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The Local Food Movement in Iowa

posted on October 12, 2007 at 1:05 PM

Larry Cleverly is a farmer who sells his produce through farmers markets and restaurants, and he's also the marketing representative for Niman Ranch meats. That’s a growing national brand of sustainable meat sold through restaurants and selected food stores. And Rich Pirog is with the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, and he leads the regional food systems working group and also directs the value chain partnerships for sustainable agriculture, an effort that provides technical assistance to farmer led food, fiber, and energy businesses.

Mundt: Rich, can you give me a sense of the impact that locally grown food through farmers markets and through other venues is having in this state?

Pirog: If we look back to 1985, the first year that the department of Ag and Land Stewardship started to keep records, we had 65 farmers markets in Iowa. That has grown too, now that we have over 170. Back in 1995 we had two community supported ag enterprises, where farmers sold their goods under a subscription to consumers. There’s well over 50 of those community supported ag enterprises in the state today. These mirror the national trends. There’s more interest at hotels, restaurants, colleges, universities, all wanting to buy more locally grown products.

Mundt: Larry, you see that in your business. I see you're now actually branded with your name on restaurant menus. This seems to be happening for you.

Cleverly: Branding is very important. We try to get the restaurant or the grocery store to brand our names on the menus or on the shelves. And you know, we want our customers, we want the consumer to develop a relationship with us and we want them to associate our name, cleverly farms or niman ranch, we want them to associate that with a pleasurable dining experience.

Mundt: Do you have difficulty, though, as someone who is a small farmer or reasonably small farmer --

Cleverly: Small farmer.

Mundt: -- getting through that chain? If you have to go through the restaurant -- I mean everybody has to go through a distribution chain, but it would seem like small farmers have -- would have more difficulty doing that.

Cleverly: Well the idea for a small farmer like myself, 8 acres or so, is we want to sell our produce as close to the consumers’ plate as we can. So with the farmers market, we're selling it directly to the consumer. So that one chance a week downtown at the Des Moines farmers market, we can access that retail dollar. Throughout the rest of the week, we take it to the restaurant kitchen, which is as close to the retail dollar as we can get. Our niche a small farmer such as myself, our niche is a relatively small, locally owned, independent, white tablecloth restaurant, someone who isn't afraid to pay top price for top quality.

Mundt: You don't have to give me exact numbers, but if you're 8 acres gross, how would that compare to a conventional farm, 8 acres of corn grown as a commodity?

Cleverly: Well, obviously our gross income per acre is far greater than a conventional row crop farmer, but our labor costs per acre is far more expensive as well. I think that living off 8 acres is probably comparable to what a fella can make off a thousand acres reasonably.

Mundt: Rich, you mentioned that in fact Iowa is seeing this kind of growth and interest, and this is being mirrored at the national level. You can look at Iowa sometimes and say we've become a state that has become so tied to a commodity form of agriculture, but here is this sign that there are not only farmers who are willing to experiment in some cases to try this out, but there's a market there that exists to take that product and use it.

Pirog: Yes, and that market continues to grow from where we started fifteen years ago with increases in farmers markets in these community supported ago enterprises to now most restaurants, even restaurant chains would like to see more locally grown food. Some of our food distributors would like to be carrying more locally grown foods. Even Wal-Mart and other national chains want to carry more locally grown foods. So this is a trend that's happening nationally, and we have some real opportunities here in Iowa. It’s not just around the state borders. Remember, some of our farmers that are in the far corners, their markets are in multiple states, and it's still locally grown. A farmer in northeast Iowa may be selling in Minnesota and Wisconsin and Illinois as well as Iowa. So they're not necessarily state borders when we're talking about locally grown.

Mundt: And how would compare this to the potential that people talk about from the ethanol boom in the state?

Pirog: Well, we worked with the department of economics and did a study. The question was what would happen if Iowans ate five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and for three months out of the year, which is about our growing season, those fruits and vegetables came from Iowa farms. And the upshot of that analysis -- and it was based on both -- half of it was wholesales to grocery stores. The other half was direct markets. That created about 4,100 new jobs -- net jobs in the state. That’s in the same ballpark as the current number of ethanol plant job numbers are. And the other part of that that one has to consider is that if Iowans did eat five servings of fruits and vegetables of a day -- actually only 20 percent Iowans do eat five servings -- there would be additional health benefits with less sick days, improved health. and so obviously you're coupling here this bringing more local food, economic development, health benefits all rolls back into stimulating the economy and Iowa’s community health.

Mundt: Within a relatively short growing season, Larry, is there a way to extend the growing season? I mean a lot of this stuff is disappearing from the markets right now, the great things that we've been enjoying all summer. Is there any way to preserve that great Iowa stuff so that in December and January it's available to us?

Cleverly: There are some rather expensive ways to do it. High tunnels have -- are becoming I think something that a farmer like myself maybe wants to think about. On the other hand you work so hard from March -- as soon in March as you can work up the ground until Mother Nature tells you to quit sometime in the next few weeks here. You know, you sort of look forward to a little bit of down time with produce. And our winters can be so extreme. I often think that my restaurant customers in particular would like to have salad mix 12 months a year but when it's 20 below, I’m thinking to myself, well, now how exactly am I going to harvest this and wash it and transport it when it's so cold. My refrigerated truck doesn't have a heater, so if it's 20 below, I can't even get my refrigerated truck box up to freezing. You know, so there are -- these are not obstacles that could not be overcome, but they certainly would be difficult.

Mundt: Rich, should will be government incentives to maybe not necessarily make it possible to do something like this but make to encourage a market for these kinds of products to expand, to grocery stores to get more people interested in buying them at the farmers markets?

Pirog: I know that there is language in the senate title, in the rural development section of the farm bill, trying to encourage more -- more incentives, more loan programs, technical assistance programs for producers to increase their capacity. Building on what you asked Larry here, we're funding at the Leopold Center a project at ISU, looking at a mobile -- the design for a mobile flash freezing unit that a farmer or network of farmers in a semi trailer could take that sweet corn or those green peppers, and they could be available at other times of the year. The design is one thing. The state and the communities need to invest in these kind of technologies, and so we need to sort of build on that entrepreneurial spirit in our communities that these are good mechanisms for economic development.

Mundt: Only a few seconds left, Larry, but Rich said something very interesting here about farmers working together. I know that you've tried to do that and it's not always an easy thing to get people to work together on the schedule.

Cleverly: Well -- and perhaps I’m not easy to work with either but I did a couple of years ago, three or four years ago, try to market products for a group of farmers. And it really wasn't successful, in my mind. In order to pay them a fair price for what they were bringing me and in order for me to make a little money on the transaction we were sort of probably going past a price point that a restaurant would like to pay. And some of the farmers weren't necessarily so reliable about getting me things when they had promised. And I just came to a point where I’d rather depend on myself, and then if it doesn't happen, I have no one but myself to blame. That’s the way we've grown.

Mundt: And it seems to have worked very well for you, too.

Tags: agriculture economics farmers farms Iowa local food

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