Sky's the limit

By Abby Hade Terpestra on April 24, 2023 in Blog

Aerial image of the Boylan Farm.

On September 25, 1881, Louis Fischer purchased 160 acres of land in the Grant township of Page County just east of Shenandoah for $33. Over the subsequent years, the farm passed down to his son, John; his grandson, Carl; and to his great-granddaughter, Dorothy Fischer Boylan. At the Iowa State Fair in 1981, Dorothy and her family — husband Don and children Betty Boylan Miller, Donna Boylan Stewart, and Carl Boylan — were presented with century farm designation.

Carl Boylan met Margie Keller while they were both at Iowa State University and they wed in 1984. They enjoyed traveling together, loved their dogs, and ran Boylan Farms as a conscientious and conservation-minded operation, especially when it came to protecting soil health and promoting habitat for wildlife.

Margie, in addition, worked for 32 years at the Shenandoah Medical Center as a registered nurse, in the oncology department, and as Chief Operating Officer. She served on the board of the Shenandoah Public Library and was instrumental in securing funding to build the new library addition. Margie was a well-respected advocate of access for all people to the things she loved including reading, healthy food, and nature.

“She was a brilliant and kind-hearted woman who was a source of strength and inspiration for our entire extended family and the community of Shenandoah,” said Angie Schmidt, niece-in-law of Carl and Margie.

“Margie was a caregiver. She was principled and articulate and a teacher at heart. She was a mentor to many,” said Laurie McGargill. Laurie and George McGargill were longtime family friends of the Boylans. “She and Carl were the poster children for moderation. They had no bad habits.”

“They were just the kindest, most gracious, most intelligent — and most humble — people. The best kind of people they could possibly be,” adds George.

You could often find Carl driving with a dog in his truck, carefully maintaining his John Deere equipment, or joyfully hosting family and friends. His commitment to land conservation is evidenced through the grassed waterways, carefully placed terraces, wide field borders and no-till practices found on the farm. Carl and his father, Don Boylan, put in some of the first terraces in Page county. Always learning, the evolution of water control features can be seen across the farm.

Michael Johnson, who farmed some of the Boylan land and continues to do so under INHF’s ownership, shared, “When Carl and Margie first asked me if I would be interested in farming some of their ground, I told them to make sure they told me the names they used for each of their fields. I wanted to make sure I referred to their fields the same way they did from the start to avoid confusion. I soon had an entirely different perspective on what this farm meant to them. One of the first fields Carl pointed out he called “south of the railroad.” While I could see where the railroad had once been, it had been closed in 1938, before Carl had even been born. We then drove by what he called the “cherry tree” which Margie quickly pointed out that in 30 years she had never seen a cherry tree there, but that was how Carl’s dad referred to the field. What started out as me wanting to know which fields were which turned into me wanting to carry on the legacy and tradition that had been put in place over the last hundred years. Carl and Margie always wanted to do what was best for the land, not because they had to but because they knew it was there before them and would continue on after them, and that is something for which I continue to strive.”

“They were always more than happy to help,” he adds. “They helped me get my farming operation started as a young farmer, and I will be forever grateful to them.”

In 2001 Boylan Farms was incorporated and now sits at 1,243 acres with two homesteads. One hundred acres of that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and that grassland provides quality habitat for small mammals and nesting birds. The hayfield behind the east homestead is home to many birds including Dickcissels and Bobolinks, bird Species of Greatest Conservation Need.

One mile of the gravel Wabash Trace Nature Trail curves along the property’s wooded south border. The adjacent woodland consists mostly of walnuts, cottonwoods and maples and provides excellent habitat for white-tailed deer, Baltimore Orioles, Wild Turkeys, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. A small creek parallels the trail and provides habitat for mink, raccoon, and muskrat.

“Not only were they great stewards of their land, they were great neighbors for the Wabash Trace to have,” said Rebecca Castle Laughlin, former president and current board member of Southwest Iowa Nature Trails Project. “I was fortunate to know Carl and Margie through mutual friends. They were the type of people you were always happy to get the chance to visit with. Upon hearing that they had left their land to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, I can’t say that I was shocked, because it fit with their character. What I knew about their practices made it a natural fit that they would want to see their legacy perpetuated in this manner.”

The fundraising campaign for the Wabash Trace was how Carl and Margie were introduced to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and the gift they gave in 1990 was the only time they had contributed financially to INHF, until now.

Margie passed in October of 2019 and Carl passed in April of 2021. In leaving the farm to INHF, Carl and Margie laid out their wishes clearly for the land to not be sold and for profits from the lease of the land to be used as a reserve for the farm, to support INHF’s mission statewide, and to aid Shenandoah-area animal shelters. While it may take several years to begin bearing the fruit the Boylans imagined, there is no doubt that the lasting impact of this gift is tremendous.

“It didn’t surprise me at all (that they left their farm to a non-profit),” said neighbor and family friend Bruce Ketcham, “and that says something about them. They looked out for the betterment of the country, the world, the people around them. They were the best people.”

“The care, time, energy and more that have gone into creating Boylan Farms is a marvelous legacy,” said Cheri Grauer, retired INHF Donor Relations Director and one of the INHF staff that worked with Carl and Margie while they were crafting their legacy plans. “Carl always referred to the farm as ‘a work in progress’ and I am sure INHF will continue to hold that view.”

Chris Miller, nephew of Carl and Margie, said “They were that strong, quiet type, never really calling attention to themselves, but there to help everyone, and support the community. The gift to the INHF is just another example of their support. They saw the farm as an everlasting place that would produce a bountiful crop for generations, so they gifted the property to an organization that will protect its agricultural productivity, and continue to embrace its natural landscapes, and use the proceeds from farming to expand their vision across Iowa and time.”

“This farm has a different twist. Agriculture and conservation can’t be separated here,” said Kody Wohlers, INHF’s Loess Hills Land Stewardship Director. “A gift like this is a game changer. The best thing we can do is keep true to our mission, since that is what compelled the Boylans to make their decision.”

INHF has been spending the last year while the estate was in probate learning about the farm, meeting with the current tenants, and noting the healthy farming measures that are in place. The long-term ownership of Boylan Farms will allow us to build on the conservation practices that the Boylans modeled and extolled. While we may never be able to fill the big, meticulous boots Carl and Margie left behind, we will strive to be a neighbor that the community of Shenandoah can be proud of in our care of the land.