Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
Photo courtesy of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
Rich Pirog joined the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University as education coordinator in 1990. He has been Program Leader for the Center's Marketing and Food Systems Initiative since 2001, and became associate director in February 2007. Pirog directs the Value Chain Partnerships for a Sustainable Agriculture (VCPSA) project, a multi-organizational effort that provides technical assistance to farmer-led food, fiber, and energy businesses. Pirog leads the Regional Food Systems Working Group, one of four VCPSA communities of practice.
He is a member of the Iowa Food Policy Council, and in 2004 served as part-time associate director for Practical Farmers of Iowa. In 2003, he received the Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa, and in 2004, he received the Iowa State University College of Agriculture Award for Outstanding Achievement and Service.
Pirog's work on food miles, ecolabels, and place-based foods has been publicized in magazines and media outlets across the globe and is often cited in college courses that focus on food systems and sustainable agriculture. The New York Times lists "food miles" — the distance that food travels from where it is grown to where it is sold — as one of the top new buzzwords for 2006. Another national publication, Business Review Online, also cites local foods among the top 10 food trends to watch in 2007.
NCAT's Midwest Office Director Holly Born recently talked with Rich Pirog about his involvement with local food and sustainable agriculture and the obstacles and opportunities he sees.
Q. What shaped your interest in food and local foods in particular?
A. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood in the New York City metro area. As a child, food was part of all celebrations and traditions, and there was a real connection between the food you ate, what it signified, and the time of the year...that was what shaped my interest in local and regional food. Food was not just fuel for the body, but a real celebration of an occasion.
Q. New York City is a long way from Iowa! What was the path that led you to the Leopold Center?
A. Well, I have an undergraduate degree in earth science from Kean College in New Jersey, and went to the University of Missouri where I got a master's degree in agricultural meteorology. While I was in graduate school, I took agricultural classes and that was what got me interested in agriculture. I worked in industry for a few years and then began work as an extension agriculturalist in Missouri. During a sabbatical for a field extension program to help the University of Missouri Extension develop a water quality plan of work in the late 1980s, I got interested in agriculture and the environment, and that led me to sustainable agriculture. In 1990, I started at the Leopold Center as Director of Educational Programs.
Q. How have Leopold's focus and activities changed over the years?
A. By the mid '90s, more people were getting involved in sustainable agriculture, and more and more people began to see sustainable agriculture was really about more than protecting the environment. Farmers needed markets! Producers must be rewarded for environmental stewardship and farmers need a level of market power within the supply chain.
So the Leopold Center started to do some pilot funding in local food systems and value added agriculture, in addition to the water quality work that it was already funding. Since 1995, I have been doing food systems work. During that time we have had a very ambitious program as well as lots of special programs. We moved from a major focus on best practices and water quality toward a more diverse set of programs. By 2000, Fred Kirschenmann [former director and current Distinguished Fellow of the Leopold Center] reorganized the structure of the center to focus on the three areas where it is active today: Marketing and Food Systems, Ecology, and Policy. As we celebrate the Center's 20th anniversary in 2007, our programs have continued to evolve. For example, our food systems work has transitioned from funding pilot demonstration projects that showed how it could work, to a wide range of projects aimed at addressing different aspects of the food system. A major challenge now is to develop the kind of infrastructure needed to support local and regional food systems.
Q. Tell us about some of the projects in the Marketing and Food Systems area that Leopold has funded recently.
Randy Boeckenstedt (standing) and Rich Pirog demonstrate the Iowa Produce Market Potential Calculator, developed with support from the Leopold Center. Photo courtesy Leopold Center.
A. In the past five years, the Center has funded many projects related to the food system. For example, we funded a project which looked into transactions costs of farmers who direct-market and compared those costs to farmers who are marketing in a network. Projects that help farmers determine how to price products for direct market or retail markets have been funded, as well as food distribution models. We try to fund projects that can help make a better case for public and private investment in local food systems, such as several recent studies that look at the economic impact of producing and marketing locally.
A case in point would be the recent research funded by Leopold and conducted by Dave Swenson, an economist with Iowa State University. Dave looked at the economic impact if Iowans ate the recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables and if just 25% of those fruits and vegetables were grown in Iowa. He found very significant economic benefit. We need to be able to fund research that provides more of this compelling evidence.
Q. You direct the Value Chain Partnerships for a Sustainable Agriculture (VCPSA) project. Tell me a little about the VCPSA.
A. VCPSA's central goal is to use collaborative approaches to support new and existing value chains that promote local ownership and influence environmental stewardship and economic sustainability for all members of the value chain. The project currently supports working groups in flax, pork niche markets, regional food systems, and the bio-economy. These groups are working to develop value chains that will create new marketing relationships among all the players in the value chain and offer a viable alternative for midsize farms.
Q. What is a value chain, and why is this concept important?
A. Briefly, a value chain is a string of companies or collaborating players who work together to satisfy market demands for specific products or services. We are focusing on local and regional food value chains where there is a focus on the relationships between the farm where the food or fiber is produced and where it is processed, distributed and sold. This means that regional food value chains have some advantages over the traditional food value chain. Regional and local food value chains offer opportunity for midsize farms to gain access to markets. Midsize farms are shut out of the industrial value chain and don't usually have the market power to compete with larger farms.
Q. You also serve on the Iowa Food Policy Council. What kinds of food policies would you like to see in place for Iowa and for the USA?
A. Yes, the Council has done good work on the food and nutrition side as well as on the market focus side. We need to have more opportunities for producers that are in alternative markets, and reduce or eliminate the penalties for farmers who want to transition to alternative production and markets. Right now, for example, farmers lose their corn base if they want to try growing alternative crops, such as kenaf. In general, there needs to be more opportunity for farmers not to be limited by the current commodities system but to be able to experiment with new crops and markets. Programs such as the Value Added Assistance program in USDA's Rural Development division need to be in place to help.
We need policies that support providing more access to capital for higher-risk enterprises. There is a large amount of money flowing to bioenergy enterprises, like ethanol, right now. But we can't overlook producers who want to get into a smaller businesses that take advantage of other opportunities. Each of these smaller businesses may not create dozens of jobs, but they do create jobs, and are very important for rural area economic development.
Q. What are the most important obstacles facing sustainable agriculture today?
A. We're making progress, but there's still a failure to take a systems approach to solving problems—for most of the problems we face, solutions are still designed for the symptoms, not the problem. For example, a person with a headache may rush to find a headache pill, but the sustainable ag approach finds out why the person has a headache and tries to prevent them from getting a headache in the first place. Our role is not to do remediation—that's not a real solution. We need to be able to get at the root of problems. Policy is often created to deal with the symptoms.
The key will be to take a broad look at policy, not just at the federal, but state, county and city levels. It gets harder to change policy as it moves up from local policy to the federal level. I see local policy models as key to a grassroots approach to reimagining agriculture. They are easier to evaluate and implement. We need to keep reminding people who may not want to spend time in Washington that they can have a significant impact on policy if they focus on local policy.
Q. What are the most important opportunities for sustainable agriculture today?
A. I see great opportunities to redesign food systems at the local and regional level. Related to this are the opportunities in the linkages between community based food systems and the health of people. For example, the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition, with assistance from the Leopold Center and many other groups, has been working to get people in the health community engaged in building a regional food system.
Another area of great opportunity is the bioeconomy, but we need to look beyond corn based ethanol. There just isn't any silver bullet to replace fossil fuels. Options like wind and solar energy seem to be free, but their availability varies by place. We need a whole set of energy options rather than relying on one or two.
We are developing new sources of energy from biomass, but we also need new opportunities for energy conservation at the farm level, in food processing and distribution, packaging, and in the home. Conservation is within our grasp and we can all play a role. With applied knowledge, a small amount of resources used strategically can produce big results.
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014