Wide-eyed farmers took notes and snapped pictures as they listened to their interpreters' voices explain what their Marshalltown Community College hosts were saying. The visitors gathered like a gaggle of geese, scurrying from one sight to another, laughing in amazement at the 'strange' Iowa produce.
These farmers were international farmers from Haiti, India, Mali and Vietnam, visiting Iowa in mid-October for the World Food Prize Week activities. One of their stops on their visit as a tour of the MCC Rural Entrepreneurship Incubator and student gardens on the MCC campus in central Iowa. Provost Robin Shaffer Lilienthal along with professor Sally Wilson and Garrett Caryl, an ag student, and MCC farm manager Mary O'Dell, welcomed the guests.
The group of farmers was accompanied by interpreters, OxFam America members and the media. The OxFam organization works internationally in 99 countries with partners to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice. Following the MCC visit, the international farmers gathered with nearly 80 guests for an Iowa meal in rural Marshall County at the High Hopes Gardens farm of Mark Runquist and his wife Linda Barnes, MCC professor of biology.
Far from the cotton or rice fields of their homelands, the clusters of small, yellow pear-shaped tomatoes on plants in the edible landscape in front of the REI building drew the first big reaction from the international farmers. They asked what they were then, "Is this the right color? Are they supposed to be this shape?" as they took turns reaching into the bush, picking a ripe one to taste.
Visitors impressed with alternative agriculture potential in Iowa
Next, MCC entrepreneurial and diversified agriculture student Garrett Caryl of Colo brought out a big blue box. He removed the lid and revealed several inches of dark, rich compost. He scooped up a handful of soil conditioner and revealed several small red wiggler worms. Met by oohs and ahs, Caryl explained how he wraps the compost, efficiently made by the worms, in cheesecloth and suspends it in a clean 50-gallon barrel, pumps rain water through it and mixes in organic molasses. The liquid grows bacteria producing a "worm tea" that can be sprayed on the garden plants as organic fertilizer.
Caryl wowed the visitors again when he showed them one of his frozen 5-pound chickens, processed and ready for retail sale. He explained that he starts his chicken crop with one-day old chicks and keeps them under a heat lamp until they grow feathers. Garrett told about his 'chicken tractor,' a portable box equipped with water and feed that keeps the growing chickens confined to an area of fresh grass. The chickens scratch the ground, eat grass and weeds, and fertilize the space with manure. He moves the 'tractor' daily. In eight weeks the chickens are ready to be processed by a USDA inspected butcher, then can be sold through direct market or in a grocery store.
Program offers students chance to gain practical experience
Professor Sally Wilson told about the academic courses offered through the entrepreneurial and diversified ag program at MCC. "We began the program because our students are interested in learning about alternative agriculture and farming in different ways than how most of Iowa farms," she says. "The students we serve are mostly young beginner farmers, some with no ag background, and some are women seeking a new career or who are alone on the farm and need information. We also have many immigrants in Iowa from Eastern Europe, Mexico and North Africa. At MCC we have a place where they can actually do some farming, and we teach all aspects of farming including science, economics and business skills."
Wilson says in Iowa it takes three years of experience to get a farm loan. Most people can't go buy a farm with cash, and without the land, they can't gain the three years of experience. The program at MCC solves that issue. The MCC farm has approximately 130 acres and students can rent up to 10 acres. Mary O'Dell, the first graduate of the MCC entrepreneurial and diversified ag program, raises vegetables and fruit on her own farm and was recently hired as the part-time farm manager to oversee the MCC students and graduates.
Knowing how to market your product is as important as producing it
The international visitors toured the MCC hoop house where students see how long they can extend the growing season this fall. The Vietnamese guests were not impressed with the white radish they tasted, but everyone seemed to enjoy the juicy red cherry tomatoes.
It was the monster "cucumbers" across one garden that captured the guests' attention. These Mexican squash, which aren't really cucumbers, were up to four feet long in maturity. They were raised by Ramona and Bennie Chavez, graduates of the Iowa Valley Continuing Education "Start Your Farm Class". They are also known for raising great Mexican peppers from seed.
Caryl explained that the first thing a small farmer needs to consider is what to plant by researching how much of the produce he/she will be able to sell. "Then, don't try to grow your farm too fast. Be sure you can handle what you have. We need to transition our lifestyles and our budgets into being more sustainable."
That's what the MCC entrepreneurial and diversified ag program is teaching its students. The international farmers were impressed by what Garrett taught them in just one hour. Today, the knowledge shared by an MCC student is influencing Jacqueline Morette's truck garden in Central Haiti, Moussa Ag Demba--a wheat, rice and onion farmer from Mali; Duddeda Sugunawa and Andhra Pradesh who farm in India, and Le Ngoc Thach who raises rice on his farm in Vietnam. It is a small world when Marshalltown Community College in central Iowa can reach around the world and back again. For information about MCC programs, contact the college at 641-844-5570.