Urban Ag is alive and well in Iowa’s second-largest city
By Carole Gieseke
When it comes to the urban agriculture movement in the state of Iowa, it seems that all roads lead to Cedar Rapids.
A devastating flood in 2008 left 10 square miles of the city – including the downtown area and adjacent neighborhoods – submerged in water when the Cedar River crested at 31.12 feet (19 feet about flood stage) on June 13. More than 5,000 family homes were damaged or destroyed. About 1,400 of them have since been demolished.
As Cedar Rapids continues to redevelop, so too does the opportunity develop to solve some of the city’s issues with food insecurity. Currently, an estimated 26,000 people in Cedar Rapids go to bed hungry. About 60 percent of its schoolchildren are on free and reduced lunch.
But this city now represents some of the best policies and projects in the state: zoning laws that allow urban agriculture to thrive, a commitment to designation as a “Blue Zones” healthy community, and a comprehensive city food system plan.
Iowa State connections are strong in this eastern Iowa community, with a highly engaged Linn County Extension team, alumni working in all sectors of the industry, and a new College of Design Community Design Lab agricultural urbanism project in development.
It was time to pay this city a visit. One day last August, members of the VISIONS editorial staff headed to Iowa’s second-largest city to see what was happening here. On a day where the combined heat and humidity topped the heat index at an even 100 degrees, and thunderstorms rolled through intermittently, it was clear that the 2008 flood had opened up acres of opportunity.
Cultivate Hope Urban Farm
It’s not yet 7 a.m., and already the air is hot and sultry. A stormy sky threatens to scuttle the first photo shoot of the day, at the Cultivate Hope Urban Farm.
Neo Mazur (’12 global resources systems / world languages & cultures) greets us with a friendly smile and a handful of long beans. Mazur is the Cultivate Hope farm & school garden manager.
The urban farm is a project of Matthew 25, an independent, local nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids. Matthew 25’s mission is to strengthen core neighborhoods on the west side of the city. This small farm is located at the corner of 6th St. NW and G Ave. NW – in a low-income neighborhood that’s, not surprisingly, in a flood plane. The idea of growing food here was created following the 2008 flood.
“This area was a food desert,” Mazur says. “They wanted to do something with the empty lot.”
More than 1,200 homes in this area were damaged in the flood. Many were not rebuilt. This two-acre farm is Iowa’s first urban farm education center. Children come to the garden to play on the natural playground structures. Families take evening walks here. Weeklong summer camps are held in this space, sponsored by FoodCorps, Linn County Extension, 4-H, and other groups.
The 2014 growing season is the third one in this location. Today, Mazur is harvesting heirloom tomatoes, beans, peppers, melons, and eggplant. Across the street is another plot and a row of apple trees.
Mazur grew up in Ames, the daughter of an ISU professor. She says she “hated gardening” when she was a kid. But today she’s bursting with pride as she offers a taste of her small, yellow Wapsipinicon Peach tomatoes.
Urban farming is “thinking about farming in a different way,” Mazur says. “It’s possible; you just have to think about space in a different way.”
Faith and Education
Our visit to the Matthew 25 urban farm is cut short by a brief cloudburst, which cools the air for about five minutes. When it’s over, the humidity is higher than ever.
Our next stop is at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, the site of one of several faith gardens in Cedar Rapids. In its location directly across from Johnson School of the Arts elementary, this vegetable farm is teaching kids about growing their own food.
In this city, where 60 percent of kids receive free or reduced lunches, Ann (Ewoldt) Torbert (’89 child, parent & community service) says it’s important for children to know where their food comes from. Torbert, a 4-H youth specialist for ISU Extension and Outreach, oversees the FoodCorps program administered through the Linn County office.
FoodCorps is a national program that connects kids to growing food, access to healthy foods, and education. It’s a partnership with the better-known AmeriCorps. Here in Cedar Rapids, Tess Romanski is the local FoodCorps service representative and a member of the county Extension staff.
Romanski, a 2012 Luther College graduate, is in her second year with the program. The education leaders at Johnson School of the Arts wanted to establish a vegetable plot, but the school didn’t have enough space, so the garden was established across the street at the church.
She brings first- through third-graders into the garden to teach them lessons on planting, what to do with the food, and composting the garden waste.
“Most kids enjoy it,” she says. “It’s so interesting being outside with the kids after school. Once they’re in the garden, they’re really focused.”
Feed Iowa First
Sonia Kendrick (’12 agronomy) grew up in Cedar Rapids with parents she describes as “Crippies.”
“You know, Christian hippies,” she says. “We had a couple of acres. Everything was pretty natural. We didn’t have a TV; we had to play outside. I can remember walking behind my mom putting seeds in the ground.”
Kendrick became an electrician and then joined the Army. When she returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she had trouble reintegrating and eventually lost her job during the economic downturn. Faced with no job and a trade she really didn’t enjoy anyway, Kendrick called Iowa State.
“I wanted to be a farmer,” she says. “I was interested in food democracy and growing food and how everything works.”
She came to Iowa State and studied agronomy. And after graduation in 2012, she had a revelation.
“The ISU mantra was, ‘Iowa feeds the world,’” she says. “Well, I was volunteering at some food pantries, and what I saw changed my perspective. What does it matter if Iowa feeds the world? We’re not even feeding Iowa.”
Kendrick founded Feed Iowa First, a non-profit organization designed to help feed the hungry and encourage new farmers in Cedar Rapids and Linn County.
“We need to grow two-and-a-half cups of vegetables daily for each person in Cedar Rapids – for the 26,000 people who are food insecure,” she explains. “To do that would take 500 acres. There are 800 acres surrounding churches alone.”
Feed Iowa First currently has 25 acres of land in production, producing 30,000 pounds of vegetables annually, with the goal of expanding to 500 acres within the city limits of Cedar Rapids. Seven “faith gardens” are located on church properties; three more are on the campuses of Rockwell Collins and other corporations. Plots are tended mostly by volunteers – and Kendrick herself – and all of the fresh produce is donated through food pantries, halfway houses, Meals on Wheels, and in collaboration with ISU’s Linn County Extension and the Blue Zone project.
Kendrick has become a full-fledged food activist. She was honored in March 2014 at
the White House as a women veteran leaders “Champion of Change.”
“I believe in food democracy,” she says. “Food is not just for people who can afford it. If I can show that we can feed Linn County with this model, we can feed every county.”
Farming by Square Foot
By now, the afternoon heat is sweltering. At the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program warehouse in nearby Hiawatha, Jason Grimm (’09 environmental studies / landscape architecture) is fully immersed in his role as a coordinator for the Iowa Valley Food Co-op producers.
Local growers are dropping off this week’s produce in carefully labeled boxes: kale, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, raspberries, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes. This is not big ag; it’s food production by the minivan-full. And the food is not traveling across the continent; it’s staying local. It will soon be heading to Cedar Rapids-area Hy-Vee grocery stores.
Grimm is a food system planner for Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development, a nonprofit organization serving Benton, Iowa, Johnson, Linn, Poweshiek, and Tama counties. His ISU senior thesis on food urbanism informed the way he views food production.
“Food should be incorporated into civic planning like electricity and utilities,” he says. “There should be a plan for community gardens, for operating farms within the community, for school gardens. The production of food needs to be part of the infrastructure.”
Although he hasn’t yet seen much change in urban agriculture policies in the state of Iowa, Cedar Rapids is an exception.
“Cedar Rapids changed its zoning code to allow urban agriculture to happen,” he explains. “The 2008 flood helped – it made so much land vacant that they couldn’t figure out what to do with it all.”
He says urban farms are “farming by square foot, not by acre.” Even big-city dwellers can find creative ways to grow food, he says, by using pots, hanging plants off of decks and canopies, and creating vertical trellis structures.
Grimm is also involved with a more traditional farming operation. He helps run his family’s farm, located south of Williamsburg, with his parents and grandparents. Grimm Family Farm Raises poultry and grows black turtle beans, potatoes, and other produce.
Community organizers can launch their own projects by first educating their citizens, he said. “People don’t even know how much they CAN do,” he said.
How to start a community garden
By Tess Romanski
What are the key benefits of growing a community garden?
Community gardens are a great way to cut down on food costs at the grocery store and allow access to more diverse types of produce. They also offer educational opportunities for children in the area as well as a place for community relationships to develop and deepen. It can also be helpful to turn an unused plot of land into a community benefit to increase quality of living in the area.
What’s the first step to starting a community garden?
The most important first step when thinking about starting a community garden is making sure that there is a solid support system behind the garden. A planning committee is a great place to start. Get some different members of the community involved in a discussion about why/where to start a garden, assign duties, and create a yearly plan so the garden stays organized and productive.
Tip: Make sure there are enough people passionate about the project that if one person leaves, the garden won’t fall to pieces. Get neighbors, community organizations, the local school, religious organizations, and local businesses involved.
How do we choose the site?
The best way to choose a garden location is by looking at sunlight, soil quality, and proximity to water. A garden should usually get a minimum of 6-7 hours of sunlight per day, so stay away from tall trees or large buildings if possible. Soil quality tests are available through the ISU Extension Office, local libraries, or most farm supply shops. It is best to start small, but leave plenty of room for expansion if the garden does well in its first years.
Gardens need a lot of water in the summer months, so consider where the caretakers will source water. It’s not fun to carry heavy buckets of water four blocks in 90-degree heat! Ask around and see if a nearby building would be open to allowing the community to use the water spigot in exchange for a small fee.
Also make sure the site is accessible to the majority of the population the garden is created for. If the garden is two miles away from the neighborhood, people are less likely to become involved. Try to keep the garden within easy walking distance, and make sure it is in a safe spot.
How do we do this if we live in an urban core?
There are a lot of undeveloped green spaces in urban centers, so contact the local city government and inquire if there is a lease agreement that could be reached. Some city governments allow community members to rent out park space to establish community gardens.
If you live in an apartment building, inquire with the landlord to see if there is any small plot available for tenants to use. If the landlord is hesitant, bring a list of all the interested tenants to show support.
With both city and apartment land, make sure you take into consideration mowing and landscape concerns. Make sure there is enough room to get a large lawnmower around, or offer to cut the grass around the garden to make it easier for maintenance crews.
What are the basic elements of the garden that we should consider as we make our garden plan?
Besides selecting the site, the planning committee will also need to decide what types of plants to grow, if it should be organic or if chemicals are allowed, how the division of labor will be divided, and where funding will come from. Pick a “garden build day” where all the heavy labor will be done, and start publicizing that date early and often so lots of people can make the work go quickly.
How should we plan the budget?
The budget should include items such as tools (shovels, wheelbarrows, buckets, hoses, etc.), mulch and compost, signs, seeds, and fencing. Donations can cover some of these costs in many instances. Check the local solid waste agency for rates on mulch and compost; most places charge about $10 per ton of compost, although it varies by location and availability.
Sponsors are also a way to cut down on cost for participants. Churches, schools,
local private businesses, or the parks and recreation department are all possible sponsors that could cover some of the start-up cost. Fundraisers around the community and grants are also helpful in getting some seed money to start the project.
When looking at a budget, make sure to factor in both one-time costs (renting a tiller and purchasing other tools, compost, and fencing) as well as yearly costs such as renting the land, water usage, seeds, and tool replacement.
What about the division of labor?
Division of labor really depends on each community garden. The number of people, who is involved, and how invested each group is all influences whether a plot or communal system would work best. The planning committee would have to make that decision dependent on who is interested in participating.
Individual plot rentals work well in places such as apartment buildings or other primarily residential areas. In this case, each plot could be rented out at a set price and cover some of the cost of land rental and water usage, and each group working the plot would keep all the produce their plot grew.
For a more diverse group of members, a communal system can work better. If a school, local business, or community organization is involved, a weekly work schedule may be the easiest way to handle distribution of labor and make it cheaper for families to participate. The planning committee would have to assign specific duties to specific groups and plan the division of the produce, but this system would cut down on the overall labor per person.
Should we have rules?
Expectations should definitely be set, but it is up to the members on how formal these are. Because it is a communal space, there needs to some agreement (“What are the consequences if you pick someone else’s produce?” “If you are on the watering schedule, you must show up.”). The planning committee should work with the members to set up expectations and make them clear at the beginning of the gardening season.
What are some good resources for additional information?
The American Community Gardening Association and the Let’s Move! website both have some great resources online for starting and maintaining community gardens. For more specific gardening questions relating to your area, the Iowa State Extension Master Gardeners are one of the most helpful resources.