Moving to improve
by Sally Colby
Managing the produce department at a local specialty grocery co-op and café gave Jordan Clasen an appreciation for local food. Working with farmers who were selling to the co-op, Jordan realized he wanted to grow food too.
“I was lucky enough to get some land right where I grew up,” said Jordan. He started growing vegetables while he was still working at the co-op. “I purchased a lot of garlic from someone who became a mentor to me, and he said I should try growing garlic.” Jordan started his farming venture in Johnston, Iowa, with 5,000 garlic cloves on a quarter acre and sold the fruits of his labor as Grade A Garlic.
Why garlic? Jordan knew the crop grew well in Iowa, particularly where he was farming. “My mentor had been growing garlic for 20 years and thought there might be a good market,” said Jordan. “It’s a lot of work in October and a lot of work at harvest, but in between, all I have do is weed it.”
At one point Jordan grew 20 garlic varieties but has narrowed down his selection to six hardneck varieties based on customer preferences. He enters garlic in the Iowa State Fair every year and has brought home blue ribbons for both individual specimens and garlic braids.
As Jordan farmed part-time, it wasn’t long before there was extra produce to sell at farmers markets. He realized he enjoyed being outside, and the farm became Grade A Gardens and a full-time venture in 2012.
“The first year, we offered 25 CSA shares,” said Jordan, who farms with his wife Whitney. “We do one farmers market and have a CSA.” The Clasens increased the number of CSA shares each year, eventually selling 150 in one season, but Jordan said the 100 shares they currently offer is a more manageable number. “We have good retention,” he said. “We sell out quickly and have a waiting list.”
Without much farming experience, Jordan learned on the go. “I used to do so much of the work by hand, but we have a nice tractor now and can do more with machinery,” he said. “We’ve slowly and steadily added equipment each year as we can afford it.”
The Clasens are currently growing produce on eight acres. Season-extending structures, including two 100-foot caterpillar tunnels and a heated greenhouse for starting seeds, enable year-round growing. “We grow over 100 different vegetables here,” said Jordan. “We grow a lot of spring greens – spinach, arugula, kale, chard and Asian greens. We start everything from seed and hold an organic plant sale in spring that has really gained popularity. People can come here and buy a nice healthy transplant – they’re eager to start growing something at home.”
Their first farmers market begins May 1, and with a heated greenhouse and low tunnels, the Clasens can push for early crops. “We get a month’s jumpstart on our competition by seeding early, but we’re also seeding for the plant sale – lots of peppers, tomatoes, basil, eggplant,” said Jordan. “It’s usually fairly safe to plant outside by the middle of May.”
Crops such as spinach and arugula will overwinter, and Jordan seeds a variety of crops including lettuce, kale, chard, carrots, radishes and turnips in the heated greenhouse. Those reach maturity quickly and will last through the first few farmers markets. Crops grown in the low tunnels will also sustain the market offerings until field-grown crops are ready.
Grade A Gardens offers customers a selection of mostly heirloom tomatoes. “We aren’t known for growing the average red slicer,” said Jordan. “We’re known for the dark heirlooms like Cherokee Purple or Black Krim so I focus on those as our main tomatoes.” He tried growing heirloom tomatoes in a tunnel but noticed more sunscald and lower production compared to those grown in the field.
At one point, they grew 1,200 tomato plants but found that number was difficult to manage. Jordan found it easier to focus on quality and yield with a more reasonable number of plants. “We have about 600 plants – 400 are dark slicers, 150 are a rainbow of colors and the rest are cherry tomatoes,” he said. “We also know what people like to grow in their home gardens, so I start standard tomatoes including Rutgers, Sungold and Roma.”
Jordan came up with a workable solution for field-grown tomatoes. “In spring, we put weed fabric down, burn holes and center cattle panels between the weed fabric so there are no weeds growing up the panels,” he said. “Then we plant tomatoes right against the panel and mulch the paths with oat straw to keep everything clean and weed-free.” He hasn’t observed any serious tomato pests or disease, and said keeping plants pruned and clipped to the cattle panels yields healthier plants and fruits.
Peppers are a popular Grade A Gardens crop, but rather than growing many varieties, Jordan sticks with a few customer favorites. In addition to bell peppers, he selects several more unique varieties such as Shishito peppers, known for great flavor without heat. He also grows Ausilio peppers, Italian frying peppers that turn red early in the season.
Jordan described the farm’s washing and packing area as low-budget. “We have a big dunk tank so everything out of the field is dunked to take the heat out right away,” he said. “We lay everything out on a slotted table to wash it. But the biggest thing is to get the heat off as soon as we can and into the walk-in cooler.”
The Clasens know customers buy with their eyes, so they pride themselves in maintaining an attractive booth at the farmers market. “We don’t sell anything that’s dirty or limp,” said Jordan. “Everything is clean and presented nicely. It helps bring back repeat customers because they know they can buy our produce at a good price, and it’s clean and fresh.”
Like many other growers last year, Jordan and Whitney had already established seeds prior to COVID. “I realized people would be stuck at home and I thought we should ramp up,” said Jordan. “People were not going out to eat and wanted good food at home, so we saw sales increase.” They had numerous calls requesting CSA membership, but shares were sold out in March.
To provide fresh produce for customers who weren’t CSA members, Jordan created a market share. The concept is similar to a CSA but without being locked into a timeframe – people could purchase a market share one week and not the next. Last year the Clasens assembled and sold about 50 market share boxes each week for customers to pick up, and they plan to offer the option this year.
In addition to vegetables, Grade A Gardens grows flowers, and Jordan tries to include bouquets in several CSA shares during the year. “We take about a dozen bouquets to the market each week,” he said. “We have a lot of perennials on the farm, and annuals like zinnias are easy. But if I could grow one flower, it would be Amish cockscomb – it’s a large Celosia. They can be dried and they keep for a year.”
This season will bring some major changes to Grade A Gardens. Jordan and Whitney recently purchased a 25-acre property through the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, which Jordan said places easements on the land to make it affordable. “The farm has been in hay the last two years,” said Jordan. “It’s been 36 months without synthetic chemicals, so in May 2022 we will be able to certify it. That works with our timeline.”
Jordan said the soil where he’s currently farming has some of the best soil in the state, but the soil on his new farm is even better. The Clasens will continue to grow at their current location for the 2021 season as they prepare their new farm for production. “We’re going to put up deer fence and plot out the fields this spring and summer so we can hit the ground running next year,” said Jordan.
Visit Grade A Gardens online at GradeAGardens.com.