Iowa became more and more specialized, but there are signs today of a return to diversification.
The grape industry is seeing a revival, with the annual economic impact of the state’s vineyard and winery industry at about $234.3 million, according to the Iowa Wine Growers Association.
In 1999 there were 11 licensed wineries in the state; today there are 100.
O’Malley reports about 364 farms growing apples in the state, with about 56 growing on a commercially viable level.
And there’s room for growth, he says. “If people are willing to put in the money and time, there’s a lot of potential yet to be tapped in apples.”
Breaking into large-scale farming can be cost-prohibitive, with a new farmer needing about 1,000 acres.
Per acre farmland prices in Iowa averaged $6,700 last year. (Farmland in Sioux County sold for $20,000 an acre last December, a new record.)
A used tractor goes for around $125,000, a combine is about $100,000, and planters average $60,000.
“You start to add those up, and how do you start farming?” asks Kirschenmann. “It’s almost impossible to get into commodity agriculture.”
That challenge, he says, is helping to fuel the trend toward niche farming — small-scale, organic operations; CSA farms (with clients that pay in advance and receive crops weekly during the growing season); and selling at farmers’ markets.He calls the increase “dramatic.”
“They don’t need 1,000 acres; they need three, four, or five acres,” he says. “We’re starting to see this change take place.”
The trend brings a smile to Andrew Pittz’s face.
During a sunny September afternoon in the Loess Hills, he and his parents are among the bushes picking berries, their hands stained purple.
Their black-and-white cat, Elvis, supervises from the tall rye grass. The rocking chairs on the porch are empty, motionless except when rustled by the late summer wind. No time to sit and gaze. There’s work yet to be done.
The festival is a few days away, and the family’s been toiling day and night, preparing for another celebration of the fruit they’ve devoted so much to. Their exhaustion is mixed with triumph.
It’s a good feeling Andrew hopes can be repeated in Iowa’s rural areas with the return of the family farm. Aronia berries, he suggests, may help fuel the comeback.
“Everyone can be a part of it. The parents planting, farm chores for kids,” he says. “Rural communities have to survive.”
His passion for the idea is evident in his tone, his conviction visible on his face.
“We need them to thrive, not merely survive.”
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