AMES, Iowa—Kelly Norris knows about good soil and the right growing conditions.
And he has learned that it is not only plants that flourish when their needs are met, but also people and communities.
Growing up on a farm outside Bedford, Iowa, the 19-year-old Iowa State University (ISU) sophomore showed an early love for “playing in the dirt.”
Soon Norris was helping his grandmother prepare the soil, sow the seeds and tend the plants in the family garden. In addition to Grandma’s loving tutelage, Norris found another caring adult in his fifth grade teacher, who also was a 4-H club leader. He signed up for horticulture through the Bedford Downtowners 4-H Club and took award-winning produce to the Taylor County Fair.
He learned about ISU horticulture from the same teacher, an Iowa State alum. “I didn’t know much about going to college then,” he laughed, “but when I found out that students could study about plants in college and that Iowa State ranked as one of the best horticulture schools in the country, I wanted to go there.
“Besides, it’s in-state tuition,” he said. “Top quality and it’s right here in Iowa.”
Norris not only loves to garden; he loves to read about gardening, especially ornamentals such as iris. His mother, Krystal, who was one of his 4-H leaders, encouraged his appetite for independent learning. Two of his teachers helped him enroll in ISU Extension’s Master Gardener program as an eighth grader, through which he became Iowa’s youngest certified Master Gardener.
“This was a profound experience for me,” Norris said. He was surrounded by plant enthusiasts and heard leading horticulture professionals speak. “Even today I’ll hear a term in hort class and think, ‘I picked that up in Master Gardener.’
“I also learned to like photography,” Norris laughed. “I wasn’t very good at it as a kid, but I wanted to photograph plants.” He developed his skills through 4-H project guides, eventually placing photos at the Iowa State Fair.
But his first love was growing iris. By age 14, Norris had collected 300 different iris varieties, which were taking over the family yard. “My parents joked that the house was theirs, but the yard belonged to Kelly,” he said.
That joke became prophetic in 2002, when Norris, at age 15, convinced his parents to buy an iris farm. They traveled to Texas, the site of Rainbow Iris Farm, studied the operation, and came back to Bedford where they developed and prepared a layout plan to accommodate the 40,000 individual plants that would be trucked to Iowa.
In addition to taking over the yard, Norris now took over seven acres of gently sloping pasture along the driveway leading to the family home. “We wanted more mechanization than the operation had in Texas,” Norris explains. “We have room enough between beds for a tractor or pickup truck, which really helps with moving plants.”
The whole Norris family—Kenny (his father), Krystal, younger brother Kody, and Grandmother—along with neighbors and friends planted the 40,000 iris, logging more than 300 hours of labor.
Along with the flowers, Rainbow Iris Farm brought “Bloomfest” to Bedford. Each May the farm hosts a three-week festival showcasing the iris in bloom. Some 1,000 visitors come to the farm, tour the flower beds and place orders. The festival also led to “Bedford in Bloom,” a one-day event in town at the opening of Bloomfest. “It’s an economic event, much like Tulip Time is to Pella,” he said.
Norris said he functions as the manager for Rainbow Iris Farm, with his mother handling financial management and his father and brother handling the mechanical and equipment aspects.
The young entrepreneur said 4-H communication projects and high school speech activities prepared him well for other horticulture pursuits—giving lectures and writing for journals. A 4-H state fair speaker, he also was a three-time high school all-state participant in speech.
Norris gives back to the speech program, serving as an Iowa High School Speech Association adjudicator for contests. He also plans to attend training to become a 4-H judge and states that, “Intergenerational communication is one of the strong points of 4-H conference judging.”
As a horticulturist, Norris values good soil and he values the good soil he found in 4-H. “4-H gave me a medium in which to grow as a person through opportunities in communication, in taking charge and feeling pride in accomplishments, and in learning to serve in a very civic way.” Young people grow particularly well through service learning, he said. “You acquire knowledge of how to work with others to gain something for the common good.”
Radio interview -- Hear Kelly Norris interview with Extension's Doug Cooper.