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Creating homegrown food markets

By Staff | Oct 16, 2009

Norm McCoy peels back the husk of an ear of white corn that showed extensive aborted tip kernels, due to the cold-shortened growing season.

(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 second in a three-part series in cooperation with the Marshalltown Times-Republican.)

By LARRY KERSHNER

Farm News news editor

MARSHALLTOWN Latino restaurants and grocery stores in this county seat community in Marshall County prefer to make their own tortillas. But when a local supplier in Tama went out of businesses two years ago, these tiendas started looking elsewhere for their white corn supplies.

Jesus Gaytan, who owns Gaytan Tortilleria,” now travels to Chicago to get his white corn and other food supplies, but said that he would prefer to buy locally, if the food was available. He needs an estimated 600 to 1,200 bushels of white corn annually.

Two different varieties of early-season white corn. The colored kernels shows the influence of the varieties' heritage genetics.

Enter Marshalltown Community College and several other organizations determined to help Gaytan and other local businesses with fulfilling their local food needs.

“If we can do this right,” said Norm McCoy, director of the Midwest Center for Entrepreneurial Agriculture at MCC, “(locally grown white corn) would give him another marketing angle for his customers.”

Among a number of other efforts, the college, under the direction of McCoy, ran a series of white corn trials, trying to determine which corn variety works best in Iowa’s cooler soils. White corn is not only a staple for tortillas, but for other dishes, such as hominy used for menudo, a Latino soup.

McCoy also supervises the certified organic food plots the college rents to community people for growing their own produce and for selling at farmers markets. He has planted nut trees and other crops for a variety of different organizations that are involved in Marshalltown’ local foods initiative.

The college is also building a certified, organic-foods processing facility, where produce can be washed and bulk packaged according to end users’ needs, McCoy said. There are plans for greenhouses in the near future.

The new organic foods processing facility, touted as a small business incubator for the local foods initiative in marshalltown, is expected to be completed in late October. The facility is provide a space for local foods to be cleaned and processed for local sale. Producers can also use the space to add value to make additional products such as jam, jelly, salsa, tomato sauce and soup.

Although all this is happening on the college campus, no college funds are directly involved, McCoy said. The trials, the gardens, the processing facility, even McCoy’s salary, are paid through grants and other outside sources.

Trials of white corn

McCoy said he volunteered to run the white corn trials for Iowa State University, in partnership with Practical Farmers of Iowa, this year. He received 19 varieties to plant in a series of four replications. Unfortunately, the college had determined to place a new cross-country course where McCoy intended to plant the trial plots. So his new site was a high ridge that overlooks U.S. Highway 30.

But things did not go as well as he had hoped.

Spring planting was delayed. The first varieties didn’t get planted until June, because those renting private plots needed to use the program’s manual planting equipment. Rains also kept planters out of the field and when fields were dry enough, tilling created large clods that interfered with uniformed spacing of the corn.

“Sometimes the wind blew so hard,” McCoy said, “it blew the seed away as it left the planter.” Conditions were so challenging, McCoy said, he reverted to planting many of the rows by hand in order to get the crop into the ground. The last of the eight-row trial plots were planted in mid-July.

Things got worse immediately, McCoy said, who is in his first year at MCC. Noting that there was a big difference in plant height, stalk sizes and development, he did some researching and discovered that the bulk of the trial plots were planted in a previous construction project’s dump site.

Add to these stresses deer browsing and damaging corn, weed and pest stresses since no spraying was allowed near the private organic plots, the high ridge location leaving the corn open to winds, a lack of volunteers during the summer to keep weeds under control, plus the damp and cold growing conditions of summer 2009 and you get what McCoy describes as “screwy yields.”

“This was a real poor year to try this,” McCoy said, adding that he hopes to get a second chance in 2010. If so, he intends to plant the trial plots in a more sheltered area on the south edge of the campus. “But I learned a lot.”

The need to find the right kind of white corn variety for local food processors is still there, he insists.

Tortillas need a minimum-sized kernel, the bigger the better, with a waxy coating that is easily removed with a lye solution. His trials were to determine yield, by variety and soil type, at varying plant populations, and recording any stalk lodging.

McCoy expects to harvest, shell and weigh the corn by hand this fall.

Unique opportunity

“We (Marshalltown) are unique to have the Latino population here,” McCoy said. “It’s hard to get them tied into the local food movement, because of communications and because they are not fully integrated into the local culture yet.”

This local food initiative has had intensive Latino interest and involvement since the early efforts to now. John Paulis, director of the Prairie Rivers Resource Conservation and Development, based in Ames, which is assisting in the overall project, said many of the immigrant population has an agrarian background and prefer to move out of the factories and packing plants and make their living on the soil.

“We want to tap into their knowledge and expertise,” McCoy said, in creating a series of local truck farms to bring human-food grade farming to the local populace.

“They (Latinos) have no pre-conceived ideas about farming,” McCoy said. “This is a local foods system waiting to happen.”

Incubator building

An organic foods processing facility, which is touted as a business incubator, is being built with assistance from a federal small business development grant of $250,000, and a matching grant from the Martha-Ellen Tye Foundation, based in Marshall County. Of this second grant, $100,000 can be used for equipment purchases.

One limiting factor to developing a functional local foods system, McCoy said, is the lack of a “community kitchen,” where fresh produce can be washed and packaged, or be subject to value-added processes for specific end users.

McCoy said, for instance, if a grower were to contract to provide the Gaytan Tortilleria with white corn, the restaurant would want the corn in 50-bushel bags. There has to be a facility for such packaging and preparation before delivery.

The existence of a cooperative kitchen, McCoy said, that is certified by the government to be used for light processing of fresh produce, can help encourage dozens of small producers to start value-added businesses.

To assess exactly what the local demands for such a facility are, McCoy produced the results of a survey that received 37 responses, which included 31 from food producers and two from caterers.

Marshalltown features over 40 restaurants and about 20 regular vendors at farmers markets. The respondents said they were interested in using a cooperative kitchen for value-added products such as jam, jelly, salsa, tomato sauce and soup.

But to make the food processing facility happen, it requires the cooperation with MCC, the survey concluded, to cover cost of the land, including geothermal heating and cooling and a tax-exempt status.

Ground was broken for the facility on the campus in September. The building is expected to be available for use by late October, McCoy said.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 732-2141, ext. 453, or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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