Prairie Bell: Back to basics on a DeWitt organic farm

Posted Online: June 23, 2013, 10:50 am
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by Sarah Ford
DeWITT, Iowa -- Providing organic food to the community may not be easy, but for farmers Greg and Connie King and their farm Prairie Bell Enterprises, just outside of DeWitt, Iowa, it's what retirement is all about. Named for the bluebell flowers that faithfully bloom every year, the farm has been on its plot since 1860.

The fruit and vegetable farm is the labor of love for Greg, who started life in Kansas, and Connie, a native of Iowa. They purchased the farm in the early 1990s, and have become dedicated organic farmers since Greg's retirement from a chemical plant four years ago. Connie still works as a graphic designer, but gives her evenings and weekends to the plants. Their 5-acre farmstead includes the house and buildings and 11/2 acres of tillable land.

The farming duties are split about as evenly as can be between the pair: Connie is the gardener; Greg is the "doer" and the "maintainer." Connie has the green thumb; Greg has the degree in biology, which, as he puts it, makes him "strong on theory but short on practical, useful growing experience." But their combined talents are creating a masterpiece of fruit and veggie paradise.

Their main crops are blackberries, plus heirloom tomatoes grown with Seed Savers seeds. This year's varieties include the Peach Sutton, named after a style of Victorian-era glassware known for its peach skin appearance; Jaune Flamme, an apricot colored tomato that originated in France; and cherry tomatoes in a full spectrum of colors, including white, yellow, green, bi-color orange, red, brown and black.

Other garden varieties of vegetables will be grown this year, and the Kings "plan to try our hand at growing micro-greens." They're growing some flowers for their son's wedding in June and plan to have plenty left to take to the Freight House Farmers' Market, where their spinach has already been on the menu at Fresh Deli. They also plan to grow more herbs this year.

Since 2010, the Kings have primarily used 39-by-96-foot high tunnels for their growing operations. A drip-tape irrigation system supplies moisture to the crops and also helps produce fresh tomatoes until November, and lettuce and cabbage until mid-December. They hope to install a rainwater collection system in the near future so they can irrigate with rainwater instead of well water.

Sustainable and organic farming methods are central to their mission of producing food. They purchase compost from Beautiful Land Products in West Branch, Iowa, which comes from dairy manure composted in Wisconsin. They plant cover crops to mow down and till under as green manure, and also embellish the natural nutrient cycling process by applying liquid fish hydrolysate, thermophilic compost tea, and compost extract. They've recently started using worm compost (vermicompost), worm compost tea, and worm compost extracts.

"Recently we've become more aware of the 'soil food web' and the many benefits that can be gained from appropriate soil microbial diversity. I'm attempting to learn how to use a soil microscope to better plan for a healthier soil which translates into better, healthier crops," says Greg. "In a few words, as far as plants are concerned, we need to be aware there's a whole lot more going on underground than above ground!"

Greg, who jokes he retired from "plant" management to "plants" management, says, "Working in the industrial inorganic chemical arena for 30-plus years probably had a reverse influence on me to get back to the basics — the natural order of things — and to examine the responsibilities of stewardship that being a landowner obligates you to."

"Our feelings about organic food are, 'Why eat chemicals when you don't have to?' It tastes better and it's better for the earth," Connie says.


Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, July 22, the 203rd day of 2014. There are 162 days left in the year.

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1889 -- 125 years ago: The mayor and bridge committee let a contract to the Clinton Bridge company for a $1,125 iron bridge across Sears canal near Milan.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Injunction proceedings to compel the Central Association to keep a baseball team in Rock Island for the remainder of the season were contemplated by some of the Rock Island fans, but they decided to defer action.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The first of the new and more powerful diesel engines built for the Rock Island Lines for the proposed Chicago-Denver run, passed thru the Tri-Cities this morning.
1964 -- 50 years ago: The Rock Island Rescue Mission is negotiating for the purchase of the Prince Hall Masonic Home located at 37th Avenue and 5th Street, Rock Island.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Quad Cities Container Terminal is being lauded as a giant business boon that will save several days and hundreds of dollars on each goods shipment to the coasts. The Quad Cities Container Terminal is the final piece of the puzzle that opens up increase access to world markets, Robert Goldstein said.

(More History)