Pottawattamie County, Iowa is rethinking the way it fosters commerce. Atlantic reporter Nancy Cook calls it “innovative regional economic development”—some may call it old-fashioned localism. Yet considering these Iowans live in the very heart of commodity-farming territory, building a local, small farm-centric food culture may be “innovative” indeed. Cook writes,
Pottawattamie County has collaborated with towns and cities beyond its borders to boost the reach of its local farmers and to foster a different kind of agricultural sector that grows fruits and vegetables for its own residents to buy and eat. It has worked to train the next generation of farmers and to help existing farms with small-business coaching.
But this is about more than the “eat local” movement and trends toward gastronomic localism: it is also about trying to help a state economy flourish, and about building a long-term agrarian culture that will provide jobs for the next generation:
Part of the strategy to keep money in-state was to shift the type of farming that southwest Iowans engaged in from large industrialized farms to smaller operations that grew food that local people could eat. From this initial series of meetings was born the Southwest Iowa Food and Farm Initiative. The group has grown to a roster of more than 50 farmers, O’Brien says, with a smattering of local food-policy councils.
Known as SWIFFI, the group does both education and outreach. It has helped traditional farmers develop their business savvy through workshops and coaching. The nonprofit has set up local farmers’ markets and CSAs (“community-supported agriculture” networks) throughout its corner of the state to connect residents to local farmers. For a while, it even identified and mentored aspiring farmers, and trained roughly 50 young people in farming with the hope that they’d remain in rural Iowa.
Iowa is the heart of corn and soybean country. These two heavily-subsidized crops make up the lion’s share of American agricultural production—and they’re pretty much inedible for the farmers who grow them, as well as for their surrounding communities. As Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Iowa’s corn crops “must be processed or fed to livestock before they can feed people. Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink: like most of Iowa, which now imports 80 percent of its food, George’s farm … is basically a food desert.” [Emphasis added.] Pollan goes on to consider the impact that this has on a surrounding community:
There are many reasons for the depopulation of the American Farm Belt, but the triumph of corn deserves a large share of the blame—or credit, depending on your point of view. When George Naylor’s grandfather was farming, the typical Iowa farm was home to whole families of different plant and animal species, corn being only the fourth most common. … This diversity allowed the farm not only to substantially feed itself—and by that I don’t mean feed only the farmers, but also the soil and livestock—but to withstand a collapse in the market for any one of those crops.
… Beginning in the fifties and sixties, the flood tide of cheap corn made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots instead of on grass, and to raise chickens in giant factories rather than in farmyards. Iowa livestock farmers couldn’t compete with the factory-farmed animals their own cheap corn had helped spawn, so the chickens and cattle disappeared from the farm, and with them the pastures and hay fields and fences. … Now [corn] proceeded to push out the people. For the radically simplified farm of corn and soybeans doesn’t require nearly as much human labor as the old diversified farm … So the farms got bigger, and eventually the people, whom the steadily falling price of corn could no longer support anyway, went elsewhere, ceding the field to the monstrous grass.
Human society relies on a diverse web of animal and plant life in order to survive: it requires a diversity and division of labor that enables the entire local ecosystem to flourish. A landscape of corn, and only corn, achieves the opposite of that: it drives out a diversity of plant and animal, but it also cuts off a need for human workers. It destroys community, by destroying the intricate web of commerce and agriculture that a community needs in order to thrive. Rather than being self-sufficient and mutually supportive, Iowa is reliant on imports for its daily bread, and is increasingly populated by ghost towns, as Pollan writes.
SWIFFI seems to be attempting to fight this lack of self-sufficiency, while also fighting for an old-fashioned, yet more sustainable and profitable, method of farming. Family farms are steadily deteriorating, and few young people have shown a deep interest in living in America’s rural heartland. There is a need to identify and attract young people who might like to be farmers—and an even greater need to train and support them as they face the considerable challenges that farming often presents, at least at first.
Of course, there will be challenges ahead for this new initiative. Farmers will continue to face an uphill battle as they work within a skewed market that feeds off of cronyism and Big Ag subsidies. Our current system of agriculture does not favor the small diversified farmer: when it comes to measures like the Farm Bill, large industrial farms will always get the financial and regulatory support. Perhaps, as part of its efforts to build a local food economy, SWIFFI can fight for a Food Freedom Act similar to the one just passed in Wyoming. Such a measure would further incentivize local consumers and benefit small farmers by cutting out some of the packaging, processing, licensing, and regulatory costs that can burden the price of local goods.
Additionally, while there’s a continued need for the community to support these efforts through demand, many Americans (myself often included) live by a “cheaper is better” mantra, and it is difficult to demonstrate why quality should trump the smaller price tag. SWIFFI and its partners will have to demonstrate why the quality, sustainability, accountability, and locality they support are superior to supermarket imports. Thankfully, as the growing popularity of locavorism across the country seems to indicate, this is not a difficult argument to make—the benefits of buying local often speak for themselves. Hopefully Iowans will begin to see those benefits and shop accordingly.