The Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center is planting a “Garden for Good.”
One acre or approximately 25% of the total farm ground has been planted in sweet potatoes destined for the Food Bank of Iowa.
Debra Houghtaling, president and CEO, said Wallace Centers has chosen to work with the Food Bank of Iowa because it impacts Adair and Polk counties, where the Wallace Centers have locations, and neighboring Union County, as well as 52 other counties in Iowa, including towns such as Greenfield, Stuart, Adair, Casey, Creston and Winterset.
The Food Bank of Iowa moves 1 million pounds of food each month, partnering with more than 500 agencies for distribution. More than 175,000 hungry Iowans live in this service area.
Houghtaling said they are excited about this venture and hopes the partnership will continue for many years.
Good came out of disaster
The Country Life Center has been growing vegetables since 1996. Previously, many of the crops were grown in hoop houses, but a storm in June 2018 destroyed four of the five hoop houses. This forced the staff at Wallace Center to re-evaluate their mission.
Because it was difficult to find local organic produce 20 years ago, the Country Life Center chose to grow organic vegetables. Now, most local grocery stores have organic foods available, and farmers markets are in nearly every small town.
“The market and the need for what we were doing really shifted around us,” said Houghtaling.
The staff and volunteers at the Country Life Center began looking for an area where need was great and resources low.
“We were one of the pioneers in Iowa for growing organic produce,” Houghtaling said. “If we helped break that ground, what’s the next frontier?”
Houghtaling said the organization found that food insecurity is a problem in Iowa. One of every eight Iowans is food-insecure, including one of every five Iowa children. The amount of fresh produce available to food-insecure Iowans – particularly Iowa-grown produce – is limited.
The staff at Wallace Centers, in conversation with the Food Bank of Iowa, chose sweet potatoes because they are nutritious vegetables that are easy to grow and store for an extended period of time.
"Iowans struggling with food insecurity have a lot of trouble getting access to fresh, nutritious produce, due to its cost,” said Emily Shearer of the Food Bank of Iowa. “When The Wallace Centers of Iowa donates sweet potatoes to the Food Bank of Iowa, they're helping us ensure that our neighbors in need can maintain a wholesome diet.”
Farm Programs Manager Mosa Schayan, who has been with the Country Life Center for eight years, explained the low maintenance method they used to grow the sweet potatoes. Each row has been covered with clear plastic, which will help heat the soil, retain moisture and suppress weeds. “Slips” or stems with a few leaves and two to three nodes were planted through holes in the plastic - one slip every 10 inches.
Schayan said they expect to harvest approximately 3 ½ pounds of sweet potatoes per slip, totaling more than 10,000 pounds.
Once the slips arrived, they had to be planted right away.
The sweet potatoes will be ready for harvest in 90 days - the end of August to the beginning of September. Schayan said one benefit of sweet potatoes is they can be harvested well after they are mature – even after there is frost, as long as they are properly prepared.
“Even after the frost, you can harvest them,” Schayan said. “You just have to cut the tops off [before the first frost]. The frost will travel through the vines into the potatoes, and the tops will get soft, and they won’t store.”
Schayan said he spaced the rows far enough apart so the undercutter can be used to help harvest the sweet potatoes. He said this will depend on the soil conditions at the time, but if possible, it would greatly reduce the man power needed for harvest.
Even with the undercutter, many volunteers will still be needed. The undercutter would break the ground and sever the roots making it possible for the harvesters to pick up the sweet potatoes rather than dig them up.
The Food Bank has requested that the sweet potatoes not be washed, only brushed off. They said it is important for their customers wash them, themselves. In addition, Schayan said the layer of dirt helps increase the shelf life of the potatoes.
The Country Life Center has two full-time garden staff, Schayan and Adam Main, assistant manager, to do most of the work needed to raise the sweet potatoes in addition to the fruits and vegetables the farm raises to sell in their gift shop.
Volunteers will be needed to plant, care for and harvest the sweet potatoes. Lisa Swanson, site manager, is looking for individuals and groups who would like to volunteer for as little as one day or as much as a weekly opportunity. Mondays from 10 a.m. to noon have been set aside for this purpose, but other times can be arranged.
Houghtaling said this volunteer opportunity would be good for community or church groups and youth groups such as FFA or 4-H who are looking for an opportunity to connect to agriculture.
“We came across some similar donation gardens, one of them was talking about what an amazing opportunity,” Houghtaling said. “Having a donation garden and working with volunteers basically to connect to agriculture in a way that many people do not.”
Individuals interested in volunteering are encouraged to call 641-337-5019 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive information about the needs, including when the slips arrive and when it’s time to harvest. Volunteers can choose to help as a one-time project or be involved on a weekly basis to help with occasional weeding. The Country Life Center will provide sunscreen, iced tea and water, but volunteers should bring their own gloves.
The Country Life Center is located at 2773 290th St. in Orient. For more information, visit www.wallace.org/garden-for-good or call the Country Life Center at 641-337-5019.