Sooooo remember that time I told you I went to Iowa to hang out in the cornfields with nine other bloggers and learn all about the corn industry in Iowa?
OK, maybe I just told you about the cornfields part. Now I shall tell you the rest.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend the Iowa CornQuest tour in Des Moines for a few days to experience all that Iowa has to offer, from its corn and livestock production to its generous, passionate people. Having lived and worked as a reporter in Iowa City for a couple of years, I was able to catch a small glimpse of this side of the state then, but nothing like what I experienced in these three days.
I’ll be frank — going into this trip, I was skeptical of what I was about to experience, especially given what Elliott and I have learned and chosen as our preferred eating lifestyle: That is to say, eating mostly vegetarian foods, many of which are organic, and being discerning in purchasing animal products from places that promote the humane treatment and proper feeding of animals, etc. etc. But because there are almost always two sides to every story, I decided to go into the trip with an observant, open mind.
I’m so glad I did. Because while yes, some of the trip touched on the controversy over GMOs, animal welfare, government subsidies and other hot-button issues, the strongest memories I came away with were remnant of the passion many of these corn farmers (and pork and beef farmers) have deep-down for what they do. And while I may not agree with every aspect of their jobs, I highly respect the hard work they put in daily to produce the commodities they provide.
On our first night, we ate dinner at the Meredith Corporation (HQ of magazines like Better Homes & Gardens, I KNOW RIGHT) provided by the Iowa Pork Producers Association. We briefly heard from local women farmers (and bloggers!) including Nicole Yoder, Cristen Clark and Erin Brenneman, who shared a bit about their stories as cattle or hog farmers (Cristen also told us about her award-winning caramel pecan rolls, umyummmmm). We also heard from Kristin Porter of Iowa Girl Eats, who shared a bit about the work she does for the Iowa Food and Family Project. The entire room radiated with the passion that these women have for what they do, and I was already energized to learn more about it in a way I never had the chance to before.
On Wednesday, we had a jam-packed day filled with farm tours, delicious food and even a trip to the Iowa Speedway. After partaking in cinnamon rolls and sticky buns the size of our heads (but seriously) for breakfast, we visited Mark and Julie Kenney‘s corn and soybean farm near Des Moines. Mark explained to us just what, exactly, he does every day on his farm — currently, that is pulling 14 to 16-hour days in the harvest. To him and Julie and most of the farmers we met, no matter what kind of farming it is, that work is mostly about investing in future generations. It’s also about community, he said, explaining that when Julie’s father recently found out he had terminal cancer, the neighboring farms immediately offered casseroles and assistance on his farm.
We continued our tour with a visit to Bill Couser’s farm, where we enjoyed lunch and learned Bill’s passionate perspective on cattle, corn, ethanol and sustainability. It was here I learned the most about just where, exactly, all of this corn being produced really goes (and in what forms). Like how Iowa produces most of the country’s corn, but only 1% of it is the sweet corn kernels you and I eat. The rest of it is field corn, which then becomes animal feed, ethanol, corn syrup, cornstarch, etc. It’s also where we met with Dr. Ruth MacDonald, a professor and chair of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Iowa State University. Our Q&A time with her discussing anything from obesity to processed foods to the “organic” label on produce was truly enlightening, and honestly left me with more questions than answers. One thing I did come away from it with was the realization that many of us are grossly mis- or undereducated about where our food comes from, myself included.
That night, we enjoyed dinner from the Iowa Beef Council and learned more about the cattle industry and production, including the nutritional differences between grain-finished and grass-finished beef and beef sustainability statistics and practices. We also met bloggers and farmers like Sara Ross who, in addition to working the land with her husband, also raises two little boys and works outside of the house/off the farm (oh, AND blogs). In fact, her lifestyle, she told us, is very normal and common among farm wives. So whenever I’m about to cry trying to lift my cast-iron skillet off the stovetop (but really, it’s hard), I’ll remember these hardworking women who manage to do so much more with smiles on their faces.
On Thursday, we were given a tour of the Meredith Corporation. It was so fun to see kitchens where many of the Better Homes & Gardens’ recipes are created and learn more about the process of what goes into a magazine issue — like how they’ll sometimes start with a color palette to craft their stories, or how many of the recipes are planned up to a year in advance with three to five testings by a taste panel. We finished off the day by gathering in the kitchen together to make a meal of our best corn recipes on our blog, and I’m fairly certain that lunch was the best meal I’ve had in ages.
There is so, so much more I could say about this trip but I will spare you the novel and stop there. All in all, the trip was definitely eye-opening and enlightening and while some of my perspectives about food remain unchanged, there are plenty of new questions I still have to explore. A huge thanks and big hug to the people of Iowa for this incredible journey through the cornfields!
Here are a few resources that can provide more information about what we learned on the trip and about Iowa’s farming industries:
And because I know you want that epic blogger meal in your life, too, here are the links to the recipes:
Fresh Corn Cakes with Cherry Salsa by Becky of The Vintage Mixer
Grilled Corn, Tomato and Mozzarella Salad by Lisa and Anna of Garnish with Lemon
Salad with Black Beans and Edamame by Tanya of Lemons for Lulu
Creamy Corn Chowder by Angie of Big Bear’s Wife
Southwest Farro Salad with Corn and Tomatoes by Erin of The Law Student’s Wife
Cheesy Chicken Enchilada Farro Bake by Liz of The Lemon Bowl
Deep-Fried Cookie Dough by Julianne of Beyond Frosting
Cinnamon Sugar Swirled Cupcakes by Lindsay of Life, Love & Sugar
And my Blue Cheese Buckwheat Cornbread Muffins
Now I need a nap.
Disclosure: I was provided a paid trip through Iowa Corn. All opinions are my own.