 1950, he offered about 10 acres to Mike’s dad, Mack, which Mack farmed on the facet whereas working as a machinist for John Deere in Waterloo.

Mike’s path first took him to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the place he acquired his bachelor’s diploma in mechanical engineering from Southern College and A&M Faculty, a traditionally Black land-grant college, in 1980. He later went on to obtain his grasp’s diploma in industrial expertise on the College of Northern Iowa. Within the early Nineteen Nineties, whereas engaged on his grasp’s diploma, Mike additionally revealed analysis on hazardous waste disposal as a part of a NASA fellowship he acquired.

Like his dad, Mike’s profession then led him to John Deere, the place he labored as an engineer for the primary 15 years after which rose via the corporate. When he retired after 30 years, he held an higher administration place and he holds three patents from his time there. However farming was by no means far-off.

“Farming is dynamic,” Mike says. “There’s at all times such variation in what you’ll be doing. There’s at all times one thing to be taught.”

Mike planted his first candy corn in 1985, including different produce that he and his household – together with his spouse, Liz Prepare dinner, and daughters Nicole and Kristina – offered domestically. When his dad was seeking to cease farming within the mid-Eighties, Mike was simply considering of increasing. He took over his dad’s acres and continued to farm each row crops and produce on the facet all through his engineering profession.

In 2008, Mike retired from John Deere and commenced instructing (he presently teaches a sophisticated manufacturing course on the TechWorks Campus in Waterloo). Mike now operates a extremely diversified farm on 120 acres at Prepare dinner Household Farm, the place he raises corn and soybeans together with all kinds of fruit and vegetable crops. The farm is unfold over 14 tracts of land throughout the Waterloo space. Some are parcels Mike’s grandfather and father purchased, however many are new additions he and Liz have bought. Managing many small plots requires good record-keeping, however Mike isn’t phased. As a substitute, he sees them as land entry alternatives.

“That’s the factor,” he says. “Your common farmer isn’t going to need to get out right here with all these timber, or farm on the town with the Greenback Common proper throughout the road.”

Mike Cook's soybean field by Dollar GeneralMike Cook's soybean field by Dollar General

Mike’s soybean subject throughout from the Greenback Common Retailer in Waterloo.

Constructing the Enterprise

When Mike first acquired again into farming, he says the enterprise was not initially worthwhile. However now he and Liz have discovered extra and are at all times evaluating how their farm enterprises are performing. Liz is the farm’s accountant, and Mike credit her with retaining the enterprise worthwhile and advising enterprise choices.

Of all his farm enterprises, his stand on the Waterloo City Farmers Market is one in every of his favorites. “I name it the ATM as a result of the extra greens you choose, the extra they proceed to bear,” Mike says. “You need to work for it.” He sells every part from inexperienced tomatoes, potatoes and zucchini to tender greens, okra and Crenshaw melons. The market stand is so standard, Mike typically sells out of produce. A crowd favourite is Prepare dinner Household Farm’s early-maturity ‘Silver Queen’ candy corn. Along with customary summer time greens, the Cooks additionally promote apples, pears, plums and their Harmony grapes straight from the vine.

Corn is Mike’s favourite crop to develop, however he says he’s needed to find out about rising row crops. One problem has been discovering individuals he might belief to advise him on inputs and pricing. Up to now, Mike says companies pushed additional fertilizer, hiked the costs and didn’t have his finest curiosity in thoughts. Now, because of relationships with neighbors, who typically drive by and verify on his crops, and farmers like Shaffer Ridgeway, who farms along with his household at Southern Items and Grazin’ Cattle in Waterloo (and in addition serves on PFI’s board of administrators), Mike is in a greater place. “If it weren’t for Shaffer, I might not be farming,” Mike says. “He really helpful an agronomist that helped lower my inputs by 40%.”

He additionally credit Bob Recker, a longtime buddy, farmer and fellow former John Deere engineer. “You possibly can’t be afraid to ask make it [as a farmer],” Mike says. “I’ve requested the individuals I farm with, point-blank, how they’re earning profits.” He has additionally discovered invaluable classes about correctly spend cash. “Early on, I purchased low cost seed,” Mike recounts. ‘After I talked to my neighbor, he mentioned don’t get monetary savings on seed. Put it aside some other place, since you get what you paid for.”

Bob Recker and Mike CookBob Recker and Mike Cook

Bob Recker and Mike Prepare dinner

A number of years in the past, Mike switched to no-till, and two years in the past, he began including cowl crops to some acres. He has decreased his nitrogen use, and this fall, Mike plans to increase cowl crops to all his row crop acres. On some acres, he’s additionally experimenting with wide-row corn, a apply that lets him plant crops like squash, turnips and cucumbers, amongst others, within the house between corn rows.

For these efforts – together with a dedication to mentoring others – Mike and his household acquired the Iowa Farm Environmental Chief Award on the 2023 Iowa State Honest.

Rising the Farm Into the Future

As he seems to be to the longer term, Mike hopes to increase the farm. He’d like to remain nearer to his house base, however says shopping for land hasn’t been simple. Up to now, he’s purchased land from neighbors and at land auctions. However data on obtainable land isn’t at all times simple to seek out, and it may get snapped up shortly. Just lately, land close to Mike’s house got here up on the market however he didn’t get the possibility to make a proposal earlier than it had offered.

He has additionally confronted outright discrimination as a Black farmer. Mike remembers one land public sale that was significantly disturbing. “I had the place purchased at $16,000 and the auctioneer stopped the public sale and mentioned, ‘All proper guys, I’m going to go round yet another time and in case you don’t bid, this man proper right here goes to get a great deal,’” he recounts, noting how the auctioneer had pointed at him. Bidding resumed, and at $25,000 one other social gathering stopped and talked with Mike. They struck a deal, and Mike finally acquired the parcel for $25,000 whereas the opposite farmer purchased $400,000 of land that day.

The unusual encounter didn’t cease there. Mike says the auctioneer demanded to know, in entrance of everybody, how Mike deliberate to pay for the land. “I mentioned I intend to pay with a verify, and the auctioneer mentioned, ‘I’ll take that verify.’ However the man that simply purchased $400,000 price of farm floor was not requested the identical query in entrance of everybody, nor was he anticipated at hand over a verify on the spot.”

It was clear to Mike that he was being handled in a different way due to his race. He additionally acknowledges that structural boundaries exist for him as a Black farmer. On this occasion, Mike was singled out and almost misplaced the chance to buy land. However he factors to broader challenges he’s confronted, from the attitudes of some bankers and repair suppliers to discovering data. “There’s a lot we as Black farmers don’t know,” Mike says. “A lot data is withheld.”

Regardless of these boundaries, Mike plans to proceed accruing land and carving out house for himself as a farmer in Black Hawk County. Nicole, Mike’s eldest daughter, works as a realtor in each Iowa and Illinois, and his youngest daughter, Kristina, presently works as a pediatrician in Waterloo. He hopes they could work collectively to handle the farm and proceed his farming legacy.


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