By Janet Kubat Willette
ST. PETER, Minn. — Consumers are looking for food that will do more than ease their hunger.
Some consumers, at least, are searching for food that has perceived health benefits and is different in taste and texture, said Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames.
These consumers want their dollars to support family farmers, said DeWitt, who gave the keynote address at the Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association’s 16th annual conference Feb. 17 at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
"People are looking for a connection," he said. They don’t connect to large-scale agriculture and they sense they are doing a good thing by buying local.
DeWitt sees these consumers as a market waiting to be fed.
"If a customer wants to buy something … if I was a farmer, I wouldn’t question their reason. I’d grow it for them," he said.
Consumers have been particularly interested in pasture-raised pork and poultry, DeWitt said, and they are willing to pay a premium for hogs and poultry raised in a certain way.
Organic grass-fed beef production is taking off in Iowa, he said. He’s heard instances of farmers receiving $1.30 to $1.40 per pound for organic grass-fed beef.
Hoop houses, which cost around $10,000 to $13,000 to put up, are being studied for beef production.
He predicts the next big opportunity for farmers will be in growing food that is rich in Omega 3s, Omega 6s, lycopenes and CLAs for health-conscious consumers.
Consumers hungry for connections are also joining CSAs. Community Supported Agriculture farms sell consumers a share in exchange for weekly deliveries of food in season. The shareholders share in the risks of production and in many cases, are invited to the farm for special events.
Farmers’ markets are also popular venues for making connections. About 176 farmers’ markets operate in Iowa, DeWitt said, which is more per capita than any state. These markets contribute $12 million in economic activity annually, he said.
DeWitt asked farmers in his audience to think bigger.
"What if we ate five a day and grew 25 percent of what we were eating," he asked. The economic impact would be $300 million, 3,800 jobs would be created and 31,000 acres would be taken out of corn and soybean production.
Organic and sustainable agriculture is also opening doors for people who are capital-poor to enter the industry. Women, minorities and young people typically have more labor than cash, DeWitt said.
"If we invite more people to the table, we’re going to see new faces," he said.
DeWitt, who’s worked in traditional and sustainable agriculture during his career, said there’s a difference in audiences for sustainable and conventional agriculture events. The conventional events are attended primarily by white males. Sustainable ag events, by contrast, attract a diverse audience.
In order for small sustainable farms to be successful, there needs to be an investment in infrastructure. Small-town locker plants that can process organic meats and roads and bridges to transport products to market are critical.
DeWitt defines sustainable agriculture as a journey. It’s a system of agriculture that over time is profitable, provides good stewardship to protect natural resources and meets the long-term needs of the family and local community, he said.