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Hue Hill Farms: Locavorists thriving in corridor

MORSE– Many in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor know locavore numbers are growing. A locavore, for those not familiar with the Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year, is someone who eats locally-grown food.
Locavores are the home-gardeners growing lettuce and heirloom tomatoes from seed. They are the backyard chicken farmers. They are farmers’ market customers, eschewing air-conditioned stores for the open-air exchange of food, flowers and other goods. They’re the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers eating from organic or nearly organic farms through investing in summer and fall shares.
A 2012 locavore index has Iowa ranked second in locavorism. The findings are based on local food availability, measured by adding the number of farmers’ markets and CSA programs per 100,000 people in the state. Vermont took the top spot and Florida placed last in the informal study done by Strolling of the Heifers, which published the index at their website: www.strollingoftheheifers.com.
Locavore advocates say that the average supermarket veggie can travel thousands of miles, while theirs arrive mostly in season, from just a few dozen miles away.
In Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, weekly farmers’ markets are a transfer point for CSAs to bring fresh food to customers.
Morse farmer Jean Donahue is partnering with farmers Jon Yagla and Katie Peterson to expand Donahue’s herb gardens into a full-fledged CSA summer farm this year.
Hue Hill Farms has over a 100 tasty species planned for their several dozen customers.
Located near Morse, the 40-acre farm is owned and operated by Donahue, who’s been supplying herbs to local restaurants for 10 years and has run a fall share CSA for four years.
The crew uses Jean’s fields, greenhouse, and already-established herb garden to start and transplant sprouts grown from different seed catalogs. They practice organic but are not certified, calling the official process expensive and paperwork-heavy.
As the seedlings mature and the future food takes root, the farmers plan their weekly shares, then deliver parcels of food to area farmers’ markets for customer pickup. A newsletter tells customers what to expect each week and they have recipes for many of the varieties of greens, roots, herbs and other delectables.
“We’re in this together, we’re growing it,” Jon Yagla said of the Hue Hill clients and farmers.
The farmers have about 40 customers from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Donahue also sells herbs to restaurants in another partnership with Derek Roller of Echollective Farm in Mechanicsville.
Hue Hill also has egg and flower shares available, but its 20-week summer shares, which started May 15, are sold out.
Fall shares will start at the end of September and run through December. Fall is Jean’s favorite because the cool weather sweetens many veggies. Donahue has run a fall share for several seasons supplemented by her well-stocked herb garden.
Interested customers should contact Hue Hill soon to reserve a fall share.
Donahue added that she wanted to help facilitate the use of the food she grows at Hue Hill. She said CSAs encourage people to try vegetables that they wouldn’t buy from the store. Everybody, she noted, could use some healthy variety in their diet.
“It’s really important for families because if you don’t cook, your kids are never going to,” she said. “Children get bombarded by processed food so much that they don’t know what food really tastes like.”
While picking onions in her herb garden on a cool May morning, Donahue said the food she raises is fresher and tastes better than food from the store. The scallions she held would be delivered to Iowa City customers in just a few hours.
In another field, Yagla and Peterson, along with a recent PhD graduate, cut Asian salad bunches. They worked in the rows to fill a cooler with green and red leaves.
Kneeling beside his crops, Yagla occasionally popped a salad leaf in his mouth. He ruminated on CSA farming and said, “(it was) healthy for people and the environment.”
Peterson agreed. For her, the ultimate goal was to connect with people and share the food. “It’s very rewarding,” she said. “The work is hard, but nourishing in more than one way.”
“I love so many parts of farming,” Yagla said as he got up to add a bushel of leafy greens to a nearly-full cooler.
He eventually shared a spiritual note about farming, quoting one of his heroes, Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, who said, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
“Farming is meaningful; giving people clean, healthy, safe food is meaningful,” Yagla said. It’s why he got into farming.
Later, pointing to the sky, surrounding fields and trees, Yagla added, “The work environment is unbeatable.”
Yagla is 28 and Peterson, 26; both live in Iowa City.
Donahue said she’s old enough to know better than to count on the weather. Nowadays, a summer climate can arrive in May.
She recalled the rains last year that came so hard after a long dry spell that it nearly wiped out some of her crop.
That’s her biggest challenge, the uncertainty of farming.
But she’s diversifying her farm by improving the land; adding trees, shrubs and perennials; and building for the increasing customer demand for healthy local food.
Growing a diverse crop of food in a CSA helps with the unpredictable nature of, well, nature.
Customers are in for a real bargain if their favorites are flourishing and the weather brings rainfall in a gentle and timely manner.
But if some yields are down, Hue Hill’s farmers know others will rise up and thrive, taking their place in the CSA bounty.
Find out about local food suppliers like Hue Hill Farms at Iowa City’s Local Foods Connection website: www.localfoodsconnection.org. Its CSA guide lists 16 farms in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area with summer, fall and other locally-grown shares.