Sustainable Development in the Age of Golden Grain

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May corn futures on the Chicago Board of Trade closed at $5.35 per bushel today. There’s nothing wrong with rural America that high corn prices won’t fix, right? I read that price quote soon after finishing an LSP Ear to the Ground podcast on a rural economic development model that has little to do with betting the farm (and the land) on one or two raw commodities. Give it a listen (episode 47) before you call up your broker and buy corn futures on the CBOT.

Fueled by ethanol’s insatiable thirst and increased global demand for grains in general, corn, as well soybeans (May beans closed at $14.38 per bushel Friday—try eating tofu at those prices!), are on an unprecedented run of high prices. That means two things: 1) more Midwestern soil will be planted to row crops this spring, which means more erosion, less wildlife habitat and more contaminated water; and 2) the belief that row crop agriculture is the key to sustainable rural economic development is being reinforced with each new market report.

But let’s keep one thing in mind: betting everything on one commodity, whether it be corn or krugerands, is not sustainable. That’s a difficult concept to keep in mind when you’re breathing the intoxicating vapors of a boom market. There is even talk that farmers raising hogs for organic and antibiotic-free markets are thinking of getting out of the business so they can concentrate on just raising corn for the cash market. That’s how attractive corn prices are these days.

As farmer Tom Frantzen recently said on an Ear to the Ground podcast (episode 45): “What a tragedy it would be if niche pork would be hurt and or destroyed because the farmers raising pork for those markets decide to opt out for a short-term buck…and abandon the long-term stability of the marketplace that niche pork offered them. Being loyal to the future is what we have to have.” In other words, dance with the one that brought ya—you might need a ride home later that night.

It’s time to take a deep breath and consider what kind of rural economy we want long into the future, not just until the next grain market booms out. I was reminded recently of the value of stepping back from all the craziness created by CBOT reports for a moment and taking a look at long-term, sustainable economic development. The reminder came in the form of Rob Marqusee’s keynote at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Organic Conference in St. Cloud. Marqusee is the Rural Economic development Director for Woodbury County in Iowa. He has spearheaded a nationally-recognized set of initiatives that are using family farmers and organic, locally-produced food as the basis for economic development.

For example, the county has instituted policies that provide property tax abatements to landowners who convert to organic production. Woodbury County also has in place a policy that whenever possible, it purchase organic foods grown and processed within a 100-mile radius of the courthouse. The County’s Board of Supervisors put these policies in place after Marqusee presented them study after study showing how locally-based food systems are an excellent way to generate wealth in a community and keep it local.

I visited Woodbury County in 2006 to write about its innovative policies for the Land Stewardship Letter. I remember walking from Marqusee’s office at the courthouse down to the Sioux City Chamber of Commerce building and asking them what they thought of all this focus on organic food and family farms as economic drivers. Keep in mind, the Chamber’s offices are sitting literally in the shadow of the shiny Terra Industries high-rise. Terra is one of the largest manufacturers of nitrogen fertilizer on the planet. Tyson Foods also has a major presence in the area. This is a region built on cheap commodities and agribusiness.

But the Chamber folks didn’t miss a beat. They couldn’t say enough good about this new rural economic development initiative. It seems Marqusee had done his homework and shown business and political leaders in the area studies and examples that proved the economic benefits of local food systems. This was soon after the county started putting these policies in place, and at the time it was too early to tell what would come of them. Two years later, it’s clear they are bearing fruit. Farmers are converting to organic production, a farmers’ market/local foods restaurant is flourishing, and a major organic processor is establishing a facility in the area.

Just as importantly, young people are staying, and returning, to the area because of the buzz around this new local food and farming economy. Marqusee concedes that the county has a long ways to go before local family farming and local food systems are major drivers in the region’s economy, but it’s already serving as a new economic development model for other rural communities around the country.

As Marqusee likes to say, the homegrown economic system the county is attempting to spark through its initiatives is actually much closer to a truly “free market” than the subsidized commodity crop system: “If we are paying the true cost of food, that’s not a subsidy, that’s paying the true cost of food.”

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