CEDAR RAPIDS — Indian Creek Nature Center announced Tuesday that it’s looking to use its largest gift ever of land to nurture new farming practices amid the corn and soybean fields of Linn County.
In 2016, George Etzel donated his 190-acre farm — about 4 miles northwest of Tuma Soccer Complex in Marion — to the nature center. At a news conference Tuesday, the organization announced a two-phase plan for the Etzel Sugar Grove Farm for the next 10 years.
John Myers, executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center, said the center wants to try to address two issues — agriculture sustainability and food security.
“In the past 100 years, half of Iowa’s topsoil has eroded away, leaving only 6 (inches) on average. In another 100 years, we’ll face barren ground, unable to grow crops. The second issue of critical concern is the rapidly-expanding population growth. The world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. Feeding the world and addressing food has never been so important.”
Though Iowa’s crops are made into products that travel the globe, Myers said addressing sustainable agriculture that produces healthy food may open new doors for small-scale farmers.
The first phase for the Etzel Sugar Grove Farm — to be wrapped up in 2020 — will cost about $500,000 and includes adding to the farm’s endowment, creating funds for the future.
The project entails developing a nutrient-reduction wetland that captures water runoff and reduces soil erosion. The nature center also will expand its beekeeping and maple syrup harvesting programs.
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But the biggest challenge comes by beginning permaculture farming, a method that creates self-sustaining ecosystems by “effectively reusing energy and resources as much as possible before they leave the system,” said Lindsey Flannery, marketing and development manager at the center.
Permaculture uses organic farming techniques, but in a way that reuses resources.
“It’s pretty much what nature does before we interfere,” Flannery said. “Instead of just corn on corn as far as we can see, and just taking from the land and using up the nutrients without putting much back, it’s how can we put some back?”
To do that, Indian Creek Nature Center will create an 8-acre organic field with vegetable crops, fruit and nut trees and cover crops, such as wheat grass that also an be used for consumption. By this spring, Myers said there will be goats and free-range chickens on the farm as well.
Myers said the nature center will partner with Mount Vernon’s Hertz Farm Management and Iowa State University to educate farmers who want to use permaculture practices. It also will hold workshops for aspiring backyard permaculture gardeners in Eastern Iowa at the Etzel Sugar Grove Farm.
For the idea to catch-on, Myers said he knows permaculture farming practices must be economically viable.
“Our goal with these practices is not to create another (community-supported agriculture) or farmers market booth,” Myers said. “Our goal is to not go out and turn every corn and soybean field into a permaculture farm. That’s not realistic, nor do we think Iowa would benefit from that. We want to provide access for small farmers into traditional distribution stream.”
That means teaching small to mid-scale farmers how to connect with local grocers and restaurants to sell their produce and other goods, Myers said. “The missing link in most sustainable agriculture practices is the ability to demonstrate economic viability,” he said.
Tony Bedard, chief executive officer of Iowa’s Frontier Co-op, donated $150,000 to the center to jump-start the first phase. Frontier Co-op grows organic spices herbs and teas. Donating to sustainable agriculture was a must, he said.
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“We think it’s beyond just the right thing to do, it’s good business for us,” he said. “Our company has grown because people want to buy from companies that do it the right way. We’re really happy that we could be part of this.”
The project involves a capital campaign.
“We understand that we cannot change agriculture in Iowa overnight, nor are we trying to, but if we can lead the way and influence the way people think about their food and how we utilize our land, we can exponentially influence practices,” said Terry Strait, a board member for the nature center.
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