Categories
Farming Local Food

Featuring the Poor Farm

Panel of regional farm mentors. L. to R. Dayna Burtness, Nettle Valley Farm; Zachary Couture, Luthern Services in Iowa Global Greens; Alfred Matiyabo, Moving 4Ward Farm; and Derek Roller, Echollective Farm on Feb. 20, 2020 in North Liberty, Iowa

“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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Local Food Writing

Who Am I?

Paul Deaton

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:

I am:

  • 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.
  • Mostly ovo-lacto-vegetarian.

These mini-autobiographies are getting easier to write as I age.

Categories
Local Food

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.

Categories
Local Food

Food Policy Council

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.