Season 2 Episode 9
Hannah Shultz: Welcome to Share Public Health, the Midwestern Public Health Training Center’s podcast, connecting you to public health topics, issues, and colleagues throughout our region and the country highlighting that we all share in public health. Thank you for tuning into this series, which focuses on rural health in the Midwest. Over 10 episodes we talk with people in a variety of communities about their experiences and perspectives on rural life, employment and health. Our aim is to deepen understanding of the complexity of rural life and celebrate rural areas. We’re so happy you’re listening and learning along with us.
Hi, welcome back to the Rural Health series of Share Public Health. Today we’re going to talk about one of my favorite subjects, food systems. Let’s go back to Mary Swander for a moment. We heard from her in the second episode of this series, she talks about her move to Kalona, home to one of the largest Amish communities west of the Mississippi, as the result of some dietary needs that couldn’t be met in Iowa City. This is an interesting look at food systems 30 to 40 years ago before we talk with Jason Grimm, Shelley Buffalo and Greg Padget about what food systems look like in Iowa now.
Mary Swander: Well, I first came here because I had a health issue and this was like 40 years ago and one of the ways to treat it, which was to eat all organic food, which in this day and age doesn’t sound so astounding, but in 1983 literally there was no organic food. I was living in Iowa City at the time. And although it wouldn’t have mattered, I could have been living in New York City or Chicago, it’d be the same thing. And there was no organic food. There was a co-op, but it had like organic peanut butter and organic rice essentially. You could go out to a funky farmer’s dairy farm and join a co-op and sign up and get organic milk that way, but basically you had to chase all over the area if you wanted organic food. And I had always liked this area and used to come down here to the little stores and things so I knew there was organic food down here. So I started literally roaming around and knocking on doors and just explaining my situation and one farmer had organic vegetables, another farmer had organic chickens and another farmer had turkeys. And so I had developed this little network of farms where I go from one to the other and there’s no telephone. And especially in those days, this was what I called Amish telephone system. Remember those little white postcards that you get to post up, and then they were stamped. It was the last real bargain that we had in our society. And so for the cost of a postcard stamp, you also got the card and that’s what the Amish communicated with all the time. So I would get these cards in the mail and it would go ‘Mary, asparagus ready’. When I got that, I already knew they’d probably sent that the day before and I better get my tail feathers together and get down there, so I’d hop in the car and drive down and buy like a bushel or two of asparagus at a time. So that was going on for several years, three years or something like that. That’s how I lived. And that part of it was really interesting experience because I had a garden in Iowa City… I wasn’t well enough really to grow everything and I was young. I didn’t know how to do it all organically, which is a complex, intricate endeavor. So the Amish started teaching me and I learned all sorts of cool stuff like seaweed, fish emulsion to use that and different things as fertilizers and pesticides. I just kept watching them. I didn’t want to be one of those persons that just asked a million questions. So I’d say, “Can I just watch what you’re doing here?”
Hannah Shultz: We’re going to fast forward a few decades now and talk with Jason Grimm about the current food landscape in his area. Jason is the executive director of Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development in Amana, Iowa and he lives and farms nearby in Williamsburg.
Jason Grimm: In my family we have a farm south of town where I farm with my grandparents and my parents, but also have my own enterprises on our farm raising dry beans like black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, and then pastured poultry and some produce as well that we sell throughout the state. That definitely is a new thing and that was primarily as a new enterprise that I created to create another income stream for myself. My family, we’ve always been a… Well, when I was growing up my grandparents had a dairy operation, so we’re milking, but our farm landscape, I would say, hasn’t changed a lot. When I was growing up, honestly, we didn’t raise soybeans until in the last five years when we started raising them again. My grandparents or grandfather did prior to me, but we’ve always been roughly like a corn, hay and oats cropping farm. We’ve never sold many of our crops. Most of our crops have always gone into our beef cattle or dairy cows. And then the produce and the chickens, growing up, that’s always was a thing that we did to raise food for our family, but none of that was ever a commercial enterprise of our farms. So until the last about seven years, that I’ve started to do some of those crops and sell those products.
Hannah Shultz: Jason clearly has a lot of experience and passion for raising food. I asked him to tell me a bit about the work of Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development. The organization does a lot of interesting things, including some food safety auditing, supporting farmer’s markets, and they manage the Iowa Food Hub Managers Working Group.
Jason Grimm: Our organization has several different focus areas, but the two focus areas that the most of the work falls into are called placemaking and community food systems. And in those areas it can be anything from rural tourism, economic development work through helping support farmer’s markets or technical assistance for farmers. Actually running a program, we’re actually farming five acres of land to provide food to charitable food programs like meal sites, pantries, afterschool programs. I’ve been with our organization since 2009, actually where I first started many of our food system programs and today manage several of those projects still, but provide more of a operations and administrative support as well.
Hannah Shultz: Throughout today’s episode and in general conversations about food, lots of words get thrown around; local, community, organic, food miles, et cetera. Jason talks a bit about how he thinks of food systems and the role of his organization in our food system.
Jason Grimm: A lot of people may call, you may hear the terms local or regional food systems, and I like to term it as community food systems and that’s primarily because I think community is a better definition of what a food system- kind of the geographic or the cultural aspects of that food system and what type. The community really molds or forms and creates a type of food system that exists. So our work is primarily built around the needs, the resources and the skills of our organization or our staff. And so our food system work, I guess it really does kind of go, kind of span all different parts of the value chain or the sectors of the food system. So we have works that’s specifically within the production part of our food system. So we have a couple programs. Jake Kundert in our office leads a project right now where we are actually testing and doing some market analysis or market need for woody ornamentals on farms. So these are woody plants like redosier dogwoods, willows, things that could be cut and sold to forest shops. And so this would be… We have six farms that are trialing these crops on their farms. Then we’re doing surveys with garden stores or forest about that. So Food Hub is a small distribution company that aggregates and distributes traceable product from the farm to the end customer. So we have roughly about seven of those businesses across the state. And we facilitate professional development as well as collaborative projects where they can collaborate on marketing with each other, or they can all the way down to… Right now, we actually collaborate around helping haul each other’s products and find products for each other, or even doing some crop planning with all of our vendors together to make sure that we can meet all the needs of our customers across the state. We use that program also to kind of dovetail back to our production and we have an apprenticeship program. And then we have volunteer employees that come all to get some form of an experience around a commercial vegetable farm, so they’re gaining a lot of new skills there as well. A part of the food system that we don’t do much work right now is kind of, you could call it the waste stream, so the end of the food system, or the… There is no end to the food system, it’s a big loop, but what happens to all the waste within our food system, whether it’s trash or packaging, things like that, but that is a sector of the food system that we don’t do much work in.
Hannah Shultz: They also do work with farm-to-school programs and support schools that are interested in serving more local foods.
Jason Grimm: Most of our work with farm-to-school is on the procurement side, so helping schools with understanding the procurement rules or regulations that they need to follow in buying from local farmers, and then also helping match them or connect them up with area farmers. So over the last several years, we’ve probably worked with 10 to 8 different districts, helping them procure a local product. And my goal is that in within 1 to 2 years, I can help those schools build a trusted network with a couple of farmers within their area that they can communicate with regularly and source product from. And my goal is to build their relationship between each other and I want to become obsolete. I don’t want to… There’s no reason for a middle player, especially when that middle player has no physical role in it. So in the last month we’ve helped two schools in the Williamsburg community that now Field to Family is making deliveries regularly each week on Tuesdays to those two schools. And they’re just… I became obsolete already. They’re already ordering from the Food Hub and the Food Hub is sourcing or aggregating that product from their farmer vendors and all I did is kind of get that first one or two purchases started, and it’s rolling on its own. We have helped build some capacity also around some education and that’s primarily been a partnership with Field to Family in Iowa City. I think way back in 2010 or 11, we hosted our first event that we called a Farmer Fair with Field to Family in Iowa City and it was an in-school field trip for elementary kids and now we partnered with Fields to Family. We’ve hosted a lot more of those in Iowa City, but our two organizations have also hosted them in Clear Creek, Solon and Cedar Rapids school districts.
Hannah Shultz: One of the challenges with buying food directly from producers is an assumption that it will cost more, which is a bit confusing, right? Like if you’re cutting out all the actors in the middle, you think it would be less expensive? Jason told me a bit more about the cost impact on schools that choose to buy more local foods.
Jason Grimm: It really depends on the time of the season and the product. Like the Iowa City School District, they started buying watermelons from a farmer that we built a network with them. Probably been four or five years ago, and they have actually found that in October or September and August that they can buy local watermelons plus apples cheaper than they could buy them from their distributor because they’re in-season. And those are crops that are grown at, I wouldn’t call it a huge scale, but a medium scale for Iowa. We have a good supply of those with the Amish community to the South and we have several decent size apple orchards around the Iowa City, Cedar Rapids area. But other products like, we’ve done lettuce for the whole Iowa City School District once. That was probably the most expensive thing that we bought ever and it was the biggest hassle to get into the school district because they had to be washed and cleaned and be ready to serve as soon as it got to the building. So the school had no… they did nothing other than putting it into the salad bar. But most districts say that the products will range… It’s about a 20 to 30% cost increase for the products if you would average it. Schools have also found when we’ve done work in the Cedar Rapids district, we help them procure broccoli that was just going to be served like with carrot sticks and broccoli florets with ranch dressing. And the district actually found that they bought heads of broccoli. Typically they were buying broccoli florets that had already been cut up by a processor and they’re packaged in a bag. Couldn’t get the broccoli florets, we had to get heads of broccoli, which required the school staff to then cut those heads of broccoli apart into smaller florets. But the district actually found that… Well, one thing it didn’t take as long for them to do that work, they were afraid it’s going to take too much time and they weren’t going to be able to get it all done, but it took far less time than they expected, but they also found that the product was far more superior in quality versus being packaged in a closed sealed bag. They explained to me that they had often thrown out 25% of that bag because it was already so past its prime. I guess if you would take out the waste or the costs to dump some of these foods that weren’t being used because they were past their prime or they couldn’t be used anymore, that it probably would cover some of that additional cost.
Hannah Shultz: There are all sorts of good reasons to eat local foods, but of course it would be pointless if the kids didn’t like it and weren’t willing to eat the foods.
Jason Grimm: We’ve heard anecdotes of high school students in the Iowa City district really tasting the difference in the watermelon that they’re getting, making comments like, “Oh, that must’ve been local watermelon this week because it was so much better than normal.” We’ve seen kids try new foods that they’ve never really experienced and like them. In the Cedar Rapids district, we wanted to use a pumpkin or winter squash somehow in a meal and they were serving… This was in the fall, so also apples were available. So instead of having that caramel apple dip stuff that you can buy for apple slices, the district made their own apple dip and it was made with winter squash, sunflower butter, honey and cinnamon and stuff. And it was all prearranged together and kids just raved about that.
Hannah Shultz: Jason explained that sometimes he helps schools find alternatives to meet the national school lunch standards. One of the requirements for example is to serve a legume each week.
Jason Grimm: And most districts to get around that they serve pork and beans that come out of a can or they serve chickpeas that they roast in the oven or they buy already roasted to meet those requirements. So we have introduced black beans, I guess, from my farm into a couple of districts by introducing a recipe that’s made with brown rice, and then just salsa and the black beans. So those three ingredients are mixed together and it’s like a hot black bean and rice dish that’s served.
Hannah Shultz: Anecdotally, Jason has noticed a deeper understanding of food systems among the students in the schools he works with.
Jason Grimm: I would say that students are learning more of the qualitative new information. So just like identifying foods, identifying where foods come from, does it grow in the ground? Does it grow in a tree? Does it grow under the soil? And being able to kind of describe or communicate about those activities on a farm. And I wouldn’t even say on a farm, but the food system. So in these Farmer Fairs that we’ve hosted, we’ve actually had activities that students participate that is role plays. Those students are playing like the truck driver, they’re playing the apple farmer, they’re playing the field worker that’s harvesting the apples. So they’re getting to experience what are the different roles in the food system. We’ve also with older kids have used that same activity, but it’s been less… With the younger kids it’s always about, we call it food miles. So like how far has the food traveled? A lot of apples get shipped in from like Washington or the Pacific Northwest. And so that’s a long ways from Iowa. So we’ve done activities with the kids about how much energy it takes to get that food from Washington to Iowa. But with older kids, we usually then talk more about the economics and the exchange of money within the food system. So today for every dollar, I think it’s roughly like 17 cents for every dollar of food actually goes back to the farmer and all that other money gets distributed throughout the food system. And a lot of it goes to marketing and distribution and not really to the actual farmer that’s producing the food.
Hannah Shultz: Jason’s seen some really positive changes in his years of working in community food systems. Several years ago, he helped a couple of nearby counties set up food policy councils. Thinking about schools he has seen more openness from school districts to consider sourcing some of their foods locally. In the Iowa City schools he says the current food services director actually has it written into their job description. Food is an intensely personal thing. As we’ll hear from Shelley Buffalo in a few minutes, food is everything. People have strong reactions to what people eat and why and how. Jason and I talked a bit about misperceptions related to food. He said, people may not understand that not all food is equal and that farmers aren’t getting rich growing our food.
Jason Grimm: I think another misconception in our food system nationally and internationally is like, who is actually raising our food and harvesting our food. So I think a lot of people really do not understand the immigrants that come from outside of country or migrants that are traveling the country every year, kind of following the harvest spectrums like going from north and south with the introduction of the spring and fall and winter every year and how much our food system really revolves around that migrant labor force. Even here in Iowa it’s a big part of our food system. It’s just not part of the actual food part. It’s part of the producing of corn and soybeans for seed, in the form of seed production. It’s not like California that we have that labor force that they do in California that is harvesting predominantly most of our fruits and vegetables by hand or handling the most of it in packing sheds and warehouses.
Hannah Shultz: He also brings up climate change. We’ve already heard climate change come up in this series a couple of times, and we’re going to continue hearing about climate change as a major threat.
Jason Grimm: Our farmers in Iowa are not taking it serious enough about what is the current status of agriculture, how many more years can we farm the way that we do here in Iowa? A lot of people talk it up that agriculture is the backbone to rural Iowa, that it supports small communities and things like that. And I think that’s a big misconception. I don’t feel like the thousand to 4,000 acre corn and soybean farmers providing any support to their rural community because they’re not employing anyone. Often those younger generations on those farms are not staying here and supporting to build those rural communities and those school districts. So I think having more smaller, diverse farms… By small, I don’t mean a bunch of like five and 10 acre farms, which those are just as important, but I’m thinking more like several hundred acres growing four to five different crops, not just feed crops, but also food crops, because primarily those food crops, they require a lot of other supporting industries. And so they have a lot of industries that support those food crops, whether it’s processing potatoes or handling carrots or the actual distribution or the shipping industries that support those food processing and food production sectors of the food system. So I think if I had more of that diverse farming landscape, we would have new industries that would pop up and in support of them and then also would provide new employment opportunities and new opportunities for rural communities.
Hannah Shultz: Jason’s excited about a new generation of people wanting to learn how to farm.
Jason Grimm: It excites me that people my age and younger that are trying to find new opportunities and things that they could raise on their farms or the interest in wanting to farm. Like I’m processing chickens this weekend and I think I have three or four other people that are coming to help me. And they’re all people that are interested in chickens and wanting just to learn that skill. Some are just customers of mine, honestly. So I’m excited about those things that people are wanting to relearn those skills or actually learn them for the first time ever. I’m also excited, I would say, about some of our older farming generation helping these farmers that are getting started or also helping diversify their farms too and share some of that farming or that business knowledge that they have learned over the last 20 or 30 years of their farming career.
Hannah Shultz: What I really appreciate about Jason is his holistic view of food and his community and his faith that his community has the tools it needs to thrive. Listen as he tells me what some of the threats to his community are. They aren’t external and neither are their solutions.
Jason Grimm:I guess I probably would even be one of the people that doesn’t mind to be located a little bit further away from the conveniences or our misconception of conveniences in some communities and don’t mind to be located a little bit further apart. A lot of people always like, “Well, I should just drive to Coralville. I can get groceries so much cheaper or I can… Just better services.” But I’m often telling my friends and family like, “Well, think about it. You just drove 40 minutes to an hour. You put in $30 worth of gas to do that. Is it still cheaper than just going to our small community?” And I would say that the threat is not the activity of them doing that, but that that will hurt our small town businesses and not allow them to be as resilient or as diverse. So it is true. Yeah. Going into our grocery store here in town, the produce selection is not like going to the produce selection at New Pioneer Food Co-op in Coralville, which sometimes that is the selection or the types of foods that I want to have. So those kinds of conveniences of people driving to those larger communities more often then requires the small town businesses to kind of rely on, you call it the bread and butter or the things that they sell the most of, and they don’t have as many of the unique or niche things for sale in their stores or the grocery store.
Hannah Shultz: Jason mentioned the immigrant and migrant labor force that supports so much of our food production. Art Cullen, who we heard from a couple of episodes ago, told me a bit about immigrant labor and the meat packing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, and how that labor force has changed.
Art Cullen: It started in 1980 when Hygrade was the meat packer in town at that time. They were based in Detroit, they were one of the big four meat packers. And at that point it was primarily an Anglo union workforce represented by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. And Hygrade closed down and stayed closed for a year long enough to bust the union and then it reopened as IBP which revolutionized the meat packing industry in the United States. It introduced the idea of boxed meat, boxed pork and boxed beef, which took out the butcher shops as a middleman and automated jobs, contracted livestock production, just revolutionized meatpacking and really fundamentally changed the rural Midwest economy from a open market economy to a contracted production economy. So Storm Lake has become one of the centers of that new economy and it’s built on immigrant labor.
Hannah Shultz: When COVID-19 outbreaks first happened in meat packing plants last year, the spotlight was on just how much meat is produced in Iowa. A third of the nation’s pork is produced in Iowa. Some years close to 50 million hogs are marketed in Iowa. That’s two and a half times more than any other state. Art has some thoughts about Iowa’s ag system more broadly, drawing a distinction between food systems and an ag system.
Art Cullen: We import 80% of our food and what we grow are industrial crops, corn and soybeans that are made into ethanol, hogs, corn syrup, plastics, anything you can imagine. And so, yeah, it’s not a food system, it’s an industrial food and fiber system. But what we really have become is this commoditized second world economy, where we ship natural resources out and plunder the natural resources that we have, which is what’s happening in Iowa right now, we cannot sustain what we’re doing with our soil and water the way we’re doing it.
Hannah Shultz: We like to say Iowa feeds the world, but Art is right. We import the huge majority of our food to the state. According to Iowa State University, Iowa actually imports about 90% of our food. We’re going to talk now with Shelley Buffalo, about food production and food sovereignty at the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama, Iowa, and why this effort to grow traditional foods with and for the community is so important. I’m going to let Shelley introduce herself and her work.
Shelley Buffalo: I am a member of the Meskwaki tribe, which is located in central Iowa. My job title is Local Foods Coordinator for Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative. The food sovereignty program here at Meskwaki was formed in 2012, driven by community interests and tribal council support for a local food system. At that time, the program was within the economic development department, also a newly created program. In 2013, a strategic plan was developed and the Meskwaki community garden was established to grow food, support new farmers, and act as a community learning and growing space. It came out of the interest and passion of a few individuals who envision ultimately including the executive director at the tribe at the time who had always dreamed of a community garden space. Across the United States, community gardens had become a mainstay and developed more and more significance in their communities, especially in underserved communities to address food deserts and community health.
Hannah Shultz: I’m really excited for Shelley to share her work with you all, but first I want to let Shelley share some of the challenges she’s seen and what the food landscape is in her area.
Shelley Buffalo: My parents rented farm houses in the South Tama area and so not only was I able to grow up in and around my Meskwaki community, but I also experienced life in rural Iowa in general. And I remember, as a little kid, I remember my mom getting all of our eggs from the neighbors, for example and I remember being surrounded including the land that we rented up by Garwin. That farm, the farmer, we rented the house from, kept hogs and so did our neighbors, so did a lot of our neighbors, but this wasn’t CAFOs, this was like small hog operations. I remember going into Garwin and there was a grocery store there, in the town of Garwin, a full grocery store. And this is when I was really little, but I remember going up to Gladbrook and that’s where there was a meat market. And so that small town, small scale meat market, fresh cuts of meat. And so I was able to, as a small child, get a glimpse of what was the complete local food system back in the day. And the baby boomer generation, when I ask them… these are folks that grew up on farms that raise cattle. I ask them like, what did your farm, what did they feed the cattle back then? It was all grazing. And I said, do you know that now pasture-raised grassfed cattle, that beef, you can charge a premium for that? And it was, once again, it was early on, the time that I was born into when there was that transition going on from pasture-raised animals to corn-fed animals. And we saw more of that, the monocropping role, chemical dependent methodologies coming in and the loss of creeks and streams and everything. Like I said, I remember that very vividly. And unfortunately it not only created food deserts… So because of all kinds of consolidation across the board, including… the biggest thing is the consolidation of our food systems. So those local grocery stores and those local butcher shops and the small scale meat processing facilities, all of that was transformed into larger and larger and larger facilities. And that meant that that was the transformation of the Iowa farming practices. But once you remove the local food system and consolidate it, you also remove the local economies. Like my stepdad, he remembers as a child going and working for Hind Gardener, which was a local orchard operation. They also grew like potatoes and strawberries. And so the folks out here on the settlement for seasonal employment would go and staff Hind Gardeners, but of course, High Gardeners’ apples and strawberries and potatoes, and the other things that they grew all went into these local small town grocery stores. That system now has been completely replaced by consolidation and. Again, going back to [inaudible] these food deserts where fortunately some of that’s coming back. In Toledo, there’s two grocery stores, which is great. And it’s interesting because I struggled with a lot of digestive issues throughout my adulthood. And it usually centered around having to consume a lot of that highly processed foods in the… specifically, the wheat based foods, so the flour. I mean, we would just get bags of macaroni product as well as white rice and that really was something. And then I remember eating potatoes several times a week. Those starches is what filled us up, but what we really needed is we really needed more culturally appropriate starches in the form of our Tama Flint corn for example, as well as the complete protein that’s beans. As more and more of your family has to go to full-time jobs in order to provide housing and groceries, clothing, all of that good stuff, so less and less time to grow your own food and as well as the cheap foods really replaced that too. Something that’s very labor intensive to something that’s very cheap. But I do think, USDA commodities, they really pushed that more away from that traditional gardening.
Hannah Shultz: We hear a lot about how food production and consumption have changed on a very broad scale. It’s interesting to hear about the changes Shelley has seen in her community. A lot of today’s conversation with Shelley will focus on the work of the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative. It’s focused on traditional foods and the community initiatives they’re involved with. To make sure we’re all on the same page I asked Shelley to share what traditional foods are.
Shelley Buffalo: The traditional food list is extensive because it includes foods that we farm, foods that we forage and foods that we hunt and fish. So the Meskwaki historically had a very intimate knowledge of the land. Like if we look back to when, before we established the Meskwaki Settlement here in Tama County, Iowa, we started out actually at St. Lawrence River area of St. Lawrence River Valley in what is now upstate New York. And because of colonial pressures, ultimately we migrated even preemptively before contact throughout the Great Lakes region. So we were already residing in what is… I think the villages were, oh, in proximity to like Appleton, Wisconsin and Oshkosh and that area, and that is where our early contact with the French colonists happened. So removal just continued until we were pushed into Iowa and then we were forced to cede our Iowa territories and ultimately removed to a reservation in Kansas. So Kansas is prairie. Iowa starts out on the east side as a kind of a lot of riparian and bluffy landscapes, a lot of wooded areas and then it gradually as we travel westward across the state, it gradually turns into more of a prairie. We have a lot of different soils here and stuff, but the main thing is that we are a woodlands culture. And so going back to that intimate knowledge of the land, Kansas did not have the appropriate plants and soils and ecology that supported us culturally. So if we’re looking at not only our food systems, but what we constructed our homes and buildings with, we’re very tied to the land in a specific ecology. Going back to Meskwaki foods, so the ancestral diet was extremely diverse, very diverse, which included a lot of green forage foods. So some of those ones that I think a lot of food foragers are familiar with for example is nettles. One of our summer favorites is milkweed, but there’s a kind of wild potato, water Lotus, and even the cattails that we weave mats from. Those are also edible plants. So there’s just a ton… wild onion… I mean, there’s just tons of edible plants out there that we foraged throughout the seasons, but our farm foods are corn, beans, squash, and watermelon. When we lived up in the Great Lakes region, I’m not sure if we harvested wild rice, but I know that we traded at that time, we did consume wild rice when we were in that ecosystem, but never considered ourselves one of the rice tribes, which is the Anishinaabe of the Great Lakes. So corn, beans and squash, and of course, all of the hunted game. Our ranching method of game management was small controlled burns, which if you keep the savannah, if you maintain a savannah environment, then you promote basically more numbers of the larger grazing animals, such as bison and elk, for example.
Hannah Shultz: I was eager to hear more about the work that Shelley is doing with traditional foods. Right now, Shelley is the only staff person for the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative, so she’s got a pretty full plate and her passion for this work is evident.
Shelley Buffalo: 2019 was the first year that we developed the kinship garden, which is a growing space to address access to gardening plots for community members who either just don’t have access to land. There’s some community that live in towns surrounding the settlement, as well as some of the family plots out here are, the soil is exhausted from successive plantings. So people need to rest those gardens and need some space at the kinship garden. The kinship garden also is our seed saving space and we envisioned it to be the primary teaching space too and demonstration space. And this year because of COVID, all of those gardening spaces and the teaching and interactive spaces had to be cut back drastically. The workshops, the school engagements, any of the partnerships with seniors, all of that, any of that type of in-person activities, we couldn’t do it this growing season. And then also because of staff cuts, we had to do all of our growing at the kinship garden, which is that seed keeping and growing as much as we could of traditional foods to provide for senior services. And then that was pretty much it. I think it was almost one ton of food that went to senior services through… Yeah, to supplement their food program, as well as direct distribution.
Hannah Shultz: Shelley talks about a shift in the mid 20th century that changed the way we eat in the United States.
Shelley Buffalo: We’re really trying to tie together our historic, our traditional food ways with all of us younger generations, which even though with me, I don’t think of myself as young, but I do… I’m a gen Xer so I really represent the generation where there was this huge shift in cultural practices, as well as handing down of the language and a lot of those traditional food ways. Ever since mid century in the United States overall local food systems have been replaced by big ag and that has affected the diets across the board, but especially the underserved communities, the communities that are lower income. Historically for the Meskwaki, this is how our year was structured. So part of the year was our growing season. So we were stationary and gathered into one village and growing in one field basically, one very large field, but that was subdivided into family growing plots. And one of the wonderful things that happen at harvest time, towards you’re looking at from mid August through early September, was that this was a time of, yes, a lot of activity, a lot of harvesting activity, but all of that was done in the hands of many. Everybody participated in helping with the harvest, from the kids all the way up to the grandparents. And it was a happy time. I mean, naturally if you have a great harvest, that means you’re going to get through the winter and food is everything. So it will be time of feasting and singing and dancing. We call it a green corn dance, but that kind of morphed into the current day annual powwow. So that was our growing season, one village stationary. Now during the hunting season, we dispersed into smaller groups to our different hunting grounds. So little territories, we were spaced out across the land because the land can only support so much hunting. And that was a land management strategy that we had done for thousands of years. Like our Tama Flint corn, our Meskwaki traditional corn, that’s been with us over 3000 years, maybe 4000. I’m not sure if that’s been dated precisely, but this is like land management strategies that had been in practice for thousands of years. So what happened with removal and what happened with… ultimately even those settling on this land here in Iowa, which the tribe bought after removal to Kansas, we kept coming back. We kept coming back to these, the riparian wooded bluffy areas that we were more familiar with and eventually our leadership decided that we’re just going to have to get a deed and buy the land in order to, well basically maintain the Meskwaki way of life. And that happened in 1853, but the first acres were 80 acres for an entire village. One of the strategies that Meskwaki used back then in order to have enough gain in the hunt is that they… Like when I was growing up, when I was a child, my dad would get permission from local farmers that had timbers on their land to hunt in that timber. Because as you can imagine, a lot of the game, especially deer, were not on that little plot of land, were not readily available. It was pretty much hunted out. So you see that the removal from our lands and the removal from our land management strategies deeply impacted that yearly cycle of growing, of gathering, of hunting and fishing. Since then, now the tribe has, I believe it’s around 8,000 acres, about half of which is not developed. So we have bluffs, we have tillable acres, the Iowa river runs through our lands. So we have like a huge deal of riparian river bottom, which is a mix of CRP and a lot of maple and cottonwood varieties.
Hannah Shultz: We’ve heard about land stewardship and multi-generational farming already in this episode and in previous weeks. Shelley shares the value of connecting with elders about how to care for land and produce food.
Shelley Buffalo: It’s the certain sensibilities, like I said with… I feel fortunate to be straddling these generations, so that I still have… I lost my dad in 2008, but I still have my mom and my stepdad and my stepdad is Meskwaki as well. And so we can check in with our elders regularly and ask, like how did they use to do this? How did they use to do that? Some of it is, you really have to jog a person’s memory, but still we’re lucky to have our knowledge keepers as resources.
Hannah Shultz: I asked Shelley to tell me a bit more about their work and initiatives to promote traditional foods.
Shelley Buffalo: Activities in the program to promote traditional foods include workshops. They also include community gardens. Historically we had three gardens. That was Meskwaki Settlement School Garden, as well as the Elders’ Garden. So those were programs that provided with the Solomon School, the farm-to-school activities, including having the kids out there in the spring, like their last two weeks of school planting the garden. And then the program maintains the gardens throughout the growing season and then in the fall having the kids go back and do the harvest. And so it’s a smallish garden, not huge, just enough for that engagement level to be maintained. And all of the food then goes to Meskwaki Settlement School, which has their own culture program. So those traditional foods would go to the culture program staff to do their own demonstrations and tastings in the school, as well as any excess would then go to the school lunch program. And so the other garden, the Elders’ Garden, is a garden that provides growing space for traditional foods for the senior services program lunch, as well as… So right now they’re doing Meals on Wheels, but it’s really important to get the traditional foods incorporated back into those Monday through Thursday lunch meals for seniors, as well as draw on the knowledge of seniors who are knowledge keepers in gardening and cooking, drying techniques, processing techniques for our traditional foods. That’s a great relationship that the programs support each other in that way. We’ve conducted gardening workshops. We historically have maintained a sugar camp, which is a maple syrup camp next to the settlement school. It’s the school’s sugar camp, but we do the programming for it.
Hannah Shultz: Shelley also talked with me about the role of hunting.
Shelley Buffalo: The primary project that we engage our hunters with is an annual community meal called the Hunters Feast. And we asked for meat donations in exchange for a choice of gifts or gift cards and then we have a big community meal. We bring some chefs down from the Great Lakes Food Sovereignty Network to… I don’t know. Our guest chefs are culinary trained. So they apply these methods to kind of like, I guess, uplift the foods or to really… I don’t know, like this really food showcase, I guess, is how you could put that. And then we always have some local cooks from the Meskwaki community to prepare more traditional dishes. And all of it is just the celebration of native foods. So that’s like our primary engagement tool is that meal. And early this year, 2020, before the shutdown, we were able to have that meal.
Hannah Shultz: I’ll let you in on a secret, listeners. I love sharing food, whether it’s a dinner party, a potluck, a church luncheon. I love the food, the community, and all it represents. Food is best when it is shared. Hearing about the Hunters Feast has me so grateful for my own food traditions and those I’ve been brought into. It also forces me to think about the role of my community, past and present, in meddling in and stealing cultural and food traditions and the impact that has on indigenous communities. I love what Shelley is about to talk about here, this idea of cell memory.
Shelley Buffalo: One of the indigenous chefs that come down to help us with our community meals, her name’s Elena Terry and she’s from Ho-Chunk up in Wisconsin. And she talks about cell memory. So our traditional foods awaken that cell memory and the beautiful thing is that it provides that direct connection to our ancestors going back thousands and thousands and thousands of years of relationship like with our Tama Flint corn. So that’s a holistic thing because it’s very healing. One of the things that disconnected us from our food ways, as well as all of our other ancestral practices and our languages was the boarding school era. So it’s when families were forced to give up their children to be sent to church and government run boarding schools, which sought to replace – and more often than not with severely abusive methods – sought to replace Indian ways with white ways, Indian languages with English, Indian foods with white cultural foods, all of it across the board. And so the generation shift, like gen X, late baby boomers and gen Xers that’s where more and more you had parents who had been run through that boarding school system and had literally been beaten for speaking their languages. So they did not want their children to experience that. So there’s less and less of passing on the language, as well as the traditional practices of their people. The beautiful thing about growing and eating these foods is that, boom, the healing can begin. The real challenge is, like I said, getting people back to that and people want to, they’re definitely interested, but as passionate as I am about it, it’s still a daily challenge that the cheaper stuff, the convenience foods, with everybody working and now as parents with school-aged children, having to support their children’s learning in the home.
Hannah Shultz: If you want to hear more about the boarding school era, we spoke with Dara Jefferson about this in an episode of our Tackling Equity series about a year ago. I encourage you to have a listen. Another really cool way indigenous food cultures are celebrated is through the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit.
Shelley Buffalo: One of the most amazing experiences I had was Meskwaki Food Sovereignty hosted, that was in May of 2018, we hosted the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit. And so we had all of these fabulous chefs. There were tons of workshops about growing, about harvesting. There was a whole bison butchered, traditional harvest methods of butchering, hide tanning, pottery, and basketry, and everything associated with food and cooking that you can possibly come up with. There were numerous workshops going on as well as food sovereignty awareness and advocacy programs and keynote addresses and things like that, as well as a youth track that was attached to that too. And so my then high school aged son was able to participate in that and he cooked a duck that his adopted grandpa had donated and that was just so cool because that’s going back to that hunting, connecting the hunter then to cooking the food and just learning how to do all of that, because this just isn’t a daily practice anymore. So we really need to revitalize and uplift that.
Hannah Shultz: As Shelley looks toward the future, she’s thinking about what her community needs.
Shelley Buffalo: I plan to conduct a community assessment and find out if there’s interest and support in developing a small scale multi-species processing facility here at Meskwaki. Because now we have all these acres, so much of it is undeveloped land, so we have excellent habitat for deer and turkey and then for smaller game, especially for deer. It would be nice to have the multi-species processing facility. And then we could take the bison that are culled from the tribal herd there. And I’d really love to see some herds out here, as far as like… we have the land to support a grass-fed pasture raised operation, that’s the vision, but in order to initiate anything like that, it has to be community driven.
Hannah Shultz: The work the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative and Shelley do is so interesting and important. I’m excited to follow along and see where they go from here. Already today we’ve talked with a lot of people about food in Iowa. Our last guest for this episode is Greg Padget. Greg works with Practical Farmers of Iowa’s beginning farmer and farm transfer programs. So he works with farmers just getting started and farmers looking to pass their farms on. Practical Farmers of Iowa’s mission is equipping farmers to build resilient farms and communities. Practical Farmers of Iowa is an inclusive organization representing a diversity of farmers, organic and conventional row crop and vegetable farmers. I’ll let Greg tell us more.
Greg Padget: We have young farmers that are looking to get into farming. We have young farmers that are looking to get into family farming operations. But we also see a lot of mid-career farmers. So someone that’s worked their whole life in a different off-farm job and then has decided that this is the kind of the route to retirement. They want to step away from that job, use the capital they’ve built up to purchase some farm land and really try their hand at farming. So it’s a very diverse group of people.
Hannah Shultz: Greg is a farmer himself and grew up on a farm.
Greg Padget: I came to Practical Farmers initially as a member. I was working full time with a little acreage and really, I think through a neighbor, got to know Practical Farmers and started attending field days and became a member. Then through the emails that they send out, I founded this position working with beginning farmers. And at that time I was looking for a transition in employment because my current job was being transitioned out and so it was just a really great connection to be able to take my marketing and business background and my growing up on a farm, picking those two histories together and supporting other farmers through that as they go through that beginning journey.
Hannah Shultz: I asked Greg what it’s like to start farming if you’re not from a farm family.
Greg Padget: I believe it’d be really scary to start out without that background. I myself grew up on our family farm. We had a pretty conventional farm of cattle and hogs and row crops and the things that I learned growing up working alongside my dad, my cousins, my uncle, those are all things that I learned just by being part of and so many of those pieces have really helped me in starting my own farming journey with my family. Those are so hard to learn and if you haven’t had that experience and… it really creates a steeper learning curve for those that don’t have that experience. So many of them will look to interning or mentorship to gather some of that advice, but I think that’s the strength of the Practical Farmers network is learning from those farmers. And so asking other farmers how to do things and how they have learned to adapt and make things work for them. One example is a beginning farmer who is raising sheep for the first time in her life, had to do some vaccinations and had no idea how she was going to catch the sheep, how she was going to administer this vaccination and a neighbor happened to be there that day and knew how and so was able to kind of work side by side with her and help her through that process. So it’s really neat to see that community evolve around helping these new farmers really gather that knowledge so then they can lessen that learning curve as they work through their own farming journey.
Hannah Shultz: Greg’s described a lot of different kinds of farming. And in today’s episode, we’ve talked about a lot of different kinds of farming. So I was curious what Greg’s thoughts are on the importance of having diversity in our farm system.
Greg Padget: I think having this diversity is important to our landscape. When we add more diversity to the landscape, we’re improving the nutrients and the soil health that’s out there, but also when a farm is diverse, they are cushioning from risk. When you’re growing different crops, you can take a risk on one where hopefully the other one will continue to be profitable. And many farmers find that that diversity works together. As you’re grazing different species together, you can rotate your cattle following with your sheep following or with some pastured pigs following. You can do different grain rotations and those different rotations are going to build that soil, but also you’re going to see different efficiencies and an improvement through that process. So building that diversity is more about really taking care of the land that you have.
Hannah Shultz: Given Greg’s role helping new farmers starting out in Iowa I was curious what he sees as some of the challenges with getting started.
Greg Padget: I think building that community in any sense creates strength in your farm and the things that you do. And there’s so many different ways to find that community and many of our Practical Farmer members find that community in different ways. They find it within their own physical community. So the neighbors that are around them, the people in their local town, there’s a different sense of community because of that locality, it’s that neighbor that can come over and lend a hand to put the cattle in or mend the fence or bring the harvest in. Whereas sometimes there’s a larger community within Practical Farmers of people doing things similar to you. So sometimes your farming practices may look a little different than your neighbors’. And I think that there’s a lot of value in having that community together in your neighborhood, doing different things and sharing what you’re learning from each other, but sometimes it’s really helpful to have community with those that are doing similar things so you can learn together. A lot of our on-farm research that we do at Practical Farmers is that community, it’s those farmers coming together and saying, these are the things that we want to know about, these are the things we want to research and help us do this, collect this on-farm research so we can find out, is what we’re thinking right? Is this practice something that’s going to help us become more efficient, more profitable? And so they can learn together and use that community to better their businesses, improve their land and their soil quality and their efficiency and their profitability. And we just, as humans, we feel comfortable with those that really connect with us and so, so many farmers find that in the Practical Farmers network they find people that are similar to them and really they can connect at that level. And so our annual conference in January always becomes this big family reunion because so many of these farmers are always in contact through email or phone or text. But that’s one time that many of them actually get to physically see each other. So it’s a really warming experience to see that come together.
Hannah Shultz: Farming is not an easy profession and does not make for a predictable life. At the risk of being crass, I asked Greg why someone would choose to farm.
Greg Padget: So many farmers start for so many different reasons. Many young farmers just want to really know where their food is coming from and really want to provide high quality, nutritious food for their community and so they can do that through farming. So that really is what draws them to this occupation. Others that are moving through a generation farm is something that they grew up doing, they’ve seen the hard work and the values that go into it, and they want to continue that for their family. And others may, in particular in kind of, that let’s say in that mid-life or mid-career farmers, they may have inherited some land and really have fond memories of the land as they were growing up and really want to take ownership of it and see how they can improve that land, build more wildlife habitat, improve the soil health. And so they can do that through farming. So everyone kind of comes at it at their own… kind of their own point. Some people really seek out to farm full time. Other people want to really enjoy their off-farm job and so they want to hang on to that, but want to be involved in farming and so they may do the farming on the side. And so it becomes kind of a nights and weekends kind of farming gig, but that’s something that they really value and want to bring into their life. I also mentioned kind of the mid-life or the mid-career farmers, the ones that are kind of have had their career life and now are looking to get back to the land and kind of, as they look at it, as a simpler way of life, but also it just creates a different lifestyle.
Hannah Shultz: Farming is tough. Greg shared his perspective on what some of the challenges farmers and farming communities have to deal with.
Greg Padget: Land access for beginning farmers is really a challenge and so as we move into this time where a lot of farm land is going to start to change hands through inheritance, as those that inherit the land don’t farm the land, there’s less attachment to it and so it’s easier to look at it as a cash asset and not an asset that’s productive in the sense of really building a farming landscape. And so from that, we can see land prices really skyrocket and so that can really add a large challenge because these young farmers or these new farmers that are trying to get access to land really struggle because they can’t afford these higher land prices that are out there and so they aren’t able to make it profitable to just start farming. And so the change of hands in farming is really… So then that can lead to larger farms as they are able to, they have the assets and the ability to expand and take on this land and pay these higher prices. And so it becomes very competitive in that sense, but we also see our rural communities struggle as farms get larger, there’s less and less people in our communities because these farms, the ones that are built around these communities and they need more than what they can provide. So they turn to their community for purchasing, for labor, for markets and a lot of these beginning farmers, the way they really are able to afford to get started is through direct marketing so they can get that whole dollar that they’re looking for and so they don’t have that kind of middle processor. And so doing that through their local communities really builds the economic value as well. So the more farmers we see on the landscape in these rural communities, the more vibrant communities we’re going to have because they’re going to be shopping in their local community, their kids are going to be going to school in the local community. So those are a lot of the things as we’ve gotten larger, we start to see those dwindle by. One that has really has been an issue, but really has become more on the forefront recently is meat processing. When COVID hit, there was this fear of the lack of supply of meat and that rapidly filled all the lockers, the small lockers that we have in rural communities. And so now we have too much capacity for these lockers and they don’t have enough labor to meet that capacity or enough infrastructure, enough freezer space, or processing areas to meet that demand. So that’s really created this challenge for beginning farmers and small farmers to find places to process their meat so they can market that directly to farmers. But also just markets in general can be really challenging because you’re… not only are you growing these things, but you’re also tend to market directly to the customer. So you’re not just dropping them off at the sale barn or sending them to the local co-op, but you’re bringing them to farmer’s markets or you’re selling them through CSAs so you’ve got to do the marketing of finding those customers and then maintaining those customers. So all of that adds a different challenge and it needs different skillsets that some farmers really thrive on and they do really well with, and other farmers don’t thrive as much with that. They really want to be the producer. So not having a market, like with grain you can go to the local co-op or elevator, and you can market that grain directly to them straight from the field or straight from your bin but you can’t do that when you have a pallet full of carrots. You have to be able to find someone that’s going to purchase a pallet full of carrots. There’s not a single aggregator that’s really purchasing those things in Iowa. So it’s going to multiple grocery stores or farmer’s markets to see how you can move that product so it creates a pretty big challenge. Through this pandemic we have definitely seen, particularly local vegetable producers, have seen an uptick in people that are willing to purchase local. And it’s hard to kind of anticipate how that will continue, but I know that they’ll continue to ride that as long as they can, but I think it provides an opportunity. One of those challenges is attracting customers. So now if they’ve, through the pandemic, if that’s helped them attract customers, that’s created one less barrier to getting them so now they can really focus on maintaining those customers and really they have the customer to ask them what they’re looking for and to get that feedback so they can raise the things that that customer is looking for. So hopefully it creates this conversation and this dynamic between the consumer and the producer that will hopefully continue after the pandemic clears. It’s great that they’re getting all this business, but then it’s also… I was just talking with my local locker this morning and it’s exhausting for them. They’re booked out through 2021 and then people already feel they should be looking at 2022, but they don’t know what they’re going to be raising at that point and the meat locker doesn’t know what their 2022 is going to look like. I think farming can be very romanticized. You see the very idyllic rolling hills and beautiful red barns and the happy families on their little family farm and I think that that’s definitely there, but then there’s also those moments of the challenges of working with nature. And you’re battling all this rain and you have all the carrots in the field and you can’t harvest them because it’s too wet or your livestock is sick and you are struggling to find out why, how to care for them and what is causing them to be sick. So there’s a lot of reality, when you’re working with the environment and nature can really take a toll. But then also there can be a sense of loneliness as well and kind of a sense of isolation when you’re on the farm working and you don’t have a workplace with many coworkers. It’s usually you doing things on your own or with some family or a few employees. And in the heat of the season, you’re so busy, you don’t have time to go… The crops still need harvested and the livestock still need to be moved into the fields and you don’t have time to do other social things, so it can create a lot of isolation. And so there’s a lot of mental health that you really need to be cognizant of when you are in farming. And so those are kind of some things that aren’t as fun and exciting to talk about that can easily be forgotten, but are really important to keep in mind.
Hannah Shultz: Recognizing that farming is tough, Greg shared some thoughts on what farmers can do and what those of us living in and near farming communities can do to be supportive.
Greg Padget: I think community is a big piece of it. A big piece of trying to curb that loneliness or that isolation but also sometimes being very intentional and really thinking about what you are doing and how your quality of life really plays into that. I think that that’s something that is hard to remember in the beginning years of farming, but then as you start refining your business it becomes something that I see kind of that six- to 10-year group of farmers really thinking more about like, “I can’t raise everything because it’s too hard on me. So what can I raise and continue to make a profit and really focus on those pieces?” And I think that that’s another piece that Practical Farmers really thrives on is farmers supporting each other. And so again, it circles back to that being with people that really understand what you’re doing and where you’re at. So if you’re with other vegetable farmers that are experiencing the same things where they’re not leaving the farm for days, and they’re just working out in the sun, knowing that you can shoot a text or give them a call and just know that you’re not alone in that sense, building those networks can be incredibly helpful to those farmers.
Hannah Shultz: To round out today’s episode we’ll close with the obvious, the food system is complicated.
Greg Padget: It’s easy to go to the grocery store and get the food that we need, but it’s very… There’s a lot of different moving parts when you’re a producer and a distributor. A grocery store is going to have a really hard time working with 20 different producers for different vegetables, where it’s easier for them to go to one vegetable distributor and get all of their vegetables from them. And so there’s a lot of challenges within that, because if farmers are going to be able… Farmers want to market the products that they have but then there’s a lot of logistics and challenges for those that are selling the products to the consumer and how they get consistent product and the quantity of product that they need. And one thing that we’ve moved away from is really eating seasonally and in Iowa the produce that we grow is seasonal. We only have tomatoes for four or five weeks in the summer, and we have sweet corn for just a narrow window, but those are things that we want to eat year round. So it creates this challenge in our food system, because if there’s that demand for those foods all year round, we need to find different places to bring them in from. And so it’s a challenge logistically to find all of those places and then bring all that food together. We’re removed enough that we don’t… Not only removed enough, but we also are in a society that doesn’t understand that. Like we’re able to get those foods that we want when we want them. We’ve made that possible. And so it’s hard to support local and keep that mentality.
Hannah Shultz: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Share Public Health. Thank you to the Injury Prevention Research Center, Iowa Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, the Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest, the Heartland Center for Occupational Health and Safety, the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health, the Midwestern Public Health Training Center, the Prevention Research Center for Rural Health and the Rural Policy Research Institute. The theme song for this series is Walk Along John. It’s performed by Al Murphy on fiddle, Mark Janssen on mandolin, Brandy Janssen on banjo, Warren Hamlin on guitar and Aletta Murphy on bass. Al learned these songs from a fiddler named Albert Spray, who is from Kahoka, Missouri. A transcript, evaluation and discussion guide for this episode are available at mphtc.org and in the podcast notes.