WAUKON, Iowa —
Kyle Holthaus refers to KyMar Acres, his family's farm near Waukon, as a work in progress.
Kyle and his wife, Mari, and their children Teddy, 8, and Violet, 6, grow vegetables, herbs, bedding plants, cut and potted flowers and tend a flock of 600 laying hens.
"We helped Iowa get first place in eggs," Teddy said proudly referring to Iowa's ranking first in the nation in egg production.
Violet explained that she and her brother collect all the eggs.
Mari said they farm five of their 15 acres. Her parents, Lee and Kathy Newman of Mabel, Minn., farm with them. The Newmans grow root crops as well as winter squash.
This year Mari and Kyle are selling their cut flowers direct to florists for the first time. What's left, they sell at farmers markets in Decorah, Waukon and Cedar Falls.
The couple are founding members of GROWN Locally, a cooperative of 12 small northeast farmers who are selling fresh, high quality foods to local food service institutions. Mari is president of the group. She said the cooperative is focusing on food safety training this summer thanks to grant from the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition.
"We take food safety seriously, and we want to make sure that we're following all the rules correctly," she said.
Kyle explained that when GROWN Locally started 10 years ago, members decided it made more sense for them to pool their products and sell to institutional buyers. Some of their clients include Luther College and T-Bocks, both in Decorah.
The couple has been growing for farmers markets for four years. They see it as a way to diversify what they do.
Mari's father, Lee, and her brothers Tim and Bill built the couple a 60-foot-by-20 foot greenhouse and a handling building over the winter. Both buildings were made with mostly recycled materials. The handling shed is an old hog building dismantled from another farm. There are separate washing and handling areas for vegetable and eggs.
Mari and Kyle use the greenhouse for potted flowers, herbs and starting plants. They start nearly all their plants. The couple is also experimenting with growing tomatoes in bags. They should have ripe tomatoes soon.
Outside, they grow herbs, flowers and vegetables.
Mari's sister, Anna Newman, helps with farmers market sales.
Kari, a CPA, runs an accounting business from home, and Kyle works as the parts person at Windridge Implements in Decorah.
"I grew up on a dairy farm and when we bought this farm —it's 15 acres — we knew that conventional farming was not an option," Kyle said. "We only have a seven-acre field, but we can grow vegetables."
They rotationally graze their hens on pasture. The hens are in a paddock one to two weeks before moving. Once the hens rotate to a new paddock, the Holthaus family sprinkles on seed and lets the grass rejuvenate.
Kari and Kyle recently received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant to determine the economic viability of Black Soldier Fly grubs as an alternate protein source for hens.
"We read about this in Mother Earth News," Kyle said. "The larvae help with composting raw material and can also be protein for the hens. This a trial. There are no guarantees it will work, but we're interested in looking at anything that will make our farm more sustainable."
Because Kyle works at Windridge, he has been involved with general manager Eric Nordschow's efforts to offer a line of farm equipment aimed at small fruit, vegetable and livestock operations.
"Eric has been very active in the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Coalition, and he understands the importance of local food," Kyle said. "He's in the implement business, and he realized that for local food production to expand in the area, there was a need for equipment. He's doing an excellent job of making equipment available for sale, rental and demonstration."
Kyle said they use the equipment for weeding and transplanting and they've also experimented with the potato planter, which also plants tulip and gladiolus bulbs and garlic.
"The other night, I drove the tractor and Teddy and Violet planted the potato sets," Kyle said. "We did 1,500 row feet in 30 minutes. If you were crawling on your hands and knees it would talk a lot longer."
For more on this project, visit the SARE reporting site and search using the project number FNC09-776.