Early morning is Bridget Fonseca’s favorite time of day — even if she and her partner Jake Kundert don’t get their coffee until after all the chores are done.
At 6:45 a.m., the usually quiet flock of Suffolk sheep bleats loudly into the cool June morning. The sheep spot Fonseca and Kundert and immediately anticipate breakfast. The lambs follow their mothers to the feeders, trying to nurse along the way.
Fonseca and Kundert’s dog, Henry, gazes at the sheep skeptically from outside the fence as if, after all his visits, he still has not decided whether or not to fear the flock — especially as the budding rams grow to reach more than 60 pounds.
Fonseca met Kundert two and a half years ago in a non-profit management class at the University of Iowa. As part of the first class exercise, students were asked to introduce themselves and share their dream job. Both said they dreamed of becoming farmers.
Although their grandparents were Iowa farmers, Fonseca and Kundert said their parents are part of a lapsed generation that moved into town, abandoning farming. Fonseca said her parents came from a “nouveau hippie era” and were very conscious about food, but not its production.
Before they knew each other, Fonseca and Kundert worked as farmhands outside the U.S. Fonseca worked on farms throughout Europe during a gap year after high school and Kundert worked on a farm in South America after finishing his undergraduate studies.
“It was only inevitable that we would move out to a farm eventually,” Fonseca said.
In fact, Kundert said, it wasn’t even a conversation.
They discovered the land they now rent in The Mount Vernon Sun. Just one mile north of Solon, a right hand turn and one mile more down the road, lies their white, two-story farmhouse. There — in the state of Iowa where they had lived all of their lives — they experienced a fresh wave of culture shock. Still, they never questioned their decision.
When they moved out of their one-bedroom Iowa City apartment with its postage-stamp yard in December last year, Fonseca still had one fully-loaded semester left before she would finish her degree in interdepartmental studies with a focus in social work. Kundert was about to start a full-time position helping small-scale vegetable farmers connect with local businesses at Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development.
The couple had a long way to go to transform the property into their ideal farm.
This spring, on a 76-degree Easter Sunday, they set about breaking ground on two strips of earth to plant their onions by hand, without the help of their friend’s overbooked sod-cutting machine. As Kundert cut into the soil with a drain spade barefoot, Fonseca followed behind, pulling up patches of grass. Luckily, the sod-cutter made it there in time for the remainder of the 1,500 square-foot plot that now contains artichokes, watermelon, kale, potatoes, peppers, zucchini and half a dozen varieties of tomatoes.
In early spring, when their land began coming to life, the large fields around them were still barren and grey. Now planted, those fields will easily produce thousands of bushels of corn and soybeans by fall.
The way conventional farming so sharply contrasts with their methods fascinates the couple. Fonseca said she sometimes worries chemicals from other fields, including those distributed by crop dusting planes, could wipe out their vegetable plot. They joke that other farmers’ machinery is bigger than their house.
“To them, our style of farming is gardening,” Fonseca said, although Kundert was quick to add that the methods they use are also “far from perfect.”
Even after Fonseca graduated and transitioned into a full-time position organizing mobile food pantries for the Crisis Center of Johnson County, the couple continued their work on the farm. Despite obstacles, the two have complete faith in their endeavor. And they’ve had help.
At around 7 a.m., after feeding their sheep, Fonseca, Kundert and Henry hop in their SUV and drive to a nearby farm to tend to their second-ever group of broilers: 200 Freedom Ranger chickens, specially bred for their foraging abilities. They pay the landowner to use the space, not with money but with chickens and, often, with their time.
When it came time to process the first group of birds, other local farmers volunteered to help during the nine-hour-long chicken butchering process in exchange for meat. Some didn’t want to be paid at all.
“I don’t know what I would do without a village to help out,” Fonseca said.
Both have dreams for the future. Kundert aspires to experiment with raising other kinds of livestock, beyond sheep and chickens. Fonseca envisions raising an alpaca on the land to the east of her landlord’s grain bins and adding a flower patch alongside their vegetable plot. She hopes that one day visitors, maybe kids, will stop by to learn about food production and she can share all she and Kundert have learned.
The empty lawn, to her, is a blank slate.
Carly Matthew recently graduated from the University of Iowa’s journalism program. She resides in Iowa City. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 224.