July 7, 2008

Growers Say Local Food Cheap and Abundant

By Matthew Wilde, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

Jul. 7--WATERLOO -- If Northeast Iowans purchased locally grown food for their Fourth of July barbecues, chances are the feasts were cheaper.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts food will increase 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent this year as retailers continue to pass on higher commodity and energy costs to consumers. Last year grocery bills increased 4 percent led by eggs dairy and poultry.

On Wednesday, for example, Hy-Vee food stores in the metro area increased milk prices about 35 cents per gallon to cover wholesale jumps. Two percent is selling for $3.84, according to Dave Bowling, director of the University Avenue location. The same is true for most major retailers, he said.

But at Moo-Roo dairy stores in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, operated by the Jay and Jeanne Hansen family near Hudson, a gallon of milk is still less than $3 per gallon with its discount card. The family bottles its own milk and also makes ice cream, butter and other dairy products.

Though prices may have to be eventually adjusted upward to combat skyrocketing feed costs and fuel prices, Jay Hansen said the family has no intentions of passing those along to consumers just yet. Moo-Roo trucks don't have to travel as far as competitors, which helps keep prices down, and the cost of feed next year hasn't been factored in yet.

When the family strictly sold milk as a commodity, the market dictated the family's income. Not anymore.

"We're vertically integrated so we can make (production) adjustments. It's nice to be in a position we're in -- a position of control," Jay said.

Since commodity prices for corn, soybeans and wheat have tripled or more in the last couple of years as domestic and foreign demand increased, food experts say it's inevitable food prices will go up. Livestock eat grain and forage. Bread is made from wheat. Pop has high-fructose corn syrup and people cook with soybean oil.

Though commodity prices play a role in retail grocery bills, experts say energy prices are the primary driver behind increased food. Trucks, plastic sacks, packaging -- they all take petroleum to run and manufacture. A barrel of oil topped $140 recently, more than double from a year ago.

That's the main advantage local food producers have compared to corporate growers in other states. Instead of shipping lettuce and other vegetables from California to local grocery stores, Carolyn Adolfs only drives from Traer. The vegetable grower manages the farmers market at Kimball and Ridgeway avenues on Saturday mornings and also sells at the market sponsored by Bowling at Hy-Vee on University Avenue on Thursdays.

Plus, Adolfs said farmers market patrons can expect fresh food, most likely picked the same day its sold.

"I just don't see people raising their prices," Adolfs said. "They are very similar to last year."

However, Adolfs said not everything sold at farmers markets are as cheap as in stores. Eggs, for example, are often more expensive from local producers than at retail stores.

It's about quality

"Farmers markets are not so much about cheap food, but quality food," she added.

If consumers are willing to buy in bulk, local beef producers say, the savings compared to retail prices can be significant. Greg and Jayne Clampitt of rural Independence are raising seven purebred black Angus steers that eventually will be butchered at Mark's Locker in Rowley. The animals are already spoken for.

Instead of buying a pound or two of meat at a time, buyers will purchase a quarter or half of a steer at $1.65 per pound plus the processing. It's the same price no matter if its steak or hamburger.

Typically market steers weight 1,200 pounds or more when butchered, though research shows the average beef carcass weighs 600 pounds.

Considering T-bone or other high-end steaks usually cost more than $5 to $9 per pound at retail stores, Jayne Clampitt said their beef is a bargain.

"We encourage people to raise their own food. Then they won't feel the (price) pressure so much," she said.

Locally raised eggs, on the other hand, can be more expensive than cartons purchased in stores. The Clampitts recently raised prices from $2 per dozen to $2.75 due to increased feed costs, though eggs at Hy-Vee were $1.18.

Bowling doesn't consider locally grown food competition, but an asset. That's why the store sponsors a farmers market and buys from local producers.

When patrons are done purchasing produce in the parking lot on Thursday afternoons, they often come in the store.

"Last Thursday, we had 80 customers waiting for 4 p.m.," Bowling said, noting that's when the farmers market opens. "Our Thursday sales are very good, it's beneficial to both of us."

Abundant local food

A cold, wet spring delayed planting and is still hurting crop development. Flooded farm fields have also caused corn and soybean prices to jump lately. Commodity buyers are concerned production will suffer.

Local producer growers experienced many of the same problems as grain producers. However, produce farmers say there will still be plenty of fruits and vegetables to buy, but many favorites will get to market later than normal.

"I think most things are two to three weeks behind," said Greg Hoffman, who farms about 20 acres on the south side of Waterloo.

Normally Hoffman Produce has plenty of broccoli, cauliflower and cucumbers to sell at farmers markets by now or people pick at the farm.

Instead of picking produce Tuesday, Hoffman was cultivating cabbage and other green goodies to keep the weeds down so the food-producing plants can grow.

"We're still going to have time to make things up, but it (poor spring) might bunch things up. We're going to have to pick and eat it quickly," he said.

Adolfs said her pea crop died due excessive moisture. Mark Litteaur, who farms south of Waterloo on Weiden Road, had 4 of 7 acres destroyed by flooding. He estimates he lost about $15,000 in income when thousands of eggplants, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots and other plants were either washed away are needed to be plowed under for safety reasons.

Litteaur replanted with late-season pumpkins, turnips, radishes and squash. Plants that survived are behind.

"There's bound to be less produce for a while, but that's a temporary thing," Litteaur said. "We'll bounce back."

Contact Matthew Wilde at (319) 291-1579 or [email protected]


To see more of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.wcfcourier.com/.

Copyright (c) 2008, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.