Iowa County Woos Organic Farmers

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Chuck Hinrichsen produces organic eggs, chicken, beef, herbs and veggies to sell at Woodbury County’s local foods market.

In June 2005, Woodbury County in northwest Iowa instituted a property-tax rebate designed to entice conventional farmers to switch to organic practices. In this unique program, the first in the United States, participating farmers will receive money from a pool of $50,000 a year for five years. And in January of this year, the county became the first to mandate the purchase of locally grown organic food, thereby ensuring a market for its organic farmers. Schools, jails and other county institutions must buy organic food grown and processed within a 100 mile radius of the courthouse.

Robert Marqusee, director of Woodbury County’s rural economic development, says these policies stem from a decrease in the number of farms in the county and a corresponding increase in farm size. The number of farms in the county dropped from 1,360 in 1987 to 1,148 in 2002, while the average acreage per farm rose from 332 acres to 385 over the same period. As a result, the county has experienced “a loss of community spirit and pride in rural area,” Marqusee says. With the new policies, he hopes Woodbury County can revive that spirit. “If we didn’t do something different, rural America would be consigned to industrialized farming,” he says.

It’s also important to draw a younger population to farming, and Marqusee sees the thriving organic food market as a way to do so. Since the average age for an American farmer is about 55, the number of farmers could drop even more as many of them retire. “We had to make farming more attractive to young people,” he says. “It had to be more affordable, more realistic.”

Marqusee says he is proud of the changes Woodbury County has made. “We’re trying to do something in our power as a local entity.” He anticipates a “quality local food brand emerging from the increased economic activity.”

To learn more about these initiatives, visit the Organic Consumers Association website.