Des Moines metro farm couple are asking the community to join them in a modern-day barn raising

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Regsiter

It’s not unusual for Jordan Clasen to have four dozen boxes of winter squash, onions and other produce stored in his home’s front entry during the year’s coldest months.

Otherwise, the veggies would freeze in an uninsulated garage that’s among the buildings he and his wife, Whitney, use to wash, pack and store the fruit, vegetables and eggs they sell through their farm, Grade A Gardens in Johnston.

The couple aren’t complaining. “We’ve gotten by for this long, but it would be nice to get a proper building,” Clasen said.

The couple may get the chance. They’re moving their farm next year to 25 acres they bought near Earlham. The farm has no buildings, so they’re constructing a home and looking for help to build a barn, which is critical to the new operation.

The Clasens have launched a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign, which they call a modern-day barn-raising. They’re looking for financial contributions instead of hammer-wielding neighbors to build the barn, and they’re halfway to their goal in the fundraiser, which ends March 31.

This is the third time the Clasens have used Kickstarter to help expand their farm business. Four years ago, they raised $25,000 to build a greenhouse and nearly six years ago, $9,000 to build a chicken coop, fencing and food to double the farm’s egg-laying hens to 300.

The Clasens also got a big discount on their new farm through a program managed by the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust. They’re an example of a growing number of small-scale, locally focused fruit, vegetable and livestock farmers in Iowa, and SILT aims to help establish them around the state’s urban areas, where their products can help diversify and sustain the food supply.

Iowa loses about 1,000 barns a year

Jordan Clasen, who got into farming a dozen years ago while managing the produce department at Des Moines’ Gateway Market & Cafe, views the appeal to the community for help in building the barn as an updated version of an old tradition.

“If you go back to the early 1900s, that’s how all these barns were built,” said Clasen, who’s been farming full-time for six years. “All your neighbors would come together and physically help you raise the barn. That’s not really possible today.”

Preservation Iowa estimates that the state, historically an agricultural powerhouse, had 200,000 barns at one time, used to store hay, corn and other crops, shelter dairy cows, cattle, pigs and other livestock and protect equipment.

Iowa, though a national leader in producing corn, soybeans, pork, eggs, beef and milk, now has an estimated 60,000 barns, with about 1,000 lost each year to age and neglect, the group says.

Just as Iowa farmers did more than a century ago, the Clasens plan to use their 40-by-48-foot barn to clean, box and store their produce, along with housing their tractor and other equipment. They send boxes with 60 different kinds of vegetables and fruits, along with pasture-raised eggs, to about 100 families over the growing season. Customers buy a share each year of the farm’s harvest, a partnership called community-supported agriculture, or CSA.

The Clasens also sell their produce to area restaurants and at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market, which attracts thousands of Iowans from May through October, and at Des Moines’ Winter Farmers’ Market.

Clasen said a big reason his family needs a barn is to store about 60,000 garlic plants they raise each year. The garlic needs to hang for a few weeks to dry and cure after it’s harvested. “That enables the garlic to keep for months and months,” he said.

Now, they’re hauling the garlic to Woodward to cure in a friend’s barn, an effort that takes several trips.

Nonprofit cuts land prices for food growers

The Clasens’ purchase of their new Dallas County farm takes advantage of the steep discount they got with the help of SILT. The eastern Iowa nonprofit group helps local growers of vegetables, fruit and livestock buy land that’s placed under permanent easement, allowing it to be used only to grow healthy table food.

Because the land can’t be developed commercially under the easements, its value drops, making it more affordable to small growers.

The Clasens purchased the land from the estate of the late TC Winchell, who wanted to preserve the “solemnity or quietness” of the land, which sits next to the Bear Creek Quaker meeting house. Silence is part of Bear Creek’s services.

Bob Winchell said he and other family members wanted to honor his late wife’s wish that the land remain in agriculture. And Winchell said he understands it’s difficult for young farmers to buy land, especially near cities like Des Moines, where farm acreage gets gobbled up for commercial, retail and residential development.

Jordan Clasen said the 8 acres his family now rents is a prime location that will be sold for development. The couple looked for new farmland around Des Moines but “it was just out of our price range,” he said.

“The biggest problem for farmers our age is access to capital and land,” Clasen said. “If you don’t have land handed down to you, it’s almost impossible to get your foot in the door.”

He and his wife, 31, who have a 1-year-old daughter, Wilhelmina, and another baby due this fall, paid about $114,000 for their new farm, around a third of the land’s value if it were to be developed.

SILT has outlined an ambitious plan to raise $3 million over the next three years to protect farm acreage around nearly a dozen Iowa cities and towns for local food production.

Iowa seeing an increase in small farms

Jacqueline Venner-Senske, Practical Farmers of Iowa’s horticulture coordinator, said fruit, vegetable and other specialty crop farmers face several challenges — from creating their own consumer markets to finding lenders who are familiar with their business model.

For example, bankers may be more comfortable using a corn crop than a field of broccoli as collateral for a loan. “Small farmers do have to look to their community to help their businesses thrive,” Venner-Senske said.

Despite the challenges, the number of small farms in Iowa is growing, even though the total number of farms is shrinking. Farms with fewer than 50 acres increased 43% over the past two decades, while the total number of farms fell 11%, the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture shows.

The Clasens are offering 10 families who donate $7,000 apiece to their barn-raising effort a lifetime CSA subscription, giving them 24 weeks a year of produce for as long as the Clasens are farming. They’re also selling naming rights to the barn and other advertising opportunities.

Even if the Clasens’ kids or grandkids decide against farming, the land, barn and any other buildings they construct will be sold to another family who wants to grow food for central Iowans, Jordan Clasen said.

“This sets up the next generation,” he said. “They’ll have a nice home and barn.”

Jordan Clasen carries his daughter Willa as they plant their starters inside a greenhouse at their 8 acre farm on Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Johnston, IA. Jordan and his wife Whitney own Grade A Gardens and are in the process of moving their operation to Earlham where they are raising money via kickstarter to build a barn.
Jordan Clasen waters plants inside the Grade A Gardens greenhouse on Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Johnston, IA. Jordan and his wife Whitney run Grade A Gardens and are raising money for a barn on their new farm in Earlham.
Whitney Clasen works on planting starters in the Grade A Gardens Greenhouse Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Johnston, IA. Whitney and her husband Jordan run Grade A Gardens and are raising money for a barn on their new farm in Earlham.