Iowa 9th in organic farming


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Iowa could be getting a bad reputation for its organic growing practices, some state officials said.

Though a large portion of Iowa’s organic products are sold to wholesale markets — typically out-of-state — more Iowans are growing and purchasing locally.

Iowa ranks ninth in the nation for number of organic farms but sells under 4 percent of those goods directly to retailers, according to a recent yearlong survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the majority of the state’s organic products are soybean and corn, which are often sold to processors, distributors, or other wholesale markets, said Maury Wills, the organic program administrator at the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

There’s still a calling for locally grown organic food as well as a strong local network in which to sell it, he noted.

Tammy Stotts, marketing specialist for the Iowa Department of Agriculture, said the demand is rising.

“The market for organic is excellent, and it continues to increase,” she said.

Bob Braverman, the operator of Friendly Farms, said he insists on selling locally. In fact, Friendly Farms doesn’t sell any of its products outside the Iowa City/Coralville area. Braverman said the practice is better both for the economy and the environment.

“We want to sell our food as close to the farm as we possible can,” he said.

James Nisly, the owner of Organic Greens LLC, sells his mini greens and microgreens to local outlets such as the New Pioneer Co-op, 22 S. Van Buren St. He said being local was essential for him when he began.

“It really requires a personal relationship to start selling a new product in the marketplace,” he said.

And growers are not the only people feeding the trend.

Some restaurant owners are seeing a higher demand for locally grown foods, said Kim McWane Friese, general manager and co-owner of Devotay, 117 N. Linn St.

“There are enough people locally looking for this that we need more local farmers,” McWane Friese said.

Even so, selling locally may not be beneficial for all farmers.

Grass Run Farm sells most of its 100 percent grass-fed beef and all-natural confinement free pork in Iowa and Minnesota — though the meat is not certified organic. Ryan Jepsen, one of the founders of Grass Run Farm, said for large organic farms it becomes difficult to sell just in the state.

“Once you get to any sort of scale, you have to export your product,” he said.

For the farmers who do succeed locally, Wills said, the reason for their success is the number of resources they find in their communities — such as community-supported agriculture, which allows customers to pay money up front and get a weekly box of vegetables.

“There’s a strong local food network in the state,” Wills said.

Shelby Elliott took advantage of that network three years ago, when she began shopping organically for health and environmental reasons.

Now, the 25-year-old preschool teacher has another concern on the forefront of her mind: buying locally.

“I’ve learned organic can come from everywhere but what’s most important is the vicinity,” she said while shopping in the New Pioneer Co-Op last week.

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