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Iowa

Butler's

As often happens with tours of this sort, we packed our schedule extremely full--too full, perhaps. So when a particular stop didn't work out during the second week of our big Midwest leg, it was actually quite a relief to sit down in a coffee shop for a few hours and catch up on blog posts.

When Rob and I attended Dordt College in 1997-1999, there wasn't really a great coffee shop in town. There was one that was okay, and there was a better one across the cornfields in Orange City, but we desired a good place close to home. Thankfully, now there's Butler's Café & Coffee.

We met with some folks at Butler's for an interview on Tuesday and Wednesday, we were there over the lunch hour(s) making use of their wi-fi and air conditioning. The staff was really friendly and the space was cool and welcoming, though with a gas fireplace, easily convertible to the warm welcome appropriate to Iowa winters. A huge bookshelf in the center of the space had probably a couple hundred volumes for lending. The lunch options were well made with whole, healthy ingredients, though the coffee could have been better. I don't think I would have chosen to locate in a strip mall, but in Sioux Center, even a strip mall is centrally located, making it easily walkable. All in all, Butler's was a great place to relax and work.

Harriet Kattenberg

In the course of planning the first leg of the tour, Dan Perkins suggested I get in touch with the Kattenbergs at Seed Time & Harvest, a certified organic CSA and market garden in Hull, Iowa. While Dan was at Dordt College, he had worked at the farm, one of the many students who have participated in seeding, transplanting, weeding and other labor-intensive chores over the past several years.

We're glad we followed up and grateful that Harriet Kattenberg agreed to meet with us in the middle of a very busy week. Earlier that morning, a group of about 20 elementary school students had been on the farm learning how to enjoy sauteed radishes and picking vegetables to bring home as part of a program that's teaching them to delight in healthy foods and be young ambassadors to their families. After a storm system blew through, necessitating the children and the hay wagon covered in seedlings to be shuffled indoors, the afternoon was shaping up beautifully by the time we arrived.

Seed Time & Harvest

Harriet and her husband Henry bought their farm, which is surrounded on three sides by huge corn and soybean farms, in 1983. The very day they took possession, the weed commissioner (yes, there is such a thing) was on their case to clean up the neglected land where thistles had grown so big the stems were the size of your wrist. Having jumped in without any equipment to clear the land, they finally found someone to loan them some machinery and they've been cultivating and improving their land ever since. Out of the ten acres, about five are cultivated in produce and flowers. The Kattenbergs' married daughter maintains a cut flower business from the property and Seed Time & Harvest serves 80 families with CSA shares, in addition to having enough additional produce to sell at the farmer's market in Sioux Falls on Saturdays.

Harriet's emphasis as a grower is on being able to offer produce that is certified organic and nutrient dense, fertilizing with sea minerals and rock dust. Like many of the farmers we've spoken with, she recognizes that "certified organic" is only useful as a label as long as consumers demand it. As a term owned by the government, "organic" sets minimal standards that huge operations can achieve, while smaller farms like Seed Time & Harvest and Kinnikinnick Farm go far beyond the basics dictated by certification to maintain a more healthful balance on their land and in their products.

For Harriet, her efforts in the dirt and heat are driven by something that's simply in her blood. She grew up in a local farming family and, while her mother always gave the kids the easiest tasks when it came to harvesting and preserving, she found herself drawn to the hard, but rewarding work of cultivation. While her mother was reading magazines like Organic Gardening, her dad read professional magazines from the farming industry, and always practiced the latest methods of agriculture for the family corn operation. After her dad had health issues, however, Harriet's parents moved to Washington state and their eating habits changed as they both started responding to common reading material about the best foods for maintaining health.

In addition to the food and farming inclinations in her family line, Harriet finds that farming is meaningful work for expressing her faith in God and responsibility to creation:

I feel the Creator gave us a beautiful earth and we have really poisoned it. And that's not very comforting, to have poisoned it to the point where we're worried about water--good, clean water. Streams are dirty, the ground source water has chemicals in it, there are medicines coming back through water. It's just like, why is man so ugly? Why have we done these ugly things to such a beautiful creation? So you try to walk as gently as possible and treat the land as gently as possible.

I got the sense that her motivation comes from a place of deep sorrow as well as deep joy. Toward the end of our tour, we stood at the edge of a bed where five of the summer's eight college-aged employees were weeding rows of garlic that wafted around on the wind. Beyond Seed Time & Harvest's vegetable gardens and greenhouses stretched fields of corn and soybeans, as well as dairy farms and hog confinements as far as the eye could see. One farmer we had spoken with earlier described this as the prettiest time of year, with the fields in deep green, as peaceful and expansive as the ocean. I asked Harriet if she saw, in this vista from the farm, just a sad and broken world or a beautiful world. She paused briefly. "It's still beautiful," she said. "The land has a remarkable ability to heal itself."

On the way out, we passed the apple trees, which are certified organic, though Harriet is still fighting the worm battle. As we parted, she pointed out an oriole flitting around the orchard. Birds and butterflies and bees--they're all signs of a healthy ecosystem, indicators of land that, in partnership with humans and animals, is indeed healing itself.

Cornucopia Farm
Photo of Janna Wesselius at the Sioux City market (borrowed from their blog).

After a long drive from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to Sioux Center, Iowa, we were refreshed in body and spirit by a good visit with John and Janna Wesselius at Cornucopia Farm, a new-ish CSA and market garden in the middle of big ag country.

After several years in southern Ontario, the Wesselius family moved to Sioux Center, where Janna grew up, in order to embrace better job opportunities and natural beauty. They lived in town at first, but were propelled to the country by their growing garden. Today, they and their four daughters manage nine acres of vegetables, heritage breed chickens, cows and very shortly: pigs. Our tour of the various beds and buildings around the property was a tour of constant creativity, innovation, imagination, hard work, collaboration and joy.

The Wesselius family belongs to First Christian Reformed Church and sees their farm project as a natural expression of their faith. Our short time with John revealed his place in a strong and growing line of Christian farmer philosophers, many of whom are returning to the land after or alongside other professions (John sells school supplies in a large regional territory). John referenced Joel Salatin several times as a primary influence. Salatin is featured in Michael Pollan's infuential book The Omnivore's Dilemma, as well as in a new film called FRESH. Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia is "in the redemption business" and John highly recommended Salatin's book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. Like many farmers we've met on the road, John echoed the mantra, "I just want to be left alone." Food safety and land use regulations directed toward large-scale food production are making things more and more difficult for small family farms, where direct relationship actually mediates many of the problems the government is trying to address through complicated legislation.

Together, John and Janna nourish their family with good food that has been grown in partnership with God's creation, but they're invitational as well. They serve 21 families with CSA shares, offering a small produce stand at Central Park in Sioux Center alongside their Tuesday morning pick-ups. They participate in farmer's markets in Sioux City and Sioux Falls, as well, carefully tracking their inputs in terms of infrastructure, supplies and labor hours to set prices that reflect the careful, hand-cultivated nature of their products. Janna also enjoys inviting groups of students from Dordt College over for dinner so they can learn about faithful food production and preparation experientially.

We finished our evening with the Wesselius family over vanilla ice cream topped with fresh strawberries from the garden--experiential learning, indeed.

For more photos of Cornucopia Farm and other stops on the Eat Well Food Tour, check out the tour Flickr page.

The relatively new Creation Tenders group at Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center, Iowa, has been doing some wonderful work for creation care, from collecting electronics for recycling (inspiring a new city-wide program?) to developing a Creation Care Day Camp curriculum for kids. Covenant also has a table at church during the growing season where people can share excess produce from their gardens, which has been very popular, even early in the season.

Community Garden Partnership

Another project has been a community garden in collaboration with Christ Community Evangelical Free Church. The garden, located in a trailer park on vacant lots owned by Habitat for Humanity, has 18 plots, about half of which are cultivated by Latino families who live in the park. The partnership between Christ Community and Covenant is a great example of the Spirit moving to inspire creativity across denominations, as the Covenant group showed up one day to several plots that had been mysteriously tilled, only to find out that Christ Community had been pursuing the exact same idea through other channels. Habitat the city arts and recreation community both chipped in to provide water access.

We've heard people at several churches on the tour reflecting on how much land their churches have that could be used for community gardens, which are beneficial on so many levels. They provide an opportunity for people from various backgrounds to come together in one place, inevitably inspiring conversations. They provide a wonderful space for teaching children about stewardship of creation. They provide food for church and community members. They stand as a beautiful, living metaphor for the work of soil preparation and seed planting that happens within the church. So we say, if you're considering starting a community garden at your church or on other land in your neighborhood, go for it!

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to talk with Bruce Dooyema of Center Fresh Egg Farm in Sioux Center, Iowa. With 5.5 million laying hens, Center Fresh is #14 on the United Egg Producers' rankings of just under 300 members--quite a different style of operation than the heritage breeds in chicken tractors that we've been seeing elsewhere on the tour. It was good to sit down face-to-face with someone who often gets ironically dehumanized by folks in various food movements. Though I wouldn't say we were converted to the necessity of such large-scale operations in feeding the world, we were grateful for the civil dialogue.

Sioux County contains the most productive agricultural land in the state of Iowa, primarily due to multiple large hog, cattle, chicken, corn and soybean operations. Bruce, and his pastor John Lee from Bethel Christian Reformed Church, emphasized the desire of Iowa farmers not just to revel in local success, but to contribute to global issues like hunger and unemployment through overseas partnerships. Working with Partners Worldwide, Bruce and his brothers are involved in a project to start an egg-laying operation in Mozambique. Other area farmers and churches are involved with Partners Worldwide in a Farmer-to-Farmer project:

Because many in Nicaragua are not privileged to own their own land they are forced to rent land or work for larger farmers. Farmers in Iowa understand the importance of owning land and the stability and security that comes with it. As a result, they started a Farmer-to-Farmer partnership and are purchasing large tracts of land in rural Nicaragua, subdividing it, and selling it to landless farmers. By addressing the problem of farmers with "no land and no capital," the partnership has grown to 54 thriving farms on 260 acres. Now, the farmers are growing high value crops, exporting coffee, have put in water systems for their communities and are sending their children to school. Each year for the past four years the Iowa farmers have returned to work along side these new land owners, encouraging them in their shared language--a mutual love for the land.

Though we still see a need for collective discernment and imagination in farming and eating congregations alike in this rural area, the pervasive consciousness of abundance and global justice is a hopeful sign of more good things to come out of Sioux County. Pastor John Lee's efforts in the community are also a sign of hope. Having grown up in a farming family in northern Michigan and served for three years in Nicaragua, Pastor John brings a unique ability for building bridges and challenging both eaters and farmers to deeper understanding of how theology, business and agriculture are interconnected.