IOWA CITY — Kristy and Bob Walker just meant to trade in their Iowa City house for a rural home where they could garden and perhaps retire in an idyllic setting that reminded Kristy of the farm she grew up on.
“My goal was to see how much food I could get from the farm,” she said. “I started out on a farm. I want to end on a farm.”
Soon, however, they found themselves growing so many vegetables they started a small CSA (community supported agriculture) program to sell them to friends and neighbors. Then they started hosting dinner parties in their backyard, and soon people started asking if they could hold their weddings or other events on their land.
The Walkers started to see the potential for their small patch of rolling hills to be something more. They decided to expand, purchasing 80 acres next to the initial couple of acres and house they had bought just west of Iowa City. That was about five years ago, and they’ve been transforming the property ever since, converting it from commodity corn and soy beans to pasture land. vegetable production and vineyards.
Last year, they built an events barn and started opening Walker Homestead up to the public, for weddings, private parties and meals and classes on the farm.
“It’s been a journey,” Kristy Walker said.
They joined forces with chef Chris Grebner, who became a co-owner of the venture. Grebner owns Provender, a wood-fire pizza mobile food truck and catering company, and The Farmer’s Table, which hosted farm-to-table meals throughout the community. He met the Walkers after they volunteered to host a Farmer’s Table event on their land.
“A kitchen on a farm was what I had been working to. This relationship has really blown that dream up and out,” Grebner said. I enjoy learning, watching the produce growing ... I like the challenge of working with familiar products and trying to push things a little bit, to try new things.”
He works directly with Walker Homestead’s farmer, Kyle Laws, to decide what to plant and to plan each week’s menus. Every Sunday the farm is open for dining; people can come for pizza, salads and other dishes, plus wine from the vineyard, and find their own socially distanced spot on the land to enjoy their meal.
“The freshness really jumps off the plate,” Laws said. “It’s been really great collaborating so closely with a chef.”
Each Wednesday is a rotating activity. Some weeks are pizza nights that mirror the Sunday meals. Before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, they planned to do live classes, wine tastings and outdoor farm dinners on other Wednesdays. Those dinners, which in the past Grebner served at a long communal table, are on hiatus, and classes and wine tastings have become virtual events.
“Our mission is to build community through agricultural education and culinary delights,” Bob Walker said. “We figure a lot of people don’t know where and how their food is raised.”
This year they hired winemaker Jenny Lovetinsky. For now, their vineyard and winery is small, with their wines mostly sold on the farm. They use all Iowa grapes, though their vines are not productive enough yet to only use their own.
The farm also includes highland cattle, goats, heritage turkey, chickens and rabbits. Kristy Walker hopes to get sheep to keep the vineyard mowed.
“It’s exciting to feel the diversity of the land and see the permaculture and see it keeping it all in balance,” Kristy said. “Our goal is that this is a productive farm to showcase farming that’s both useful and beautiful.”
They’re slowly adding more elements. In the front of the property, evergreen saplings are the start of a future Christmas tree operation. They recently planted a chestnut orchard.
Everything, Kristy Walker said, is looking to the future. Establishing all of these things will take years of effort, and they hope their children and grandchildren, along with Grebner’s family, will keep it going long after they’re ready to fully retire. Their goal is for the entire farm to be organic certified, which takes time. They’re also working on things like planting filter strips to keep runoff out of stream beds and other eco-friendly efforts.
“We’re trying to build the soil health back,” Bob Walker said.
He said the agritourism aspect is important to make the venture financially viable. They’ve had ongoing discussions with the county Board of Supervisors on how they should be zoned and about the number and types of events they can have without needing to make infrastructure improvements like paving the gravel road leading up to their farm, which the Walkers said would be cost prohibitive. The Iowa Legislature passed a new law this year exempting “agricultural experiences” from special use permits and variances, which Kristy Walker said she believes will allow them to have events throughout the year instead of just the 120 days they’ve been limited to.
“I feel like this is our work of art. It’s ever-changing. All the seasons are beautiful,” she said.
Both the Walkers have other jobs. Kristy Walker retired from a career at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and now teaches part time at the UI Tippie College of Business and works for Mahaska Health in Oskaloosa. Bob Walker teaches at the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.
“Bob thought we were too old to start farming,” Kristy Walker said. “I told him, ‘Farming keeps you young. We’re going to be going full steam until we drop.”
If You Go
What: Walker Homestead
Where: 3867 James Ave. SW, Iowa City
Hours: Food and wine on the farm 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Other events are Wednesday evenings; check website for details.
Details: (319) 351-4791, walker-homestead.com
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