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Reaping what they don’t sow

West Branch farmers consign local produce at roadside market

NEWPORT– It’s not your average farmers market, but it’s not your average farm, either.
The Iowa Grown Market, located off Newport Road, south of Solon, is in its third year selling organically-grown produce from a family farm near West Branch– in addition to products from a host of other farms, backyards and kitchens within a 20-mile radius through consignment.
Iowa Grown LLC founders and partners Vince Waters and Bethany Fischer didn’t think of themselves as farmers five years ago when they began planting fruits and vegetables for their own consumption, but an exceptionally abundant harvest got them thinking.
Could they grow and sell produce as a business?
“It’s funny to think what we started with two years ago,” said Fischer, who is originally from Wisconsin. “We didn’t even have zucchini. We just didn’t know.”
Now customers can find almost anything at the roadside stand, conveniently situated just off Highway 1 between Solon and Iowa City, from lettuce to melons to herbs. Even pawpaws, a fruit known as the “Midwestern banana,” make an appearance come October. And all of it, at least all of it grown by Fischer and Waters, takes just an eight-mile trek from Waters’ small, family farm. The rest is consigned produce from growers the partnership knows and trusts.
“The places we farm are the steepest, nastiest, worst places you could farm,” said Waters, who maybe has the closest formal education to agronomy out of the two partners. Both he and Fischer studied at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he getting a degree in natural resources management and she in the arts.
That didn’t stop them from jumping on the farmer’s wagon when the opportunity arose.
“My father and my uncle said, ‘Well if it’s not row crop, if we don’t have to take corn and beans out, you can plant wherever you want,’” Waters said. “That pretty much meant hillsides, valleys, areas with shade or maybe too much sun.
“We’ve had to learn a lot,” he added. “It’s been a steep learning curve, but I think we’re at the top now.”
Waters stressed that there’s “no way” he and Fischer would’ve been able to start their business without the availability of his family farm.
According to the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the average value of Iowa farmland in 2015 was $7,633 per acre. For Iowa Grown’s 350 acres in Cedar County, that would’ve amounted to a whopping $2.7 million if not inherited by Waters.
“There’s such a huge barrier of entry for young people that want to farm because land is so expensive here,” he said. “And if you were to acquire some land, it would be marginal. A farmer’s not going to sell you five acres of their best land. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you could get five acres of their worst land.”
The Waters’ “worst land” seems to be working out pretty well for Iowa Grown. They actually can’t seem to keep from expanding and trying out new plantings, such as artichokes and a couple different types of tropical melon this season. They even recently adopted chickens and invested in their own equipment for planting sweet corn.
All in all, Iowa Grown specializes in more than 100 species of annual and perennial produce– from berries to mushrooms to tree fruit.
“Either you need to be really, really succinct and grow one thing and grow it well, or you need to have such a wide variety that people are used to seeing when they go shopping at the grocery store,” said Waters. “You go to Hy-Vee and there’s a worldwide supply of food from the entire Western hemisphere. We all get a little spoiled that way.”
In their kitchen, however, Waters and Fischer practice what they preach: eat local, eat seasonal.
“It’s really forced us to learn more about cooking with the seasons and eating with the seasons, and sharing that with our customers,” said Fischer. “They have a hard time accepting that asparagus is over now, and we have to move on to the next thing.”
Luckily for the customer who may not know a lot about eating seasonally, Fischer puts together free recipes to be picked up at the stand.
“It’s funny the mix of folks we get here,” she said. “There are some that are really hardcore, eat with the seasons, all local, all organic. And there’re others that are just starting to put their toes in the water and figure out what it means to eat like this.
“Then there are the ones that come in May and say, ‘Got any sweet corn?” she added, jokingly.
They do plan to host a “corn roast” at the market sometime this summer, once the crop comes along, as well as a farm tour. Visitors can also look forward to a “you-pick” flowerbed, currently maturing right outside the stand.
Aside from produce, Iowa Grown also sells artisanal crafts, such as candles and garden art, made by locals. Honey, jam, baked goods and even dog treats can also be found at the stand.
While human consumption is certainly a reward in itself, it was just a bonus to the conservation work the Waters family has been doing on the farm for decades. Most recently, Waters was able to use a cost-sharing grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish wetlands, which serve as a phosphorus sink for theirs and surrounding farms, discouraging nutrients from entering the Mississippi River.
Waters and Fischer also use sustainable practices, such as no- or minimal-tillage, terracing and crop rotation. They also restrain from using chemical sprays or fertilizers and instead opt for natural products like manure and compost.
“It’s so amazing that we’re doing what my grandfather and great-grandfather would’ve done 100 years ago,” said Waters. “We’ve gone through this great revolution of technology, herbicide, and insecticide and now everybody’s realizing that that’s not the way to sustainably farm and feed seven billion people on this planet. We’re going back to the way it was.
“All of our plantings always have that in mind, that they can fit within the environment,” he added. “And hopefully feed some people at the same time.”