For nearly 12 months and counting, COVID-19 has disrupted lives and livelihoods across America and the entire world. Here in Iowa, the breadbasket to the world, hardworking Iowans continue to do what we do best: get food from farm to fork, from one generation to the next.
As I continue my annual 99 county meetings, I’ve witnessed that no matter the setting or the audience, the economic wellbeing of Iowans is interconnected. A financial advisor in Waukee, a transportation logistics engineer in Ankeny and a soil scientist in Ames have a stake in Iowa’s farm economy. When Iowa farmers are doing well, local suppliers, lenders, landlords, Main Street businesses and the tax base are better off, as well.
It’s wonderful to see the next generation following our vocational calling to feed the world, teeming with Iowa ingenuity. Young leaders across our state wake up every morning to grow their idea into a prosperous business that meets consumer demand and puts wholesome food on our tables. Like the pioneers who cultivated Iowa’s agrarian heritage before them, they’re plowing ahead during a yearlong pandemic and the recent polar vortex.
The enthusiasm and entrepreneurism I witnessed in central Iowa warms my forecast for Iowa’s future. Economic freedom, limited government and access to capital help incubate opportunity for start-ups and young talent to grow their business, put down roots and raise their family close to home.
Ray Schmidt, owner and founder of Farm Story Meats, merits extra credit for squeezing every minute of the day to get his business off the ground. On a blustery Wednesday afternoon, I joined Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig at Iowa State University’s Research Park to learn about Schmidt’s farm-to-fork online business venture. His approach reminds me of a motto attributed to Thomas Edison: “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Schmidt is burning the candle at both ends to build his business, working during the day at Iowa State University, taking night classes to earn his M.B.A. and running his online business in between.
Farm Story Meats answers growing consumer demand to know the origin of the food they serve their families and family farmers have a new marketing opportunity and demand for their product on dinner tables across America. The company partners with local farmers from Lake View to Williamsburg to provide high-quality cuts of meat to online customers, delivered directly to their door. Schmidt launched his business a year before the pandemic. His business transactions jumped from 48 to 852 in 2020. Business increased last year from disruptions in the food supply and meat shortages in grocery stores, in addition to growing demand for a “grow local-eat local” food movement.
Farm Story Meats contracts with independent meat lockers to process locally sourced beef, pork, poultry and lamb. According to Schmidt, customers across 32 states have confidence in the food they’re feeding their families because they’re able to follow it from farm to fork.
Iowa is the nation’s leading pork, egg and corn producer. Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to visit a non-traditional Iowa farm: a fish farm in Ellsworth called Eagle’s Catch. Owner Joe Sweeney returned to Iowa after earning his M.B.A. out of state. He is angling to hook a share of the U.S. seafood market by raising water-neutral, carbon-neutral, domestic tilapia. Today, 91% of U.S.-consumed seafood is imported. More than three-quarters of it is imported from China. Like the young entrepreneur of Farm Story Meats, Sweeney applies the work ethic and conservation principles he learned growing up on an Iowa farm to build a state-of-the-art aquaculture business. The company’s goal is to produce heart-healthy, high-protein product in a sustainable, carbon-neutral process. Its indoor fish farm has capacity to produce five million pounds of tilapia.
His business model keeps pace with consumer demand for sustainability and builds America’s competitive edge in the seafood market. It’s adding significant vitality to the local economy, too. Eagle’s Catch employs 29 people in Ellsworth, population 530 people, and brings a $36 million economic impact to the region. Iowa farmers are shareholders in the enterprise, boosting their investment portfolio and keeping stake in the success of a local business venture.
This is my 41st year holding meetings in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. I enjoy learning about new ventures across our state. My recent meetings confirm something I find in every county, every year. Iowans don’t brag enough about their successes. There are examples everywhere you look. Iowa’s innovative spirit is flourishing.
During this last year of hardship and loss, it’s inspiring to see young entrepreneurs plow forward. From the earliest pioneers who tilled Iowa soil, to the innovators who are cultivating the next frontier in Iowa’s value-added, farm-based economy, the horizon across our state is brimming with promise and opportunity in the 21st century.