Protecting and Promoting the JoCo Foodshed

My restaurant turns 20 years old on Monday, and a lot has changed about the food scene in Johnson County in those two decades.  Eating locally was a fringe idea, not the hipster trend it became nor the mainstream mainstay it is now.  All this progress needs to be protected, though, or it will vanish.  That’s why two pending initiatives, revitalization of the historic “Poor Farm” and the proposed Food Enterprise Center, are important for the continued health of our foodshed.

The Johnson County Poor Farm is a wonderful resource that is very well maintained but currently under-utilized.  The Board of Supervisors put out an RFP for researching & planning potential uses, and accepted one from HBK in conjunction with the Iowa Valley RC&D, who presented their vision for “Phase 1” last week at the Tuesday (11/29) work session.  You can listen to the at-times-heated discussion here.  (Side note: I wasn’t there as it was during my current time to drive for Table to Table.)

All this did was give HBK some further guidance for what ideas merited further study, focus groups, etc.  What it did not do was decide anything about what will happen at the Poor Farm.  HBK will now explore the feasibility of six general ideas for the space.  In the future, the Board of Supervisors may decide to do all, some, or none of these things.  It’s important to understand that exploring feasibility is not the same thing as approving a final plan.

That said, the 6 areas of exploration are (in no particular order):

  1. Historic Preservation
  2. Local Food Production
  3. Housing
  4. Conservation
  5. Recreation/ Trails
  6. Education

It should be immediately clear that the one that has and will cause the most consternation is #3.  Please do not assume that this component means paving the whole Poor Farm, as has been alleged in some quarters.  No one is suggesting that; nor would I support it if they did.  Some ideas have been floated, though, that would address the intersectionality of affordable housing and farming local food.  One of the major problems a young farmer has in starting out is not so much finding land to farm, but finding land to farm that they can live on.  Is it possible that farmers could lease land and a small residence from the county?  Let’s find out.  It would be nice if it were possible, because it addresses a serious need.

Worthy of note: The Poor Farm is within the city limits of Iowa City, thus anything built on it, housing or otherwise, is not urban sprawl, but infill connected to city services.

Now of course this will not provide affordable housing for everyone who needs it.  It will not provide farmland for everyone who wants it.  It is hoped though that perhaps it could help some.  I see it as a parallel to the solar panels the county recently put in.  They do not provide the county buildings with 100% renewable energy.  But it was a good idea anyway.  It is excellent leadership by example, and will help bring solar energy a step closer to the mainstream.  Just as farm incubators can help bring us more local food.  Will the cost-benefit analysis work out?  I think so.  I hope so.  But again, let’s find out.

The other idea that’s been floated that merits further exploration is being called “The Food Enterprise Center,” and is proposed by ICAD as a proper use for the former Hawkeye Foodservice Distribution site on Highway 6, out near the Theisen’s.  Still merely in the conceptual stages, the proposal would convert the space into something of a resource center and incubator for food charities and start-up food businesses.  Potentially, an organization such as Table to Table could have the extra storage, office, and parking space it so desperately needs.  Perhaps Local Foods Connection or Field to Family could have offices there.  Maybe food truck owners or local brewers could rent production space.  Oasis Falafel, for example, could rent space to expand their retail hummus business.  Imagine a refugee family producing some type of food from their homeland and building a new life here.  

Want to really dream big?  The tower on the site could one day become a vertical farm!

It would be entrepreneurial, co-working, start-up space with a local food focus, which would help feed the hungry and the economy at the same time.

Of course, everything always comes down to the money, and the proposal is not cheap.  Currently, the estimated cost purchase and renovate is $4.5M.  One conceivable proposal is that the county purchase it, and ICAD would administer it, with rent and any other revenues returning entirely to the county.

A complete business plan, CBA and feasibility study would have to be completed, but in concept I love the idea.  It would go a long way toward making JoCo the food capital of Iowa, and help create good jobs that stay here, making us more regenerative, resilient, sustainable and inclusive.