This week, Iowa Environmental Focus sat down with Dr. Brandi Janssen, Clinical Assistant Professor in the UI College of Public Health’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, to discuss her multi-faceted research into local food in Iowa. A trained anthropologist, Dr. Janssen collects qualitative, ethnographic data about alternative, small-scale farming in Iowa to further understand what makes local food systems successful and safe. Janssen discusses some of her findings in her recently published book, Making Local Food Work: The Challenges and Opportunities of Today’s Small Farmers.
Jenna Ladd: Much of your work centers around local food. This is a big question, but why should Iowans care about making a local food system work?
Dr. Brandi Janssen: If you want an agricultural economy that’s diverse and actually supports Iowa then you have to have more than just commodity production. So, I think there are good economic opportunities, there are lots of job creation opportunities. People tend to focus on the farming piece of it, but I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for mid-scale processing and distribution. As things sort of scale-up, it’s sort of a chicken and an egg thing right now: Do you start the distribution without knowing that you have the supply or do you build up the supply and then try to find distribution for that? But I think there are enormous economic opportunities that will keep more money local, you know? So those small-scale processing and distribution opportunities, unlike a Cargill plant or whatever, are more likely to benefit the community. Plus, there is potential for diversified farming and opportunities for smaller-scale farmers so economically it makes a lot of sense.
We talk about agricultural sustainability and diversity and ag portfolio, and we should think about that both at the industry level and at the farm level and that’s one way to do it.
Jenna Ladd: You published a book recently, Making Local Food Work: The Challenges and Opportunities of Today’s Small Farmers, you know what your book is called [laughs]. What were you aiming to communicate with that publication?
Dr. Brandi Janssen: What I realized when I was doing the research was that there is so much that happens between the farmer and the consumer. The local food conversation tends to focus on one of those two parties, either consumers who are doing this wonderful and altruistic thing by buying local food. You know, we stroke the consumer a lot by telling them how great they are for being local food buyers. Or the farmer and the “know your farmer” rhetoric and this kind of, when the two meet it’s this magical relationship and it’s going to solve all of our problems and I don’t…have a lot of patience actually for that type of rhetoric [laughs].
So, what I realized was that there was so much going on in between and behind the scenes even before you get to the farmers market. If you’re a producer, you’re dealing with labor, either your own or somebody else’s or volunteer labor, which is its own ball of wax in and of itself. You have regulations at the market. If you’re dealing with meat or dairy, you have all of these inspectors to help you get your product from point A to point B, to make sure that it’s safe and complies to all the regulatory standards. So, there’s just so much beyond the farmer-consumer interaction. We talk about local foods systems, but then it devolves into this discussion of the direct market relationship, and I think there’s a lot more going on. It’s not as direct as it looks.
Jenna Ladd: If you had to name an intended audience, who do you want to read your book?
Janssen: That’s a good question. Of course, I want everyone to read it, and everyone to go out and buy it and all that! I’m supposed to market it. [laughs]
I guess I have a couple audiences in mind. I’m an anthropologist by training so really when I started the book, I wanted it to be appropriate for undergraduates in anthropology. I wanted them to understand what you can do with anthropological methods right in your own community; you don’t have to go off to some exotic place to the work that we do. That’s still an important audience.
There are a lot of players for lack of a better word. I mean, there are a lot of people in the system and a lot of particularly young people who want to enhance the system and make it better, but when you walk into the co-op and all you see are pictures of farmers, you think, “Boy, but I can’t afford land in Iowa because it’s absurdly expensive, how can I contribute to this system?” I hope that understanding all of the intricacies of the bigger system, people find a place in it, you know? There are lots of other roles that are just as important. I hope that it can be a useful book for that population as well. And then, in general, kind of the foodie. There are lots of people reading books about food and agriculture right now, which is a great thing. That’s super exciting, so any of that interested population, I hope that it would be a useful or informative or…not a terrible read hopefully. [laughs]
JL: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a good goal. No, I like that a lot though because for a lot of my peers, their dream is to own land in Iowa. Everybody wants to be a small-scale farmer, which is great, but maybe not always realistic. So kind of seeing, maybe you could be the person that adds value to a product or processes food or transports it. Yeah, you can be a different kind of player to make the whole thing go.
Janssen: Yeah, and it’s just as important. The marketing angle and the focus on farmers is actually an unfortunate piece of local food. Boy, it feels like blasphemy in Iowa to sit here and say we should not focus on the farmer so much because that’s what we do here, but the reality is we shouldn’t. The truck-driver and the distributer and the butcher should be on the co-op walls and not just the three farmers who were willing to go to the photo shoot.
JL: I haven’t read the book yet, but from my understanding it kind of debunks some myths about the local food system. I think you mentioned some of them already, what are some other ones that you discuss?
Janssen: Maybe the other big one, if we want to call it myth-debunking, is the interaction between commodity farmers and local food farmers in the state. So kind of at the high-level, you know if you read mass media and journalism, attention gives them a hook so they like the “little guy is going up against corporate ag” [narrative]. It’s combative, like you’re either a commodity farmer and you’re destroying the environment or you’re a local food farmer and everything is sort of copacetic, right? So, what I found though, when I was talking to farmers, was that they work a lot with their neighbors. They interact usually pretty positively with their commodity farming neighbors. They use their equipment, they use their expertise. I mean, there are sometimes issues, pesticide spray drift is probably the big one that causes problems, but overall I think most farmers see ag as sort of a series of strategies that you use to an economic or an environmental end, right? So, almost all farmers are mixing various strategies. I mean, there are commodity farmers that do a small CSA (community-supported agriculture).
There’s a farmer story I tell that I like a lot. There’s a farmer, he’s had organic grains for over ten years but put up a Sara Lee contract turkey barn so that he could use the bedding for nitrogen for his organic row crops. Most of his organic grains go to Silk, the soy milk company, or they go to the local feed mill for organic livestock feed. So, you don’t always think of those organic markets as being enhanced by a Sara Lee barn, but that’s an interesting way to blend two completely different strategies on one farm. So, I think on the ground things are much less combative than they appear to be when you read the sort of, the Farm Bureau “Criticism of Ag is Our Biggest Problem on One Hand” and kind of, the “We’ve Got to Destroy the Corporate Ag System” on the other. That’s not really how the conversation looks in rural neighborhoods.
JL: Soil erosion and water quality problems related to agriculture have been really hot-button issues lately in Iowa. In your research, have you noticed a trend toward more diversified farms or a trend away from that?
Janssen: So, from a crop standpoint, people are still doing corn-and-soy-corn-and-soy, maybe they used to have hogs and they got out of hogs in the nineties and now they’re just doing row crop. But we are seeing, even though the numbers overall are really, really small, it’s a tiny percentage of land that’s in cover crop, we are seeing growth in that area. So it’s like, it’s not necessarily diversifying the products that are grown for sale, but it’s diversifying the practice and changing the practice so that, essentially you’ve got more ground cover through more of the year. That’s the short answer to it, ya know? So, the cover crop thing is evidence that we’re thinking about changing practices in a way that does diversify farms, just not really in the traditional sense. But it’s slow. I think people are kind of excited about it, but I’m a little more like, “Well, we’re not getting too far yet so let’s see how it’s going.” I did meet a number of farmers who did commodity crops who were adding [diversity], especially after the 2008 shift in the Farm Bill that loosened up the restrictions. It used to be if you had so many base acres in corn, you couldn’t do vegetable production…That changed I think in 2008, so since then, I’ve talked to a number of commodity farmers who were also saying, “Well, maybe ya do a vegetable operation, or a pumpkin patch or some kind of agro-tourism.” So in that way, I think. You know, I couldn’t give you statewide numbers if we’re really seeing a shift, but anecdotally at least, yeah, people are thinking about it.
JL: My next question was going to be about pushes people over the edge to make the decision to diversify their farms, and it sounds like you’re saying a lot of it depends on the Farm Bill and national policies that govern farms.
Janssen: Yeah, I think if you ever ask yourself, “Does policy change behavior?” All you have to do is look at the Farm Bill and then look out your Iowa window. [laughs] It’s a clear yes, it can change behavior. When people have more flexibility in the farm program, they seem to go for it, ya know? People are seeing that a small vegetable operation is a nice, profitable strategy.
JL: So, you direct I-CASH. What about the relationship between local food and farm safety?
Janssen: Oh, that’s a good question, and I don’t think that that’s one that we’ve really asked or answered too well. Right after I started this job I had a funny conversation with a relatively new CSA grower and I was telling him about the job. I said, “You know, the center (I-CASH) historically has really worked with big commodity farmers, but I think we should be working more with the local food and the alternative producers.” He looked at me and he said, “Well, what could hurt you on a vegetable farm?” [laughs] I said, “Do you have tractor?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Does it have a roll bar?” He said, “No.” I said, “I’m much more worried about you than some guy who is in his combine all day.”
You know, so there are a couple ways. First of all, I think we have a tendency to associate what we perceive as the health and safety of the food with the workplace as well. You know, these local food farms tend to be set apart as these, kind of, “other.” You mentioned the romanticizing of farming in general, and I think that’s certainly true. You forget that you’re dealing with real equipment, organic farming is not chemical-free, you’re using particularly a lot of disinfectants and sanitizers that can cause all sorts of problems, the equipment, the livestock, etc. It’s just as dangerous as a big farm.
I came into this job knowing a lot more about farmer behavior as it related to environmental practices. I didn’t really come in with an expertise in farm safety particularly, but I think those conversations are really parallel. In both situations you have a system that lacks a lot of regulatory oversight, both environmentally and with safety practices. You know, farms are not regulated by OSHA like factories are so you have to think about, “How do we change individual behavior?” As I stay in contact with my environmentally-focused colleagues, we’re kind of having the same conversations just about different topics, but the framework is very similar. This is a population we’ve ignored. It overlaps quite a bit.
JL: Yeah, there seems to be a need for more regulation, especially if you think about maybe people of a lower socioeconomic status or people who don’t have citizen status in the U.S. who are working on farms. People don’t have an out in those situations, and you know, they just need to make money.
Janssen: Right, it’s easy to make it exploitative and the whole push to volunteer labor in local food is a bit a blind spot too. It can be problematic. I mean, I appreciate particularly young people who want to learn more about farming and it’s a good way to do it, but it also doesn’t do much for anybody economically. If these jobs are supposed to be the better jobs then they shouldn’t be just for people who are privileged enough to be able to do them for free. They should also go to people who need the work and are also invested and going to stick around in the area. So, it’s kind of a double-edged sword, I guess, depends on how you look at it.
JL: On that same note, accessing local food can be difficult for some people, particularly those with fewer resources. How can a local food system address food equity issues?
Janssen: That’s a hard one. I can speak to this locally more than from a big picture, I think. You know, people want to do the right thing. It’s not like the local food movement doesn’t want to make this happen, but it’s been a little slow to start. There’s been a lot of emphasis on cost, which makes sense. There is tension between farmers making money and making food affordable. It’s absolutely true that we spend less of our take home dollar on food than lots of other things, blah-blah-blah. It’s a perfectly reasonable conversation about what the real cost of food should be. Should it be higher? But then you have this population for whom that would be catastrophic.
Again, it’s about thinking about the whole system. It’s not just thinking about the cost but also about where is it located. There is one project that I thought was really effective. Well, we’ll see because we just got it up and off the ground. So, Local Foods Connection, which I was involved with while it was here in Iowa City, now it’s in Grinnell, they started doing farm stands at the Neighborhood Centers in Johnson County. Like on a Thursday afternoon, they do a little farm stand. Purchase, not ask for donations, but purchase basically wholesale from farmers and they would often give a lot of their overage if they had extras. They would sort of just throw stuff on top. So you’re actually selling food, it’s not a donation situation, but you’re selling it at a small market at a place where people are going anyway to pick up their kids and so it’s easy for them, as opposed to saying “Oh, well we’ve got SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) at the farmers market therefore, we’ve solved all of our access problems.” [laughs] Because the other piece of it is about farmers markets and their inaccessibility: they’re at times that maybe don’t work for working people, they’re sometimes not as inclusive as they think they are. They tend to be very white spaces, very middle class spaces. That [initiative], to me, ticks a lot of the boxes.
You know, it’s not just that it’s affordable but is it physically accessible? Can people get to it in a way, you know, not just actually getting there but that they feel comfortable when they are there, they’re with their own neighbors, in a community that they’re comfortable with. That’s where I think institutional purchasing can go a long way. You think about rural care facilities, many of them are pretty low budget operations. This is not where wealthy people always go to live out the end of their lives. Or rural schools, they’re the same. These are systems where people have to eat every day and they have to feed them.
One story I tell in the book is about sweet potatoes, which actually turned out to be a pretty good option for the school district. The farmer who grew the potatoes, he had an acre. He had basically a home-built planter and harvester. So you know, it was not hand labor, but he could sell certified organic sweet potatoes for about a dollar per pound. That was completely within the reach of the school district, but that only works if you are willing to grow a full acre of potatoes and specialize in it a little bit.
When I quoted that price to another farmer who has a CSA, I had the sense that I actually offended her by suggesting such a low cost. Well, if you dig your potatoes with a pitchfork, you’re never going to be able to have a price point that is accessible to an institution where you still make money. He makes money on the sweet potatoes. That’s probably a $40,000 acre, that’s a lot of money.
That’s probably a pretty windy answer, but it’s all the things! We have more to do.[laughs]