Organically Grown: Bridgewater Farm

The plants are watered with a drip line controlled with the hose show in the foreground. Before long, the tomato plants in the tunnel will be staked and grow as high as the top braces in the tunnel. Photo Courtesy of Sandy McCurdy, Fontanelle Observer

Dale Raasch and son Tyler have been working at this since 2007 when Dale was forced to begin something with what he had left of the farm he had worked on since 1978. Many of the original acres had to be sold. From the bad comes the good, Dale says.

He had to start over. He didn’t want to rent and/or buy more land, and thought there had to be something that could be done on the 40 acres without the expense of equipment, seed, and the other costs of conventional farming.

Growing fruits and vegetables became the answer. And it has grown since then. It started as a way to make money, but has become a movement for better health and a higher standard quality of life.

Bridgewater Farm is a certified organic vegetable garden with free range animals. They use only sustainable organic methods to grow great tasting produce.

The acres are planned to take advantage of every inch of soil. There are so many different vegetables, the planning allows the ground to be used for doubling and even tripling up of the crops throughout the growing season. This is Raasch’s way of utilizing all the ground for several crops, with no waste. They also plan the gardens to take good care of the soil, putting back nutrients that are used for the vegetables, all organically.

For example, rye grass is planted in the fall, then tilled under in the spring to build up the soil. Raasch calls this “green manure.” The soil is constantly tested to determine what minerals are needed, and then the planning goes into place to get the minerals to the soil without chemicals. Keeping the soil in balance keeps it fertile.

So far this year, there has been five or six acres of potatoes planted. The trio of Dale, son Tyler, and helper Stephen Hansen can plant 2,000 pounds of potatoes in one day.

It’s not all done by hand. Morris Swayne of Lewis has a four-foot tiller on a small tractor that is used to get the field ready. Kent Morris had invented a planter that was used. Two people ride on it  and drop the potatoes into holes, down a shoot, into the ground, then the rear of the planter will close the row. The potatoes are only the beginning.

For the 2015 season, there are about 23 acres planted to vegetables. There will be 2,000 tomato plants, 1,000 pepper plants, sweet potatoes, watermelons, cantaloup and sweet corn. They are hoping the dogs will keep the raccoons out of the corn.

Established fruit trees on the farm are peach, pear, cherry and apples. There are 1,000 strawberry plants growing between the fruit trees. There are black and red raspberries, grapes, asparagus and garlic, just to name most of what is growing or being planned. The Raasches have found that with a little planning, it doesn’t take a very big area to grow a lot.

So that there isn’t so much weeding this year, they are going to be receiving some mulch from California — 64,000 feet of a special plastic. It will be a silver plastic, not black, so that it isn’t as hot, and the reflection keeps the bugs off the plants.

The vining plants will be placed 30-40 feet apart, with winter wheat and berseem clover planted between the hills to build the soil by putting nitrogen in the ground, keep the weeds out, and keep the melons off the ground.

Controlling weeds in the asparagus bed is a problem; however, by planting a white clover with the asparagus, it puts back the nitrogen that the asparagus needs. Both these are perennials, coming back every year.

The idea is to build the soil at the same time things are growing. They also rotate the vegetables every year, which also helps the soil.

Then there is the high tunnel hoop structure where the lettuce, spinach, and radishes are already being harvested, up to 30 pounds just on this day. There will be cabbage and head lettuce and 400 tomato plants. There are six rows, planted with the lettuce, spinach, etc., then allowed to take over as the other plants are harvested. They will get as tall as the rafters in the tunnel.

They are staked, and each plant will yield 20 to 30 pounds of tomatoes, with the total possible yield in the hoop building being 40-60,000 pounds. 

Some tomatoes will be planted outside. There are small hoops that are covered to help with weather issues. The tomatoes raised in the hoop ripen from the inside out, making them taste better. Dale says that the strawberries are the same way. That makes a big difference on the fresh taste over products that are picked green then shipped to the stores.

The Heirloom tomatoes that are planted will bring $3 to $4 per pound. The hybrid tomatoes will average $2.50 to 3 per pound. This is part of the reason for the Raasches to be certified organic — they are able to set their price for their product including the pork and the beef.

The vegetables are sold at Long’s Market in Greenfield; the Fareway stores in Greenfield, Creston, Atlantic and Winterset; and the HyVees in Atlantic, Winterset and Waukee, as well as to Whole Foods and Campbells in Des Moines. 

Dale said he has had corporate and management of the stores come check out the operation. He doesn’t mind meeting with them and showing them around.

There is also a “Farm to Table” website that lists what is available online to places such as Lincoln, Omaha, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids. When an order is made, the Farm to Table person delivers the produce.

Raasch likes selling to the local stores. This is new this year to them. It’s more convenient for both the Raasches and the stores. They don’t have to have it shipped, saving on transportation costs, and the shelf life of the fresh vegetables is longer. 

“There are 15 stores now; we could have more,” Dale said. The bigger stores have to be supplied two or three times a week. They call and say what they want. This is one-on-one with the individual store managers. The Raasches like to deliver the goods themselves.

To prevent any waste, they also sell to hospitals and nursing homes.

They do sell at four farmers’ markets: Atlantic, Creston, Winterset and Johnston. They offer a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.

However, Dale says that supplying product to the stores is less labor intense than the farmers’ markets and the CSAs. The trick is to keep enough product to supply all the markets. There are several people hired to help, as the farm is coming into the really busy season.

Besides what is sold fresh, there are also canned goods including tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, salsa, green beans and peas, to name a few. Some of the vegetables can be stored and sold into the winter. Butternut squash and sweet potatoes get sweeter tasting with age, Dale said. During the winter, there are still eggs, meat, and the root crops. They raise greens in the high tunnel all winter, as the ground in there never freezes.  It makes a lot of long days.

Besides the vegetables, the Raasches have hogs, cattle, laying hens for eggs, and broilers. The broiler hens are butchered in Bloomfield where they are processed and state inspected. The hogs and cattle are butchered in Anita, where they are also state inspected. The testing includes salmonella and E. coli, at a charge to the farm. 

“We want everything coming from the farm to be healthy,” Dale said. They sell meat to individuals, preferring customers who will buy a quarter, half or whole beef and pork. Campbells Foods buys the chickens. Mary Long of Long’s Market in Greenfield sells eggs.

A lot has been learned about the operation from the Practical Farmers of Iowa. Also, a lot is learned by doing and from the mistakes. There will be a Practical Farmers of Iowa field day at Bridgewater Farm on Aug. 30. Dale can help others with how to’s of organic farming and how to market the product.

Through the Practical Farmers, the plants are tested, telling what is needed to make them healthier and more nutritious.

Controlling the watering of the plants helps to control the flavor of the vegetables. These are things that have been learned from the Practical Farmers and from trial and error.

Iowa Public Television has a series called “Iowa Ingredient” which will be coming to the farm for an episode.

  Dale told about logging everything about the operation. He is keeping track of what is planted where and when, how much and what it is. This is being done for the USDA certification, showing that he is building the soil, not breaking it down. This is also used by the stores he sells to, so they see how things are done. It has made them better managers because they see where the best profits are being made.

It is surprising how much can be made. For example, 250,000 pounds of butternut squash raised on one acre sold at $1.50 per pound will yield $375,000 per acre.  “If something doesn’t clear $15,000 per acre, it’s not worth doing,” he says. It’s labor intense. By keeping track of everything, they will be able to tell what their time is worth.

There is no insurance, as there is none available for this type of farming. Much of the operation is at the mercy of the weather. “We have to have faith that God will take care of it all,” he said.

“It’s a lot of work, but will pay off good if you are willing to work,” Dale said. He works from sun up until sun down.  Even the bookwork takes a lot of time.

In the future, they would like to add a couple more of the hoop high tunnels.

And, the farm is diversified to cover expenses if something happens and there is no product for sale. Even the hay that is baled for the animals is certified organic.

Finding the markets for the product is another winter job. “Marketing is important. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Dale said. “Finally, doors are opening.”


Courtesty of Sandy McCurdy, The Fontanelle Observer, 5/6/15.

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