Iowa Grower Employs Rich Soil and Volunteers to Combat Food Insecurity

Dec 28, 2018  | 6 min  | Ep4419

Before the ink was dry on the president’s signature of the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA officials considered changes CUT from the legislation.

Work rules surrounding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP were part of the directives USDA aimed to examine.

Food insecurity impacts millions of Americans and that includes those living in areas where food production is abundant.

Josh Buettner looks at one operation doing their part to provide fresh produce in the land of tall corn.

His report is our Cover Story. Producer contact: 

Iowa is a top producer of commodities like corn and soybeans that find their way to ports of call across the globe.  But one Hawkeye State grower is employing some of the richest soil on earth to provide a variety of fresh food items for those less fortunate a little closer to home.

Tracy Blackmer/Gardening For Good – Madrid, Iowa: “There’s no reason in a place like Iowa, we can’t grow enough of certain vegetables during times of the year like this to give everybody the food they need.”

A soil scientist by trade, Tracy Blackmer converted a hog operation near Madrid into Gardening For Good, a non-profit organization that educates youth and corporate volunteers about agriculture and community service.

Tracy Blackmer/Gardening For Good – Madrid, Iowa: “Anyone know what the name of these are?”

Student (OFFSCREEN): “Dibbles?”

Tracy Blackmer/Gardening For Good – Madrid, Iowa: “Yep.  Dibbles or dibblers… What are they used for besides killing vampires?”

Tracy Blackmer/Gardening For Good – Madrid, Iowa: “More and more kids are further removed from the farm than ever.  And even though this is rural Iowa, and there are farms all around, most kids still couldn’t even tell you what a soybean plant is.”

Active in his local church and accustomed to lending a helping hand, the genesis of Blackmer’s charity was geared toward assisting a food pantry run by his mother.  The initial harvest was so abundant, it filled the shelves of three additional pantries, and then some.

Tracy Blackmer/Gardening For Good – Madrid, Iowa: “…And she’s like, well, you can bring it to the Food Bank, I bet.  I bet you they’d take it.  Uh…what’s a food bank?  You know, I didn’t know what that was.  So I said sure.”

In nearby Des Moines, the Food Bank of Iowa acts as a go-between for over 500 smaller pantries and other partners who assist food insecure Iowans. 

Michelle Book/CEO – Food Bank of Iowa: “He expanded the program and started bringing the produce to the Food Bank of Iowa because we have many more distribution opportunities than he would as an individual.”

CEO Michelle Book says her organization moves over one million pounds of food monthly, more than half of which is donated, and they’re always looking to supplement non-perishables with lean protein and fresh produce.

Michelle Book/CEO – Food Bank of Iowa: “One of the things Tracy is most brilliant about is, is considering what to plant.  And we received from him last year melons, peppers, squash…things that are easily transportable and have a decent shelf life.”

For frontline partners like Catholic Charities, which act as a retailer of sorts to the Food Bank’s wholesaler role, the ability to offer fresh food options for free is a big deal.  And those dependent on their services are grateful for Blackmer’s efforts.

Jacqline Stevenson/Des Moines, Iowa: “I think it’s great that he can take the time and do it for the ones that need it and can use it.  Saves me a lot of money, lots of it, and the nutrition from it.”

The Food Bank of Iowa says they received over 125,000 pounds of produce from Gardening For Good following the last growing season - and that amount has been on the rise every year over the past five years.  Book adds that just like on the farm, volunteers are their lifeblood.

Michelle Book/CEO – Food Bank of Iowa: “We can’t do anything without volunteer assistance.  And Tracy has been really, really smart - he knows certainly how to engage them around the work of helping those that are food insecure."

Since 2014, the State of Iowa has offered an annual Farm to Food Donation Tax Credit of 15 percent, up to $5000, for eligible farm operations donating self-produced food commodities to food banks or other emergency feeding organizations.  Blackmer has utilized his research trial expertise and the tax credit option to help convince a handful of other producers to pitch in.

Tracy Blackmer/Gardening For Good – Madrid, Iowa: “The model is scalable for some things.  There’s a lot of people that have that patch of something that maybe is the point rows that are hard to get at…or, for whatever reason, there’s that nice little area that’s separate.  But it’s a really good reinforcement for landowners and/or the farmers to do that.”

Though Blackmer classifies his 20 acres as a hobby farm, he’s adapted it to reap benefits from challenges large neighboring operations face, and help clean up the environment as well.

Tracy Blackmer/Gardening For Good – Madrid, Iowa: “There’s about 2,500 acres that drain into this.  And of course, a lot of the tile drainage water, especially in the spring and the early part of the season have a reasonable amount of nitrates in it.  So as we’re watering, we’re actually catching some of that and fertilizing with it, into there, so we’re actually helping to pull out some of the nitrates in that.”

Gardening For Good’s plastic mulch, drip irrigation and row spacing help improve yields and minimize labor on tasks like weeding.  Blackmer says another benefit is the various groups coming through can get into the field quickly after significant weather events.

Kassi Bailey/International Program Manager – Iowa Sister States: “This is the perfect match to show them a little bit about Iowa, how we take care of our communities and show them a little bit about our agriculture.  So it really ties in well with everything for us.”

While Iowa’s commodities go around the world, sometimes the world comes to Iowa.  Kassi Bailey, the Iowa Sister States International Program manager says Gardening For Good also is a perfect fit for international students and faculty seeking an American farm experience.

Kassi Bailey/International Program Manager – Iowa Sister States: “The kids are learning a lot and it’s a lot of fun for everyone I think.”

For Blackmer, it’s all part of the spirit of giving he tries to nurture.  And a novel approach to things like disposal of subpar crops helps cultivate good times amidst the backdrop of hard work.

Kassi Bailey/International Program Manager – Iowa Sister States: “They’re getting told that they can throw an item.  That’s not typical in a school setting, especially with your teachers around.”

Tracy Blackmer/Gardening For Good – Madrid, Iowa: “So that was fun?”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.

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