I've often been told that my nostalgic belief in a patchwork of small farms providing the social and economic fabric that supports rural America is simply a romanticized memory of a by-gone era and not a vision of things to come. Statistics from across the nation seem to substantiate the naysayers.
However, one group in Iowa has taken the initiative to walk the talk. Iowa Network for Community Agriculture (INCA) is a group of 120 volunteers whose mission is to develop relationships among those who are committed to sustainable local-food sources that are safe and healthy for people, the land and all creatures. INCA is a statewide group with half its members producing food for local markets and the other half partnering to build relationships to develop markets.
INCA started eight years ago as a spin-off of an Iowa State University conference about community-supported agriculture. There was so much energy and interest at the conference about networking and direct marketing of locally grown foods, attendees obtained a grant to get INCA off the ground. INCA's Eighth Annual Local Foods System Conference will be held in Ames, Iowa on Dec. 6-7. Community agriculture and networking to get people connected across the state to learn from one another is still the focus. The annual winter conference, field days and workshops are the tools that INCA employs to educate its members.
Tucked in the hills and hollers of northeast Iowa, near the town of Decorah, is a farm that stands apart from any other that I know of in Iowa and probably the nation. The farm has a red barn, white house, cattle and crops. But in 1986 Kent Whealy began developing it as Heritage Farm, a unique educational facility that maintains and displays collections of 18,000 heirloom vegetables, 700 19th-century apples, 200 hardy grapes and a herd of Ancient White Park cattle. Kent is the director of Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization that he and his wife, Diane, founded in 1975. Kent will be the keynote speaker at the INCA conference.
Because we are a nation of immigrants, gardeners and farmers from every corner of the world invariably brought their best seeds to America. This rich garden heritage had never been systematically collected until Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) was founded in 1975. Today SSE is a unique network of 8,000 gardeners who are working together to maintain and distribute thousands of heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties. Since 1975, SSE's members have distributed an estimated one million samples of rare seeds, many on the verge of extinction. SSE's genetic preservation projects have provided the model for similar projects and organizations in more than 30 countries.
Part of the slide show presentation conference-goers will see is the restoration of Heritage Farm's barn by Amish carpenters, and their construction of the oak post-and-beam frame for SSE's new complex of offices and seed storage facilities. After his presentation, Kent will conduct a workshop providing detailed information about how to save your own seeds.
Farmers learning how to save their own seeds fit well into the big picture. The practice results in substantial annual savings along with the satisfaction that comes from being a truly independent farmer. Raising food that is healthy for both people and the environment, economically viable for all, and locally owned is a component of sustainable communities. Conventional agriculture is not going away in Iowa anytime soon. But it seems with groups such as INCA, sustainable agriculture may be on the rise. If the practices are truly sustainable, the type of farming promoted by INCA will last a lot longer than conventional, large-scale agriculture.
LaVon Griffieon of Ankeny, Iowa, is a farmwife and co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa, a group that promotes responsible land use. She is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.