To eliminate our networking desert

How to share experiences with people working in establishing local food systems in other places? What is going on where? In Iowa, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, serves as a linking pin around building local food systems. Today I joined a meeting of the Regional Food Systems Working Group. This group is a Community of Practice of around a hundred people who meet four times a year to network, learn and share with other Iowans from all over the state, but today, there were also quite a few visitors from other states. Because it seems there is a lot going on in Iowa, compared to some other (Midwestern) states.

The Leopold center is a research and education center of ISU established under the Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 committed to systemic change in agriculture. Currently, there are three programs around the themes of marketing food systems, ecology and policy. Next to the center’s outreach through workshops, network meetings, seminars, and the like, it provides grants to researchers and educators of all Iowa universities and to private and nonprofit agencies throughout the state. These project grants, 33 this year, worth over 700.000 dollar in total, are a very important catalyst for furthering sustainable agriculture. Projects range from research on nitrogen management to improve water quality, developing alternative swine production systems, targeting perennial conservation practices, analysis of the value chain of local produce to targeting on-farm energy needs through renewable energy.

one of the fields on the Small Potatoes Farm

One of the fields on the Small Potatoes Farm

Today the center presented their ongoing work in local food. For example they are putting together a resource guide which will give an overview of all organizations and programs working in local food. We also reviewed a draft on local food procurement information about regulations around raw agricultural products. There are still a lot of myths and fears around the use of local raw agricultural products in commercial institutions, but there are no laws prohibiting direct sale from a producer to an institution.

The Community of Practice brings together various regional food initiatives. Those initiatives gave short presentations and updates on their activities before the more interactive sessions started. For example the Hometown Harvest initiative in Southeast Iowa started a feasibility study to come to a farmer owned food coop and announced a new website and logo. The Northern Iowa Food and Farming partnership shared their experience on how to set up local food distribution among various producers. And the Southwest Iowa Food and Farming Initiative is building a database mapping all local producers and potentially interested consumers as part of the first step in building a food system. The initiative in Marshall town, COMIDA also presented their ongoing work, for example their seminar with Ken Meter (see blog.)

These quarterly meetings are very important for the people working in the regional food initiatives. “I come here and hear about what others do which gives me new ideas” one of the participants said. “Sharing here is a big source of information” and, “things are changing fast now”. There is more acceptance nowadays, that whereas some continu to target the world, others actually want to feed their neighbor.