Author profile: Brandi Janssen

When Dr. Brandi Janssen took her two kids to an apple orchard 10 years ago, she wasn’t there to conduct research. She was just hoping to buy some apples. But walking through the farm, Janssen, who is a clinical assistant professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa, couldn’t shake her curiosity.

“I hadn’t really thought about agriculture much at all in the years since I left my home farm in Missouri in 1994,” Janssen explained in a recent email interview. The orchard was Janssen’s first experience with “agritourism,” and she found it to be rather strange.

“I couldn’t imagine my neighbors back home in the Ozarks allowing the general public to walk through their yard, park in their pastures, or turn old farm equipment into a climbing structure rather than salvaging the parts. But I also felt some respect for a farm family that would use that strategy to stay in business.”

Her experience at the pick-your-own farm stayed with her, and when Janssen began graduate school in anthropology at the University of Iowa, the farm inspired her research.

“I wondered if it was representative of other small farms that had stayed in business and found success in the current agricultural economy,” she said.

This research eventually lead her to write a book: “Making Local Food Work: The Challenges and Opportunities of Today’s Small Farmers,” which she will read from at 7 p.m. Friday at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City.

In her book, Janssen tries “to show how direct marketing, what we usually call ‘local food,’ isn’t as direct as we may think it is.” Local food is a system, she explains, just as agricultural commodities are part of a system.

“I wanted to tell the stories of farmers and farmworkers and better understand how the system works. One way to do this is to look at agricultural labor and remind people that local food is a labor-intensive system — it’s harder to mechanize, so we have to have workers, preferably not volunteers, to make it happen. Another focus is on how local food producers relate to commodity producers in Iowa.”

And while Janssen’s book is decidedly academic, she chose to write it in an accessible voice. “Why do the work if the general public doesn’t find it useful or accessible?” she said.

“Social scientists are examining some of the most important issues we collectively face — how we interact with the environment, how policy affects local communities, how we feed ourselves, etcetera. Making the final product of research available to the general public is part of doing ethical research... burying my points in a bunch of incomprehensible, theoretical language would run counter to any practical good that this book could possibly do.”

In her book, out this month from University of Iowa Press, Janssen tackles a number of important issues, such as why it’s a problem that so many Americans have idealized, inaccurate perceptions of farm life.

“Farms are largely invisible to the general public — very few of us grew up on, or currently work on farms. So when marketers can tap into the “supermarket pastoral” imagery — where cows are all happy, farmers are all successful, and food is abundant and healthy — we erase the messy reality of agriculture. I think that may make things harder for local food producers, who try to set themselves apart from larger-scale agriculture with their production practices. It makes it difficult for a consumer to tell which types of production is better for the environment, better for livestock, or better for a farmer.”

These are all debatable questions, Janssen stresses. And given the nuance and complexity of her subject, Janssen chose to employ a qualitative approach for her research, which, she explains, “focuses on people’s experiences and usually uses interviews or observation to understand their perspectives.”

“A quantitative approach that looks at numeric data — such as sales trends, acreage in produce compared to commodity crops, statistics related to land use or agricultural production — can tell you a lot about what is happening, but not as much about how or why something is happening.”

Late season CSA share box

Late season CSA share box

For Janssen, who also directs Iowa’s Center of Agricultural Safety and Health, the best way to understand how farmers and farmworkers contribute to the local food system, was “to ask them, work with them, and observe the kind of work that they do. Basically, I try to tell their story as accurately as I can, and tuck in relevant quantitative data where it makes sense.”

Through these stories, readers gain a sense of why people purchase the foods they do, and why farmers farm the way they do.

“Buying local food allows the consumer to break away from the global food system, but I don’t think that the volume of local food purchasing is currently sufficient to really make a dent in global commodity production,” Janssen explained. “That doesn’t mean it’s not important.”

“The two systems (global food and local food) sometimes serve different aims. Where local food looks to get consumers to purchase more whole products that come from their ecological region and creates new markets for small farmers, commodity production in Iowa is important for export and trade. Global food isn’t just about feeding people, it’s also about development, trade, and, to some extent, security.”

Food is also about community, which Janssen learned in a rather unexpected way. When she’s not teaching or conducting research, Janssen plays banjo, bass, and guitar around the Iowa City area. Music and food, she said, “do overlap, even though I didn’t really intend for them to do that.”

“I play mostly old-time and bluegrass music — genres with rural roots. So as a musician I get to interact with the same communities as I worked with as a researcher. That means I get to see a different side of things — I can hang out and play music on a farm without being a “researcher,” and that experience really does reinforce the community-building potential of local food.”

Janssen witnessed this when playing music with her husband at the Gays Mills Folk Festival in Wisconsin a few years ago. “The festival kicked off with a square dance, and concluded with a barn party at a local farm. Many of the attendees, mostly locals from the driftless region, worked on local organic farms, were interested in food preservation, and also threw themselves into the music experience as well.”

“The farming and music blended so seamlessly — I guess both food and music bring people together.”