A Rural View of Local Food

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When the 2009 summary for the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll popped up in my e-mail box yesterday, the first thing that struck me was this: a whole lot of farmers in the Hawkeye State think creating a local food production, processing and distribution system is a good idea. This is a significant indicator that the local foods movement is more than a hip, urban, food co-op-and-fancy restaurant thing. It’s gaining traction in the place where all that local food needs to be actually produced: Corn Country.

First some background on why the results of the Iowa Farm and Rural Live Poll are worth paying heed to. Conducted annually since 1982, the poll is the longest-running survey of its kind in this country. Its results are based on over 2,000 questionnaires mailed out to farmers across Iowa. The 2009 data is based on 1,268 returned surveys—an impressive 58 percent response rate.

It’s one of the few sociological surveys that provides an in-depth reading of the farm pulse on issues ranging from economic security, health and factory farms to conservation, immigration and quality of life issues.

I’ve been impressed with the survey’s insights ever since 1984, when I attended a press conference put on by Paul Lasley, an Iowa State rural sociologist and the godfather of the Rural Life Poll. It’s clear Lasley and his fellow scientists take their research seriously, and more than once other studies and real-world experiences have backed up the poll’s findings.

And although the results it unearths cannot be taken as universal across all of rural America, in my opinion the poll does provide a pretty accurate picture of what farmers are thinking and experiencing in other states, including Minnesota.

That’s why the “local food” results in this year’s poll are so exciting. For example:

  • 63 percent of respondents “agree” or “strongly agree” that the local food movement could provide important new market opportunities for farmers.
  • 70 percent agree or strongly agree that the state should support initiatives to help Iowa farmers sell farm products to Iowa grocery stores and restaurants.
  • 63 percent think the state should help farmers who want to sell products to institutions such as schools, nursing homes, hospitals and prisons.

Now, that last result is particularly intriguing because it shows the interest in and support for developing a local food system has grown in recent years. It seems that when the 1999 Rural Life Poll asked a similar question about supporting farmers who wanted to sell to local institutions, only 45 percent of respondents thought it was a good idea.

There are more signs that rural trend lines in support of local food systems are headed in the right direction. In order to rationalize the destruction of rural communities, supporters of industrialized agriculture are making noise these days that farmers who produce food for local markets aren’t “real” or “professional” farmers. Don’t tell that to the Rural Life Poll participants. Compared to a decade ago, almost double the number (61 percent) of 2009 respondents agree or strongly agree that farmers’ markets (you know, those places where “hobby farmers” hang out because they like getting up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday) have a lot to offer as a way for farmers to increase their incomes.

In 1999, only 43 percent of Iowa farmers polled thought that processing plants should be developed for alternative products such as fruits, vegetables and specialty meats (such plants are key to the development of a viable local food system). Today? Around 60 percent think such facilities are a good idea.

Why the increased respect among Corn Belt farmers for what local food systems can offer their communities? There are all sorts of good reasons—environmental, economic, culinary, to name a few. And farmers who support developing a local food system are on the front lines of the corn-bean-feedlot machine that masquerades as a food system these days. Only 19 percent of poll respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the shift away from diversified farming operations and toward specialized grain or livestock operations has generally been good for Iowa’s farmers; 14 percent thought such a shift was good for the state’s rural communities.

Other results from the 2009 Rural Life Poll indicate good old-fashioned Midwestern practicality may be an important driver. On average, farmers responding to the poll reported they make a 21-mile round-trip to the nearest supermarket to do their food shopping. Around 25 percent of them have to drive more like 30 miles round-trip.

Wanting to drive fewer miles for a loaf of bread or a few tomatoes may not be the sexiest reason for developing a new food and farming system—but it sure is a good place to start.

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