Angelyn Wang contributed to this story.
Tyler Bartley and his business partner, Jeremy Davis, began their farming journey with the simple idea of bringing the best food they could to the people they love most: their families, friends, and local community.
In 2017, Tyler and Jeremy looked around to see if there was an opportunity to buy and sell produce locally–and make a modest living.
That opportunity came in the form of Sown Local Foods, LLC, which the partners opened on the outskirts of Malvern, Iowa.
They attended educational meetings, watched videos online, and more to familiarize themselves with new ways to use old farming methods and see if they would translate to their farm.
“We wanted to see what we could grow here locally, what kind of food we could grow for the table,” said Tyler. “Both my siblings own restaurants in town and we were curious if we could leverage the assets from the local community, recycle what we had available, and see if we could build something to sell to the restaurants six to eight months out of the year.”
Along the way, they learned about food insecurity and realized there are bigger issues.
“A broken food system is the reality,” Tyler said. “We see restaurants not being able to pay their grocery bills. We see our local community not being able to afford our food, not wanting to pay more than Walmart prices, folks not eating or having access to healthy food. We have to find the sweet spot in the middle.”
The partners wanted to bolster the local economy with their business. During their pilot year they experimented with shoulder season growing (generally, the periods gradually entering or waking from the plant dormancy of winter). They spent a year giving away their produce, and then started selling the year after that.
“We grow a variety of nutrient-rich lettuce and spinach, along with radishes and tomatoes,” said Tyler. “We also handcraft unique blends of lettuce, based on each variety's flavor notes, to create mixes we know our customers will enjoy.”
With a passion for growing produce organically and sustainably, the partners knew a long timeline was needed to build all necessary resources. Jeremy is transitioning into another project for our community, still in the making. So, Sown Local added a new partner with Roger Johnson from Malvern.
“Our small town, the land, and our community are at the very heart of what we do and how we do it,” Tyler said. “We believe in equal access to whole and health-giving foods that are affordable for everyone.”
While their farmland is on the edge of town, they also have their Sown Local Farm Stand on Main Street. At the stand, suggested pricing is listed, and people can leave payment and take produce. Tyler said the hope is that this will help families on a tight budget still be able to eat healthy foods.
Sown Local is well-known for its salad blends and selling $5 salad sacks and radishes. This year, Sown Local is selling at Malvern Farmers Market and concert series. They also sell at other farmers markets around the area, to local restaurants, and online.
Eventually, they would like to connect to local schools and supply them as well. Tyler has high hopes of selling Sown Local products at the only grocery store in Malvern, after it reopens from recently being destroyed by a fire.
“We hope to build a farm aimed at increasing local produce supply big enough to service the wider community,” Tyler said.
He keeps his community in mind when it comes to locally grown foods, knowing it may not be for everyone.
“I am sensitive about how I speak about it because I don’t want to offend people,” Tyler said. “I want to give people the chance to try more of it, because you can taste it. Good ingredients get me excited, and they taste better. I get blown away when I see how beautiful the produce is from the field and then when it is made into something beautiful.”
He hopes Malvern can continue to support all its local farmers, and that Sown Local has the opportunity to keep growing.
“The goal is to grow us all, not to fight to the bottom,” Tyler said. “What I want to do is build it up in the middle. We need to make sure our farmers get paid. Our dream when we started was to be effective enough growing the food that we could still have an enjoyable lifestyle and offer it in a way that bettered our community. This is still the plan, any way I can get there. We need to bring back the balance that it is not impossible to supply the food and not burn yourself out.”
This case study series highlights an innovative local foods access initiative happening in southwest Iowa. It includes a variety of initiatives and projects that can serve as idea starters to incorporate in other communities. The Center for Rural Affairs is able to assist in developing local food access plans across the region. Click here for more information.