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Leopold Center Local Foods Workshop Draws Record Crowd

At least 250 people from six states attended the March 30 Marketing and Food Systems Initiative workshop hosted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames.

AMES, Iowa -- If you think the flagging economy has dampened public interest in local foods and sustainable agriculture, think again.

At least 250 people from six states attended the March 30 Marketing and Food Systems Initiative workshop hosted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames. This was the fourth such event highlighting results of research and outreach projects supported by the Center's food-focused initiative and Value Chain Partnerships, a project coordinated by the Leopold Center in partnership with Iowa State University and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

"We were excited to see so many new farmers, educators and business people who have not attended previous workshops, and wanted to learn more about the results of these projects," said Rich Pirog, Leopold Center associate director and leader of the Center's marketing initiative. "It clearly shows that the Leopold Center's investments are paying dividends in the state."

Pirog said the Leopold Center's role in connecting organizations, producers and business leaders was apparent at the workshop. "There was a high energy level among the participants, and people were very enthusiastic about achievements in these projects and opportunities for the future."

More than 100 people attended the Regional Food Systems Working Group session on local food efforts in regions across Iowa. Michael Smith, director of real estate and sustainability for Hy-Vee, said he sees many opportunities for Iowa producers in this area. The Iowa-based company operates 225 stores in eight Midwestern states.

"Local foods are a great market, a convergence of many good things," he said. "We already work with local producers, but we're interested in further establishing relationships with them."

Some of the greens and all of the tomatoes and cucumbers for the salad served at the locally-sourced lunch were grown in greenhouses in northern Iowa. For more than 25 years the company, Plantpeddler of Cresco, had been providing ornamental plants for regional and national export markets. Last year after participating in the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition, a local foods group, owners Mike and Rachel Gooder converted three of their eight-plus acres of greenhouse space to food production, growing about 26 small fruit and vegetable crops.

"I wanted to answer two questions: Can I produce good-tasting food during the Iowa off-season, and can I sell it?" Mike Gooder said, adding that he has been testing five types of markets.

"We have shipped ornamental plants around the world, but now I also sell tomatoes to a restaurant only a block from where they are processed. That is the golden part, when a local company can serve a local community," he said.

Keynote speaker was Virginia Clarke, who coordinates the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders Network based in California. She discussed the evolving role of U.S. foundations in developing a more sustainable food system.

"Iowa rocks," said Clarke, referring to local and regional food systems work in the state. She said that the Leopold Center, which is a member of her organization, is well known throughout the United States for its research, collaboration and success in this area. However, she challenged workshop participants to work closely together, especially in the current economic climate.

"We are witnessing a radical change in the way we've been doing things," she said. "People from all sectors are paying attention to the local foods movement and sustainable agriculture, and this is a leadership moment."

The workshop featured sessions on Leopold Center-funded work ranging from saving energy on the farm, agritourism and niche meat markets, to the use of high tunnel enclosures to extend the growing season for vegetable and small fruit crops.

Other sessions showed progress on efforts to help Latino immigrants get started in agriculture, grass-based livestock systems, on-line marketing tools, ways that small farms can share machinery, and intergenerational programs for beginning farmers. Working groups of the Value Chain Partnerships project that focus on niche pork, local and regional foods, fruit and vegetable production and small meat processors also reported on their activities.

Materials from the workshop, as well as several multi-media reports and links to other resources, will be posted on the Leopold Center Web site at: www.leopold.iastate.edu/research/marketing_files/workshop09/index.html.

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