So far, Missouri Valley farmers and local food advocates have failed to organize sustainable food systems that offer healthy and affordable foods to ever-increasing numbers of low and moderate-income residents. Nor have we been able to rebuild our depleted soil, water and wildlife resources. However, farmers and food advocates are not to blame.
I trace these twin failures to top-down food industry and government policies that date from the depression and dust bowl days when government intervention was essential.
Today, in this age of income inequality, there is no doubt that we still need food safety nets. But, food stamps and food pantries are not enough. We need new systems thinking and local financing that supports large, local and regional food systems suited to the soils, cultures and climates of nearby cities.
Unfortunately, the old style top down thinking still prevails. As a result, experiments in local and regionally controlled (distributed) food systems receive only lip service from governments and the food industry.
This page offers an overall strategy for change and then explains the barriers to sustainable agriculture. The next page outlines our pasture-based business model.
Cattle are essential to transitioning from continuous grain production and confinement feeding to large-scale sustainable food systems. Their size allows them to quickly convert grass to high quality, edible protein – with little or no grain. Further, natural and organic beef and dairy farmers are in the best position to support the rebirth of fresh fruit and vegetable production in the Missouri Valley.
This means that Missouri Valley orchardists and gardeners can begin to compete with imported (non-local) organic fruit and vegetables by locating their operations on or close to transitional and organic beef and dairy operations. These farmers and ranchers are rebuilding depleted soil, water and wildlife resources by planting permanent pastures and using modern crop rotations that include limited amounts of grain for poultry and pork. They can also produce large amounts of high-quality composted manure and soil conditioners for fruit and vegetable production, and for a wide variety of delicious, high-protein pulses (chickpeas, lentils, etc.) favored by vegetarians and vegans.
Barriers to Regenerative Agriculture in the Missouri Valley
The conventional business model in agriculture (bigger is better) works against small and medium income cow-calf producers who want to buy or lease more pasture for their beef and dairy herds. As “price takers” in commodity markets, these producers cannot earn enough selling calves and yearlings to confinement feeders who also raise corn or buy it from conventional farmers. Further, ethanol plants compete for production space against pasture and rangeland by increasing the demand for corn.
In fact, Iowa State University researchers have stated that price competition from row crops combined with low cattle prices prevent small cow-calf producers from buying and renting pasture to expand their herds. These researchers estimated that 40-percent of Iowa’s small cow-calf producers are nearing retirement without succession plans. In other words, there is not enough money in the cattle business to justify continued operations. In fact, the USDA classifies most farms with sales of less than $350,000 as financially unstable (2017 USDA).
Confinement feeding is only part of the problem. Although consumers and investors are increasingly interested in sustainable agriculture, locally produced foods are not readily available in grocery stores, restaurants and cafeterias. Local foods are largely invisible to consumers for two reasons. First, investors and bankers are not convinced that large-scale, regenerative food systems will produce measurable economic benefits. Second, although direct sales methods are essential to building consumer support for local food brands, these poorly focused and funded marketing strategies have been used for decades without meaningful economic analysis. When taken together, these long-standing mistakes have allowed non-local brands (imports) to dominate retail sales. For example, imports cost Omaha and Kansas City area economies a combined 300 million dollars a year (USDA, Census and OTA).
A Word of Caution: Markets First
With more than 50 years of experience in and around Missouri Valley organic agriculture, we know that local growers must establish well-financed and effective marketing programs before adding significant amounts of new production. Although small, the existing production base is sufficient to test new marketing and finance models. This base includes natural and organic producers who have been in business for many years, along with conventional producers who are interested in sustainable methods.
Please review our business model on the next page
Note: The photo on this page is a courtesy of the Boys Town Hall of History, circa 1951.