Raccoon Forks Farms, located in Redfield, has been known to provide fresh produce throughout the summer, as well as fresh brown eggs and broiler chickens year round to those participating in a Community Supported Agriculture program. While the farm is not organic certified by the USDA, they do produce their products with organic practices.
As a part of Optimae LifeServices, the farm also provides jobs and job training to individuals with intellectual disabilities, especially for those who may not have a lot of experience, have large gaps in their resumes, or are interested in the agriculture industry, but don’t have any experience.
“In the agriculture industry, there’s a lot of varied interest and [requires] a lot of skills that you don’t necessarily get in any other type of work environment, or if you don’t have access to a family farm, or a neighbor, or somebody that can kind of show you the ropes,” said Gillian Claycamp, Service Coordinator at Raccoon Forks Farms. “There isn’t a lot of integrated education or opportunities in that area.”
At Raccoon Forks Farms, they try to do things as simply as possible and do as much of the work as they can by hand, without the use of large mechanical equipment. The largest piece of machinery they use on a regular basis is one small tractor, which some small attachments.
The planting and even the moving of harvested products are done with small hand tools or wagons, which allows individuals with limited knowledge to be able to do those jobs. Doing the work by hand also promotes sustainable practices on the farm, Farm Manager Beth Buscher said.
“We try to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible,” Buscher said.
Normally, farm workers go through the rows of produce with a tiller. Buscher said that every once in a while they have to do that too when weeds get out of hand, but they try to take care of that by hand as much as possible, which uses less gas, puts out less carbon monoxide and also prevents water and other soil issues on a farm.
The farm doesn’t use any chemicals on the products they grow, partly because they don’t want that kind of thing on their food, and party for safety reasons.
“Our farmers are out there in those fields, using those hand tools and coming into contact everyday with the plant before, during and after harvest,” Claycamp said. “So by using organic materials to fertilize and as a pesticide and those kinds of things, we don’t have to worry about coming into contact with those and the risks that that poses to the individual that is putting those on, as far as handling those plants later.”
The main product produced at Raccoon Forks Farms is eggs, but Buscher says that they are slowly getting into goat meat and lamb as well. Additionally, they produce broiler chickens and all sorts of different kinds of vegetables, including the basics like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, but also some that people are “branching out” and trying, like fennel, kohlrabi and others.
Each year, the crop mixture is a little different, depending on what was popular the year before and what customers request. One thing they are doing new this year is growing Kellogg’s breakfast tomatoes, a large yellow tomato.
Other Optimae LifeServices business, including Brick Street Books and Cafe, and Brick Street Bakery, both in Adel, use their eggs and some of their products in their recipes and on their menus. Brick Street Books and Cafe is also a pick-up location for those participating in the Community Supported Agriculture program.
“It’s where we ask local people to invest in the farm ahead of the season, which gives us some running money, which is lovely,” explained Agricultural Marketing Manager, Harriett Dickey-Chasins. “And then we share the harvest all season with those members.”
In addition to Brick Street Books and Cafe in Adel, produce can be picked up at Railroad Bill’s Dining Car in Des Moines on Wednesdays after 3 p.m., Campbell’s Nutrition in Urbandale and Wheatsfield Coop in Ames on Thursdays after 3 p.m. Additionally, produce can be picked up at Meredith Publishing, Kemin Industries and at Sammons Financial, by employees of those businesses only.
The summer vegetable and egg season begins the week of June 4, the fall vegetable season begins the week of Oct. 22, the winter 2018-19 egg season begins the week of Dec. 3. The summer vegetable season is 20 weeks long and the fall vegetable season is six weeks long while the egg seasons are 26 weeks each.
Dickey-Chasins said that the investment “goes a little deeper” than just as a prepayment for vegetables and products throughout the season.
“It’s people caring enough about local food and local farming to want to support this kind of farm,” Dickey-Chasins said. “They could prepay Blue Apron too if they wanted, but they’re choosing to do it through CSA shares with us, which we really appreciate.”
Currently, Buscher is running a breeding program for Iowa Blue Chickens, which Dickey-Chasins said is a “heritage breed.” Buscher said that they are not making as much progress as they would like, but the group said that they are “keeping the breed alive.”
“(We) Pick the right traits instead of trying to get mass numbers,” Buscher said.
Raccoon Forks Farms already started planting produce in their greenhouse at the end of January and will start planting in their high-tunnel greenhouse around the last week of March. They even planted garlic out in the field last October, and covered it with straw through the winter.
Some additional projects they take on include, creating folk art, making egg soaps, using recycled egg cartons as boxes for the soap, and an Iowa Blue Chicken breeding program. They also breed Great Pyrenees, which they have on the farm to guard the chickens and the sheep, but can also send some to “permanent homes.”
Those who don’t sign up for the CSA can still buy Raccoon Forks Farms products at area farmers’ markets, including the Perry Farmers Market this year, and at local Hy-Vee stores, including the Court Avenue location in Des Moines, the Jordan Creek Parkway and Valley West Drive locations in West Des Moines, the University Avenue location in Windsor Heights and the Merle Hay Road location in Johnston. They also sell products through the Iowa Food Cooperative.