Far away from the booming local food movement found in large cities, many rural areas throughout the Great Plains remain isolated and untouched by the growing demand for family farm food. But that’s beginning to change.
On a family-run dairy farm in Fairfield, Iowa, Francis and Susan Thicke are showing their neighbors not only how they’ve remained in farming, but more importantly how they’re farming in a way that is strengthening local and family-centered food production.
Across Iowa, as rural communities struggle to maintain their populations and keep their businesses and schools open, the Thickes are taking part in a new dialogue between farmers and institutional food buyers that is opening doors and new opportunities for revitalizing rural communities.
With a grant from Farm Aid, the Iowa Farmers Union has begun organizing a series of gatherings across Iowa, bringing together local farmers, like the Thickes, and potential commercial and institutional food buyers such as school districts, restaurants, grocery stores, and hospitals.
“The real purpose of the meeting is to get producers and buyers in the same room to meet and hear what each other has to offer,” says Leigh Adcock, education director of the Iowa Farmers Union. “Establishing a direct relationship is the first step toward opening new markets for farmers.”
Ironically, despite some of the best farmland in the world, locally grown fresh fruits, produce and dairy products are hard to find in rural Iowa. After decades of following the large-scale industrial agricultural model, and its mantra of “Get Big or Get Out,” Iowa farms are larger, fewer and much less diversified. Corn and soybean fields stretch from horizon to horizon. Local food production and processing has largely disappeared, creating enormous challenges to rebuild re-build Iowa’s local food system.
“Iowa’s local food infrastructure has been wiped out,” added Leigh Adcock. “We’re a bit behind the curve, but we’re committed to bringing together food producers and food buyers because we see so much opportunity.”
As members of the Iowa Farmers Union, Francis and Susan find time in their busy days to participate in the meetings and explain to both fellow producers and buyers how direct marketing has affected their farm operation.
As the owners of Radiance Dairy, Francis and Susan are optimistic about the future of the local movement. With 65 Jersey cows and 236 acres of pasture, Francis and Susan have pioneered direct marketing of organic dairy products in Iowa, bottling and selling their milk, cheese, yogurt and cream to customers, three local grocery stores, twelve restaurants and a university.
“By selling directly to our customers, retailers and institutional food buyers, we capture more of the profit than dairies that sell to large processors,” said Francis. “As consumer interest grows in where, how, and by whom food is produced, this is the time for farmers to develop direct marketing relationships – that’s how farmers are able to make a profit and stay in business.”