If you have never walked through corn or soybeans in a field, I hope you have been fortunate to plant a garden. It is then, with dirt under your fingernails, that you become a part of the magical process that has been taking place for generations. The hopeful anticipation of seeing the fruits of your labor spring forth to help feed your family or provide some needed income. It is the same feeling farmers get when they see those first shoots sprouting forth from the fields, year after year. None of it possible without the rich organic soil found in our great state. Sure, growing crops is possible in the rest of the world, but much more labor and modifications are sometimes needed.
These soils are the backbone of the strong agriculture industry found in Iowa. It is because of these soils and the rich agriculture heritage found here, Northeast Iowa was designated as the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area, where people can learn about American agriculture. There are over 110 sites to visit. These sites tell a unique story that can be categorized under 7 different themes. Today, we will discover some of the sites that explore the Fertile Lands of Iowa.
The Fertile Land looks at the prehistory and natural history of the region. Did you know, the landscape of Iowa is one of the most altered in the nation? At one time, 85% of the state was covered in prairie, to be more precise, tallgrass prairie. Some prairie grasses could grow to be as tall as a man on a horse. The flowers, an array of colors, but mostly yellow, orange, and purple. Big bluestem, Indian grass, Compass plant, Ground plum, Pasque flower are the names of a few of these unique plants. The appearance of a prairie is always changing, with the blossoming of new flowers throughout the seasons. As the growing season ends, their life continues on in a different way, producing the rich, black topsoil we see today.
These sites that celebrate the Fertile Land also explore the Native Americans living in Northeast Iowa. Before the European settlers discovered the rich treasure below their feet, the Native Americans knew which could be used to for food, medicine, and other survival needs. Three sites that I recommend visiting to learn more about the Fertile Land of Iowa are: Wickiup Hill Learning Center & Area near Toddville, Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve & Center near Rockford, and Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City.
Wickiup Hill Learning Center has a beautiful full-size replica of an Ioway summer home, a three-sisters garden, a maple syrup camp and historic artifact replicas. Hike the trails to learn about and observe the variety of habitats found in Iowa.
While at the Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve, not only can you hike among the grasses and forbs of native and restored prairies, but you may also take a piece of ancient sea life. As the Rockford Brick & Tile Company mined for blue shale to make ag drainage tile, Devonian fossils were uncovered. The beehive kilns, where the tiles were baked may also be explored as you learn about a company that helped transform wet, marshy areas into tillable farmland.
The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is a tallgrass prairie/oak savanna reconstruction project. Visitors are encouraged to take advantage of the many nature trails and take an auto tour through 700 acres of the refuge to observe the bison and elk herds. Inside the visitor center are many interactive exhibits, windows to observe scientists working with rare native seeds, and a theater.
There are many other sites I encourage you to visit that explore the natural wonders of Iowa. Visit www.silosandsmokestacks.org to find a site close to you. Next time, we will explore Farmers and Families.
Laura Elfers is a guest blogger for IALF. She is the Educational Engagement Director for Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area. Silos and Smokestacks is a partner with IALF and has agriculture literacy as a part of their outreach efforts.