Story Photos by Robert Leonard
Smack-dab in the middle of Marion County lies Lake Red Rock,
largest lake. It always that way, but for those born, say,
after the mid it seems so. The Des Moines River runs through
the heart of the county, and in 1969 the US Army Corp of Engineers
plugged it. Ottumwa and points downriver profited from these flood
control efforts, and those of us who live in the area benefit from the
recreational aspects the lake offers as well as having the the most public
land of any county in the state.
Fifteen thousand plus years ago, glaciers crushed most of Canada, and
the lowermost point of the glaciers in that Late Wisconsin period is
called the Des Moines Lobe, which just touched Marion County. That
glacial melt, as well as scouring from earlier glaciations, gave us our
beautiful rolling hills that takes us just out of being prime country for
large scale row crop production. That opening provides many local
farmers an opportunity to do something a bit different.
You can start your visit to the small scale producers in the county anywhere, but there is only one place to end the day (more about that
One way to start is a way that many do each autumn--with the farms
that are on our annual Farm Crawl. Chemical-free food comes to our
table from several of these farms and only a matter of time for the
others. Every season of the year produce arrives from our friends Jill
Beebout and Sean Skeehan from Blue Gate Farm near Columbia.
Thanks to their high tunnels, they share the efforts of their labors
throughout the year. We belong to their CSA, and every week a box
comes full of surprises from their farm--arugula, asparagus, basil,
beans, garlic scrapes, beets, kale, potatoes, sorrel, turnips, tomatoes,
spinach--and on and on. We get recipes, and a chronicle of the week
on the farm and how doing. If rain, hail, storms, whatever impacts
the farm, we feel it with a lighter box. When the farm does well, our
box overflows and we share the bounty with our neighbors. Because of
Jill and hard work and ingenuity, our box is very seldom light.
Eggs and honey are also an option. And the eggs are beautiful browns,
pale blues and greens, a wide variety of colors as they should be. They
come in different shapes and sizes, an artistic and tasty delight, not like
bleached standardized factory eggs from a grocery store.
Just down the road is Pumpkin Patch, where for over thirty
years John and Joy Pierce have produced a plethora of types of pumpkins, squash, and gourds--over 70 varieties. Go there any fall day and
be amazed by the abundance and beauty their farm offers. As
well as great hospitality. get a tasty recipe from Joy, and a story
about each variety from John. Every year, as the season is about to
close on the farm, we pile our car full of pumpkins and squash which
serve as autumn decorations in our home until cooked. We almost
make it through the winter on that last trip.
Head up Highway 14 to Dan Farms where Dan Dennison grows
maybe the best sweet corn in the world. Dan always has a twinkle in
his eye, and a story to tell--and he know how to count. He
thinks there are 13 ears in a dozen ears of corn. My favorite way to
prepare corn is to pull back the husk a bit at the tassel, and stick
the corn tassel down in a bucket or bowl of water, letting the water
wick up the ear. After a half hour or so, I toss the corn on the grill,
where the water helps steam the corn inside the husk. After a minute
or two the husks start to burn, but a little of that is OK. Those kernels
caramelize as the starches break down into sugars. Pull them off the
grill after a few minutes and add a little butter and pepper. And eat.
Dan teamed up with his daughter Debra Kearney for a new experiment this year--strawberries. not convinced the strawberries will
pay off a lot of work, he told me. Daughter Debra is
more optimistic and every fan of Dan Farms sweetcorn is hoping
the strawberries work out.