By Laura Miller
Local food production, marketing and distribution in Iowa beyond CSAs and farmers markets is growing to make local food more widely available at supermarkets, restaurants and schools.
More than 100 farmers, service providers and others interested in expanding local food offerings in the state gathered in Ames on April 8 for the 2014 Iowa Local Food Conference hosted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. The conference focused on food hubs to aggregate supplies, processing centers for value-added products, and effective ways to market these new businesses. Speakers outlined activities and new resources that contribute to a stronger local and regional food system.
"We know producing food for local and regional markets is a viable business option and a way to retain young people who love the land and want to be involved in our food system," said conference coordinator Lynn Heuss. "People in Iowa are ready for the next step of building the infrastructure to provide these products for retail and wholesale markets."
Local foods are opportunity for beginning farmers
Bill Menner, USDA Rural Development director for Iowa, summarized ways the federal government is working in the local food arena. "Local food has gotten a lot of attention in the new farm bill and that's reason to celebrate," he said. "The beginning farmer aspect is really important. [Growing local food] is a pathway to agriculture for those who cannot afford to start farming 1,000 acres."
The 2014 Farm Bill restores critical funds to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, triples funding for local food enterprises through a new farmers market promotion program and launches a new program to help low-income consumers purchase more fruits and vegetables. Funding will continue for projects such as cold storage and commercial kitchens through USDA's loan guarantee program and value-added producer grants.
"People are seeing local foods as smart growth," Menner said. He said local and regional food systems are one of four "pillars" USDA is using to build the rural economy. One goal during the current fiscal year is to create 100 new local/regional market opportunities, and to help launch at least one new food hub in every state.
People view local foods as "smart growth"
Conference-goers heard from operators of Iowa's newest food hubs, the Iowa Food Hub in Decorah and Iowa Choice Harvest in Marshalltown. The northeast Iowa demonstration project offers seven different food boxes, with products from numerous farms and local businesses, which can be picked up at 10 work sites in the region. The central Iowa startup, 60% of which is owned by farmers, has processed and frozen Iowa-grown sweet corn and apples, now available at various Iowa supermarket venues.
Reaching markets and rising above the competition isn't luck, said keynote speaker Lucie Amundsen, whose two-year-old free-range egg business recently captured the national stage. The Minnesota company, Locally Laid, was second among 15,000 businesses vying for a free commercial during the 2014 Super Bowl.
Use social media to help build your brand
"Social media has changed the landscape for farmers," she said. "We used it to build our brand, the personality of our business, and have made it part of everything we do."
She said she and her husband hired a designer to create a logo and carefully wrote their mission statement to represent their values. Locally Laid plants a tree with every delivery. The trees are planted by the Nature Conservancy in their region. "The cost to us is only 35 cents a tree but people really like it," she said.
Amundsen also writes a blog and posts numerous photos, telling people about life on their farm near Duluth. Although their company does not sell directly to consumers, they still have a following in the community. "What you do is interesting, there's romance in that story," she said. "We also share some of the hard stuff, like when our water lines froze and we had to transport water in buckets. They know they can trust us and be more forgiving of your follies when you are forthright with them."
Food hubs and infrastructure make local foods available
Amundsen said humor helps. She said that their motto, Local Chicks Are Better, was one of the reasons they generated so many votes in the Super Bowl competition. "It just shows we're chicks who want to have fun," she said. "I feel that by keeping things light, I can reach more people."
Kamyar Enshayan, director of the University of Northern Iowa's Center for Energy and Environmental Education, said he's noticed growth in the availability of locally-grown and processed food in the past 20 years. "We've come a long way with several pivotal events in Iowa," he said. "Food hubs and development of infrastructure are taking place to make this local food system the 'normal' food system."
More information about the conference is available at the Leopold Center website.
Laura Miller is Communications Specialist at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames.