Horticulture survey: Iowa fruit and vegetable industry generated $48 million in 2015

May 23, 2017
horticulture survey coverby Leigh Adcock, Communications Specialist

In 2015, Iowa’s commercial fruit and vegetable industry generated more than $48 million in economic output, including $32 million in value-added commerce.

This is one highlight from the 2015 Iowa commercial horticulture food crop survey, conducted by the Local Foods Program team evaluators on behalf of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. (See Arlene Enderton’s blog post about the experience of working on the survey and her own hort farm story here.)

Click here to see a PDF copy of the 38-pp. report on the IDALS website. Click here to see the report appendices, including information on survey limitations, charts and graphs, and the survey itself.

The 2015 survey was released last week, after more than a year of compilation, analysis and report production. Two prior surveys were conducted by IDALS in 1989 and 2000.

Horticulture survey highlights

More highlights from the report:

  • The majority of Iowa’s edible horticulture farmers are new (10 years or fewer) to horticulture production. But some may have farmed commodity crops prior to engaging in horticulture production.
  • Beginning horticulture farmers are replacing retiring horticulture growers in terms of number (a trend contrary to commodity agriculture). However, these new horticulture farmers are not farming as many acres.
  • Most horticulture farms are 2 acres in size (the median farm size), unchanged in the past 15 years. What has changed is the average horticulture farm size, which decreased from 13 acres in 2000 to roughly 8 acres in 2015.
  • The top five crops in 2015 based on the number of (responding) farms producing them were tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, green beans, and winter squash. In 2000, sweet corn was the top crop, followed by tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and sweet peppers.
  • Melon production declined markedly from 2000 to 2015. Causes may include high labor costs, volatile markets, local land development, and competition from melon producers in other states and countries.
  • By contrast, grape production was up significantly from 2000 to 2015, a change attributed to the rise in wine grape production.
horticulture survey meskwaki
Members of the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative prepare squash for their fall harvest celebration.

Marketing strategies vary

Iowa’s horticulture producers use a variety of markets (an average of two) to sell their products. About half market exclusively through direct-to-consumer markets. These include farmers markets, farm stands, community supported agriculture, you-pick, and online sales. However, reliance on sales direct-to-consumers has been shifting to more wholesale markets. One reason is that farmers markets in particular, while widely used by horticulture farmers, yield relatively less in sales than other kinds of markets.

The top four markets by dollar value of sales were wholesale-type markets. These include brokers and wholesalers, contract processors and buyers, retail stores and groceries, and produce auctions. Beginning horticulture producers are more likely to sell exclusively through wholesale markets than more experienced growers. Opportunities abound for new growers to sell wine grapes and vegetables to contract buyers and processors, as direct markets become saturated.

Finally, marketing options vary by crop or cropping system. For example, more high-tunnel produce is sold at produce auctions. More grapes and aronia berries are sold to contract processors and buyers. Aside from these and honey, all other crops are sold primarily through farmers markets.

Some conclusions

We drew these conclusions about industry-associated economic activities and impacts:

  • Total edible horticulture sales of survey respondents doubled from nearly $10 million in 2010 to nearly $20 million in 2015. More than half of farmers reporting in both 2010 and 2015 (nearly 400) saw a 10 percent sales increase.
  • Despite these data, all three surveys show producers derive only a small percentage of  their gross income from the sale of horticultural crops. In 1989, nearly one in five received 1 percent or less of their income from horticulture sales. In 2015, nearly half did. On the flip side, in 1989, 14 percent derived 71 percent or more of their gross family income from horticulture. In 2015, that number was only 4 percent. While sales are increasing, producers are deriving less gross family income from horticulture production.

We used these results to make estimates for the entire population in the state of Iowa. In 2015, Iowa’s horticulture industry generated:

  • $48 million in direct sales, including $32 million in value-added commerce.
  • $21 million of the total went to 503 job-holders as labor income, much of it earned and spent locally.

This report will be useful to growers, consumers, policy makers, educators, and researchers working to foster enhanced commercial opportunities for Iowa’s diverse edible horticulture producers. If you have questions about it, please contact Arlene Enderton at arlene@iastate.edu. She is also available to give informational presentations about the survey to your class or community group.

Special shout-out to our amazing intern, photographer Hannah Fisher, for providing most of the images for this report! And thanks to the 882 producers who answered the survey, as well as those who allowed us to profile their businesses for feature stories scattered throughout the report.