It’s a sad fact that when the food budget is stretched thin, fresh vegetables are among
the first (and healthiest) items to be cut from the grocery list. In Central Iowa, hundreds
of gardeners, large and small, toil to put fresh produce back on their neighbors’ tables.
For many, it’s a labor of love.
Each growing season, Food Bank of Iowa welcomes tens of thousands of pounds of
fresh vegetables and fruit from backyard gardeners, corporate gardens such as those
at Farm Bureau and John Deere, and the garden at the Newton Correctional Facility.
The latter is the largest donor, providing about 76,000 pounds of fresh produce last
year, according to Emily Shearer, Food Bank of Iowa’s food acquisition coordinator.
Perhaps the most unexpected partner in providing a garden bounty is Iowa Gardening
for Good, a project created by Tracy and Doreen Blackmer. The eight-acre, noncommercial
vegetable farm near Madrid owned by the Blackmer family is dedicated to
fighting hunger and staffed by volunteers. Last year, the Blackmers’ farm donated about
30,000 pounds of fresh food to Food Bank of Iowa.
Tracy Blackmer, who by day is the vice president of science at FarmLogs, said he and his
wife bought the acreage 12 or 13 years ago and liked the idea of having a big garden
at their new home. But as he noted, “It’s easy to grow more stuff than you and your
neighbors can use.” His mother was involved with a food pantry in neighboring Greene
County, so the Blackmers began taking their extra veggies there. Even after expanding
to other nearby pantries, they were still producing more than those outlets could use.
A few years ago, they forged a partnership with Food Bank of Iowa. “We had
plenty more space,” Blackmer said, “and it only takes one trip to the food bank.” The
Blackmers conducted a little research to see which vegetables were popular at the
food pantries and which were the easiest to handle. Tomatoes, for instance, are too
perishable and messy to transport. They extended the rows in their garden, and
with help from the food bank lined up volunteers to plant and harvest cucumbers,
zucchini, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, beets, turnips, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, and
squash, among others.
Blackmer handles irrigation and the little bit of fertilization that is necessary. “I like
to get out in the garden, but what I do is a drop in the bucket,” he said. Last year, the
farm hosted about 400 volunteers. Most come in groups of 10 or 20, but they’ve had
up to 100 individuals. Some are youth groups, and some are corporations.
“A lot of people like the idea of fresh produce, but they don’t want to garden. This is
a way of gardening without the commitment,” Blackmer said. “It makes it a lot more
pleasant and gives you a taste of gardening in the best possible way.”
Blackmer’s generosity in sharing his land and his bounty is not lost on Shearer, who
remarked, “Tracy is a wonderful resource. He is a wonderful human being.”
— Tracy Petersen, hunger correspondent