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Creating local foods niches

By Staff | Oct 9, 2009

Marshalltown Community College ag students Garrett Caryl and Mary O'Dell examine a late-planted soybean plant that was struggling amidst a field of winter rye that never fully died off during the growing season. The are both studying entrepreneurial and sustainable agriculture.

(Editor’s note: An effort to develop a local foods system is underway in Marshall County. If successful, it could be the model for future Iowa systems. The following is the first in a three-part series in cooperation with the Marshalltown Times-Republican.)

MARSHALLTOWN Iowa farmers are often said to be “feeding the world,” but a cadre of would-be commercial farmers in Marshall County have a desire to feed people in their own community.

Four students from Marshalltown Community College have four different paths they are taking to reach a common goal to earn a living by growing food and by raising meat and dairy animals for consumers who live in nearby communities.

Their path to the goal leads through a two-year degreed program – Entrepreneurial and Diversified Agriculture – at Marshalltown Community College.

Linda Barnes, who created the MCC course in 2003 and continues to teach it, said “We’re helping to train farmers to provide the growing demand for local foods.”

-Farm News photo by Larry Kershner Marshalltown Community College ag students Garrett caryl and Jacque Rhodes share a brief moment by the college's Oliver tractor, near the farm fields where various crop trials are being held on campus.

Caite Grieshop, of Ames, grew up on a hobby farm near Ames. As an adult and in her second year of the program, she hopes to create a way to plug into providing food to local families. Currently, she has Katahdin hair sheep on her 6.5-acre farm and wants to expand into dairy goats and laying hens.

Garret Caryl, 20, of Colo, is a certified welder and helped to erect the wind turbines around his hometown. He is in his second year in the course. His plans are to expand his direct marketing business he has with Birkshire hogs and poultry, plus add a welding business as an additional income source.

Jacque Rhodes, of Marshalltown, said she has no background in farming, except that she worked for three years for a nearby pork producer. She is hoping to eventually start a fish farm, possibly raising organic catfish. “You never hear of organic fish,” she said. “I hope there’s a market.”

Mary O’Dell, of Kellogg, lost her job, along with her husband, when the Maytag plant shut down in 2007. Although she owns no farm land, this city girl wants to raise pigs, goats, cattle and poultry “in a sustainable way,” she said. She hopes to sell her meat products locally. Her husband is taking courses in ag machinery repair and maintenance.

All have different backgrounds, but they share a common belief that sustainable agriculture is the farming method of the future. They believe in it and want to participate in it.

Sustainable agriculture is sometimes confused with natural farming or organic farming. Although it can include those, sustainable ag simply refers to the ability of a farm to produce farm products without causing severe or irreversible damage to ecosystem health.

The MCC course they are studying is part of a widespread local food initiative in Marshall County that includes encouraging people with a passion for producing nutritious food for local markets. Barnes’ course attempts to move them from desire to empowerment to pursue their food-producing goals.

Barnes said there are three key components to the 10-subject curriculum. These include:

  • Issues of sustainable agriculture. This is key in understanding farming and how it relates to local food systems, Barnes explained.
  • Applied systems thinking. “This helps them to see the whole as a working system.” Barnes said that on her own farm, every asset has to serve three purposes “or else you aren’t integrated enough.” Our sheep fertilize the gardens, keep the grass down between the buildings and provide revenue from meat and tanned hides.”

She one Japanese farmer was known to cut his rice production inputs down by adding ducks, which fertilized the rice, ate rice-attacking insects and laid eggs which he sold. He later added fish, which kept nutrients stirred up, making for healthier rice and the fish were sold as well.

“Every property and every system will be different,” Barnes said.

  • Internships. Students have a chance to work in an ag industry in which they are interested, seeing how different operations work in the field.

Caite Grieshop, who is an Iowa volunteer coordinator for Heifer International, has a culinary arts background and said she wants to help people connect with the foods they eat. She hopes to eventually create a year-round farmers market, with an online format.

She said MCC’s course has helped her to see that successful food-growing systems start from the ground up. This includes learning that she can find soil profiles on her farm ground and understand why some crops grow better in some areas. “This will help me improve my production without trial and error,” Grieshop said.

“I get my money’s worth here.”

She’s also learned that because she feed grass only to her sheep, she has traded some market weight in exchange for a lower feed bill – a trade she said she is happy to make.

The course includes visits from farmers who have switched to sustainable programs in some or all of their operations. Garrett Caryl said the guest presenters helped him understand how to raise his livestock without antibiotics, unless his animals are ill.

“I don’t have organic livestock,” Caryl noted, “but I hope to work in some organic stock, too.”

Unafraid of voicing his convictions, Caryl said he has considered raising livestock for natural food processors like Niman Ranch, based in San Francisco. “But I don’t think food should have to travel over 60 miles.” Selling locally, he added, “Burns fewer fossil fuels from producer to the plate.”

Caryl and Grieshop agree that organic and natural food products are an easier sell to urban dwellers. “In the rural areas,” Caryl said, “you have to sell taste, not organic.”

He said he thinks it’s a reasonable expectation to accept a 10 percent yield drag with organic crop management, than by conventional farming techniques, but also expects that organic farming requires less input costs.

When asked how he responds to the argument that the world would starve if all farmers went organic, he simply said, “I feel that organic farming can feed local people.”

Grieshop also hopped onto the opinion wagon and said that America could revamp its health care system “if we all ate organically.” In addition, she’s convinced the world’s demand for corn cannot be met long term if it continues to be used for biofuels and corn syrup.

Mary O’Dell graduates from the two-year course in December and hopes to embark on her new career after losing her 14-year job at Maytag. “I want to grow sustainably and to sell (food) locally.”

O’Dell said that since she was a child she wanted to work with animals. But her job with Maytag became “a trap,” she said, “because the pay was too good to quit.”

Her inlaws, she added, are in their 70s and 80s and still farm. She sees agriculture as her new direction that will sustain her and her husband for years to come.

Through farm internships, and guest speakers, O’Dell said she has met many people “who have taught me what I have to do to get there.

“And I like the idea of raising animals in a better way.” She defined her “better way” as producing meat animals, most likely swine, not in confinement buildings.

The students say they understand there is resistance in the Iowa farming culture for what they want to do.

“It’s just a different way of doing things,” O’Dell said.

The best revenge against detractors, added Grieshop, “is to do it and make money at it.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515)573-2141, ext. 453, or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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