If you’ve never been to Canoe Creek Produce, where Barb Kraus, her family members, and a few interns each summer grow food and flowers for the Decorah community, it’s worth a trip! Even experienced farmers and gardeners will find much to learn and see here. In 20 years of commercial farming, Barb has developed excellent soil, mature perennials, and innovative systems to control weeds and pests organically.
How does she do it? During a Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network tour, Barb shared some of the farm’s history, her nitty-gritty production practices, and her marketing channels with other area farmers. What follows are some of those insights.
Barb’s family moved to this farm in 1972, and Barb grew up helping with the garden. She always enjoyed working with plants and animals, so she pursued Veterinary Science and then worked as a veterinarian. She and her husband, Kevin, bought the house and 11 acres on her home farm from her parents, along with a 17 acre parcel that they planted with trees.
But Barb’s job was hectic, and her children were young, and she wanted to spend more time on the farm growing plants. In 1998, she started selling eggs at the farmers market. Canoe Creek Produce grew from there.
Today, the certified-organic farm has a large 5 acre production area enclosed by deer fence, which allows space for fallow and crop rotations. A movable high-tunnel lengthens the growing season so that Barb can start plants earlier and keep others growing long into the fall. When the growing season is in full swing, Barb and her crew spend about 160 hours on the farm.
Barb uses mulch extensively to build organic matter, retain moisture, and suppress weeds. She first lays newsprint down over the soil, then covers it with ground hay or straw. She buys low quality hay or straw bales and has a hay grinder come in to grind the bales into a pile.
Barb almost exclusively hand plants transplants, which she can plant into the mulch. The few crops she direct seeds include Asian greens, radishes, and arugula. The combination of mulch and transplants saves a lot of finger weeding- in some places they don’t need to weed at all.
Cover crops are also used–in rotation and as a weed suppressant in between the rows to suppress weeds and cover the soil. This year, Barb is also experimenting with black silage tarp — laying it over a weedy area to cause weed seeds to quickly germinate and die.
For fertilizer, some manure is applied in the fall. Barb also purchased organic compost to add to the planting furrow, along with micronutrients in areas where manure hasn’t been applied.
With these techniques, Barb is moving away from tillage. She notes that her soil structure continues to improve, and she can suppress weeds with cover crops and mulch. She has a small walk-behind BCS tractor for the little tillage she does.
Response to Climate Change
Barb has witnessed climate change in the heavier, rapid rainfall at her place that we’ve seen across Northeast Iowa. Those rains have caused standing water on her farm (which isn’t in a low spot), and created trouble with root rot. In response, she’s changed the direction of her 30’ x 10’ rows to run over the hill’s contour to help promote drainage. She has also built some berms to control the flow of water across the field.
Variety, Flowers, & Joy
It’s clear to any visitor that Barb loves plants, and finds joy in experimenting with them. She grows an incredible variety of unique vegetables (like Mexican sour cucumber and shiso) and flowers for her CSA, farmers market, and wedding/event sales channels.
Nowhere is this variety more evident than Barb’s flower production, where the specific, and often divergent, needs of each flower demand careful attention, special treatment and exacting timing for success. To germinate, some varieties must stay in the dark for 30 days, some need cold treatment, and still others require sunlight. Some of the flower seeds are so small that Barb says they are “like dust.” Barb carefully plans and plants a variety of colors and textures from May to September, maintaining an attractive variety for wedding floral design into October.
Barb also reserves a little space for plants that pique her interest- just for the fun of it! She speaks happily of growing quinoa and amaranth, and toothache plant, which if eaten, causes numbing and drooling. Many of Barb’s past interns can vouch for its powerful effect!
Sometimes that joyful experimentation yields something that might fit into a floral arrangement or find its way to the dinner table. That might be the case for one of Barb’s newer perennial additions: hardy kiwis. This year she’ll train them to the trellis, and with any luck, next year they’ll bear fruit for the delight of the Decorah community.
Stewardship & Longevity
Touring the farm, one finds ample evidence of the longevity of Barb’s work here, from the beautiful soil structure to the carefully planned rotations. Beginning farmers visiting Canoe Creek farm were struck by the complex systems Barb has tailored to fit her farm. They were also impressed to see such a variety of mature (and sometimes rare) perennial crops, like blueberries, red, white and black currants, and Saskatoon berries.
Barb’s seasons of experience on this land have clearly put her in tune with its idiosyncrasies and provided her ample opportunities to hone methods and explore new crops. As Barb builds a resilient farm, she is truly showing us what it means to be a steward of the land.