The Midwest is known more for growing corn than cauliflower, but if its farmers raised the fruit and vegetables eaten in
the Heartland, they could create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in income, according to a recent study.
The study from Iowa State University looked at what would happen if farmers in six Midwestern states—Illinois, Indiana,
Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin—raised 28 crops in quantities large enough to meet local demand. It found that
if an ample supply of produce could be grown regionally, it would spur $882 million in sales, more than 9,300 jobs and about
$395 million in labor income.
While the study looked at the Midwest, regional food production could have similar benefits elsewhere, with adjustments for
what kinds of produce were needed in those parts of the country, said Michelle Miller, associate director of the University
of Wisconsin's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, which helped fund the study.
Growing enough food to meet regional demand also wouldn't take much land, Miller said: "That's one of the wild
things about it—you can grow a lot on a few number of acres. Anyone who has a garden knows this."
How few acres? One of Iowa's 99 counties could meet the demand for all six states, said Rich Pirog, associate director
for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State.
The Leopold Center requested the study after seeing increased demand for food grown closer to home, especially from public
schools and colleges.
The study included apricots, asparagus, mustard greens, bell peppers, onions, broccoli, peaches, cabbage, pears, cantaloupe,
plums, carrots, raspberries, cauliflower, snap beans, collard greens, spinach, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, strawberries,
garlic, sweet potatoes, kale, tomatoes, watermelon and lettuce—both leaf and head.
Crops such as pumpkins, apples and cherries weren't included in the study because the Midwest already grows enough of
them to meet local and regional demand. Corn, as well as soybeans, are considered grains, not produce.
The idea of growing more fruit and vegetables locally fits with recent U.S. Department of Agriculture efforts to encourage
regional production, both to create jobs in rural areas and to connect consumers with the farmers growing their food.
It makes sense to Larry Alsum, who owns Alsum Farms and Produce Inc. in Friesland, Wis. Alsum grows five varieties of potatoes
and handles wholesale distribution for farmers who grow a wide variety of produce, including cabbage, sweet corn, squash,
watermelons and cucumbers.
"I think it's a win-win scenario, both in opportunities for farmers in the Midwest and reduced cost of transportation
that you have in bringing in California produce," Alsum said. "We also see this as an opportunity for people to
become more aware of where their food is coming from."
But don't expect to find Michigan mustard greens or Minnesota snap beans at the supermarket soon.
David Swenson, the Iowa State economist who conducted the research, said it would be a significant shift in how the nation
grows food, given that the Midwest ceded production of fruits and vegetables to other parts of the country long ago.
The advent of commodity payment programs in the 1930s, the development of refrigerated trucks and the interstate highway
system, and a hodge-podge of other policies encouraged farmers to grow crops where it could be done most efficiently.
It won't be easy now for farmers to switch to other crops, Swenson said. Expertise in the Midwest tends to be in livestock
or commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, not produce. The states don't have policies to encourage expanded fruit
and vegetable production, and many consumers don't think much about where their produce is grown.
"People are reasonably indifferent about where it comes from," he said.
He saw the best opportunities near metropolitan areas where there's demand for locally grown food and farmers would have
to move their food only short distances.
"The people that supply that demand will organize close to those markets," Swenson said. "If locally grown
foods are going to take off and be a viable component of the economy, it's going to happen there."
But Miller, at the University of Wisconsin, was optimistic that moving toward a regionalized food system made sense, especially
as gas prices make it more costly to truck a peach or pear across the country. She also noted California relies heavily on
water and transportation subsidies to dominate fruit and vegetable production.
"If those things change, we could run into a serious problem," Miller said.