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Local Food

Toward Local Food Policy

Farmers Market Food

To prepare for my first meeting as a member of the Johnson County Food Policy Council, I read council recommendations for the Uniform Development Ordinance. There were two things:

Ag-Exemption should be available for local farmers with less than 40 acres.

Agritourism enterprises need zoning regulations that allow for innovation and creativity on farms in the unincorporated areas of the county.

After what seemed like a never-ending series of public hearings, comments, and input gathering from multiple constituencies, the Board of Supervisors accommodated these recommendations in the UDO, if not in a way county farmers expected or fully appreciated.

A group dissatisfied with accommodation on the 40-acre rule sought relief from the legislature in the form of preemption of local control on the ag-exemption. This landed in the Iowa Farm Bureau’s lap where it remains for the time being. The first agritourism application was heard in Planning and Zoning Feb. 10. The idea of chip and sealing two miles of gravel road to improve access was predictable, but unexpected by the land owner. The same group introduced HSB650 for state preemption of local control regarding agritourism. That bill cleared subcommittee Feb. 12.

These things will work through the legislative process, but having made the recommendations, having the board of supervisors accommodate them as they saw fit, and now with bills being proposed in the legislature and agritourism applications working through county departments, what is next for the Food Policy Council? That is my question.

After one meeting I’m not sure. Answering that question will be part of what the remainder of my term, which ends in June, will be about. If we come up with good answers, I will apply for a full, four-year term. If not, I have a garden.

The recent example of Grinnell Heritage Farm, which withdrew from wholesale grocery store sales and from a community supported agriculture project, is instructive about the needs of local food producers. Farm operations are a balancing between producing enough to meet customer demand and finding customers who are willing to do business at levels that meet the realities of harvest, quantity, delivery, and seasonality. Andy Dunham of Grinnell Heritage Farm provided the following to Cindy Hadish who blogs at Homegrown Iowan:

The reason for scaling back is primarily due to the lack of any larger retail and wholesale outlets. We have tried for years to get into Hy-Vee stores with very limited success. When individual stores do buy, they usually only take $30-50 in product, which doesn’t even cover delivery costs in most circumstances. We have had more than one instance in which the store would buy a case of kale, put our name on the produce case, and then stock conventional kale out of California under our name. Whole Foods is still buying, but at lower prices than five years ago. New Pi is shrinking. Food hubs are folding or not scaling up fast enough. We were in the strange position of being able to grow more than the market seemed able to bear; a position that I would have laughed at as being impossible five years ago.

What policy should the 15-member Food Policy Council recommend and support this year?

We need to return to the reasons we even make policy. Maybe the council has been doing that already.

Our county’s local food system, including a robust network of local food producers, a food hub, farmers markets, and wholesale business with restaurants and grocery stores, is not well organized. Our policy doesn’t exist that I have been able to find. It is too similar to the de facto national policy, which according to Ricardo Salvador, director of food and environment for the Union of Concerned Scientists, goes something like this: “Exploit people and nature for agribusiness profit.” We are better than that now and need to improve.

Any policy recommended must serve the public interest. There are significant issues that could be addressed, including policies related to hunger, obesity and Type II diabetes, environmental degradation for food production, land stewardship, labor exploitation, fair compensation, and appropriate farm labor regulation. The council must learn from best practices of local operators and consider a broader source of input that includes public health, preventive medicine, dieticians, other communities with a local food system, and accommodation for residents who need it.

People hate government folk and volunteer councils like ours telling them what to do. A friend advised me to, “avoid colonialism.” Where I come from, that means “putting on airs of superiority.” I’ll do my best as we discover what the council wants to do.

~ The author is an appointed member of the Johnson County Food Policy Council. Opinions herein do not represent the council.

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