Can Local Food Thrive in Industrial Ag’s Heartland Stronghold?

Iowa has long been known for its connection to large-scale commodity crop production, but the tide may be turning.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

If you’ve never visted Iowa—or even if you have, and remember seeing little more than cornfields stretching to the faraway horizon—it’s easy to see the state as little more than a black hole of industrial agriculture. Popular media has done little to break down this myth, with films such as King Corn painting the state as the nation’s epicenter of big bad farms, and Michael Pollan homing in on a conflicted farmer in Green County growing corn for McDonald’s in his 2007 best seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that Iowan soil is inhospitable to growing anything not destined to be shipped overseas, fed to livestock, or turned into ethanol.

A new study paints a slightly different picture of the state, however, one in which a system supporting crop diversity and local sales is in better shape than it has been in decades. If things are changing in the belly of the big-ag beast (Iowa is the leading corn-producing state and the runner-up for soybeans), it’s at the very least a symbolic victory for diverse, sustainable farms, if not symptomatic of broader changes across America’s farmland. If we are all indeed going the way of the Hawkeye State, the local food movement is gaining ground—bolstering local ag economies with increased sales and employment, and earning large contracts with institutions such as hospitals and schools.

Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, in partnership with the Regional Food Systems Working Group, spent the past few years collecting data on local food sales by farmers; local food purchases by grocery stores, restaurants, and other institutions; job creation as a result of local food production, processing, or utilization; and funds leveraged by RFSWG groups to support the development of regional food systems. Researchers found that sales and purchases have increased dramatically in Iowa in recent years, as has the creation of employment opportunities.

“Someone told me that all change comes from the coasts and moves to the center of the country last, but in this case I think Iowa is setting the example for the rest of the country,” says Corry Bregendahl, associate scientist at the Leopold Center, who coordinated the data collection for the report.

She and her colleagues found that Iowa farmers sold $24 million in vegetables, fruits, meat, and other products in 2012 and 2013. Last year, local food sales to institutions such as schools and hospitals increased 25 percent over 2012. The researchers also believe food sold directly to consumers is on the rise and that the numbers may be higher than this data show, as the Leopold Center did not take into account sales through farmers markets or community-supported agriculture programs. The study also found that 171 jobs were created in 2012 and 2013 as a result of local food.

The state’s commodity farmers may also be recognizing the need to operate differently. Datu Research, working on behalf of the Walton Family Foundation, released a study this month showing that 23 percent of respondents in Iowa were using cover crops, a practice that has been shown to improve soil health and reduce errosion.

Despite these signs of progress, Iowa still imports upwards of 80 percent of its food from outside the state. But models have shown that you wouldn’t need to eat into much of the existing farmland to produce enough homegrown fruits and vegetables to sustain every person in Iowa, says Lynn Heuss, program coordinator with the Regional Food Systems Working Group, a statewide network of practitioners and advocates formed in 2003 to increase investment in local food systems. She points to research from Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State, who found that just 25 acres could feed roughly 5,000 Iowans—the population of a small town. She sees the expansion of local food in Iowa as an opportunity to invite young people back to land currently too expensive for them to afford while contributing to community revitalization.

“Nothing but good can come from diversified, local food systems,” she says.

Challenges remain, however. For one, the Leopold Center’s funding for the Regional Food Systems Working Group has dried up, which is partially funded now by ISU Extension and indirectly through funding from the Iowa Legislature. This especially affects the network of regional coordinators throughout the state, whom Bregendahl says “work for pennies” with buyers and producers to build the infrastructure for increased local production. Still, she’s optimistic about Iowa’s local future.

“In some sense, we’re in the belly of the beast, where commodity and industrial ag dominates the scene, and if we can do that in Iowa, we can do it anywhere,” she says.