Iowa’s Native Super Fruit

Prepare to pucker up. Because this tart little treat of a blog will show you the sweet benefits of this antioxidant packed fruit grown right here in Iowa.

IMG_4057.JPGAronia berries or black chokeberries are native to the eastern U.S. and do well on plains of the Midwest and are grown throughout Iowa. They are about the size of blueberries and have a rich dark purple color. They grow in clusters or bunches, kind of like grapes. The plants are woody shrubs and will grow up to eight feet tall.

While this little berry can be sweet and full of juice, like the name chokeberry implies, it is also bitter and astringent tasting. The fruit has a lot of tannins in the skin that when eaten creates a dry or chalky sensation in the mouth. The berries can be used in cooking which lessens the tannins or can be used to make wine or jam.

Why these fruits have received some notoriety over the past several years is because of their potential health benefits. There have been studies to suggest a positive impact on cancer prevention, diabetes management, organ health, blood pressure, coronary disease, and more. There has even been a study that suggests aronia could help manage obesity (the study was on rats). The key is that these little berries pack a powerful punch of all the good stuff. They are loaded with vitamin C, folate, vitamins B, and more. They also have one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants present in berries.


As a specialty crop, aronia berries will probably never compete with corn and soybeans here in Iowa. But the market is growing and an increasing number of farmers are planting aronia patches. The plant is very hardy and relatively drought resistant, pest resistant, and disease resistant. It adapts well to a wide range of soil types and conditions though well-drained soil is most ideal.

Aronia work well for small scale production because they are relatively low maintenance. Mowing around the bushes helps keep the weeds down so they don’t have to compete for water, nutrients, or sunlight. They don’t require spraying, watering, or much other care after the initial planting. Because many aronia plots are small, harvest can be done by hand. As the berries grow in bunches, it is easy to strip the berries off quickly. A five gallon bucket (approximately 22 pounds of berries) can be filled in roughly an hour.

IMG_4064a.jpgAronia are one of many options offered as u-pick fruit where anyone can pick their own fruit in season. When picking, the aronia berries do stain your hands, but the color washes right off with a little soap and water. The U-Pick season is winding down but you can still find apples and some other late season fruits. Find a farm near you by using this directory: Contact the farm directly to learn what fruit is in season and what prices/fees are for picking. It is a great family activity.

For larger fields, mechanical harvest is available. It does come at a price and may cost up to $0.60 per pound of berries harvested. Berry harvesters for blueberries, raspberries, aronia, and similar berries will use tines or flappers to release the berries. The machine drives over the tops of the bushes with the flappers on each side. The berries fall into a catchment system and are carried to bins via conveyor belt. The trick of mechanical harvest is to provide enough force to remove the berry from the stem, but to be gentle enough to not bruise, crush or otherwise damage the berries. There are a couple different systems that are used for this mechanical harvest. Check out the videos and take a look at the mechanical planting system as well.

IMG_2587.JPGOne of our summer teacher professional development workshops had the opportunity to tour an aronia berry farm that was scaling up. Levi’s Indigenous Fruit Enterprises (LIFE) supplies the berries to a number of grocery stores and cooperatives in south central Iowa. Many of the aronia berries also go to make jams, jellies, and wine. The proprietor – Levi – also grows a number of native fruits like tart cherries, paw paw fruit, and others.

IMG_2631a.jpgLevi has also invested in sorting machines to help him package and sell the berries. While the berries are all relatively similar in size, the sizes can still vary. Sorting machines like this old blueberry sorter will help group like sized berries together so they can be packaged and sold accordingly. Larger berries might go whole to grocery stores and consumers. Smaller berries might get turned into jams, wine, or juice. These machines also help remove any leaves, stems, or other debris that might have been collected during harvest. Technology on farms comes in all shapes and sizes and it is technology like this sorter that help make one aspect of the job easier.

These tart little berries might not be for everyone, but adding a few to your diet could have some health benefits. And the bonus is that it is an Iowa crop! So enjoy the pucker!




Agriculture 101: Apples

What’s not to love about apples? They are a delicious and portable fresh fruit and can be can be made into juice, applesauce, desserts and more. Because of their versatility, it’s not surprising that apples are the most consumed fruit in the United States or that they are one of our country’s most valuable fruit crops.

While small pick-your-own orchards are common in Iowa, most of the apples we consume year-round come from large orchards in other parts of the country and world. The United States is the world´s second-largest producer of apples behind China. We export about 25 percent of the fresh apple crop, but we also import about five percent of the fresh apples consumed here. Most are imported from the Southern Hemisphere when the U.S. apple supply is low prior to harvest.

Apples are grown commercially in 32 states, but 70 percent of all U.S. grown apples come from Washington. The state’s arid climate, rich soil, and plentiful water supply make it well-suited for apple trees. Most of Washington’s apple-growing acres are in the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin, located east of the Cascade Mountains in the south-central part of the state. These growing regions are known for their long growing season and nutrient-rich volcanic soil.

The dry, sunny growing-season in south-central Washington reduces disease pressure, but it also requires growers to regularly irrigate orchards. Adequate moisture is necessary for trees to maintain growth, take up nutrients, and produce high quality fruit. Drip irrigation systems help get young tress off to a good start. Sprinklers are also used in orchards to water trees, provide frost protection to flower buds in the spring, and cool the fruit to prevent sunburn in the summer.

Good pruning is critical to a productive apple orchard. Pruning helps to maintain the health of the tree and creates even light distribution throughout the canopy. Young trees are pruned to create a good structure so they develop strong, evenly distributed limbs. Mature trees are regularly pruned to remove upright shoots, thin the canopy, and remove dead or crossing branches. Most pruning is done in the late winter or early spring when the trees are still dormant. The lack of foliage makes it easier to see what needs to be pruned. During the growing season, growers may do additional pruning to thin blossoms or young apples from trees to balance the crop load and ensure good fruit size.

In order for apples to develop, pollination must occur when the trees are flowering. Apple trees are primarily pollinated by honeybees. The transfer of pollen from one variety to a different variety of the same type of tree is called cross-pollination. Cross-pollination is essential for apples, and other fruits like pears, sweet cherries, and some plums. To ensure cross-pollination occurs, growers may alternate rows of compatible varieties or plant flowering crabapple trees through the orchard. Crabapples are popular pollen donors because they have a longer bloom time and are easy to grow.

Apple harvest in Washington begins in August and continues until early November. By selecting apple varieties that mature at different times, growers can spread out the harvest season and ensure they have enough labor to pick and process each kind at the optimal time. While apple harvesting machines and robotic pickers have been developed, most apples are still picked by hand to ensue they are ready to be harvested, prevent bruising, and not damage the trees.

After harvest, apples are sent to the packing house where they are washed and sorted by size, color, and quality. They are also tested for starch and sugar content to determine when they will be at the peak of flavor. The apples highest in sugar are placed in refrigerated storage rooms and will be packed and sold soonest. Those with higher starch content are stored in controlled atmosphere rooms. While in storage the starch slowly changes to sugar so that an apple coming out of storage has a fresh-picked taste. When properly stored, apples can last four to five months in cold storage and up to 12 months in controlled atmosphere rooms.


Is it a bird, a plane? No, it’s a drone!

pexels-photo-1379371 drone small

At first, it’s a little bewildering to hear a whirring noise in the air and look up to find a drone hovering above you. On a recent trip to our local park this summer, my girls and I had such an encounter. If you have an overactive imagination as I do or have seen too many Hollywood sci-fi movies, your mind may start to wander to all the crazy reasons why this drone is here hovering over you. More than likely in the urban environment, it’s some high school student having a little fun flying around, spying on the neighborhood. If you’re out in the rural areas, it could be a farmer using the latest technology to make important crop management decisions or checking up on livestock.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have been around since the 1980s but their roots date back to World War I. Drone adoption has exploded in recent years and they’ve expanded across many different industries and throughout the world. It’s just been within the last five years that drones were introduced into agriculture, according to DroneDeploy. In the future, drones for agricultural use are projected to make up almost 80 percent of the commercial drone market and have the potential to create an additional 100,000 jobs in the U.S.

You may be asking yourself how technology such as drones helps farmers
In the past, farmers had to walk their fields to monitor for plant health, disease and insect infestations, soil health, irrigation issues and other factors. This practice took time and they were only able to spot check certain parts of the field. The field could look fine on one end and the farmer might think it was progressing well. But, they might not realize on the other side of the field an insect infestation was starting to take hold. The onset of technology has improved a farmer’s capability and efficiency to monitor crops and implement management practices.

Precision agriculture from GPS to drones
Technology is now a part of everyday life for farmers. They’re constantly trying to improve operations ensuring they’re producing crops in the most sustainable, efficient manner possible. Precision agriculture allows farmers to manage their operations using technology to make better decisions. Using technology such as GPS mapping, farmers can drill down to individual acres to determine what’s happening in the field and what actions they may need to take. So, instead of treating a whole field for an issue the farmer can treat specific areas within that field, which reduces inputs into the land and the cost associated with those inputs.

Drones are a new technology to agriculture farmers are just beginning to see as a benefit to their operation. Drones allow farmers to take technology one step further from tools such as GPS mapping. Farmers can get a clearer image of their fields as they aren’t obstructed by cloud cover. Photos are more detailed and they’re able to gather this data in a more cost-effective manner. Different types of views are also available with drones. On the basic level, you can see the field at the crop level to identify soil health, irrigation issues and insect and disease pressure. Next, farmers can take the data gathered and combine it with other data they’ve collected to get a more detailed picture of what’s happening. They can also scout the fields at any time they’d like to monitor how the field is doing over the course of the growing season. In other words, they can monitor their fields in real-time versus having to wait for satellite pictures. Prior to the use of drones, farmers had to order satellite images in advance to get the data they want and at a higher cost. 

drone-2734228_640 drone agriculture

Ways drones can help crop farmers

  • Drones can help farmers get a clearer picture of what’s happening in their fields through the creation of 3-D maps. These maps include visible and thermal imaging. From this information, they can develop multi-spectral images that can help the farmer see plant health issues.
  • With the use of drones, farmers can conduct soil health scans, monitor crop health, compaction areas and track weather impacts.
  • Farmers can take images of their fields to monitor where the healthy crops are and where they might have stressed crops. They can go spot check where problems are occurring and zoom in on top of the issue area. From there, crop management solutions can be put in place.
  • The data gathered can be easily and quickly shared with others to analyze the issues and then determine next steps.
  • By collecting the detailed data from the drones, farmers can better estimate their yields.
  • Most of the drones in the U.S. are currently being used for monitoring but that may change with newer models. In some of the drones used in other countries farmers are applying fertilizers directly via the drone. Some of the drones being used even have planting capabilities.


Drones are also starting to be used in livestock management
For ranchers, drones have the potential to change how they manage their herds. It provides the opportunity for ranchers to extend their visibility in real-time.

  • Time consuming tasks such as checking water troughs and feeders, inspecting fences, checking a herd’s health and calving activity can become a simpler and quicker activity for them.
  • They can use the drones to monitor pasture health and move their animals to different pastures in a timelier manner.
  • Drones can search for lost animals quicker and in a more cost-effective manner. Some ranchers can spend thousands of dollars on GPS tracking collars. With the use of drones, this becomes a less expensive endeavor to track down those animals.
  • Some ranchers are starting to use drones to move their herd as well. Ranchers have to be careful in how they introduce the drones so animals don’t become scared of the drone’s noise or appearance.

sheep-939566_640 drone small

Look for careers in drone piloting and drone services
When precision agriculture started, new services and jobs were introduced into the agriculture industry. Most agriculture companies have employees solely focused on precision agriculture. With the introduction of drone technology, you’ll see these roles and services expanded which will lead to more jobs available in agriculture. In fact, some colleges such as the University of Illinois are beginning to offer classes in drones as well as degree programs.

Technology will help farmers meet global challenges
For crop producers, the main point of all this technology is how can they help their plants thrive and beat issues such as plant disease and insect infestations. With livestock producers and ranchers, how can they help keep their animals healthy and contained.

The world’s population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050. With the increase in population, agricultural consumption will increase by nearly 70 percent yet the available amount of farmland will decrease significantly. On top of all of this, we are also seeing more extreme weather events that greatly impact agriculture productivity. Farmers must embrace new technological strategies and tools such as drones, to increase productivity and yields in a sustainable manner. Drones have the potential to revolutionize the agriculture industry, which will surely impact us all.

Interested in learning more about drones in agriculture?


Finally – just for fun!
If you like to get sucked into searching random things on Google, here are some fun links to explore about what drones have captured on video.

Why Do They Do That? Cattle Chewing Cud

Why do cattle chew their cud? What is cud? Are they born knowing how to do it? What triggers this response?

For us humans with our simple stomachs, it can be a little hard to understand what goes on in the digestive system of a ruminant animal. You may have thought about these questions – and others – before, but it may have been hard to find clear answers. Let’s spend some time talking about cattle and their cud!

First of all, we know that cattle are ruminant animals. This is commonly described as having four stomachs, but that’s not entirely accurate. It’s more like they have a four-compartment stomach. Each compartment has a different job, looks different, and is a slightly different size. This impacts what kinds of foods they can eat, and the amount of nutrients they can get from that food.

The four compartments of a ruminant stomach are the reticulum, rumen, omasum, and abomasum. Food will first be chewed, then sent down the esophagus (like in monogastric animals like us), and then it will land in the rumen.


Photo from the University of Minnesota Extension,

The rumen is the largest part of the digestive system and can hold up to 40 gallons worth of material. This compartment’s basic purpose is to ferment the nutrients out of the food. Cattle are herbivores, which means they only eat plants. As a general rule, the nutrients in plants are harder to digest than the nutrients in animal proteins, partially because they are locked in cellulosic cell walls. This makes organs like the rumen so important and powerful for herbivorous animals; it can help “cook” out those nutrients so the animals gain the energy they need. This also helps explain why we humans eat salads and lose weight, while cattle can eat hay and other forages and gain weight.

After the cattle’s food sits in the rumen a little while, it travels to the reticulum. The reticulum’s structure on the inside looks like a honeycomb. When food first comes into the reticulum, it’s generally not chewed very well. This is their cud. The reticulum will ball up the portion of food sent to it by the rumen and trigger the regurgitation of the cud. The cattle will then chew the cud more completely, and will swallow again when they’re done. This helps the cattle better digest their food. The scientific term for “chewing their cud” is rumination. Cattle will spend about a third of their day ruminating. When they’ve finished with this step, the food will travel to the next stomach compartment.

cow eating grass 2

The next compartment is the omasum. The omasum helps absorb liquids. It’s relatively small and has lots of folds. Since liquids don’t need to be digested to the extent of cellulosic feedstuffs, like cornstalks, they will generally pass through the rumen and reticulum quickly to reach the omasum, where they will get absorbed. In fact, there is a small slot that opens from the reticulum directly into the omasum (the esophageal groove) when a calf’s head is at the right angle that allows milk to pass directly to the omasum. So, for the first portion of a calf’s life, it does not chew its cud – it doesn’t have any!

The last compartment of the ruminant stomach is the abomasum, also known as the true stomach. This compartment functions much like our stomach, using acids to further digest feedstuffs before sending it on to the intestines. It’s important that food gets thoroughly “cooked” and digested before it reaches the intestines, because the small intestine (the first segment of intestines) does most of the nutrient absorption in the digestive system. This makes foregut fermenters (like ruminants) more efficient at absorbing plant materials than hindgut fermenters (like humans) who primarily ferment cellulose in the large intestine.

If you’re still a little shaky about how food travels within the ruminant digestive system, I’d suggest watching this video, or this video. You can also read this article from the Mississippi State University Extension to learn more!

So now you know a little bit about cud! Go ahead and surprise your friends with your newfound knowledge – but maybe not over dinner.


Farming – A Family Tradition



All farmers are superheroes, but meet my superhero, my grandmother Corinne. Grandma Corinne was the oldest of five girls born on the family farm in the small town of Letts, Iowa in 1925. Like many other families, farming was a tradition. It was their way of life, and what they were born to do. 


MyPhoto1534337933868Grandma Corinne was born at the home place that was composed of 80 acres, a house, horse barn, chicken shed, garage, pump house and outhouse. Later a hog house was built where sows had their baby pigs. Her father raised a variety of animals and crops to help support their family.

Everyone had a role in the farming operation, even at a young age. When it was chore time, Grandma Corinne oversaw the chickens. They would raise around 200 laying hens. She would make sure they had feed and water, and also gather the eggs. The family would sell eggs to a grocery store in Muscatine, Iowa to earn extra money. It was important the eggs were clean. Grandma would tell a story of how she would use sand paper to gently clean off any dirt from the egg before taking them to market. After the eggs were clean, they would pack them in large wooden cases that held 30 dozen eggs. The eggs were stored in the basement of the house until it was time to take them to town to sell at the end of the week. Two large cases (60 dozen eggs) were taken to the store each week. MyPhoto1534337753680

Another task Grandma Corinne had was caring for the large garden. Each spring they would plant a huge garden. Her father Philip would prepare the garden bed with two horses and a plow. Then Grandma Corinne and her mother would plant the seeds. Rows of potatoes, lettuce, radishes, onions, beets, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, and sweet corn would grow on the south side of the house. There was also an orchard with peach, apples, and cherry trees. As the produce grew, Grandma Corinne would be out there with her garden hoe to make sure it was free of weeds. It was a family affair to care for the garden. When it was time to harvest the crop, the family would all go out to the garden with buckets and wagons to gather the produce. They ate a lot of the produce while it was in season, but her mother would can some as well, so they could enjoy it all year long. They stored the potatoes and apples in the basement. By storing them in a dry room with a temperature of 35-40°F , it allowed them to last six to eight months. They had enough produce to last until the next  year’s crop.

MyPhoto1534337915470As time went on and technology developed, farming became a lot easier and more efficient. In 1942 when Grandma Corinne was 17 years old, her father purchased the family’s first tractor, a Farmall H. They used this machine to cultivate, disk, plow, and harrow the corn field. This tractor allowed them to cultivate two rows of corn at a time compared to one row at a time with a team of two horses. Grandma Corinne had her share of driving the tractor! She and her sister took turns cultivating the corn while their dad was making hay. They were farming in a time before herbicides and pesticides. By cultivating the corn they were breaking up the soil between the rows of corn to overturn any weeds that may have started growing. They needed to remove the weeds from the field because the weeds would compete with the crop and result in smaller yields.  This was done multiple times in May and June. This video shows what it was like to cultivate the corn in the 1940s.

At that time, they didn’t have big tractor cabs with air conditioning like they do now. Farmers had to be very careful working outside. They would wear long sleeved shirts and pants to protect their skin from burning. Grandma Corinne would wear a large brimmed straw hat she secured to her head with a shoe string. They attached an umbrella by the tractor seat to provide some extra shade while they were working the field as well.  

MyPhoto1534338055940Grandma Corinne started farming in a time with minimal technology. It was a very laborious career, but it was their way of life. Later Corinne went on to marry a farmer. The family tradition of farming continued. They returned to the home place and raised their four kids. Now my uncle Roger farms the same farm my grandmother, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather farmed. This farm has been in our family for 149 years. Next year it will be a Heritage Farm. A Heritage Farm is awarded to a family that has owned at least 40 acres of land for 150 years or more. Do you know a farmer who owns a Century or Heritage Farm? What’s their agricultural story?

MyPhoto1534517732215Not all superheroes wear capes, some might wear jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and hats. These superheroes call themselves farmers. My superhero is my Grandma Corinne, whose yours? Tag your favorite farmer to let them know they are your superhero!



What’s Cookin’? Chilean Beef Stew

Iowa State Fair is upon us and the Elwell Family Food building is buzzing with activity. Food and cooking for us is very closely linked to how it was grown and produced. Each year we offer cooking demonstrations and tell the story of where each of the ingredients comes from. This year’s demo features a unique recipe that utilizes some of Iowa’s top products including beef, corn, soybeans, and chickens. Here is the farm to fork story of each of those ingredients.

onion.jpgBeef jerky:  Beef jerky is dried and cured from cattle meat. Beef cattle are raised on grass for much of their life and then fed out with corn, soybeans, silage, and other feed components. This high energy feed ration promotes marbling (intra-muscular fat) in the muscle of the animal and increases the quality of the meat. Jerky is cured with salt – a preservation method that has been corn.jpgused for thousands of years.

Onion:  The biggest onion producing states are Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California. Onions are a root crop that grow for 5-6 months before being either mechanically or hand harvested from the soil.

Corn: Although Iowa farmers do raise some of the best-tasting sweet corn in the country, less than 1% of the corn in our state is sweet corn. Although one is considered a vegetable and the other a grain, sweet corn and field corn are close relatives. Sweet corn is a naturally occurring genetic mutation of field corn. The sweet corn plant is shorter, matures faster, and its kernels have a higher sugar content.

Chicken stock: Iowa raises a lot of chickens. There are three different categories of chickens raised with many different species in each category. Chickens are broilers (raised for meat), ornamentals (raised for feathers), and layers (raised for eggs). Most of Iowa’s chickens are layers. Chicken broth is made from boiling the meat and bones. The juice from this cooking process is chicken broth and can be used for soups or flavorings.

squash1.jpgVegetable Oil: Most vegetable oil is made from soybeans. Iowa and Illinois are the two biggest soybean growers in the U.S. After the soybeans are harvested in the fall they are crushed to extract the oil.

Squash: Squashes are native to North America and were planted alongside beans and maize, collectively known as the Three Sisters. They grow on long vines. Winter squash varieties include butternut, acorn, buttercup, spaghetti, ambercup, sweet dumpling, and, of course, pumpkin.

Potatoes:  Potatoes are from the nightshade family of poisonous plants. But over hundreds of years of cultivation in the Andes mountains they became the nonpoisonous food staple that we are now familiar with. These tubers are grown underground as a part of the plant’s root structure. They are a good source of starch and nutrients in the diet.

Peas:  Peas are legumes and very similar to beans. They are versatile and can be used in dishes fresh, frozen, canned, and dried.

Carrot:  Carrots are roots, or more specifically taproots. Carrot plants are biennial, meaning they flower and produce seeds during their second year of growth. However, the plants are generally harvested 2-3 months after planting, much before flowers appear. At this stage the top of the carrot is about 1-2 inches in diameter and still sweet and tender.

Garlic:  California is the major garlic producing state, followed by Nevada and Oregon. The majority of garlic is dehydrated and used in a wide variety of processed foods.

Pepper:  Black pepper comes from the fruit of a pepper plant species which grows in hot and humid tropical climates. The unripe dried fruit, called peppercorns, are ground into the spice we call pepper. Pepper was one of the spices that early explorers traded because of its high value. It came from the spice islands of southeast Asia which also were known for nutmeg, mace and cloves.

Salt: Salt isn’t exactly an agricultural product. But, is an important component because it is the only rock that humans seek out and regularly consume. Salt can be harvested from salt pans (dried lakes) or mined from underground.

Oregano, Paprika, Cumin:  The oregano is dried leaf of the oregano plant. Paprika is the dried and crushed red bell pepper fruit. Cumin is the ground aromatic seed from a plant in the parsley family.

squash.jpgSlow Cooker Chilean Beef Stew  

1 medium squash, (butternut, acorn, or other)
6 medium potatoes, cubed
1 cup corn
1 cup peas
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
15 oz. chicken or beef broth
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
½ lb. beef jerky, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. oregano
1 Tsp. cumin


  1. Chop onions, garlic, and beef jerky. Heat oil in a skillet and sauté onions over a medium heat for 3 minutes. Add garlic and beef jerky and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Add paprika, oregano, cumin, salt, and pepper.
  2. Peel and cube squash into bite sized pieces.
  3. Add all ingredients to slow cooker including onion and meat mixture.
  4. Fill cooker with water until just slightly below the top of the mixture.
  5. Cook on a low temperature stirring occasionally. Cook for 4-5 hours or until squash and potatoes are fork tender.

Serve in a bowl with bread or crackers on the side. Enjoy!


Life of an Agronomist

My neighborhood has a fairly diverse set of families with all different types of occupations. Next to me are two doctors, across the street a few human resource and information technology professionals, construction company managers, veterinarians, further down a pharmacist and so on. What you wouldn’t think to find is a seed company agronomist living in my urban neighborhood. There are benefits of having an agronomist in your local neighborhood – help with garden pests, chatting about the current state of agriculture and getting to share in his family’s harvest. One recent night, he brought over fresh picked sweet corn. Now, I admit I usually get my sweet corn from the local Hy-Vee or farmer’s stand. The sweet corn from Hy-Vee or the local farmer’s stand are likely looked over a little more closely since they’re being sold and not given away. In other words, I’ve never found a bug in the bunch.

The neighborhood agronomist grows his sweet corn on the family’s farm. When he warned me there might be a few corn earworms I did my best to control my expression. Anyone who knows me likely knew what was being thought in my head — ‘eww, nature.’ While I might have grown up on an acreage with horses, we didn’t have crops. I chose walking/riding beans over detasseling for one very specific reason – bugs. At least with walking/riding beans the plants were smaller to walk through, or even better yet – ride over versus the tall plants while detasseling.

When I was shucking the corn, I found a few ‘picnic bugs’ and thought I was free and clear until I noticed some brown at the tip of the last two sweet corn ears. And then I saw it…yep, two corn earworms snacking on my tasty sweet corn.


Encountering the corn earworm reminded me of how the agronomist’s day must go day in and day out, and how different his job is to mine. If you’re not familiar with agronomy, you might be asking yourself what exactly does an agronomist do?

If you like working outside and collaborating with others, field agronomy might be for you. Agronomists are scientists who work with plants, soil and the environment to help their customers use the best technology to grow the most efficient crops, while caring for the land they use. Their main goal is to help farmers conserve their natural resources – plant, soils, water and animals while also producing a bountiful, profitable crop.

Role of an Agronomist
From managing tough weeds to evolving weather conditions, agriculture is an ever-changing environment. Agronomists work in partnership with their farmer customers to help grow crop in a sustainable, profitable way.

Agronomist responsibilities (a short list):

  • Help farmers with seed selection and choosing the technologies best suited to their land.
  • Keep up-to-date on the latest seed innovations, chemical and crop nutrient products and best practices.
  • Help with weed identification and make herbicide recommendations.
  • Connect farmers to new technologies that can improve yield and profitability on a field level. Examples include precision ag, mobile apps, soil sensors and drones.
  • Help with nutrient management using soil sampling and making nutrient and fertilizer recommendations.
  • Know a lot about different crops, fertility practices and work side-by-side with the grower to make sure they’re growing the best crop they can.

field_research1_NAITC library

Day in the Life of an Agronomist
Depending on the time of year, the day in the life of an agronomist varies widely.

During the spring and summer months, agronomists begin their day talking to area teams of account managers and sales representatives to see if anything happened over night that needs attention. They also travel into their territory to plot locations to make observations and then close the day discussing products or conducting a training activity with their team or a customer.

Over the fall (after harvest) and winter months, most of the time is spent in the classroom training account managers and sales representatives. Topics typically include new products that will be launched in the next growing season, discussing best management practices and planning experimental plots that will be planted in the spring. They also meet with customers to finalize product decisions for the next growing season and gather feedback on products from the previous year.

Think Agronomists are Just in the Midwest?
Agronomists in Iowa and throughout the Midwest primarily work with soybean, corn, wheat and a few other specialty crop farmers. But, across the United States and around the globe agronomists are helping farmers develop sustainable and profitable crops such as apples, coffee, wine and sugarcane. Even country clubs employ agronomists to help manage course turf grasses to create an ideal golf environment. The title of these professionals may vary but at the heart of their job is agronomy.

Careers in Agronomy
The world population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by the year 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. With an ever-growing demand for food, fuel and fiber worldwide, opportunities in agriculture will only increase.

University agriculture programs across the United States are experiencing a shortage in the number of graduates coming through their programs. Most university agriculture programs report a 90 to nearly 100 percent job placement rate of graduates upon graduation. In other words, while other industry professions are struggling to find jobs that’s not the case for agriculture students. And, most agriculture programs require no prior experience in agriculture.

The next crop of agriculture professionals will help farmers battle tougher weeds, handle increasingly unpredictable weather and grow more crops to meet an increasing worldwide demand for food, fuel and fiber.

Interested in agronomy? Here are a few other resources with additional information.