South of Ames and two miles west of Sheldahl is a 10-acre tract of land flourishing with opportunity for the kind of volunteerism that comes with a unique and very “Iowan” learning experience.
Owned by the Blackmer family, the land sits at the intersection of the Madrid, Ballard and North Polk school districts on the Boone County/Polk County line, and it is here, at a place they call Iowa Gardening for Good, that all kinds of fresh vegetables are grown and then donated to help those in need.
“This is our fourth year that we have been growing fresh vegetables for the Food Bank of Iowa,” said Tracy Blackmer, who was honored earlier this year with the Volunteer Distinguished Service Award from the Food Bank of Iowa.
“Last year,” Blackmer said, “over 30,000 pounds (of fresh produce) were donated to the Food Bank of Iowa, DMARC (Des Moines Area Religious Council) and local food pantries.”
To be able to plant and harvest so many fresh vegetables takes a lot of help. While Blackmer said they’ve been fortunate to get lots of it, they can always use more. “I would like to draw more people from Ames and Boone, as well as Huxley and Slater,” he said. In fact, people from anywhere around Central Iowa, or even further away, are more than welcome to lend a hand.
It all started a few years back, when some volunteer groups by Sheldahl were doing a gardening project for the Food Bank of Iowa. Now it’s literally “grown” into a bigger operation that fills a big need.
Michelle Book, president and CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa, talks about that need. “Across the counties that Food Bank of Iowa serves, about 175,000 Iowans struggle with hunger. While we do not track exactly where the Blackmer’s produce goes, it has been distributed through partners across our 55-county service area,” she said.
Book said, over the past year, the Food Bank of Iowa has increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables it distributes by about 40 percent, largely thanks to growers like the Blackmers. Tracy Blackmer knows that without the help of many, it would be hard to make these valuable distributions, and this past year, area students were also involved in helping out.
Last fall, for the first time ever, Blackmer said he had a group of students from North Polk schools come out. “They helped with a fall cleanup — taking down trellises and tearing up plastic mulch and irrigation drip lines. They were such great help that we asked if they wanted to come back in the spring and help plant some of the vegetables,” Blackmer said. They took him up on that offer. The kids’ work was not only helpful to the farm, but also fulfilled a goal in the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade curriculum about service work.
Blackmer wonders if other schools’ students could benefit from the opportunity. He believes it provides some valuable lessons for students.
“Kids learn where fresh vegetables come from,” he said. “They learn how to grow the vegetables by seeing and working in the garden. They learn how to tell when the produce is ready to harvest, and how to harvest. They learn about the Food Bank, food pantries and how they help support people locally, so hopefully they will want to continue to help with such efforts in the future.”
It’s also a lesson about the value of teamwork, he explained. “As they work in a group, they see how much can be accomplished in a short period of time when they work together in an organized manner. They also come to see how their group’s contribution is part of a larger whole, as they build upon what has been done by others before them, and can see how future volunteers will build upon what they have done.”
The North Polk students who worked at the farm this spring, before school was out, took part in harvesting the earliest crop at the farm — three miles of radishes — which have already yielded about 5,000 pounds, Blackmer shared.
“The kids (from North Polk) also planted about 7,000 peppers; 1,400 row-feet of string beans; 2,000 row-feet of carrots; over a mile of rows of winter squash; 3,800 row-feet of turnips and beets; 4,800 row-feet of sweet potatoes and 5,000 kohlrabi seeds for later transplant.” The farm also will be or has already planted cucumbers, eggplant, okra, sweet corn and daikon radishes for this year.
The busiest time at the farm, Blackmer said, is May through September, so they need more than just the groups coming during the school year.
Last year, about 20 organized groups came to help, and each year, Blackmer said, the list of volunteers has thankfully grown. “We have a wide range of ages of people, from retired adults to toddlers riding in the wagons as their parents pick vegetables,” he said. “Some (people) even come from out of state. We had a service fraternity come from a Missouri college for two days. We get a lot of companies that give their employees paid volunteer time to come. We have a number of different church youth groups come during the summer. One of the largest groups last summer was the Mormon Helping Hands. We also have many individuals and family groups (who volunteer).”
Volunteering at the farm, Blackmer said, offers a variety of opportunities for hands-on ways to help people in need. For gardening in particular, “many people do not want a long-term commitment and/or do not know how to do things. We have found ways for people of any skill level to feel useful, and to come and go as their schedules and interests allow.”
Blackmer loves that the Food Bank of Iowa works hard to provide fresh food for all clients, in ways that protect their dignity. “Offering produce comparable to what is available in farmers’ markets allows equal opportunities for all to have access to healthy foods, and to discover the difference between fresh-from-the-local-garden vegetables and those from a can,” he said.
“Tracy Blackmer and Iowa Gardening For Good are making a real, immediate impact in the fight against hunger,” Book said. “they have given of their resources, their time and themselves to provide vital and nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables to their neighbors in need. This kind of selfless effort is why we awarded Tracy Blackmer the Distinguished Volunteer Award.”
If a group wants to help at the Blackmer farm, they can set up a time with the Volunteer Coordinator at the Food Bank of Iowa.
Contact can also be made through the Iowa Gardening for Good Facebook page, which includes a calendar of open events, or by sending a note to the Iowa Gardening for Good web page.
Blackmer hopes that people reading this story will consider giving this volunteer opportunity a try. Those who have usually return, he finds.
“Most of our volunteers come back from year to year.” And, he added about area businesses, “We are seeing an increase in groups who want to do this as a company outing, rather than or in combination with a more traditional picnic.”
With the use of more modern tools, like drip irrigation and plastic mulch, Blackmer said they spend very little time weeding on their land and devote most of the work time to planting and harvesting.
“Most people are surprised to learn how much can be produced on a small amount of land,” he said. “In a state like Iowa, there is no need for people to go without fresh food.”