Appleton Livestock and Pasture Manager

Ben Wise

How did you get into this sort of work? 

I grew up on a farm in Northwest Iowa where we had pasture and raised grass-fed animals. My siblings and I spent our summers doing rotational grazing and making fence for many hours out of the day. When I went to college, I wanted to get out of that type of work, but eventually, I realized that I missed it. It was in my blood, I guess.  

What did you study at college?  

My degree is Agriculture Education, Communication and Leadership. I was studying mainly to be an ag teacher.  

Is that what you have been doing since then? Teaching? 

Right out of college, I was an adjunct instructor at a community college for agri-business. And then, for about seven years, I was a middle and high school agriculture education teacher and FFA advisor at our local high school. After that, I did some farming on my own and ended up taking a job in Des Moines as a manager at Living History Farms, which is an agricultural outdoor living history museum with three functioning farms. One was an all by hand indigenous peoples’ farm from the 1700s, there was an 1800s pioneer farm that was farmed with oxen, and a 1900s horsepower farm.  

That’s what you were doing just prior to coming to the trustees?  

For the most part. My job ended pretty much because of COVID and then I had a year where I was doing my own handyman work, looking for the next thing, the right opportunity.  

What made this the right opportunity?  

My wife and I have kind of always wanted to come out this direction. There are very few opportunities to work with livestock in a grass-fed pasture-based system where I can take ownership and not just be a hired hand under somebody else. Since that is what I love to do, I was looking for that opportunity. And since there was housing included, that made the move more of a possibility. My wife gets to stay home with the kids, which is another big thing. 

When it comes to this work, what are you most passionate about? 

Being with the livestock. I think that’s very important to be able to interact with them and know them. Meaning that you get out there, you know the land- you know where the low spots are, the high spots, the rocks, the weeds, the good grass. Then you can formulate how you are grazing and where you put the livestock to best fit the ecosystem they’re in. Another thing I think is very cool, when you can take land that maybe isn’t suitable for a high production farming method and turn it into something very usable for people and for the economy. 

What is the priority right now? 

Always, the priority is to keep the animals happy and healthy. As far as me personally, it’s getting an understanding of the organization and the infrastructure that’s available here, and then seeing where we can make improvements and how we can better tie this farm with the other Trustees farms. And then also making it a good experience for people to come and visit. 

What would you say is your area of expertise?  

I don’t know if I am an expert in any one thing, but I would say working in an organization like this puts me in a unique place as far as agriculture. I get to experience working with the public, educating, working in a nonprofit, while also getting production experience. Putting all those qualities together make this job a great fit for me.  

What’s the number one thing you want to educate the public about? What do you want them to learn or know?  

To question their food. What’s going on? Why is it happening? I believe in grass-based systems. I believe in what we’re doing here. I want them to do their own research, don’t just take what I say at face value. I want them to learn for themselves what the big implications are from different farming practices.  

What is the biggest difference or benefit with a grass-based system?  

You’re using the animals as your tool, and the animals are your final output product. We don’t have to have this huge amount of infrastructure, all the tractors and implements, tilling up all the soil, changing  the landscape, having to bring all of the feed to the animals. They’re able to do the work themselves- they spread their own manure, they harvest their own food. We also use them as pasture management tools, that’s the rotational grazing. We’re able to keep them out of areas to stop compaction, put them in other areas to make sure it gets eaten down, and manage what they eat and when they eat it 

And this grass-based system is more sustainable?
Yes. You’re taking the ecosystem that wants to be here and utilizing it instead of trying to alter the landscape.  Also, the grass-based system is a soil-building building practice that prevents erosion. 

Do you think there’s a difference in the final product? 

I think people would have to do their own taste tests. The primary result of your final product is how it’s prepared, but it does come down to the product you’re purchasing as well. That’s one thing we’re really working on here, getting the best possible cut of meat that we can consistently have in the freezer for you to purchase.