Networks of Hope in the Heartland

I’ve long admired the elegant writing of Verlyn Klinkenborg in The New York Times, and so I was  pleased this week when he once again turned the focus of the editorial notebook to an agrarian matter, and offered an essay of hope.

“When I was born in 1952,” Klinkenborg wrote, “there were 203,000 farms in Iowa, only 11,000 fewer than when my dad was born in 1926. By 2002, the number had dropped to about 90,000, with roughly the same acreage in production.” He pointed out that national numbers followed the same track over recent decades: fewer and bigger farms, greater industrialization of our land and food.

indust1Industrialization of our land has yielded cheap food, but also a harvest of perverse consequences: shattered lives and communities, toxic land and water, dehumanizing mechanized work for men and women, and food of dubious quality.

But change is quietly afoot. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, some 4,000 new small farms have been created in Iowa since 2002. These are small farms, 9 acres or less, typically being run by young farmers, and bringing forth a wide array of crops.

“To me,” Klinkenborg observes, “this is where the new passion for local foods finds its real meaning, and the best news is that Iowa is not alone. Nationwide, there are some 300,000 new farms since 2002. And the farmers? More diverse than ever, including a higher number of women. This is a genuine source of hope for American agriculture.”

Groups across North America are spurring and supporting these kinds of healthy developments, and yielding a range of emerging models. Because they are helping to lead the way, three groups deserve acknowledgment, and emulation.

One is the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture (INCA), which cultivates networked connections to create healthy and fair local food systems that sustain food producers, consumers, and the environment

Another is the Northeast Food & Fitness Initiative, based in five Iowa counties. It’s one of nine projects supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in an effort to create models of change.

Under the aegis of the Food & Fitness project, planning teams from the five Counties meet monthly to determine local assets, learn about possibilities, and define their vision. Over 500 people from all sectors (including public health, education, agriculture, business, government, faith communities, parks and recreation) are engaged.

A third group, the Northeast Iowa Food & Farm Coalition has a mission of building a strong local food and farm economy by supporting the marketing, processing, and storage of locally grown agricultural products.

Similar groups across North America are quietly but steadily responsing to the unfolding economic and environmental realities, and to the call of the land.

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