For years, Tobin and Mollie Krell dreamed of building an organization centered around food, restoration and giving back to the community. Their vision became a reality in 2016 when they incorporated Homestead 1839 in West Burlington, Iowa, on land Mollie’s family homesteaded in 1839.
Homestead 1839’s mission: Growing community capacity through service learning and food security for sustainable, equitable outcomes.
Tobin and Mollie, both 37, grew up in Iowa, and moved to Portland, Ore., together to attend college. They had been living in Portland for 10 years when Mollie’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family, fell ill. The couple, who have a 13-year-old son, decided to move back to Iowa to help support their family. They moved into the family’s 100-year-old, foursquare farmhouse, bringing together four generations under one roof.
Farming the 28-acre land is the main component of Homestead 1839. The Krells work 19 acres that had conventionally been farmed for a number of years. They are transitioning 5 acres to organic production, and converting 14 acres to a pollinator habitat. A portion of the food they raise goes back to the community through food banks, referral and distribution at the farm. They sell the rest on-site, to local restaurants and a local hospital. They also collect the hospital’s food waste for compost, helping to further reduce the food system’s carbon footprint.
Service learning is another main component of Homestead 1839. The Krells work with a variety of organizations, including vocational and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, to provide opportunities for adults and youth to build job skills and give back to the community by helping on the farm.
Homestead 1839 also provides a space for community to gather and grow stronger. “We have folks who often come by to get away from hustle and youth who come for relief from the family and peer pressure,” Mollie says.
Youth and volunteers come out to start seeds, transplant, compost, plant and harvest. They do a variety of other tasks, too, such as painting and generally stepping up to help wherever they are needed, the Krells say.
“We have had youth who come out (to the farm) who say, ‘I don’t get dirty’ or ‘I don’t eat vegetables,’ and by the time they leave, they are dirty and popping cherry tomatoes in their mouth straight off the vine,” Tobin says.
“These experiences are crucial to their connection with the natural world as they grow and as they become more engaged in their community.”
No one goes home hungry after working at the farm, the Krells say. “The group we had out yesterday, many youth were eating raw okra off the stalk, and some wanted to take some of the fruits of their labor home,” Mollie says. “This is the least we could do for their service. We love to feed people.”
The careers the Krells have had in the past greatly affect the work they do now through Homestead 1839. For a number of years, Mollie worked in special education and garden education. Tobin worked in restorative justice initiatives in education, as well as juvenile and adult justice. Through their work, they saw how so many people did not have access to food — healthy food, especially.
That basic need must be met if other social-emotional needs are to be met, the Krells say.
“On a systems level, people have become completely disconnected with their food systems,” Tobin says. “Because many are not connected with these systems, there has been a loss of autonomy and a dependency on consumerism that often runs contrary to many people’s health and well-being.”
By volunteering at Homestead 1839, most gain “a better appreciation for food systems, a higher sense of land ethic and the work and vigilance these things take,” Mollie says.
“I have had youth express that their anxiety levels decrease when they are here. One youth was amazed with himself that he put his phone down and didn’t look at it once during his time with us.”
While youth are encouraged to use their electronic devices to take photos and look up information while they are at Homestead 1839, most use the time to disconnect from technology for a while, Mollie says.
Mollie and Tobin believe people haven’t just become disconnected from their food systems, but from each other as well. While the food drives them, their greater mission is one of social justice, they say.
“The polarization in politics and policy we have seen continues to drive wedges in our communities,” Tobin says. “When this happens, it is often the most vulnerable who suffer. We are trying to build community through food security and a sense of service that brings us closer.”
Adds Mollie: “Not many people would volunteer to harvest peppers or look for squash bugs in the Iowa summer heat, but when it is for a purpose greater than the individual, folks rise to the occasion.”
The Krells are committed to the “old ways” of doing things on the farm and working to minimize their dependence on such things as fuel and fertilizer.
“Just yesterday, we had youth threshing oats that they hand harvested, using methods that have withstood the test of time. We did not have to depend on motorized machines or other inputs,” Tobin says. “Those seeds can be replanted next year and the cycle can continue.”
The farm also uses practices such as companion planting, crop rotation, seed saving, canning, cover crops and catching rain for irrigation.
In the future, the Krells hope to build a commercial prep kitchen that will serve for community food prep and processing, as well as a small business incubator. The couple hopes to create revenue streams that will allow them to continue the work they’ve started at Homestead 1839.
“Nobody is paid in the organization at this point,” Mollie says. “We are blessed to have supporting family and a community willing to serve. Our belief is that if we work towards the ends, the means will follow. … We believe that once we have the infrastructure in place, we can continue to nourish the land and our community.”