Taking Back the Corn Belt: localism in my homestate
December 14, 2009
Before Iowa was a cash crop state, producing more than 2 billion bushels of corn and nearly 500 million bushels of soybeans every year, it was filled with many family farms, These farms grew 100% of the state’s apples and many other staple vegetables for local consumption. Now Iowa is one the largest producer of corn in the United States, but grows less than 10% of the food eaten there. With the rising price of gas and the newfound understanding of the destructiveness of conventional agriculture, the local food movement is growing. In Iowa the battle may be slow and it is certainly fresh, but it is growing nevertheless. Here are some gems I learned about during my short stay back home.
There are over 100 farmers markets in Iowa which, according to the Iowa Farmers Market Association generated 20.8 million dollars in sales in 2004, contribuiting even more than that to the local economy. The association works to educate people about the benefits of shopping locally. When visiting the River City Farmers Market in downtown Daveport in September I was extremely impressed with the abundance of fresh, quality vegetables. Some stands were advertising Community Supported Agriculture programs, some were showing off organic or heirloom varieties. I was especially inspired after coming to the blue potato basket of the greenhorn crew at The Mad Farmer’s Garden. After all of the public policy and subsidies pushing these types of farmers out of the state, ones that have stuck around and growers who are returning to the rich soils of the midwest to try a more holistic agriculture should be applauded. By the turn out at the farmers market, Iowans appreciate fresh, local veggies like anyone in the Northeast.
Iowa City seems to be a hotspot for the movement. The University of Iowa’s Environmental Coalition and Office of Sustainability started a garden on campus to provide food for Iowa Memorial Union Food Service (press release) . A broader goal of the garden is to spread the benefits of local food and to get students involved in building a more sustainable lifestyle. Restaurants in Iowa city such as Orchard Green (please try the stuffed acorn squash) and Devotay are committed to buying local produce whenever possible. Although farmers markets are a great way to make local produce available, restaurants are a more dependable way to sell vegetables. With the growing demand for locally grown food, these restaurants can even gain an edge over otherwise more conventional ones. New Pioneer Food Co-op gains members for that specific reason. Get to know your neighboors and get to know your food, their website says. Iowa City has a Slow Food chapter as well.
Local Foods Connection works to supply local veggies to low-income families in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines and Buy Fresh Buy Local works to get those who can afford to buy locally to invest.
I’m sure there are a dozen more organizations out there and seed groups starting in other colleges and universities in the state, but even with these examples, it is clear that the movement is taking hold. For a state like Iowa to begin reclaiming food independence is powerful, important, and promising. As the movement sweeps across the United States, action in those regions that have been the most adversely affected by the Green Revolution must be strong and unswerving. In Iowa, our feet are in the door.