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LITTLE SIOUX, Iowa — Standing on land that has been in his family for more than 150 years, Jim Perley can sense the ghosts.
“Once in a while you'll find a crock, a piece of a crock, and we know that was left by one of my ancestors or one of the people that worked for them. It's like you have a connection to them,” he said recently, overlooking rows of waist-high soybean plants.
The Perley farm near Little Sioux was honored this week as a Heritage Farm — a farm that has been in the same family for 150 years. About 40 acres of the Perley land near Little Sioux has been in his family's hands since at least 1863.
Sixty-seven Heritage Farms were honored this year, most of them in eastern Iowa. The awards were presented at the Iowa State Fair, which wraps up Sunday.
Also, 365 farms that have been in the same family for at least 100 years were named Century Farms.
Becky Lorenz, the program coordinator for Century and Heritage Farms, said keeping a farm in one family for 100 years or more is an accomplishment. Any number of things, from storms to droughts to severe recessions can snatch the land from a family's hands.
“A big part of what Iowa is, is built on the farms,” said. “It's just a way to showcase them and the State Fair is a great place to do it.”
The program is run by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
In Nebraska, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben have the Pioneer Farm award, which honors farm families that have held onto land for 100 or more years. This year 112 families from 56 Nebraska counties were recognized. The awards are presented at county fairs.
The Nebraska program has been around since 1953; In Iowa, century farms have been recognized since 1976, with ceremonies at the State Fair since 1977. Heritage Farms have been recognized since 2006. The Knights do not have a similar program for 150-year-old farms.
Generations of Perleys have farmed the land near Little Sioux. Jim Perley, who has a master's degree in history and has researched his family, has cobbled together what he believes is the story of how his family acquired the land.
Great-great-great-grandfather Moses Perley lived in New England when one of his sons, James, returned from the California Gold Rush and spoke of endless opportunities in the American West.
Reaching Iowa by horse and wagon, Moses Perley purchased ground along the Missouri River near the mouth of the Little Sioux in 1853 for $1.25 per acre, putting it in the name of son Chauncey. It seems he saw it as more of an investment opportunity than for farming.
The investment didn't immediately pan out. At some point it left the family, but in 1863 it was back in the family, and it has remained with the Perleys.
Over the years, the Missouri River would repeatedly flood, then change its course, moving west each time, allowing the original plot of Perley land to grow from about 40 acres to about 160.
The digging of the Monona-Harrison waterway just to the south and other drainage projects more than a century ago allowed the land to drain, creating fertile farmland.
Growing up near Little Sioux, Jim Perley would hear the stories of the farm from his family, stimulating his interest in history.
After a stint in the Air Force, he went to graduate school at the University of Iowa, intending to become a professional historian. But after a semester in the doctorate program, he returned to the farm, purchasing land from his aunt beginning in 1974.
At times, it was a struggle. The farm crisis of the 1980s hit locals hard. Jim and his wife, Madylon, could not even afford to buy daughter Sarah the Cabbage Patch Kid she wanted.
A bank account in the red. A sky that would not yield enough rain. But his family's connection to the land kept him going.
“In some ways, the essence of a ghost is still here,” Jim Perley said. “That made me very determined to keep this when we had the farm recession. Because it was hard. There were better farmers than me who lost their land.”
Today, Jim and Madylon live in an old house about a mile away from the land that makes their farm a Heritage Farm.
Century and Heritage Farms were honored at the fair on Tuesday. Several people teared up as they accepted the honor, Lorenz said.
Perley did not go to the ceremony. With other Perley lands in western Iowa being recognized as Century Farms, the Perleys have been to them before.
Plus, Jim and Madylon were spending time in Omaha with Sarah's newborn daughter, Catherine, who Jim hopes will one day inherit the farm. His two children are not interested in working in agriculture, but they intend to continue owning the land after their parents are gone.
“That makes me feel good that the family is going to keep it awhile,” Jim Perley said.
Iowa farm has been family owned for 150 years