A glimpse of spring graced the sunny April 9 gathering of the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network at River Root Farm in Decorah. Thirty-five farmers and community members from around the region attended the gathering, drawn by Mike Bollinger and Katie Prochaska’s extensive system of high tunnel and season-extension infrastructure.
The tour began in the greenhouse, where production of spring plant seedlings and microgreens was on full display. Space for plants on the tables is precious in the mechanically heated portion of the operation, so Mike and Katie make efficient use of the space through precise seeding and harvesting schedules.
Microgreens are started in an incubator which keeps the seeds moist and at 80 degrees to ensure high germination rates. Once germinated, they are moved onto a bench in the greenhouse where they grow to harvestable size within about a week. Katie showed the group the cordless hedge trimmer used to cut the microgreens. Next, they are washed and packed in clamshells, and distributed to food co-ops and restaurants in Decorah, LaCrosse, Viroqua and the Twin Cities.
Seedling plants are likewise germinated in the incubator, in flats with over 300 cells. Next, they are transplanted into larger packs for sale to gardeners. Mike and Katie grow special heritage varieties for Seed Savers Exchange, which are then ordered by people across the country and shipped to them in time for spring planting. Their seedlings are also available at Oneota Community Food Co-op in Decorah.
The group appreciated the innovative tools used at Root River to accomplish such delicate and precise work. Mike and Katie showed a vacuum seeder, which blows the microgreen seeds onto a tray and keeps them the correct distance apart. The group also saw a gadget that aligns with individual cells in a transplant tray to gently push the plants upward, with soil and roots fully intact.
After seeing where it all starts, the group moved on to tour the five high-tunnels and field production area where River Root grows salad greens, tomatoes, and flowers. In contrast to the greenhouse, these high-tunnels are passively heated by the sun, and plants in the high-tunnels are grown in the ground, rather than in flats on top of benches. While the sun heats the high tunnels, row-cover (white fabric) can be used over the plants as an additional way to trap heat close to the soil and raise the temperature for improved growth in cold weather. Some of the tunnels are also moveable, to allow for successively planting and using fields under cover.
Mike and Katie’s production season looks different from the typical farm. They specialize in extending the season so they can take more time off in the summer. They usually start harvesting microgreens in late February or early March, They are able to harvest and sell both of these crops from then until Christmas, when production ceases. With the seedlings, they start planting in February with batches ready to ship in April to gardeners in warmer regions. They are then continually planting and growing seedlings until gardeners in cooler climes, like Iowa, have planted their gardens for the year.
By developing successful products and diversified market outlets, since they started in Decorah in 2009, River Root Farm has grown to support a family as well as employees on 2.5 acres. Mike and Katie both work full-time on the farm, and are aided in production by two part-time employees. Said attendee Phil Jahnke-Sauer of Lourdes, Iowa, “I am very impressed with the efficiencies and production processes they have implemented to make their farm successful.”
River Root Farm is located in the city limits on the north side of Decorah. To learn more about River Root Farm and their products, check out www.riverrootfarm.com.
The Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network is a casual gathering of local food, beginning, and transitioning farmers making connections, finding common interests, collaborating, and learning together. Whether you’re a farmer or a curious eater, all are welcome. The group is convened by Kayla Koether from the Iowa State University Extension Local Foods Team, firstname.lastname@example.org.