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Harvesting Knowledge From Iowa Farms

September 13, 2017 | Blog, Media Center

When it comes to food insecurity in the United States, the problem isn’t that there’s not enough food to go around, it’s that extra food doesn’t always reach those who need it. By learning more about farms and food production, we can collaborate on new ways to bridge that gap, and ensure that everyone has access to the nutritious food they need to thrive.

This past summer I was given the opportunity to go on Expedition Farm Country, an agricultural adventure put together by the Iowa Food and Family Project. This two-day excursion promised participants the chance to go behind the scenes at local corn, soybean, pork, dairy, beef, and turkey farms – and it did not disappoint. I joined 40 consumers from all over Iowa to travel to 5 family farms in Southern and Southeastern Iowa to learn more about all things agriculture, farming, and food.

Attendees visited multiple farms, including crop farms and livestock farms, to learn about food production in the state of Iowa.

Before we begin, a bit about the Iowa Food and Family Project. They love food – talking about it, thinking about it, eating it – but especially learning about it. With increasing interest from consumers on where their food comes from, the Iowa Food and Family Project recognizes the importance of educating people on how they get their food, and introducing them to the farmers who do the work. If you have questions about agriculture, nutrition, recipes, or roast – check out www.iowafoodandfamily.com.

Now, on to the farms!

Farm #1: A Conversation on Conservation

Mark and Mike Jackson are a father-son team who own and operate the Jackson Family Farm in Rose Hill, Iowa. In 1890, Mark’s great-great-great grandfather purchased a plot in Southeastern Iowa, and through 5 generations of farmers the Jackson farm has grown into 2,000 acres of land. The Jackson farm grows corn and soybeans and uses technologies like GPS to help write “prescriptions” for their crops. From identifying yield points to adjusting water and fertilization levels, their use of technology has helped them to develop sustainable operations.

Mark Jackson recently hosted a TED talk on sustainability, called ‘Hands Across the Generations’. Sustainability, to Mark Jackson, is moving forward with continuous improvement through focus on social, economic, and environmental factors.

Fun fact: 97 percent of Iowa farms are family owned

Farm #2: Talkin’ Turkey

Emily Shearer holds an adorable baby turkey
Emily Shearer, food acquisition coordinator for Food Bank of Iowa, holds a baby turkey.

The next stop was the Graber Family Farm in Wayland, Iowa, where we learned about the life cycle of a turkey. Turkeys come to the Graber Farm at just 1 day old and live in a clean, temperature-controlled shed for about 5 weeks. At that time they are moved to a different shed to be raised until they are about 18-19 weeks old (40-45 lbs.) and ready to go to market. The Graber Farm is hormone-free (in fact, supplemental growth hormones have been banned in the industry since the 60s!).They also take blood samples at 4, 8, and 12 weeks old to check the health of the turkeys and constantly monitor their water quality and water consumption. They use a computerized temperature system to maintain good growing conditions for all of their turkeys and 70 percent of their sheds are solar-powered. The farm receives a new shipment of turkeys about every 9 weeks; each shipment can have between 5,000-13,000 turkeys!

Fun fact: Iowa is the #1 supplier of turkey to Subway restaurants

Additional stop: On our way to dinner we made a detour to visit Sign of the Times in West Chester. Hal Colliver worked as a truck driver for many years and would purchase signs as he made stops around the U.S. Hal’s signs include seed and gas advertisements, as well as vintage gas pumps from past decades. He continues to collect signs and his acreage attracts passersby throughout the year.

Rob Stout, Conservation: While we were visiting Sign of the Times, local farmer Rob Stout stopped by to continue the conversation on conservation. He is part of the West Fork Crooked Creek Watershed and received a grant to improve the watershed. Rob worked with a team at the Iowa Soybean Association to install a bioreactor, which has helped reduce nitrate emissions in the tile water by 97 percent. Throughout the trip, there were so many examples of all of the important work being done above – and in this case below – ground in regards to agriculture, nutrition, and food. Learn more about Rob Stout’s conservation project.

Farm #3: Breakfast with the Brenneman’s and Tour de Pork

In 1980, Brenneman Pork started with just one shed. Over the past 30 years, Rob Brenneman and his family have worked to grow their farm into 3 farms, sending over 750,000 pigs to market each year. The Brenneman’s believe that the health of the baby pig begins with the best treatment of the sow before conception. They have 24-hour specialized pig care and 83 employees, which makes the ratio 400 pigs for each employee. Their main focuses are to do one thing better than everyone else; to bring youth back into agriculture through opportunities; and to embrace technology to help improve their processes. The Brenneman’s have a research facility on site and are able to control many of their processes offsite through the use of computers and even cell phones. To the Brenneman’s, sustainability means passing down the operation to their kids to continue growth and to get more out of less. They farm an additional 4,000 acres of grain to help feed their pigs, which go through almost 9 million bushels of corn each year.

Fun fact: Iowa is the top pork-producing state in the U.S.

Farm #4: Yarrabee Farms

Several cows in 50 shades of brown
The tour included a dairy farm whose milk production is used in cheese at Chipotle restaurants.

Yarrabee Farms, in Brooklyn, Iowa, is very committed to the care of their cows and calves, using no antibiotics on their farm. Started in the 1860’s, they currently have about 650 milking cows and see upwards of 750 births each year. The average age of one of their dairy cows is 3.5 years old, but cows can become dairy cows as young as 1. A common misconception about dairy farms is that the milk is forcibly removed from the cow; in reality, a machine assists with stimulation and lactation so there is no harm to the cow. Yarrabee Farms is able to milk up to 28 cows at one time and has milk pick ups 2-3 times each day so there is little to no waste. A collective theme among all of the farms we visited was their passion and dedication to the health and well-being of their animals.

Fun fact: Yarrabee Farms sells their milk to a facility in Wisconsin, which processes it into cheese. That cheese is then sold for use at Chipotle restaurants.

Farm #5: Lang Family Farm

Our last stop was to Craig and Mary Lang’s farm in Brooklyn, Iowa. Craig and Mary, along with their two sons and Craig’s brothers, own and operate Yarrabee Farms. In addition to the dairy farm, they also grow more than 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and cover crops. Craig Lang also operates Prairie Strategy Group, which develops and creates natural soy products. These products range from all-purpose cleaner to hand soap, and are almost entirely soy-based, made from crops grown right on the family farm. Craig presented on cover crops and how they help with sustainability – aiding in soil fertility, protecting soil and water, helping to improve crop yields, acting as a viable feed source, and are easily planted and harvested.

Fun fact: Natural Soy Products’ graffiti remover is frequently sold in Chicago.

Other highlights:

Eating was a major part of our weekend adventure!

Friday morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the FFA Enrichment Center on the Ankeny DMACC campus. We heard from Kim Peter, Director of Marketing at Anderson Erickson, and were even able to sample one of their newest products – whole milk yogurt. Kim briefly touched on AE’s history and how they have become so successful. Their success includes a commitment to quality product – each Thursday members of their leadership team try various products from recent production and comment on everything from taste to quality of packaging.

Fun fact: When Food Bank of Iowa opened in 1982, Anderson Erickson was our very first donor!

Friday evening, we enjoyed Pizza on the Farm from Stone Wall Brick Oven Pizza. Owner Julia McNurlen explained that her business started when her husband, a bricklayer, built a brick oven in the backyard of their farm in Wellman, Iowa. She then developed a mobile brick oven, which turned into Pizza on the Farm. Multiple nights each month, she hosts this event which includes a pizza buffet, live music, and beautiful scenic views of their farm landscape.

Saturday morning, we were treated to breakfast at Brenneman Pork including eggs and pork sausage (would you expect anything less?); we also had pastries from Kalona Creamery Shop & Deli. While on our way to Yarrabee Farms, we enjoyed another Kalona favorite – ice cream sandwiches from Yotty’s Ice Cream Shop. We ended the day with lunch on the Lang Family Farm.

I have lived in Iowa my whole life; born and raised in Des Moines. Although I moved away for a bit, I have always been proud to be from Iowa. How can you not be proud when people find out you’re from Iowa and their first comments are: “You’re from Iowa? You’re probably really nice then, huh?” or “You must work really hard.” They’re right: We are nice and we do work hard. Seeing these farmers’ work first hand was an incredibly eye-opening and rewarding experience. Finding out all of the cool things these farmers do – Cheese for Chipotle? Turkey for Subway? – makes me even more proud of my home.

It was also very interesting to learn about the food all around us. Food insecurity is kind of a mystery. We’re surrounded by food, yet 1 in 8 Iowans are food insecure. One in 5 children don’t have enough to eat and over 180,000 people throughout our 55-county service area wonder where their next meal will come from. There is enough food, it’s just an issue of getting it to people who need it. That’s where Food Bank of Iowa steps in. Our team of hunger fighters works each day with donors, community partners, and volunteers to help our neighbors in need – and you can be a part of that. Let’s continue the conversation on food, food insecurity, and what we can all be doing to end hunger in Iowa.

— Emily Shearer, food acquisition coordinator

Danny Akright |

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