Local Food and the Face of the Farmer

First Tomatoes Ripening

First Tomatoes Ripening

Locally produced food is everywhere we look.

Local food may be what’s grown in a backyard garden, herb jar or patio pot. It may be heirloom livestock raised in grass paddocks, supplemented with carefully selected feed, and served in a local restaurant. It is definitely vegetables and fruit, increasingly available at farmers markets and roadside stands, from community supported agriculture operations, and even in chain supermarkets.

The local foods “movement,” is less coordinated than what media make it out to be. However, there is a consistent theme: it is small scale, farmers are interdependent, and the face of the farmer is visible in every apple, tomato and ear of sweet corn.

Many of us notice the increased availability of local choices when stocking our kitchens, a sign the food system is changing. After leaving a corporate job in 2009, I had a chance to work on half a dozen farms and gained a closer view of what local food farmers do. It is hard work made worthwhile by a network of cooperation among producers.

I met Susan Jutz, who operates Local Harvest CSA when two of her children were in 4-H with my daughter. Twenty years into the operation, Jutz has about seven acres in vegetables, pastures rented to local livestock producers, a large field in the Conservation Reserve Program, and a set of paddocks for her flock of ewes and spring lambs. Walking around the farm, you’ll find beehives, a greenhouse and a high tunnel, all adding to the economic structure of a farm using sustainable practices to produce shares for a medium-sized community supported agriculture project.

I began working at Local Harvest in March 2013 when I swapped labor for a share in the CSA. The work was physical, and I enjoyed it enough to return every spring since then. It was the beginning of understanding a local food network.

My first job was soil blocking in the greenhouse — making trays of small, square starter soil blocks where seeds are planted. In March, the ground is usually still frozen, yet I have to take off my coat and shirt in the warm workspace. The labor is physical, and a good opportunity to follow seeds turning to seedlings and then to crops with the season. Susan shared her greenhouse with other farmers with whom she cooperated to produce the contents of her member shares. Over time I worked on most of their farms.

One was Laura Krouse, owner/operator of Abbe Hills Farm near Mount Vernon, Iowa. Laura uses part of Susan’s greenhouse space in the spring and provides potatoes for Susan’s fall shares.

Because Krouse’s potato operation is large, she gains economies of scale. Using a tractor with a potato harvesting attachment, along with shared labor from other CSAs, and a large number of volunteers, she can harvest a field quickly. We harvested potatoes and washed them using a specialized root vegetable cleaner, bringing a load of potato-filled buckets back to Local Harvest for storage and distribution.

This is just one example of the cooperative ventures among farmers which include squash, eggs, carrots sweet corn and other vegetables for CSA shares.

While Susan and Laura have been operating for decades, since the local food movement got started in Iowa, the increased interest in local food is encouraging more farmers to enter the market.

I met Lindsay Boerjan who returned to her family’s century farm in Johnson County in 2011. To supplement family farm income, she used leftover material from a razed barn to construct raised planting beds. With manure from the cattle operation she runs with her husband and aunt and uncle, she planted the beds in vegetables for a CSA she began in 2015 with seven members. She hopes to grow her number of customers. Boerjan said she faced challenges as a female farmer.

“It’s predominantly an older male thing or career,” she said. “Should you want to make a career of it, it’s harder to wrestle in costs now the way they are.”

Boerjan is an example of a minimally financed operation, able to get started because she owns the land and is part of a larger farm operation. That Boerjan’s family owned the land and already farmed helped get her CSA going.

In January, Wilson’s Orchard in rural Iowa City announced it was entering the CSA market with a partnership with Bountiful Harvest Farm near Solon. Dick Schwab’s involvement in Bountiful Harvest is an example of a well-capitalized CSA start up. Schwab is a local entrepreneur who is involved in a variety of financial investments, including a timber business, an auto repair shop and more. He already hosted another CSA, Wild Woods Farm, on his acreage in rural Johnson County.  He has experience, owns the land and equipment needed to operate a farm, and has a network of marketing contacts that include Wilson’s Orchard.

Knowing the face of the farmer has been part of the local food movement. Today, people want to know more about where and how food is produced. Getting to know a farmer was important at the beginning of the local foods movement in Iowa, and still resonates. At the local supermarket, buyers stock the produce aisle with locally produced items, along with a daily count of local food items on hand and a life-size photographic cutout of the farmers who produced them.

Driven in part by mass media, consumers are concerned about a wide range of food issues that include contamination with harmful bacteria; dietary concern about consumption of carbohydrates, fat and sugar; the way in which plant genetics are modified to improve them; and more. Partly in response to media campaigns, annual sales of organic food exceed $30 billion in the U.S. (USDA). The increase in organic market share from national advertising campaigns is significant. If you get to know your local food farmer, what you may find is they benefit from this marketing, but their customers come and stay with them because of a personal relationship with the farmer.

Whether you grow herbs on a kitchen window, belong to a CSA or garden a plot in the backyard, it is all part of a local food movement that is just getting started and depends on knowing the face of the farmer.

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