WEST BURLINGTON, Iowa — These days, Mollie and Tobin Krell spend a lot of time covered in dirt and out of breath.

The couple seeks refuge in their barn when harvesting hours grow too long. One recent afternoon, they collapsed into arm chairs with a sleeping dog nearby and a newborn kitten keeping them awake.

However, when a visitor arrived and asked to see how Homestead 1839’s crops were growing, the Krells quickly rose and started treading their fields.

Homestead 1839 is a nonprofit organic farm in West Burlington. Its owners and operators see past simple farming to an active community role. Their crops are tended throughout the year by young people unacquainted with farming, and much of their produce goes to food pantries.

About 130 volunteers have put in more than 1,200 unpaid hours this year, Tobin said. About 80 of the volunteers were youth. Many were members of justice programs. Self Reliance, a local social services organization, sends people regularly.

Last year’s small garden dramatically expanded this year to produce upward of 100 pounds of organic produce a week. The Krells grow okra, tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers, watermelons, peppers, flowers, collard greens and more. A pumpkin patch in their back corner is producing. About the only thing they really struggle with is corn.

“I know, Iowa farmer and I can’t grow freakin’ corn,” Tobin told The Hawk Eye .

One day in early September, Tobin took a load of vegetables to Great River Medical Center.

It wasn’t an unusual trip for him, but this one was special. Homestead 1839 was one of several local food producers hosting a local food day in the hospital’s cafeteria. Diners could meet the area farmers who grow the vegetables they eat. Everything in the meal, from a veggie sauté to a hamburger, was made at one of six locations an average of 18.7 miles away from the hospital.

The emerging coalition of food growers at the event call themselves Eat Fresh Southeast Iowa.

The hospital’s chef, Christopher Morris, uses the Homestead’s veggies regularly and trades them his kitchen’s food waste to use as compost. He takes as much as they’ll give, he said. At this year’s peak, he was using 75 pounds of their tomatoes a week, for instance.

“This is what local produce is all about,” Morris said. “Working with the farmers and using whatever they bring your way.”

Those eating were happy. Dick and Rena Hatfield waited in line to get their grub from Tobin.

“These tomatoes are the best we’ve had all year,” Rena said.

“It’s very great to know that it’s locally grown fresh,” Dick said.

Farming isn’t free.

The Krells have a farm stand set up beside a big “Buy Local” sign where they’ve been selling vegetables and flowers on the weekends.

That isn’t their main source of income to stay afloat. This year they were approved to join Iowa’s Conservation Reserve Program. A strip of land circling their crops is becoming a preservation space for native prairie plants. The prairie should offer a layer of crop protection and an extra money stream.

And, most excitingly, the Krells recently heard from an anonymous donor who wants to match up to $15,000 in donations to the Homestead.

“This is huge for us and completely unexpected,” Tobin said. “It will get us in a position to sustaining the organization moving forward.”

The donor will match gifts through early 2018.

Traffic near the farm doesn’t cease until late at night, but when it does a beautiful silence washes over the farm and the farm life, well, comes to life.

The chickens all make their way into their coop. The Krells got special permission from the city of West Burlington to keep the birds.

Their cat starts to hunt. It caught a rabbit a few days ago, Tobin likes to brag.

Their German shepherd, the good Captain, opens his ears wide to listen to the night.

The Krells haven’t used any sort of chemicals to keep their crops safe from pests. They pick a lot of bugs off by hand, but not all the extra life is troublesome.

On summer nights, their land glowed with the light of fireflies. A neighboring chemically treated cornfield did not.

“You could see a line where our plants stop,” Mollie said. “On one side there is just so much life and abundance, and on the other it’s just darkness.”


Information from: The Hawk Eye, http://www.thehawkeye.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Hawk Eye.