IOWA CITY — In a typical season, Grow: Johnson County relies on the help of roughly 200 volunteers to plant, weed and harvest crops that are distributed for free in the county.
This year, it’s doing it with just five people.
But with food insecurity on the rise, Grow: Johnson County’s program manager Jake Kundert said they’re up to the task.
“This spring, what we’ve focused on in terms of how we’re developing the program is how we can be investing in equipment and infrastructure that can allow us to continue to produce food,” said Kundert. “We want to make the program resilient. We wanted to make sure that no matter what situation we’d be in, we’d be able to produce food even if we had a drop in labor.”
Grow: Johnson County is a hunger-relief and educational farm program started by Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development in 2015 in response to a request for proposals from Johnson County. The county had been renting land at the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm, but was seeking to do something else with the land, Kundert said. After starting with 2 acres of land and seven agencies that received the free produce, Grow: Johnson County now farms 5 acres and distributes produce to 13 agencies in the county, including food banks, domestic violence and homeless shelters, free lunch programs and other partners.
“What we do on our end is identify the different needs of the different agencies and the way they’re serving their programs,” Kundert said. “Every year, we do an evaluation of the program to identify ways we can better serve.”
That might mean an after-school program might get cherry tomatoes for children to snack on and food pantries to get staples like potatoes and onions. Last year and this year, Grow: Johnson County is growing about a quarter acre of watermelon in response to feedback.
So far this month, Grow: Johnson County has been working on getting 800 pounds of seed potatoes, 13,000 onion plants and 5,000 cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower plants in the ground. In the past, Grow: Johnson County got help from about 200 volunteers — groups of 15 to 30 people each from businesses, University of Iowa athletic teams and other agencies — to do that work, as well as weed fields and harvest crops.
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But with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading, Kundert said having volunteers there this season didn’t make sense.
So now it’s down to Kundert, production manager Jason Grimm, packshed and distribution manager Michi Lopez and two seasonal workers hired through the program’s farmer apprenticeship program.
Kundert said Grow: Johnson County has invested in a water wheel transplanter to aid in the planting process and tractor-mounted tools to help with the weeds.
“We’re able to plant for hours on end,” he said.
Once it’s time to harvest, the Grow: Johnson County crew will harvest crops Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays so the produce can be distributed fresh to partner agencies by Table to Table, the distribution partner.
Johnson County Local Foods Coordinator Ilsa DeWald said there are always concerns when an organization is forced to shift its programming and how it operates, but she is confident Grow: Johnson County will continue to contribute to area agencies in need.
“I think they have put themselves in a good position with the amount of equipment they’ve purchased over the years,” she said.
Amanda Vincent, garden and special projects coordinator with the North Liberty Community Pantry, said clients love the fresh, local produce that Grow: Johnson County provides.
“Families are so excited when that comes in,” Vincent said. “It was just harvested. It’s awesome. Everyone is very excited when Grow starts delivering food.”
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Field to Family is another one of the local agencies that has partnered with Grow: Johnson County since its inception. Field to Family Director Michelle Kenyon said the organization’s farm stand program — which typically sets up alongside the Community Mobile Food Pantry and provides free, fresh, locally grown foods, food samples and information on food preparation — was created with the understanding it would partner with Grow: Johnson County.
Kenyon said the farm stand program has seen a huge demand and Grow: Johnson County is vital in meeting it.
Despite the dearth of volunteers, Kenyon said she is confident Field to Family will be able to rely upon Grow: Johnson County this year.
“I’m not going to reduce my expectations. They have a lot of experience,” she said.
Kundert said food insecurity in Johnson County typically affects about 14 percent of households. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, that insecurity has risen to an estimated 25 percent in Iowa and to 40 percent nationwide.
It is that need to provide produce — not the task of planting and harvesting with just five people — that Kundert and his crew focus on.
“We’re going to get the work done in whatever way we need to in order to make sure food is distributed from the farm,” he said.
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