Want a market for local food? Provide a tax credit

When you realize that black-dirt, farm-belt Iowa imports 90 percent of its food, it dawns on you that maybe there really ought to be a better way to produce food and move it around. Rob Marqusee thinks he’s found one: Give a tax credit to grocery stores that buy local food.

Marqusee is the economic development director for Woodbury County, Iowa, which is home to Sioux City. That’s right across the rushing Missouri River from South Sioux City, Nebraska, where the Midwest Rural Assembly is being held this week to examine the idea of rural prosperity in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska.

Marqusee’s title is a position usually associated with finding big employers, enticing capital investments, generating jobs. But at a session of the assembly this afternoon, it was clear he’s driven by the notion that social well-being is part of economic development, too. And that leads him to conclude that small food producers are getting the short end of the economic development stick.

He says his county sends a half billion dollars a year elsewhere to pay for food and for seed, fertilizer and other inputs to farming. To counter that he’s tried a couple local ideas in the past — a property tax rebate for farmland converted to organic farming, a local food-use incentive.

But now he’s trying to encourage the Iowa Legislature to test out a bill that would give a 20 percent tax credit to any grocery store or food distributor buying food grown in Iowa.

One of the problems with the local food movement is maintaining a consistent supply of products. And one obstacle, Marqusee reasons, is the inability of small-food producers to find the money to invest.

But what if the farmer were armed with a supply agreement with a big grocery chain or a food distributor to buy lots of his produce? That agreement would be required for the grocer to get the tax credit, under his plan, and could in turn let the farmer expand to meet the demand.

“The tax credit creates the market,” Marqusee enthused this afternoon. He’d start with fruits and vegetables but sees the potential for meat and dairy, too.

Farmers markets, where farmers sell directly to consumers, are great, but they aren’t going to create the size of demand that sustainable food needs to make the next step, he says. “By creating the market, you create the production.”

Marqusee said Idaho is considering a similar idea. And Maryland has passed a related idea to attack the problem of food deserts in cities.

You can find his proposed legislation for Iowa at www.woodburyorganics.com.

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