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Old Ways, New Faces (3)


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.”

(Read more Old Ways, New Faces)

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