Tradition Yields a Fresh Vision for a
Committed Group of Iowa Farmers
Story by Joshua Doležal, photography by Mark Tade
It’s an August dog day at Grinnell Heritage Farm, sun at its zenith, heat shimmering over the fields. Just stepping out of the shade seems exhausting, which is why a clutch of farmers has gathered in a circle on the cement loading dock where the roof of the packing shed casts a long shadow.
The group is cleaning hardneck garlic for market, shucking dirt from each head, then trimming the roots and the stalks. Ndogo, the farm dog, lies curled against the metal siding, lulled to sleep by the steady murmur of talk, the soft snipping of shears, and the rhythmic thump of tossed bulbs landing in wooden crates.
Except for the nearby pallet jack and hydraulic platform, the scene recalls a bygone era of the Iowa farm, when barns rose from the prairie in a single day and neighbors teamed up at harvest time, gathering after the work was done to share a home-grown meal. It is, in fact, this “old-school method of farming” that Melissa Dunham was hoping to revive when she proposed monthly work days at the 2011 conference of the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), the networking hub for many organic and chemical-free growers in the state.
“When I spoke to my grandma a few years ago, she said she wouldn’t trade her childhood for a childhood today for anything,” recalls Melissa. “The sense of community and togetherness was well worth the physical labor. I would like to think on some level we’re giving our kids and ourselves a similar opportunity.”
Like-minded growers from three other Iowa farms have left their fields today to join Melissa and her husband, Andrew, in the task at hand. Together the group styles itself “The Gang of Four.”
Andrew Dunham’s path to farming recalls a truism from one of Sarah Orne Jewett’s letters to fellow American writer Willa Cather: “One must know the world . . . before one can know the parish.”
Valedictorian of his high school class, Andrew graduated with a degree in ecology from Iowa State University, hoping to become a veterinarian like his father. After studying abroad for a semester in Kenya and another in Scotland, he enlisted in the Peace Corps and was assigned to Tanzania, where he worked as an agricultural extension officer with subsistence farmers, growing vegetables on a one-acre plot and transporting chicken vaccines by bicycle to rural villages to fight outbreaks of Newcastle disease.
Andrew’s experience in East Africa transformed both his own future and that of his grandfather’s farm in Grinnell, long custom-farmed by neighbors for row-crop commodities. After returning to Iowa in 2003, he completed a yearlong apprenticeship at an organic farm in northeastern Iowa and market-gardened on his parents’ farm near Maquoketa. In late 2006 he became a co-owner of the family farm in Grinnell and began the three-year process for organic certification.
From the start, community-supported agriculture (CSA) was central to his vision for the farm, and he contributed vegetables weekly to the 20-member Compass Plant CSA while selling produce at farmers’ markets in Grinnell and Iowa City. Andrew and Melissa married in 2007 and have since greatly increased their now independent Grinnell Heritage Farm CSA program, hosting field days open to anyone who wants to tour the farm, harvest vegetables, and share a common meal.
When she and Andrew met at a friend’s Halloween party, Melissa had a good job and lived in the Minneapolis suburbs. With an accounting degree from St. Catherine University in St. Paul, she had followed the trajectory of most Americans away from rural life, working her way to a management position with an international company specializing in executive recruitment and talent development. Her decision to move to Grinnell stunned her coworkers. “They all thought I was crazy,” she says, chuckling. “But I kept telling them, ‘This is a good life. There are a lot of rewards.’”
Both in their early thirties, the Dunhams represent a rapidly expanding community of young farmers devoted to sustainable agriculture, known in Iowa as the Next Generation and nationally as the Greenhorns. Andrew, a former cross-country runner, hurtles through each day with a balance of speed and endurance, snipping spinach or snapping bunches of kale from the stalk. Melissa energizes the farm with marketing strategies and a touch of panache; she coined “Team Carrot,” the farm’s unofficial catch phrase, after a bumper crop in 2008 and sometimes dresses the part on farmers’ market mornings.
While the Dunhams remain on good terms with neighboring farmers, Andrew admits to some tension when crop dusters buzz near the borders of his fields. “I’ve had to be upfront with nearby farmers,” he says. “I’ve told them, ‘I like you as a person, but if your spray drifts, I’ll be forced to take action.’” To explain why drift is so deadly to an organic farm, Andrew sometimes asks conventional farmers to imagine their reaction if a deadly fungus were to blacken an entire crop of Yellow Dent corn.
Andrew raises dozens of vegetable varieties on just 20 acres of his 80-acre farm, and a wayward gust of pesticide could not only destroy that year’s crops but also take the affected area out of organic production for the three years necessary to regain the USDA organic seal.
As difficult as it is to hold a firm line with neighbors, Andrew and Melissa know their livelihood rests on their organic certification. Like the tribal culture Andrew experienced in Tanzania, the farm relies on a network of family, staff, and friends. Together, says Melissa, they all “put the community in CSA.”
If Blue Gate Farm could be characterized in a word, it would be “diversification.” As relative newcomers to farming, Jill Beebout and Sean Skeehan knew they would have to harness all of their creative powers after leaving successful theater careers in Houston to found their Iowa farm in 2005. For Jill, whose family owns the land, the endeavor offered a familiar role. For Sean, it was a brand-new script.
Nestled in the rolling hills south of Knoxville, the 40-acre farm is among the most recent additions to a cluster of small producers who have turned a rugged landscape unfriendly to row cropping into a mecca for local food. To manage the complex multiyear rotation system for their vegetable plots, Jill drafts garden maps to keep track of which crops were planted where each year.
This way she can ensure next year’s plantings of Oregon Giant peas, cipollini onions, and Red Russian kale not only move to a different garden bed but also follow crops from the previous year whose nutrient consumption will have primed the soil to benefit a different plant the next growing season.
Fixtures at Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market, Jill and Sean manage a limited-membership CSA featuring chemical-free produce and several optional add-ons, including raw and comb honey, pasture-raised eggs, preserves, herbs, and goat cheese from Reichert’s Dairy Air. Jill advertises her Jammin’ Thursdays each week on the farm’s Facebook page, featuring flavors such as Golden Fire Pepper Jam and Cinnamon Purple Basil Jelly. Their value-added products — jams, jellies, honey, and homespun yarn — have helped them withstand several near disasters, including tornado damage, flooding, and herbicide drift from a neighboring farm.
In the absence of state or federal support, relationships with like-minded farmers also help buttress their future. Jill and Sean spent much of 2011 working with family and friends to build a two-story barn, which they constructed around an old packing shed that they continued to use while the new structure took shape overhead. Once the new barn had a roof, they began the delicate and laborious process of disassembling the old shed from within. The Gang of Four spent an afternoon prying the weathered boards from the old shed and handing them carefully, assembly-line style, out into the yard to avoid denting the metal siding of the new barn.
A lifetime in the arts has made the couple especially adept at building relationships. Sean brings his leadership to the PFI Board of Directors, and Jill freelances as an American Sign Language interpreter during the winter.
Their interpersonal skill, explains ISU Extension’s Andrew Larson, makes Jill and Sean especially well suited to the farmers’ market clientele. “Selling at the market takes an immense amount of time and preparation,” he says. “You’re harvesting like crazy the day before, then getting up super-duper early to get everything packed, then you’re shuttling it out there, and then you have to be on your game all the time, being that people person who is telling your story, being assertive and outgoing.”
The public face of farming wears on a lot of small growers, but when the weather turns cold and Jill dons a knit cap with chicken thighs for ear flaps and a red comb on the crown, it’s clear that she’s in her element.
The Real Deal
What are two Ph.D.s with three cats and no background in farming doing raising certified organic vegetables, ducks, turkeys, and chickens on 14 acres north of Tripoli? Tammy and Rob Faux (pronounced “Fox”) of Genuine Faux Farm have fielded similar questions many times since 2004, when they first began selling produce at the Waverly Farmers’ Market. Like good teachers, they sometimes answer with a question of their own: “If we don’t do this, who will?” And if one lingers long enough, their explanation might range as far as ancient Greece.
The Fauxes met as undergraduates at Luther College in Decorah and followed a circuitous route after graduate school through Wisconsin and Minnesota in search of academic appointments, finally settling at Wartburg College, where Tammy is now associate professor of social work.
As avid gardeners with a penchant for growing more each year than their household could handle, the couple decided to experiment one summer with a farmers’ market slot in Waverly.
A sold-out stand during their first visit surprised them both. “It cost $5 to rent the space for one day, and we made $6.50,” recalls Rob. “And we thought, ‘Hey, we turned a profit!’” With that small victory, the pair began to imagine organic farming as a way of living out their ideals as educators committed to sustainability.
A computer scientist by training, Rob is equally at home wrestling a tiller through the black loam in early spring and herding a group of biology students along the edge of his fields while explaining the principles of crop rotation. The wit of this voracious reader of cartoons is apparent in the farm’s name, a play on the French word for “fake” that also alludes to the skulk of foxes living on the farm when he and Tammy first arrived.
Shifting from gardening to farming has been a reality check for the Fauxes. “We used to go down to the nursery and buy all the surplus plants at half price when they were half dead and try to nurse every single one back to health,” says Rob. “But as farmers we’ve had to learn how to give up on crops that aren’t going to make it because if we try to save them, it’s going to cost us somewhere else.” As a programmer, he says he could always ask for an extension if he wasn’t finished writing code, but nature sticks to stricter deadlines for planting and harvest.
After weathering several years at the Waverly market when a rainy day could mean hundreds of dollars less in sales, Rob and Tammy decided to focus solely on their CSA program and organic poultry, which includes bronze turkeys, Muscovy ducks, and meat chickens, as well as eggs from their laying hens. Weighing the trade-offs of increased payroll against the potential benefits of greater yield, the Fauxes capped their CSA membership at 120 subscribers. To avoid debt, they converted two riding lawn mowers to small tractors, and, after replacing the roof of one barn, they demolished another that proved too costly to fix.
With only a few part-time staff during the summer, Rob and Tammy need all the help they can get when the weeds multiply. A scheduled work day on their farm brought three extra pairs of hands when the Gang of Four set to work clearing one of 11 plots, each roughly 10,000 square feet.
Lessons from the Land
Just east of West Branch, past the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum and a quarter mile south of the crossroads where Delta Avenue bisects Highway 44, an orange and green heap of pumpkins and winter squash marks the entrance to Scattergood Friends School. At a quarter past eight the grounds are quiet, save for humming interstate traffic in the middle distance. Teachers and students gather in the Meeting House for Collection, 15 minutes of silent worship at the start of each school day, and when the doors swing open at half past eight, the campus bustles with an energy unlike the usual hubbub of a schoolyard. In a word, the place is calm.
It’s a rainy day, so Mark Quee shrugs into a poncho before taking a few laundry baskets out to the fields to harvest the day’s lunch. Scattergood Farm encompasses 10 acres of certified organic gardens and orchards, as well as 30 acres of pasture for cattle and sheep that provide the bulk of the school’s meat supply, supplemented by a handful of Guinea hogs, broiler chickens, and turkeys. The Scattergood farm staffs a booth at the West Liberty farmers’ market and wholesales with the New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City, but its primary function is to serve the school. In addition to raising chemical-free produce and meats for school meals, the farm serves as a living laboratory and outside classroom, where students gain hands-on experience with livestock and all stages of the growing cycle.
The lunch menu today features polenta, so Mark is in pursuit of sauce ingredients and salad greens. By late September the heirlooms have nearly been wiped out by late blight, but he salvages a flat of Amish Paste tomatoes for the sauce base, quickly filling another basket with lettuce and arugula. The sweet peppers require more care; Mark hunches along a row of red Carmen peppers, cradling each in his palm to examine it for freshness. After he gathers a few bunches of mustard greens, the morning’s haul is complete, and Mark delivers the bounty to the school kitchen, where Dana Foster is preparing the midday meal.
A Scattergood faculty member since 1993 with a Swarthmore degree in biology, Dana teaches health while managing the farm’s livestock and sharing cooking duties with other faculty and students. She keeps up a steady patter while bustling about Scattergood’s commercial-size kitchen, replete with stainless-steel sinks and countertops. The polenta sauce bubbles in a massive skillet, a mélange of pork and vegetables grown on the farm: onions, garlic, broad beans, peppers, tomatoes, mustard greens. A second skillet holds the vegetarian option, substituting black-eyed peas for the meat. Dana tosses the fresh lettuce and arugula with roasted almonds, oranges, and a vinaigrette made from the farm’s own raspberries.
As morning classes wind down, other teachers pitch in, ferrying salad bowls and family-style dishes to the cafeteria tables. Then the students and teachers join hands around the room to share a few moments of silence before the meal. Students all join work teams immediately after lunch to wash dishes or sweep; rotating chores keeps morale high. When students leave for the summer, Mark and Dana occasionally find themselves shorthanded, but this year they enjoyed some welcome support. A scheduled Gang of Four work day resulted in the efficient construction of curing tables for onions and garlic and a strawberry harvest to boot.
Growing a Shared Vision
Work. Play. Friends. Food. For four family farms in rural Iowa, the old way is not only today’s reality but also a touchstone for tomorrow.
“We’re a group of farmers that come together to help one another, to share the ups and downs and ideas about how to farm sustainably,” says Grinnell Heritage’s Melissa Dunham, summing up a revived collaborative strategy that bolsters the economic vitality of each farm. The Gang of Four leverages each farm’s experience to grow more than organic produce; these farmers are growing a vision for the economic future of Iowa.
Still, even the most resolute organic farmer can feel isolated in a rural landscape dominated by industrial agriculture. “It’s reassuring to know that Andy has weeds, too,” says Blue Gate’s Sean Skeehan with a grin, “but conversation is really why we make the drive each month.”
Summer turns to fall, frost settling over the fields, and the group gathers once more. No chores or projects to complete today, just a celebration of the year’s accomplishments with a harvest feast. Crowded around a table at Scattergood Friends School — before a spread of roasted Muscovy duck from Genuine Faux Farm; glazed carrots from Grinnell Heritage Farm; assorted jams, jellies, and honey from Blue Gate Farm; and a medley of roasted sweet potatoes, beets, and parsnips from Scattergood — all raise their glasses to a season of work and friendship in hopes of renewed success in the year to come.
Dusk falls and eyes begin to sag. Headlights swing out of the drive. Dawn will come a little too soon, and the farmers will rise heavy with sleep but buoyed by their web of support. When winter winds finally push them indoors a few weeks hence, it is time for dreaming again, for spreading the seed catalogs on the kitchen table alongside the hot biscuits, comb honey, and tea. The season’s triumphs and failures have all been disked under now, save the lettuce, spinach, and chard hanging on year-round in the hoop house. Come February, the grindstone of the new season will groan forward again, but this time all of these farmers will know something they might not have fully believed a year ago: They are not alone.
Meticulous bookkeeping is essential to maintaining Grinnell Heritage Farm’s organic certification and positions the farm strategically for grant applications. According to Andrew Larson, small farm sustainability specialist with Iowa State University Extension, such record keeping represents a “potential weapon” for other small farmers in making informed decisions about how to change their operations from year to year and how to leverage a farm’s history as an asset while seeking outside funding for its future.
Meet Your Farmer
In 2007 Blue Gate Farm teamed up with four other farms in Marion and Lucas Counties for the inaugural Farm Crawl, when participants opened their doors to visitors, offering tours, samples, and products for purchase. The first year attracted 500 visitors. The event has now grown to include eight area farms and has nearly tripled in attendance, drawing just over 1,300 participants in 2011. This year's Farm Crawl is the first Sunday in October from 11:00 am – 5:00pm.
Out of the Shadows
Tammy Faux likens Genuine Faux Farm to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” which she teaches in her first-year seminar at Wartburg. The Greek tale compares enlightenment to a man’s emergence from a shadowy cave, his grasp of reality expanding as he explores the outside world. “The more we learned about food production,” she says, “the more it felt like we’d been living in the shadows. This is a way we can stay true to our own philosophy and offer healthier food to our neighbors.”
Simplicity and Integrity
The integration of farming into Scattergood Friends School’s daily life reflects the four central tenets of Quakerism: peace, equality, integrity, and simplicity. As humanities teacher Sam Taylor explains, “Equality comes through in our practice of shared decision making. Hopefully, by living together in community, we also teach the values of simplicity and integrity. We work together and live together in a pretty tight space. If your life is cluttered by too much stuff or too many engagements, then it is hard to be a full community member.”