Challenges of a Local Food System

First Spring CSA Share, 2015

Eight years ago I attended a local food summit in Iowa City with more than 80 people. It was an event designed to connect local meat and vegetable growers with customers.

Among the speakers was Andy Dunham of Grinnell Heritage Farm. He spoke about the challenges of scaling his carrot production to meet consumer demand at New Pioneer Food Coop in Iowa City. It made no sense at the time they couldn’t produce more, although eventually they did.

Yesterday Dunham revealed New Pioneer and other grocers weren’t buying as much organic produce as they had. Because of decreasing grocery sales and Iowa’s unpredictable weather made worse by climate change, they are exiting their community supported agriculture business and what they characterize as a broken local food system.

It was a surprising decision from a farm many considered to be vibrant and sustainable.

For the full story about changes at Grinnell Heritage Farm read Cindy Hadish’s post on Homegrown Iowan here.

The idea there is a functional “local food system” is a story we tell ourselves to get through the challenges of raising and marketing locally grown meat, vegetables, fruit and flowers. The challenges of sustainability for a community supported agriculture project don’t go away be saying these three magical words. It’s hard work, subject to the vagaries of weather, cultural adaptation, marketing, and endemic farming challenges.

Each farm runs differently with unique revenue streams from CSA shares, meat sales, restaurant and grocery store sales, farmers market sales, government programs, pasture rentals and more. In the world of big agriculture operators carve a niche of customers and product lines to keep themselves financially sound. It doesn’t always work.

Grinnell Heritage Farm is a USDA certified organic fruit and vegetable farm. Most local food producers are not certified organic because of the expense. Many follow organic practices but can’t afford, don’t want, or don’t feel a need to get certified. Most consumers can’t tell the difference in farm products. For Grinnell Heritage Farm to downsize is a bad sign for the future of organic farming in Iowa. If they can’t make it, who will?

Climate change is real, it is happening now, and we haven’t seen the worst of it. The last two years were hell for local food farmers used to predictable growing seasons. Variation from year to year is expected, but not like this. Larger operations like Grinnell Heritage Farm feel the brunt of changing climate.

Consumers are a fickle lot. Yesterday I calculated spending about 24 percent of our 2019 food budget on locally sourced fruit and vegetables. We buy more local produce than most regional consumers. We also have a large garden not included in my calculation. A bag of locally grown carrots is stored in the crisper drawer of our ice box yet I buy USDA certified organic carrots at the wholesale club as well. I haven’t been able to grown enough carrots to meet our needs and the ones from the store are cheap and serve culinary purposes. I know the face of the farmer on the local food I buy but they and I combined can’t supply our household with enough carrots.

The changes at Grinnell Heritage Farm were surprising, but not completely unexpected. With growth in the market share of organic produce, large corporations are getting involved and comparatively smaller operations are being pushed out. Whatever arguments one might have with Dunham’s characterizations of the marketplace or his assessment of the impacts of climate change, he and his family are doing what they believe will save their farm. That’s what all insurgent local food producers do.

As consumers we need to be ready to support local food farmers or decide we don’t care. Either choice has ramifications for our local food environment. I can’t call it a system today because a big part of it will be lost with the exit of Grinnell Heritage Farm from the marketplace.

We had hoped for and worked toward a local food system and could imagine it. The dream hasn’t proven to be sustainable yet.