Spotlight: Local man shares love for dirt with kids


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Peeling back a wooden crate door, Scott Koepke reveals a stacked, layered mixture of hay, decomposing vegetables, and warm castings.

He reaches into the heap. A hunk of tiny worms — squirmy red wigglers — recoil in shock from the blast of outside air and sunlight.

"This is so rewarding to see this," he says as he cradles the clump of compost, sifting the mixture in his hands.

But his love of the earth doesn't stay in the garden. For years, Koepke's knowledge of gardening has taken root into the classroom.

"I really, really, really want to do what I can to reconnect kids to nature," he said. "I think it's absolutely vital to get away from the screen and pick up worms."

Since 2002, the Iowa native, who often has a layer of dirt on both arms, has been traveling to schools throughout eastern Iowa and teaching students about sun, soil, air, and water — key ingredients for growing.

The 48-year-old first fell in love with gardening during a Peace Corps stint in Senegal in 1987, teaching agricultural methods to the people who lived there. But Koepke didn't always love gardening.

It started with a question.

"Sometimes you ask a question, 'What do I really want to do,' and sometimes that answer will change throughout your life," Koepke said. "But then, one time you know something feels right, and you keep coming back to it."

Gazing into the mirror, he found his answer.

"And I remember looking at myself and … responding, 'If I was lucky enough to be an old man and live a long life, I could pretty much guarantee that I'd want to, if I could, get up every day and garden," Koepke said. "Because I loved it that much."

The former political-science major from Iowa State has greater visions beyond the classroom. Koepke said he's continually works with schools to start composts and gardens for their cafeterias.

"I think what sets Scott apart from a lot of other people is his ability to give a lot of thought to issues at a national level, state level, and then being able to bring it back down to the class level," said Fred Meyers, the head of the local organization Backyard Abundance. Meyers has worked with Koepke for roughly three years.

Koepke said he hopes to one day make his time in the classroom — what he recently named "Soilmates" — into a full-time job. But for now, Koepke, whose favorite thing to grow is peppers, balances his teaching time with his full-time job as a staff member at the New Pioneer Food Co-op.

And his friends speak to his passion for the earth.

"People who are in this business, the reason … is because they really care," said Janette Ryan-Busch of Fae Ridge Farms, where Koepke worked for several summers. "Because it's the kind of business where you have to have passion about it or you don't stay in it for very long."

Koepke lives in the self-proclaimed "smallest house in town" with his dog Jasmine. With not much room to grow in his own backyard, he has learned to rely on unconventional gardening to grow as much as he can. On a sunny day, he is known to sprawl his sprouting plants in the front window of his truck and donated space in neighbor's back yard, returning their kindness with carrots, peppers, and other treasures from his garden.

And what is relished for many, the fruit of the labor, is not the most important aspect Koepke said. It's all about the soil.

"Food to me," he said, "is just frosting on the cake."

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