Urban and Rural Iowa Must Move Forward As One
April 2002
by Ed Fallon and LaVon Griffieon

We are two Iowans – one living in Des Moines’ inner city, the other living on a six-generation family farm – who believe strongly that rural and urban Iowa share a common destiny. Those who insist the two are locked in struggle fail to see that the best future for Iowa builds on the historic strengths of both our cities and farming communities.

Many Iowans were greatly encouraged when Governor Vilsack, in his recent Condition of the State Address, expressed concern "about debates that seem to pit rural Iowa vs. urban Iowa." To a rousing response from those assembled, the Governor went on to insist, "We cannot afford to be two Iowas. We are, and we must be, one Iowa."

Since 1998, our work with 1000 Friends of Iowa has sought to build on the common interests of rural and urban Iowans. The Governor’s speech and the assemblage’s response left us with hope that Iowa was reaching a turning point, ready to move beyond the so-called rural-urban divide. Indeed, there should be no such divide. City dwellers and rural residents need each other now more than ever. Consider this example:

According to two studies, one by Sales and Marketing Magazine, the other by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowans spend $8 billion a year on food. Eighty percent of that food comes from out of state. If Iowa farmers could produce and process $4 billion of the food currently imported, we could create 80,000 new farms selling fruits, vegetables, meats, milk, honey, jams and a huge range of processed foods. That averages out to a gross income of $50,000 per farm, and 800 new farms per county.

To put that in perspective, while Iowa had 215,000 farms back in 1940, it had 96,000 in 1999 and 95,000 in 2000. Aggressive policies (similar to the state’s promotion of ethanol) supporting local food security could nearly double the number of existing farms. As new farmers repopulate rural Iowa - with their families increasing enrollment in rural schools and doing their shopping at Main Street businesses - they would breathe new life into struggling rural communities. Younger farmers could invest in more affordable start-up costs than a conventional farming operation. They would see the opportunity of raising their young families here.

This is not a new idea. USDA statistics show that in 1929 Iowa produced vegetables on 52,915 acres of land. Today, that figure stands at 12,495 acres. In 1929, Iowa had 63,185 acres of orchards. Today, that figure is a mere 2,616. The 160-acre farm, deemed by some a nostalgic memory, could be the key to Iowa’s future, if only we mustered the will to make it happen.

Other benefits of this shift to local food security are better quality food, healthier citizens and a more vibrant, beautiful countryside. For urban and rural Iowans alike, a healthy, attractive rural landscape is a basic quality of life concern.

Consider another example:

The laws governing growth and development in Iowa are hopelessly out of date. Designed for a time when most growth occurred in cities and towns, these laws are inadequate for dealing with the new pattern of development. A 1998 ISU Extension study showed that 88% of all recent growth occurred outside city limits while 50% of the land inside our cities is undeveloped.

Revising Iowa’s statutes to encourage growth in existing cities, both large and small, would bring new life and tax base to both. Downtown Des Moines, for example, could more aggressively move forward toward being much more than a daytime employment center. It could be home to thousands of new residents. It could have a vibrant nightlife. It could build on its historic character in a way that would make people want to spend time there 24 hours a day seven days a week.

Similarly, with improved planning laws, small towns throughout central Iowa could begin to halt the decay they have come to regard as inevitable. Coupled with the economic benefits of the local food development strategy, rural towns would see a revival.

None of this is pie in the sky. Current problems are enabled by existing policies. Rural and urban Iowa will thrive if we change these policies to encourage:

Revitalization within cities and towns.

New growth contiguous to existing development.

Balanced placement of employment opportunities throughout the state.

Full use of existing taxpayer-financed infrastructure.

Marketing strategy that enables the development of local food systems.

The governor’s Condition of the State Address was a call to action. We must move beyond an attitude of urban vs. rural to one that links all Iowans together - not separate, divided and suspicious, but as one interdependent, sustainable community.

Editor's note: Ed Fallon is a State Representative for District 70 in Des Moines and is Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Iowa. LaVon Griffieon lives on a farm near Ankeny and is President of 1000 Friends of Iowa and a Food and Society Policy Fellow, a national fellowship program funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.