Government

Johnson County plans Historic Poor Farm updates over winter

Barn rehabilitation, farm incubator program among projects

Volunteers work to construct a hoop house on Saturday, November 19, 2016 in which to grow greens during the winter months. Grow: Johnson County (GJC) is working to transform two acres of the historic Johnson County
Volunteers work to construct a hoop house on Saturday, November 19, 2016 in which to grow greens during the winter months. Grow: Johnson County (GJC) is working to transform two acres of the historic Johnson County "Poor Farm" into a sustainable farm dedicated to growing and providing fruits and vegetables for those with limited resources. Grow: Johnson County is a collaborative project addressing food insecurity through local food production and education. A subsidiaryof Table to Table, a food rescue organization based in Iowa City, Iowa. (Justin Torner/Freelance for The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — The Johnson County Historic Poor Farm will look a bit different by next planting season.

As community organizations wrap up this harvest season, poor farm staff members are ramping up a number of projects this winter, including rehabilitating the West Barn, choosing farmers for various small incubator plats and planting a pollinator meadow. The updates to the 160-acre plat in western Iowa City come as part of the county’s strategic plan for the poor farm, called the New Century Farm, which drives development over a 10-year period.

The poor farm was established in 1855 to house and care for people who were poor or had mental health issues, who would work on the farm and receive medical care. Unlike most other Iowa counties, Johnson County has held onto its poor farm property since then.

The Board of Supervisors heard an update on the poor farm projects during its work session Wednesday morning. The meeting was the first without Supervisor Kurt Friese, the poor farm’s liaison on the board and local foods advocate, after he died unexpectedly Friday.

Last week, the supervisors approved a contract for $662,000 for the West Barn rehab, which will start this month and will likely be finished up by May. Vanessa Fixmer-Oraiz, an environmental and community planner with Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development — which is overseeing the projects at the poor farm — said the West Barn will be built to serve as something like an open-air market. The structure will get new concrete, windows, a cedar-shingled roof, among other upgrades.

“We’re really wanting to restore what we can. This barn in particular I think had a couple different iterations as barns do,” Fixmer-Oraiz said, adding there might be a possibility of having some sort of farmers market in the barn. “The idea is to honor that history and then, yes, to bring it into current use.”

County staff members are also working on a request for qualifications for the 10 acres they plan to divvy up as farm incubators next season. They just returned from a trip to Massachusetts, New York and Vermont to learn from similar programs already underway.

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Fixmer-Oraiz said there will be one 5-acre plat with the other 5 acres being divided into various sizes. She said the county has seen interest in farmers who want to expand what they’re working on, from those who want to be closer to Iowa City and people who want to try farming on a smaller scale.

“We just wanted to get an understanding of what works for folks and kind of some of the lessons learned and how we could apply the best practices to Johnson County,” Fixmer-Oraiz said.

Also about to get underway is seeding for 13½ acres that will become a pollinator meadow to attract bees and butterflies over the next two-and-a-half weeks. Over the summer, staff have been prepping the land, which was previously used for row crops.

“It’s not a full prairie restoration but it’s certainly going to have that feel,” Fixmer-Oraiz said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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