From Iowa Corn to Coastal Fisheries

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Lorraine Merrill New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner

On a visit to Iowa for last week’s National Association of State Departments of Agriculture meeting, we saw the prosperity brought to the region by the commodity grain boom and the ethanol industry.

We also saw drought-parched fields of corn and soybeans — although fields in the Des Moines area were far from a total loss.

People brag that Iowa’s human population of 3 million is dwarfed by the number of pigs — more than 20 million.

Farm equipment is monster-sized and guided by the latest GPS and computing equipment to provide for precise placement of inputs and automatic data-recording, including crop yields from each acre as they are harvested.

Beef producers and processors in Iowa are concerned about declining numbers of cattle due to loss of pasture lands. They worry the decline will lead to loss of beef industry infrastructure.

While the economy is prospering, conversion to development is not the primary cause of loss of grazing land. It’s conversion to corn that has reduced pasture access for cattle operators.

Much of Iowa’s farmland is owned by nonfarmers, often absentee landlords who inherited the family farm. Corn growers can pay much higher rents, thanks to high prices brought in part by demand from ethanol plants that have sprouted across the Corn Belt.

Another change since my last visit a decade ago is the appearance of more New England-style, diversified smaller farms. The Des Moines Farmers Market is a beautiful sight, with more than 70 vendors and an abundance of locally produced crops, food products and other goodies.

Many of us remember the presidential election of 1988, when presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis admonished Iowa farmers beaten down by the 1980s farm crisis that they should imitate Massachusetts farmers — who were getting top-dollar for crops like arugula and Belgian endive.

Some Iowa farmers are now doing just that. Still, the thought of any sizable portion of Iowa’s more than 30 million acres of cropland planted to boutique vegetables is pretty humorous.


Sea Celebrations

Two seacoast celebrations this past weekend highlighted the connections between local food grown and produced on land, and locally caught or farmed fish and seafood.

By coincidence, these events came just days before the National Marine Fisheries Service Oct. 1 closure of large areas of our coastal waters to fishing to protect harbor porpoises.

The fishermen say ever-tightening regulations are accelerating consolidation as “big box” vessels buy up the quota of struggling family-owned smaller boats.

The fourth annual Fishtival drew nearly 5,000 people to Portsmouth’s Prescott Park on Saturday to celebrate and sample fresh, local seafood and fish. People of all ages enjoyed the educational displays and activities, and the chance to tour fishing boats and talk with the fishermen.

The Seafood Throwdown is a local take on the Iron Chef competitions. Two teams of chefs prepared a meal in front of an admiring audience, using a “mystery fish” revealed at the start of the contest.

The chefs headed for the Portsmouth Farmers Market to obtain the accompaniments for the pollock and lobster. They came back loaded with bok-choy, tatsoi, chard, purple potatoes, purple tomatillos, Japanese eggplant, onions, and other vegetables and herbs.

As the chefs worked, speakers highlighted the threats to the local fishing economy, and praised the quality of local foods, and how communities benefit when people choose to buy local.

Sunday was Slow Food Seacoast’s fourth annual Heirloom Harvest Barn Dinner. With 12 participating restaurants and more than 10 source-farms, this event is a chefs-community labor of love. The theme was under-appreciated local fish and seafood — with some part of host farmer Josh Jenning’s pig served in every course.

The Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative at Seabrook Harbor has opened a retail market at 725 Ocean Blvd., selling lobster, shellfish and finfish fresh off the boats.

Lorraine Merrill is New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Markets & Food.

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