Last summer wasn’t a good time to start growing organic fruits and vegetables or graze livestock for Woodward farmer Christopher Garcia. Produce required immeasurable amounts of water and attention, and livestock needed hay to supplement drought-affected pasture.
If there was a silver lining in what was an otherwise dreadful summer, it was Garcia’s new business plan and infrastructure needed to build a successful future.
Garcia moved from an Ankeny acreage to his new 15-acre Woodward farm in November 2010 to allow more room for his horses to graze. Then in 2011, his son Nate worked with him to help transition the central Iowa farm to organic certification.
• Central Iowan establishes small, sustainable organic produce farm.
• He put together a good business plan with the help of an NRCS conservationist.
• Improved pasture and some fencing help livestock enterprise get off to good start.
The Garcias called on USDA for assistance to protect their natural resources through the organic transition process. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides technical and financial assistance to farmers through its Organic Initiative program to implement conservation practices that protect natural resources on working farms.
Brad Harrison, district conservationist for NRCS in Dallas County, says the Garcias did their homework before visiting his office in Adel. “Nate found information about our conservation programs online,” says Harrison. “I was impressed with what information they knew and what to ask for. It made my job easier.”
Great grazing system
Later that spring Harrison helped the Garcias develop a conservation plan for their farm. Right away in 2011 they addressed the farm’s livestock grazing component. It required 1,500 feet of high-tensile and barbed-wire fence, a 150-foot water pipeline, and a watering facility. Currently, Garcia has only a handful of horses and cows, but there is now room to expand.
“This is a planned grazing system, so it is making his new forage system more efficient and utilizes his grass better,” notes Harrison. “When we planned it, we addressed several issues including an inadequate quantity of feed, forage and stock water. This system also improves the health and productivity of his pasture long term.”
In 2013, a new pasture and hay planting are planned to provide livestock a better mix of forage to graze.
As the Garcias’ first growing season drew near in early 2012, Nate left to work on the presidential campaign. “Nate went up to North Dakota to work on the campaign,” says Christopher Garcia. Garcia’s grandson Cole Giudicessi came to the rescue, helping with much of the manual labor.
The 2012 growing season proved to be a major challenge, due to the heat and drought combination. They planted tomatoes, basil, zucchini, squash, and even watermelons, but the heat and dry weather created difficult working conditions. “There were only a few hours in a day we could work because of the unbearable heat,” said Garcia. “Plus, we used about 120,000 gallons of commercial water the first three months, and that was costly.”
They decided it was more cost-effective to haul water from the city of Woodward and implement a gravity-fed drip irrigation system. Giudicessi masterminded the irrigation system, and it was successful. “We are fortunate to have a pretty decent watering system now,” he says. Last summer was “a learning process and a lot of experimenting for us.”
Out of the tough summer, the family duo still grew enough organic crops to supply to their family friends at Mezzodi’s Italian Restaurant in Des Moines. Sam Campero, Mezzodi’s general manager, was excited to offer organic menu items. “We offered a shrimp fettuccine pasta where we incorporated the organic cherry tomatoes and fresh basil we purchased from Chris,” says Campero. “It was a big hit! We look forward to continuing to work with Chris and to serve more, fresh organic menu items in the future.”
Building a high tunnel
In 2013, Garcia’s new seasonal high tunnel for growing crops will be completed, which will allow him to extend the growing season about a month in the spring and fall. High tunnels are also designed to provide protection from outside factors like wind and insects. High tunnels improve the profitability of crops and maximize farm productivity, says Garcia.
A typical high tunnel will consist of a metal structure covered with a layer of plastic. Unlike greenhouses, the tunnels require fewer building materials, and little or no electricity for heating. In 2012, Iowa NRCS offered eligible program participants $5,833 in financial assistance to build a high tunnel.
Though it was a difficult summer for Garcia, a couple good things came out of it. “We learned a lot about our farm and now we have a plan in place, and I feel good about that,” he says. “The best part about last summer was getting the chance to work with my grandson every day. He is very talented, and I love his entrepreneurial spirit.”
Johnson is public affairs specialist for USDA/NRCS in Iowa.
For more information about USDA conservation programs, visit your local USDA Service Center or go online to www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov.
This article published in the March, 2013 edition of WALLACES FARMER.