Iowa farmers try specialty crops to tap into new markets
Earlier in the week, Josh Nelson was planting soybeans on his family’s farm near Belmond. But the next day, Nelson was planting green peppers, punching the seedlings through rows of weed-control plastic on his one-half-acre vegetable plot.
Nelson says he is seeing more interest among row-crop and livestock farmers like himself in expanding beyond commodity agriculture, especially now with the growing consumer demand for local foods.
Down the gravel road, a neighbor has planted grapevines along a fence row. Several local farmers are growing aronia berries, a native fruit. And Nelson’s uncle is growing barley and hops, potentially to tap into the local craft beer scene.
"I feel like there are a lot of commodity guys interested (in local foods)," Nelson says. "Whether it’s grass-fed beef, locally raised beef, we’ve got guys in the area who are doing that. I see people putting up high tunnels (greenhouses).
"They’re trying different things because they are tired of low commodity prices and these weird super-cycles where you are making money hand-over-fist one year and then barely breaking even the next. We’ve got to find new ways to capitalize on the ag economy."
Nelson currently farms with his dad, two uncles and a cousin near Belmond in northern Iowa. The family grows corn and soybeans and operates two, 2,400-head hog-finishing barns.
Before coming back home to farm in 2012, Nelson worked as a newspaper reporter in Springfield, Missouri. Several of his friends there were ranchers, which sparked his interest in returning to Iowa to raise cattle.
Yet Nelson says cattle production costs in north-central Iowa were too high to overcome as a beginning farmer.
Trying new things
Always open to new ideas, Nelson attended workshops through Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) to learn more about planting cover crops.
It was through PFI that Nelson met a group of north Iowa vegetable growers, including long-time farmers Jan Libbey and Tim Landgraf of One Step at a Time Gardens near Kanawha.
Libbey invited Nelson to start growing vegetables for North Iowa Fresh, a new farmer-led cooperative that supplies locally grown vegetables wholesale to grocery stores, restaurants and specialty food retailers.
"I had always been interested in other forms of agriculture," Nelson says. "Especially when I was in the Ozarks, row crop (production) doesn’t exist down there, and there is a pretty vibrant local foods scene."
Seeing an opportunity to diversify his farm income, Nelson tilled a sunny spot behind his parent’s old cattle shed and started growing vegetables for North Iowa Fresh last spring. He plans to build a high-tunnel greenhouse later this summer to extend his growing season.
"It was just me, coming to that same realization that I was hungry for something else besides corn and beans just to supplement the farm and spread the risk. We’re never going to beat row crops, but we can make a decent living at it," Nelson says.
Building a market
"The problem I have is that you actually have to build a market along with your business, and it’s slow."
North Iowa Fresh is helping local growers tap into larger markets than they could supply on their own.
Nelson now serves as vice president of North Iowa Fresh. The cooperative includes 10 growers stretching across nine counties in north-central Iowa.
The co-op sells its locally grown produce to the Hy-Vee grocery store in western Mason City and Bill’s Family Foods in Forest City and Garner, plus a handful of area restaurants. One of these restaurants, the Belmond Drive-In, won Iowa’s best pork tenderloin contest last fall.
North Iowa Fresh hired a full-time broker to work with retail and restaurant customers to match their needs with what’s available from the growers.
New this year, North Iowa Fresh has partnered with Opportunity Village in Clear Lake, an organization that provides employment opportunities for those with disabilities.
Opportunity Village serves as a collection site for the local growers. There, the employees and volunteers wash and package the produce for delivery to the grocery stores and restaurants.
Nelson says his kale crop continually sold out at the Mason City Hy-Vee store last summer. So he planted even more kale this year.
Green beans also proved to be a top seller for North Iowa Fresh. Almost all the growers have planted more green beans this summer.
"It’s become a pretty good market," Nelson says. "We are competing with big sellers, but because we have the economy of scale of having several growers who are small but can pool together, I feel like we have the ability to compete.
"And we have a massive variety of products. And the quality is better. I can’t stress that enough ... The (Belmond) Drive-In quit buying tomatoes during the summer (through their foodservice supplier) because ours were always better."
Not just a fad
And from what Nelson has heard from retail customers, local foods aren’t just a fad. Consumers today want a connection to the farmers, and they want to know more about how their food is grown and raised, Nelson says.
"The discussions we have had with Hy-Vee and their interest, you see (local foods) on the TV constantly, you see it everywhere," Nelson says.
Nelson says there was also a lot of interest in local foods among his fellow commodity farmers when he participated in Iowa Farm Bureau’s Ag Leaders Institute last year.
"You’ve got these guys who are conservative corn and soybean farmers, and they are skeptical of everything, but they are kind of getting into this (local foods) world," Nelson says. "Afterwards, they all came over and talked to me and said: How do you get into this? And if they are asking questions, I think they see there is something in it."
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