Ground Floor: Vinton man gets an education in urban farming

Former school building's football field and playground converted to vegetable garden

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The alphabet is the first lesson you will learn at Old School Produce Co.

We grow everything from A to Z, from arugula to zucchini, said owner Mike Elwick said of his urban farming operation in Vinton.

Elwick hopes his new business, located on the grounds of a former school building, also will teach people about where their food comes from and the benefits of eating fresh, locally-grown produce.

Opening the urban farm also was an education for Elwick.

After retiring from Alliant Energy as the downtown steam manager, Elwick purchased the old west school building and surrounding four acres in Vinton.

I had no plan for it, Elwick admitted. I bought it because it was a great old building with great exposure right in the middle of town. But then it became a question of now that I own it, what am I going to do with it?

In researching local zoning ordinances, Elwick noted that one permissive use was truck garden. Although he didnt know anything about gardening, he was drawn to the idea of joining the local food movement and converting the old football field and playground into an urban farm to grow and sell vegetables.

Elwick, who had a degree in mechanical engineering, began taking online classes through Iowa State University to learn how to garden and is a master gardener apprentice.

The engineer in me was intrigued by the new techniques, Elwick said of his agricultural education.

Elwick has incorporated some of the latest farming technologies into the operation of Old School Produce Co., including raised bed and plastic mulch production, season-extending high tunnels, and an indoor hydroponic production for year-round sales.

Elwick also relies heavily on his iPad, which he uses for data logging, research and diagnostics, and debit card processing.

Elwick purchased the equipment he needed last March and, on April 1, started seeds indoors in the school building.

And just like that I became a farmer, he said.

The first outdoor growing season was a learning experience for Elwick and an employee as they experimented with different crops and sold the produce from a roadside stand located on the old school grounds.

Elwick said one thing they will do differently this year is to stagger their plantings. We were swamped when everything matured at the same time.

Old School Produce Co.s growing season extends through the winter using a hydroponic operation set up in a converted classroom.

Elwick is growing indoor crops of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers for various commercial customers, including the Vinton-Shellsburg School District, the local hospital, and area nursing homes.

Elwick hopes to eventually turn the 16,000-foot former school building into a centralized food hub and regional distribution center. He also plans to host school groups, cooking classes and programs about urban farming.

Its more than just a business, Elwick said. Its educational.

At a glance

  • Owner: Mike Elwick
  • Business: Old School Produce Co.
  • Address:811 D Ave, Vinton, IowaPhone:(319)

After retiring from Alliant Energy as the downtown steam manager, Elwick purchased the old west school building and surrounding four acres in Vinton.

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