I planted leeks in soil blocks at home today. They were,
King Richard, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 75 days. One row of ten.
Megaton, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 90 days. Three rows of ten.
American Flag, Ferry-Morse, 150 days. One row of ten.
This is a further experiment in starting plants at home. In the past I hadn’t paid attention to different leek growing times but American Flag is double that of King Richard. I double seeded King Richard and American Flag because they are from previous seasons. If both seeds sprout in each cell I’ll thin them.
“The Johnson County Historic Poor Farm provides a public space for connecting to the land and local history through inclusive community-led opportunities,” said Vanessa Fixmer-Oraiz, farm project manager. She spoke at last night’s Johnson County Food Policy Council public forum where the poor farm was a featured topic.
This was my first forum as a member of the council. I brought a five gallon beverage jug, lemonade, coffee condiments, and a 20-pound bag of ice. One attraction of the event was a catered meal from a local food-centered restaurant. Attendance we good at about 80 people. We ran out of lemonade.
Solid ideas were discussed, centering around how to help beginning farmers get access to land, capital and markets. A number of “eaters,” a.k.a. consumers, were present, leading to discussions about pricing, quality, and health issues related to food. There was no lack of discussion and much of it was captured on audio-video or written down.
The county poor farm is not a priority for me. Some of the same people who attended a similar local food forum eight years ago were present last night. It seemed little progress has been made in establishing a vibrant local food system. The challenges are many, the approaches individualistic. There are activities, such as farmers markets and public events held at farms. This forum was an example of a public, food-related event. Discussion is positive, yet what is lacking is something to tie them all together in a coherent system. I don’t believe the poor farm will be that string of twine.
In 2017, the Johnson County Supervisors decided to revitalize the poor farm as a “New Century Farm.” The 3-2 decision was depicted as contentious by the local newspaper. Then supervisors Rod Sullivan, Mike Carberry and Kurt Friese voted to adopt this plan. Lisa Green-Douglass and Janelle Rettig did not. Friese died in office and Carberry lost his re-election bid, yet county support for the site persists. The forum was an opportunity to discuss how the poor farm might fit into a fledgling, disjointed local food system.
What made the 2017 supervisor meeting “contentious” was the discussion of affordable housing at the poor farm. Affordable housing is a key county issue, although I’m not sure of the benefit of sticking a development off Melrose Avenue, which is distant from the city-center and amenities like grocery stores. The poor farm is currently on the Iowa City bus route, but that route is being considered for elimination. There are logistical challenges to be addressed if the poor farm will be used for housing for people besides those who work or farm there.
One of the forum panelists, Alfred Matiyabo, gained access to land via the poor farm and this seems an excellent use of the resource. Land access is a key need of beginning farmers. More of that, as well as development of the planned trails and facilities, could create another valued farm incubator, conservation, and recreation site within the county.
My sense is two and a half years after adoption of the plan for the poor farm the community conversation is just beginning. As long as the supervisors have the will to fund activities, the project should be encouraged and supported. However, we can’t let it distract us from the bigger issue of engendering a local food system that matters in terms of satisfied consumers, economically viable farmers, and ecologically improved farming practices. The Historic Poor Farm fits in to the system, but is just one aspect among many.
The best part of last night was networking with friends and people I hadn’t met. If this is what being a member of the food policy council leads to, I’m ready for more.
The ten year old ran to the greenhouse to tell us, “There’s a lamb! I’m not kidding. She went to get the towel!”
The shepherdess left behind her power drill and rushed to the barn.
So began my eighth spring helping at Local Harvest CSA. More lambs dropped that evening and the goats are due soon. I’ve been around animals enough to recognize their pregnancy.
My job is to make soil blocks. I made enough for 3,120 seedlings. Once the seeds germinate and are established they will be transplanted in the high tunnel for a spring share of greens and lettuce. One of the farm partners was present planting flower seeds as well.
Yesterday had a couple of challenges. The hydrant outside the greenhouse was frozen so I carried water from another in buckets. The soil mix was frozen and required breaking up with a garden rake as I mixed it with water. Compared to previous February activities everything proceeded easily.
The seeding crew moved in and out of the greenhouse. There were a total of eight of us happy to be there and looking forward to spring.
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.
I had a chance to introduce myself to a new group of people last night, so I thought I would share it here before the paper goes into the shredder. Here’s what I said to the Johnson County Food Policy Council last night:
Native Iowan living west of Solon.
Ten years since retiring from a 25-year career in transportation and logistics.
Two terms on the county board of health with four years as chair. Familiar with air and water compliance issues.
Blogger with 234 posts tagged “local food.”
Farm worker. In 2020 on Carmen Black’s farm and at Wilson’s Orchard. Eighth season at each.
Avid gardener with a large kitchen garden integrated with local food producers, grocery stores and other retail outlets.
24 percent of our food dollars are spent on local food, not including my garden.
These mini-autobiographies are getting easier to write as I age.
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.
On Thursday, Jan. 23, the Johnson County Supervisors appointed me to fill a vacancy on the Food Policy Council.
There were eight applications for the position according to county records. Supervisor Janelle Rettig made the motion to approve, with Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass seconding. All five supervisors voted for my appointment.
I accepted and look forward to my first meeting. Now my part of our work begins.
The Food Policy Council was established in 2012. The county website explains its purpose:
The purpose of the Council is to improve dialogue and discussion and provide necessary advice on food and agriculture issues to the county, municipalities, community boards, local agencies, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and other interested groups. The Council will address food system issues in the county, including the development of the Council’s Governing Principles and strategic goals, data-gathering, research projects, and policies to address food system issues.
On my Aug. 30, 2019 application I listed my reason for applying, “Have long been interested in this voluntary position and there is an opening. I have time and interest sufficient to serve. I have financial resources to be able to do so.” That seems pretty boring, a comment others have made about some of my posts here.
The contributions I hope to make by serving on the council include, “I am particularly interested in learning about and taking action to meet hunger needs in the county. I am also interested in the relationship between food, Type 2 diabetes and poverty.” We’ll see where the work takes us.
What I’ve learned on the county board of health, as a township trustee, and as an officer of our home owners association is listening is the key skill required to get anything done. I approach this new project with an open mind and a bias toward doing the most good for the largest number of people. As soon as the caucuses are done I plan to dig in.
When I left a 25-year career in transportation and logistics, food occupied part of my attention. Over the years my blood pressure and cholesterol levels had increased, and when I left transportation they quickly returned to normal, mostly by eating more regular food as opposed to restaurant food.
When we moved back to Iowa in 1993, growing a large garden was part of what I wanted to do with the land. We couldn’t afford an acreage, but managed to find 0.62 of an acre not far from the trail around the north shore of Lake Macbride.
I was ready to produce some of our own food, more than we had in Indiana, but not really ready to embrace local food as anything other than a kitchen garden.
The local food movement was a growing group of individual operators struggling to make a living and an impact in a turbulent world. It remains a nascent system directly tied to our consumer culture, dependent upon disposable income and open mindedness in meeting humankind’s most basic need.
I spent seven years working and living in our local food culture and can say food we consume is not all local and needn’t be. At the same time there are benefits of a local food system beyond living within the season, better taste, and knowing the farmer who produced what we eat.
In our home fall canning leads to a pantry full of soup, tomatoes, hot peppers, sauerkraut, vinegar, apple sauce, pickles and sundry items from the garden and farm. The freezer gets filled with bell peppers, kale, sweet corn, apples, broccoli, blueberries and raspberries. It is food – as local as it gets – driven by what is fresh, abundant and on hand.
Along with home processed goods our pantry has bits and pieces from all over the globe, with each serving a purpose in our culinary lives. Combining ingredients and recipes in a personalized cuisine is where the local food movement lives or dies.
More people seek processed or precooked food because of a perception there is too little time for cooking. If adding kale to a smoothie seems easy, making a stir fry using it is less so. Contemporary consumers want a quick and easy path to making meals and snacks, and don’t have the patience it requires to add many new recipes to their repertoire. Cuisine as an expression of local culture has been tossed out the window by many.
Having worked in the food system, whether at home, on a farm, or in a retail store, has been an important part of my life since retiring in 2009. I found it is a way of life to grow food for direct consumption or sales. It also became clear the local food system is a jumble, even if farmers and consumers want it to be more organized.
One operator runs a community supported agriculture project where members pay in the spring, then share in the luck of the farm, good or bad. Another sells chits to be used to buy farm goods at a local outlet framed as a “store.” Another grows specific crops to sell to restaurants, absorbing any financial risk. All of this and more leads us to a point where an onion isn’t only an onion anymore. In the end it’s not about the onion but the culture.
If someone could organize a local food system, they might make a living. That would miss the point. Local food systems are intended to cut out the middlemen in the food supply chain. At the same time, faced with a need for scalability and the tick tock of the growing season, operators might use the help of an intermediary for marketing and sales.
While some of the trail blazers of a sustainable, local food movement are well known – Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, Fred Kirschenmann, and others – a sense of coherence or agreement on basic terms seems missing among local producers. It is as if operators would rather work inside the bubble of what works for them personally as long as the farm to market system seems to work generally. In a way that is not much different from how corn, soybean, egg and livestock producers view their operations.
Where we go from here is uncertain, although I have some ideas about that based on my experience in our food system.
My 2013 decision to develop a barter arrangement with my friend Susan Jutz helped resolve a couple of issues.
I needed the cash income plus a share of the vegetables she grew. More importantly than income, I wanted to become a better gardener and needed a mentor.
By almost any measure our relationship was successful and endured even as Susan sold her farm and moved out of state.
On Feb. 1, 2013 I sent this email proposing an arrangement at her Local Harvest CSA:
Hope you are staying warm. I have an interest in developing a deeper relationship with producing local foods. While our kitchen garden is doing well, I want to explore the possibility of doing more with local foods to provide a source of income. This is a long range project, and if you offer it, I would like to exchange my labor for a share of your CSA this season.
I think you would find this a cheap and reliable source of farm labor, and what I would get out of it would be a deeper knowledge of how you do your work.
What do you think?
We worked through details that lasted not only that season but established a continuing relationship now entering its eighth year. I expect the conversation about local food to continue this month with Carmen, Susan’s successor. Greenhouse work usually begins in February.
The Community Supported Agriculture model is the workhorse of the local food system. Instead of producing a few fungible commodities, CSA farms produce many types of vegetables in many varieties, providing a weekly share for members who buy in at the beginning of the season. They also leverage other producers to provide eggs, meat, bread, jellies, jams, and other items they don’t produce for their customers. On Carmen’s farm she produces grass-fed lambs and goats. The presence of livestock on a farm is an important part of reducing reliance on chemical fertilizers. Some CSA farms are more diverse than others but the salient feature is that the main consumer model is changed to include a share the farmer provides.
Operating a small farm is challenging. It requires hard work and specific knowledge about a wide variety of issues. It seems like more work than people with a big job at a large-sized employer are used to. There is also more risk during a growing season. Most local food farmers I know do something off the farm to supplement farm income. Every one of them has a positive disposition despite the challenges.
There is an ongoing discussion about alternatives to the CSA model.
Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farm in Virginia posted an article on Medium in which he wrote, “The romance of neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power.” Newman’s assertion is small family farms are not competition for, or a sustainable answer to burgeoning consolidation of agriculture. He touched on a number of obvious points, beginning with farmers markets.
Farmers markets are nice for consumers, but expensive to participate in. If some local food farmers produce for the seasonal markets they compromise their flexibility and scalability, he said. I don’t know about the operational advantages of a local food cooperative because many farmers already coordinate activities with each other. A farmer of meat, vegetables, flowers or the like can do better to avoid such markets. At a minimum one requires additional outlets to extend sales beyond the farmers market season.
Newman lays out the challenges small family farms face regarding workforce in a labor intensive business. Putting together a workforce that accomplishes weeding, cultivation, planting, harvesting, pest control, and everything else isn’t easy when the operating assumption is some percentage of workforce will volunteer or work for very low wages. Newman’s idea of forming a cooperative addresses the wage issue but also seems overly idealistic.
In his book The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front of the Good Food Revolution, Ontario farmer Brent Preston tells the story about how he and his spouse found sustainability in the local food movement by transitioning away from farmers markets to wholesale production and sales. This book is a must read for people interested in the local food movement.
Michelle Kenyon, executive director of Field to Family, is establishing a food hub in Johnson County. She’s been featured in the local newspaper. The idea is simple from a farmer’s perspective. Got too much basil? Bundle it to specs and sell to the food hub.
Having an outlet for a farm’s produce is important. Few local farmers follow the traditional CSA model of sharing the farm produce exclusively with members. That would mean all of the extra basil in my example would go to members who would presumably become rich in pesto and pasta sauce. Separating food production from CSA membership provides options for additional revenue streams such as selling to a food hub, to restaurants and to retailers.
A smart farm operator won’t put all their eggs and produce in single basket. They manage a portfolio of revenue streams based on farm production, but include variation in how customers are approached. So often, just having an item when others don’t makes a big difference in exploiting some types of “pop-up” marketing opportunities.
I would like to establish independence from the farms on which I’ve worked since 2013. Controlling everything would free me from outside responsibilities and enable re-designing my garden to expand and produce extra crops that could be sold to others. That has always been a small part of my garden operation but as I progress through my transition to “retirement,” any income generated could help supplement our structure of pension, Social Security and savings. For the time being, I look forward to returning to the farm for another spring of soil blocking. Looking back at this email to Susan, it’s clear I was not wrong to pursue the opportunity.