Tips for Reading to Students

Whether a book is read in person, over the phone, or even on a virtual platform, reading aloud to students can be a very engaging experience. It is one of my favorite things to do when I visit a classroom. You can almost feel the students’ anticipation if it is a book they have read. And if it’s one they are not familiar with? Then you can see their eyes alight with excitement, eager to experience something new.

Reading books to students may seem like an easy task, but there are several things that you can do to prepare and practice. This will make it the best experience possible for both you and the students.

Things you can do to prepare:

  • Make sure you are comfortable with the book. Go ahead and try a practice read before you are in front of a room full of students. This will help with fluency and will allow you to engage with students and not just be focused on the text.
  • Time how long the book takes to read out loud. A child’s attention span can last approximately two to five minutes per year of their age. For example, a 5-year-old could be expected to listen 10 to 25 minutes at a time. Pick a book that is best suited for the age of the students. Of course every child is different, so while you are reading your book, you will need to be reading your audience. (More tips below on how to engage wandering listeners.)
  • Books can be a great way to introduce students to agriculture and agricultural themes. While a trip to a farm could be overstimulating for some students, sitting in their classroom learning about farm animals could be a safe way to explore tractors, cattle, and crops. Need a few ideas? Check out the IALF lending library for books on beef, corn, dairy, the environment, farms, food, history, plants, pigs, poultry, soy, technology and so much more. Complete kits and teacher guides may also be available to check out.
  • If you are looking for ways to increase your classroom library with accurate agriculture books, why not check out the Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher Supplement Grant Program?

Tips to improve the read-aloud experience:

Now that you have selected and practiced reading an age-appropriate agriculturally accurate book, it’s time to read to students.

  • Always begin by reading the names of both the author and the illustrator. Children as young as three can begin to identify the author as “the one who wrote the story” and the illustrator as “the one who drew the pictures”. Students will become familiar with these words if you consistently use this method during read-alouds.  
  • Be sure to pause after each page, allowing the students to closely observe the illustrations. Taking in the pictures can help a student learn something new about the story each time it is read.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or even pause if you think some explanation is needed. Questions like, “have you ever seen a cow?” or “how do you think he feels about flying from farm to farm?” could be good questions to engage your audience. If you are looking to gauge involvement without a lot of discussion, you could always ask students to raise their hands. “By a show of hands, who would like to drive this tractor?”
  • Get moving! Just because you are reading a book does not mean you need to be sitting. Stand up during exciting parts or even move around the room to draw students into the story. Are the characters in the book on a long dirt road? Maybe move to another end of the room. Does a part seem animated? Move the book “bump”, “zoom”, or “swish” depending on what the characters are doing or what action you are trying to portray.
  • Add sound effects when appropriate and don’t forget to give different characters different voices. Don’t worry about sounding silly, that’s the point. Reading is FUN and young learners will enjoy seeing you enjoying reading.
  • Sitting still can be an issue for active learners. Help them contain their wiggles by encouraging them. Have students act out parts with you. Even sitting down, they can use arms to climb up a grain bin or toss the hay with a pitchfork. You might even call on a student to be your book holder or page turner giving them a job, which focuses their attention.

This fall will bring many challenges as we return to school in person, online, or even a hybrid combination of the two. Reading out loud to your class can help to calm those first day of school jitters (theirs and yours). So check out an age appropriate agriculturally accurate book. I wish you good luck! And happy reading!  


Why do They do That? Using Airplanes in Agriculture

This time of year, you may see small, yellow planes flying low overhead. They may fly back and forth over a relatively small area of land. What are they doing? Why are they doing that?

These planes are commonly referred to as crop dusters, but they can have multiple purposes, and there are multiple reasons why they might be used. Read on to find some answers about aerial application in agriculture!

What are the crop dusters doing?

That likely depends on the time of year!

Late in the year, they might be aerial seeding, meaning they are flying on cover crop seeds. These cover crops will grow during the off-season (fall through spring) when the main cash crops are not growing. They help protect soil and water quality.

During the middle of the year, they might be applying pesticides. Pesticides might help control weeds in the field that steal nutrients and water from crops, insects in the field that eat the crops, or fungus growth in the field that attacks the crops. When an airplane (or a different implement) is applying pesticides, most of the liquid is water, which acts as a carrier, with a small amount of pesticide mixed throughout. Since pesticides and aerial application have real costs associated, these are only applied when absolutely necessary to protect a crop.

Though aerial spraying of pesticides may still be the more common use for these machines, aerial seeding is growing in popularity!

What’s the advantage of airplanes?

Airplanes, and sometimes helicopters, can be advantageous because they don’t need to drive through the field. Each time farm implements drive through a field, they compact the soil and run the risk of injuring crops. Because of the risk to the soil of driving back and forth with large implements, farmers also need to be very careful about how wet the field is before they try to enter it with these machines. If the soil is too wet, the soil can be greatly impacted and implements can even get stuck – not a fun day for a farmer!

Later in the season when the crops are fully grown, farmers also need special implements to drive through the field that have narrow wheels and a high clearance to not crush the crops. These implements aren’t cheap and not every farmer would own one, however, some farmers and agribusinesses have them available for custom spraying (can be hired to spray other farmer’s fields).

When thinking about cover crops specifically, aerial seeding can also give more of a window for when those crops are planted. With traditional seeding equipment, the farmer may have to harvest their main cash crop (think corn or soybeans) before they can plant their cover crop. With aerial seeding, the seeds can be sown while the cash crop is still growing, and can already be established and growing by the time the cash crop is harvested. This saves time, and allows extra soil protection for those few days or weeks that the ground might be bare!

Does every farmer use airplanes?

In short, no.

Flying agricultural airplanes is a very skilled and regulated trade. Most farmers that use aerial spraying or seeding will hire it out to a third party company that will service many area farms. All pilots need to have the correct licenses or certifications to be allowed to fly and to apply.

Though we have listed some great pros, there are also some cons for some farmers. First, the price of aerial work might be prohibitive. Second, the location of a farm might be prohibitive. Local businesses will likely need to be consulted to make sure that the farm is on a safe landscape and is accessible for the planes they use.

But why do they fly so low to the ground?

This is a great question! These airplanes, unlike commercial airliners, need to be close to the ground while applying pesticides or seed to minimize drift as much as possible. The higher up the plane is, the more off-target their application can be. That’s why you may notice the plane stops applying before they pull up to turn around and fly the other direction.

If you’d like to learn more about agricultural aviation or ag pilots, check out the National Agricultural Aviation Association. They have resources on what is required for this job, how to train, and what licensures are required. This is a unique job in agriculture with lots of neat opportunities!

What other questions do you have about agriculture aviation? Let us know!


Farmers Can Save the World!

Or maybe they can at least help prevent climate change?

How many bacteria are there in a teaspoon of soil? Over one million bacteria are present in every single teaspoon of soil! Up to 400,000 different species of bacteria can be found living in that teaspoon of soil.

Soil is the earth’s fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth. It is comprised of countless species that create a dynamic and complex ecosystem and is among the most precious resources to humans. The Earth’s soils contain about 2,500 gigatons of carbon—that’s more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. Currently, soils remove about 25% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions each year. A 2017 study estimated that with better management, global croplands have the potential to store an additional 1.85 gigatons carbon each year—as much as the global transportation sector emits annually.

Improving soil biology is key to this carbon sequestration. This is where farmers come in and can save the day! By planting cover crops, practicing no-till, and otherwise helping promote microbial activity farmers can increase the fertility of their soil AND sequester more carbon. These practices have lots of benefits. Having living roots in the soil throughout winter preserves soil structure and sustains the microorganisms that are so vital to healthy plants. Complex soil structure also makes soil act like a sponge. With lots of tiny holes and tubules created by the roots and worms, it retains water and doesn’t disintegrate.

But planting cover crops adds expense to the farming operation. And doing no-till may require different equipment and machinery – again an added expense. While yields may increase in the long run earning the farmer more money, in the short term those expenses are not immediately recouped. How is a farmer to pay for it? To encourage more farmers to plant cover crops and help combat climate change (by sequestering more carbon in the soil) some companies and organizations are looking at paying farmers to bury carbon emissions by using regenerative growing practices.

Some farmers have already started these practices to improve soil health and sequester carbon. But by incentivizing more farmers to adopt the practices, the idea could advance more quickly. It is a win-win. Farmers get more fertile soil that is more productive and can earn them more money. And they are a part of the solution to solve climate change!

Now consider one acre of soil (approximately the size of a football field). How many pounds of biomass is below the ground (in the form of worms, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria)? That one acre of soil may hold 10,000-30,000 pounds of biomass! How many cows would it take to equal 10-30,000 pounds? Approximately 20-30 full grown cows! One pound of roots is worth 1.5 pounds of above ground plant material when trying to build soil organic matter. The lesson may be to never underestimate what you can’t see.


Grazing Cover Crops- Sheepin’ it Real

Seeing livestock eating in a cornfield in the middle of July is enough to cause most farmers at least a slight amount of panic. Animals can do serious damage to a cornfield, and finding them and getting them out of the cornfield and back into their barn or pasture can often involve every neighbor, the sheriff, and random people stopping to block the roads to avoid accidents. Just last week, my family was called to help a neighbor who had some cows out. However, if you find yourself driving the gravel roads near New Providence, Iowa, this summer, you can be assured that the sheep you may see in one Iowa farmer’s cornfield are supposed to be there!

Landon Brown, a fourth-generation farmer, is exploring the world of sustainable agriculture this year. In late April, like many Iowa farmers, he planted hybrid seed corn on his land. However, unlike some other farmers, he planted his corn in 60″ rows, meaning that each row is 60 inches apart. Most farmers in his area planted their corn 30 inches apart. Three weeks later, in mid-May, Brown planted cover crop seed between the cornrows, which was comprised of nine different types of over crops, with the majority being Dwarf Essex Rapeseed. Finally, in mid-June, he went to a sale barn and purchased eight sheep and released them into the corn and cover crop field.

Brown's sheep
Brown’s Katahdin Sheep

Corn is known as a “cash crop,” meaning that farmers grow it to sell and make a profit. It would seem that sheep could do a fair amount of damage to two acres of corn, even in just a few months, resulting in no profit for the farmer. However, these sheep don’t want to eat the corn. They much prefer the luscious cover crop mix of forages that cover the ground between rows of corn. They do munch on the bottom leaves of the corn but leave the majority of the cash crop alone.

Why plant cover crops and go through the trouble of putting up a fence, providing a water source, and buying sheep? The answer is simple: sustainability. It’s been a buzz word for years, and no one can really seem to provide a broad enough, yet specific enough definition. (I took a class this spring that spent weeks trying to nail down a definition). This simple definition came from “the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.” Cover crops are one way that farmers are actively working to help make agriculture more sustainable. Cover crops can help reduce soil erosion, they increase the biodiversity of plants, and they provide nutrients for the soil. All of these benefits help protect the land and will preserve it for future farmers. Cereal rye is the most common Iowa cover crop, but you can also find wheat, radishes, turnips, oats, and several other varieties across the state. Find more benefits of cover crops here: 6 Reasons Farmers Use Cover Crops.

lan's crop
A recent picture of an area of grazed cover crops.

As for Brown’s sheep, they are content to graze the cover crops. He purposefully purchased Katahdin sheep, which differ from most sheep in their coat. Katahdin sheep have coats made of hair, so they don’t need to be sheared, like those with wool. They are known for being hardy, low-maintenance animals. Brown said that he hopes to attend a sale this weekend and get eight more sheep, as the cover crop provides enough forage to sustain a 16-head herd.

sheep& crop
Sheep grazing the cover crop

The sheep will continue to eat the cover crop until it’s time to harvest the corn. Harvest will happen in the fall, and after harvest, they will be released back to the field to graze until the first frost, which will kill off the remaining cover crop plants. The sheep will then go to the sale barn.

However, selling the sheep isn’t the end of Brown’s mission to practice sustainable agriculture. He already practices no-till farming, meaning that he doesn’t do any tillage in his fields, which is done to help prevent soil runoff. Next year, he’s planning on planting some fields with relay cropping. Relay cropping means planting one crop into another before harvest. Brown is planning on planting wheat or cereal rye first and then planting soybeans before harvesting the first crop. Relay cropping adds to sustainability efforts by decreasing nitrogen leaching and increasing carbon sequestration. (Relay Cropping). He also hopes to add more sheep and graze more acres of cover crops next year, providing that this year goes well. According to Brown’s Twitter account, he is #AlwaysLearning, and he said that his inspiration for this idea came from a book that his father was reading about farming in the past, and from hearing from Loran Steinlage, another no-till practicing Iowa farmer. (@FLOLOfarms on Twitter).

Brown’s cover crop

Iowa farmers are continually learning and evolving their current farming practices to care for the environment and grow more.


Ag-Ventures Right in Your Own Backyard

I don’t know about you but our vacation plans for the summer came to a screeching halt when COVID-19 showed up on the landscape. We had planned on going to the Grand Canyon this summer – a place my dad has always wanted to see – with my extended family. But, with older parents in the at-risk age group, those plans have changed.

As we started considering options, we looked at staying closer to home and trying to find places outside when possible. Despite some common misconceptions, Iowa has a lot to offer in terms of vacation activities. Castles? Check. Wineries? Check. Hiking? Check. Water activities? Check. Ag-Ventures? Double check.

Iowa has something unique to offer travelers – farm experiences. With one in five jobs in Iowa tied to agriculture, what better way to get to know our agricultural roots? Here are a few sites for you to consider on your next vacation around Iowa.

Milk a cow, pet a kangaroo?
Located in the eastern Iowa town of Hudson minutes from Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Hansen’s Dairy offers several farm tours of their dairy operation. Check out the Hands-On Tour where you’ll go through the process of getting milk from the cow to your table.

Photo Courtesy: and personal photos

You’ll get a trolley ride to the farm and take a walking tour to see their animals and facilities. You’ll also have a chance to feed a calf, milk a cow by hand, pet the kangaroos (yes, kangaroos!) and goats, make homemade butter, sample Hansen’s Dairy products, and eat ice cream. There is also an Animal Petting Tour for those not interested in milking or bottle feeding a cow. The land the Hansen Dairy Farm sits on has been in their family for 150 years and is designated an Iowa Heritage Farm.

The smells of the south of France here in Iowa

Loess Hills Lavender Farm
Photo Courtesy:

When you think of lavender do you think of the south of France where many different herbs are grown? Me too, but did you know Iowa is home to a lavender farm? Nestled in the Loess Hills, the Loess Hills Lavender Farm has more than 2,000 lavender plants. Lavender grows best in dry, well-drained, sandy soil. The Loess Hills in western Iowa is perfect for growing lavender. Loess Hills are hills made up mostly of windblown soils. When visiting you’ll see a landscape of prairie and forest-covered steep bluffs, narrow ridges, and rolling hills. The gentle slopes naturally drain water making it perfect for the lavender. Lavender is used in cooking, cleaning, and healing. After visiting the fields, you’ll be able to find a variety of lavender products and other locally crafted items in the farm’s shop. The farm also hosts several events during the year.

Amy Freese TSG old farm LHF2

A step back in time
Take a step back in time and see how agriculture was an important part of life from the 1700s through today. Living History Farms is a 500-acre, open-air museum located in central Iowa that tells the 300+ year story of how Iowans transformed these Midwestern  prairies into the most productive farmland in the world. Visitors can see the day-to-day activities of how people lived at four farms through different periods: the 1700 Ioway farm, 1850 Pioneer farm, 1876 Walnut Hill town, and 1900 Horse-Powered farm. Each site is authentically farmed or worked by historic interpreters. You’ll learn how the food was prepared, how animals were used to help farm the land, how different crops were grown, and a look inside a frontier community. 

A forest in our backyard
More than 750 million acres of land is covered by forests in the United States according to the U.S. Forest Products Industry. About two-thirds of all U.S. forested land is timberland, which is used for producing wood used in homes and other products. You might think most timberland is located in Oregon, California, or Alaska but Iowa is also home timber areas. Located in Northeast Iowa is Kendrick Forest Products – Iowa’s largest and most productive sawmill. They source all of their timber from a 100-mile radius from their facility. Through a one to two-hour walking tour, you’ll see the sawmill, mulch operation, and kiln-dried lumber operation. You’ll see up close how logs are transformed into lumber and how they use everything from the lumber…even the sawdust. You can also see their cabinet shop, sign manufacturing facility, and retail shopping and showroom.

Aronia berries make a comeback

Sawmill Hollow aronia berry
Photo Courtesy:

Gourmet food, farm-fresh smoothies await you at America’s first aronia berry farm. Sawmill Hollow, located in the Loess Hills region of Iowa, grows the antioxidant-rich berry on 150 acres. These round, pea-sized, violet-black berries are considered to be one of the most nutritionally dense fruits on the planet. Berries are harvested after they are ripe in late August or early September. They can be harvested by hand or with a mechanical blueberry picker. While grown for centuries throughout Europe, farm families throughout Iowa are beginning to consider the berry as a value-added crop and a way to diversify farm income thanks to grants from Iowa State University. Put on your walking shoes and enjoy a walking tour of the Loess Hills landscape while enjoying smoothies, juice, and berry wines from this rich fruit.

Want more?
Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area organization, an Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation partner, has a wealth of information about local agriculture tourism sites across Iowa. Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area is one of 49 federally designated heritage areas in the nation. Learn the story of American agriculture and its global significance.

Note: Due to the changing COVID-19 situation, be sure to check out how a farm’s operation might be impacted by COVID precautions before you venture to any of these places.

Additional Resources

Science 101: Leaves

Leaves are the workhorse of plant parts. They produce the food plants need to grow and reproduce. Leaves protect plants from predators. They remove carbon dioxide from the air and produce oxygen for humans and animals to breathe. In addition to all of these important functions, leaves also serve as an important food source for animals, insects, and people.

Leaves convert energy from the sun into chemical energy through photosynthesis that the plant can use as food. This important process happens in chloroplast cells. Chlorophyll within these cells absorbs sunlight to turn water (H2O) and carbon dioxide gas (CO2) into sugar and oxygen gas (O2). Chlorophyll pigment absorbs red and blue light from the sun. Green light is reflected, which makes the leaves appear green.


A leaf is made of many layers that are sandwiched between two outer layers of tightly packed cells, called the epidermis. The epidermis is coated with a waxy substance called the cuticle. The epidermis and cuticle protect the leaf from insects, bacteria, and other pests and help keep moisture in the plant from evaporating too quickly.

Among the epidermal cells are pairs of sausage-shaped guard cells. Each pair of guard cells forms a pore called stoma. Carbon dioxide enters and oxygen exits through these pores. They also regulate water movement and cool the plant through the process of transpiration.

Veins support the leaf and are filled with vessels that transport food, water, and minerals to the plant. Monocot plants, like corn, wheat, and rice have long narrow leaves with veins that run parallel to each other across the length of the leaf. Beans, peas, and other dicot plants have wider leaves with veins arranged in a branched or webbed pattern. The petiole, or leaf stem, attaches the leaf to the plant’s stem.

Cabbage, lettuce, kale, and other leafy greens are some of the most well-known leaf crops, but there are quite a few other leaves that farmers grow for food and fiber. Here’s a look at a few products that wouldn’t be possible without leaves.

Medicine: Some leaves have important medicinal properties. Digitoxin from the leaves of the digitalis plant (i.e. foxglove) strengthens contractions of the heart muscle and is used in medicines to treat heart failure. Vincristine from the periwinkle plant (catharanthus rosea) is a chemotherapy medication used to treat many types of cancer.

Aloe. If you’ve ever had a sunburn, I’m sure you are familiar with the cooling and healing properties of aloe vera. The leaf sap of this succulent has a long history of being used for medicinal purposes dating back to ancient Egypt. Today, aloe vera is grown in tropical climates worldwide.   

Tea. Leaves of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) are used to make most traditional caffeinated teas, including black tea, white tea, oolong tea, and green tea. The types are differentiated by how the leaves are processed after they are harvested. Generally speaking, white teas are plucked and dried, green teas are steamed and then dried, oolong teas are lightly roasted and then dried, and black teas are roasted and then dried.

Tequila. This popular distilled beverage is made from the blue agave plant, primarily grown in the area surrounding the city of Tequila in western Mexico. The region’s red volcanic soils are well suited to growing blue agave. More than 300 million plants are harvested there each year.

Herbs. The leaves of rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, cilantro, parsley, mint and others can be harvested and used fresh or dried, packaged, and sold to use in flavoring food.

Essential Oils. Many popular essential oils including lavender, eucalyptus, and rosemary oil are derived from the leaves of their namesake plants through steam distillation and other methods.

Fiber. Although stems and seeds more commonly used as fiber, the leaves of sisal (Agave sisalana) and a few other plants provide good quality fiber for manufacturing rope, twine, rugs, and other fiber products.  

Celery. A celery stalk, the part that we eat, is a special part of the leaf called a petiole. The petiole, or leaf stem, attaches the leaf blade to the plant’s stem.


Note: This is the third post in a series exploring the science and agricultural importance of plant parts.

America’s Pastime Comes From America’s Farms

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too,” said legendary baseball player, Yogi Berra. That makes sense to me because there are so many things to love about baseball. Whether it’s a major league game that will be broadcast to millions or your kid’s little league team where the audience brings their own seats, baseball has been a summer pastime of Americans for generations.

Every summer, stadiums are packed with likeminded fans, each side rooting for their team to win. Typically, there is nice weather with sunny skies, nice breezes, and not a worry in the world – just nine innings of great entertainment. Then there’s the music, classic organ music, encouraging the crowds to their feet to cheer for the players, who are playing their hearts out, leaving it all on the field. Other sounds I love about baseball are the “crack” of the bat when a hitter has sent the ball soaring, or the deep hollow sound a great catch produces as the ball finds its home in a catcher’s glove.

And who can attend a game without a visit to the concession stand? Hotdogs, popcorn, nachos, pretzels, cotton candy, and sunflower seeds are typical stadium fare.

Have you ever wondered, “Where does it all come from?” The bats, balls, and gloves are sold at sporting goods stores. And the delicious snacks are trucked in from food distributors, but like almost everything else we eat, use, or wear, many items that make baseball great come from a farm.

  • Baseballs have a center made of rubber or cork, which is tightly wrapped in yarn and then covered with leather. Leather cured from the hide of the cow or horse after it is harvested. That hide is an animal byproduct. By utilizing parts of livestock that are not consumed, like hide, bones, fat and even intestines, other products can be produced, like buttons, glue, soap, and baseballs. The yarn in the baseball too is an animal byproduct because it is made from wool. Wool is sheared from sheep two or more times per year and then spun into yarn.
  • Gloves. While it is possible to purchase a glove made of synthetic materials, leather is a better investment and will hold up longer. Various synthetic materials have been tested for baseball gloves, but so far none have demonstrated the resilience, the stretch ability, and the feel that leather has. A good leather glove can provide a player with years of use. Beef cattle hides are processed by a tannery and the best material is sent to the glove factory. Tanning is a chemical treatment of the hides to give them required characteristics, such as flexibility and durability. If leather were not tanned, it would dry and flake. Each cowhide provides enough leather for three or four gloves. Since there are over 90 million  cattle in the United States we could produce a lot of gloves! But leather has even more uses.
  • Baseball bats can be metal, wood, bamboo, or composite. Maple wood bats are the most common type of wood bats used in the major league. Maple is an extremely dense wood that offers a harder hitting surface. The wood used for bats comes from a cultivated forest. Since trees take a long time to grow, sustainability is important. A lot of thought goes into how and when they will best be replaced when they are harvested. This process is called forest farming. Many private forests are grown to provide wood for paper and other wood products.
  • Hotdogs can be made from chicken, pork, turkey, or beef. While hotdogs may have the reputation of containing “mystery meat” you can make your own all beef hotdogs. Beef may be the main ingredient, but sheep casings, from the intestines of sheep, are needed to help hotdogs hold their shape.
  • Popcorn grows in a field, but less than 1% of the corn grown is actually the popcorn variety. Did you know it’s the moisture inside the kernel heating up that makes the popcorn, well, pop? The lesson plan, Get Popping!, has more fun popcorn facts. Most of the corn fields you see are growing yellow corn, or #2 dent corn. That corn can be processed into things like tortilla chips, used for animal feed, or made into ethanol fuel.
  • Nachos are a simple snack of chips and spicy cheese. The tortilla chips are made from corn, a lot of which is grown right here in Iowa. And you can’t forget the yummy dip, a side of nacho cheese. Cheese that is produced by a dairy animal on a farm. A little bit of soybean oil gives the cheese its smooth consistency. Soybeans are also a major crop grown here in Iowa.
  • Cotton candy is made by heating and liquefying sugar, spinning it through a screen with tiny holes. As the sugar rapidly cools, it forms fine strands. Sugar is extracted from sugar cane (a tall growing grass) or sugar beet (a root crop). Sugar beets are grown in northern cool climates like Minnesota and sugar cane is grown in warm tropical climates like in Florida.
  • Sunflower seeds go hand in hand with baseball. How else do you pass the time when a new pitcher is warming up, or the coach is consulting with the umpire? Being able to chew something helps players, and fans, work their way through nervous energy. Sunflowers are a commercial cash crop. The way we eat “seeds” today began in 1926, when a grocery store in Fresno, California, started roasting and selling sunflower seeds.

My summer is not complete until I’ve had the chance to watch a game (or ten). I was delighted to find out that our local high school, and surrounding school districts, would still allow summer sports. My teenage son has been practicing with his team, while practicing social distancing. The game might look a bit different this summer, family groups six feet away, limited number of players in the dugout, no sunflower seeds, but the rules of the game will still be the same, three strikes and “yer’ out”! Try to be a good sport. And the sport, like many others, has many ties to agriculture.


Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas – From Farm to Fork

It’s always good to have a few good recipes ready for your home meal rotation. Here’s a great one that’s simple to prepare, and yields plenty of food!


  • 4 c cooked, shredded chicken
  • 16 oz sour cream
  • 2 cans cream of chicken soup
  • 1/2 c onion, chopped
  • 1/2 c green pepper, chopped
  • 1 can green chilies
  • 1 lb Monterey jack cheese, shredded
  • 1 lb Colby cheese, shredded
  • 2 packages tortillas
  • 1 can enchilada sauce

Start by cooking and shredding your chicken. I like to do this in the slow cooker overnight, so I can assemble the enchiladas in the morning and they can be ready to pop in the oven as soon as I get home from work!

After that, combine all ingredients (except the tortillas, enchilada sauce, and shredded cheese) and mix well. Put some of the mixture in the bottom of your pan. Fill your tortillas with the chicken mixture and some shredded cheese. When the pan is full, top with the can of enchilada sauce and shredded cheese. Pop in the oven at 300 for 30-40 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling.

This recipe is great for several reasons. First, it’s delicious. Second, the ingredients come from all over the place. When you make a recipe like this, it’s incredible to think about all of the farms and businesses that inadvertently cooperated to give you this great meal.

Our main ingredient in this recipe is the chicken. Chickens give us two main products: meat and eggs. However, it’s not the same types of chickens that are raised for both. Here in Iowa, we have lots of laying hens that are used for egg production. These tend to be breeds of chickens that have white feathers and lay white, clean-looking eggs. The chickens raised for meat are called broilers. They live in different kinds of barns, and tend to be raised in different parts of the country.

This recipe also has a substantial amount of dairy products. We have different types of shredded cheese and sour cream in this recipe that all come from dairy cows. Like chickens, we get multiple products from cattle (meat and milk, primarily) that come from different types of cattle (beef and dairy cattle). Dairy cattle are raised to produce milk, which can be used to make our sour cream, cheeses, yogurt, ice cream, and more. Different breeds of dairy cattle can produce milk with different amounts of protein and fat, which can lend itself better to different end products. So the milk from one dairy farm might be better for ice cream, and the milk from another dairy farm might be better for fluid milk. Neat, huh?

We also use quite a bit of vegetables in this recipe. Onions, peppers, and tomatoes are all considered vegetables in a dietetic sense, but tomatoes are commonly known to be a fruit botanically! California grows a bulk of our vegetable crops, partially because their mild climate allows them to grow crops for more of the calendar year than we can in the Midwest. Since many fruit and vegetable crops are delicate and take a trained eye, lots of farm labor including harvesting is done manually. For more information and data on our fruit and vegetable production and imports, check out this article.

Lastly, this recipe calls for a couple of processed food items. We use cream of chicken soup, enchilada sauce, and tortillas. Pre-made food items like these started gaining in popularity in the mid-20th century, as women began entering the workforce, but were still responsible for maintaining the home and supper schedule. Time-saving goods like these were – and are – a lifesaver for the busy parent. Goods like these tend to have one or two key ingredients, like chicken stock (cream of chicken soup), tomato sauce (enchilada sauce), and wheat flour (tortillas), in addition to stabilizers, flavorings, and other additives formulated to increase both flavor and safety.

Watch the video below to see how to make this yummy recipe on your own!



Pigs. The Inventors of Bacon

Pop quiz! What is the gestation period of a pig?

That’s right! 114 days. It is easy to remember if you think 3-3-3, that is 3 months, three weeks, and three days.

Question number 2. What is the average number of piglets a sow can have?

Yes! 7.5 is right. Pigs regularly have up to 14 piglets per litter, but the average across all breeds is around 7.5.

We don’t often think about pigs. But every Saturday morning when we pull out that packet of bacon for brunch we can say thanks to pigs for providing us such a tasty treat. We raise pigs in Iowa because it is close to the feed they eat. The main staples of a pig’s diet are corn and soybeans and those are the two top commodity crops grown in Iowa. It isn’t coincidence then that Iowa is the number one pork producing state. But Iowa as a powerhouse in swine production didn’t happen overnight. Pigs as a species of livestock have a history that stretches back over 40 million years!

Pigs were first domesticated around 7,000 years ago in western Asia. They scavenged human garbage for food and this close proximity and regular interaction led to their domestication. Pigs traveled with humans as humans began moving around the globe. By 1500 BCE they were widely used for meat in Europe. They even sailed across the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus when he journeyed to the New World. Pigs are omnivores, which means they will eat most anything (meat based or plant based). The common image is ‘slopping’ the pigs or feeding them table scraps and waste products from human food. While that might have been a cheap way to feed pigs in days of old, that is largely an antiquated idea. Pigs today have carefully controlled diets that allow them to grow quickly and stay healthy. Farmers plan their diets with the help of veterinarians and nutritionists. The pig’s diet will even change as they get older to meet their nutritional requirements.

Pigs were first introduced to America in the 1500s. As corn became the most common feed, more and more pigs were raised in the Midwest. Corn was relatively easy to grow and provides quick energy to the pigs. It also provides most of the essential nutrients needed for the pigs to grow. By the 1850s nearly 70,000 pigs per day were shipped through Ohio to the East Coast. Pigs were produced in the ‘corn belt’ states and then shipped to the population centers along the coasts. The invention of the refrigerated railroad car in 1887 made this even easier as pork (instead of live pigs) could be shipped and the meat refrigerated to keep it fresh over long distances.

By the 1990s farmers had made significant improvements in swine production. Through selective breeding techniques, pigs now have larger litters, less disease, and more muscle growth. Larger litters allow farmers to raise more pigs and meet consumer demand. U.S. pork is exported to more than 100 different countries around the world. The swine industry also changed to meet consumer demand. In the 1950s it was not uncommon to see fat pigs. Consumers at the time liked to see pork chops with a thick rind of fat around them. Today’s health-conscious consumer wants less fat in their diet. Pigs now are raised to be lean and muscular, and not fat.

Today’s modern pigs have come a long way from their ancestor – the wild boar. There are numerous specialized breeds that offer better features depending on what the farmer wants (lean meat, good mothering, long body length, etc.). Breeds like Chester White, Duroc, and Berkshire are just a couple of examples. Why different breeds and different colors? It is based on selective breeding. Imagine a bowl of M&Ms where there were 20 brown M&Ms and one yellow M&M. You are asked to pick just one. Which one do you choose? Most people would pick the different colored one – the yellow one. That is how selective breeding works. When a pig exhibits a different trait (like color) the farmer takes notice of the difference. If it is a positive trait, the farmer will then often use that animal as a breeding animal. That trait that the farmer wants then gets passed on to the progeny.

As we look at the future of the pork industry we can see it growing and being an important part of our food system. There is a lot of science and research that is working to benefit the industry. Scientists are studying things like the gut biome to help pigs more efficiently digest their food. Research is being conducted on swine diseases to help keep pigs healthy and prevent disease. Research is being done on how pork can be a healthy and protein rich part of the human diet. It is exciting to think about the future of pork production.

But for now, I get to enjoy my bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Thank you, farmers!


Butter and Cheese and Ice Cream – Oh my!

Did you know that June is Dairy Month? To celebrate the first day of June, Colorful 90s Themed Party Photo Collagewe are going to honor some true fan favorites in the dairy industry and explain how they get from the farm to your fridge. We will cover products made from cow milk, but technically dairy can come from any mammal (sheep, goats and others)!


This list of dairy products wouldn’t be complete without the originator of all other dairy products. Your mother probably told you to drink milk when you were younger to make your bones grow stronger, and she was right! Milk serves as a great source of calcium, which helps with bone and tooth strength. Milk has other excellent components too. It provides eight grams of high-quality protein per serving (8 oz) and important parts of a person’s diet, like vitamins B, B12 and A, along with phosphorous and potassium.

We know that most milk comes from cows, but it doesn’t come straight out of the milking machine into the gallon jugs that we buy at the grocery store. The process that milk goes through from the dairy cow to your glass is a multi-step, highly regulated and careful set of operations to ensure that the consumer gets the best product for their money.

First, a dairy cow is milked on a farm. She produces about 8.5 gallons of milk every day. That milk is cooled from her body temperature to around 40 degrees and then is transported off of the farm by a truck. Before transport, the milk is sampled and is tested before it can be processed. The tests look for taste, look and temperature, but the milk is also tested in a lab for bacteria count, presence of antibiotics, and other quality factors. After that, the milk goes through a separator to separate the milk fat from the rest of the milk. The milk is then separated into the different types that we buy in the grocery store, like reduced fat and skim. Vitamins A and D are added at this point in the processing to increase nutritional content.

Next comes pasteurization and homogenization. Pasteurization is the fast heating of milk to kill bacteria in the milk. Homogenization is the spreading of milk fat throughout the milk so that the cream doesn’t rise to the top. Then the milk is packaged and sent out to stores to be consumed by you! Milk usually takes around 48 hours to get from the dairy farm to your table.


If you’ve been baking bread like nearly everyone has during quarantine, you may have purchased some butter to spread on your sourdough, banana bread, or cinnamon twist loaf. Butter is high in calories and fat, and it provides some vitamins, like A and E.


Photo from Healthline

Making butter is a centuries-old practice that dates back to when humans first domesticated animals. It can be made at home, but butter is mostly made in factories using the fat from milk.

When milk goes into the separator, it separates milk fat and the remaining liquid milk. That milk fat is collected and turned into other products, like butter. The milk fat is called butter cream, and it is pasteurized and then churned into butter. During churning, the butter cream’s particles are combined and clump into butter, discarding a liquid called butter milk. The butter is churned for about an hour, and it is during this time that flavoring and other add-ins, like salt is added. The butter is then packaged and sent out to stores for you to purchase.

Ice Cream

You scream for it, I scream for it, we all scream for it- ice cream! A beloved summertime favorite, this frozen treat can also be made at home, (and in the classroom- here’s a lesson plan) but we’re going to look at the processing that happens on a large scale in an ice cream factory.

ice cream

Photo from Serious Eats

Ice cream is composed of three different dairy products: milk, cream, and buttermilk. Other ingredients include: sugar, flavoring and add-ins, additives for processing ease, air to keep the ice cream light, and sometimes eggs. The dairy products are homogenized and pasteurized, and then the ingredients, except for the final add-ins, are whipped together in a tube that freezes the ingredients as it stirs the mixture, while blowing air into the mixture to keep it light and fluffy. After that, the add-ins, like cookie dough, birthday cake or brownie bites are mixed in and the whole mixture is packaged, frozen, and delivered to a store near you.


Greek, low-fat, frozen, in a tube––yogurt comes in many forms. Some types, like low-fat yogurt, are a healthy source of protein and calcium. Yogurt can also contain probiotics, which can increase gut health.

Making yogurt is an interesting process. It starts with milk, but may include other dairy


Photo from Serious Eats

ingredients, like milk fat and solid, dry milk in order to achieve the solid and fat content. Ingredients that can also be added at the first step include stabilizers, sweeteners, and some flavorings. The milk is pasteurized, homogenized and cooled, and after that, the cultures are added. The main cultures are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These cultures interact with the lactose in milk to produce lactic acid, which causes the yogurt to ferment and create the creamy texture. The yogurt sits until the pH level reaches 4.5, and then is cooled to stop fermentation. The mix-ins, like berries, are then added into the yogurt, or are put at the bottom of the packaging to be mixed in by the consumer, and the yogurt is sent out to stores.


Cheese comes in many different forms and types, but nearly everyone has at least one type they enjoy. So whether it’s melted cheddar in your cartoon-character mac and cheese, shredded Parmesan sprinkled on a pasta dish or a chunk of brie surrounded by olives and curated meats on a charcuterie board, this dairy product finds a way to work its way into nearly every meal.

Making cheese starts with milk, like every product on this list. However, with different

cheese cheese cheese

Photo from Mid-West Farm Report

types of cheese, the order, steps and time vary to create a great variety of cheeses. For cheese made from pasteurized milk, the milk is first standardized and pasteurized or heat treated. Then it is set to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to allow for optimal bacteria growth. Next,  starter cultures, called lactic acid bacteria are added, along with non-starter bacteria and given time to begin the fermentation process. Then an enzyme called rennet is added to curdle the milk. At that point, the cheese forms a solid and it is cut and heated to allow the whey to drain from the solid cheese. The curd, which is what’s left after the whey is drained, is periodically flipped and piled to form a tightly knit lump. Next, the cheese may have another step to go through depending on the variety. For example, mozzarella and Gouda cheese are both put into a salt water solution. After that process, the cheese is cut into the correctly sized blocks and is aged. Aging varies based on type of cheese, but can take months or even years! Then the cheese is packaged and ready to be included in your favorite soup, salad, potato or pasta dish, appetizer, with crackers, or even just straight out of the package!

So the next time you enjoy a dairy product, remember the people who work hard to get an extremely highly regulated product from the dairy cow to your table. The process varies greatly from product to product. Why not go out and purchase your favorite dairy product to help support dairy farmers and product manufacturers in honor of Dairy Month?