Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network
The Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network (NIFFN) began in November 2016 as a peer learning network for farms and entrepreneurs in the region engaged in local food, niche, and value-added businesses.
Starting and maintaining these types of business involves a complex set of challenges and business management skills that go far beyond production knowledge. These facets of business planning are integral to the success of any business, but are even more crucial when a business’s inventory consists of perishable food items.
A peer learning community can give entrepreneurs both access to resources to grow their business and social support to validate and encourage them. Studies have shown that network support can significantly increase a start-up’s survivability, profitability and employment. Formal networks can also create more visibility for niche farmers within the wider agricultural industry, and with consumers.
Industry groups have long provided networking opportunities for commodity farmers at the county level (e.g., county level beef, dairy, pork, corn, and soy production groups). In contrast, farmers accessing non-traditional markets have not had peer-to-peer support on the local level.
Creating a network
In response to this gap in farmer support at the local level, Kayla Koether of the Iowa State Extension and Outreach Local Foods Program held multiple one-on-one consultations with beginning famers in the area who were entering niche or local markets. Together they determined that ISU Extension and Outreach could provide support to these fledgling businesses by facilitating a network by and for beginning niche and local food farmers.
Kayla created a survey to help identify participants, allow them to guide the network, and create events that would be relevant, accessible and inclusive. The survey was sent to the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm listserve, which had grown with outreach and recruitment to new farmers in the area. Twenty-eight farmers responded. Eventually beginning farmers determined that the network should include established farmer-mentors, so the Northeast Iowa Beginning Farmer Network became the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network to invite more inclusivity.
Events and communication
Starting in April of 2017, participants opened their farms to host gatherings for their peers. In addition to the monthly network gatherings, Kayla organizes weekend workshops based on the group’s learning priorities and vetted speakers to meet their needs. Workshops so far have included “Farming the Web: Managing the Gateway to Your Local Farm Business” and two sessions of “Achieving Farm Financial Health in Your Value-Added Farm or Food Business.”
Network participants use the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition listserve to arrange carpooling opportunities to other events, ask questions, look for equipment, or propose activities that the group might do. They also use a Facebook group and Google Drive folder to store and access documents and images.
Supporting the production of local and niche products that would otherwise be imported from afar keeps more money in Iowa’s economy while making our food system more resilient to climactic disaster and accessible to our rural residents. Retaining and recruiting farmers who can create those products can help rebuild our rural economies and reverse the loss of farms and the unsustainable aging of the farmer population.
Finally, giving farmers access to a network and skills to build strong peer relationships can help them overcome isolation and be healthier, happier members of our communities.
Contact: Kayla Koether, firstname.lastname@example.org.