By Indy Media
Jul 27, 2008
By MATTHEW WILDE -- Waterloo and Cedar Falls Courier
One million dollars just isn't enough.
That may seem like a lot of dough, but when compared to the amount of money people fork over for food locally, it is chump change. Local food growers want a bigger cut.
"People here (Cedar Valley) are spending $400 million on food. I’d like to see in five to 10 years that (local growers) will capture 10 percent, that's $40 million," said Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Buy Fresh/Buy Local program at the University of Northern Iowa and a Cedar Falls city councilman. "That's money invested in farms that would be re-invested locally. That would have a huge ripple effect."
During the past nine years, Enshayan said Buy Fresh/Buy Local has made growing and eating local food practically mainstream. Locally raised meat, dairy, vegetables and fruit are served at restaurants, schools and homes throughout Black Hawk and Bremer counties.
Sales to individuals and commercial users have increased from $110,773 in 1998 to an estimated $1 million last year, Enshayan said.
But to capture more of the local food dollar, Enshayan said, Buy Fresh/Buy Local needs to expand its scope. The Northern Iowa Food and Farm Partnership is designed to do just that throughout much of Northeast Iowa.
Iowa State University Extension and the partnership will host a food handling and safety workshop Feb. 25 at the Cedar Falls Library. The three-hour event, which starts at 9:30 a.m., will introduce the organization and discuss ways of getting more local food to buyers safely.
The partnership was formed last year with a $59,500, three-year grant from ISU's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture with the idea of creating a regional food economy. The group’s 15-member committee, made up of local growers, agriculture and financial experts and food buyers, completed its mission and vision statement last month and is ready to implement it.
"We're developing a capacity to feed ourselves. We're so dependent on far-away food," said Enshayan, a committee member. "We have great soil and skilled farmers, so why not build on it and make the community more prosperous?"
Enshayan, who recently received the 2008 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa, said he and a few students can only do so much. To take the local food program to the next level, or make it regional, help was needed. Enshayan eventually sees Buy Fresh/Buy Local merging with the partnership.
Committee members say quantity, ordering, distribution and processing of locally grown food holds back sales at times. The partnership hopes to develop a system to solve these problems.
Shane Tiernan, a business development officer for Grundy National Bank in Conrad, is lending his financial expertise to come up with a solid business plan and find the funds to implement it.
He said institutional buyers often struggle when dealing with multiple suppliers and would rather deal with one. If producers could join forces, like a co-op, that would increase sales, he said. A central ordering and distribution system, including a warehouse and trucks, are needed to get food to end users efficiently.
"If this is feasible, and we think there's enough demand, there is capital out there. There’s state and federal programs and venture capitalists that support local food," said Tiernan, committee co-chair.
Supply issues could be solved by fixing ordering and delivery problems.
Currently it is up to growers to make contacts with buyers and get food to market, so time becomes an issue.
Loyd Johnson, a committee member and producer near Nashua, says one-third of his work day is spent marketing and delivering bell peppers, broccoli and other goods to customers. Johnson said if he didn’t have to do that, he could concentrate more on farming and grow more food. Large retailers and institutional buyers want to know a certain amount of products are available at certain times for planning purposes.
"The partnership will help create and support infrastructure, facilities, greater marketing and production of local products. It will take pressure off of producers," Johnson said.
Iowa's climate also plays a part in limited supplies from late fall until early spring. Johnson is spending thousands of dollars to build greenhouses to extend the growing season and improve sales, and he says the promise of more buyers might encourage others to do the same.
Ordering and obtaining a sufficient supply of food is only part of the battle, though. If a buyer isn’t equipped to wash, slice and prepare food for cooking, convenience often plays a major role in purchasing decisions.
That is where light processing of food comes in. That isn't a problem for local meat and dairy products, but it is for fruit and vegetables.
Gale Secor, food purchasing coordinator for the University of Northern Iowa and committee co-chair, says the school has the staff to prepare large amounts of raw produce. But small restaurants often do not.
Helping find funds for on-farm processing or a stand-alone facility, possibly connected to a warehouse/distribution center, is a goal of the partnership.
"That could generate sales," Secor said.
UNI will spend about $230,000 this year on local food, Secor said, about double from a year ago. The money not only stays in the community, she said, but the students love it. On Wednesday, students chowed down hamburgers made from steers raised locally and processed at the Gilbertville Locker.
"The taste and quality (is exceptional)," she said. "(Students) say it tastes like being at home."