Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sustainable agriculture and local food systems discussed at NCR-SARE Listening Session

Source: Daily Nonpariel

Food. How people get it, where it comes from, where it’s sold (and for how much) and more. It’s a broad topic, with many actors with different interests and values.

A swath of those actors met Friday morning to discuss sustainable agriculture, local food systems and more as part of a North Central Region-Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education listening session.

The meeting at the Iowa Western Small Business Development Center at the Council Bluffs Airport drew about 30 people, including farmers who worked as little as seven acres to farmers with more than 200 acres.

There were people invested in food in the area from numerous angles: School lunch programs, celiac disease, grocery stores, food councils, local government and more.

Pixie Martin, the facilitator during the listening session, told the crowd gathered, “This is about you and your thinking. Communities define their own sustainability.

“You’re on the front lines of our food systems and know what’s happening in the community.”

NCR-SARE is part of the national SARE program, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and covers 12 states: Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Indian, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

As its name implies, the organization is heavily involved in research and education in sustainable agriculture. This is the third year the organization has held listening sessions.

Friday’s session was part of three taking place in the area. On Sept. 23, a session was held in Lincoln, Neb., while the third meeting was held Friday night in Omaha.

Issues covered at the session included youth involvement, education about how food is produced and large-scale versus small-scale farming, especially in terms of the regulations that sometimes effect small-scale operations because they’re crafted in a “one-size-fits-all manner.”

Health was discussed at length, with Virginia Bechtold, supervisor of nutrition services with the Council Bluffs Community School District, telling the group, “we want to buy local and Iowa products. The hurdles we face are quantities and pricing.”

Charlie Caldwell – who farms in rural Pottawattamie County, east of Council Bluffs – said it’s time for people to realize the true cost of the food they eat, decrying the amount of chemicals in most food consumed in the United States.

“The challenge for smaller producers is educating the public about why they should spend more money on fresher, organic food, why it’s better for you,” he said. “People often say, ‘I don’t want to pay that much.’ Look at your health bills. It’s the food.”

Caldwell grows corn and soybeans on 180 acres, has a 7-acre organic vineyard and 6 1/2 acres of aronia berries. He was at the meeting in part on behalf of the Midwest Aronia Association.

So what’s next?

NCR-SARE oversees a number of competitive grant programs and has awarded more than $40 million since its inception in 1988. Attendees of Friday’s listening session were able to get information and input on how to best apply for those grants, while NCR-SARE officials heard about the needs of the southwest Iowa community.

Tom Coudron, a top-level NCR-SARE official who was at the meeting, said that past sessions had resulted in increased biofuel funding in areas that didn’t have it, educational involvement on a kindergarten through 12-grade level and in other areas.

He said the sessions are critical to the organization.

“Input is needed for us to get it right, they’re the end users of the services and grants we provide,” Coudron said. “It has to be right for them.”

Pottawattamie County Supervisor Chairman Melvyn Houser, who has a farm near Macedonia in Grove Township, said that while there are a number of food organizations working together, the listening session was an opportunity for the various people involved in food ways to discover each other.

“A lot of people came together and realized there’s more going on around them than maybe what they realized,” he said. “Many people are interested in this.”

Moving forward, Houser said, more meetings are needed at the local level to discuss the topics covered Friday.

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