Heirloom crops build markets, relationships
Countless rows of corn and soybeans populate Iowa’s rural areas, but just outside of Carlisle, 27- year- old farmer Jennie Smith stands on two acres where she is about to plant heirloom tomatoes.
“This is what I like to call crème de la crème. At the top of a hill. I’ve got full sun. I have access to water, irrigation,” she said. “I don’t think I could really have any better setup.
Smith is the sole owner of Butcher Crick Farms, which has been on her grandparent’s land since 2009.
Smith produced 4,000 pounds of tomatoes in each of her first two seasons and sold them for an average price of $4 a pound to restaurants, the downtown Des Moines farmer’s market and a grocery store.
One of the selling points for Butcher Crick Farms is the use of heirloom seeds, which are taken from the biggest and best tomatoes so more plants like it can be grown in the future.
Kenna Neighbors sells heirloom seeds at her Des Moines store appropriately called Seed. She said they represent longevity, families, and relationships.
“Sometimes having seeds that came from our family that we remember that has come year after year, generational, is a wonderful seed and its value goes up emotionally,” Neighbors said. “It’s a part of our family.”
These “vintage” seeds, which aren’t cross-pollinated or genetically modified, are coveted. And farmers like Smith who plant them are finding a special market for their produce.
But as Smith starts her third season, she said she won’t be able to financially sustain herself by only selling her tomatoes.
“Most successful farmers that I know right now that are doing these great small operations, they are two-people household, husband and a wife and then they have an on farm/off farm income. And I currently have the same role only I just do it in one day,” she said. “I just get up a little bit earlier and then I farm until about one o’clock, then I do my deliveries, and then I go to work at four and I do my off-farm income. Come home and then do it again.”
Smith makes her “off farm” income as a waitress. Some of the entrees she serves feature her tomatoes. Smith said diners like putting a face on where their food comes from and they remember her when they see her booth at a farmer’s market.
Even though the demand for her tomatoes has always been higher than she can produce, Smith doesn’t know when she will be able to only live off an “on farm” income.
Still, she said her new business works because she is able to work and live on her grandparent’s property and when she needs help she can count her friends and family to dig in the dirt.
“The labor that I have is free and they love it because they keep coming back and they keep inviting their friends which is building up these kind of harvest parties and planting parties too,” Smith said.
So much like the heirloom tomatoes produced on this land, Butcher Crick Farms itself is cultivating longevity, families, and relationships.