Students build ‘Hugelkultur,’ sustainable farming project in Linn County

Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 10:27 PM CST
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MARION, Iowa (KCRG) - A local nonprofit is running an experiment in sustainable farming, one made possible thanks to a group of high schoolers.

Tuesday, students with Iowa Big worked in a field in Marion to build a Hugelkultur.

“That is a German raised bed,” said Emmaly Renshaw, Executive Director of Feed Iowa First, the nonprofit that partnered with Iowa Big on the project. “It has logs on the bottom, and then branches and a mixture of straw and woodchips and topsoil and compost.”

Mark Matson, a teacher with Iowa Big, said, “We’re basically just making a mounted garden that is technically going to last about 15 years to provide nutrients without fertilizer.”

As for why Feed Iowa First got the idea to create a Hugelkultur bed in the first place, Renshaw said, “We are really just looking for better ways to farm, more sustainable ways to farm, more regenerative ways to farm.“

“As our climate continues to shift and change, that Hugelkultur is one—they have a tendency to store water on the bottom. And so they are drought resistant,” said Renshaw. “They’re also raised, and so in periods of high rainfall, which we have seen the last couple years, they also don’t flood out.”

Feed Iowa First is calling the site of the Hugelkultur the Wanatee Farm. It will open in spring 2023 as a Feed Iowa First Equitable Land Access Expansion site in partnership with Linn County Conservation.

Feed Iowa First proposed the project, but Matson said it’s the students who have made it possible.

“Whether it’s talking to adults, whether it’s making the phone call, whether it’s shooting the email out to someone, a lot of those skills are just things that they they just don’t have the opportunities to encounter in a traditional system,” said Matson.

It was clear that taking ownership of the project made an impact on the students.

“I learned that communication is a big part of like, living life and adulting. Like, without communication, you basically cannot get anything done,” said BJ Henry, a student at Kennedy High School.

The Hugelkultur is an agricultural experiment—Renshaw said the goal is to test the soil over the next few years and see if it holds water— but also a classroom, where students learned about growing in more ways than one.

“Iowa Big’s whole point is to basically see what you’re good at and follow that kind of liking or dream,” said Caidan Morgan, another Iowa Big student.