Iowa scheme links farmers with local consumers

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by Bethany M. Dunbar
copyright the Chronicle July 26, 2006
WELLS RIVER — If farmers and consumers can make more connections, both will benefit.
About 50 farmers and others interested in the politics of food heard that message from an assistant professor and city council member from Iowa Wednesday, July 19.
The meeting was hosted by the Vermont-New Hampshire Milk Marketing Study Group, started in 1998 by, in the words of one of the founders, “a group of inquisitive farmers.”
Kamyar Enshayan of Cedar Falls, Iowa, told the group about his efforts to change things where he lives.  He said he realized years ago that Iowa is a place where there is “so much agriculture, so little food.”
“Our culture, I think, has an unspoken slogan about food,” he said.  “Just eat it.  Don’t ask questions about who made it.”
But Mr. Enshayan has a different philosophy and has been trying to change things in Iowa for 13 years, with some success.  His program is called the UNI Local Food Project.  He teaches at the University of Iowa’s Center for Energy and the Environment.
He said he’s been telling consumers, “You know your doctor, you know your dentist, do you know your farmer?”
Food is extremely important, he said, and should be considered a homeland security issue.
A native of Iran, Mr. Enshayan broke the ice for his speech by joking about his birthplace.
“I didn’t know all these years I was born exactly on the axis of evil,” he said.  “And I’m here to talk about homeland security.”
The crops grown in the county where Mr. Enshayan lives, Black Hawk County, are corn, hogs, and beans.  They are grown for commercial purposes and sent away for processing.
Mr. Enshayan said studies of the agricultural economy show that Black Hawk County farmers sell $1.08-billion in agricultural crops every year.  They spend $1.14-billion to grow those crops.  So every year they lose $62-million, and the U.S. government subsidizes them to the tune of $173-million.
Meanwhile all the people who live in that county go to the giant grocery stores and restaurants and buy $400-million worth of food shipped in from far away.
“What if we had a goal of capturing 10 percent of that?” he said.  That would mean an additional $40-million put into the county’s economy.
Mr. Enshayan started trying to meet that goal by connecting first with some institutional food buyers — nursing homes, colleges, hospitals and restaurants.  People said they would like to buy local food, but didn’t know where to get it.  Others said it would be too expensive.
But Mr. Enshayan showed slides proving that the local food was, for the most part, not more expensive or only slightly more.  In some cases it was considerably less expensive.
For example, a grocery store that bought separate cuts of pork products paid $243, and if they had bought an entire pig directly from the farmer who raised it, the same cuts would have cost $193.
Beef showed some savings also, but only $5 for the entire animal ($1,113 for a whole animal and $1,118 for the separate cuts).
As part of this project, Mr. Enshayan made a list of the names of local farmers, their telephone numbers, what produce they have available and the price.  Every Monday morning he e-mails that list to 28 restaurants and institutions. The customers call the farmers directly, and the farmers deliver the food.
So far Mr. Enshayan has not met his goal of $40-million.  But he has increased the amount of money spent on local food by institutions to $600,000.
“It’s a baby step compared to $400-million,” he said.  But it’s not easy to shift an entire culture, he added, that kind of thing takes time.  Also, he is doing most of this work with volunteers and a couple of students.  The project gets grant funding to the tune of $25,000, which is used for promotional brochures and advertisements in local newspapers.
After one year of the program, it made a difference to local agriculture.  About 50 farmers responded to a survey about whether or not the campaign has made a difference.  Of those, 16 percent said their gross sales had increased 20 percent.
One dairy farm started bottling milk and selling it locally to grocery stores and coffee shops.  He said he doesn’t know if new farmers have started up, but he knows of some that have expanded.  Some have added to their apple orchards or are growing more asparagus or other vegetables, he said.
Mr. Enshayan said he found that some of the little grocery stores were having trouble getting food delivered because the big trucks did not want to stop there.  So this program has connected them with some local farmers and helps the small stores stay in business.
“It would be wonderful to make this statewide,” he said, adding that he has been contacted by groups in other parts of the state who have heard about his program and want to give it a try.
Mr. Enshayan said there is a lack of distribution and processing, but rural Iowa does have lots of small meat lockers where people who raise pigs can get them slaughtered and cut up.
New Hampshire’s agriculture commissioner, Steve Taylor, said there is a co-op in Hanover that has had some success in a similar project.  Called the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, it is the second biggest consumer food co-op in the country and takes produce from 200 local farms and vendors in a 35- to 40-mile radius, he said.  He said the co-op’s mission is to buy local food whenever possible, and supplement that with other food when something is not available locally.
He said he wonders if this kind of project has more success because the customers are from a college town, more highly educated and with better income levels.
Mr. Enshayan said it’s not the case in his area.  He said the towns around him are John Deere towns.  One of his best examples of a restaurant that has been able to go completely local is a place called Rudy’s Tacos — a place where ordinary people get lunch.
Ed Jackson of the Vermont Department of Agriculture said so far he has not had the same luck with buyers, who say the local food is definitely more expensive.  He said in the case of meat, that’s due to the cost of processing.  There are not a lot of meat lockers around the state, and in fact there has been a shortage of slaughterhouses in recent years.  At least, there is a shortage of space in slaughterhouses in the fall.
Chip Conquest from the Farmers’ Diner, a restaurant with a focus on local foods, told the group that right now there are 2,500 pigs raised in Vermont each year.  He will need 1,500 for his new restaurant alone.  The original Farmers’ Diner in Barre has closed, but a new one is opening in Quechee.
Bill Baker of Orford, New Hampshire, suggested that one solution is simply a bit of education for the consumers.  When they hear about his beef cattle, raised on pasture with no grain and very few other inputs, they want that beef.
“Basically we’re always out of beef,” he said, and health food stores are selling it for $8 to $9 a pound.
Mr. Enshayan said part of his buy local campaign has been about the quality of the food.  In fact, he said, local food is higher quality and is worth paying a little more for.
“We think food is a big deal.  Food is fundamental.  Our farms are fundamental,” he said.
He said when he first went to see the first nursing home, hospital and restaurant to see if they would buy some local products, “all three were very suspicious.”
But that changed.
“When the first shipment of strawberries arrived, they kept calling us and asking for more,” he said.  Basically a lot of people are used to eating what they can get from large distributors and chain stores.
“They know it’s bad quality, but they never had a choice,” he said.
Mr. Enshayan said after spending a few days in New Hampshire and Vermont he thinks there is a lot of potential for this sort of project.
“I think your agriculture here is a lot more diverse than ours,” he said.  He said there are more remnants of infrastructure here than in Iowa.
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