Shae Pesek was born and raised in Delaware County, Iowa, on land that sustains Over the Moon Farm & Flowers, where she and her partner Anna raise flowers, vegetables and livestock. As a daughter in a farm family that raises cattle, soy, corn, hay, and sweet corn, Shae has always loved agriculture. Her childhood was filled with 4H and FFA meetings and fairs, and a 20-year commitment to raising rabbits. Despite her grounding in agriculture, Shae did not necessarily see a future for herself in her rural community as an out queer woman. She left Iowa for college in San Diego, living there for eight years. But the pull towards home was strong; even as she questioned acceptance in her community, she knew she wanted to start her own farm business on her family’s farm.
Anna Hankins, the other half of Over the Moon Farm & Flowers, grew up with memories shared of her dad’s upbringing on an apple orchard in Northern California. The farm was gone by the time Anna came into being, but she nonetheless grew up in a culture of agriculture. At UMass-Amherst, she studied agriculture, participated in the student farm, and became active in issues pertaining to food and farming. After college, Anna worked with the National Family Farm Coalition, diving into such details as parity (or fair prices for farmers for the farm products they produce) and the intricacies of the dairy industry. But, like Shae, Anna also felt a strong pull to farming and rural life. She moved to Iowa to farm with dear friends at Local Harvest CSA in Solon, Iowa.
When Anna and Shae met in 2018 through mutual friends, they found love. They also found a shared love of farming and a strong desire to start their own business. In July 2019, they began with an acre of sweet corn, their first fields of flowers, and calves, goats, lambs, chickens, ducks and pigs. In preparation for their second season, Anna and Shae created a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) model to sell their flowers and eggs. Through the support of fellow farmers at Local Harvest CSA and neighboring Buffalo Ridge Orchard, the two were able to market their Flower CSA both in their community and also through pre-existing and enthusiastic customer bases. “The collaboration and unwavering support from other farmers in the area has really made all the difference for us getting started,” explains Shae.
Then, in March 2020, the COVID pandemic hit. “It was an unanticipated challenge,” says Shae. “But in a lot of ways, we feel very lucky that we came out as well as we did.” Anna agrees, “There was a lot of community excitement about supporting local farms when COVID struck, and we’re fairly unique in our community, as far as what we can offer directly to the public,” explains Anna.
From the start of the pandemic, Anna and Shae were focused on contactless home deliveries. “Shae’s grandma lives here on the farm, and we wanted to limit her exposure to people. So, we did primarily home deliveries, which worked out great for everyone because our community has a large population of people who might not get out as much in general.” Anna notes that even before the pandemic hit, people living in rural communities face real barriers in accessing convenient farm-fresh goods.
“We have focused deeply on the people around us,” Anna explains. More than 50% of the farm’s sales are to the local, rural small towns around them. “The range of customers we have in our CSA is amazing. They are rural, they are in-town, they are people who have bought shares as gifts for grandmothers, they are local businesses—insurance agencies, hair salons, auto repair shops, yoga studios, you name it.” Anna declares, “People who live in rural areas and smaller towns also deserve this luxury and beauty.”
As much as they support their community, Shae and Anna are also supported by important networks of mentorship and learning. Practical Farmers of Iowa is a partner that has been important in helping Anna and Shae create a farm plan and take part in a savings incentive program that matches the dollars they save to invest in their farm. The Eastern Iowa chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition is an important network of young farmers finding their way on the land. And the farm participates in a mentorship program with Dawnbreaker Farms in North Carolina, which raises pastured turkeys and pigs and sells directly to their customers like Shae and Anna do.
The variety of products that Shae and Anna supply to their community increases, year by year. This year, the farmers are expanding into larger birds, raising turkeys for the first time. They’re also bringing heritage breed hogs back to the farm. Anna explains, “Shae’s family used to raise pigs, and the infrastructure and knowledge to do that are still here on the farm. Shae’s dad has been giving us advice, and it is so nice to have that connection.” For Anna and Shae, slowly bringing back pigs feels like a good choice for their direct to consumer market, but also makes sense in the context of the family farm they’re a part of. Working with Shae’s family is such an opportunity for us,” Anna says. “As the in-law, I feel very lucky.” Shae agrees saying, “My parents have been incredibly helpful and supportive to us.”
When Anna speaks about expanding their livestock operation, you can hear the passion in her voice. “For us, raising livestock is another way to support ourselves and have a diversified operation,” she says. “But even bigger than that, it’s about supporting our local economy—from the local meat locker where we process our animals, to the town veterinarian and the feed supply store.”
The big challenge/opportunity that Shae and Anna are working on now is how to scale up their operation. “We are excited and feel we’re capable of doing 2-3 times more than we do now. So we’re working out what that looks like. This year we’ll have 40 pastured turkeys to market and 250 laying hens. We intend to hire a part-time employee this season. We want to be not just a farm, but an employer in our rural community.” Anna and Shae acknowledge that they’re in a privileged position to start from, compared with many other young farmers, especially BIPOC farmers who have disproportionately been barred from accessing land.
“We’re learning and building and growing together. We are so excited to have a farm family together.” – Shae Pesek
And as for the other family dynamic of working with one’s partner, Anna and Shae love it. “We work really well together,” says Shae. “We love spending time together. We’re learning and building and growing together. We are so excited to have a farm family together.”
The women have mapped out their own places and roles on the farm. Shae is the builder and one of her many spring projects has been building mobile poultry houses and putting up a small greenhouse. She also handles the bookkeeping and computer work. Anna is the marketing and social media maven. She marvels at the sheer amount of marketing and advertising that is necessary to keep the farm in the community’s eye, but she says, “Everyone knows Shae’s family, and that helps a lot!”
The farm is beloved by its community and has been recognized state-wide. In just their third year, Shae and Anna are on track to have 100 CSA members. Recently, Over the Moon Farm & Flowers won second place in the Iowa Farm Bureau’s contest to recognize new farmers and their ingenuity. Second place in the Grow Your Future contest earned Shae and Anna a $5,000 prize, which they’ll put towards growing their farm into the future.
Though there was a point when Shae wasn’t sure that her small, rural community was the place for her, she has been pleased with the amount of community support Over the Moon Farm & Flowers has received. “People are proud to see young people moving back home and succeeding in a new business,” she says. “Growing up here and being queer, I didn’t know there was a place in agriculture for queer people. I wanted to have a partner to farm with. Now I’m living a dream. There are challenges in all the ways farming can be challenging, but every day I am proud and grateful we get to do it, together.” Anna agrees, “We are making waves and people are noticing us. And we hope that means that people see a place for them in agriculture too.”
Photos © Jessica Rilling, Helaina Thompson, and Olivia Katherine Photography, courtesy of Over the Moon Farm & Flowers