Fruit and Vegetable Planner Helps Iowa Farmers Move Beyond Corn
July 8, 2011 | Desa Philadelphia
Farmers in Iowa who are considering adding new crops to their offerings now have an online tool at their disposal to help them estimate market demand. Using an array of government statistics, the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Market Planner estimates the demand for 80 crops in state and in bordering states. The Market Planner, which became available for use last fall, is the result of a collaboration between the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and the Institute for Transportation at ISU.
Helping Iowa farmers move beyond corn and soybeans
One of the primary objectives behind the creation of the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Market Planner is to help Iowans diversify their crop offering. Currently Iowa farmers focus almost exclusively on growing and producing five commodities: corn, soybeans, hogs, cattle and eggs. Only about 14,000 to 15,000 acres of land is devoted to fruits and other vegetables. Compare that to the 14.2 million acres of corn and 9.2 million acres of soybeans Iowa farmers have planted this year. As a result, Rich Pirog, former Associate Director at the Leopold Center (he’s now Michigan State) and lead developer for the Market Planner, says that it has been nearly impossible for farmers to convince bankers that investing in new crops could be profitable.
“I like to use the analogy that it’s probably easier for an Iowa farmer to get a recreation loan for a boat, then sell the boat and buy something like a string bean picker, or an asparagus harvester, than to try to get a loan directly for that equipment,” he says. “From a banker’s point of view it is: ‘What am I going to do with this if you default?’”
Pirog and his colleagues theorized that if farmers had a detailed, quantitative way to show demand they would have better luck with the banks. They also saw the tool as a way to give sustainability advocates the kind of data that could bolster their appeals to state and local governments for crop investment and diversification. “It would provide information they might take to a county supervisor or a mayor and say ‘here is why we should make an investment in local food in our county,’” he says. “Better understanding what that demand is will lead to better planning.”
How it works
Users access the Planner online at http://www.intrans.iastate.edu/marketplanner, input the location of their farm or business (city/town and surrounding target miles), age range of their target customer (elementary schools kids, adults, seniors, all ages), the timeframe for sales (a month, a year), information about the product (fruit, berries, specifically strawberries) and units of crop measurement (acres, pounds, tons). They then get an estimate of whether there is a demand for additional quantities of the produce in the markets that they are targeting.
The target users for the Market Planner include producers, marketers, food buyers and others interested in the potential impacts of various changes within a specified target market or region.
The product was designed to be flexible enough for users to test numerous different scenarios. “Users could develop scenarios that would fit any iteration of market region, age group, category or produce, fruits, vegetables, processed etc., product price and market share,” says Pirog. And while it is not focused specifically on accounting for niches like organic farming, Pirog says users can account for those markets by utilizing available consumption data to determine, for example, what percentage of a product sold in the state is organic.
According to Pirog there is anecdotal evidence that counties in Iowa are investing in local crops based in part on information from the Market Planner. Many farmers use the market demand data generated by the tool in business and marketing plans that they use to obtain grants from such programs as the USDA’s Value Added Producer Grant Program, which awards grants to spur local food production.
The Leopold Center, anticipating that other researchers will want to develop similar tools for their regions (or even a national planner), has posted a how-to guide on the Market Planner site entitled Assembling a Prototype Fruit and Vegetable Market Planner Tool.