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Farmers markets are popular in all counties, and restaurant gardens have been revived from a deep sleep that began more than 50 years ago.

By Jim Duncan

Between America’s two mightiest rivers, Iowa was handcrafted by serendipity. Incredible fertility was dumped upon it by glaciers of the last Ice Age. Early farmers marveled that they had found a place where they cleared out more birds’ nests than stones in their fields. Today, Iowa is home to more prime farmland than any place on Earth, one-fourth of all of America’s.
Hugh Sidey, a Greenfield native who penned a column in Time magazine for 40 years, traveled with John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign to be president. After being asked if he liked coming home to Iowa, Sidey told JFK “Sure, it’s home. You have to understand the prairie.”
Kennedy reflected and said, “My life is beaches and oceans, but I always remember something Robert Frost said — ‘It’s a shame to grow crops and run them through animals for food.’ Because that black soil looks good enough to eat.’ ”
The state was agriculturally diverse from statehood in 1845 through World War II. It was a national leader in grape production in the 1920s. Sorghum, wheat, beets and apples created industries here. The typical farm in the early 20th century included pigs, horses, dairy cows, cattle, orchards, wild berries and bountiful gardens.
Iowa fared better than most states during the Great Depression because its population was mostly rural then. Country folk could live off the land. When I drove my grandfather to his former farm in rural O’Brien County for a last look at what had been his farm, he was deeply disturbed by the changes he witnessed after 40 years away. “Where are the cows?” “Where are the pigs?” “What happened to the horses?” “Why would they cut down my orchards?”
Like Kennedy and Frost, he believed it was shameful to redirect the use of that rich black dirt from diversity to the duality of corn and beans that would be run through animals to make food for humans.

Garden revival
During WWII, Iowans planted victory gardens in both rural and urban environments. But the lure of inexpensive meats, poultry and eggs turned most away from the labor of turning over soil and nourishing seeds into fruits and vegetables. Massive government subsidies for corn and bean farming, by every administration of both major political parties, cheapened their end products. Corn sweetener became so cheap that the U.S. sugar market nearly disappeared. Hardly any Americans continued to plant sugar cane, even in Hawaii. And sugar beets, once a huge thing in northwest Iowa, became insignificant.
The signal event in this strange story of governmental price manipulation came in the early 1980s when the entire soft drink industry quit using sugar because high fructose corn sweeteners (HFCS) were so much cheaper.
After a couple decades of HFCS abuse, medical analysts noticed that obesity and diabetes rates began rising continuously after the change in soft drink recipes.
Sugar-sweetened soft drinks returned after a last-minute deal before the Bush administration gave way to the Obama administration in 2008. The U.S. lifted tariffs on Mexican sugar, and Mexico allowed more HFCS into their country.
About the same time, home gardens and farmers markets began propagating. Southwestern Wisconsin carved out a niche market for diversity of small crops thanks to the Madison Farmers Market, proclaimed the best in America by the late R.W. Apple, who was both the chief political commentator and “food writer at large” for the New York Times for four decades.
Wisconsin’s new claim to fame spilled into northeast Iowa where the Decorah Farmers Market became a guide for bigger ones in Iowa City and later in Des Moines. Those markets were elevated by two visionary farmers — Bobby Braverman in Iowa City and Larry Cleverley in Des Moines. Now farmers markets are popular in all counties, and restaurant gardens have been revived from a deep sleep that began more than 50 years ago.

Restaurant gardens
The late Ralph Compiano said, when he began working in the family restaurant business in the 1950s, Fleur Drive was still half rural. In fact, his family’s restaurant raised their chicken dinners in the backyard. The restaurant wasn’t even in Des Moines then. The city limits were at Watrous. Ralph gardened his entire life, growing peppers and other seeds that his family carried to Iowa from Italy.
Tony Lemmo carries on this tradition in Aposto at Café di Scala. He has three gardens there, and they supply his restaurant.
“One garden is perennials. I do this to ensure that we have a supply of heirloom vegetables that ancestors brought from that part of Calabria that most of us (Italian-Americans) in Des Moines came from.”
Archie’s Waeside in Le Mars, probably Iowa’s most renowned steak house, has had a garden on premises for decades. It aids a relish tray (that includes house-cured corned beef) and salad service that attracts pilot clubs to the airfield there.
Orlondo’s made salads from their on-premise garden on Park Avenue for their entire time there. Bars and cafés in Des Moines have been the happy hosts of vegetable exchanges and giveaways for decades. Tom Arnold, in his stand-up days before Hollywood fame, told a joke about Iowa nice.
“In Iowa, you have to be sure to lock your cars at the mall in summer. Otherwise, people will break in and leave bushels of oversized zucchini on your back seat.”
Iowa’s expression of garden dining is realized in its cider houses. Two, Wilson’s Orchard in Iowa City and Fishback & Stephenson in Fairfield, have extraordinary kitchens, too. F&S raises its own cattle for its burgers, which are made from entire cows including tenderloins and ribs.

Wallace House
Restaurant gardening has been the essence of Wallace Centers of Iowa since their preservation as historical sites, fittingly because the Wallace family’s fame and fortune derived directly from their genius with seeds.
One part of WCI’s mission is food security. They set aside an entire acre of garden production to grow sweet potatoes and donate each year’s harvest to area food banks and food pantries.
“Sweet potatoes are nutritious, easy to prepare, store well, and a common food in many cultures,” explained Carla Hicklin, who retired last year after a decade of managing the place.
WCI hosts “Know Your Farmer Dinners” that pair a homegrown menu with a chance to personally talk with top Iowa growers. Their restaurants in Des Moines and Orient connect patrons to their garden. Seasonal menus reflect garden, land and historic properties.
All produce served is grown naturally on the Orient farm. Most is harvested within 24 hours of the dinners. Chef/gardener Katie Porter, who also retired at the end of last season, consistently presented farm-fresh platters that included Milton Creamery cheese, pickled okra, hakeuri turnips, radishes, slaw and crosnes on my last visit.
That latter food (aka Chinese artichoke) is extremely rare in the U.S., a root that looks a bit like a snail. Another night the platter was composed of broccoli, green beans, traditional cauliflower, graffiti cauliflower, eggplant caponata, yogurt pesto, flatbread and a choice among three kinds of flavored crickets. (The dinner’s discussion topic that night was “edible insects.”) Dining at Wallace House epitomizes farmhouse elegance. Guest attire is casual, but tables are dressed up in real linen tablecloths, real flowers and homemade candles.
“Abundance Preserved Foods” are created from the fruits, vegetables and herbs grown organically at the Orient farm. Tomato compote, apple butter, whiskey apple butter, apple sage seasoning, garlic smoked salt, rosemary orange salt, basil salt, hot chile salt, hot chile sugar and lavender sugar (fabulous in beverages) are sold year around and at farmers market in warm months.
From March through mid-December, the Des Moines house hosts “Food for Thought” dinners on Thursday nights. Diners are encouraged to discuss topics that would likely have interested all the Wallace family. The bounty of the gardens can be enjoyed at the farm’s stall at Downtown Farmers Market, Wednesday teas and Thursday farm-to-table dinners in the Des Moines Wallace House in Sherman Hill, plus Tuesday lunches and Friday “Pizza on the Prairie” dinners at the Wallace farm in Orient. Those events help support the Center’s many programs, scholarships, internships and teaching programs.

Oak Park
The most ambitious private restaurant garden is in the works at Oak Park in Des Moines. We asked Executive Chef Ian Robertson about the plans.
What are you planting for spring, for summer and for fall?
“We are planning on planting a variety of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers sourced from Seed Savers Exchange, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Row 7 Seed Company. We are most excited about heirloom varieties of tomatoes, peppers, carrots and squashes that can’t always be found at the grocery store.”
Why do you think homegrown stuff is important to a restaurant menu?
“It comes down to nutrition and flavor. The fact that it doesn’t travel hundreds of miles to the table. You know exactly when it was harvested before it goes into a dish.”
Wall Street Journal wrote about heirloom grown edible corn and its superiority for masa. Do you plan to grow any?
“We are planning to grow heirloom sweet corn in conjunction with the ‘Three Sisters’ (corn, beans, squash) traditional growing method, as a way to utilize and celebrate classic companion planting.”
What are some menu applications you have in mind for garden produce?
“I am most excited to use our garden produce to build one of my favorite dishes, a strawberry and beet salad. Along with the strawberries and beets, it would also feature radishes and dill from the garden.”
Robertson mentioned Seed Savers Exchange reverently. That nonprofit organization outside Decorah is America’s greatest seed revivalist and seed bank. Almost everything it sells and trades is an heirloom, mostly brought to America from other continents and Mexico.
We asked Cleverley what the best time to start a home garden is.
“Sometimes I planted the first two weeks of March trying to get a head start. But it turned out that the seeds I planted in early March sprouted the same time as ones I planted in late March and early April.”

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