I write a lot about food, and about topics like people who grow local food and those who cook it. These stories are mostly happy, positive tales about a topic that most people enjoy. Food brings us together, and as a farming state, we like to tell ourselves stories that bolster our state myth of Iowa as a breadbasket, of verdant hills and rich black soil and the people who tend it.
But just underneath the surface of that soil is a much more complex story. There are hard truths about who grows and processes our food and how; we are reliant on immigrant labor, often undocumented. Fewer and fewer companies own more and more land; family-owned farms are becoming more rare. Rural suicide rates are high, with stressors such as financial strain and uncertainty about the future all too real.
Then there are environmental factors. Nitrates flood our rivers, pollinator populations such as bees and butterflies are declining. Meanwhile, climate change is an ever increasing threat, likely contributing to repeated floods such as those that wiped out the last growing season for many farmers. Now forecasters are saying our state could face more such floods again this year.
These factors came for one small family farm recently. Grinnell Heritage Farm — which has been the subject of a few of those happy, positive stories in this publication — announced this month it is scaling back its farming operations. I have gotten a CSA — a farm share of weekly vegetables throughout the growing season — for the last couple of summers, and have written my own happy, positive stories about such farm share programs. The farm is suspending its CSA program for this year, however, and is ceasing its wholesale produce sales to grocery stores.
Melissa and Andy Dunham converted the 80-acre farm, which has been in the Dunham family for more than 150 years, to organic farming methods several years ago. In 2017, The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas magazine quoted Andy Dunham in an article about the growing success of organic farmers: “We are not even close to meeting market demand, and we don’t have to spend much time marketing,” he said at the time.
But then came 2018 and 2019, and both seasons were hard. In an email to CSA customers, the Dunhams wrote about the increased volatility of weather — drought and flooding, sometimes both in one season, for the past three years, as well as more difficult falls with rain and cold that have made bringing in the harvest more and more difficult.
They wrote they’ve also seen a steep decline in wholesale purchases, a far cry from what they told The Gazette just three years ago. The market for organic products has grown, to be sure, but so has the competition, with big operations scooping up market share and cutting out smaller-scale local farmers like the Dunhams.
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One farm struggling is one farm; it is not necessarily a harbinger that others like it will fail. But reading their email was a stark reminder that while spring is around the corner and soon we will be surrounded by our state’s green bounty once again, that story is a complicated one, and there aren’t always happy endings.
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