This story was reported from the summer of 2022 through spring 2023 with support from the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education.
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Corn and soybeans dominate the Hawkeye State’s rural landscapes.
In 2022, Iowa farmers harvested 12.4 million acres of corn and 10 million acres of soybeans, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Information.
And in the Midwest, 127 million acres of land overall are dedicated to ag, said the USDA.
Popping up between those tall stalks of corn and velvety leaves of soybeans are other plants. Of the Midwest’s overall acres, 75% are covered by corn and soybeans. The other quarter produces crops from alfalfa and apples to watermelon and wheat.
In Iowa, unconventional farming — growing crops aside from industrial grain — ranges from soybeans grown and made into tofu near Iowa City to an environmentally-minded O’Brien County farmer who went organic decades ago. The pandemic and subsequent higher food prices have boosted interest in farming differently, several ag experts said. And while interest is growing, unconventional farming isn’t always easy.
“You saw people coming back, to buy land and buy houses, and wanting to live in more rural communities and have that quality of life and sense of connection and sense of community,” said Giselle Bruskewitz of Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development. The organization works with growers and food hubs in eastern and central Iowa counties.
That trend prompted some Iowans to look at stores and resources closer to home — to local growers, local meat lockers, local dairies and even local greenhouses. The upshot has been a boost to local economies.
But the prominence of conventional farming — corn, soybeans and associated subsidies — makes it an easier path for many farmers to pursue, said Sarah Carlson, senior programs and member engagement director with Practical Farmers of Iowa, an organization focused on building resilient farms and communities.
For farmers pursuing other crops or products, challenges include a lack of financial support and making inroads in the greater marketplace
“The current system is so taken care of that it is, I think, hard for farmers who want to do anything that’s not corn and soybeans, and not commodity hogs, to do something different. And if they want to do something different, they shoulder all the risk of doing it,” she said.
Requests to lawmakers for comment were not returned.
Boosting local economies
Unconventional farming has the potential to contribute positively to local economies, experts said.
A 2016 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group of citizens and scientists, shows the potential for the number of jobs that could be created, and medium-sized farms supported, if grocery and convenience stores and institutions like schools and nursing homes bought more fresh food from local sources. The union has not updated its research since.
Extrapolating from surveys done by researchers with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, the UCS study projected that if just 25% of potential buyers purchased fresh food products from medium-sized farms, it would have an $800 million impact on Iowa’s economy, supporting more than 4,200 mid-sized farms and more than 88,000 agriculture jobs.
The UCS study further suggested that small to mid-sized farms — of about 50 to 1,000 acres according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — have a more positive impact on rural communities, because they tend to buy feed, equipment and other farm inputs from local sources.
The UCS study forecasted that trend. Chuck Tryon said he sees it as president of Bushel Boy Produce, a Minnesota- and Iowa-based regional produce grower.
A tomato that ripens on the vine in a field or local greenhouse is of higher quality than one that ripens while sitting in the back of a truck being shipped across the country, Tryon said. Bushel Boy grows fresh vegetables and fruits in acres of greenhouses in Owatonna, Minnesota, and Mason City, Iowa, for sale in several upper Midwestern grocery chains.
The greenhouses use hydroponic technology — using water and no soil to cultivate plants — and the recycling of water throughout its facilities, including capturing rainwater and snow melt.
That kind of produce, producers and local ag experts say, also creates local jobs and contributes to the livelihood of communities closer to the homes of those who eat it.
It also creates a market that allows smaller farms and growers to become economically viable, Bruskewitz said.
Several grower associations did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Pros, cons to farming beyond corn and soybeans
Most corn and soybean farmers rely on subsidies, payments and other support from the government. Subsidies can support particular crops, conservation and more. Farmers outside of corn and soybeans, though, say they rarely have such support.
Organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) do offer some assistance. PFI has 5,000 members in Iowa and 41 other states. It started in 1985 amid the Farm Crisis.
“This alternative food system is going to have to be subsidized a lot by labor and the people just being so committed to the cause until it can stand on its own,” said Carlson of PFI.
Experts in sustainability and environment pointed out the irony that Iowa is a major producer of beef, dairy, eggs and pork, yet sends much of the products out of state.
“(PFI members’) farms are having a positive impact in the local community. They’re buying and interacting with businesses, to fix something, or to bank locally. We know it can be done — farms that have diversified (crops), soil has improved, less fossil fuel used, less fertilizer used. They yield very high,” Carlson said.
The state of Iowa attempted to rev up institutional buyers’ interest in locally produced food and food hubs, which connect producers with institutional buyers, through a grant program in August 2020. Called the Local Produce and Protein (LPP) Program, the one-year program was offered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. It aimed to connect school districts with locally produced food.
A program report prepared by Iowa State University researchers, on behalf of the Iowa Food Hub Managers Working Group, showed 53 school districts participated in the LPP program. In 25 of those 53 participating areas, districts purchased local food through a food hub. Under the grant program, the state reimbursed school districts for the local food purchased.
The study noted, however, that 28 districts were unable to fulfill the grant and purchase food locally. They cited difficulty finding local food products or arranging delivery, and school staffing problems due to the pandemic.
“Schools that worked with a food hub were able to avoid the challenges of locating product and delivery, because those are tasks food hubs fulfill,” ISU researchers noted in the LPP report.
Food hubs help make local food production possible, experts said.
“The food hubs are building the infrastructure, connecting the dots of how do we store, how do we transport, how do we grow the markets for local producers and expanding access,” Bruskewitz said.
Prior to coming to Iowa Valley RC&D in July 2021, Bruskewitz helped launch and managed the Field to Family Food Hub in Iowa City.
“Connecting the dots,” Bruskewitz said, means building relationships between producers and consumers.
“How do you build the connections between those producers and those consumers and community members? It’s all about relationships,” she said. “That’s the heart of the culture here in Iowa and of these rural communities — just this idea that people care about each other.”
The infrastructure, she said, includes having warehousing, refrigerated trucks, and, as did some food hubs, offer online ordering.
“Just (having) those business efficiencies, which are really challenging when you’re a small producer,” Bruskewitz said. “Producers wear so many hats. They’re being asked to be so many things, all at the same time — and for little to no money a lot of the time. A lot of the vision is, how do we get producers a fair price, how do we help produce more food for the state, but also do that in a way that actually helps the producer.”
Beyond the economics, those growing, producing and distributing locally grown food believe in what they’re doing, Bruskewitz said.
“At least in the local-food community, I see a lot of young and passionate people, myself included, where I’ve decided to build a life and a career here,” she said. “I feel a real sense of community in the food system, and a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. I think that’s ultimately what people really want.”
By the bushel
Bushel Boy in Mason City and Owatonna, Minnesota, has taken the concept of local food a big step beyond food hubs.
“Minnesota and Iowa is such a great food and agricultural ecosystem. Frankly, it’s one of the most vibrant food and ag ecosystems in the world. It has this incredible diversity,” said Tryon, company president. “Obviously, the big row crops are a driver: the processing facilities for sweet corn, peas, green beans. You have this balance of grains to special vegetables. And now, because of technology that can be brought into this world of indoor farming, you have fresh produce that can be grown 12 months out of the year.”
The best evidence of being local and scaling up was a semitrailer from Iowa-headquartered regional grocer Hy-Vee pulled up to the loading dock.
Bushel Boy’s Mason City operation has 17 acres of greenhouses growing different kinds of tomatoes. The Owatonna facility was growing strawberries at the time Investigate Midwest talked to Tryon.
“It’s a way to bring that fresh produce much closer to where the stores are,” said Tryon.
He knows the importance, having grown up in the food and grocery business; he’s the son of an Indiana grocer and cooks for himself.
“That produce right now is, in most cases coming from Mexico, California, in some cases Canada — Canada has a vibrant greenhouse infrastructure for some commodities,” Tryon said.
“I get asked if I think indoor farming is the future of agriculture. And my answer is no; it’s not the future. It’s one of the futures,” Tryon said.
Expanding to Iowa allowed Bushel Boy to nudge its geographic market to include Iowa, Minnesota and contiguous states and metro areas like St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, and Omaha, Nebraska, roughly matching some of its upper Midwest grocery chain customers, and deepening its market penetration.
“You start reaching some additional markets with good population bases, where we think this idea of ‘highest quality, locally grown, available year-round’ will mean something,” Tryon said.
In 2018, Bushel Boy was acquired by privately held malting producer Rahr Corp. of Shakopee, Minnesota, in a diversification move and expanded incrementally into new facilities and products. The brand is recognized regionally, and products are labeled as having been grown in Minnesota and Iowa.
Bushel Boy earned about $16 million in 2022, according to industry publications, with earnings growing with the expansion of products and facilities.
Microgreens to sleep products
There are smaller examples of unconventional farming as well.
In 1998, James Nisly of Kalona, Iowa, in Washington County southwest of Iowa City, started Organic Greens, LLC. The company grows microgreens for sale to local restaurants and set up a food distribution network with local farmers, including those in the nearby Amish community.
“I grew up in rural Kalona on a rural hobby farm,” said Nisly, one of seven children. “We had a big garden and a few cows and horses, goats, ducks and sheep. We did a lot of our own canning, garden crops. So I’m kind of familiar with what might be called the homesteading lifestyle, I suppose.”
He returned to Iowa after several years of working in Hawaii at a church that focused on healthy eating and natural food production. Besides microgreens, Nisly sells specialty sandwich and salad greens in grocery stores and to food service. He describes it as “indoor vertical farming.”
The idea that healthy food is the underpinnings of a healthy society is a timely concept, Nisly said.
“I just think it’s a reality that’s smacking America in the face right now,” he said.
Near Charles City, Wendy Johnson farms and is a board member of Ames-based PFI.
She and her husband have crops and livestock — sheep and lamb — on their 130-acre farm and see a noticeable difference in the variety of plants and animals on their land compared with nearby conventionally farmed acres.
In 2020, Johnson also started another business, Counting Sheep Sleep Co., that uses the wool from her sheep for sleeping products.
Johnson said incentives like the state LPP program grants are a start, but schools, hospitals and other organizations will need sustained support to purchase local food rather than school-meal-program support for purchases from large commercial food service vendors.
“It needs to be a fair playing field,” she said. “There are local producers that could probably provide volume, but they need the ‘in’ first and they need to have the time to get to that volume. There has to be more effort on the institutional side to warrant the growth of these farms.”
Johnson said their farming style may not make financial sense when compared to tilling up the perennials and planting corn and soybeans.
“Corn and soybeans are highly subsidized. It’s why farmers continue to farm that way,” she said. “That’s where, I think, the trouble lies looking into the future of unconventional ag. We need some help from the top down.”
Pat Kinney is a longtime Iowa journalist. He is the oral historian for the Grout Museum District in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is a former reporter and editor with the Waterloo Courier.
A look at Iowa agriculture beyond industrial corn and soybeans
By Mallory Schmitz, for Investigate Midwest
Farming operations dot the Iowa landscape and share a number of traits: growing crops or raising livestock (or both), farmers who steward the land and rely on Iowa’s natural resources. Differences are in the details: What crops are grown? What methods are used to raise crops or livestock? What seed, fertilizer or herbicides are in use? What is the size of the operation?
In the summer of 2022, Investigate Midwest researched the wide range of farms in the Hawkeye State. The focus centered on operations and operators who chose a different path than industrial agriculture, which relies on corn, soybeans and large animal facilities. The following vignettes offer a glimpse into the broader definition of agriculture.
Going organic in 1998
When Paul Mugge took over the family farm in 1976, he didn’t anticipate making a drastic change in farming practices.
But two key issues converged in 1998: First, Mugge found himself in a declining hog market; second, he also wanted to foster his interest in environmentalism.
So Mugge transitioned his corn and soybean farm to organic. He simultaneously became the only such farmer in O’Brien County at the time, he said.
“I didn’t really know if that was going to work,” Mugge said in a 2022 interview. “It’s much more knowledge-intensive, much more management-intensive, and much more labor-intensive than the conventional guys.”
By “conventional,” Mugge means corn and soybean production, the two major crops in U.S. agriculture.
The purpose of organic farming, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to “optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.” Organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, along with other regulations on their farming practices.
Despite any doubts, Mugge said the farm has worked. Now he farms organically with the help of his children and grandchildren.
Today Mugge grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa and some small grains. He sits on the board of the Iowa Organic Association.
Being certified organic allows Mugge to get premium prices for his crops. According to the USDA, prices for certified organic corn typically sit two to three times higher than conventionally grown corn.
“I just have a little half section of 300 acres, which is quite small by today’s standards, but organically it’s enough to make a pretty good living,” he said.
Market conditions compelled Mugge to switch.
“When I started farming with my parents, everybody had hogs. Hogs were called the ‘mortgage lifters.’ If you wanted to work hard, you could raise hogs and you could make some money and get on top of things,” he said. “That doesn’t work anymore.”
He continued: “Organic is one of the few things that allows a smaller farmer to get into the business without spending a fortune.”
Diversification for labor needs
Landon and Anne Plagge run a farm in Latimer, Iowa, population less than 500, that has been in their family for more than 60 years.
Their farm is entirely family-run, producing corn, soybeans, oats, flax seed, canola and livestock. As Anne Plagge detailed, the variety of crops they grow helps alleviate some of the costs of farming that weigh particularly heavy on small-scale farmers.
“For us, the answer has always been diversification,” Anne said. Broadening their variety of crops allows the Plagges to spread their labor costs throughout the year.
“You combine oats earlier in the summer so you can get started on some of those acres earlier instead of doing everything at once, like most farms do with corn and beans by combining everything at the same time,” she said.
Producing up to 100 different crops
Jordan Clasen owns Grade A Gardens in Earlham, Iowa, where his family annually grows 60 to 100 different kinds of fruits and vegetables on 30 acres.
Clasen began farming in 2009, when he started renting half an acre of land to grow garlic.
More than a decade later, the Clasen farm has diversified their crop varieties and their avenues for profit. Along with sales at the Des Moines Farmers’ Market and through area restaurants, Grade A Gardens now sells through a Community Supported Agriculture agreement, or CSA.
In a CSA, members pay a fee at the beginning of the season in exchange for a weekly supply of fresh produce delivered to their door. Grade A Gardens has offered a full 20-week share for $585 and a 10-week half-share for $300. They had 130 members in recent years.
“The beauty of the CSA is that it is like the farmer’s insurance,” Clasen said. “We can use some of that money when crops get lean in the spring, and, if things do well, we are fine.”
The Clasens also dabble in agricultural tourism.
“We do dinners twice a year. My wife is really into getting people to the farm to see where their food is grown,” Clasen said. “We partner with a chef in town, usually a different chef each time, and we host about 40 to 50 people.”
The dinner they hosted in recent years sold tickets at $145 per person.
Clasen said that Grade A Gardens typically turns a profit each year, however, they don’t see that money for long.
“For me, I don’t ever like to show a huge profit. I’m always trying to reinvest in the farm,” he said.
Locally grown and sold tofu
Old Capitol Foods in Iowa City, started by Jake Gratzon and Matthew Mesaros in 2014, manufactures tofu using soybeans grown almost entirely in Iowa.
Working with local farmers allows them to create a higher quality product, according to Gratzon.
“I grew up with (tofu), and I knew how much better it was when it was fresh. We thought that if we could just make it fresh, even if it was the same as how everyone else did it, just by being fresh, it would be better, and better enough that people would notice,” he said.
For access to fresh soybeans, Old Capitol Tofu has an agreement with soybean broker Stonebridge Limited in Cedar Falls.
Although Gratzon said they have yet to make a profit, Old Capitol is getting by; the majority of their sales come from agreements with Iowa universities that carry their product.
“It’s really, really hard to compete with the economies of scale of large operations, and also the consistency they’re able to provide. Whether it’s us or vegetable producers, distribution becomes a big issue,” he said.
Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Sally Worley echoed Gratzon’s observation: “In general in Iowa, there is very little infrastructure for farmers to sell into larger markets, so the majority right now are selling direct to consumer or direct to restaurant, whatever their end user is.”
Food hubs connect farmers to markets
A significant part of the local food movement has manifested itself in food hubs, organizations that serve as bridges between local farmers and larger markets.
Ellen Walsh-Rosmann started FarmTable Procurement and Delivery in 2014, a food hub out of Harlan in western Iowa.
“At the time I was growing vegetables myself and quickly realized there was no infrastructure to help support a scale-up of my operation and to help take the marketing piece out and transportation and distribution,” she said. “I was an hour away from my market and it was really hard because I had a little baby and I was trying to haul all this produce a couple times a week to Omaha.”
From those experiences, she created FarmTable, which she owns and operates with five employees. They partner with about 40 growers and distribute their products across Iowa as well as into metropolitan Omaha, Nebraska.
In FarmTable’s model, producers are still involved in selling their product. “I challenge my producers to actually know what their cost of production is. I expect our producers to have really high standards, quality of product, and things have to be organically grown or certified organic,” Walsh-Rosmann said.
In addition, producers are responsible for listing their products on FarmTable’s website, where customers, mostly individual household buyers, are able to place orders for produce. Producers set their own prices with input from FarmTable, and FarmTable then rents trucks to pick up the product that has been sold from each producer’s site and to distribute it on a weekly basis.
The Iowa Food Co-op is a similar food hub that has been operating out of Des Moines since 2008.
Karen Davis, the general manager of the Iowa Food Co-op, broke down how both their producers and the food hub itself brings in money.
“We try to be very transparent to all members and producers on how we make our little humble money. The producers name their prices. We do not mark up,” she said.
The small cut these food hubs take doesn’t amount to much. Both Walsh-Rosmann and Davis said their food hubs have not turned a significant profit in their years of operation.
“We just scraped by to be completely honest,” Davis said, “but our goal is not really to make a profit. It is just to be able to cover our costs and continue being a platform for our producers to get their products out there.”
Mallory Schmitz is a senior at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the news editor for the Northern Iowan student newspaper. She has also worked as a reporter for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. She interned with Investigate Midwest in the summer of 2022; her internship was supported by a grant from the UNI Center for Energy and Environmental Education.
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