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Old Ways, New Faces


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.”

(Read more Old Ways, New Faces)

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