- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

KALONA, Iowa (AP) - From his whitewashed farmhouse in southern Johnson County, James Bontrager can look across the fields and see, in the distance, the homestead where he grew up.

One of nearly 200 Amish families in the Kalona area, Bontrager’s 80-acre farm no doubt looks much the same as his father’s, and that of his father’s father. Acres upon acres of row crops, cattle in the pastures, chickens in the coops, laundry on clotheslines, and a horse and buggy on the road - to visit an Amish farm today is, in many ways, to step into the 1800s.

But Bontrager’s farm also includes some sights that would have been unfamiliar even a generation ago. Namely, a cluster of steamy greenhouses just a stone’s throw from his home, each packed floor to ceiling with plants and produce.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports (http://icp-c.com/1lgORWo ) Bontrager is one of 15 or so Amish farmers who have formed a new cooperative to sell goods in bulk, and who are preparing to construct a new sales building this spring to host twice-weekly auctions. The cooperative, called Twin County Produce Auction, held its first sale Friday morning outside Central Discount Grocery Store, an Amish-run business that’s serving as a temporary site for the auctions until the new facility is built.

Bontrager says that many in the Amish community are tending greenhouses on their farms these days. Just this spring he’s seen a number of families construct hoophouses for greenery and vegetables for the first time.

“As land prices rise so rapidly, we have to diversify more and get more out of a small acreage,” said Bontrager. He was dressed in a traditional round-brimmed hat, denim jacket and pants, and a pair of rubber workboots as he walked through his greenhouses.

Bontrager has four separate greenhouses on his farm, each crowded with baskets hanging from ceiling poles, tables overflowing with garden plants and long patches of soil where the year’s first tomato plants and kohlrabi are taking root. Out in his fields, he’s set aside two or three acres to plant produce this year.

The greenhouses are heated by LP space heaters and wood-fired furnaces; outside, a windmill is used to pump well water to the home and outbuildings.

Bontrager and other Amish growers in past years have sold their goods at an auction down the road in Frytown, the tiny unincorporated village in southwest Johnson County. But he said an increased demand in fresh produce, along with a growing number of sellers within their community, spurred the need for an auction facility of their own.

The cooperative plans to construct its building just behind Stringtown Grocery, the Amish country store at 2208 540th St., just off Highway 1 between Iowa City and Kalona. The farmers have submitted their building plans with Johnson County for review, and they can break ground if and when they’re approved.

Bontrager said members of the Amish community will gather later this spring to construct the facility, which will be about 150 feet by 100 feet, once it’s cleared by the county.

Nancy Roth, the managing director of the Kalona Historical Village, helps coordinate bus tours through the area. Roth said she’s noticed many new greenhouses cropping up on Amish farms in recent years.

“I know they’re always trying to come up with ways to help support their families; they don’t really have the land to expand the crops, so they’re trying to find ways to make that extra money by working with what they have,” Roth said.

Sheldon Bower, a farmworker from Wellman, is serving as the contact person who is connecting the Amish growers with buyers. Bower said representatives from large grocery stores, roadside stand operators, garden stores and farmers market vendors are among the buyers who have frequented the produce auctions in past years in Frytown.

Mike O’Leary, a retired Iowa City Community School District principal who now lives near Riverside, is among the locals who regularly attend the produce auctions.

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