Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Can and Should the Midwestern States Grow More Vegetables for their Own Use?

Note: This post was inspired by my surprising discovery that the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago very recently held a conference which promoted local food production.

Can and Should the Midwestern States Grow More Vegetables for their Own Use?

At first glance the answer to this title question seems like an obvious "yes". During the past century this vast region grew more of its own fresh food, vegetables, and fruits, but consumer and grocer market patterns changed due to cheap, efficient and reliable transport of fresh produce from milder climates. This transition occurred at the same time new agribusiness models of scale for Midwestern farms producing grains industrially and requiring less labor were embraced. Ever larger scale efficiencies and profits drove trends. These same food trend developments, along with lazy personal transportation methods and the abundantly used chemicals throughout our food system have also led to the undesirable unintended consequence of today's obesity and disease crises.

Previously smaller farms which had huge vegetable gardens providing families and relatives with produce have also largely disappeared. The day of Aunt Martha calling to offer you as many free strawberries, apples, or squash that you want or can pick yourself have come and gone. Her farm that once was has become a vast sterile cornfield. Even her root cellar was bulldozed and filled in with dirt. You name the state. Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, it doesn't matter.

Regional canneries previously dotting the Midwest have mostly closed. Eating fresh food year-round from far away is now the norm as well as the expectation, or entitlement. Frozen produce can be transported to grocers efficiently using cheap and readily available energy. Grocers have steadily increased square footage devoted to freezer sections in their stores. Regional food distribution centers and the infrastructure as a whole has allowed for the system we now have in place to function successfully.

Now, in 2010, we look back and wonder what happened. Why don't the richest soils in our nation in states such as Iowa produce enough vegetables and fruits for their own people? As a result, many of the food industry's processing jobs have also migrated elsewhere.

On November 9, 2010, The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago held a conference titled "Perspectives on the Intersection of Midwest Agriculture and Rural Development". The focus of the conference was to explore perspectives that Midwest agriculture can play in rural development. The entrepreneurial nature of agriculture and policies that could foster agricultural entrepreneurs were emphasized. Experts from academia, industry and policy institutions discussed the interplay between Midwest agriculture and rural development, especially the role of public policies. The emphasis was on returning the rural areas of this region to a brighter future employing more people.

What a surprise. Here we have a Midwestern District Federal Reserve bank hosting a conference which is essentially addressing the fact that the current rural agriculture model for the Midwest is broken. Broken when it comes to regional employment, vibrant and diversified communities, and broken when the major agricultural region of this nation no longer produces food to feed its own people. And, especially, broken since the young entrepreneurial spirits produced by this region have been exported to the more vibrant urban centers of the nation.


Next, I will present some of the graphs and data which were used during the conference which show the economics and current production or lack thereof of fresh produce and vegetables in this Seventh Federal Reserve Bank District which includes the states of Iowa, most of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

One of the presentations included this next USDA graph using 2007 data.

Vegetable Acres Harvested for Sale in 2007
1 Dot = 1,000 acres
United States Total = 4,682,588 Acres

The top five fresh market states in terms of harvested acreage are California, Florida, Idaho, Arizona and Georgia.

The top five processing states in terms of harvested acreage are California, Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Idaho.

The five largest fresh market crops in terms of acreage are potatoes, lettuce,
sweet corn, watermelons and onions. The five largest processing crops in terms of acreage are potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes, green peas and snap beans.


In these next two charts, the economics of a local (Sandhill Organics) Illinois organic farm's production are compared to large scale grain farms of the region.

Rather amazingly, this recent Chicago Federal Reserve District's agriculture conference included a subject not unlike one that might have been sponsored by a transition or relocalization group such as the Post Carbon Institute emphasizing food security in a future age of expensive or declining energy supplies since our current food system is fossil fuel dependent. While that didn't appear to be the goal of this District Federal Reserve Bank conference, the subjects of eating local and becoming more food self-sufficient while benefiting the area through increased local employment and local dollars staying within the community do also result in regional food security. It seems that two entirely different institutions and types of thinkers have come to the same conclusion. Remarkable.

sources: Chicago Fed [pdf] and [pdf], USDA [pdf]