Hands-On Harvest

Writer: Rachel Vogel Quinn

When volunteers started helping him plant and pick produce, Tracy Blackmer was confused by their gratitude. Their efforts helped get fresh fruit and vegetables into the hands of hungry Central Iowans, but they thanked him for the opportunity to serve.

“There’s a lot of people wanting to do something, but it’s hard for them to plan and organize,” Blackmer says. “We make it really simple. All you have to do is show up.”

Blackmer, 53, founded the nonprofit Iowa Gardening Good in 2013. Last year, the project grew 150,000 pounds of fresh produce on his family’s 20-acre farm outside Madrid. All of it was donated to food pantries in the Greater Des Moines area.

With a doctorate in agronomy and a background working in agricultural and water research, Blackmer is an expert at growing food efficiently. Funded by grants and private donations, Iowa Gardening for Good grows fresh produce for 17 to 18 cents a pound, significantly cheaper than food banks can purchase wholesale.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have plenty of fresh produce in Iowa, as easy as it is to grow here,” Blackmer says.

Blackmer and his wife, Doreen, 54, returned to their home state 15 years ago to raise two daughters, now students at Iowa State University. A registered dietitian with a master’s in animal science, Doreen puts a lot of labor into the farm. But Iowa Gardening for Good is her husband’s passion project. In 2016, he quit his full-time job to focus on running the nonprofit.

In their first years on the farm, the family grew pumpkins to sell to local grocery stores, as well as fresh vegetables for their dinner table. Blackmer’s mother told him the food pantry where she volunteered would take their extras. The surplus ended up stocking several food pantries, and Blackmer asked the Food Bank of Iowa to take the rest.

When he discovered that most pantries lack fresh produce, he ramped up production, collaborating with the pantries to determine what clients wanted. The list now includes watermelons, butternut squash, zucchini, cucumbers, cantaloupe, carrots, cabbage, sweet corn and peppers.

The Food Bank of Iowa and the Des Moines Area Religious Council helped Blackmer find volunteers and distributed the produce to pantries in their networks. During the pandemic, however, Blackmer started making twice-weekly deliveries directly to the pantries. Once, he saw 1,500 pounds of his watermelon disappear in less than a day.

“You can see how people just flocked to it,” he says. “That’s a pretty powerful thing.”

Blackmer says Iowa Gardening for Good has three purposes: feed food-insecure Iowans, provide fulfilling service work, and teach people where food comes from. In a typical year, 1,500 people volunteer.

“If their back is hurting a little because they worked so much and their hands are dirty, they feel like they achieved more,” Blackmer says.

In the summer of 2020, Jeff Austin brought his wife and four daughters, ages 9 to 16, to volunteer every other week. “It gives you perspective to know where that food is going, to realize that there are people in our community who need the help,” Austin says. “It’s the satisfaction of being able to do something behind the scenes that will go toward good works here in our community.”

Blackmer says the volunteers have shown him the concept of “Iowa nice” in action. “This is a service project, but I think it’s a lot more than that,” he says. “I have seen so much more good in people.”

Iowa Stops Hunger is a Business Publications Corporation initiative to raise awareness of hunger in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.

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