The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

April 16, 2012

Knowing neighboring growers important to local movement

OTTUMWA — You don’t have to agree with the financial experts to learn from them.

At the “Cultivating Opportunities” program Saturday, agriculture economist Dave Swenson, the main speaker, told southeast Iowans how they could be successful in marketing their produce.

Most of those in the audience, about two dozen residents from Wapello and surrounding counties, say they support the “local food” movement.  Part of that movement is getting more people to start growing food in the back yard, in community gardens or even tiny plots of herbs growing in the window.

“Don’t encourage that — that’s competition!” said the economist, getting a laugh from the audience.

But attendees say it’s not their goal to get the most money for their own produce. Jan Swinton of the RC&D, a rural conservation and development partner of the USDA, said the movement is more about building relationships than about building a business.

“Isn’t it interesting how different our views are?” Swinton later said to the audience. “Of course, he was talking from a strictly economic view.”

The residents — business people, educators, growers, cooks — said they would like to see more food purchased from neighbors by neighbors, either through farmers markets, open-minded grocers or even face-to-face.

“You may grow tomatoes, and I may grow peppers,” said Swinton. “Together we can make salsa.”

Spending money within our own community, supporters said, does make financial sense.

Chef Gordon Rader with the IHCC culinary program, prepared a locally-grown lunch with three of his students. He said last month, before shopping for this event, many local growers have a small but dedicated group of fans willing to spend a few dollars more and take the time to cook a meal they feel good about.

If five local growers have spinach, it’s easier to feel safe, said Swinton. Even if there was an e-coli scare like the one that hit several years ago, she’d know our local spinach is fine. Or if one local grower does have a safety problem, the other four can still sustain the local market. On the other hand, if the local grocery store shut down or missed a shipment of some product, there’s still good, wholesome food available, she said.

When the food is shipped in from some unknown location, “there is no connection to the food,” said Marsha Laux, an Iowa State University Extension value-added ag specialist from the Fairfield office.

Swenson did agree there’s a push by modern society to know where our food comes from. Yet that desire to be connected may be more important for the local food movement, he said, than people realize.

The economist brought another dose of reality with his presentation:  It’s not necessarily cheaper, as the conventional wisdom had long held, to get food from 15 miles away than it is to  get it shipped from California,

Swenson said these big growers have perfected their transportation, production and marketing to the point that there are lamb wholesalers in New Zealand who can sell their product in Des Moines as cheaply — if not cheaper — than a small rancher in Iowa.

“Small producers can’t compete unless they cooperate with each other,” the economist said.

What about as the gas prices go up, asked a participant. Will local food be cheaper than shipped-in food?

Maybe, said the economist, and maybe not. The problem is that there are a lot of variables in pricing — not just how much gas costs. Again, the big producers are experts at keeping their expenses low.

However, when it comes to “unit price,” economists will “always go with efficiency of scale,” Swinton acknowledged. She agreed it’s cheaper for someone to sell a pound of spinach when they have a thousand acres than someone who has an acre. But this movement is about more than saving a few cents on produce.

“When you buy locally, there’s fewer steps between you and the food,” she said.

Swinton, Swenson and Laux all agreed: That feeling of getting produce that was just picked fresh, of supporting a hard-working area farmer and of knowing exactly what’s going on the dinner table will be a major component to the success of the local food system movement.

“I challenge you to go out and spread the word about the [regional and local] food system,” Laux told participants at the end of the day.

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