Local food leads to job creation
One of television’s most popular shows today is NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” where contestants work with personal trainers to establish exercise programs and healthy eating habits, including the importance of consuming fresh fruits and vegetables.
In Iowa, a great place to purchase fresh produce is at local farmers markets, or through community supported agriculture, or CSA, operations. In fact, the popularity of these food outlets has never been higher.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship reports there were 212 farmers markets in the state in 2009, an increase of 28 from the year before. Eighty-eight counties have at least one farmers market, with Polk County’s 11 being the most, followed by Linn County (nine), Black Hawk County (eight), and Dubuque and Howard counties (six). Information can be found in IDALS’ online Farmers Market Directory.
• There were 212 farmers markets in Iowa in 2009, up 15% from 2008.
• Demand for local foods outpaces production in Iowa, providing opportunity.
• Leopold Center cites potential job creation with increased local food production.
In recognition of this health-awareness trend across the country, in 2009 USDA unveiled the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program that highlights the importance of locally grown foods. This effort strives to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers. It is also the start of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where food comes from and how it gets to America’s dinner tables.
Connecting consumers, farmers
“USDA Rural Development is very interested in supporting, through our loan and grant programs, the exciting local foods initiatives that are surfacing across Iowa,” says Bill Menner, USDA Rural Development state director in Iowa. “People want to know where their food is coming from and are requesting locally grown foods. They also recognize the importance of supporting local producers and local economies.”
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University has been actively conducting and funding research for, and tracking the development of, local food production across Iowa since 1995. “Initially, we spent time helping raise awareness of local foods across the state,” says Rich Pirog, associate director at the center. “Not surprisingly, it quickly became clear that there was a great opportunity for producing and selling local foods in Iowa.”
The center and its many organizational partners then began addressing the tougher question: Can producers make money growing and selling food to local consumers and businesses?
Can you make money doing this?
Center-funded project leaders worked with hundreds of producers to develop useful local food information on topics such as developing business plans, alternative production techniques, marketing, feasibility studies, and economic impacts, along with ways to determine production and marketing costs for local and regional foods.
“One of the exciting things we are working on now is the relevant potential local food production offers for job creation,” says Pirog. “A recent study shows that a group of 10 southwest Iowa counties could generate $2.67 million in labor incomes, an equivalent to 45 jobs, just by increasing local food production to meet demand in the area.”
The Leopold Center and several organizational partners also have created a number of working groups within specialty food-production industries including pork, grass-fed livestock, niche meat processing, local and regional foods, and fruits and vegetables.
“Our Regional Food Systems Working Group has been a great way to accelerate the learning curve on local foods,” Pirog notes. Funding from this working group has assisted the Southwest Iowa Food and Farm Initiative, or SWIFFI, with projects to support new and beginning farmers, as well as to research ways to improve fruit and vegetable production. Some of SWIFFI’s members include local food producers, restaurant owners, processors, wholesalers, local officials and school food-service directors.
“We have a waiting list for communities that would like to start farmers markets, and schools, restaurants and institutions who would like to purchase more foods from local sources,” says Bahia Barry, Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development coordinator who works with SWIFFI. “This year we are working to improve access to our community-based food systems.”
Leach is public information coordinator with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.
This article published in the April, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.