Sheldahl family spearheads project to provide food pantries with fresh produce

What began as a way for the family to get rid of their excess pumpkin crop without letting it go to waste ended up being the start of a new project.

Tracy Blackmer of rural Sheldahl, along with his wife, Doreen, and two children, Jessica and Cheryl, have grown pumpkins and gourds to donate to charitable causes for a number of years. Last year they donated the remaining pumpkins to the Des Moines Area Religious Council, who manages a Food Pantry Network. The pumpkins were then distributed to a number of food pantries.

"This was a revelation about what could be done if food was grown," Blackmer said.

Prior to planting their garden this year, the Blackmers expanded the existing 50-foot long rows to 300-feet, making up approximately 3/4 of an acre of growing space. They did this with the intent of donating the food to local food pantries. They planted everything from the typical garden produce - green beans, peppers and tomatoes - to the less common kohlrabi, eggplant and okra.

A number of volunteers have been coming out to harvest the crop throughout the growing season, including a group from Farm Credit Services of America. Gina Ruggle, appraisal sales specialist, said Farm Credit sent a group of eight employees on Sept. 19 and a group of six employees on Sept. 27, to harvest some of the produce. The employees’ involvement was part of the company’s Community Influence and Involvement program, developed as a way for the company to give back to the community. Ruggle said they contacted the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines, who led them to the Blackmers. In total, the two groups harvested 2,245 pounds of produce.

In addition to the garden at the Blackmer acreage, a vacant horse pasture on Palestine Lutheran Church’s parsonage property was converted into a garden. Volunteers from the rural Huxley church have been picking the produce and distributing it to fellow church members, as well as contributing it to the Blackmers’ project.

Del and Vivian Lundgren are two of about half a dozen regular volunteers from the church who pick the produce on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings, under the instruction of Blackmer.

"It’s a wonderful project and I can’t believe the thousands of pounds of produce we’ve got out of the garden," Vivian said. "After you work a while at it, you realize you’ve probably done a couple thousand yourself."

Community members have also donated their excess produce to the Blackmers, who add it to their weekly distribution. Rex and Pauline Hall, who live across the road from the Blackmers, grow and sell apples. They donate several bushels of apples each week to the Blackmers’ project.

"It’s that or let them go to waste," Rex said. "Why give them to the deer when people could use them?"

Blackmer makes weekly donations to the food pantries in Cambridge, Huxley, Slater and Jefferson, as well as to the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines. To date, more than 8,000 pounds of produce has been donated to the food pantries.

Part of the project is learning what people will eat and how much of each vegetable to grow. Through talking with individuals who run the food pantries, Blackmer has learned that broccoli is popular with parents and kids, because it requires very little prep work to get it ready to eat. When considering crop yields, a single row of cucumbers can produce hundreds of pounds of produce, while a similar row of peas will not produce as much. These are all things the Blackmers will keep in mind moving forward with their project.

The food pantries have also had to learn how to handle and quickly distribute the produce, since they typically deal with canned foods and other non-perishable goods.

"It’s been a learning experience for everyone," Blackmer said.

Lindsay Pingel, communication specialist with Food Bank of Iowa, said fresh produce is one of the most sought after food items for families who visit food pantries. The produce the Blackmers donate each week is distributed to the 42 counties served by the Des Moines-based facility.

"It’s just a really great thing for us," Pingel said.

The Blackmers plan to continue and expand their efforts to provide food pantries with fresh produce. Next year, Blackmer said he plans to expand the garden at his acreage even more, bringing it up to five acres in size. The garden at the Palestine church will also be planted again, and he hopes to encourage other churches to start gardens. His ultimate goal is to get 20 gardens set up in the next three years. Finding temporary help to coordinate the volunteers to pick the produce is another future goal. The family has applied for 501(c)3 status, and recently received paperwork for it. They plan to call their project "Iowa Gardening for Good." Anyone interested in setting up a garden to produce food for the food pantries or who wants to volunteer to pick the produce may contact Blackmer at

When the Blackmers purchased their acreage, they knew they were on land that would be productive. However, they never intended to profit from the land, but rather to use the land to teach their children and others about agriculture.

"It’s not for money, but for a purpose - getting people involved," Blackmer said.

Produce by the numbers:

Food Bank of Iowa - 5,000+ pounds

Cambridge food pantry - 339 pounds

Huxley food pantry - 305 pounds

Slater food pantry - 574 pounds

Jefferson food pantry - 1,700+ pounds