Eating local: A plan for Iowa
While most Midwestern states have large agriculture industries, many of their local and regional food networks aren’t well-developed.
In Iowa, which feeds much of the world, only about 14 percent of the food consumed in the state is produced in the state.
But advocates and policymakers alike see a larger role for local foods —in grocery stores, restaurants and schools. Yet building effective working relationships along the path from farm to table is a challenge.
“Many of these farmers, fruit veg or direct market livestock, or egg producers, they don’t have strong support system as some of their larger mainstream farmers do,” said Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
At the request of the state Legislature, the center recently released a comprehensive report outlining ways to expand the local food economy in Iowa. A centerpiece of the plan is creating the position of a local food state coordinator.
“Nobody is really playing that role, that liaison and coordinating role, across all of the state agencies and other state funded institutions,” said Pirog, lead author of the report.
That’s a big picture goal — but the report is also full of smaller, equally concrete suggestions to help producers develop better business plans and find markets.
Through listening sessions, interviews and surveys, the report’s authors gathered input from more than 1,000 people across nearly all of Iowa’s counties. They spoke to farmers, small-meat processors, non-profits, state agencies, and community leaders; some of the suggestions in the report came from talking with organizations already sourcing local food.
One such example is the Burritoworks café, which is run by Iowa State University Dining.
“I’m a really big fan of looking at what food tastes like, what they used, what their practices are,” said Michael Reed, a graduate student who found that information at Burritoworks on a January afternoon. He chose pork from a Niman ranch farmer in Thornton, Iowa.
Nancy Levandowski, the university’s dining director, said buying local food is an important way the university can support the community. About 10 percent of food purchases are local or organic, but the goal is to triple that number.
But coordinating with local farmers can be difficult, Levandowski said.
“It takes a little more time on our staff,” she said. “You can get potatoes, but you can’t get all of them from this one farmer, so we have to find another farmer to get 100 potatoes so you can let students know these are all local potatoes.”
To help solve this problem, the university started developing contracts with local farmers. Last year, Julie and Scott Wilber had a contract to grow green peppers, cabbage and cucumbers.
The Wilbers, who farm 22 acres in Boone, Iowa, said knowing they have a buyer for a large volume of product helps.
“I would love to have somebody say we want you to grow five acres of cucumbers and we’re going to just take every single one. It’d be almost like what corn and beans are right now. There’s a market, and they can just take it and dump it off,” said Scott Wilber said.
One suggestion in the Leopold Center’s report is to create sample contracts and production agreements for local food sales. This would help assure farmers they have a buyer for their crop.
As more mainstream buyers become interested in local foods, though, that raises other concerns – most notably food safety.
“It’s not that the food isn’t safe, it’s being able to ensure that it’s safe,” said Tom Hobt, vice president of perishables at Hy-Vee. The Iowa-based grocery chain already buys local food.
Hobt said the inspection processes for local food are still developing.
“When you’re buying from large growers and you’re buying national brands, they go through rigorous and very regulated processes in order to sell those items. It’s not as defined when buying local,” he said.
There are programs that teach how to grow, wash and box food safely, which many farmers already take advantage of. The Leopold Center plan recommends offering more of these sessions.
In all, the report contains more than 30 concrete suggestions to create a strong local food system.
“I think we can actually have a better product, especially grown locally as far as freshness, and quality,” said state Sen. Joe Seng, chair of the Agriculture Committee.
Seng said there is bipartisan support for expanding local food production. And supporting farm jobs ties directly into boosting the economic situation of the state, which is a main focus of the Legislature right now.