Urban farmer becomes community food leader in Des Moines

Brian Taylor Carlson
The Des Moines Register
In this Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 photo, Jenny Quiner, owner of Dogpatch Urban Gardens poses in her greenhouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Dogpatch Urban Gardens is the only for-profit farm in Des Moines city limits — the realization of one of Quiner's dreams.

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Jenny Quiner pulls back giant tarps to check the fragile lettuces growing in her high tunnel greenhouse. Rows of perky green lettuces sprout from the ground. She recovers them, then steps outside into the frigid winter to check on the cover crops in the fields that protect and enrich the soil.

The scene looks like most any other vegetable farm you would see across Iowa. But there's one significant difference: It's in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Dogpatch Urban Gardens is the only for-profit farm in Des Moines city limits — the realization of one of Quiner's dreams.

"It sounds kind of silly to say I took this online course (in urban farming) and it started my career, but this course was monumental," Quiner said. "It's all just very serendipitous, how it all worked out. I feel like everything that has happened at this farm has unfolded in the right way."

The local restaurants who utilize her organic produce are a who's who of the Des Moines culinary scene. You can find her pea sprouts at Baru 66, her salad greens at Table 128, her microgreen mix at Harbinger.

"I see her becoming a household Des Moines name and Dogpatch Urban Gardens becoming synonymous with Jenny Quiner," said Lynn Pritchard, Table 128 co-owner and executive chef. "She's embedded in the (local food) culture, and I think that's to her benefit. The message to her branding is 'cultivating community.'"

Quiner, one of the Register's People To Watch for 2018, already has a steady flow of business and is looking to turn her farmstead into a rental property, teach urban farming classes and hold events such as concerts and weddings on the grounds in the coming year. But her role as a local community food leader wasn't planned at all.

In this Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 photo, Jenny Quiner, owner of Dogpatch Urban Gardens uncovers lettuce plants in her greenhouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Dogpatch Urban Gardens is the only for-profit farm in Des Moines city limits — the realization of one of Quiner's dreams.

Farming was nowhere on Quiner's radar. Born and raised in Des Moines, she was an athlete, playing basketball through high school at Dowling Catholic and in college, where she earned a degree in health promotions from the University of Iowa in 2007.

Soon after, she moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, so her husband, Eric, could pursue his passion for music. With a meager job market in 2008, Quiner headed back to school, earning a master's degree in education from Colorado State University. While in school, she worked on a local farm in Greeley, picking squash and watermelon at 5 a.m., and also at the stand inside the farm's garage.

"Never once did I think this was going to be a career," Quiner said. "That set a foundation, unknowingly, for what I'm doing today."

A teaching job at her high school alma mater brought the Quiner family back to Iowa in 2010. She taught biology at first but moved on to environmental science. Teaching that class was when it clicked — she was determined to develop a vegetable garden on a property three blocks from her home, the Des Moines Register reported.

"Teaching this class got me motivated, and then I tell Eric that I want to start homesteading and growing in my yard and he shot that down pretty quick," Quiner said. (Eric keeps their home's landscape meticulous, she said).

But Quiner wasn't discouraged. She enrolled in an online course about urban farming taught by her mentor, Curtis Stone, an urban farmer and educator from Canada. Shortly thereafter, the property where Dogpatch now sits came up for sale, and Quiner eventually convinced her husband to jump on board.

"We met the owners, and I discovered I had taught one of her granddaughters at Dowling (Catholic High School)," Quiner said. "We told them what we wanted to do, and that really excited them because someone who used to live in this home farmed this land as well. So they were excited about bringing back the farmland."

From the street, the property looks like any other residence. But a closer look reveals a farm stand, a high tunnel greenhouse, signage and meticulous garden plots, with rows of a variety of produce.

It's easy to see that this is not an ordinary hobby farm.

Within weeks of purchasing the property in early 2015, Jenny was on her way to growing produce for her first season. But the Quiners struggled to remove the sod from the first garden plot. (After outsourcing the removal, they were able to provide the leftover sod to neighbors for free.) Then, more than a third of the original garden was flooded. A new drainage system was installed.

Quiner handled the setbacks with finesse.

"It's been a thorn, and we're working through it," Quiner said. "We had a sit-down, heart-to-heart at the end of last season and asked ourselves if it was worth it to put all this money into the farm and continue on. And we said yes, so we're getting through it and we're doing it."

In only two years, Quiner has become a leader in the Des Moines food scene, said Jordan Clasen, owner of Grade A Gardens in Johnston.

Her produce was instantly recognized for its quality, which opened the door to placing it in local restaurants. Quiner opened a retail space on the farm in May, which includes her produce and some products from other farms. She's also launching a subscription service — a community-supported agriculture program — which gives subscribers access to weekly produce.

"There are not a lot of farmers, let alone female farmers, and I think she will encourage a new generation of female farmers to get back to and want to make a living off the land," said Clasen.

Along with a quality product, a huge part of Quiner's success comes from her educational background — learning quickly and then being able to communicate well, said Stacy Moeller, owner of Tiny Acre Farms, which grows organic flowers.

Moeller began volunteering at Dogpatch at the end of its first season and has seen how the farm has grown over the past year.

"Since then, the knowledge base of what she's doing out at Dogpatch has increased dramatically and she's become very much, for me, a teacher," Moeller said.

What Quiner has done at Dogpatch has helped her capture the imagination of other local farmers and inspire innovation.

Quiner has become an integral part of the Practical Farmers of Iowa, an organization with a focus on horticulture, livestock and row crops. She's gearing up to give a speech at PFI's annual conference this month about how to best access farm financing and has plans for more speeches and educational opportunities.

"She really brought the community into her urban farm," said Greg Padget, Beginning Farmer Manager at PFI. "She's reached out to other people creating amazing products, foods and arts and brought them into her farm stand."

"And she's shared her farm with others who are aspiring farmers as well — even just people that want to know more about their food."

This year will be an exercise in diversifying revenue streams. The long-term rental home on the property will transition to an Airbnb rental. Quiner would like to have more events at the farm: festivals, concerts, weddings. She dreams of having a restaurant there.

But, ultimately, it's about the product.

Quiner is going to experiment this year with different produce varieties, following the 85 percent rule: 85 percent will be varietals she has grown before, but 15 percent will be experimental. Think Gem lettuce instead of kale and adding heirloom tomatoes.

To do this, she's going to incorporate a new greenhouse into the fold and employ new techniques to enhance soil quality with cover crops and worm castings.

But Dogpatch's expansion isn't just physical. Quiner hopes the idea of urban farming will catch on and other people will recognize this is a feasible and sustainable business model.

And for that, she has some simple advice. "Connect with as many people as you can, get a good support system, and do your research," Quiner said.