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Farmers for the Future: From garden to farm

For two summers, Drew Scott and Lance Moeller made good money raising vegetables on a plot at the edge of Holland, Iowa.

Some might not call it farming to raise more than 1 acre of produce and 1/4 acre of pumpkins, especially in this prosperous central Iowa corn and soybean country.

But the two students learned a lot while planting and managing 10 tons of vegetables in a season, then marketing to local stores and two universities each week.

Scott, who is studying agricultural business at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, hopes the experience launches him into a career on his grandfather's farm. It, too, raises produce and sweet corn, as well as cattle and some 400 acres of corn and soybeans near Monmouth, Iowa. Scott's parents, Lee and Janet Scott, own the farmstead where the young men farmed.

Moeller, who's from a crop and cattle farm outside of town, also loves agriculture. "I can't take over the farm because my dad's too young, and land around here is really expensive," he says.

Last summer, a farm in the county sold for $5,900 an acre. Moeller is now studying construction management at the University of Northern Iowa in nearby Cedar Falls.

Scott and Moeller tried produce because it's been a good enterprise for Scott's grandfather, Doug Scott. "It's a relatively inexpensive way to get into farming," says Scott.

It's been profitable. The young men were still selling peppers and pumpkins after a light frost in October. They expected to net several times their investment of about $2,000 in seed, fertilizer, chemicals, irrigation, trucking and the checks they reluctantly write to their sisters for washing produce. "It hurts, but we're paying it out," Moeller jokes.

He says that the return "is extremely good.

"The reason more people don't do it is it's so labor intensive," he adds.

Just some of that labor involved putting in 4,000 plants, starting last April. They treated the soil with herbicides, then laid out plastic mulch and drip tape with a machine Moeller built. Seedlings they planted by hand were purchased from Doug Scott for about 10 cents each. They're not garden varieties. The cucumbers, for example, have a higher number of female flowers to produce more fruit. They replanted cukes through the summer, "because after two weeks, the cucumbers start getting curvy and aren't as good," Scott says.

Their marketing took off when they read a newspaper story about University of Northern Iowa efforts to buy more local produce. UNI's purchasing coordinator, Gale Secor, visited their produce plot "to make sure we weren’t some backyard garden with four plants," Scott says. "To make sure we could supply them."

Secor did more than that. She shared UNI's requirements for vegetable size and quality, and she gave the young farmers helpful advice. Cabbages, for example, need to weigh 7 to 8 pounds.

"We needed a certain size tomato that would slice up nice," Secor says later. UNI has been trying to buy more produce locally for about 10 years, to get fresher food and also to support Iowa's farm economy, she says. "A high percentage of the students at UNI are from farming or an Iowa background, and we feel an obligation to help farmers who send their kids here," she says.

Doug Scott, the grandfather, was selling to local stores long before it became trendy. "When we had $1.80 corn, the produce was awfully good," he says. "Like the sweet corn, we can still get $1,000 an acre off it."

Not that it's easy. He plants sweet corn weekly from April through early July. Once it's ready, he, his wife, Ruth Ann, and local kids he hires pick corn every day except Sunday for two months. Before earworm-resistant sweet corn, he had to spray every three to four days. Today, "this $4 corn looks awfully good, and it’s sure a whole lot easier," he says.

He has begun some transition planning for his grandson. "I would keep the ground and maybe have him work into the cows and the capital," he says. He's considering a share lease of cattle and leasing his grandson machinery.

He's proud of the young men's venture. "They've opened up some pretty good markets, and they've done pretty well at it," he says.

Like his grandson, Doug Scott started out selling to local buyers. Today, the regional grocery chain, Hy-Vee, is his biggest customer.

"The biggest problem Drew's going to run into is selling to these stores. He's got to have a lot of volume," he says. "If he can make that transition, the future looks bright.

"The produce business just keeps growing and growing," Doug Scott says. "There's no end to it."

For two summers, Drew Scott and Lance Moeller made good money raising vegetables on a plot at the edge of Holland, Iowa.

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