Why-owa? My Thoughts on the Farmers Market State

My Connection to the Hawkeye State

In the early aughts (2002-2003), I spent a year as a visiting instructor at the University of Iowa, which meant living in the Iowa City area. Having known very little about the Midwest (except that it was some place I never imagined living in), I was beyond pleasantly surprised by Iowa City (although, as a student told me, “Iowa City is not what you think of when you think of Iowa”). I really loved my year here, even those winter mornings featured a few too many temperature readings below 0°F.

In Which She Marvels at the Food Available to Her

Let it be said at the time, I was (and still am) what would be termed a “healthy eater”. Definitely a food lover (why else would I write this blog?), but certainly leaning toward the healthy end of the spectrum. At the time, that was high-fiber, low-fat, semi-vegetarian (today such a diet is no longer the sin qua non of healthy eating, as meat and butter and such have made quite the comeback). But I had no trouble finding organic vegetables, tofu, tempeh, exotic cheeses, interesting grains and the like. In fact, I joined the New Pioneer Food Co-op within 6 hours of moving to Iowa. What a magical place that was for me! Two branches—one (complete with a bakehouse turning out marvelous and inventive breads) within a short walk of my apartment and one within a short walk of my campus office. I was in gustatory heaven!

Then there were the restaurants. Spanning the globe in terms of cuisines, as well as ways of eating (e.g. vegetarian), I had numerous choices on the days I opted not to cook (which were many, given that I was finishing a dissertation at an East Coast school and teaching a full load of mostly new classes at Iowa). Granted, Iowa City is a Big Ten (or 11 or 12—I’m out of touch with this now) with a large medical school (and dental school and law school) to boot, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But (and this was probably some residual East Coast elitism) I was nonetheless pleasantly delighted at my options!

But one of the things I really loved were the farmers markets. Yes, plural—I shopped at the Iowa City one (open twice a week) and the Coralville one (once a week). And now there’s a third one in the old Sycamore Mall location. Anyway, the array of produce options and other goods (breads, etc.) was wonderful. So, when I ran the numbers for farmers markets, I really wasn’t that surprised. There’s clearly a market for farm-fresh products in Iowa. Iowa has a food-aware populace (why else would my coop—and I’m still a member—have two locations, with a third on the way). And, also important, there are actual farmers there as well. So to me it makes sense that Iowa leads the farmers market charge!

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And Something Else: Seed Savers Exchange

Iowa is also the home of the United States’s premier organization devoted to the preservation of heirloom varieties of produce and plants, as well as heritage breeds of animals, Seed Savers Exchange. This nonprofit has been around since 1975. I’ll post about it some other time (as I was fortunate to visit this past summer), but to me it is another indication of the food (and food-issue) cognizant people you find in Iowa. No, it’s not all heirloom peaches and heritage cream (I drove by a Monsanto plant and did give them the finger), but there is a critical mass there.

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Why-Owa? Iowa!

In short, finding Iowa front and center in the number of farmers markets per capita is almost expected. There’s farmland, farmers, and a ready (and educated) populace—ingredients for a successful farmers market locus!

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