WEST BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) — Nestled between shopping centers, row crops and car dealerships, an organic nonprofit farm is gearing up for its sixth growing season in an effort to combat hunger locally while teaching the community about food culture and sustainable farming practices.
As the weather warms and the threat of frost lessens, Mollie and Tobin Krell, who operate Homestead 1839 in West Burlington, will spend more and more time tending the roughly two acres of farmland, largely by hand.
Homestead 1839 spans 25 acres, with five being used for agricultural purposes. The rest is pollinator habitat.
“We’re trying to have as minimal amount of impact on the land as possible,” Tobin said on a recent morning, shielded from the day’s chill inside a double tunnel greenhouse, where the temperature hovered just below 80 degrees.
Evidence of the low-impact farming practices implemented at Homestead 1839 can be found in a mobile chicken coop, which was built by high school students in the Des Moines area as a service project through the Iowa Clearinghouse for Work-Based Learning.
“It’s like this little coop on wheels,” said Kendall Phillips, an AmeriCorps member who will help at Homestead for 10 to 15 hours per week through Aug. 27. “They just kind of drag it around their field and the birds go out and weed and get rid of bugs and stuff.”
Phillips first began volunteering at Homestead 1839 last summer when pandemic-spurred closures left her looking for a way to fill her time.
The Burlington Hawk Eye reports that when the Krells were notified Homestead 1839 may become a COVID-19 Recovery AmeriCorps host site, they asked Phillips if she would be interested in becoming an AmeriCorps member, which would allow her to receive a living stipend, as well as assistance with college tuition at Southeastern Community College and childcare, while helping the Krells coordinate volunteers and other administrative duties, as well as work the land.
She was happy to accept the offer, and Homestead ultimately was selected as one of about 20 sites in Iowa to host AmeriCorps members using CARES Act funding.
“I hope I can just help them reach more people in the community and bring more awareness, not only about food shortage, but also how you can be more self-sufficient,” Phillips said. “We are currently working inside of the high tunnel that they have just getting things ready for the growing season. We’re getting some food produced so we can get it to the farmers market and probably start getting greens going because those are more early season kind of crops.”
In the summer months, the land will flourish with a variety of types of organic tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, corn and other produce seldom seen in supermarkets.
“You go into any school and ask kids what a tomato looks like or a cucumber looks like, and they’ll tell you exactly what it looks like in the store, but they have no idea about the variety of all the different types of foods out there,” Tobin said. “They have to have a specific type, because it’s got to be those ones that store well, produce the most of all these things, and what gets lost is the heritage of food, and we become disconnected from our food and our food systems.”
The Krells purchase their seeds from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, which collects, generates and distributes heirloom seeds.
“The seeds come with stories,” Tobin said. “We have a type of seed called the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and these were actually seeds that were saved by indigenous people when they were getting pushed out of their lands, and they’ve been able to pass those seeds along, so we’re trying to find those ways to really ground us to our place in the earth and our food and what it means.”
The couple also recently began the practice of saving seeds from their own harvests to be put back into the soil, which is nourished by compost made of food prep waste from Great River Medical Center and local restaurants, which in turn use vegetables grown at Homestead to prepare meals.
The local cycle makes for very local food production, and that food stays in the community.
The bulk of Homestead 1839′s produce is donated to community food banks, while the rest is sold and given away to residents of neighborhoods with higher rates of food poverty. The Krells estimate upwards of five tons of Homestead-grown produce have been donated over the past five years.
As its name implies, Homestead 1839 was established in 1839 by Mollie’s family, first as a dairy farm before it was converted for row cropping. The Krells took over operation of the farm in 2014 when they returned to their hometown of West Burlington from Portland, Oregon.
“We’re still kind of learning, because this isn’t our background,” Tobin said. “We’re not farmers.”
“I felt professional. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mollie replied with a grin.
The idea for the couple’s nonprofit was inspired by their experiences in Portland, which showed them the transformative effect fresh air and community gardening can have on children struggling in traditional educational environments.
Mollie earned her bachelor’s degree in food security and farmland preservation from the University of Portland before going on to work in Portland schools with children with special needs. Many of those schools had community vegetable gardens.
“We would bring some of the kiddos who were having more in-school issues, mainly on the behavioral side, out to the community garden and pretty much get some pressure off of them,” Mollie said. “It usually puts them in a good spot where you have sun, you have fresh air, you’re just doing something good and then start fresh and try it again as far as going back in the school.”
Tobin, meanwhile, worked for non-profit Resolutions Northwest providing restorative justice services in Portland’s schools.
“Youth I’ve had and worked with — and these would be the ones that you would always see in the principal’s office every day, maybe attendance issues, cussing out teachers, throwing chairs, getting in fights — you take those same youth and you put them in a different environment and they thrive,” Tobin said.
The couple also noticed the amount of hunger suffered by children.
The couple were looking for new opportunities to utilize their skill sets when they returned to Homestead 1839 to care for Mollie’s grandmother, Phyllis Leffler.
They set about learning about various programs in the area with which they could partner, such as the Iowa State University Extension Office and Leopold Landscape Alliance, as well as area schools in search of hands-on learning experiences for students, food banks in need fresh produce, juvenile court and probational services interested in horticultural rehabilitation, and mental health organizations looking for vocational rehabilitation opportunities.
The land was being rented out for row cropping at the time, but with Mollie’s family’s approval, they began to take steps to establish the nonprofit, using their own money to set it up. Having obtained 501(c)(3) status, Homestead was eligible for grants.
“I think our first grant our first year was $1,000 we got from the Hy-Vee One Step grant,” Tobin said. “With that $1,000, we were able to get enough to get us started and go plant some seeds and stuff.”
Using old tools, two rusted out bottom plows and a 1972 John Deere tractor, the Krells carved out a quarter-acre garden just west of the barn they had operated as a music venue and coffee shop before moving to Portland.
Then there were the weeds.
“I didn’t realize how weedy it is,” Tobin said. “We were just fighting the earth the whole time.”
The Krells continue to battle weeds, but they have found natural ways to keep them at bay, such as winter seeding the area in clover, which can be mowed and acts as a mulch, choking out would-be weeds. The clover, a legume, also puts nitrogen back into the soil, promoting better growth and chlorophyll production in plants.
The organic approach and 20 acres of pollinator habitat, which the Krells created with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Resources Conservation Service, already has led to an increase in wildlife biodiversity.
“We haven’t used chemicals for the last six years and we’re giving them habitat in which they can thrive and not get sick,” Mollie said.
The Krells eventually expanded their work beyond the garden to the two acres of land they now farm, and they continue to work to restore health in the remaining agriculture acreage.
Each new addition to Homestead 1839 becomes a hands-on learning opportunity.