116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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When Laura Krouse launched the Abbe Hills Farm Community Supported Agriculture in 1995, she had 10 shareholders. This year, 150 families in Linn County — including one of her original customers from that first year — will be picking up fresh produce from her farm north of Mount Vernon.
“There’s a very strong interest in local food,” Krouse says. “People want food grown where they live. They want more flavors and healthier options.”
The CSA model is a direct marketing partnership between a farmer and consumers who provide a portion of a farm’s operating budget by buying “shares” of the season’s harvest in advance of the growing season.
GOAL: TO BE A FARMER
Krouse bought her 72-acre farm in 1988. As a college student, she majored in agronomy and agriculture business at Iowa State University before pursuing a graduate degree in agronomy from the University of Florida. She received her teaching certificate from Cornell College in Mount Vernon.
“I always wanted to be a farmer,” she says.
At the time, however, she was a biology teacher at Cornell College. Luckily, that profession left her summers free to pursue agriculture. Knowing she needed to earn more money from her farm, she decided to try operating a CSA.
“I’m much more interested in crops that directly go into people’s mouths,” Krouse says. “Ninety percent of what I grow goes to the CSA.”
This includes everything from radishes and lettuce to eggplant and sweet corn. Krouse also sells to local restaurants and institutions and donates excess produce to area food pantries.
HOW CSA WORKS
Abbe Hills Farm’s CSA season operates from June through mid-October.
In a normal season, Krouse’s customers would drive out to her farm, park their cars and enter a large shed to find that week’s crops displayed on several long tables. A chalkboard near the entrance would list what was available. Customers would fill their boxes — either family-sized or single share, depending on their subscription.
Family-size shares provide about a week’s worth of vegetables for a family of four, or two vegetarians who mostly eat at home. Single-size shares are a little more than half as much as the family size and can suit a couple who eat out some days or who have young children.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Krouse had to change that practice.
During the 2020 CSA season, Abbe Hills Farm operated as a drive-through, with customers driving to the farm every Thursday for their weekly supply of fresh produce. They could bring a bag or a box to select a few things each week, but most of their share was prepackaged. Customers stayed in their cars while employees, wearing face masks, gave them their food.
This practice will continue this year. Krouse wishes her customers could make their own selections but says this is what needs to be done right now for everyone’s health. Despite the change, she says she did not see a decline in customers in either season. In fact, she already closed the registration period for this year’s season, having reached her capacity in early April.
When the derecho tore through Eastern Iowa on Aug. 10, 2020, Krouse’s farm was not spared. She lost both of her greenhouses, one of her chicken houses rolled over several times, her corn crop was flattened, and three trees fell on her house.
Neighbors and friends helped her pick the corn that could be salvaged, preserving the open-pollinated, heirloom corn that has been grown on the farm since 1903. The seeds are not part of the CSA but are another business. Krouse spends the winter months processing the seed, which she sells throughout the Midwest. She also peruses seed catalogs, planning for spring planting. The beginning of a new season, she says, is always exciting.
Krouse’s greenhouses were rebuilt in time for the 2021 CSA season. Given the challenges of 2020, Krouse won’t introduce anything new to her customers this year — not that farming is ever set in stone.
“No two days are ever the same,” says Diana Corcoran, one of Krouse’s employees. “If something doesn’t work the first time, we try it again a different way.”
It’s that spirit of creativity that speaks to Krouse, as well as the desire to operate local, serve local and employ local. Two employees work in the greenhouses, another two work on the farm while school is in session and five students join the team every summer.
Krouse, who quit teaching in 2008 because of the farm’s demands, hopes supporting CSAs encourage people to not only eat local, but also seasonally. That includes visiting farmers markets.
“Try to take advantage of what is optima every week, now through the fall,” she says. “It’s fun and delicious.”
Learn more about CSAs in Eastern Iowa:
Not sure what to do with your CSA produce box? The internet is filled with suggestions! Here’s one of the recipes we found from Taste of Home.
Radish, Carrot & Cilantro Salad
1 1/2 pounds radishes, very thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds medium carrots, thinly sliced
6 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
Ingredients for dressing:
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
In a large bowl, combine radishes, carrots, onions and cilantro. In a small bowl, whisk dressing ingredients until blended. Pour over salad; toss to coat. Refrigerate, covered, at least 1 hour before serving.