Hannah Breckbill, left, and Emily Fagan are co-owners of Humble Hands Harvest farm, northeast of Decorah. Photo: Cory Eull.
Hannah Breckbill, left, and Emily Fagan are co-owners of Humble Hands Harvest farm, northeast of Decorah. Photo: Cory Eull.

In an essay entitled “In the Ground of Our Unknowing,” written for the online magazine, Emergence, cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram contemplates the ambiguities the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing to the fore in human society, and finds hope and potential in the midst of fear and uncertainty.

“We’re finally being forced to recognize that no top-down institution, governmental or otherwise, can fully ensure our safety,” Abram writes. “That our deepest insurance against disaster is going local … Eating more of what grows locally, and learning to grow some of these foods ourselves, reduces the long supply chains that bring … foods and products from far-flung places into our lives …”

In the Driftless region, independent growers and producers have long been working hard to bring healthy, locally grown food to area communities. If Abram is right, these growers and producers have perhaps never been more vital to the well-being of these communities than they are, right now.

In this article, part one of a multi-part series highlighting area growers, producers and venues for locally sourced food, The Driftless Journal focuses on the Decorah Farmers Market, Humble Hands Harvest farm and the Iowa Food Hub.

Decorah Farmers Market
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic the Decorah Farmers Market has delayed its opening until Wednesday, June 3. Hours are Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 to 11 a.m. through Oct. 31.

With Governor Reynolds’ recent suggestions in mind, Decorah Farmers Market Board Chair Josh Dansdill says the Market is encouraging people to pre-order and pick up (go to decorahfarmersmarket.com for more information, or look for them on Facebook); and signs will be posted at the Market encouraging people to wash their hands, practice social distancing and handle products only minimally.

Vendors will be encouraged to have two people at their stands – one to handle monetary transactions and one to handle products – and to provide hand sanitizer to customers. More space will be kept between vendors, and – in line with the mayor’s request and national guidelines — the wearing of masks will be encouraged. There will be no events scheduled, which might cause customers to linger onsite. The goal, Dansdill says, it to have people make their purchases, and leave so others may enter the market safely.

Humble Hands Harvest
A regular Decorah Farmers Market vendor, Humble Hands Harvest is a worker-owned cooperative farm northeast of Decorah co-owned by Hannah Breckbill and Emily Fagan. They raise certified organic vegetables, grass-fed lamb and pastured pork.

“As a small, local farmer, long-term resilience is my ultimate aim,” Breckbill says. “I want to feed people with my work, I want to feed the soil and I want to ensure justice and abundance for future generations, all at the same time.”

The Decorah Farmers Market has been the single most important way for their farm to get their food to customers, Breckbill says.

“Decorah Farmers Market accounted for probably 60 percent of our income last year, and we typically deliver our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes to the Market, as well — so those combined make for 90 percent of the income of our farm, which employs three people during the growing season,” she says. “Farmers Market is very important to us.”

With the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent measures taken to curb its spread, Breckbill and Fagan started thinking ahead. They began speaking with other vegetable growers in the area about how they would be shifting their business plans this spring – “given that we have no idea how long pandemic-related carefulness and distancing will last,” Breckbill says. “I looped in Teresa Wiemerslage and Kayla Koether of the Iowa Food Hub, and they quickly put together an online platform through which we can sell our products.”

Iowa Food Hub
The Iowa Food Hub (IFH) is a non-profit organization which, according to a description on its Facebook page, is “working to connect farmers, families and food grown close to home.”

“We’ve been piloting a home delivery program since March 23 and adding a few new farms each week,” says Teresa Wiemerslage, of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “We’ve also been testing and adding new services and features each week.”

The Hub is launching curbside pickup at the Spectrum Kitchen location (200 Railroad Street, Decorah) May 2.

“This option will make local products available to more customers and will also pave the way to offering drop-sites in other communities where farmers markets may not even happen this summer,” Wiemerslage says. “We have been talking with the Decorah Farmers Market to make sure any solution for getting more local foods to customers will be beneficial to all.”

The Iowa Food Hub Online Farmers Market opens Sunday at noon and closes Thursday at noon. Customers can choose from curbside pick-up Saturday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. or home delivery for $3 (in Decorah). Go to iowafoodhub.com for more information or look for them on Facebook: IowaFoodHub. Questions about the IFH Market can be sent to sales@iowafoodhub.com.

“We plan to work with the Iowa Food Hub online market until Farmers Market is completely comfortable again,” Breckbill says. “It might be that, for awhile, certain vulnerable populations will prefer home delivery; and we want to keep that up as long as necessary.”

Whether it’s through a farmers market, an online market, home delivery, curbside pick-up — direct from growers or at a local grocery store or food cooperative — the important thing, as Abram’s essay suggests, is to recognize “that our deepest insurance against disaster is going local” —by, for example, eating more of what grows locally.

“This pandemic is shining a light on the power of small local food systems to adapt to new needs,” Breckbill says.

“It’s really gratifying to have people looking to local producers as a resilient source of food during wild times … It feels good to be relied upon for the work that I do, just as it feels good to notice my reliance on the earth’s health for my own.”