Do Farmers wear business suits?

August 30, 2010

I recently read a blog entry about local food. The author was breaking down the energy it takes to get food from the farm to the dinner table, and debunking some common beliefs about local food. Read it here. A short and very interesting read.

Don’t get me wrong. I love local food! I love the farmer’s market! I love CSAs (Community Supported Ag)! Locally grown produce and meat provide an excellent opportunity for those who don’t have a connection to food production. And they provide my family with fresh food when it’s in season. But… (you knew there was going to be a but) that doesn’t mean that modern/industrial farming is the “bad guy.” There is a place and a need in this world for all forms of agriculture.

Anyway… there was a person on this blog that commented that small local farmers wear blue jeans and worry about their crops, unlike “industrial” farmers in the Midwest who wear suits and worry about their balance sheet. Ok, I know many of you who read this blog are in the Midwest. And most of you have met a farmer. Was he or she wearing a suit?? Probably not.

So many terms get thrown around when it comes to food production. What do they even mean? I’m a farmer in the heartland of America, just 50 miles from Cedar Rapids, the “Food Capital of the World” and I’m not really even sure….

My crops and livestock are sold, for the most part, to food processing companies. Does that make me an “industrial” farmer? My hogs are kept indoors. Does that make me a “factory?” I use herbicides and have a professional accountant do my taxes. Does that mean I’m “corporate?”

All of the labor and management on my farm is done by family. Does that make me a “family” farmer? I sell beef directly to local customers. Does that make me a “local” farm? We use cover crops, no-till, and crop rotation. Does that mean we’re “sustainable?”

I have been known to do cattle chores and get covered in manure (although my husband is the champion at getting dirty, he can look at dirt and it will stick to him). Then the next day I will be dressed in a business suit to attend a Farm Bureau gathering. I’m so confused! Am I supposed to do only one of these activities?

Then there are the days that there isn’t enough time to transition from one role to the other and you end up walking into the bank with your filthy, holey jeans on. Or you extend your dirty greasy hand to family from the city who decided to stop by for a visit.

Then there’s the other way around. Such as when you’re on your way to church and spot 40 head of feeder calves plowing through the newly planted corn field. There isn’t enough time to go home and change into your chore clothes. Or, you go straight to the field after prenatal classes (because you know if you miss one your baby is gonna come out with three legs and hairy ears) because the weather is perfect for the first time in weeks for soybean harvest.

Yes. All of the above situations really happened to me.

I’m not rare. This is how agriculture in the Midwest is. The people you see on the cover of the Farm Bureau Spokesman in their business suits are the same people you will meet on the road with their tractors and manure spreaders. The same people you will see in the bleachers at their kid’s tee ball game.

People who think that “industrial” farming is a horrible, evil, greedy, destructive way of life are the reason I blog. The way they see modern farming just isn’t so.

Written by Liz Nieman

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Farmers’ Market week

August 5, 2010

I love the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market, held every Saturday morning from May through October. The food, the sights, the smells, the pressure!

Ah, the pressure. There is simply so much to choose from that I am easily overwhelmed.

Lamb? That sounds awesome! (What do I do with it?)

Bok choy? Umm…I don’t think I’d recognize it. (Does it go with lamb?)

Arugula? I simply love the sound of the word! (But what does it taste like?)

Even the familiar things can trip me up as I try to shop for fresh items. I’ll end coming home with 14 tomatoes, 8 potatoes, 4 loaves of bread, and more, but not put it all to use on my family’s dinner plates.

Ah, the pressure. Is it just me?

Well, since the farmers’ market season is still in full-swing and to celebrate National Farmers’ Market Week (Aug. 2-7), here are some tips to help you (okay, this is really mostly about me) make the most of your market visit, whether you’re in Des Moines or Decorah.

1. Timing is everything. And this isn’t about getting there early to find the best and most of everything. This is about understanding what foods are in season. Now is the perfect time to find corn, summer squash and peppers.

2. Dinner plans. Decide on one or two recipes that you’ll make that evening and go shopping. By building upon what is in season, you can wow your family with a new offering.

3. Know the lingo. There is so much out there from organic to natural to heirloom. Study up on what those words mean and then decide what they mean to you. And then ask the farmers at the market what it means to them. You’ll be learning and eating well at the same time.

One of my favorite farmers to talk to at that market is the members of Rinehart’s Family Farm. Greg and Polly Rinehart and many of their ten children run a booth right near the Polk County Courthouse. Offering seasonal vegetables, from white asparagus to the sweet corn that they picked very, very, very early that very morning, the family loves the interaction that the market environment offers them. Polly will count out and bag up your produce and even let you know the best way to prepare it.

These are actually just a few of the many market tips you can find at It’s a great resource that includes tips, maps, event listings and recipes for that market.

I’m definitely looking forward to returning to the market with a game plan put in place. (But it doesn’t mean that I still won’t be distracted by shiny jewelry and yummy breakfast burritos.) My goal is to buy as much from the market in order to assemble a meal for that evening.

Maybe I’ll even find out what to do with that arugula. At least I’ll have fun saying “Try it!” I’ll declare to my dinner guests. “It ARUGULA!”

By the way, this applies to all farmers’ markets in the state, from the tall to the small. You can find a list of all markets (locations, times, etc) at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship website at It’s a great resource that lets you search by market name, city or county.

These markets are important for those local economies and to the state as well, accounting for nearly $60 million in direct and indirect sales and nearly 400 direct jobs in 2009.

So support your fresh food habit and a farmer. It’s definitely a recipe for success.

Written by Heather Lilienthal
Heather is an Ag Commodities Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Let’s Talk About Sustainability, Not Marketing

June 11, 2009

Images from The Des Moines Farmers Market

Images from The Des Moines Farmers Market

I’ll admit it. I was one of the few Des Moines-area residents who hadn’t visited the city’s famous farmer’s market, but I finally checked it out last week. It won’t be long before I make a return trip. After all, what’s not to like about asparagus on the grill, freshly-squeezed apple juice, homemade bread and a few scattered musicians to create a buzz?

The marketing of locally-grown food is an emerging trend in Iowa and nationwide. According to the recently released ag census, the number of small Iowa farms selling directly to consumers has risen by 22 percent over the last five years. Small farms and markets have done a great job selling their products and the farmer-to-consumer experience.

Clever marketing is great; deceptive claims that make consumers feel obligated to buy your products are not. That’s irresponsible marketing. I’m reminded of that fact when I read claims that people who don’t buy organic products from small farms don’t care about health and sustainability. To see what I mean, check out the following editorial that appeared in Sunday’s Des Moines Register:

Rather than listening to one farmer’s marketing pitch, let’s take a look at some of the facts about sustainability. For food production to be truly sustainable, it needs to sustain the world population, the environment, and the farmer.

Right now the average U.S. farmer produces enough food and fiber for 143 people. Crop technology and improved farming methods over the last century have given farmers the ability to feed more people, while reducing their environmental footprint, but it’s still not enough to satisfy growing world demand. For most of the past decade, the world has been consuming more food than it has been producing, and that trend isn’t reversing. Our world population grows by one billion every 12 years, and meat consumption is expected to double by 2050. Feeding the growing world in years to come will likely require more technological advances and innovative farming practices, not fewer.

If we decide to rely exclusively on small organic outfits, we will need a lot more farmers, and we’ll need to put a lot more land into production. Most of the world, outside of Iowa, lacks fertile soil.

Responsible food production also sustains our environment. Thanks to biotechnology and other farm research, modern farmers have found ways to reduce pesticide and fertilizer applications, while reducing erosion and runoff. I’ve mentioned before that Iowa leads the nation in acres devoted to buffer strips that protect water:

Finally, food production needs to sustain farmers, which gives them a reason to keep putting food on our tables. In order to provide affordable food, farmers must work on tight profit margins. So either everyone needs to become a part-time small farmer (which isn’t feasible), or we should allow full-time farmers to grow their farms and earn enough money to support their families.

Sustainability is a balancing act, and we can’t master it by limiting our options. Count me in for a trip to the farmer’s market, but don’t ask me to believe that small markets and organics, alone, can support our growing world.

Written by Zach Bader
Zach is a Communications Specialist for Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Local sense

June 1, 2009

I’m a big fan of locally-grown food. Nearly every Saturday morning during the season my family heads to the big farmers’ market in downtown Des Moines, which is one of a growing number across the state. Over the years it’s been fun to get to know the farmers and to enjoy the progression of the produce through the season. We go from fresh asparagus in May, to July’s incomparable Iowa sweet corn, to the deep- red tomatoes that have ripened in the late summer sunshine and finally to autumn’s crisp and juicy apples.

In my work I’ve also had the privilege of traveling around the state to visit all types of specialty farms. I’ve spent time with farmers producing all types of food for local consumers, from fine artisan cheeses, to heirloom garlic to goat milk and meat. As the latest Census of Agriculture shows ( Iowa agriculture is more diverse today than it has ever been. To find local producers, just go to the website of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

Yes, local food is great, but that does not mean that food has to be local to be good and nutritious. Many food activists and so-called “localvores” contend that Americans should somehow limit their diets to only locally-grown foods. One of their ideas is slapping a tax on non-local foods, saying consumers should pay extra based on food miles, or the number of miles the food was transported from the field to the table.

There are many problems with this concept, but a couple spring to mind right off the bat. First, not much local food grows during the winter months in Iowa, or in a large part of the United States. Are those of us in northern climates just supposed to not eat fresh fruits and vegetables for six months of the year? It doesn’t sound very healthy, or appetizing, to me. As every health experts says, Americans really need more, not fewer, servings of fruits and vegetables. Check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid for the facts.

Second, the concept of eating only locally-grown food makes no sense for a state like Iowa. We’ve got acres and acres of rich, productive farmland here, but not all that many people. What really makes Iowa agriculture special is our farmers’ ability to consistently produce large amounts of crops and livestock, far more than can be consumed by the state’s population.

Using technology, Iowa farmers have shown that they can produce food for their local communities, while they supply markets throughout the United States and the world. And they are doing that with a lighter environmental footprint than ever before. The ability to produce for export is a huge asset at a time when global food demand is rising and more people are demanding improved diets. Sending food out of the state also pumps billions of dollars into the state’s economy, helps our cities and small towns and provides employment for thousands of Iowans. To somehow limit Iowa farmers to only producing for local markets would be sheer folly.

It the end, it’s all about serving consumers whatever they demand or wherever they live. Over the years, Iowa farmers have certainly proven their ability to produce crops and livestock for the world. And increasingly, they have shown they can serve the needs of their local markets with fresh produce, meats, cheese and other products. Thanks to that flexibility, Iowans, and most of the world’s consumers, have never eaten better.

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the News Services Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.

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