Local Food at Risk

Last Garden Tomatoes

Our local food system is at risk before it has even become established.

The mix of retail interests, community supported agriculture, farmers markets, road side vegetable stands, restaurants and direct farm sales hasn’t coalesced into a sustainable local food system and it doesn’t appear it will any time soon.

One should never doubt the resilience of farmers. At the same time if markets go away due to changing tastes or financial stress, increased commodification could take slim margins out of farm businesses leading to bankruptcy. Iowans remember well the farm crisis of the 1980s.

A small group of pioneers made progress in starting a sustainable, local food system. People like Denise O’Brien, Dick and Sharon Thompson, Fred Kirschenmann, Francis Thicke and Susan Jutz took ideas about sustainability and put them into practical application. Their work enables a new generation of farmers to enter the local food business, people like Tony Thompson (New Family Farm), Kate Edwards (Wild Woods Farm) and Carmen Black (Sundog Farm). The idea of a return to diversified farms producing food for local markets begs the question how did we get away from it?

September Seedlings

Change is in the air. Change driven by economic hardship, oppressive policy in Des Moines and Washington, D.C., and climate change. It doesn’t look good for growers, retailers or consumers, not because business models have changed, but because we are entering an era when wealth flows to the top, leaving the rest of us struggling for subsistence. Cultural changes driven by our political and economic climate will test the resilience of a fledgling local food system. What we assume about Iowa’s growing conditions — adequate rainfall, predictable temperatures and soil quality — is subject to change as the oceans and atmosphere warm resulting in increased numbers and intensity of extreme weather events in Iowa.

The challenge is this: If I can buy perfect-looking Honeycrisp apples for $1.98 per pound at the grocery store, why would I pay more at a local apple orchard? The local foods answer is because one knows the farmer, has likely met him or her, and knows the inputs that go into fruit production. As families increasingly make limited resources go further, the risk to local food farmers is they will feel it as consumers pinch pennies.

Today’s food system centers around being able to say, “I’ve got mine,” with regard to a family’s food on the table or a viable agricultural business model. That individualistic, self-centered approach is not sustainable. Sustaining a local food system will take all of us working together.

Versaland, a farm owned by Suzan Erem and Paul Durrenberger, and operated by Grant Schultz, has been in the news. Schultz is well known locally and serves as an example of how a local farmer can create bad press, alienate neighbors and risk failure. In a recent blog post, Erem and Durrenberger answered the question what kind of farmer Schultz is in no uncertain terms: a neglectful, unfocused one. Read their post titled, “Grant Schultz — Facts to Consider.”

Schultz recently applied to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to rezone part of Versaland. The supervisors rejected the application unanimously, in part because land owners Erem and Durrenberger did not support it. Local farmers with whom I’ve discussed the matter don’t understand why he wouldn’t get buy-in from the landowners before applying for rezoning. The answer is likely he can’t afford to buy the farm according to contract terms without the money his proposed idea might generate.

Whatever one feels about the Versaland saga, disputes — some including lawyers and some not — are common in agriculture. The reason the Versaland dispute stands out is there have been so few of them in the local food system. For the most part, people get along despite differences.

What is more concerning than a legal dispute is the disconnect between Versaland and its reality. This narrative started a couple of years ago.

“Mr. Schultz and Versaland have completely shifted the climate change narrative in the heartland,” author Jeff R. Biggers opined in the Nov. 20, 2015 New York Times. “Today’s farmers can play a key role in climate solutions.”

The narrative Biggers crafted about farming and climate change, featuring Schultz’ work, tells what may be possible but falls far short of what is. Schultz’ first steps in what Biggers asserts should be a global climate change campaign faltered with the revelations about Versaland the dispute brought to light. That Schultz appears to be a neglectful, unfocused farmer isn’t a crime. Those who live in the country know plenty of farmers like that. However it detracts from the credibility of Biggers’ narrative. To the extent Versaland is part of the local food system it drags everyone down.

Our local food system is not at risk for lack of a narrative. What matters more is the relationships between farmers and their customers, suppliers and landlords. Government plays a role and the negative cultural impact of federal and state governments in society remains to be seen. That is the greatest risk the local food system faces.

One hopes the window to establish a vibrant, sustainable local food system remains open, at least for a while.