America’s Midwest is still best known for its corn fields, but apple orchards are making a comeback. Across the plains states, farmers are tearing down fields of corn — the high-starch variety commonly used for ethanol and cattle feed — and instead planting fruits and vegetables. According to crop analysts, because of the surplus of corn in the country — a record 97 million acres of farmland were devoted to it in 2012 — an acre of this crop is projected to net farmers only $284 this year after expenses. Compare that to apples, which will net an average of about $2,000 or more per acre, and it’s no wonder that farmers are ready to trade in corn stalks for more profitable fruit trees. And unlike other times in American history, the market for local produce is ripe for the picking. The federal government has urged Americans to double the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat, even as farmland for these healthy foods has decreased over the last decade. About 1.8 million acres of farmland were devoted to the top 25 vegetables in 2012. For fruits, including citrus, that number has dropped from 3.2 to 2.8 million acres in 10 years.
And it’s not just corn growers who are hopping on the fruit wagon. As dairy farmers continue to face financial hardships, nearly two dozen Organic Valley Co-op members are now growing fruits, veggie, or both on their land. In North Carolina, 200 to 300 tobacco growers are now planting produce, according to the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. In Iowa, the sons and daughters of corn farmers are returning and starting their own produce businesses. “The children of corn farmers are coming back to the farm, and carving out 5 or 10 acres to grow fruits and vegetables,” Craig A. Chase, food and farm coordinator at Iowa State University, told the New York Times. “They can easily make $30,000 to $40,000 a year.”
Of course, growing fruits and vegetables is a lot more work than raising corn, especially for those with no experience. With that in mind, Richard Weinzierl, a crop sciences professor at the University of Illinois, started a series of classes teaching the basics. The first class, which was held in three locations around the state, had about 90 students, all of whom were interested in growing a variety of crops. This is good news for grocers, especially in the Midwest, who are becoming more interested in stocking local produce, and of course, for consumers, who are looking for healthier options for their families. And in many cases, the local produce is just as cheap, if not cheaper. “It’s a good feeling,” Tim B. Slepicka, an Illinois farmer said. “Especially knowing that one in six people are using food stamps. They’re looking for the least expensive calorie possible, and why should a pound of tomatoes — which are basically seed, dirt and water — have to cost as much or more than a frozen meal?”