Going nuts for food sustainability | News

OTTUMWA — In the end, Kent Walker couldn’t pass up the chance to help set the tone for the future.

Through the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, he will do just that.

Walker, a longtime Ottumwa dermatologist, signed over his 60 acres in Dahlonega Township to SILT during a ceremony Friday at Appanoose Rapids. The land, in Walker’s name for almost a decade, will be used for long-term food sustainability by growing fruits, vegetables and nuts on soil that is more conducive to those products.

Daryle Kaiser, a John Deere Works employee and the property’s primary caretaker, will build out the farming operation.

“The notion of sustainable agriculture has always been very appealing to me. That’s why we planted the chestnuts and paw-paws 10 years ago, because we wanted to have a project that would be set apart from traditional Iowa, which is corn and soybeans, Walker said.

“With this, you can provide a possible project for other farmers to look at and say, ‘You know, we can do something different than just traditional row cropping.'”

Walker’s ground used to be for corn and soybeans, but the soil had eroded over time, making those crops largely unsustainable. The refurbished land will have five acres of chestnuts, five acres of paw-paws, which are fruits with a custard-like texture, as well as hazelnuts. There are also willow trees on the property that he hopes to sell.

“The ground was part of a larger farm that was a traditional farm for many years, and then the owner passed away. The kids lived out of state and essentially just rented it out,” Walker said. “The ground really wasn’t the greatest, so I saw the property and wanted to do something kinder to the soil. Instead of annual cropping, let’s do perennial cropping with the trees.”

The growing season for what will be on the land runs from May until early fall, but “instead of planting, we’re pruning in the spring.”

SILT is an organization that strives for food sustainability, and allows the landowner to have some say in how the ground is used. Mostly, it’s more ecologically friendly by transitioning farm ground for common crops into fruits, vegetables, and, according to SILT’s literature, “gives future farmers the chance to succeed.”

“It’s hard to look at a piece of land in Iowa and imagine anything other than corn or soybeans. We get that,” said Suzan Erem, executive director of SILT. “We’re not overly ambitious, but we’re just here to make what I think was always your dream, a public good. Something for the community to be able to enjoy and learn from, while also holding soil and growing food and providing a real resource for the future.”

Walker said “there was a lot of hard work” of planting trees to get the suitable ground.

“We’re very excited, and we’re looking forward to the future,” he said. “There’s a lot of different opportunities.”

Mayor Rick Johnson was on hand for the ceremony, and praised Walker for his commitment to public service.

“He and his wife, Leisa, have been about the public good in all the things they’ve done and contributed to the community,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely outstanding that they’re willing to donate this 60-acre farm, and it’s just a reflection of the kids of people they are.”

Walker, though, said something deeper was at work.

“We’re here for a very short time on this planet,” he said. “I just want to try to leave something a little bit better than when I found it.”


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