Though few hard statistics are available, Iowans’ appetite for organic food and locally raised fruits and vegetables appears to be growing.
“We don’t have real current and accurate data, but my sense is that, yes, we are getting more organic growers and more people raising food for local consumption,” said Maury Wills, bureau chief of agriculture diversification and market development for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
Data for specialty crops “is just not there like it is for commodity crops such as corn and soybeans,” said state horticulturist Mike Bevins.
While the number of farmers markets in Iowa doubled from 2004 to 2009, more recent developments won’t be known until the next USDA farmers market survey is conducted in 2014, Bevins said.
“Specialty crops are a very important part of Iowa agriculture, as they allow farmers to diversify and give customers access to locally grown products,” Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said Thursday in announcing the availability of $271,000 in grants to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops.
The specialty crops segment is definitely growing in the Iowa City area, according to Jenifer Angerer, marketing manager at New Pioneer Food Co-op with stores in Iowa City and Coralville.
From 2008 through 2012, New Pioneer’s purchases from local producers increased 39.86 percent to nearly $1.7 million last year, Angerer said.
Local produce “is the fastest-growing segment of food production,” said Jason Grimm, food systems planner with the Iowa Valley RC&D in Amana.
Grimm said the Iowa Valley Food Co-op, an online network of producers and consumers in Eastern Iowa, has grown to more than 450 members since it was founded in August 2011.
Restaurants have also recently become an important outlet for locally grown produce, he said.
Grimm, who helps newcomers break into the business, said marketing is more difficult than production.
“You need to start lining up customers before you plant the seeds,” he said.
New Pioneer specializes in both organic foods, which are certified to have been produced in accordance with well-defined natural specifications, and locally grown products, which are often produced with similar care but lack the certification.
‘Fresher is better’
Angerer said New Pioneer customers believe “fresher is better.”
In a farm state that imports 90 percent of the food its residents eat, conscientious Iowans worry about the carbon footprint inherent in transporting food great distances, she said.
They also believe that small-scale production, as opposed to industrial models, is friendlier to the environment, more sustainable and more accountable in an era of food scares involving pathogen contamination, she said.
New Pioneer buys from about 30 local producers with more growers applying each year, said Mike Krough, the company’s produce coordinator.
Maximizing locally sourced products is part of New Pioneer’s mission to support the local economy, he said.
Certified organic food — which can cost as much as one-third more than conventionally produced food — is a much bigger deal in Iowa City than it is in Cedar Rapids, according to Teresa White, farmers market coordinator for the city of Cedar Rapids.
“Iowa City people care more about how food is raised and will pay the price,” White said.
While Cedar Rapids residents value fresh, locally raised fruits and vegetables, they seem less willing to pay the premium commanded by organic produce, she said.
Locally grown produce is the biggest attraction at the new Downtown Farmers’ market, according to Jill Wilkins, who manages the market for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.
About one-fourth of the 220 vendors specialize in horticultural products, and they almost always sell out, she said.
Jim Fink, who has operated a 40-acre organic farm near Urbana for the past 20 years, said farming without chemicals is not all that different from the way his parents farmed.
Fink, who said he finds chemicals “disagreeable,” fertilizes his soil with manure from his organically raised livestock and controls weeds through crop rotation and mechanical cultivation.
Fink, who derives much of his income from the sale of beef and pork, emphasizes that his meat is not certified organic, but that is only because he cannot find a meat processor willing to invest the time and money in achieving organic certification.
Fink’s hogs and cattle eat only organic food, much of it produced on his farm, and they thrive without the hormones and antibiotics common to modern meat production.
“I sell it as ‘natural’ and set my prices at the higher end of the market,” he said.