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Go Organic, Get a Tax Cut

Iowa county hopes incentives will boost population and economy

September 30, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

A highly innovative, new tax policy in Woodbury County, Iowa, helps farmers move from mainstream agriculture to organic farming.

Like other communities across the nation, Woodbury County, Iowa, wants a vibrant economy.

Now Woodbury, dominated as far as the eye can see by acres of industrial mega-farms, is trying a first-in-the-nation community investment strategy. This summer the county board of supervisors voted to offer property tax rebates to farmers who switch to organic methods.

Organic farming? The very idea of organic agriculture, with its core philosophy of ecological, nature-based growing practices seems out of place in this center of industrial, petrochemical-intensive farming. It is here, after all, that single farms, planted mostly in soybeans or corn, sprawl across the rolling plains for thousands of acres. Thousands of pigs are confined in factory-style barns. And major agribusiness corporations operate in the county or nearby, including Tyson Foods, the world’s largest processor of beef, pork, and chicken; Beef Products Inc., purveyor of hamburger to the fast-food industry; and grain giants Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.

Woodbury County hopes to balance large-scale, industrial agriculture with small and midsize organic farms through its tax incentive program. The commissioners said they see plenty of evidence that organic farming not only turns a larger profit on a smaller amount of land than mainstream agriculture, it also employs a significantly larger number of people. They hope to reverse the trend toward fewer farmers working ever-larger farms with expensive machinery, which has led to a population decline and serious, negative consequences for the county.

“Market forces in agriculture and national farm policies over the last 40 years (which favor industrial farms) have contributed to the decline of our rural communities,” said Rob Marqusee, the county’s rural economic development director. “Groceries are closing. Downtown buildings are empty. These towns are just holding on by the skin of their teeth.”

Bigger Farms, Fewer Farmers
Folks remember when more farming families lived on the land, filling churches, going to school, and shopping at local hardware stores, lumber yards, and cafes. Now, Woodbury’s supervisors believe it is time to invest in small and mid-size family farms as a way to revitalize their rural communities. And they think organic farming, with its track record of higher profits and more labor-intensive, job-producing practices, could attract more young people and entrepreneurs to farming, which would help reverse population declines and revitalize the county’s stagnant towns.

Woodbury County provides a snapshot of what’s taking place across the nation: Small and mid-size family farms can’t compete against industrial-size farms. Large farms have the competitive edge in delivering vast quantities of livestock, produce, milk, eggs, and grain to large processors like Tyson, fast-food chains like McDonald’s, and discount food stores like Wal-Mart. In other words, mega-farms have much easier access to the millions of consumers who buy Tyson chicken, eat at McDonald’s, or shop at Wal-Mart.

This is why small and mid-sized farms are going out of business around the nation and in Woodbury County. From 1982 to 2002 the number of farms in Woodbury County declined 27 percent, from 1,579 to 1,148. Meanwhile, the average size of farms increased by the same amount and the number of farms that are more than 1,000 acres increased nearly 78 percent.

At the same time the population in the rural parts of Woodbury County has declined 11.2 percent, and farmers are getting older and scarcer. Mr. Marqusee said that the average age of farmers in Iowa is 55, and more than half of the state’s farms are expected to change hands within the next 10 years. Woodbury County wants those farms to be in the hands of family farmers who keep money in their own communities and who are a part of the social fabric.

Show Me the Money
But does organic agriculture really pay better and create more jobs?

Mr. Marqusee quotes industry figures that say organic farming typically requires 2.5 times more labor than conventional farming and reaps 10 times the profit.

And then there are these indicators:

  • A five-year study published in September 2003 by the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that consumers in 12 metropolitan markets were willing to pay up to $1.50 a gallon more for milk labeled free of the artificial growth hormone rBST and $3 more for milk labeled organic. People’s willingness to pay higher prices was not necessarily linked to income, and once consumers switched to specially labeled milk they generally did not switch back. While organic milk makes up less than one percent of milk sold in the country, it is the fastest-growing segment of the dairy industry.
  • A May 2005 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that, from 2000 to 2004, wholesale prices for organic broccoli carried premiums of 65 to 223 percent over conventionally raised broccoli. Organic carrots carried a premium between 130 and 175 percent. Mesclun mix—a gourmet salad mix—carried less of a premium, but was still 10 to 18 percent higher than similar non-organic greens.
  • When the Sioux City Journal wrote about the Woodbury policy, it quoted an Iowa State University specialist who said farmers were getting $15 per bushel for organic soybeans versus $5.50 for conventionally raised beans. He also said organic farmers average a profit of $80 per acre, compared to $20 per acre for nonorganic.
  • And, finally, consumer interest in organics is growing. Nationally, certified organic foods make up just 2 percent of the foods consumers buy, but they form the fastest-growing sector of the nation's food economy: Sales have grown between 17 and 21 percent each year since 1997, compared to only two to four percent for nonorganic foods, according to the national Organic Trade Association.

Nuts and Bolts
Here’s how the Organics Conversion Policy works.

First, Mr. Marqusee said, farmers need more information. The county and the Organic Grassfed Beef Coalition, an Akron, Iowa-based group of producers, will host an Organic Farmer Conference Nov. 9-10 to give farmers a chance to hear from, and ask questions of, top names in the organic farming, marketing, and sustainable agriculture fields. Organic Valley Family of Farms, a cooperative of over 700 organic farmers in 21 states, for example, has a Transition to Organic Fund to help dairy farmers across the country offset the costs of switching over to organic.

In mid-January, farmers may apply for the property tax rebate. If approved, they’ll receive the rebate for five years as long as they become certified organic within three years. The county, out of general funds, is willing to spend up to $50,000 a year on the program, with no more than $10,000 a year going to any one farm. A 100-acre farm would save about $2,000 a year in taxes.

The county will give first priority to farmers who show through a business plan that they’ve gained some understanding of organic farming and the organic market, Mr. Marqusee said. A county organics board made up of professionals and organic farmers will review the applications and will provide ongoing support to help the farmers succeed.

Mr. Marqusee doesn’t expect to come close to spending $50,000 the first year, because he suspects many farmers will take a wait and see attitude. However, he is already hearing from younger, would-be farmers who are interested in putting their land to work.

Mr. Marqusee sees spin-off potential for development of other related businesses, such as small- to- mid-scale organic processing facilities. And he sees organic farms creating a need for additional organic farms, for example organic feed farms for livestock.

Tim Beeler, who is about to start a “natural” pig farm in Woodbury (pigs raised without hormones and antibiotics) said he would consider becoming an formally certified organic operation if there were other farms nearby that could supply him with organic straw.

“This is forward thinking,” Mr. Beeler said. “A county actually took an initiative to help convert conventional farmers to a niche farming operation that will help them sustain their family farms.”

George Boykin, chairman of the Woodbury County board and, at 65, a lifelong resident of the area, said he hopes the policy will lure young people back to the farming profession and to rural Woodbury. The consolidation of farms into mega-farms has backfired, he said.

“I don’t think it is good for America as a whole,” he said. “Some of the smaller towns are just withering because the small farmers can’t survive. They lose their schools. They lose their churches. They lose everything. We are trying to offer our community another alternative, where families can provide a decent living for themselves by working on the land.”

Diane Conners is a journalist and organizer for the Michigan Land Use Institute's New Entrepeneurial Agriculture project. Reach her at Diane@mlui.org.

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