Lyle Ditmars, along with two of his sons, his daughter-in-law, and a crew of hard-working, dedicated employees run Ditmars Orchard & Vineyard, a quaint fruit orchard complete with a cidery, restaurant and sweet shop. Lyle began planting his orchard in fall of 1994, after purchasing the land the previous year. Today he has full grown apple trees, teaming with vibrant fruit, planted in neat rows which are each labeled with the variety of apple that occupies the row. Lyle has many apple varieties growing in his orchard, some we commonly see in commerce, like Red and Yellow Delicious. However, Lyle’s apples are grown right here, in southwest Iowa soil. They are fresh and have not been stored in a warehouse for months. You can see the vibrance in the apples, as they weigh down the loaded branches. You can taste the freshness. In addition to some of the common varieties, he has some tasty lesser-known varieties too, like Bella and Liberty.
Ditmars Orchard is known for their apples, but before the apples are ripe for the season, you can find other delicious fruits there too. From late May through early July, you can pick your own strawberries, which are sold by the pound. Pie cherries are sold by the pound, too, and are usually ready to pick right around mid-June. And, assuming we avoid a late spring frost that compromises the blossoms, apricots and peaches can be purchased in-store from late July through August. And of course, there is a pumpkin patch and pumpkins for sale in the fall.
The apples are not the only eye-catching crop that grows at Ditmars Orchard. Rows of vivid zinnias, popular with the people and pollinators, are bursting with vibrant color and can be purchased by the stem, or the bouquet. Zinnias begin to show color in July and bloom until we get a hard frost, sometime in fall.
In addition to being an orchard, Ditmars is a gathering place for fun family activities. While children can run around outside enjoying the fresh air and playground, adults can spend time in the tasting room, or in the outside seating area, sampling local Iowa beer, wine or hard cider. Ditmars Orchard has created several different blends of wine, some of which highlight apples grown in their orchard. Wine is available by the glass or bottle, purchased in their Orchard Store. Hard cider can be sampled by purchasing a flight, containing six flavors, by the glass or even the growler.
Matt Johnson grew up familiar with agriculture in small-town Nebraska and knew he was interested in farming, but spent years living in the city and working in IT before a too-good-to-pass-up opportunity opened up with a few acres just east of Council Bluffs. In the middle of the pandemic in 2020, Matt Johnson and partner Tiffiny Clifton bought a small farm and started to bring their dreams to fruition.
While they don’t have formal training or education in food production, they have learned a lot from reading, watching videos, attending conferences, networking with other farmers, and a few years of experience.
In just 3 years, they have scaled up to having an additional full-time employee, 3 part-timers, and a few more during the peak summer season. Matt and Tiffiny also both have off-farm jobs.
They are currently building a new wash/pack space and commercial kitchen that will help the farm scale up and make more value-added products like jar salads, herb salts, pesto, pickles, and more.
Long Walk Farm grows more than 20 different crops (and even more varieties within that). Their garlic is especially popular at the farmers market, and restaurants love their greens and seasonal vegetables.
They have numerous high tunnels and caterpillar tunnels to help with season extension. Most recently, they added a 120’x30’ high tunnel with assistance from the EQIP program.
They have several La Mancha goats and hope to have a small dairy in the future. They also have several Kunekune and American Mulefoot pigs.
Their biggest sales channel is metro-area restaurants, including Lemon Tree, Au Courant, Boiler Room, Le Bouillon, V Mertz, Omaha Country Club, and more.
Some of their produce is also sold to Mealbox in Omaha.
You can also find Long Walk Farm at the Aksarben Farmers Market in Omaha on Sundays.
Find Long Walk Farm on Facebook and Instagram.
If you've ever hiked at Preparation Canyon in Monona County, you may have come across some metal pipes sticking out of the ground and wondered, "What in the world is that?!"
It's actually an art installation that was part of the Land of the Fragile Giants: Landscapes, Environments, and Peoples of the Loess Hills project 30 years ago!
For this project, "twenty-seven professional artists from Iowa and the Midwest visited the Loess Hills at various times throughout 1993 to gather insight for their projects. The result: a dramatic exhibition of paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs that beautifully complement this volume's literary works. The twelve essayists also have strong ties to the Loess Hills. Each author has spent a significant portion of her or his life in the Hills. The scientists reinterpret their research within the framework of their experience; the humanists provide background and context for the scientists; the artists illuminate the whole." The art was commissioned by the Brunnier Art Museum at Iowa State University in Ames.
You can learn more here and buy the Land of the Fragile Giants book, edited by Cornelia Mutel and Mary Swander, at the University of Iowa Press website.
According to artist Gina Crandell, "On the third plateau of this ridge is a field of recycled well pipes which, like the legs of an invisible table top, extend the ground level. This environmental art project is designed to allow the steep slopes and unique qualities of the soil of the Loess Hills to be viscerally felt."
While there is currently no signage or information at the sculpture site, you can find it along Sarah's Trail, which runs through the Preparation Canyon Unit of Loess Hills State Forest and through Preparation Canyon State Park. The art piece is on the ridge to the southwest of the shelter.
Find maps of hiking trails at Loess Hills State Forest and Preparation Canyon State Park here.
Regenerative agriculture is a buzzword you might have heard lately. But what does it mean?
Check out this video from Regenerative Farmers of America to learn more:
Regenerative agriculture aims to improve sustainability for land, water, wildlife, people, and rural communities & economies. While there are certainly challenges to implementing regenerative practices within current systems on a global scale, many farmers across America and beyond have begun to see the benefits of these practices.
In a nutshell, regenerative practices include:
Additionally, the principle of knowing your farm's context is often included, as each piece of land is different based on things like soils, topography, and climate. Practices that work well on one farm wont' always be best on another farm.
Golden Hills will be working with local farmers in the coming years to incorporate practices that build soil health and provide environmental benefits, as well as more nutritious food and help rural communities.
Stay tuned and learn more at goldenhillsrcd.org/regenag
Sylvan Runkel (1906–1995) was the coauthor of five books about midwestern wildflowers, including Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie (Iowa paperback, 2009), Wildflowers of Iowa Woodlands (Iowa paperback, 2009), and Wildflowers and Other Plants of Iowa Wetlands (Iowa paperback, 2015). A vigorous promoter of conservation for many years, he was honored by the dedication of the Sylvan Runkel State Preserve in 1996.
In honor of Runkel's birthday on August 30th, we are celebrating the twelve state preserves on or near the three byways in western Iowa.
The State Preserves System is an effort to protect and maintain examples of significant archaeological, historical, geological, biological, and scenic areas for present and future generations. The five types of preserves are defined as follows:
Many preserves do not contain officially established trails, but an informal footpath often leads from the parking lot toward prominent features. Most of the preserves are easily traversed without formal trails, especially the open expanses of the prairie preserves. Many preserves are also wildlife management areas, purchased with hunting license fees and are open to hunting, fishing, and trapping.
Activities prohibited on most preserves include; driving of motor vehicles, camping, fires, horses, removal of or damage to plants, animals, and other natural materials and archaeological and other cultural materials. A few preserves are closed to the public because they are privately owned, because all access is privately owned, or for the protection of sensitive communities on the site.
For a detailed description of each state preserve, download the Iowa DNR's State Preserves Guide on the Iowa State Preserves website.
Five Ridge Prairie State Preserve
Mount Talbot State Preserve
Mount Talbot State Preserve is a 90-acre area featuring a rugged Loess Hills landscape with forested slopes and prairie-capped ridges. It is located in the northern part of Stone State Park, in Plymouth and Woodbury Counties. In 1885, Daniel Talbot acquired much of the hilly land north of Sioux City. He had an interest in nature, specifically birds. A high grassy ridge of the Talbot farm became locally known as “Mount Talbot.” In 1895, Thomas Jefferson Stone acquired the Talbot land, and after his death, his son Edgar developed it into a private park. In 1912, Sioux City bought the area and designated it as “Stone Park,” a recreational area for city residents. In 1935, Stone Park was tranferred to the Iowa Conservation Commission and became a state park. In the 1980s, a series of biological surveys by The Nature Conservancy and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources identified the Mount Talbot area of Stone State Park as a high-quality prairie. It was dedicated as a biological state preserve in 1989.
Sylvan Runkel State Preserve
Sylvan Runkel State Preserve is a 330-acre preserve containing an outstanding example of Iowa’s Loess Hills landscape, with extensive native prairie covering steep hills. The tracts comprising the preserve were acquired by the Iowa Conservation Commission in 1973 and 1980 as part of the 3,000-acre Loess Hills Wildlife Area. In 1985, the Loess Hills Wildlife Area (including the preserve area) became part of a 10,420-acre National Natural Landmark. In 1996, the preserve was established for its biological and geological significance, and named in memory of Sylvan Runkel
The preserve lies along the western edge of the Loess Hills landform region, overlooking the broad Missouri River valley, which was a major route for silt-laden, glacial meltwater flows some 14,000 to 30,000 years ago. Thick (up to 150 feet) deposits of silt blown by winds from the floodplain formed what is now the Loess Hills. The crested hills, long narrow summits, branching spurs, and steep slopes of this landscape were later developed by partial erosion of the deep loess deposits.
Turin Loess Hills State Preserve
Turin Loess Hills State Preserve is a 220-acre area featuring a rugged Loess Hills landscape with an abrupt west-facing ridge. It is located in the southern unit of the 3,000-acre Loess Hills Wildlife Area, 2 miles north of Turin and 7.5 miles east of Onawa in Monona County. The Iowa Conservation Commission purchased the area in 1974. In 1978, the area was dedicated as a biological and geological state preserve and became part of a National Natural Landmark in 1986.
Located on the western edge of the Loess Hills landform region, the preserve overlooks the broad Missouri River valley, which was the source of the silt now forming the hills. Characterized by a series of steep ridges with narrow crests and very steep side slopes, it is an excellent example of the unique “peak and saddle” topography of the 60- to 150-foot-thick loess deposits that developed 14,000 to 30,000 years ago from wind-blown silt. Within the preserve, the one- to three-yard-wide ridges and numerous side spurs are covered with native prairie vegetation. Numerous ravines are forested primarily with bur oak and eastern red cedar trees.
Vincent Bluff State Preserve
Vincent Bluff State Preserve was dedicated as the 95th State Preserve on May 16 2009. Vincent Bluff Prairie Preserve is a cooperative venture between the City of Council Bluffs, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the LHPS to preserve a unique urban prairie in the Loess Hills Landform. The preserve is located in the heart of Council Bluffs; the City owns the land. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation was the vehicle through which primary acquisition of the property was made possible. LHPS, through an agreement with the City of Council Bluffs, provides for the management and restoration of the preserve. Numerous other sponsors, volunteers and organizations worked to make the project come to fruition as well.
Glenwood Archaeological State Preserve
The Glenwood Archaeological State Preserve is Iowa’s 96th dedicated preserve. Only a few preserves have significant archaeological resources. The Glenwood Archaeological State Preserve is one of those few with significant archaeological resources. There are 107 recorded archaeological sites in the Glenwood Archaeological State Preserve, ranging from about 10,000 years in age to the early Euro-American settlement era, 150 years ago. Most significant are 27 earth lodge sites in the preserve that are related to the Glenwood Culture, also known as the Nebraska phase of the Central Plains tradition. Only a small fraction of the preserve has been archaeologically surveyed, so many more sites probably exist in the preserve.
The Glenwood Archaeological State Preserve is a low impact recreation area, meaning that no public activity can impair the integrity of the site. The site hosts multi-use trails ready for running, hiking, biking and wildlife observation. Aside from the archaeological sites within the property, one can also find forest, oak savanna, native prairie, restored prairie and agricultural grounds on the site.
Dinesen Prairie State Preserve
Derald Dinesen’s gravestone can be seen on the top of the hill and from this vantage point a wonderful overlook of the preserve can be seen. Two stone benches in the parking area are placed in memorial of Dean L. Frederickson, a prairie advocate from the area. In 1983, the preserve came under control of the Shelby County Conservation Board.
The gently rolling native prairie, with its loess-topped ridges typical of the western portion of the Southern Iowa Drift Plain, was formerly hayed every fall. A ridge crosses the preserve from west to east with a gradual drainage eastward to the wide valley of the Nishnabotna River. It is covered with waist-high prairie grasses. Porcupine grass and prairie horsetail are seen here, along with Junegrass, sideoats grama, Indian grass, and Canada wild rye. Forbs are abundant and showy during the growing season, with at least 114 species of plants. In the spring, beautiful swells of prairie phlox, indigo bush, hoary puccoon, blue-eyed grass, lousewort, and bird’s-foot violet wave across the prairie, followed by the summer flowers of Canada anemone, rattlesnake master, prairie turnip, prairie coreopsis, leadplant, New Jersey tea, compass plant, and gayfeather. Fall’s flora includes several asters, blazing star, Maximillian sunflower, and stiff goldenrod
Sheeder Prairie State Preserve
Sheeder Prairie is a 25-acre tallgrass prairie. It is located five miles west of Guthrie Center in Guthrie County. The property was purchased in 1961 by the Iowa Conservation Commission from Oscar and Clara Sheeder, the son and daughter-in-law of the original homesteader. It was dedicated as a biological state preserve in 1968.
This preserve lies within the Southern Iowa Drift Plain, a landform region of gently rolling terrain. Over 200 plant species are found in this preserve, including thirty grasses. The prairie hilltops and slopes contain big bluestem, little bluestem, porcupine grass, and prairie dropseed along with leadplant, rosinweed, prairie willow, and redroot. Prairie phlox, golden alexanders, flowering spurge, rattlesnake mas- ter, purple coneflower, and grayheaded coneflower are also common. The wooded ravines are dominated by box elder, wild plum, and black willow
Pellet Memorial Woods State Preserve
A 20 acre tract containing 8 acres of native woodland that was established as a wildflower preserve in 1908. It is known to contain over 120 species or plants. Some of which are marked along the trail.
In the spring of 1907 Frank Pellett returned to Cass County with his wife and first two children. He was planning to live his life as a naturalist and beekeeper. Frank was concerned because many of the wildflowers that were abundant during his boyhood were threatened with extinction. After his death, the Iowa Horticultural Society and the Iowa Beekeepers Association dedicated the five acres Frank set aside in 1907 to his memory. His children arranged with the Iowa State Preserves Advisory Board, to dedicate eight acres including five acres of the Memorial Woods as an Iowa State Preserve. On January 11, 1984 the Pellett's deeded 12 more acres to the state making a total of 20 acres in the Pellett Memorial Woods. Since 1987, the area has been owned by the State of Iowa and managed by the Cass County Conservation Board.
Wittrock Indian Village State Preserve
Steele Prairie State Preserve
T. H. Steele Prairie is a 200-acre native tallgrass prairie, consisting of a 160-acre tract and a separate 40-acre tract. It is located 10.5 miles north of Cherokee in northern Cherokee County. This is one of the largest prairies remaining in Iowa outside of Loess Hills. Dr. Ada Hayden initially visited this prairie (which she termed “Cherokee No. 2”) in 1945 and recommended that it be protected. The prairie had been used as a hayfield by the Steele family since 1880. The Nature Conservancy and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources jointly purchased the site from the Steele family in 1986. It was dedicated in 1987 as a biological and geological state preserve during “Prairie Heritage Week.”
The preserve’s terrain is characteristic of the gently rolling topography of the Northwest Iowa Plains, which was last glaciated 20,000 to 30,000 years ago during an early phase of Wisconsinan-age glaciation. Most of the vegetation in the preserve is comprised of mesic prairie on uplands, with smaller areas of wet prairie communities along drainageways. The mesic uplands are dominated by big bluestem, prairie dropseed, and porcupine grass with myriad colorful wildflowers. The lower wet swales are dominated by sedges, blue-joint grass, and prairie cordgrass. By May, hoary puccoon, prairie violet, bastard toadflax, golden alexanders, and violet wood sorrel can be found blooming and are joined by blue-eyed grass, prairie larkspur, and leadplant in June. By July, the early spring flowers have faded and are replaced by pale purple coneflower, butterfly weed, rattlesnake master, New Jersey tea, gray-headed coneflower, blackeyed Susan, and silvery scurf-pea. By August, compass plant and prairie blazing star are blooming. Fall brings sneezeweed, stiff goldenrod, smooth blue aster, and downy gentian.
Nestor Stiles State Preserve
Nestor Stiles Prairie State Preserve is a 9.5-acre area featuring a small tallgrass prairie. The prairie was given to the Iowa Conservation Commission in 1981 by Marguerite S. Whiting in honor of her father, Nestor Stiles, a banker and a conservationist who protected several natural areas throughout the county. The prairie was dedicated as a biological state preserve, also in 1981. The level to gently rolling topography of the area is typical of the Northwest Iowa Plains landform region, which was last glaciated 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. The prairie, located on a knoll in the southwest corner of the preserve, contains many prairie species, including big bluestem, porcupine grass, prairie dropseed, compass plant, white false indigo, and New Jersey tea. The lowland area along a stream is dominated by Jerusalem artichoke and willows.
You may remember Danelle Myer from our earlier post about One Farm Market in Logan. We visited Danelle again, this time at the farm during the peak of the growing season.
Danelle grew up on a conventional rowcrop farm in the rolling hills of southwest Iowa, near Logan in Harrison County. She moved away for college, where she studied public relations, then worked in PR and marketing for more than 15 years. During that time she liked gardening and cooking, but enjoyed her work and wasn’t looking for a career change. Danelle became interested in healthy eating and learned about the benefits of organic agriculture and food. When she realized the opportunity and incredible privilege she had with access to family land, Danelle decided she wanted to grow food for her hometown community. She was accepted into an apprenticeship program at University of California-Santa Cruz Center for Agriculture & Sustainable Food Systems, where she learned about sustainable and healthy food production. She then moved back to Logan and started One Farm.
Currently One Farm is growing several of types of potatoes. cabbage, peppers, green beans, tomatoes, chard, parsley, beets, rhubarb, cukes, summer squash, and more. One Farm Market is the primary sales outlet, and the store recently moved to a larger space. One farm also has Thanksgiving Bounty Boxes that sell out every year--order yours here!
Cottonwood Hill Farms on the outskirts of McClelland in Pottawattamie County is a multigenerational livestock farm. John Springhower’s grandparents started farming what is now Cottonwood Hill Farms in 1955, and his grandmother lived in the house until 2020. John started farming the entire farm in 2013 with corn and soybeans. John’s dream of farming full-time came to fruition in 2021.
After learning about environmental, human health, and economic concerns related to conventional rowcrops and the Standard American Diet, John decided to transition the farm primarily to livestock production, starting with grass-fed beef. He later added pigs and chickens, then a dairy herd last year.
In 2021 Cottonwood Hill Farms purchased 21 head of cattle, including 18 dairy cows. Today they are milking 10 cows. They stopped using anhydrous fertilizer, sythentic chemicals, and genetically modified seed and feed. The livestock also no longer consume soy products.
Their cattle are primarily Jersey, with some red angus, shorthorn, highland, Aubrac mixed in. The milk protein is A1/A2, but they are moving towards more A2 for the health benefits. The chickens include free-range layers and broilers.
Some of the land on the farm had poor soil health due to many years of rowcrop production, and John wanted to improve the soil health. A rotation of alfalfa and oats has replaced soybeans and corn. Cattle are also rotated through paddocks regularly, and the chicken tractors are moved daily. In the spring, fresh cows are rotated daily, but dry cows and the bull are moved less frequently.
Pastures include a mix of cool- and warm-season grasses like orchard grass, rye, timothy grass, and fescue. Some native species like big bluestem have made an appearance recently, a welcome sight indicating that soil health is improving. Eventually they would like to be able to raise all the feed to last throughout the year. They also get mushroom blocks from Terra Firma Fungi to create healthy compost for the soil.
As of August 2023, Cottonwood Hill is taking a break from beef and pork to focus on the dairy. They currently are getting just over 20 gallons per day, but that can vary throughout the year. Food safety is of utmost importance for the dairy. Milking equipment is cleaned with Dawn dish soap and vinegar, and they avoid synthetic chemicals on the livestock and equipment.
Just this year, the State of Iowa legalized on-farm sales of raw milk with numerous restrictions and requirements, however, Cottonwood Hill Farms does not sell their milk. Their milk is obtained through a “Herdshare Program” where they are developing a community of like-minded folks, and plan to do more on-farm events in the future.
Adam Junge’s family has a long history of farming, starting in east Omaha in 1890. Adam has continued that tradition and started farming at his current location between Council Bluffs and Underwood 4 years ago.
Junge Produce grows a wide variety of vegetables as well as some fruit, bedding plants, hanging baskets, and eggs depending on availability. You can buy their produce starting in spring with early crops like asparagus, well into the fall with pumpkins and squash.
They grow on five acres at their home and have an additional four acres at a farm just down the road. They avoid spraying herbicides and use organic pest control for some crops, so weeding is a constant battle.
Adam is currently farming full-time with help from his wife Erin and their two children.
They have an on-farm market on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. They also sell at the Council Bluffs Farmers Market on Thursdays, Underwood Farmers Market, Treynor Farm, and Florence Mill Farmers Market. Learn more at their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jungeproduce
Heath and Katie Hoppes started Hidden Hollow Farm in 2015 with a hay, small grains, and corn rotation on about 80 acres in the Loess Hills of Pottawattamie County. The Hoppes family’s goal was to grow more of their own food, know how it was raised, and to become more self-sufficient.
Their crops have been Certified Organic since 2018. This year they had about 50 acres of hay, which is used to feed their cattle during the winter months.
In addition to crops, they started raising broiler chickens in 2018, then later added pigs, and finally Aberdeen cattle.
They raise 10-15 hogs per year, and currently have 30 head of cattle. The cattle are primarily grass-fed but do eat some spent grains from Full Fledged Brewing in Council Bluffs. They are rotated on several paddocks of grass including both native prairie species and brome. The hogs and cattle are processed at KB Meats in Blair, NE.
Hidden Hollow typically has 2-3 batches of broilers per year, and a batch of turkeys each fall that are ready just in time for Thanksgiving.
Customers can also order online or contact the farm to pick up on the farm. They also sell at the Council Bluffs Farmers Market. While they encourage you to try their products, they also want to promote local foods more broadly and support other local farmers.
Learn more by visiting their website, Facebook page, and Instagram.