Ask the Experts: The Iowa Master's Gardeners

A Green Thumb Getaway

Any day now, the little green shoots that have been pushing their way through the frozen ground around my mailbox are going to erupt into pinks and reds and yellows, the colors of the tulip and daffodil bulbs I planted last fall.

This is the time of year that Mother Earth explodes, paying us back for those nuclear gray days of winter and igniting a primal need to dig in the dirt, to plant, to grow, to farm our own little piece of real estate, no matter what the size.

If that earthy urge is sprouting in you, fertilize it with a trip north on I-35 to the tiny Iowa community of Orient in Adair County. That’s where you’ll find the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center, an educational resource for those passionate about growing and preserving their own food, and celebrating the bounties of Mother Earth with good meals and better conversation.

For those not familiar with the Wallace family legacy, Henry A. and his father, Henry C., both served as secretary of Agriculture. Henry A. also served a term as vice-president under FDR, was responsible for the Rural Electrification Act of 1933 and more.

Basically, four generations of the Wallace family have shaped food production in this country and around the world as we know it today. And their original home place is in Adair County where you, too, can enhance your own little agriculture endeavors.

Surely, one of the first things you will notice is the serenity and calm that envelops these 40 acres. The distance from any significant roadway eliminates that constant undertone of traffic that we hear in suburban Kansas City. It’s so peaceful here that you truly hear the breeze rustle the grass as you walk the path through ten acres of restored prairie, and your spirit picks up the cadence of nature.

The Wallace Center has just three full-time staff, but on any given day during the growing season – April to October – a dozen or more master gardeners volunteer their time by answering questions for visitors and working in the orchard, greenhouse and numerous flower gardens.

You’ve got some odd bug munching on your tomatoes and you want to treat the problem organically? Why do your roses curl and turn brown around the edges? What’s the matter with your scrawny little green beans? These folks have answers and more.

The property produces literally tons of fresh produce each year, including 5,000 pounds of apples and 7,500 pounds of sweet potatoes. Much of it sold to restaurants in Des Moines and through CSA boxes to more than 100 local families, or donated to local food pantries. The rest is available in small quantities in the gift shop or used in the Friday lunches and dinners at the Country Life Center.

A second restaurant is located in Des Moines that the former home of another Wallace family member. It is here that a number of “food for thought” meals are served in conjunction with programs and civil discussions on important issues of our time.

“Henry A. Wallace was known for hosting hearty dinners and inviting people with a variety of ideas and opinions,” says Diane Wieland, president of the Wallace Centers of Iowa. “He very much appreciated conversation with people who disagreed with him and believed that civil conversations are how our society grows.”

As a result, the Wallace Centers also offer civility training for schools, workplaces and community groups, one of many life-enhancing programs that come from these facilities. Among those are small farm field apprenticeships for adults and summer food camps for kids. Have you ever wanted to can fruits and vegetables for sale at farmers markets and local shops? There are classes for that, along with cooking classes, historic teas and one-of-a-kind special programs throughout the year.

Unfortunately, for those making the less-than-three hour drive from Kansas City’s Northland, there are no overnight accommodations on the farm. But about ten miles away is the very charming, typically Iowa town of Greenfield.

For some authentic flavor to your already flavorful, earthy Iowa getaway, book a room at The Hotel Greenfield, recently renovated and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

What makes the renovation of the Hotel Greenfield so cool is that it wasn’t a big corporation or Daddy Warbucks money bags who saw this as an opportunity to make some money. Instead, about 100 people in Greenfield and surrounding communities decided this little town needed a real hotel again. So, investing as little $250 each, they raised enough money to bring this beautiful hotel back to life.

Now that’s a beautiful, homegrown story.

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