SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- In the midst of sprawling corn and soybean fields, industrial animal-processing plants and ethanol refineries, Woodbury County is charting an unusual course. It's trying to go whole-hog into organic agriculture.
"This is a totally new direction for us," said Debi Durham, president and CEO of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce. "We are an agribusiness economy, but there is room for an alternative lifestyle."
Durham added, "Within the next 10 years, we will be known as the organic capital -- of the world."
Such a prediction is almost mind-boggling, considering that the county had not one registered acre of organic farmland in the 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census -- and this in a county with a total 450,000 acres of farmland.
The area has moved slightly toward organics since then. It now has some 400 acres certified organic and six organic farmers. The force behind the effort is Rob Marqusee, a 58-year-old California transplant who serves as the county's rural economic development director.
By packaging tax incentives for organic farmers with aggressive promotion of locally grown food, Marqusee is trying to use family farming as an economic engine for shuttered stores on Main Street and shriveled rural school districts. "If you cannot make an economy based on the richest land in the world," he said, "then you're never going to make it."
Most rural economic development projects focus on luring new industries or expanding infrastructure for water, electricity or broadband, but Woodbury County's are aimed at creating a local food culture in an area that imports almost all of its food -- despite its base of powerful agribusinesses.
"It's like the cobbler with no shoes," Marqusee said.
Marqusee's unorthodox approach to economic development comes as rural areas across the country are wrestling with a deep recession and growing poverty. His goal is to start small rural businesses and repopulate schools by luring a new kind of farmer. In so doing, he is trying to put Woodbury County into the vanguard of a U.S. organic-farming and local-foods movement.
The organic and local foods movement has also gained significant traction in the new Obama administration. The Agriculture Department recently announced a new national campaign aimed at expanding opportunities for local farmers and will focus its annual outlook forum next year on "sustainable agriculture."
USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign employs existing federal programs -- many of which have previously focused solely on large-scale production agriculture -- to support local and regional food systems. The program is intended to help farmers bypass what has been a daunting maze of regulations to do things like sell their products to local schools or get organic certification from a local processing plant.
The campaign stemmed from a series of town hall-style meetings that Obama administration officials held across the country over the summer and fall. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, for one, echoed some of Marqusee's themes in a meeting in Hamlet, N.C.
"It is all about keeping the wealth in the community that creates it," Vilsack said. "What happens today is so much of the wealth gets transferred out. ... Wouldn't it be better if we could give it to your local farmers? It seems to me like that would make sense."
Marqusee wants to create new local food systems in Iowa to try to keep more of the wealth from the $200 million Sioux City food market in the area. But he also wants to help Iowa farmers help meet a national demand for organic grains and food -- currently largely supplied from outside the United States' heartland. Since USDA developed organic standards in 2002, organic food and beverage sales have grown by more than 100 percent, according to the Organic Trade Association.
The industry has continued to grow, even as demand for the higher-priced organic products has slowed down during the recession. The growth rate of organic products surpassed 17 percent in 2008, according to the trade group's most recent sales figures. Growth in organic-food sales was triple that of conventional products during that period.
But U.S. organic farmers have not kept pace with the demand for their wares.
Less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland is dedicated to organic production. A significant portion of organic goods is imported.
So a growing number of states and local governments see opportunities to capitalize on the organic market, especially if they can help create vibrant local markets and distribution networks.
Illinois recently passed a law that encourages development of a statewide organic food system and requires state agencies to obtain 20 percent of their food from local sources by 2020. Federal and state officials in Minnesota have also signed onto an effort to boost that state's organic agriculture sector.
Dozens of other states have smaller-scale programs, many offering assistance for organic certification. And organic agriculture has a new prominence on the national stage: Congress gave more attention to organics than ever before in the farm bill last year; USDA has put a new focus on local and organic food systems; and first lady Michelle Obama has emerged as an unofficial spokeswoman for local and organic food.
In Iowa, Marqusee is working to support organic agriculture in an effort to start new farms and spur the rural economy. But his vision goes beyond that. He also wants to help farmers create high-value niche products. So, instead of just selling raw commodities, farmers could market higher value-added products such as flour, salsa or organic meat.
In his dream, Woodbury County becomes as famous for its food as Asheville, N.C., has become famous for music, art and scenic mountain vistas. More important, he said, the organic program could build a strong sense of community.
"I don't think the increase of the tax base is the object of economic development," Marqusee said. "When you create value and culture and amenities and quality of life, I truly believe that economic development follows."
Marqusee added, "If you think I'm a dreamer, well I sort of am. But I know how things have gone so far."
'Work your magic'
Woodbury County's move to organics -- and its turn to Marqusee -- started with the need for new business.
With the county's young people fleeing rural areas, Marqusee was asked to devise a plan to "get our farmers back" when he took the job as the county's first head of rural economic development in 2005.
Woodbury County -- which lies along the Missouri River at the state's western line -- was once a thriving agriculture center, with farmers raising grain and livestock on the fertile Loess Hills. The county seat, Sioux City, once had the country's biggest stockyards.
Agriculture is still the county's economic base, but the number of farms has been cut in half over 30 years as large operations gobbled up smaller farms. Livestock sales, meanwhile, have fallen more than 75 percent.
What is happening in Woodbury County is part of a nationwide trend. The most recent federal census of agriculture found what Vilsack called a "disturbing" decline in mid-sized farms. The census showed a continued trend toward very large and very small farms -- with operations of more than 2,000 acres and less than 200 acres growing as farms in the middle declined by 6 percent.
Woodbury County's farms are among the largest, on average, for the state.
Sioux City, with a population of about 83,000 people, is holding its own economically, but the county's small towns are slumping.
When Walter Ordway, for example, returned a few years ago to grow organic hay on his family's farm, he found his hometown, Soldier, had diminished to fewer than 200 people. The population was about 350 and rising when he was a child there 50 years ago. "It was like a drought, but it was economics, not the weather," he said.
The people who remain on farms are aging. A quarter of farmers nationwide are more than 65 years old. Half of Woodbury County's farmland is expected to change hands in the next 10 years.
Enter Marqusee. He said locals told him: "Work your magic."
Instead of focusing on luring a new ethanol plant or other business, Marqusee's goal is to create an economy based on small farms and local sales. Since organic products get top dollar, he said, a farmer has the potential to earn more money on a smaller plot.
"If you can create smaller organic farms and higher-value products, while helping the environment and health at the same time?" Marqusee said. "It's a win-win situation all around."
Growing fruits and vegetables can require more work per acre than the cultivation of row crops and has added risks because of a lack of crop insurance. But there are also significant potential rewards.
One farmer, Rebecca Moses, maintains she makes more money from 30 acres of organic vegetables than her husband does on 600 acres of conventional corn and soybeans. "If he'd give me that land," she said, "I could quit working in three years."
Organic farming is also attracting younger farmers.
Nationwide, there is a movement of younger people starting new organic operations on smaller plots of land -- part of the growth in small farms seen in the last census. The average age of organic farmers is slightly younger than the national average for all farmers, and more than half of organic farmers in the recent census had been on their farm less than 10 years.
'A guy who wants to help out'
Marqusee has shaggy graying hair, a wide smile and evident enthusiasm for his project.
"This job is not really just a job, it's sort of a mission," Marqusee said. "It's a life."
The unflappable promoter of home-grown food even used his own diet to promote his initiative this summer when he vowed to eat only foods grown and processed within 100 miles during the month of June.
The son of a developer in Boca Raton, Fla., Marqusee attended Santa Fe Junior College in Gainesville, Fla., for two years, then began a college circuit. He studied philosophy and Old Testament at the University of Denver, theology at Notre Dame University, law at the University of Puget Sound and tax law at the University of Denver.
He practiced tax law in Denver and Santa Barbara, Calif., before moving to Iowa in 1994 with his then-wife, a Sioux Falls native, and their five children.
Marqusee brought with him a lifelong love of regional foods and beverages. Shortly after high school, he drove some 2,000 miles from Florida to Denver in a battered Volkswagen van to buy a case of Coors beer, long before it was distributed nationally.
In his first job in Sioux City, he worked for Gateway computers and called himself an "Internet evangelist." He became the county's rural economic developer after narrowly losing an election for county supervisor. He had never worked extensively on agricultural or rural issues before taking the job.
"Rob's not a farmer; he's just a guy that wants to help out," Ordway said. "He doesn't know the complexities of all this. ... But suddenly he is discovered as a great evangelist in the organic movement."
The organic movement has not been the easiest sell here. For many farmers, "'organic' is a dirty word," Marqusee admitted.
But Dolf Ivener, 34, a fifth-generation farmer who is participating in the county's tax-incentive program for organic farming, said he has managed to convince his father to try organics, and he predicts more farmers may come on board.
"When changes come, first, everybody hates the guy that makes the change," Ivener said. "Then, when they all go to it, they hate the guy who won't change."
For his part, Marqusee is not afraid of being unconventional. He lives in a bright yellow house on an otherwise monochromatic street and has been known to blast "Wasn't Born to Follow," from the "Easy Rider" soundtrack, in his office.
He is also not afraid to find ways to bypass a sluggish bureaucracy. When the county was taking too long to update the official Web site, Marqusee used his own Mac to prepare a page promoting the organics initiative. And when a local restaurant balked at the higher prices for local meat, Marqusee paid for its first shipment out of his own pocket to try to win the operators over.
"I'm a real Don Quixote here," Marqusee said, referring to the hero of Miguel de Cervantes' 1605 novel, who imagines he is a knight, charging windmills he sees as threatening giants. "I face a lot of headwinds in what I do."
Unorthodox as he is, Marqusee has managed to win over key players like the Chamber of Commerce's Durham.
"Rob sometimes gets caught up in the emotional side of things, and I love him for that," Durham said. "But when you look at it, it really is based on a sustainable model, based on good economics."
Durham continued, "I had to make a case on the economics for my investors and for traditional economic developers, because it's a little out there, it's a little cutting-edge. But when I started doing the math, I became more excited."
Once a niche market, organic foods are now a $24.6 billion industry, according to the Organic Trade Association. For the past 10 years, the industry has grown at least 15 to 20 percent each year.
There are also economic arguments for tapping into the local food market. The Sioux City area alone has a $200 million food market -- most of which is supplied by producers outside the area.
Economists at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University have determined that if 25 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Iowa were grown in-state, total new sales in Iowa would increase by $140 million. The state would benefit from $54.2 million in additional labor income for more than 2,000 employees, including 190 who would work on farms.
Currently, more than 90 percent of food purchased in Iowa comes from farmers outside the state.
In an effort to jump-start local organic production in the area, Woodbury in 2005 became the first U.S. county to give a 100 percent tax rebate to farmers who convert to organic. The program offers up to $50,000 per year for up to five years to pay for property taxes on land. The tax credit is intended to help with some of the prohibitive startup costs and the potentially difficult transition period from conventional to organic.
To help boost demand, the county government has agreed to buy food from within a 100-mile radius of Sioux City, when possible, to serve in the county jail and other government venues. But so far, farmers have only been able to supply a fraction of the potential $300,000 per year market for county procurement.
The county also developed its own trademark, the "Sioux City Sue" label, a stylized image created in homage of a 1940s-era song, available for local food products.
Marqusee has other plans in the works to bolster local food systems. He wants to partner with community colleges to get proposals for "incubator kitchen" business ventures to try to produce more local products -- such as a mill for locally produced flour.
At the state level, Marqusee is pressing the Iowa Legislature to start a new program that would give a 20 percent tax credit to grocers who buy locally -- an effort to help encourage grocery stores to use local supplies, which can often be more complicated or expensive than working with large, national distributors. He is also cooking up a new "lunch lab" program for schools to connect biology, gardening and food.
Other efforts have flopped. An attempt to create a local food network for area restaurants never got off the ground. A store specializing in local and organic foods had a small, steady business but closed down because it could never get out from behind debt from a failed attempt to start an upscale local-organic restaurant.
Marqusee also gave up on a bold program he had envisioned that would have offered low-cost land and housing to new farmers.
The idea was based on the 1862 Homestead Act, which was aimed at promoting settlement of the Great Plains by giving away undeveloped land. Marqusee envisioned a complex system of no-interest county loans, free building lots and community-college courses to help prospective farmers get over the high prices of starting a farm.
"For someone to move from the city and try to do it without capital, it is impossible," said Ivener, who started his 60-acre hay and cattle operation with financial help from his parents and a second job. "What bank would loan you $3 million? And if you could get the $3 million, you have got to be out of your mind to use it to become a farmer -- there are a lot of places on beaches you could get."
Marqusee had hoped to lure farmhands, farmers' children or immigrants to a subdivision of organic farmers on 300 acres, where neighbors would share equipment and know-how. Farm plots, as he saw it, could look like a larger-scale version of a community garden.
"I was sort of naive," Marqusee said. "To say 'We will give you a farm and a house' is not really practical."
All that is left of the plan now is an informal system of "horse trading," Marqusee said, where he makes informal exchanges with farmers and small towns in an attempt to get more land or identify acreage for sale.
All of Marqusee's programs still function far below the potential capacity he set up. He would like to enroll dozens more farmers in the organic program, and the local food initiative has yet to really get off the ground.
But the existence of the programs has brought some side benefits to area farmers. For instance, the organic initiative helped lure a $40 million organic soy processing plant to the area -- which Marqusee points to as his biggest accomplishment. And farmers say Marqusee's efforts have created new interest in their products.
"Rob came in and helped me market my products," said Angela Sasse, who raises vegetables, meat and chickens in the area. "Rob really put Woodbury County on the map, so I got inquiries and calls I wouldn't have otherwise."
But while Marqusee has made strides, he is still far from transforming the county's rural economy. It remains to be seen whether the effort will add up to make Woodbury County the ideal he envisions for local food and agriculture development.
"I wish I could do more. I feel really insecure when I talk about this, because it never ends," he said. "I've realized I can't make it happen, people have to make it happen. The only thing I can do is educate people.
"It works, but it is painfully, painfully slow for me."