Balancing the World of Sustainable Agriculture

Craig Chase, interim program leader for the Leopold Center, takes time out of his busy schedule for a photo.

With a total of 27 years experience, Craig Chase knows a thing or two about sustainable agriculture. The ISU Extension and Outreach farm program specialist is the interim program leader for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Marketing and Food Systems Initiative, Chase is also the coordinator of the statewide Local Food and Farm Program, which is part of an initiative created by the Iowa Legislature in 2011 to increase the availability of Iowa-grown products. More information regarding the Local Food and Farm Program initiative can be found at http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/content/local-food-and-farm-program.

What has been the most notable accomplishment or activity of the Local Food and Farm Program so far?

The amount of communication and discussion has provided really great dialogue among diverse groups of people from the medical field to farmers. They talk about the same issues and how we as a group can solve them. It’s not a “we” versus “they” discussion. What I’m hearing is, “What is my part and how can I contribute.” The implications for beginning farmers within food system development work are also really exciting.

You wear several hats throughout the day, considering your roles as an extension farm management specialist, interim leader for the Marketing and Food Systems Initiative and now the state coordinator for the Local Food and Farm Program. What is your favorite hat to wear?

My favorite is the Marketing and Food Systems Initiative. It allows me to develop partnerships and communicate with really diverse groups of individuals and organizations with common goals ranging from food insecurity, health and nutrition, food safety and production. It’s really a wide range of topics. One day we’ll be talking about health and nutrition and the next day we’ll be talking about beginning farmers. No two days are the same. For more information about the Marketing and Food Systems Initiative, visit http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/marketing.

Is it hard to keep these jobs separate from one other? Are the closely related?

They are so closely related that if you were to ask which one I was working on, I may not know. If I’m working with a beginning farmer, for example, it could be me as an extension farm management specialist talking about direct marketing products. Or I could be discussing food hub research within the Marketing and Food Systems Initiative within the same conversation.

Where do you see local foods heading as part of the state’s economy?

I see local foods becoming larger and larger in the state’s economy. Although we’ll never see local food production come near conventional food production levels either in acres or dollars, I think you’ll see regions develop more processing, aggregation, transportation and a series of businesses created around local food systems. It’s really exciting because a significant number of jobs will be created.

Where do you see the role of science and technology—and extension and outreach—of local foods in playing a role in addressing “bigger issues” of hunger and growing populations?

Hunger is a huge issue and many production people—horticulturists, animal scientists and many other scientists — are working hard at increasing production. Within urban communities such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, you will see urban planners looking at ways to transition empty lots and public green spaces into “edible” spaces. Community leaders, extension specialists, school gardens and local 4-H groups are all involved in other aspects related to food insecurity, food deserts and hunger issues.

Is there anything new or exciting on the horizon with organic farming and organic methods?

Most beginning fruit and vegetable growers start by selling their produce at local farmers’ markets, through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and other direct methods. Consumers truly do want to “know their farmer, know their food.” They want to know how the product they are buying was grown or raised. Consumers buying direct may not need the organic certification or other labeling as long as they know the farmers they are buying from and believe the farmer conducted the production practices that are important to them. So what is exciting is that there appears to be a lot more organic production practices conducted than currently reported by the USDA and that those organic production practices are likely to increase.

From your conversations with Iowa growers, has Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign been helpful to local food producers and their goals?

I am not sure about the campaign’s direct effect on local producers. We are seeing a rapid increase in school gardens in Iowa. We also see an increase in the integration of school gardens into the curriculum, which is exciting. Schools look at what they can do, what they can accomplish and integrate gardens into the science, technology and math curriculum. This increase in school gardens has been largely influenced by the Food Corps and AmeriCorps programs. They are a great partner in this work. If the use of these gardens can influence consumption of local food outside the schools, then it could have a large effect on the demand for local food, which would be helpful to local food producers.

What is one locally produced food you enjoy seeing — and eating — on your dinner plate?

Fresh strawberries.

What three words best characterize how you approach your job—and your life?

Partnerships, because we can’t do it all and we each by ourselves are not good at everything. Balance, because too much of any one thing can be bad. And fun, because sometimes we have to stop and have fun and celebrate what we’ve accomplished together.