Iowa sees surge in urban farming as pandemic continues

Kathy Byrnes is founder of Birds & Bees Urban Farm in Des Moines. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The coronavirus pandemic has so many people wanting to grow their own food that Kathy Byrnes and Ed Fallon turned their urban farm in Des Moines’ Sherman Hill neighborhood into a part-time classroom. 

Birds & Bees Urban Farm, which occupies the couple’s yard, originally grew from their interest in farming and in growing their own food as a way to have a smaller carbon footprint. Fallon, a former state lawmaker and liberal podcast hell-raiser, is known for walking and biking to many of his appointments and shopping stops. Byrnes, a former teacher, had gardened for years, as had Fallon.

“We had no idea when we established this as a nonprofit that a pandemic would hit,” Byrnes said. “We just knew that more people should know where their food comes from, be involved in the production of their own food, appreciate it, and shop local so that they know that when they go to a big box store to buy a cheap vegetable, there probably is something not quite right about that.” 

Fallon agreed. “We didn’t know there was going to be a pandemic. But we did know that climate change is going to get worse and worse,” he said. “If this year hasn’t woken people up, I don’t know what it’s going to take.”

ISU: Iowans grow more of their own vegetables

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach saw increased interest in home vegetable gardening this year across the state, said Kalsa Parker Browning, natural resources program coordinator. 

“When the pandemic first hit, we received lots of questions and saw that our online materials were being visited more frequently, especially those on how to start vegetable gardening at home and how to grow more of your own fresh produce,” Parker Browning said. 

Another sign: It appears this year’s Polk County Master Gardeners produce donations to local food pantries will top last year’s 3,500 pounds in a new partnership with Lutheran Church of the Cross of Altoona, she added. Final figures are pending because the harvest isn’t complete. 

In the Quad Cities, Tapestry Farms is expanding its Davenport operation, said Executive Director Ann McGlynn. The urban farm, supported by donations and sales of produce, provides fruits and vegetables free to refugees and low-income families in Davenport, and Rock Island, Illinois. The goal is to amass five acres.

Charlene Nzigile, a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo, holds the first cabbage of the season from a Davenport urban garden. (Photo courtesy of Tapestry Farms)

Has the Quad Cities seen a push for more urban farming? “Very clearly, yes,” McGlynn said. The coronavirus pandemic drove home people’s interest in where their food came from, she added.

In addition, the scarcity of toilet paper and hand sanitizer prompted many to grow their own vegetables in case supply chains failed them at stores. Some couldn’t afford the stores.

McGlynn said many of the refugees came from areas where people grow their own food. Some work for Tapestry.

Volunteers have enjoyed interacting with people during the pandemic at an outdoor site where distancing was easy, McGlynn said.

“The conversation has been elevated about people growing their own food or getting their food from more local sources,” she added.

Tapestry Farms grew out of St. Paul Lutheran Church’s outreach to refugee families from Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. McGlynn, a former reporter and editor at the Quad-City Times, works at the Davenport church in communications. She soon will leave the church job to devote full time to the urban farm, she said.

McGlynn: Quad Cities outreach to refugees helps people bond during pandemic

McGlynn said the act of delivering food to a local family, even with social distancing, establishes important relationships and drives home the point that grocery stores don’t have fruit trees or rows of tomato plants. Food comes from somewhere else.

“I think there is a real joy to that,” McGlynn said. “I do believe that that is at the foundation of why the interest in local food is growing.”

Keely Coppess, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said the state government has seen the trend, too. 

“(We have) seen an increased interest in and demand for locally grown foods,” Coppess said. 

To help, the state offered grants to schools to purchase equipment and supplies to make it easier to buy produce from local growers. Another program helps K-12 schools and colleges and universities buy produce, eggs and dairy products locally. 

IDALS also puts out directories of farmers’ markets, farm stands and producers in the Farm to School program

Growing your food helps make it more likely you will have some on the table, Fallon said, and there was anecdotal evidence others are coming around to that idea. When he went to buy seeds and chicks this year from his usual suppliers, they didn’t have much in stock. Some had ordered twice as many seed shipments as usual. 

Byrnes, a writer and editor, founded  the nonprofit Birds & Bees Farm as a way to take gardening more seriously. She decided her first farming experience would be within miles of the Statehouse, where Fallon once worked. 

Former state lawmaker Ed Fallon runs Birds & Bees Urban Farm with his partner, Kathy Byrnes, at their home in Des Moines’ historic Sherman Hill district. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The partners tend chickens, tomatoes, grapes, artichokes, bees and much more. They even use panels to set up a greenhouse effect so they can eat fresh vegetables through at least part of Iowa’s typically cold winters. 

Byrnes said the grapes produce juice, but they haven’t made wine.

Fallon said much of the work requires innovation such as the clear panels that allow some winter growing, and tricking the artichokes by moving them from a cold room to the warmer basement so they think they’ve gone through winter and are ready for a season. 

Another innovation involved expanding the space for growing. “I had a car, once,” said Fallon. “And I sold it, and because we get two parking spots the landlady said, sure, you can turn your parking spot into a garden. We call that our Subaru plot. The tomatoes are fading but they have done really well. We can’t grow in the gravel there, so we use buckets.” 

Farming in the middle of Des Moines: chickens, artichokes, bees, seminars

Birds & Bees makes its own compost, with chicken and sheep manure adding nutrients. Fallon said that helps, given the fact the average city yard may not have ideal soil tilth.

 Byrnes and Fallon give seminars for a fee so others can learn how to landscape with lettuce. 

“You can’t believe how many people come by and say, ‘I want to learn to do this,’” Fallon said. 

Byrnes said the 10-month series is still getting tweaks. “We’re deciding what will work for next year,” she said.

Kathy Byrnes founded Birds & Bees Urban Farm, which she runs with her partner, former Iowa state lawmaker Ed Fallon. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The couple has been farming together for three years. Fallon had been working the Sherman Hill plots and Byrnes was tending a “big garden” in rural Jasper County. When she moved to the Sherman Hill house, they expanded the garden there. 

“We just wanted to grow more food and to use the space more wisely and vertically and everything we can,” Byrnes said. 

This is on the side of a bunch of other work, including Byrnes’ writing and Fallon’s work on his public affairs podcast, “The Fallon Forum.“

“I’ve been working full time at home and popping out to the farm instead of a coffee break with co-workers and coming out to gather eggs or weed and then going back in to work with people,” Byrnes said. 

“I used to be a high school teacher, and I love to farm, and I was working for a health nonprofit. So the whole thing kind of came together  as the best way to help people feel good, feel healthy, feel positive, is to help them learn to grow food. So I quit my job to establish this nonprofit that we conduct together,” Byrnes added. 

Now, she’s teaching folks that their chicken and artichokes don’t grow in the grocery stores. And more are listening.