IOWA CITY— More than 80 local food producers and buyers convened during the second annual “Come to the Table Local Food Summit” at the Johnson County Extension Office on Feb. 10 in Iowa City. The purpose of the event was to bring buyers and sellers of locally grown food together for networking and learning, seeking to expand the local food market. In a few hours, one could learn a lot about the state of local foods in Iowa and Blog for Iowa had a front row seat.
Jason Grimm, food system planner from Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development, said, “this year’s event strives to make it easy for food buyers to connect with local food producers in order to meet that strong and growing demand.” Grimm and New Pioneer Food Co-op representative Scott Koepke introduced Representative Chuck Isenhart of Dubuque, and a panel that included Andy Dunham, Grinnell Heritage Farm; Dave Burt, Red Avocado Restaurant; Kelly Crossley, Solon School District; Rob Marqusee, Woodbury County Rural Economic Development; Jesse Singerman, Iowa Valley Food Coop; and Ryan Jepsen, Grass Run Farms. The panelists emphasized government’s role, relationships, marketing, knowledge and scalability.
So what does “local food” mean? There was no consensus in the participant survey. Some viewed local as being within a very short drive. Others, like Representative Isenhart, view local as including markets in Chicago, Kansas City, Saint Louis and Minneapolis. Despite lack of consensus on the meaning of local foods, what brought the group together was the idea that, as Koepke said, local producers “have barely scratched the surface” of an $8 billion Iowa food market. He asserted that the common ground was employment beyond row crops of corn and soybeans, which creates jobs.
Representative Isenhart delivered what can be considered a keynote address, although it was not dubbed as such by the organizers. He said of the Iowa legislature, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” meaning that if representatives of the local food movement want to accomplish anything regarding policy, they must participate in legislative advocacy.
Isenhart represents local food interests in the Iowa House, and one of his goals is to “scale up a system that will be meaningful (in Iowa’s food market).” He hopes to develop an Iowa brand with regard to local food, saying, “we need to develop something that’s on the radar screen.” His inference was that row crop growers, cattlemen, pork producers and poultry farmers dominate agricultural policy. He pointed to a positive that large scale producers acknowledge the growing market for local food, saying that was a small, but important facet of consumer behavior.
Isenhart helped create a “local farm and food fund” to promote local food in Iowa, securing two years of government money to support the program. However, he said it was important for local producers to get into the habit of making contributions to the fund as an investment versus subsidy approach. There was no reaction from the audience to Isenhart’s suggestion of producers ponying up one percent of sales to the fund.
Participants in the summit were from diverse backgrounds, but there were common threads. Education and scaling operations to meet demand were recurring themes.
Restaurant owner Dave Burt talked about the need to educate his customers on availability issues with local food. While the grocery store carries similar items from around the world, year-round, in a restaurant with a local food emphasis, like Burt’s Red Avocado, his challenge is educating customers that there is no asparagus in December, and that today’s featured vegetable may not be available tomorrow. He explained how he worked with menu creation, his staff and suppliers to present a seasonal menu to customers. He said, “it’s difficult to get away with seasonality in America and affordability is always a challenge.” He emphasized that local food does not mean “certified organic.” He gets to know his growers and while they may not be certified organic, they use similar practices and that meets his and his customers’ requirements.
Kelly Crossley from the Solon Community School District is an advocate for local food for the school, something that is important to expanding institutional markets for local food. She purchases food for the school cafeterias, and there were learning challenges when acquiring local food. Some of the cooks did not know what to do with raw zucchini, carrots and radishes, and training was required. These issues were overcome with time, according to Crossley. She indicated that finding sufficient volume of local food was an issue for her. She also dealt with misconceptions about local food in the community and a complex set of procurement policies and procedures. Any local food must be purchased in conformity with policy and the law.
Without advocates like Crossley inside an institution, it would be difficult for local food producers to gain entry. If a large institution decides to purchase local food, it is important that producers have the ability to scale quantities to meet demand. An institutional buyer wants to make one call and get everything required for a menu item from a single producer or broker.
It was surprising that one of the successes touted by Jesse Singerman of the Iowa Valley Food Coop was sales to large operations such as Walmart and Hy-Vee. These companies have significantly expanded their sales of local food, and producing enough to meet their demand can be a challenge, according to Singerman.
The challenge of scaling operations to meet growing demand was mentioned by several of the producers. Ryan Jepsen of Grass Run Farms, a grass fed meat producer, echoed this concern. The challenges he faces are similar to those on any farm. In order to compete as a small player in the cattle market, he uses advanced tools such as hedging on the futures board, developing contracts so that his banker will loan his input costs, and developing economies of scale. He pays his employees around $40,000 per year, but that is without benefits, keeping overhead low. Jepsen said he needs to compete, but also wants to do so without subsidies. Like most people who spoke, Jepsen said, “it is the conversation I enjoy,” indicating that enjoying the work of producing local food is important to surviving in a market dominated by agribusiness.
~ Paul Deaton is a regular contributor to Blog for Iowa.