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

All About Hydroponics

Most of us have heard the term hydroponics before, but what does it actually mean? According to the dictionary, hydroponics is the cultivation of plants by placing the roots in liquid nutrient solutions rather than in soil. Furthermore, if we break the word into two parts, we have hydro and ponics. Both come from Greek origins, with hydro referring to water and ponics from the word ponein meaning “to labor or toil.” With that being said, hydroponics can be used just about anywhere and with multiple types of plants. In fact, there’s a lot of fruits and vegetables grown in hydroculture systems! Whether it’s a leafy green like lettuce, kale, or spinach to a juicy fruit like strawberries, tomatoes, or blueberries, it can be productively grown without soil!


Even though it may appear to look like one long pot of soil, but these strawberries are planted in an artificial growing medium.

But wait, don’t all plants need soil?

Actually no, plants don’t need soil. Soil is highly beneficial to plants by providing structural support for the roots as well as a substrate to exchange nutrients on, but this can be achieved through various materials. Try thinking of it this way – a plant has W.A.N.T.S. Water, Air, Nutrients, Temperature, Sunlight. With only a single one of these elements missing, a plant cannot survive. For example, if there’s a drought, eventually the plant will lose too much water through transpiration and will wilt and die. But what about if the temperature is too hot or too cold? The plant could easily burn or freeze, which quickly ceases its productivity. And what if a plant is grown in an environment lacking carbon dioxide? The plant wouldn’t be able to continue photosynthesizing, which means there are no sugars being produced. In a hydroponics system, the crops are receiving proper amounts of water, air, nutrients, temperature, and sunlight!

Now that we’re all wondering about hydroponics, it’s time to dive a little bit deeper! There are six main types used in large-scale production systems.

Wick System

Let’s start off with one of the more simple hydroculture methods. A wick system, or more commonly referred to as wicking, is when a plant is growing in the top of a material that is partially submerged in the nutrient solution. This material (it could be cotton, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, etc.) is absorbing the liquid at the bottom and wicking it upwards towards the plant. This process means the plant’s roots are not wholly submerged in the water, which minimizes the associated risks and chances of this system failing. There are only four main components needed to create this system: wicks, growing medium, a container for the plant to grow in, and a holding container for the nutrient solution. This could easily be done in a classroom or around the house for a little innovative fun!


Photo from Smart Garden Guide.


This picture shows a very simple wick system, one that uses a cotton string to bring nutrient solution to the perlite growing media.  Photo from ehow.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

In a nutrient film technique system, there is a constant flow of nutrient solution over the roots of the plant. This greatly differs from wicking because the roots come in direct contact with the water. One of the biggest risks associated with this system is the chance of drowning out the roots. Due to this, it’s important to ensure the roots are receiving an ample amount of oxygen, whether it be from the air or an air pump in the water. The most efficient and productive NFT systems only submerge the root tips in the water, which means the remaining surface area on the roots are able to breathe. There are a few more components in this system, which makes it a bit complex and complicated. There’s still a reservoir for the nutrient solution and a growing media (perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, etc.). Additionally, there needs to be a channel for the water to run down, an air pump, a water pump, and a return pipe to complete the cycle.


Photo from Green and Vibrant.


This is lettuce grown with NFT. You can even see some algae growth that can accumulate if not cleaned often enough. 

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

In this system, the plant’s roots are also coming into direct contact with the water, but it’s not constantly flowing over them. In a simplistic view, DWC is very similar to wicking, just without the wick. The plants sit in a growing media at the top of the reservoir container, and the roots grow downward to reach the water. The most important and vitally crucial aspect of this system is the air pump. Without an air pump, the plant would take up all the available oxygen in the water solution and essentially suffocate. This air pump allows for continuous oxygenation and really serves as the heart of deep water culture. The best management technique would be to clean out and refill the tank about once a month, or frequent enough to prevent algal growth.


Photo from No Soil Solutions.

Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain)

Ebb and Flow is my favorite system, simply because of how autonomous it can become once properly set up. In this structure, there is a generally larger reservoir tank which is pumped into a growing bed that holds plants. Instead of letting the water sit and suffocate the plants, it will drain back down into the water tank. This is controlled by a timer and can easily be scheduled for the right frequency and duration of each flooding event. The plants sit in a growing media such as peat moss or rockwool, which absorbs the nutrient solution for extended periods of time. To make your own ebb and flow system, you’ll need a tank for the nutrient solution, a water pump, a growing bed that can be flooded, growing media for the roots, and tubing for the uptake and return pipes. Once this is completed, it should look something like the picture below! This is another great example of cycling water and nutrients through a system!


Photo from Green and Vibrant.

Drip System

The idea behind a drip system is quite similar to that of ebb and flow. The only major difference between the two is that instead of flooding the growing bed from the bottom up, there are small irrigation pipes that provide water from the top of the growing media on downward. This particular cycle still needs a pretty decent sized reservoir to hold the nutrient solution, an effective water pump, a growing bed to hold and drain water, as well as tubing to complete the cycle. Additionally, the grower needs a drip emitter, or at least a pipe with minuscule holes to allow for water to escape the tubes. This water pump can also be set up to a timer, which allows for minimal day-to-day upkeep. The grower can accurately control the quantity of water, nutrients, pH of the solution, and air available to the plants and their roots.


Photo from Home Hydro Systems.

Aeroponic System

Wait a minute, the prefixes aero and hydro mean two completely different things! How can aeroponics be considered a type of hydroponics? An aeroponic system still has the main components of every other type of hydroculture system, which includes exposing the roots to a nutrient solution without utilizing soil. When using an aeroponics setup, this allows for the most oxygen exchange with the roots since they are never fully submerged underwater. After learning about the five previous systems of hydroponics and how they work, you can probably guess the similarities and differences in this specific one! Instead of flooding a growing bed or utilizing a drip emitter, the nutrient solution is distributed through misters. These misters are positioned beneath the roots and growing media, and when turned on will coat all surfaces in a thin film of water droplets. This method still provides the necessary nutrients and water to the plants, without taking away any of the other W.A.N.T.S. The similarities include the basics of most hydroponic systems: having a good sized tank for holding the water solution, a growing bed and medium for the plants, a working water pump, as well as small tubing to connect everything.


Photo from Home Hydro Systems.

I’d love to give you all recommendations on which system works the best and some specific management techniques, but alas I’m still learning in those areas. Some important takeaways are:

  1. Plants can be grown without soil, but still need a medium to exchange nutrients on.
  2. Hydroponics can be used in many situations, from commercial fruit production to explaining simplistic ideas in a classroom setting.
  3. Each system is not necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ scenario. It may take time and practice to perfect your system for a particular plant!


P.S. If any of you have experience growing hydroponics or a preferred system that works better than others, feel free to share it in the comments!

Agriculture Products Differ with Geography: Iowa vs. Panama

-Traveling leaves you speechless

-Adventures are the best-the journeyBefore participating in a study abroad, I had heard all of these sayings before: “Traveling leaves you speechless and turns you into a storyteller!” “Adventures are the best way to learn!” “The journey is the destination!” They sounded exciting, thrilling, and had an immense call to action for me. This, accompanied with my desire to learn more about agriculture on an international level, really pushed me to apply for a travel course. Fortunately, I was accepted into a two-week program that would provide exposure to Panama’s agriculture products and international business model. I toured both family and corporation owned farms, specializing in animal production, meat processing, and crop management. It’s second nature for me to compare all of these processes to those in the U.S., and specifically Iowa while analyzing their efficiency, safety, and overall productivity given the difference in climate and soils. After returning to the states, I had an entirely new view upon international agriculture and hope to broaden your perspectives on the agriculture industry!

Does Panama produce corn like Iowa?

It’s a known fact that Iowa is great at growing and selling corn. So, it’s a given that this is the first question I asked myself. The short answer is, that while Panama does grow corn, it’s nothing compared to the yield and quality of Iowa’s maize. To obtain some reliable numbers, I used the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website. In 2017, Panama produced just over 5 billion bushels of corn and Iowa produced 2.6 billion bushels. At first glance this might seem as though Panama is clearly ahead of Iowa, however, this doesn’t take into account the yield of this crop. Panama’s yield averaged 32.5 bushels per acre, compared to Iowa’s whopping 202 bu/ac. To put this huge difference of yields into perspective, if Panama could grow corn as efficiently as Iowa then their yields would be 6.2 times higher, roughly making their total production reach 31.8 million bushels.

So now that we know where Panama stands on corn production, it’s a good idea to determine what’s accounting for this huge difference from their potential yields. This is the first question I asked upon meeting a Panamanian maize grower. He said his corn normally averages 130 bu/ac, which is significantly higher than the national average. He planted corn on land with higher slopes because maize is more suitable for it than some of his other cash crops. Management practices vary a lot from the U.S., the two biggest differences being that they plant non-GMO crops and use minimal chemical application. Most farmers we encountered were certified organic, and make minimal to no post-emergence applications. One downside is the lack of protection against pest damage. Even though this management practice yields much lower than alternatives, the farm is able to stay financially stable thanks to the organic premium received upon selling the crop. Another key factor affecting their corn yields is knowing that the soil has a high percentage of clay. This could be beneficial during droughts but can be detrimental during tropical storms with high rainfall accumulation. I believe that if the soils were more of a loam and had more water drainage qualities, this would help boost the yield and production of maize in this country. It’s also important to realize that because of Panama’s tropical climate, this area is much more suitable for effectively producing other crops.


This Panamanian corn is hand planted at 29,000 plants/ac and yields 130 bu/ac.


This ear of corn grown in the southern peninsula of Panama only filled about 2/3 of the entire ear.




Agroforestry – what is it?

Agroforestry is an uncommon term in the Midwest, especially in Iowa, but is more well-known in countries like Panama. Simply put: agroforestry is the incorporation of trees and shrub-like plants into a crop and/or animal production system, usually reaping benefits from economic and environmental aspects. The most impressionable agroforestry production I visited was a cacao plantation grown and managed by a Panamanian indigenous tribe. On the side of a steep hill underneath the canopy of a forest, there were crops grown for consumption, fiber materials, and various other plants that fall under the realm of subsistence farming. An interesting fact about the cacao tree is that it actually grows best in a partially to fully shaded area! This, and the need for a tropical climate, are the two main reasons why cacao cannot be commercially produced in Iowa. The Ngobe Bugle tribe’s lifestyle and family traditions revolve around the cacao tree. The chocolate plant not only provides the main source of income for the community, but it also holds together their culture and traditions. The trees normally produce three crops throughout the year, and the entire first crop is used for tribal activities and festivities. The remaining harvest is sold internationally through an organic cooperative. Since the Ngobe Bugle people consider themselves to be one with the land, they choose not to apply pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers to their crop. There is a downside to this production method, which is the susceptibility and infestation of pests and diseases.

Cacao trees start the reproductive growth phase with many flowers emerging from its branches. These flowers can only be pollinated by tiny insects and flies because they are simply too small for bees or other pollinators to pollinate. Of these flowers, about 60% are killed by a virus. This virus could be minimized and prevented with modern technology and chemicals, however, this would conflict with and disrupt the Ngobe Bugle’s lifestyle. Of the remaining 40% of flowers that are pollinated and start producing a pod, only 20% successfully make it to harvest. The rest are lost to crickets, fungi, worms, and severe weather events. This means that the cacao trees are only yielding at 20% of their potential. 

While I’m looking at this from an agronomist’s perspective and classifying it as a major problem, the indigenous tribe sees no issues with their production system. They make just enough money to break even with the organic premium they receive when selling with the cooperative. At first, this ideology was difficult for me to comprehend. In all areas of agriculture production in the U.S., the producers and growers are striving to improve in the upcoming year’s production and quality. If yield remains stagnant or decreases, that’s typically reason for producers to reevaluate some of their management choices. If there’s ever a new tactic for improvement or an increase in yield, there’s a high likelihood the producer is willing to try it. This idea of becoming more efficient and productive is not present in the Ngobe Bugle people, since they’re subsistence farmers. They only grow what they need, and have no reason to produce excess. This is just another difference and aspect of the global agriculture industry that many never have the chance to see.

It’s easy to be caught up with learning more about the agriculture industry in Iowa, and the Midwest in general, but it’s important to take a step back and look at it with a wider scope. It’s quite interesting to see and be able to visualize how the sole state of Iowa is able to help produce, and compete in yields, on a global scale. One must also realize why Iowa is an ideal location for corn production, and on the other hand appreciate why some crops are better grown in varying areas. So I encourage you to go out and learn about a foreign agriculture product that you’re interested in and/or are confused with how it’s grown! Our goal of becoming more agriculturally literate doesn’t stop with corn and livestock production in Iowa, it fits into a much larger scheme of things!


How to “Look Under the Label”

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a women’s group at the 5th Annual Women Gaining Ground Conference presented by Women, Land & Legacy. There we were, many different women with many different backgrounds. Some in attendance were married with kids still living at home, while others were single and maybe still in school. And, there were women present who were wise with lots of valuable life experience. As I looked towards the audience and began my presentation, I pointed out a commonality that we all shared – we all eat!

I don’t know about you, but I try to eat three meals a day, with a snack in-between. As mothers and grandmothers, we feed not only ourselves, but our families too. Our families are the most important thing in the world to us, so we want to feed them the best and the healthiest options we can afford. A quick glance around any grocery store and you’ll be bombarded with many different messages. Grocery store aisles surround us with marketing messages including various food labels, that are trying to get our attention, capture our pocketbooks and claim that status of best and healthiest.

How marketing impacts food labeling

But what is the real story behind these labels? What do they mean? How can we sort out marketing speak from factual information that can have an impact on our health? The definition of marketing is “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” So, if food labels are marketing, what does this mean for us and how do they affect our decisions at the grocery store?

First, it’s important to recognize there are four types of food labels.

  1. Nutrition Facts labels: These are usually on the back or side of the packaging and are required by law on most packaged foods providing details of nutritional content.
  2. Health Claim labels: These describe the relationship between food and its health benefits or the reduced risk of a disease.
  3. Nutrient Content Claims labels: These are usually found on the front of the packaging and are voluntarily placed by food processing companies to help market their product.
  4. Farm Production Style labels: These describe the type of farming practices used, or not used in producing the food.

While looking at these labels, we should ask ourselves two questions. Is this label telling me something about the product? Or, is it using marketing tactics to convince me to buy the product? In researching the topic of food labeling, these two questions have challenged me to look at grocery shopping in a new way. When I pick up an item off of the shelf I have been asking myself, “Did the label tell me about an item or did the label sell me on an item?”

Labels that ‘tell you’ identify food with an objective, measurable difference from one package or brand to another. The “No Added Sugar” label is an ideal example. This claim can be measured in grams of sugar and verified using the Nutrition Facts Label which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Choosing a diet with foods low in added sugar has been scientifically proven to help people maintain a healthy weight.

Labels that ‘sell you’ separate foods that don’t actually contain a measurable difference in safety, nutrition or other factors. While these foods may be produced in different ways (eggs produced by chickens housed in cages verses hens in free-range housing) the end product provides the same levels of food safety, quality, and nutrition.

No HFCS, Non-GMO – No Matter the Label, it’s still Marketing


If a label reads, “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” what does that lead you to believe? Possibly that HFCS is bad? That you should pay more for a product that does not contain HFCS?actually no hfcs


Table sugar (typically sucrose which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose) is readily available to the cells in the body to produce energy. High fructose corn syrup is chemically very similar (usually 55% fructose and 42% glucose). So, the claim seems to be a marketing ploy. But, in general too much sugar of any kind (fructose, sucrose, glucose) in the diet is the problem, not necessarily the type of sugar.


When a product is labeled “Non-GMO” what does that lead you to believe?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot topic when it comes to food and food labeling products in the United States. You would think GMOs have bombarded the produce section of the grocery store. You would think it is difficult to avoid GMO fruits and vegetables. But the reality is there are only ten approved varieties of GMO plants. Of those crops, only five could be found in the produce section. They are sweet corn, papaya, potatoes, squash, and the Arctic Apple. (The Arctic Apple won’t be widely available on store shelves for a few more years.


Now what about “organic”?

Are they grown differently? Are they healthier? Are they pesticide free?



actually organic

We can use an analogy to illustrate the difference between a conventional and an organic farm. If you had a tree that needed to be removed, then you would need a tool to cut it down. You could use an ax, a hand saw, a chain saw, or a larger tree cutting machine to get the job done. Each of these tools have pros and cons. Different people see different advantages and disadvantages of each tool and have a different opinion of which tool is “best” for the job.

In organic farming, the farmer only gets to use a limited set of tools. In the case of our tree maybe they just use the ax or the handsaw. Conventional farming has the choice of using a lot more tools including different pesticides, fertilizers, biotechnology, etc. This is represented in our analogy by getting to use any or all of the four tools to cut down the tree. Farmers use different “tools” to grow crops and depending on what they use determines whether they are considered organic or conventional.

By now, I am sure you have started thinking about how food labels impact consumer choices. Consumer choices directly impact the decisions farmers make in the production of our food. To learn more about food labeling and how food is grown visit where you will find this and other classroom lessons.


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!




The Art of Apple Picking

Fall is just around the corner. For me, Fall brings back memories of scenicfire pit evenings, football games, beautiful fall colors in tree lines, seasonal mums, and picking apples. I savor family time being spent outdoors. I thoroughly enjoy watching my grandkids during this time of year…especially when we travel to the apple orchard and they are all about helping pick “good” apples. That got me thinking about how I can help them learn about picking apples as we have fun at the apple orchard.

I prefer like to look for a “pick your own” orchard because I love to do the apple picking. Many of the orchards offer other festivities like games and pumpkins patches.  Here in Iowa, September and early October are the best times to visit the orchards.

There are a few things that I have learned that will make the apple picking experience a positive event for the visitor as well as the orchard owners.

  • Pick apples in the designated areas. Orchards have predetermined trees that are ready for picking. Meaning that the apples are ripe, ready and will easily come off the ridetree without damaging the tree for future seasons.
  • No tree climbing. Not only is this dangerous, it could do damage to the more fragile areas of the tree and unless they have provided ladders to reach higher limbs, the apples to be picked are the ones that are within reach.
  • No throwing apples.
  • Watch your step. Since apples adorn the ground it is important to watch where you are stepping and to wear appropriate shoes to be able to walk freely on uneven ground.
  • Keep the younger ones close and help them in the picking process. Help them to learn the importance of picking apples with future years in mind. When we damage the tree it does affect the next years’ blooms.

What to look for and how to pick like an expert:

  • Look at the apple. Look for imperfections like blemishes, bruises or insect damage.
  • The apple should have a creamy looking background. If the apple is a red apple, it will isstill have a golden glow behind the red color. No matter what your favorite type of apple, a ripe and ready apple will have a creamy coloring in the background.
  • A ripe apple will general be a sweeter apple. The more tart the apple, the less ripe it is.
  • A ripe apple will be crisp. Apples will become less crisp as they ripen.
  • If there are a lot of apples on the ground, chances are that particular tree is ripe or over ripened and has been dropping apples.
  • Seeds will be brown in color. When you cut into the apple, the seeds of a ripe apple will be brown in color.

Picking apples 101:apple

  • Apples are delicate and need to be treated accordingly.
  • Don’t pull, tug or grab at the apples. Be gentle and roll the apple in the direction of the branch and twist gently. The stem should break away easily and the spur should remain intact on the tree. If you pull to roughly, you remove the spur of the apple.
  • Most orchards will provide bags to collect apples you’ve picked. Be sure to not over stuff the bags which may bruise or damage your harvest.
  • Store your apples in a cool, dark place. They should be separate from other produce.
  • Apples last longer when stored in a cool (33 degree), high humidity (90-95%) location.
  • Do not wash the apples until you are ready to eat them. Unwashed apples have better storage
  • If you notice that the stem is missing – this apple should be used or disposed of, because it can create an entry area for pests.

The apple picking season is just getting started. Get out and enjoy the fall with the family and remember some of these helpful suggestions to make your experience as well as others the best it can be.

 ~  Sheri


What’s Cookin’? Golden Peach Pie!

It’s that time of year again! The sun is shining, the fruit is local, and the fairs are on their way. Because of that, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite summer treats.

The recipe is called Golden Peach Pie, and it was printed in a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook in the 1960s. It’s been one of my favorites for years, and I even won a blue ribbon with it at my county fair!

At home, we have a few fruit trees, and a couple of them are peach trees . In a good year we will home-can and store our peaches for future pies, or just to eat plain! Even though we can grow peaches in Iowa, the trees are not reliably cold hardy enough to produce fruit consistently or commercially.  Though Georgia peaches are famous, you might be surprised that most of our nation’s peaches are grown in California!



Photo courtesy of USDA


Peaches are a stone fruit, which means they have one large pit instead of small seeds, like apples. They are grown on trees, and bloom in the spring . This video shows what it’s like to grow peaches. There are many varieties of peaches, which affect when they ripen and where they can grow.  Farmers prune, fertilize, and water the trees to ensure they grow well.  Then, the peaches are picked by hand and carefully packed in crates before being sent from the farm.

This second video shows how peaches are processed and graded. Different machines will measure the peaches’ color and size, and will sort them accordingly. Peaches are also cleaned and “de-fuzzed” in this process.


Photo courtesy of USDA

Peaches are the star ingredient in peach pie, but you’ll also need sugar (from sugarcane or sugar beets, grown in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Idaho), flour (from wheat, grown in Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana), butter (from cows in California and Wisconsin), and added flavors like nutmeg, lemon juice, orange peel, almond extract, and salt (all of which originate on farms or the natural world!).

Here’s the recipe:

Golden Peach Pie
2 one-pound cans sliced peaches
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Dash salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon grated orange peel
1/8 teaspoon almond extract

Drain the peaches as well as possible. Depending on if you use fresh, home canned, or store-bought canned peaches, the juiciness can vary. If the peaches are still pretty juicy after you drain them, I would recommend putting in 2 tablespoons of corn starch, in addition to the flour. This will help keep the peaches in the pie crust and not in the bottom of the pan when you serve it!
Combine sugar, flour, nutmeg and salt.
Add butter, lemon juice, orange peel, almond extract and peaches. Stir until blended.
Pour into pie shell. Dot with butter, and add the top crust. Bake at 400⁰ F for 40 minutes.

As a bonus, please enjoy this utterly delightful recipe that my great-grandma used to make pie crusts. They’re strong enough to eat like pizza, but flaky, delicious, and easy to make.

Bonus recipe:

Papamor’s Pie Crust
3 cups flour
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 cup 1 tablespoon shortening
5 cups cold water
1 teaspoon salt

Cut shortening and flour together using a pastry cutter. Be sure to cut up the shortening as much as possible.
Beat egg, and mix egg, vinegar, salt, and water into mixture.
Mix until doughy, and pack into a ball shape. Put in covered container, and store in refrigerator overnight for easiest working.
Makes two double crusts.

Easy as pie! Enjoy!


What’s Cooking: Strawberry Banana Smoothies


In today’s society, many individuals are mindful of living a healthy lifestyle. Articles hit the news every day about healthy eating options and the importance of our food choices. Even the Huffington Post has stated that younger Americans are trending towards more health-conscious eating. A well-balanced and nutritious diet is the foundation of good health. We need to consume a variety of protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables, along with other heart healthy items to maintain health and prevent disease.

Well…I wouldn’t call myself health conscious, but I do try to do little things to be healthier. One way is to start the day with a nutritious breakfast, like a smoothie. I’d like to share the recipe for one of my faves.. and the agriculture story behind its ingredients.

berry-smoothie“Smoothie” is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a creamy beverage made of fruit blended with juice, milk, or yogurt.”

Yogurt: The word yogurt is Turkish in origin. The discovery of yogurt is thought to be accidental. Early humans stored milk in the intestines of animals. The enzymes that were present in the yoghurtintestines fermented the milk. The milk was thought to last longer and the taste was enjoyed, so they continued making it. Today we make yogurt by pasteurizing the milk, enriching it with powdered milk and then heating it and adding bacteria called yogurt cultures. I prefer fat-free Greek yogurt, which contains three times the protein of regular yogurt without extra calories.

Milk: We’ve all been told that milk is good for us, and there’s a Capturegood reason why. Milk is a natural, nutrient rich, vitamin packed drink that is full with calcium. Milk supports healthy bones and teeth for children and adults. Learn more about milk, from cow to refrigerator, here.

Strawberries: The United States is the world’s largest producer of Strawberrystrawberries, which are primarily grown in the southern and coastal states. Strawberries are the fifth most preferred fruit in the United States, coming behind bananas, apples, watermelons and grapes. Strawberries are packed with vitamins and nutrients like Vitamin C, potassium, fiber and antioxidants. There are many other berries that are great in smoothies too. Check out my “A Very Berry New Year” blog for ideas.

Bananas –Bananas are a creamy, rich fruit that’s good for kids of all ages. 5b620e78c3745dae3a4e6e7156288886They are a great source of vitamins and minerals. Bananas are grown in tropical areas and are produced all year-long. They are the fourth most important crop in developing countries, where they are an important and nutritious starch source. Most of the bananas consumed in the United States come from Central and South Africa. Exported Bananas are harvested in an unripe state. After reaching their destination they are placed in special rooms filled with ethylene gas, which ripens the fruit to maturity.

Strawberry-Banana Fruit Smoothie
• 2 ripe small bananas
• 1 cup frozen unsweetened whole strawberries
• 1   8 ounce carton vanilla low-fat yogurt or Greek fat-free yogurt
• 3/4 cup milk

1. Peel bananas. Cut bananas into chunks. Place banana chunks, frozen strawberries, yogurt, and milk into blender.
2. Cover blender and blend on high-speed about 1 minute or until mixture is smooth. Turn off blender. Pour drink into 2 glasses.