Thursday, May 14, 2015

Iowa county's economic strategy: help local farmers grow different crops and expand sales

Pottawattamie County, Iowa, with just under 100,000 residents and thousands of acres of farmland, may not be a place that comes to mind when one is looking for a hub of innovative regional economic development, but that is what the county has become in the past several years. The county has "collaborated with towns and cities beyond its borders to boost the reach of its local farmers and to foster a different kind of agricultural sector that grows fruits and vegetables for its own residents to buy and eat," Nancy Cook writes for the National Journal. "It has worked to train the next generation of farmers and to help existing farms with small-business coaching.

According to the National Association of Counties, the end goal of the collaboration is for Pottawattamie and its partners to combine economic efforts to create a stronger economic region than they could establish individually. One of their strategies was to change the type of farming from large and industrialized to small operations growing food for local people to keep the money in the state.

 In 2005, a group of longtime farmers gathered to discuss the future of farming. After a series of meetings, the Southwest Iowa Food and Farm Initiative was born. The group now works in education and outreach, helping farmers learn more about business through workshops and coaching and connecting farmers to farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture networks, Cook writes. The group also found and mentored promising young farmers, hoping they would stay in the area.

"If you go to a grocery store, you're buying produce from California and South America," said Lance Brisbios, project coordinator at the Golden Hills Resource Conservation & Development, the nonprofit that runs SWIFFI. SWIFFI is trying to change that by encouraging farmers to sell produce to local restaurants, schools and hospitals.

Denise O'Brien, owner of Rolling Acres Farm, was one of the original farmers who helped establish the group. She said the area is seeing the results of the efforts to influence people to buy and sell locally. "Chefs want to take our food, and we're taking our produce in today for community-supported agriculture."

"The county has created new market for fresh fruits and veggies and new jobs for county residents," Cook writes. "That's a much different economic portrait for a rural county once just rooted in corn and soybeans. (Read more)

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