Kroul Farms, Farming the Family Way
Between 2002 and 2007, the total number of farms in the United States increased by 4 percent, the first increase in the number of farms since 1935. A growing number of small farms are a central factor in this increase. They are evidence that social movements towards sustainable, locally grown food are changing the food system and changing the way that Americans think about food, farming, and agriculture. In this post, we highlight one farm in Eastern Iowa that is part of this movement and an example of the new and exciting possibilities opening up in US agriculture.
There are very few places to sit down at Kroul Farms, and even if there were, it’s doubtful that you would find anyone sitting around while there is still daylight. On a small, family-run farm that is part business, part showroom, part experimental laboratory, and part community education center, there always seems to be lots going on and lots to do. Remarking on just what gives the farm its vibrancy, Kaylene Kroul quipped that “nobody ever says they’re bored. If they do, we’ll give them something else to do.”
Kroul Farms is nestled in a shallow valley about twenty minutes outside of Iowa City, Iowa, and it is quickly becoming one of the most energetic and innovative farms in the area. From their showroom and greenhouse, the Krouls sell fresh, organically grown vegetables and flowers, lumber, eggs, and, during the fall months, pumpkins. On any given day the driveway receives a never-ending procession of cars bringing in customers who carry away fresh produce and flowers, produce that both feeds their families and decorates their lives. In addition to selling from their showroom and at local farmers markets, next year Kroul Farms will begin operating a CSA, offering weekly shares of seasonal vegetables at low prices to customers who pay up-front, at the beginning of the growing season. This coming year will be a big one for the Kroul family.
This past August, we stopped by Kroul Farms to get a tour from Kaylene and to find out just what gives Kroul Farms its energy and makes their brand of farming so exciting.
Kaylene believes that Kroul Farms is successful because it is a truly family operation. There are four generations of Krouls working on the farm. Some work full time, and others stop by when they can to help out. The farm feeds the entire extended family, which is growing as the years pass by.
When Kaylene and her husband, John, took over the farm in the mid-1980s, the farm produced only hogs, cattle, corn, soybeans, and hay. Kaylene and John decided to plant and sell a little sweet corn out of their garden, and later began growing and selling pumpkins alongside the road that runs in front of the farmhouse. In 1999, they built a greenhouse for their niece, who wanted to take part in the family business, and the farm has continued to grow.
Kaylene and John have always envisioned that the farm would provide both food and opportunities for their family. They are eager to make room for younger family members who want to take up farming. “There are a lot of enterprises that we could do better at” Kaylene said, “and if our granddaughters or nieces and nephews want to take over one of them and improve it, there’s room for them.” In a country whose farmers are getting older and older on average and, until recently, fewer young people each year are becoming full-time farmers, it’s important that Kaylene and John make space for younger generations. They do so by keeping an open mind to new ideas and being willing to adapt as younger family members bring new ideas and approaches to the farm. Being open to change isn’t always easy, and the family has had its share of arguments and disagreements over where money should be invested and in what direction the farm should go. But what family doesn’t fight the occasional battle?
Kaylene also stresses that the farm does not only take from the younger generations, but they hope that the farm gives as much as it receives, and not just to their own family but to the surrounding communities as well.
“It’s important because we are showing the younger generations a good way of life by growing things.”
The Krouls share their knowledge about growing organically with the families they meet at the farm and at farmers markets. Referring to the fall months when hundreds of families come to the farm to buy pumpkins and get lost in their annual Corn Maze, Kaylene said,
“That’s why we grow the pumpkins too, so that we can give farm tours and show kids that green beans don’t just come from the back of the grocery store. That you don’t get your eggs out of a carton. Kids aren’t learning that now. They don’t know that their food is grown from a seed and a plant. They don’t know if a green bean has to be green, or if it could be purple or red. They can be different colors. So can peppers.”
Kaylene has seen changes in the way that community members and consumers think about food and what they know about it. Over the past few years more of the people that Kaylene meets at local farmers markets are concerned with the way their food is grown, and Kroul Farms has responded by growing its produce organically. For a small farm, this is not always easy, and Kroul Farms relies on resource and knowledge sharing networks for vegetable growers made available by Iowa State University and vegetable growers associations, as well as a little pragmatism. The expense of the certification has also kept Kroul Farms from obtaining official organic certification, but that does not stop Kroul Farms from growing food safely and healthfully.
Sustainability is a constant concern at Kroul Farms too. All of the fertilizer used on the farm is made by composting manure from their cattle, mixed with hay and corn fodder. Nearly twenty years of chemical and artificial fertilizer free agriculture has rejuvenated the soil and made the farm more productive now than it ever has been. Even many of the buildings on the farm are constructed with lumber and materials recycled from old farm buildings.
The Krouls are certainly reaping the benefits of sustainability in more ways than one. Their farm and family are growing, and the local farming community is expanding as well. Kroul Farms is a thriving example of the fact that sustainability is not just about the soil. The farm brings family and friends together from far and wide, and the strength of those bonds is firmly rooted in the health and sustainability of their soil.
For more information about Kroul Farms, please visit the Kroul Farms Website