Local food networks reflect progress and potential
At the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture's 20th anniversary celebration, discussion swirls around supporting the blossoming connections between local consumers and local farmers.

By Darcy Maulsby
Posted August 9, 2007

Photo by Jack Kloppenburg, courtesy of Kamyar Enshayan

A quiet revolution has redefined Iowa’s food culture, connecting farmers and consumers like never before. Yet the local-food movement is just beginning to flex its collective muscles to tackle the next set of challenges to become a sustainable and consistent part of the food system.

“In the last 10 to 20 years, the focus of local foods has been on consumers, and we need to celebrate these successes,” said Kamyar Enshayan, coordinator of the University of Northern Iowa’s (UNI) Local Food Project. Enshayan addressed attendees at a regional foods workshop during the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s 20th anniversary celebration recently in Ames, Iowa. “Now we need to help farmers capitalize on their market power.”

The successes are many, agreed fellow panelist Neil Hamilton, director of the Drake University Agricultural Law Center in Des Moines. One of the most visible changes in Iowa agriculture spearheaded by the Leopold Center includes the local-food movement, which began to take hold in Iowa in the 1990s. “When the Leopold Center celebrated its 10th anniversary, one of the most memorable events was the meal of locally grown food,” Hamilton said. “This was the first time the Scheman Center at Iowa State University had been asked to serve local food. The farmers who raised the food were introduced, and the whole event was moving and powerful.”

CSAs and institutions lead the charge

In some ways, the local-food movement has become more successful than its pioneers ever envisioned. Consider community supported agriculture (CSA), which has been one of the key building blocks. “It’s a huge challenge to meet the demand,” said panelist Susan Jutz, who owns and operates ZJ Farm near Solon, Iowa, and Local Harvest CSA, which includes nearly 200 members. “Even five years ago I’d never have believed that consumers would be so interested in buying local food.”

"The concept of buying locally just wasn’t out there. People would hear 'CSA' and thought you worked for the CIA."

When Jutz began her CSA in 1997 with 18 families, few people knew what CSAs were. Though she never advertised, Jutz would speak about the CSA concept to anyone who would listen – including church and civic groups – in order to educate the public. “The concept of buying locally just wasn’t out there. People would hear 'CSA' and thought you worked for the CIA.”

A great deal of education was also required to encourage institutions to buy food locally. When Iowa’s Local Food Project began working 10 years ago with the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Allen Memorial Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa, and Rudy’s Tacos in Waterloo, the three institutions purchased $100,000 worth of local food per year. “This past year I worked with 27 institutional buyers, including area grocery stores, who bought $881,000 of local foods from farmers primarily in a four-county area,” said Enshayan, noting that the 2003 launch of the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaign helped to make local food and local farmers significantly more visible.

What’s missing

While the local-food movement has come a long way, it still has a long way to go. Some of the biggest areas of concern include:

Labor issues. Many producers depend on their children and/or interns for their farm labor. “We haven’t figured out how to get experienced, affordable, consistent labor,” Jutz said. Paying skilled, reliable workers also creates financial challenges for the farm family. To compensate employees adequately, Jutz has to sacrifice some of the income her family needs to meet basic expenses like the mortgage and everyday living costs.

Lack of producers to fill the demand. Jutz believes the local-food movement requires more young people who are able and willing to start farming, as well as mid-sized farmers who are willing to convert some of their acres to vegetable and fruit production. The local-food movement also needs a full-scale program that provides the technical expertise young farm families need to survive, Enshayan added.

Inadequate health insurance. While this is a challenge for any self-employed person, it’s especially a problem in agriculture, where profit margins can be slim. While it may appear that demand exceeding supply would be a nice problem to have, solving the issue isn’t as simple as raising the price of CSA shares, said Jutz, who noted that food needs to be affordable. Many CSA members are older adults on fixed incomes, and shares that become too expensive may exclude many working families, as well. “Even if I raise the price of my shares by $50 or $75 to get them where they should be, this still isn’t enough to buy insurance.”

No entity advocating policy change. Despite all the local-food work going on in Iowa, these low-budget operations are faced with the huge task of re-establishing a local-food network across the entire state. While some states, such as Nebraska, have organizations like the Center for Rural Affairs, there is no similar group in Iowa to serve as an advocate for policy change. “We have the weight, and now we need to throw our weight around,” Enshayan said.

Little evidence of the local-food revolution in local grocery stores. While the paradigms surrounding food have changed dramatically in the past decade, there’s still little evidence of the local-food revolution in the typical Iowa grocery store.

Finding solutions

Although there are no easy answers, Leopold Center panelists agreed that it’s time to get serious about finding solutions, such as engaging local governments to invest public tax dollars in the maintenance of local-food systems. Residents need to see that services providing local food are as important as water, sewer, police and fire protection services, said Enshayan, who sits on the city council in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“The local police chief doesn’t spend his time raising money just to keep his department going. The local-foods movement spends too much time searching for money to keep low-budget operations afloat. Also, local governments spend vast quantities of money on economic development. We ought to encourage them to consider the importance of local foods to the economy.”

"If state policy required institutions to buy a certain percentage of local products, it would be a lot easier for these organizations to buy local."

Policies at the state level could also foster the growth of the local-food movement, noted audience members. When Iowa State University purchases local food, currently the buyers must justify spending the extra money. “If state policy required institutions to buy a certain percentage of local products, it would be a lot easier for these organizations to buy local,” said Sue De Blieck of Iowa State University.

Changes in public policy could also result in more sustainable solutions for farm payments. “I’d also like to see some of the direct farm payments redirected towards health care and pension programs for farmers, especially those producing local foods,” said Hamilton, who notes that it takes time to educate public policy leaders about the importance of local food and producers’ challenges.

There are also steps producers can take to improve their futures. Sharing more cost-of-production information, along with best practices, can benefit everyone, Jutz said. Although it can be hard to find time to leave the farm, visiting other operations can provide valuable insights, including exploring new ways to trim some of the biggest production costs in order to boost profitability. When Jutz visited Seed Savers Exchange www.seedsavers.org in Decorah, Iowa, for example, she learned a labor-saving method of working with garlic. Tools like the Iowa Vegetable Production Budgets developed by Iowa State University Extension (available online at (www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/crops/html/a1-17.html) also help producers learn to allocate land, labor and capital to the most appropriate use.

“The paradigm around local foods is radically changing, and we’ve done a good job of making this change happen for more than 10 years,” Enshayan said. “While there’s more to do, it can be done.”