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When is "local" local?

I was in the grocery store in Oskaloosa, Iowa this past week and saw “local” apples for sale from Sparta, Michigan. “Local” was from 480 miles away, a 7 hour and 30-minute drive from said store, on land east and north of Chicago.

This, my friends, is not local. Especially because there are local apples grown right here in the state of Iowa, all of which would be closer to Oskaloosa than Sparta is.

Carrying local, fresh produce in supermarkets where the vast majority of farms grow only corn, soybeans or hogs is critical. With the rising costs of fertilizer and seed, the fluctuation of prices for commodities like corn, and a massive climate shift, what farmers need more than ever are viable markets and places to sell what they grow. Instead of concocting more ways to support the growing of corn and beans in the state, it is time to spend our resources diversifying the foods we raise and sell—which is the only real way to ensure our nation’s food supply is resilient.

I get it. It is hard for supermarkets to commit to selling produce from local sources. The farms might have a bad year and not produce much, or the apples might not be as uniformly red and round as the average American shopper might expect. There is also the cost of apples from a farm nearby, which might be higher priced than a mass-produced apple from Chile or even Michigan because they demand more expensive labor to produce. And it takes more time and energy for a produce manager to talk to every farmer in the region, negotiate prices, and work out delivery times and dates.

So “local” apples become fruits grown anywhere in the Midwest, but not actually from Iowa, even though Iowa is a great place to grow apples. The ubiquitous Red Delicious apple originated in the state; its name was the “Hawkeye” until the 1890s when the Stark Brothers purchased the rights to it and changed the name.

Once upon a time too, apples were grown en masse in Iowa. In 1909 Iowa was the sixth-largest apple-growing state in the U.S. and produced more than 9 million bushels of apples at its peak.

But during the 1920s and 30s, row crops began to take over the Iowa landscape, and fewer apples were grown. Then a freak winter ice storm on November 11, 1940 sealed the apple’s fate when most of the trees were destroyed or mangled in the extreme weather. In 1941 the Iowa apple crop was a quarter of what it had been just a year before, and most trees were not replanted.

Yet there are still apples grown here. I recently went to the Iowa Orchard in Granger, Iowa and “u-picked” some of the best apples I have ever had (the Empires were amazing). Bucket-loads of apples hung off the trees, ripe for the picking. Iowa Orchard and other apple growers also sell products through the Iowa Food Coop and other food hubs.

The Iowa Food Coop (IFC) is a group that serves as a conduit between farmers and consumers in the Des Moines Area (I am also a board member), allowing farmers to sell directly. A “cart” opens every other week online and consumers fill it with items produced from around the state. A few days later the order is ready to be picked it up from IFC. They can even deliver it to your door if you are that kind of shopper.

Perhaps then it is not a complete lack of local apples nor the total absence of places to buy them in Iowa that is really the issue. Maybe it is our own behavior that needs to change.

During the pandemic, we learned to do things differently and sourced food from all kinds of places. But then we seem to have quickly shifted back to “normal” once we felt safe again.

Food hubs like IFC make up a tiny fraction—if they exist at all—of where customers can shop. But it's time to find ways to create more opportunities for farmers so that they have options as to what, and how, to grow food. The more markets there are for a farmer to sell into, the better. By shifting our shopping habits again, by purchasing more of our food directly from those who grow it, we can help create alternatives.

Then maybe too grocery chains like the one in Oskaloosa will carry real local apples, from real farms in Iowa.

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