IOWA CITY — Last spring, the staff at nonprofit farm Grow: Johnson County had to order onion seedlings from Texas and spend hours driving back and forth from the farm to greenhouses at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, where they were growing 50,000 to 70,000 seedlings to be transplanted onto the farm’s five acres of land.
Next year, they won’t have to do either of those things. Thanks to a grant and community donations, they’re constructing a greenhouse on the farm that will make things a lot easier.
The small farm they run on the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm serves as both an educational tool and a way to provide fresh produce to 13 partner agencies, everything from food pantries and meal programs to snacks for preschoolers at Head Start programs. This last season, they donated more than 20,000 pounds of produce.
Program director Jake Kundert said the greenhouse will help them grow even more next year. Along with growing transplants to kick off the spring season, the 96 foot-long greenhouse will give them space to cure garlic, onions and winter squash as well as have potential for in-ground growing, which could mean having fresh produce longer into the fall.
“It’s really a multipurpose piece of infrastructure for us that’s going to allow us to sustain our efforts and grow into the future,” Kundert said.
The greenhouse was purchased with a $25,000 grant from the Wellmark Foundation, matched at 50 percent by the Iowa City Farm to Table Dinner, an annual fundraiser hosted by the Iowa City Downtown District and Johnson County.
Grow: Johnson County is one of a handful of farming nonprofits at the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm. First established in 1855 on 160 acres on the edge of Iowa City, it was originally a place where poor and mentally ill residents were sent to live and work. The county government kept the land even long after that practice ended, and in 2016 the Johnson County Supervisors voted to redevelop it in partnership with nonprofits like Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development, which runs Grow: Johnson County.
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In addition to growing food, the farm is meant to be an educational tool. Two interns each growing season support three Grow: Johnson County staff members, along with students from the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County YES! program. The farm also hosted more than 250 volunteers and visitors this year.
“The greenhouse will also be an educational tool. We can take people through the full process of growing food, from seed to field,” Kundert said.
Along with the greenhouse plans, other upgrades at Grow: Johnson County this year included purchasing a root cutter, which makes harvesting root crops like carrots and garlic much less labor intensive, and partnering with the Xerxes Society to plant 1,300 feet of ground beetle habitat. Ground beetles eat pest insects and help cut down on weeds, Kundert said.
“It’s a, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ kind of thing,” he said. “There can be less human intervention if you give the good bugs the space to do what they’re designed to do. You can have a farm more in tune with nature.”
And that’s exactly what this nonprofit farm is all about.
“Seeing this farm be a place where natural acres and farm acres work together to create a sound ecosystem is something everybody out here is really excited about,” he said.
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