by Whitney Flach
According to the Des Moines Register, the federal government estimated that 23 million acres of Iowa farms were corn and soybeans. Farms that raised vegetables, spread across 7,700 acres, and even fewer produced fruits. Greg Rinehart has a farm that is 55 miles northwest of Des Moines. His farm use to be like a typical Iowa farm that was planted with rows of corn, soybeans and had a barn full of hogs. However, Rinehart has since backed off on his corn and soybean fields, and instead invested in fruits and vegetables. For farmers such as Rinehart, the chance to diversify their crop mix, receive more income, and avoid the price volatility that has squeezed profitability recently for corn and soybean producers can be enticing.
The 64 year old farmer said, “We wanted to stay on the farm, and to do that we had to figure out ways to produce income to stay, and raise a family.” Rinehart shared that it has been a huge difference on prices. He expanded his operation to grow an estimated 40 kinds of fruits and vegetables, along with conventional corn and soybeans.
Fruit and vegetable production is generally more expensive than corn and soybeans, but often generates higher revenue per acre and doesn’t require sweeping plots of land, or large equipment. Eric Franzenburg, president of the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said produce production in the state is increasing. “We’re definitely seeing an increase in involvement, but it is still a pretty small segment of the agricultural pie in Iowa,” says Franzenburg. Despite the growing interest, Franzenburg cautioned that fruits and vegetables are not for everyone. Farmers must overcome a whole new set of challenges by learning new production practices that can vary by crop.
The 2014 farm bill increased funding for specialty crops including fruits and vegetables by 55%, to about $4 billion over a decade. This funding increased through block grants, additional money for research, and expansion of programs in schools, food stamp recipients, and for the first time, producers got access to a type of crop insurance.
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley said, “We don’t hear from this group of people very often. They need to be speaking up.” As lawmakers prepare to begin debate on the farm bill in 2017, Grassley said additional support for fruit and vegetable growers will depend on how much money is available and how aggressively the producers push for help.
Farmers who decide to grow produce tend to be near where they can easily transport their food to farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants. Iowa State University economist David Swenson said, “In and around the Des Moines area there are a wide range of producers in that metropolitan market. However, if you get out into the more rural areas of the state and you can’t do that. You’re not going to have the local demand.”
Much of Iowa’s identity in agriculture throughout its history has been focused on corn, soybeans, hogs, eggs, and recently ethanol. Swenson, doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.