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East Iowa family farm sees success with 'tunnel' greenhouses

Greenhouses
Posted at 4:18 PM, Jul 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-09 17:18:47-04

GUTTENBERG, Iowa (AP) — The produce grown at Phelps Farm near Guttenberg runs the gamut from cucumbers and celery to cauliflower and cantaloupe, and Andrew Phelps knows precisely where each crop is planted.

“Over there, we’ve got okra, snow peas, chard, dill and cilantro,” he said on a recent morning, indicating the neatly organized rows of plants at the family’s farm. “I’ve got kohlrabi hiding in the weeds there, too.”

Andrew and his wife, Amy, have owned and operated Phelps Farm since 2019, with help from their two children: Ayden, 3, and Allie, 2. The family sells produce and locally raised beef at several area farmers markets.

When Amy and Andrew purchased the 78-acre property from Amy’s parents, their goal merely was to grow pumpkins, according to Andrew.

“We scaled up pretty quickly,” Amy said with a laugh.

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports Amy and Andrew’s families had gardens in their youth, but neither had experience with full-scale farming. To prepare, they enrolled in online courses and researched the best methods of growing each crop.

Amy’s brother owns a farm across the road, also previously owned by their parents. There, he raises 200 head of beef cattle, which graze on Andrew and Amy’s land. The couple purchase some of the cattle to process and sell their meat.

Phelps Farm also is home to a flock of ducks and four beehives, and Amy said the family hopes eventually to sell the eggs and honey.

The centerpiece of the farm, however, are the outdoor garden plots and four “tunnel” greenhouses, including a heated tunnel in which plants such as lettuce, spinach and radishes can grow through the winter.

The other tunnels hold eggplants, peppers, tomatillos, ginger, tomatoes and other produce. Herbs, more vegetables and fruits such as strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and watermelon take up the outdoor plots.

Andrew works on the property full-time, and the farm employs four part-time workers, along with family and friends who lend a hand. The Phelps family does not live on the property, but Amy will stop by several times a week to help, and the kids always are around to pick weeds, inspect the beehives and sample a few early strawberries or tomatoes.

Although deer roam the Phelps’ 30 wooded acres and can pose a threat to young crops, fences keep most of them at bay. The true threats, Andrew said, are wind, weeds and bugs.

“See those pretty white butterflies?” he asked, pointing out the flitting insect. “Well, those are what’s called cabbage loopers, and they lay eggs and then we get worms in our cabbages.”

The farm is not certified organic, he said, but workers use only organic fertilizers and sprays to deal with such pests.

“It’s really up to us to decide what we’re growing and how we’re growing it, but we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature to make it happen,” Amy said.

The couple battled the elements in December when a storm that produced winds up to 60 mph severely damaged two of the farm’s tunnels and threatened the winter crop of lettuce growing inside.

“The next day, we had to decide, ‘Do we keep doing this, or do we stop?’” Amy recalled. “We decided we’d committed so much, so we ordered the replacement parts, and Andrew had that tunnel rebuilt within a week.”

Andrew said he covered the lettuce with plastic and tucked Christmas lights around the plants to provide some warmth while the tunnel was being rebuilt.

In addition to selling their wares at farmers markets in Dubuque and Guttenberg, Andrew and Amy last year launched a Community Supported Agriculture box service, in which members receive a weekly box of produce from the farm delivered to their door. The 20-week summer service has 25 members in Clayton, Delaware and Dubuque counties, and the Phelps family also offers abbreviated spring and fall seasons.

“We like to have six to eight things in the box each week, and we try to add something different or new each time,” Amy said. “This week, they’re getting garlic scapes and cabbage, and next week, the broccoli will probably be ready.”

She likes to tuck in recipes or cooking tips when the box includes produce with which recipients might not be familiar.

Phelps Farm also sells produce to a few restaurants. Eventually, Andrew and Amy hope to erect a larger building for washing and packing of produce — that work currently takes place in an old food stand Andrew calls “the burger barn” — which would allow them to be federally inspected and sell their produce to schools. Amy also hopes to teach classes in food preparation such as canning, which she does herself each year.

“I think it’s really good for people to know where their food comes from and what it’s made of, and to know that, if they don’t like a certain kind of tomato, there are other varieties to try,” she said.

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