Envisioning Viable Farms and Communities
Earlier this summer, I got to brainstorm with my colleagues as we started to set a multiyear vision for the newly minted farm viability department. This department provides personalized support to help farmers achieve their goals and long-term viability. One question we pondered, which I think about a lot – and which you all probably think about a lot, too – was: What does our vision, “an Iowa with healthy soil, healthy food, clean air, clean water, resilient farms and vibrant communities,” actually look like on the landscape?
There are many facets to this vision. Jacqueline Venner Senske, PFI’s horticulture education coordinator, and I brainstormed about fruit and vegetable farm viability. Here’s what we thought it would require:
More fruits and vegetables raised and consumed in Iowa: Iowa is an agricultural powerhouse; 85% of our land base is in agricultural production. Yet, according to Iowa State University, Iowa imports more than 90% of its food. Raising and consuming more Iowa-grown vegetables would increase our food security. It would also bring substantial employment and income potential to farms across Iowa, since fruits and vegetables are high-value, labor-intensive crops.
A dated but relevant report authored in 2010 by Rich Pirog and Dave Swenson, “Selected Measures of the Economic Values of Increased Fruits and Vegetable Production and Consumption in the Upper Midwest,” estimates that feeding Iowans 28 fruits and vegetables seasonally would require an additional 16,000 acres of land.
Iowa reported 11,344 acres of land in vegetables, orchards and berries in the 2017 census. Adding 16,000 acres to this tally would barely register relative to Iowa’s 30.6 million farmed acres. But the economic impact would be significant: $61.4 million in direct farm sales and $230 million in retail value, according to 2010 estimations.
More fruit and vegetable infrastructure: Iowa fruit and vegetable farms presently lack sufficient infrastructure – from processing, consistent markets and insurance to aggregation, transportation and more – to achieve their income potential. To farm in Iowa, they must take on substantial risk. Creating the needed infrastructure would bolster the viability of these farms while bringing more jobs and economic development to Iowa communities.
Picturing a Patchwork of Farms Across Iowa
Investing in fruits and vegetables will markedly boost the viability of Iowa agriculture. Other colleagues brainstormed how to increase viability of field crops, small grains, livestock and habitat, and we touched on how to weave all of these enterprises together. Achieving PFI’s vision is not an either-or solution, but a yes-and. It’s energizing to envision what inclusive agriculture looks like in Iowa. A healthy food and farm system will be a patchwork of different kinds and sizes of farms.
While visioning is fun, visioning without action is merely a recreational activity. We are busy putting this vision into action with all of you. Stay tuned for more farm viability department action, from expanded cost-share programs to business development and much more.
This magazine is a treasure trove of inspirational actions members and others are taking to improve farm, landscape and community viability in Iowa. For instance, learn how Chris Henning, recipient of PFI’s 2022 Farmland Owner Legacy Award, is working to improve soil health, water quality and habitat.
Read how new Iowa-based meat processors are creating infrastructure to increase the viability of farms like Chad and Katie Hensley’s. Or read how restauranteurs Daisy and Berenice Valderrabano are working with farmer Kate Solko to get more local foods on the menu.
If you haven’t gotten to a field day yet, there are still some on the docket for this fall. These are first-hand opportunities to see how PFI members are working toward an Iowa with healthy soil, healthy food, clean air, clean water, resilient farms and vibrant communities.
On Oct. 5, JR Jenkins will share how he makes grazing on leased land viable with mobile grazing infrastructure near Wilton, Iowa. And on Oct. 8, Tim Swinton will share how he’s creating a diverse food crop and conservation farm on former row crop ground near Clemons, Iowa.
Thanks for all of your hard work on this noble journey. Together we continue to inspire and make change.