In praise of country life
In rural Adair County, Iowa, a birthplace museum, meeting center and organic farm pay tribute to legendary ag secretary Henry A. Wallace by keeping his rich legacy alive, not just as a memory but as a vital living tradition.

By Laura Sayre

For more information:

Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center
located at 2773 290th Street; 3 miles east and 2 miles north of Orient
mailing address:
P.O. Box 363
Greenfield, IA 50849

ISU's Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture

The Wallace House Foundation

Winrock International's Henry A. Wallace Center for Agriculture and Environmental Policy

Posted September 13, 2004: At first, it looks like your typical Midwestern 'birthplace' museum—a modest, low-to-the-ground Iowa farmhouse, painted white and neat as a pin, a small riot of dahlias or gladiolus out front. Herbert Hoover's is in West Branch, in southeast Iowa; John Wayne's is in Winterset, in Madison County; here in rural Adair County, an hour west and south of Des Moines, you have the birthplace of Henry A. Wallace, secretary of agriculture under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, corn breeder and founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred, editor of Wallaces' Farmer.

But the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center is more than a birthplace museum, and that's because the people behind it are interested in more than just commemorating the early days of a local boy made good. It's also an organic farm, a community meeting place, an educational center and a rural development initiative. All of these aspects are in harmony with the life and work of Henry A. Wallace, but they constitute a living tradition, not just a sterile or sentimental history. As Diane Weiland, the Center's director, puts it: "We try to do things that fit with H. A.'s philosophy, but in a modern perspective."

Henry A. Wallace's philosophy is a complex, even paradoxical legacy, one that puzzled journalists in his lifetime and has bedeviled historians since. (See "Good farming, clear thinking, right living" for more.) And although Henry A. Wallace only lived here until the age of three, this hard-working rural community is probably doing as much to clarify and uphold that legacy as any vice-presidential historian or New Deal scholar.

"Wallace once said that he believed every family in the United States could sustain itself on 10 acres of land," says Weiland. The role of the Country Life Center is to show that that could still hold true.

Prairie roots

The Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center originated in a volunteer effort of the Adair County Historical Society. In the 1970s, a group of local residents did some research to determine that the site was in fact the birthplace of Henry A. Wallace, and eventually succeeded in getting it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, although it was then privately owned and had long since passed out of the Wallace family.

In 1988, festivities planned for the centennial of Henry A. Wallace's birth prompted renewed interest in the property, and the citizens' group approached the owners with a proposal to purchase the farm and preserve it as a non-profit historic site. After five years of negotiations, fund-raising, and organizing, the group succeeded in buying the house and 40 acres in 1993.

The group's first task was to restore the house's exterior to its 1888 appearance. Incorporated as the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center, the site opened to the public in 1996, offering self-guided tours at any time and personal tours by appointment. Nine acres surrounding a small pond, not far from the farmhouse, were restored to native prairie grasses and forbs; an additional four acres were planted to trees.

Meanwhile, Weiland explains, they transitioned the farm to organic management and began thinking about growing crops they could sell directly to the local community. "After a couple of years it didn't make any sense to just do corn and soybeans," she recalls. "Wallace was always concerned about the quality and importance of the soil, and organic practices are the best way to maintain the soil. Doing a CSA also fit with Henry A.'s philosophy because he thought people should remain close to the soil."

So in 2000, the Center took its next major step by launching the Prairie Harvest CSA. It received organic certification in its first season because by that point the farm had already been chemical-free for three years, since 1997.

Staying close to the earth

Since then, the number of CSA members has increased slowly but steadily, from 42 in 2002, to 50 in 2003, to the current total of 58. For 2004, the subscription price was $350 for 20 weeks. Members receive a three-quarter bushel produce box each week, filled with everything from garlic flowers, kohlrabi and strawberries to edamame, muskmelon and sweet corn.

In addition to the CSA subscriptions, the Center hosts a farm market on Fridays from June to October, selling produce from the Prairie Harvest fields and baked goods from the Center's kitchen. On Thursdays, they sell at a farmers' market in Greenfield, the Adair County seat, 10 miles away. ("We make as much there as we used to at the Des Moines farmers' market," notes Weiland.)

Unlike many CSAs, Prairie Harvest welcomes new members mid-season, simply pro-rating the subscription fee and redirecting some of their produce from the farmers' market stream. A little over half of their members are from the rural neighborhood; a couple dozen live in Des Moines and a handful are as far away as Omaha. Prairie Harvest delivers to its Des Moines members, for a fee; the Omaha deliveries are handled by a local farm couple who sell their own eggs, chicken, and lamb to markets there and take along the Prairie Harvest boxes in exchange for a share for themselves.

Prairie Harvest farm manager Ray Jensen is in his third season with the Center. Vegetable growing is a second career for him—he worked for a grain co-op for 31 years—but he always kept a garden, having learned from his grandmother when he was a boy. "Now I wish I'd paid more attention," he says self-deprecatingly, but everything he touches here seems to grow to perfection. He's got 2.7 acres in annual crops and 4 acres in alfalfa so he can rotate the vegetable ground every two years. He grows several dozen crops, including artichokes, shallots, watermelons, garlic, and many types of greens. In addition, he has rhubarb, asparagus, and 120 apple trees thriving under organic management. This spring he also put in peaches and pears.

"This season's been going really well," Jensen reports, with easy but careful confidence. "Although we've had almost an excessive amount of moisture. It's a good challenge. It's been a really good year for organic apples."

Building a community space

The Country Life Center's most recent project, the Gathering Barn, was just completed last year, but today it's hard to imagine the farmstead without it. The three-story bank barn replicates a structure in use in Henry A. Wallace's day, but instead of being dedicated to animals or equipment it was designed as a gathering space for people, a secular community center.

It has a spacious kitchen, tables and chairs to accommodate 75 or 100 people, and big windows looking out over the countryside. It can be rented out by the hour or the day, and since completion, Weiland says, has seen steady use for everything from family reunions, to producer group meetings, to small business conferences, to workshops on gardening and local history—including the life and legacy of Henry A. Wallace.

Income from the CSA and the Gathering Barn has enabled the Center to become partially self-supporting; they also have a membership program for individual supporters and a quarterly newsletter to keep people informed about the Center's activities and events. Major donations for the original farm purchase and for the barn construction came from members of the Wallace family and from Pioneer Hi-Bred, now a subsidiary of DuPont but still headquartered in Des Moines. "The Wallace family continues to be very generous," Weiland says.

The Country Life Center has also built relationships with several of the numerous other entities linked to the Wallace family and its history, including the Wallace House Foundation, which manages the Henry Wallace house (the home of Henry A.'s grandfather) in Des Moines and supports programs relating to agriculture, conservation, and civic life. The Wallace Foundation owns two Iowa State University research farms, one of which, the Neely-Kinyon Farm, is just a few miles away and is home to many of ISU's organic research fields, under the leadership of organic ag extension specialist Dr. Kathleen Delate. Delate is a frequent visitor and has worked with the Center to put together conferences and workshops on organic farming. Finally, the Center is on good terms with Wallaces' Farmer, which is still in print although it no longer belongs to the Wallace family (it's now part of a suite of farm magazines managed by Farm Progress Companies).

Looking ahead, Weiland says the Country Life Center hopes to continue expanding their CSA and to explore others ways to strengthen the local food system. Toward that end, they've begun collaborating with the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and Adair County Cooperative Extension. Two current projects include sponsorship of a youth and adult partnership to study local foods, and the development of a curriculum on organic farming for 4th and 5th grade students, incorporating reading, writing and hands-on experience.

The coming generation is involved in Center projects in other ways, as well. Local Boy Scout troops helped blaze a walking trail through the 9-acre restored prairie adjacent to the Gathering Barn. The trail is punctuated by outdoor sculptures contributed by Iowa artists, and when the Center commissioned the pieces, they invited the artists to create works that reflected in some way on Wallace's career and, if possible, to include children or adults in their creative process. One sculpture weaves together quotations from Wallace's writings with observations offered by young visitors to the farm. The result is an eloquent commentary on the landscape and its many inhabitants, past and present.

"We seem to be out here in the middle of nowhere, but we're amazed at the impact that the farm has on people when they come here," comments Weiland. You might just call that the definition of place.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for, and a native Iowan.