A single wooden cross is tucked away in a copse of trees on the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm, a spot where, more than a century ago, impoverished residents of the farm were buried.
The farm, established in 1855 on 160 acres on the edge of Iowa City, was originally a place where the poor and mentally ill could live and work under the county’s care. Traces of their lives remain, in the building that once housed an asylum, and in the cemetery, now almost overgrown and hidden.
The poor farm concept was once ubiquitous throughout the state, but Johnson County is one of the few places where the county government still owns the land.
Now, the farm is being re-imagined.
On a hot September day last fall, chefs set up shop under tents as hundreds of cyclists rode in on their bikes. Storytellers and musicians entertained, guides led tours and members of two local nonprofit farming organizations showed off their plots of vegetables and flowers.
“The goal is to honor the history of the farm but also to really turn this into a public space where people can enjoy nature,” said Kelli Andresen, communications assistant for Johnson County.
The land had been farmed by a private company over the last few decades. In 2016, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors hired HBK Engineering and Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development to create a 10-year vision for the land. The master plan, completed in 2017, re-imagines the property as the New Century Farm, with elements touching on education, historic preservation, local food production, conservation, recreation and affordable housing.
The local food production aspect has been underway for the last few years, with land leased to two organizations — Grow: Johnson County, which grows food for local nonprofits, and the Global Food Project, which works with immigrant and other farmers on small-scale vegetable production. This spring, the site will rent land to additional small-scale farmers through a Land Access Program.
“This landscape is productive, and it’s beyond corn and soybeans. ... That’s one of the things we’re trying to promote out here, is the diversity of what we can produce. And we want to preserve green space for future generations,” said Brad Freidhof, a program manager for Johnson County Conservation.
The historic preservation elements are seen in the cemetery, as well as in the farm’s buildings, including an early 20th century milking barn, a late 19th century horse barn and the asylum wing, built in 1859. They are available for tour, by appointment.
An open house last fall coincided with Farm Cycle, a local bike tour that focuses on food and farming, allowing riders a peek at the buildings and gardens.
Farm Cycle, the latest incarnation of RadTour and the Culinary Ride, biking tours started by Audrey Wiedemeir of Iowa City, now functions as a fundraiser for the Iowa City Bike Library. Cyclists ride from farm to farm to meet local producers, sampling food at each stop.
Wiedemeir said she wants people to meet farmers like those working with Grow: Johnson County and the Global Food Project. Connecting her tour to the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm last summer fit in perfectly with both her mission and the vision for the farm — promoting connections to the land and its history while growing healthy food.
“In this sea of corn and soybeans, we are still struggling to feed people,” she said. “Grow: Johnson County provides food to about 15 different agencies throughout the county. We’re building community through biking and getting people out to the farm to meet the farmers. ... It’s not very often we get to go out to the farm and actually see where our food is grown.”
If You Go
WHAT: Johnson County Historic Poor Farm
WHERE: 4811 Melrose Ave., Iowa City
DETAILS: Open by appointment only. Call Johnson County Historical Society, (319) 351-5738, or email
firstname.lastname@example.org at least two business days in advance to schedule a tour.
MORE INFORMATION: jchistoricpoorfarm.com
WHEN: Sept. 8
DETAILS: Watch for 2019 route announcement and tickets at farmcycletour.org.
Grow: Johnson County
Global Food Project
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