“Over the past four years momentum has grown for sustainable agriculture” Angie Nelson said as part of the introduction to the meeting for interested people in the County of Marshall to start joining forces for localizing the food economy. The meeting was held in the Community College in Marshalltown and it was entitled ‘Finding Food in Marshall County’. It is one out of three meetings during the summer to build partnership and engagement for establishing a local food infrastructure. Invited speaker Ken Meter of Crossroads Research Center gave a very revealing overview of Marshall county, Iowa and US food economy through lots of figures and tables (see also his website for more details). Marshall county is one of the 99 counties of Iowa, with 39.000 residents and 928 farms on a total of 92.856 farms in Iowa (2007).
He convincingly showed how bankrupt the current monoculture commodities agro-industry is and how, corrected for inflation, there is no progress in farm income since 1969. The main commodities in Marshall county and Iowa in general are corn, soybean and hog production.
From census data, Ken showed that for Marshall county the total farming income was 175 million dollar, with 171 million dollar going to costs, leaving 4 million dollars income from farming, a positive figure because of a good year 2007, in 2002 it would have been negative. Other income (rents) counted for 11 million dollar. However, the biggest income source was subsidies, with 80% of the farmers receiving 18 million of farm subsidies in 2007. He also estimated that as much as 90 million dollar of the 104 million dollar Marshall county consumers spend on food is going to food from outside the county, bought in one of the 5 big groceries which have 49% market share nationally (Wall Mart as market leader). In total, he estimated that 166 million dollar is leaving the county each year through the current system of placeless production and consumption. He questioned why farmers are given subsidies to keep on farming while money leeks out of the community to the big corporations that are in the middle; the farm input industry and the retail industry and made a plea for localizing the food economy.
It is not the first time while being here that the strong emphasis on ‘local’ and on ‘community’ as part of the solution towards sustainable forms of agriculture strikes me. However, driving around in this state and looking at these figures, you get a sense of the overwhelming dominance of this industrial agro-food system, the vastness of its scale and the high level of vertical chain integration. In the heart of rural America, food production is an anonymous business with land purely as one of the production factors rather than as a meaningful connection to people and food. In constructing the practice and discourse of sustainable agriculture, therefore, scale matters a lot in this context. A more sustainable agriculture here also means a more humane agriculture, a more humane scale, through which people are able to relate to the food they eat. Only 43 acre (13 farms) is registered in use for producing vegetables together with 25 acre of farm orchards. No doubt there is grown a bit more than this in gardens and small unregistered farms but there seems to be room for locally grown fresh produce in Marshall County and Iowa without amounting to the size of one single agro-food industry farm, let alone ‘threatening’ the industry as a whole.