The Economic Plan That Could Help Rural America

What works for cities could also boost the economies of farming communities.

National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
May 8, 2015, 2:56 a.m.

Pot­t­awat­tam­ie County, Iowa, is not the first place one would ne­ces­sar­ily think to look for ex­amples of in­nov­at­ive re­gion­al eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment. The county is home to just un­der 100,000 res­id­ents (not count­ing chick­ens) and thou­sands of acres of farm­land. For years, the main loc­al crops were corn and soy­beans. It’s not the kind of place one en­vi­sions as a hub in a di­verse re­gion­al eco­nomy that reaches in­to nearby Neb­raska. 

And yet, in the last sev­er­al years, the county has be­come just that. Pot­t­awat­tam­ie County has col­lab­or­ated with towns and cit­ies bey­ond its bor­ders to boost the reach of its loc­al farm­ers and to foster a dif­fer­ent kind of ag­ri­cul­tur­al sec­tor that grows fruits and ve­get­ables for its own res­id­ents to buy and eat. It has worked to train the next gen­er­a­tion of farm­ers and to help ex­ist­ing farms with small-busi­ness coach­ing. Now, the county even col­lab­or­ates with nearby Omaha, Neb­raska, to help at­tract and keep cor­por­a­tions in the re­gion in­stead of en­ga­ging in an eco­nom­ic bor­der war across state lines, a de­vel­op­ment that too of­ten plagues re­gion­al eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment.

The end goal, as the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Counties writes, is for Pot­t­awat­tam­ie and its part­ners to “suc­cess­fully [com­bine] their eco­nom­ic ef­forts with the hope of to­geth­er for­ging a stronger eco­nom­ic re­gion than either could cre­ate in­de­pend­ently.”

The first seeds of this ef­fort were planted around 2005 and 2006 when a hand­ful of long­time farm­ers formed a group to think through the fu­ture of farm­ing in south­w­est Iowa. Den­ise O’Bri­en, own­er of Rolling Acres Farm, was among them. (She grows fruits and ve­get­ables on her farm, with 10 acres cur­rently in pro­duc­tion.) “We brought every­one to­geth­er to talk about how much money was go­ing out of our area,” she re­mem­bers. “What if that money stayed?”

Part of the strategy to keep money in-state was to shift the type of farm­ing that south­w­est Iow­ans en­gaged in from large in­dus­tri­al­ized farms to smal­ler op­er­a­tions that grew food that loc­al people could eat. From this ini­tial series of meet­ings was born the South­w­est Iowa Food and Farm Ini­ti­at­ive. The group has grown to a roster of more than 50 farm­ers, O’Bri­en says, with a smat­ter­ing of loc­al food-policy coun­cils. 

Known as SWIF­FI, the group does both edu­ca­tion and out­reach. It has helped tra­di­tion­al farm­ers de­vel­op their busi­ness savvy through work­shops and coach­ing. The non­profit has set up loc­al farm­ers’ mar­kets and CSAs (“com­munity-sup­por­ted ag­ri­cul­ture” net­works) throughout its corner of the state to con­nect res­id­ents to loc­al farm­ers. For a while, it even iden­ti­fied and ment­ored as­pir­ing farm­ers, and trained roughly 50 young people in farm­ing with the hope that they’d re­main in rur­al Iowa.

Now, the group tries to help farm­ers sell pro­duce and con­nect with nearby res­taur­ants, schools, and hos­pit­als. In do­ing so, it has cre­ated a new mar­ket for loc­ally grown food at a time when “eat loc­al” is all the rage. “Even though Iowa is an ag­ri­cul­tur­al state, a lot of it is com­mod­ity crops,” says Lance Bris­bois, pro­ject co­ordin­at­or at the Golden Hills Re­source Con­ser­va­tion & De­vel­op­ment, the non­profit that runs SWIF­FI. “If you want to buy loc­al pro­duce, it is hard un­less you know a farm­er. If you go to a gro­cery store, you’re buy­ing pro­duce from Cali­for­nia and South Amer­ica.”

SWIF­FI aims to change that equa­tion. “We are see­ing the res­ults of this. Chefs want to take our food, and we’re tak­ing our pro­duce in today for com­munity-sup­por­ted ag­ri­cul­ture,” O’Bri­en says by phone from her barn. “SWIF­FI helped to build the in­fra­struc­ture to be able to mar­ket” in nearby areas, in­clud­ing Omaha, a 45-minute drive from Pot­t­awat­tam­ie County.

More re­cently, start­ing in 2014, Pot­t­awat­tam­ie County and south­w­est Iowa began to think about col­lab­or­at­ing more closely with Omaha to boost the loc­al eco­nomy. For years, the two re­gions had com­peted with tax breaks and vari­ous oth­er in­cent­ives to lure com­pany headquar­ters from one state to the oth­er. But since so many people in South­w­est Iowa work in Omaha and vice-versa, it made sense to be­gin to work col­lab­or­at­ively. “The new word is ‘co­oper­a­tion,’” says Melvyn Houser, the Pot­t­awat­tam­ie County su­per­visor. “You’re still fight­ing for your own piece [eco­nom­ic­ally], but you un­der­stand that there’s an ad­vant­age to your neigh­bor also win­ning the war.”

One re­gion­al group called the West­ern Iowa De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­ation helped to foster this col­lab­or­a­tion. This group works with a num­ber of di­verse com­munit­ies throughout Iowa (some as small as 1,600 res­id­ents) to en­sure that the re­gion builds a good eco­nom­ic fu­ture.

One early suc­cess story in­volved a loc­al com­pany called Lone Moun­tain Truck Leas­ing Com­pany that ori­gin­ally had of­fices in both Iowa and Neb­raska. The com­pany wanted to con­sol­id­ate its op­er­a­tions, says Lori Hol­ste, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the West­ern Iowa De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­ation, so she and her col­leagues in Omaha worked to­geth­er to keep the com­pany loc­al. Lone Moun­tain Truck Leas­ing Com­pany ended up in Carter Lake, Iowa, with 64 jobs in total. The state of Iowa gained about 50 new jobs in the pro­cess; Hol­ste con­siders it a win for the re­gion since all of the jobs stayed in the gen­er­al vi­cin­ity. “I think part of the suc­cess is build­ing a strong re­la­tion­ship with ac­count­ab­il­ity,” Hol­ste says. “It has happened the op­pos­ite way, too, with com­pan­ies go­ing to Neb­raska.”

It makes sense for Pot­t­awat­tam­ie County to work with nearby counties and Omaha to both ex­pand the reach of its loc­al farm­ers as well as bol­ster its own eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment pro­spects. And in do­ing so, the county has cre­ated new mar­kets for fresh fruits and ve­g­gies, and new jobs for county res­id­ents; that’s a much dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic por­trait for a rur­al county once just rooted in corn and soy­beans. 

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