The Indian Creek Nature Center acquired Etzel Sugar Grove Farm, its largest land donation ever, in 2016.
The Nature Center announced in 2018 plans for the 190-acre farm, which is about 4 miles northwest of Tuma Soccer Complex, that included regenerative agriculture and a two-phase plan for improving the property.
Earlier this year, the Nature Center began partnering with the Rodale Institute, based in Kutztown, Pa., to develop a Midwest Organic Center to do research and educate farmers on organic agriculture practices.
WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE
John Myers, executive director of the Nature Center, said the staff has been working quietly, not reaching out to the public much about their first-phase efforts because project leaders feel they need to prove first their vision can be achieved.
Since acquiring the farm, the Nature Center staff has worked slowly to build a permaculture plot, move the organic center’s land toward being certified and construct a wetland to help with runoff, among accomplishing a number of other initiatives.
“We’ve been talking about this since 2016 and only now in ‘19 are we really starting to put things into the ground,” Myers said. “That’s because things like this just don’t happen overnight. It’s taken an incredible amount of community support, including some donors and partners coming to the table.”
One of the most recent developments is the hiring of a full-time farm manager, Scott Koepke, previously of organizations like Grow: Johnson County and New Pioneer Co-Op. While he’ll be responsible for daily operations of the farm, his dog Blue will be responsible for keeping foxes away from the free-range chickens, Myers said.
“What is that research, science-backed data, that we can take and distribute large scale? So this is not just about how do we feed this community but how do we make a broader change in agriculture within the Midwest?” Myers said. “And Scott has the background, experience and drive in order to make that happen.”
Also underway this year is the planting of rye cover crops on both the 8-acre permaculture farm plat and the 72-acre organic center farm.
The permaculture land is meant to not just be sustainable but regenerative farming, Myers said. To help achieve that, 150 fruit and nut trees — which form deep roots that better hold the soil in place — were planted across the plot.
When it the land is ready for planting, Myers said farmers can plant anything from vegetables to switch grass. Staff plans to plant fall crops like pumpkin and squash in late summer.
“We can start to pilot and test things and provide real data for others to be able to use and then implement,” Myers said. “Our goal is really to increase the number of organic acres within Iowa and the Midwest. And so the more organic acres, the better food we’re producing and the better environmental impact we’re having.”
The other major component to that is the Midwest Organic Center farm, which is mostly under cover crops with a section producing one more year of soybeans. It takes three years, Myers said, for a field to be certified organic after chemicals were used.
Three full-time staff from the Rodale Institute will work there, focused on making it a research and educational site. They’ll perform trials to test issues like how organic corn and soybeans grow versus those raised with chemicals.
“Because it’s not about us trying to say to every farmer ‘go out and do this because it’s the right thing to do.’ We believe we have to prove it. And if it doesn’t work, we’re going to try something else. So it’s not just about taking an environmental stance. Everything we need to do needs to be regenerative, but it also needs to be profitable.”
After next year, the project will enter into its second phase. Myers said that includes ramping up work on the organic center’s farm, hiring additional staff and building some infrastructure, perhaps for a yearlong graduate-level research program.
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“We’re making sure that Iowa farmers are going to want the research that we’re providing and ultimately, what we’re doing is valid,” Myers said. “And that was important to us before we start to raise a lot of funds and huge investments.”
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