Nestled in the heartland of globally oriented commodity-food production, Woodbury County in Iowa has made a bold move away from industrial agriculture.

Last summer, the Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Society (FAS) website reports, “the County passed an ‘Organics Conversion Policy,’ offering up to $50,000 annually in property tax rebates for those who convert from conventional to organic farming practices.”

And then in January 2006, FAS continues, the county …

… became the first in the United States to mandate the purchase of locally grown, organic food. The “Local Food Purchase Policy” requires Woodbury County departments to purchase locally grown, organic food from within a 100 mile radius for regular city use. The policy has the potential to shift $281,000 in annual food purchases to a local farmer-operated cooperative, increasing local demand and spurring increased production and processing.

Why would a county in Iowa, of all places, implement what amounts to a rejection of industrial agriculture?

On the surface, it’s puzzling. The state leads all others in the production of pork, corn, and eggs, and ranks second in soybeans and beef. The great bulk of these products get sucked into national and global commodity markets, processed and passed on to far-flung places by corporate giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Smithfield Foods.

And industrial ag in Iowa has a serious patron in the federal government. Between 1995 and 2004, Iowa drew a jaw-dropping $12.5 billion in federal agriculture subsidies, more than any other state except our president’s homeland, Texas.

Yet as Gristmill blogger Ken Meter, founder of the Minnesota-based Crossroads Resource Center, has shown, all of that activity has done little for Iowa’s economy. “Overall, the state’s farmers lost $3.4 billion (2002 dollars) producing crops and livestock from 1998-2002,” Meter writes in his seminal “Finding Food in Farm Country” report (download a brief version here (PDF)).

Indeed, despite all the giant-scale production and the influx of federal cash, Iowa’s rural areas are slumping. Young people aren’t interested in taking on a money-losing business, and are thus abandoning the countryside. Hence Woodbury County’s push.

“Because the average age of a farmer in Woodbury County is 57 — over half of the county’s farmland will need to change hands in the next 10-15 years,” FAS reports.

The county intends its organic-conversion tax break to help farms break away from the ruinous commodity system, in which prices have been falling steadily for 50 years. By selling real food — as opposed to industrial inputs — to a local market, farmers can charges prices that reflect the value of their goods, not machinations on the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.

In turn, the county hopes, young people will return to farming. “We want to make it economically possible for young families to enter farming — our next generation of farmers,” a county official told FAS.

This bold county has provided a template that can be used all over, even by the federal government. Fifty years of federal policy — epitomized by Nixon-era USDA chief Earl Butz’s command that farms either “get big or get out” — have stacked the deck in favor of a food system that really only works for a few big corporations. Lets use tax policy, subsidy budgets, and government buying power to rebuild our ravaged local food systems.

The payoff for public health, the environment, and local economies will be dramatic.