I am so proud to live in a part of the country where a rising consciousness of agricultural practices and a love of food coalesce.
The system here between farmers, restaurateurs, and eaters is strong, and growing. Chefs (like Kurt Friese and Matt Steigerwald) support local farmers by featuring their ingredients in seasonally-inspired dishes. (You probably won't find a tomato at either place this time of year.)
Local farmers invest in specialty products that meet a demand from the chefs and eaters alike. It's not common to find a local supplier of elk meat, which is very healthy, but you can get it at Wildlife Lakes. You can also get grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork directly from fifth-generation farmer Steve Rodgers at Highland Vista Farms. (Heck, they'll let you wander onto the farm and meet the animals if you want.)
We are also very close to the absolutely fantastic Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that preserves our agricultural heritage by storing, cataloging, and distributing seeds for heirloom varieties that are non-existent elsewhere. (I am totally going to the conference and campout this year!!)
These bright hard-workers keep plugging along, doing great things year round largely undisturbed. However, every once in a while, legislators on various levels stick their noses into this neat system and, often through misunderstanding, threaten to derail the progress that has been made. Luckily, the strong system usually holds up and rights the major wrongs. A great example of the strength of this system and of how it can only function with the support of the people is the recent case of ZJ Farms in Solon.
Meet Susan Jutz, owner of ZJ Farms. (photo from their website)
If you care to read the details of the conflict, you can find them here and here.
Essentially, there is a provision in Johnson County zoning regulations that is intended to prevent non-agricultural affairs from interfering with real agricultural work by requiring a permit for activities deemed "non-agricultural" on land deemed agricultural. While its intention is noble, a recent ruling by the the zoning board turned this regulation on its head and actually threatened agricultural progress on ZJ Farms.
At issue is the farm's annual tour which allows visitors to see the farm and its animals. The tour was judged to be non-agricultural by the board, and thus the farm would be required to get a permit for each event as well as treat its gravel road, both at great cost. Upon the board's ruling, the owners of the farm appealed and sought community support on the basis that these tours are in fact agricultural because they educate consumers as well as promote the farm's CSA program.
The farm was met with an outpouring of support from friends, family, farmers, and the surrounding community. The ruling was overturned five to none, and the farm is allowed to have its annual tour without issue.
This event has great significance for eaters in Iowa. It is a reminder that the suppliers of our food are always under pressure, that our system is unfortunately structured around commercial agriculture, and that local agriculture cannot thrive (or even survive) without significant support from the community.
I'm posting to stress the importance of staying informed about your local food supply and being committed to supporting the people who work hard every day to supply us with healthy food. One of the best ways for you to support your local farmer is to get a CSA.
When trying to control my food supply, I chose to go the route of growing as much of my own food as possible. I'm lucky enough to have arable land next to my house. If you can't grow your own food, or don't care for the significant commitment of gardening, shopping at the farmer's market is the next best thing. Going to the market each week and choosing what you'd like from each vendor gives you the flexibility to plan your meals ahead and pick the best of each item. That said, a fantastic alternative that has the added benefit of supporting a specific farm is a share of a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. When you buy a share of a CSA, you are investing in that farm. At the beginning of the season you buy a share of that year's harvest. Each week, the farm puts together shares with vegetables, eggs, bread, and other products. You can have the share delivered or you can pick it up at the farmer's market. Essentially you are making a financial commitment to the farm to support them regardless of the product. So if the spinach harvest isn't great, you don't get much spinach. If the squashes take over, you get plenty of them. This is an opportunity to put a face on your food (as the Japanese say) and to extend the kind of support farmers need.
Whichever route you choose, I encourage you to be more thoughtful in your food choices and more conscious of the food producers in your area. These people are doing what needs to be done, and they deserve our support.
Find a CSA
Find a farmer's market
Iowa State Extension Office for all sorts of agricultural news.
Johnson County Planning and Zoning Board
Check out your local farms, and keep them at the front of your mind.