IOWA CITY — As the weather inches closer to a frost, members of Grow: Johnson County are racing to get the last vegetables picked.
Since 2015 when it was first proposed, the program has been working to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for hunger-relief agencies on the site of the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm. Now about to wrap up its 2018 season, the group is hoping to hit a goal of 40,000 pounds of food — well above last year’s total of 28,000.
“The next 10 days is a really critical time because we’re looking at an evening frost here,” said Jake Kundert, production manager. “We’re going to have to see whether we’re going to be able to get the harvest out before it frosts or whether we’re going to have to put some cover over them to maintain that life of the plant.”
The program, under the nonprofit Iowa Valley RC&D, now works about four acres on the historic poor farm. They’ve recently installed a new washing system and will get a new shed to house it next season.
Additionally, the group has been using hoop houses, which extend the growing season and can be useful for starting transplants and curing items such as onions and sweet potatoes, Kundert said.
Kundert said next year the organization will work to improve its metrics — adding that a pound of watermelon and a pound of greens are much different quantities. He said the group always is trying to understand what the most high-impact crops, like carrots and okra, it can be growing.
“I think some of the work during the offseason is thinking more about nutritional value and vitamins of certain things and caloric value of things that are growing out here, and kind of get a more nuanced view of the actual contributions of the food to the community,” Kundert said.
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Grow: Johnson County is a small part of revitalization efforts going on around the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm, which recently have included a new restroom facility for visitors and new signage on the property.
Last year, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors adopted a master plan to guide future improvements of the property.
The 160-acre farm first opened in 1855 to provide housing to mentally ill and poor residents in exchange for farm work. While most Iowa counties had a poor farm during the 19th century, Johnson County’s is one of the last intact farms.
“I would certainly say the more people that come out and see what’s happening out here and getting excited about the future of the whole site, is drawing more attention to it (Grow),” Kundert said.
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