Four years ago, two very different entities in North Iowa began a transition on separate paths. Now, they’ve combined to provide both fresh produce and new opportunities for people with many types of disabilities.
69-year-old Dan Lauters stands on the edge of his sprawling one acre Hancock County garden and attempts to list all the vegetables it holds.
“A row of kale there, and then you see a row of carrots, and then the romaine lettuce, and then this is the kohlrabi, and here is your rainbow chard…” says Lauters.
After more than two minutes, Lauters continues to name almost 70 different products.
But it wasn’t always this way.
“Yeah, I remember the first day I set up my little stand and I sold nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Lauters laughed.
Lauters is a member of North Iowa Fresh, which was formed in 2012 to provide a more deliberate approach for both growers and customers in that part of the state. Lauters prepares his items for Farmers' Markets five days a week. But not everyone’s schedule coincides with the hours the markets are open.
Just 20 miles down the road, near Kanawha, two more North Iowa Fresh members, Jan Libbey and her husband Tim Landgraf, offer what’s called a CSA or community supported agriculture.
“We have a whole range of different share options, and they purchase that early and then we are making weekly or bi-weekly deliveries according to the different share options that we provide,” Libbey says. “So, instead of making sure that they have time to get to the Farmers' Market, they just need to get to our pickup site, and we have a number of them in North Iowa.”
Libbey and Landgraf also raise organically fed chickens on their farm called One Step at a Time Gardens.
As the North Iowa Fresh movement was developing, Opportunity Village, a group home for adults with disabilities in nearby Clear Lake, was also changing direction.
The village began a transition from people living in cottages on its 80-acre campus to smaller homes elsewhere. Development Coordinator Cindy Richardson says that lifestyle change also includes providing more meaningful employment.
“As our workforce is leaving the sheltered workshop, which is where everybody with a disability was put together in a room and done little jobs like putting nuts and bolts into packages and those kind of things,” says Richardson. “So, here we are with this beautiful grounds and garden. We have an awesome kitchen that needs a new use for it and we have a built-in willing, capable, able workforce.”
With that so-called “awesome” kitchen and garden, the search began for a community-based food related project that would instill a sense of pride without tying the Village to business ownership. Enter North Iowa Fresh and their producers, who needed a place to package and deliver their product. Richardson says now that they’ve joined the group, Opportunity Village is able to provide the connection between farm and table.
“We come at one shop for them. It’s all on one invoice. All they have to do is meet us at the door, stick it on the shelf, and advertise that it’s grown local and that it’s fresh, and, you know, it works out beautifully,” she says.
Among the many organic selections, the shelves of The Market at Be Wellness in downtown Clear Lake are full of North Iowa Fresh products. Owner Ashley Coleman believes in the idea so much that she’s expanding.
“We are opening a small little restaurant. It’s a carryout restaurant. It’ll be called ‘Lauren’s Lunchbox,’ and we’ll be sourcing local food for that,” says Coleman. “And we’ve hired a gal from Opportunity Village and so she’ll be helping out our cook!”
That gal is 25-year-old Nicole Nosbisch, who’s excited about a more challenging job in the community other than the one she had as a dishwasher at the group home.
“I prepare pizza like a prep-cook. Like home-made pizza,” Nosbisch says.
The effort to provide healthy food options through growers, processors and vendors in this part of the state seems to be off to a good start, but farmer Jan Libbey cautions that its success is not inevitable.
“A little tiny effort such as North Iowa Fresh has got quite a bit of learning curve and growth curve before it’s at a sustainable stage. So, the judgment is still out as to what will happen over the next couple of years for that group. But it is creating a platform, creating some relationships, and just part of the ongoing conversation in North Iowa,” she says.
In the meantime, North Iowa Fresh announced this week that two more growers have joined the team.