Farm with a Vision
In a part of the state where wide open spaces are becoming increasingly scarce, at 117 acres, Rob and Susan Fleming’s family farm near Carlisle stands out. But it’s not just the land itself that’s extraordinary — it’s what’s happening there. Danamere Farms is redefining what a natural area means for central Iowa. It’s home to classic Iowa natural features, like native and restored prairie, woodland and oak savanna. A public trail runs through the north side of the property. Beginning farmers grow local foods and have reintroduced sustainable agriculture practices to the landscape. The land has served as an outdoor classroom for the neighboring middle school. Through a partnership with INHF, the land is now permanently protected. And Rob and Susan are just getting started.
A home away from home
Rob grew up on Danamere Farms alongside his two brothers, Jim and Erik. The farm was purchased by his grandfather, Erik “Lindy” Lindhart, a Danish expatriate, in the late 1920s. Rob’s parents, Bob and Ann, took over the farm in the 1950s. Both were active community leaders and dedicated conservationists. Ann was an Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation founding board member, board chair and long-time advisor, and both she and Bob were stalwart supporters. Ann’s 2012 obituary traced the family’s agricultural roots: “Ann was the great-granddaughter of Henry (“Uncle Henry”) Wallace and Nancy Cantwell Wallace, founders and editors of the agricultural journal, Wallace’s Farmer. Her paternal grandfather was Henry Cantwell Wallace, Editor of Wallace’s Farmer and, at the time of his death, United States Secretary of Agriculture. Her uncle was Henry Agard Wallace, Vice President of the United States of America, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture, and U. S. Secretary of Commerce.”
Rob left Iowa to attend grad school on the east coast, eventually settling in Philadelphia where he, Susan and their three grown daughters still live, but his interest in the farm and its future always remained.
“I’m absolutely in love with this place,” he said. “I would hate to see it developed. It’s just too beautiful.”
The family returned to Iowa frequently over the years, and when Ann passed away five years after Bob, Rob gained ownership of the beloved family farm and began creating a master conservation plan for Danamere Farms.
Three Goals, Many Partners
Rob and Susan had three goals in mind when they took over care of Danamere Farms: restoration, recreation and education. For all the projects they’ve tackled, conservation and community have been at the forefront. Rob’s parents took the land out of row-crop production in 2005 and began working with INHF to restore parts of the property to prairie. Rob and Susan have continued to restore the land with help from neighbors, friends and independent contractors.
“The goal is to have as much open landscape that gets as close to its pre-settlement condition as possible,” Rob said. “We don’t live here fulltime, so it’s a slow process, but it’s coming along.”
Rob’s passionate about restoring the land, but it’s the projects — restoration and otherwise — that present opportunities to bring new faces to explore, experience and steward the land that he and Susan are most excited about.
“The family is always thinking about how others can enjoy their beautiful family farm,” said INHF Conversation Easement Director Erin Van Waus. “There are so many things that make this place special.”
Two years ago, Rob and Susan began renting two acres of land to Congera Alex, a refugee from Burundi, through Lutheran Services in Iowa’s (LSI) Global Greens program. Global Greens reconnects former refugee farmers with land as they build their new lives in the U.S. Together with his wife, Chantal Marie, Alex grows local foods and produce they grew in Africa.
“Gardening as a family group has been an integral part of our lives since the time we were born,” Alex told LSI. “We enjoy spending time together in the garden and passing along this important part of our cultural heritage to our children in our new country.”
In the past, Danamere Farms has served as an outdoor classroom for students at Carlisle Middle School, which is located on neighboring land that was once part of the farm. The teacher leading the project recently retired. Rob and Susan hope to reestablish the partnership so students in the Carlisle School District can once again learn from the land in their own backyard.
Rob is particularly proud of the community trail that runs through the property offering cyclists, joggers and families scenic views of the landscape and the distant Des Moines skyline. He and Susan donated land to the City of Carlisle to help complete the project, and Rob, a landscape architect, worked with RDG Planning & Design to finalize the design. The trail is a link between the Summerset Trail in Indianola and Scotch Ridge Nature Park, and will someday link to Des Moines’s Easter Lake and the Central Iowa Trail System.
“INHF and other land trusts are increasingly interested in community conservation — a balanced approach to land conservation that includes more people and seeks to meet the needs of the community. Danamere Farms is a great example,” Van Waus said.
These projects embody an approach Rob learned through his family, on the farm and in his career.
“Anytime you build something, it’s a collaborative effort with lots of different entities,” he said. “Danamere Farms is kind of my capstone project. This is the land ethic I was trained in.”
Rob and Susan’s capstone is not yet complete, but they’re pleased to know it will always be protected. Last year, they donated a conservation easement to INHF, ensuring Danamere Farms will always be a place for conservation and community.
“I think it was always in the back of my parents’ minds that I might do something like this,” Rob said. “They didn’t require it of me, but they trusted that I would do it after they were gone. It was in the back of the whole family’s mind to preserve it.”
As Rob and Susan envision their farm’s future, they’re excited about the ways INHF can help expand all Danamere Farms has to offer.
“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect,” wrote Aldo Leopold. Perhaps the same is true when a community begins to see itself as part of conservation.