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On Job Creation—Local Fruits and Vegetables vs. Corn and Soybeans

by Ben Lilliston
It turns out that foods that are better for you may also be better for farmers and local job creation. A new study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that expanding fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest could bring significantly more economic benefits than conventional corn and soybean production on the same acreage.

The study, by Iowa State Research Scientist Dave Swenson, looked at the potential for fruit and vegetable production in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It identified 28 kinds of fruits and vegetables that farmers are able to grow in the region. Currently, much of the fruits and vegetables in the region come from other parts of the country or even outside the country.

A new study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that expanding fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest could bring significantly more economic benefits than conventional corn and soybean production on the same acreage. (photo by flickr user Wendy Piersall (@eMom)) Some key findings on the economic impacts on the region as a whole:

  • Increased fruit and vegetable production in the six states could mean $882 million in sales at the farm level, and more than 9,300 jobs. Corn and soybean production on that same acreage would support only 2,578 jobs.
  • If half of the increased production was sold in farmer-owned stores, it would require 1,405 such stores staffed by 9,652 people.
  • Only 270,025 acres—roughly equivalent to the average cropland in one of Iowa's counties—would be needed to grow enough fruits and vegetables for the six-state region.

Previous research found that smaller sized farms (50 acres and smaller) are more likely to produce fruits and vegetables than standard-sized farms so it is likely that more, smaller farms would be needed. Researchers assumed that 50 percent of fruit and vegetable production would be directly marketed in-state by farmer-owned stores. Local and regional ownership of the food chain will be essential for maximum job creation.  

The study breaks down the numbers by state and metropolitan region so it's easy to get a sense of what your neck of the woods could be doing to create new local food jobs.

The barriers to transitioning toward more fruit and vegetable production in the Midwest are enormous. Farmland is hard to come by as values are seen as a better investment than the stock market. U.S. farm policy greatly incentivizes corn and soybean production in a number of ways, including helping farmers to manage risks and supporting research for those crops. And then there's the lack of infrastructure needed to help local food systems serve a booming market. Despite these barriers, this study gives us a guidepost for the potential economic benefits of a new model for agriculture that produces healthier and more locally grown food.

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