By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
DES MOINES-It seems like a typical neighborhood in a city. Cars zipping busy on a busy thoroughfare. The aroma of burgers wafting from backyard grills at nearby homes. But there in the middle of all that activity is an oasis, a greenspace filled with row after row of vegetables.
Welcome to Dogpatch Urban Gardens.
“I’ve always had my own garden,” said farm owner Jenny Quiner, who began operating her urban farm with her husband, Eric, in 2015. “Now we have an acre here in the city.”
Quiner and her family have transformed that once-vacant space at the corner of Meredith Drive and Northwest 51st Street into a destination filled gardens covering a quarter of an acre, a high-tunnel greenhouse that was added in 2017, open space for events and farm stand where customers can buy fresh garden produce and other locally-produced items from May to November.
Quiner, who grew up in Urbandale, describes Dogpatch Urban Gardens as a family-run farm focused on health, community, education, and the environment. She cultivates fresh, nutritious, flavorful produce in the northern Beaverdale area of Des Moines using organic, biointensive farming methods to produce high yields on a minimal amount of land while maintaining the integrity of the environment.
“Do I think my style of urban farming can feed the world? No. But do I think this type of farming can enhance a community, spark conversations about use of our natural resources, enhance soil health and inspire others? Yes,” she said.
From the classroom to the garden
The most striking feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture in Iowa, is the way it’s embedded in the urban ecosystem. These close connections allow Quiner to interact with the local community and reintroduce the public to the many aspects of food production that Americans have drifted away from as a culture.
How food grows, as well what grows regionally and seasonally, are all important lessons and make a better-informed consumer, said Quiner, who believes urban farms can be the front line of the food system.
“Our farm is built on a foundation which the successful market gardener, Jean Martin Fortier, explains as ‘grow better, not bigger,'” she said.
Not only does Dogpatch Urban Gardens embrace health, nutrition, community and conservation, but education is a core value, as well. Before she started the farm, Quiner was a science teacher at Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines, where she specialized in biology and environmental science.
“While teaching, I gained a strong desire to become a more sustainable steward of our land,” she said. “This is one of the factors that influenced me to leave teaching and transition into farming.”
The soil is one of Iowa’s most precious resources, Quiner added.
“Fertile soil is the foundation to being a sustainable farmer,” she said. “It’s critical we don’t take our soil for granted.”
Quiner is inspired by the concept of regenerative agriculture.
“I love this idea,” she said. “Sustainable farming essentially is maintaining the current state, while regenerating is making something better. That’s why I use farming techniques that aim to make our soil better.”
Quiner does not routinely use tillage.
“Tilling can have adverse effects on the soil and is not the best practice to soil quality,” she said. “I also try not to have bare soil, because when soil is exposed to the elements, it can severely impact its quality and health. Whether that’s the use of intensive plantings, silage tarps or cover crops, you will hardly find bare soil on my land.”
Cover crops offer extra benefits by providing food for microorganisms in the soil, improving water retention and decreasing the amount of soil erosion, she added.
Urban farming, with all its joys and challenges, has given Quiner a new appreciation for Iowa’s traditional farmers.
“I better understand the risks farmers take and the hard work and devotion they put into a raising a crop each year,” she said.
Focusing on the future
Quiner has adapted some practices employed in conventional agriculture, including integrated pest management, as she raises tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and a wide variety of other crops.
“Small-scale farming allows for me to know my crops,” she said. “I’m constantly interacting with every square foot of the crops and can recognize any potential issues involving the soil, pests and weeds.”
The majority of Quiner’s produce is sold on site at the Dogpatch Urban Gardens’ farm stand, so the food doesn’t travel far to reach the end user. Food that is sold off site is distributed to Des Moines metro restaurants, or the Iowa Food Cooperative, all of which are located within 10 miles of the farm.
“I love working with our customers,” Quiner said. “A lot of them say I’ve inspired them to start their own garden.”
Quiner reminds people that the way they invest their food dollars reflects their values.
“Choosing to support your local farmers is key in the sustainability of the farmers’ business,” she said. “While the term ‘sustainability’ is often used when discussing the environment, farmers need to be sustainable in their business, as well. If I’m not making enough money to pay the bills than my business cannot continue. Passion alone is not enough.”
Quiner, a mother of three young sons, is harnessing the power of passion, smart business management and consistent marketing to connect with her community and nurture not only crops, but a philosophy that takes the long view of farming and food production.
“We have one earth,” she said. “It’s important that we work to take care of it and make it a better place for future generations.”
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