Researchers at Iowa State University say converting a small amount of cropland to fruit and vegetable production could supply a significant portion of our region’s produce needs. The study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found growing roughly one-third of the region’s fresh produce locally would require about the amount of cropland in an average county in Iowa — or less.

Research scientist David Swenson says there’s growing interest in local food production, but it’s unclear whether local producers can satisfy consumers. Swenson says, “Our average consumer has gotten very used to buying their fruits and vegetables in the grocery store not in special markets, and those grocery stores tend to be supplied by extremely efficient producers from many different states who know more about growing and distributing fruits and vegetables than the average Iowa producer and distributor.”

He says it’s a tight learning curve and the economics of that have to be realized. Swenson says current farm policy favors large-scale row crop production, but that may change as demand for local produce increases. He says researchers found farmers could increase their revenue by converting to fruit and vegetable production, but they’d also have to spend more time managing those crops.

Swenson says, “I think what’s envisioned from people who are promoting local foods, it’s not that we get existing farmers to convert to fruits and vegetables production, it’s that we allow a crack in the door to agriculture that lets new types of farmers enter in and become part of the production system.”

Swenson found a local system could create nearly 10-thousand new jobs in the Upper Midwest, including more than 600 in Iowa. The study found that converting to a more local system could generate some $800 million in sales across six Midwestern states. Swenson focused his study on 28 common fruits and vegetables. Most Midwestern states currently produce only 1-to-3% of their population’s fruit and vegetable demand.