Unique Agriculture Commodities: Asparagus

As the days become longer and warmer, they often bring back spring memories for me. When I was in middle school, I would ride around the Iowa countryside with my mom. These trips would be filled with impeccable musical voices and long talks about the world around us. But one specific ride stands out to me. The ride where my mom pulled the car over to the side of the road. Reached in the back seat of the car, grabbed a plastic bag, and told me to get out. As alarming as all this may sound, my mom, with her keen eyesight, spotted a patch of one of Iowa’s finest vegetables, asparagus. And my mom was always prepared to harvest something worthy of adding to dinner.

Wild Asparagus (Photo credit: Virginia State Parks)

Asparagus is easiest to locate in the “wild” after it has gone to seed in late summer. Its tall seedy leaves wave a flag to next year’s harvest area for those that know how to look for it. But not everyone is ready for a quick romp in the ditch to gather a tasty treat, and luckily, you can find asparagus in many supermarkets year-round and farmers markets during the spring season.

Why Asparagus?

I think the better question may be, “why not asparagus”? This vegetable is versatile and can be eaten raw, broiled, grilled, microwaved, or my favorite, roasted. When cooked, asparagus’ flavor transforms into a nutty-slightly bitter that hits the back of your tongue begging for another bite. Rich with vitamins like C, E, and K this high fiber vegetable has been linked to reducing blood pressure and to improving gut health.

If its flavors weren’t enough, asparagus is a perennial crop that can be grown from seed, or a root cutting known as a “crown”. Once established (2-3 years after planting), the plant grows each year without having to be replanted and can live up to 15 years. The longevity of the crop provides food security for gatherers, and an early season crop for farmers and gardeners to harvest.

Asparagus farming in Iowa…

Planting asparagus crowns in a furrow (photo credit: The Garden of Eating)

Establishing a bed of asparagus takes time and planning. Cultivated varieties lack some of the competitive genetic features that wild asparagus has, making it a plant that needs to be maintained to reduce competition, like weeds. The plant will live up to 15 years (or longer) and farmers and gardeners want to make sure it’s in a place that will get at least 6 hours of sunlight and has soil that drains well. Once the location is determined a furrow, or shallow trench, is dug and crowns are placed along the bottom of the furrow and covered with soil. Crown starters come in male or female, and most large operations grow male asparagus because they produce larger stalks.

Harvesting asparagus

Most of Iowa’s asparagus farms have established beds (some cover up to 8 acres of land!), and since the plant is perennial, the farmer gets to skip the planting season that is experienced by corn and soybean farmers. And what do they do instead of plant? They wait for the glorious warm spring days to see the little heads of asparagus popping up and jump right into harvest.

Harvesting asparagus is short lived in Iowa and only occurs for two months starting in April when the temperatures increase into the 50 and 60s and ending in May. When the spears reach 6-8 inches, it’s time to harvest. And though a farmer may have acres of the vegetable, this crop is harvested by hand. Bending over and either cutting or snapping the spears, each spear is taken from the field, washed, and then prepared for bundling and selling. Julie Vanderpool reflected on the 2022 harvest in an interview with Bob Bjorn (Iowa Farm Bureau), and though the crop came up late, her 8 acres of asparagus will still yield around 10,000 pounds, that’s 180 pounds per day to be harvested!

Late season asparagus farm that has gone to seed (photo credit: Paul Sableman)

Though the asparagus plant can produce multiple spears in a season, asparagus farmers let the plant go to “seed” after 1-2 cuttings. This is an important part of asparagus cultivation because it allows the plant to photosynthesize (learn more HERE). Otherwise, the plant wouldn’t have a body structure to capture sunlight because we harvest the stem. As the plant goes to seed the stem begins to bush out with branches and modified leaves, and sometimes berries if it’s a female plant. This bushy stage of asparagus allows the plant to gather sunlight and create sugars for food. These sugars are then stored in the plant’s roots for overwintering, and to prepare for the arrival of Iowa’s spring weather.

Try it at Home

One of my favorite ways to have asparagus is roasted in the oven or on a grill. Normally, I toss the asparagus with a little olive oil and then sprinkle with salt, but, when I’m truly feeling fancy I indulge in a recipe I saw on Iowa Ingredients.

  • Ingredients
    • 1 bunch of asparagus
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped roughly
    • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped roughly
    • 1/4 cup pecorino cheese (or parmesan)
    • Salt and pepper to taste
    • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • Directions
    • Heat a grill pan to high heat. In a large bowl add asparagus and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss so the asparagus is coated in oil. Place the asparagus on the grill pan and heat on one side until slightly charred. Rotate and cook on the other side. Remove from heat. Place asparagus on a serving plate. Add parsley, dill, and cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Season with some salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy!

My Takeaways

  • When asparagus goes to seed the long frills are considered leaves and are modified stems
  • Asparagus is only harvested for two months in the spring in Iowa
  • Cultivated asparagus plants are mostly male and don’t develop berries
  • Asparagus has a life span of 15-20 years


Want to learn more about asparagus? Check out these great sources!

Foraging for Wild Asparagus: Hunting and Cooking – DNR News Releases (iowadnr.gov)

Consider a Springtime Favorite: Asparagus | News (iastate.edu)

Growing Asparagus | Iowa Ingredient – YouTube

Planting Asparagus Crowns – Investing In a Tasty Future | The Garden of Eating

Agriculture 101: Oranges

Oranges are a staple of the produce section, but how much do you know about how they are grown and harvested? Let’s dive into the agricultural story behind this popular tropical fruit. 

Oranges are a perennial tree fruit grown in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Brazil is the top orange-producing country, growing about 30% of the world’s supply. In the United States, oranges are grown commercially in Florida, California, Texas, and Arizona. Florida and California dominate, producing 55% and 44% of the country’s oranges, respectively, in the 2019-2020 season.  

Orange production in California and Florida are very different though. Over 95% of Florida’s oranges are processed into juice, and 80% of California’s oranges are sold to eat fresh. Why is this? It comes down to geography and climate. California’s dry heat is favorable for growing oranges with a sweet flavor and a thick peel that holds up well during storage and transportation. California’s mountains also create natural windbreaks that protect the fruit from wind damage. Florida’s ocean breezes and humidity, on the other hand, produce very juicy oranges that have a thinner skin and less pleasing appearance. 

While there are several types of oranges grown commercially, navel oranges are most commonly grown for fresh consumption because they are sweet, easy-to-peel, and seedless. Their seedlessness is a result of a genetic mutation and can only be propagated via cuttings since the fruit is sterile.   

Orange groves are laid out in rows to maximize space, sun penetration, and harvest efficiency.  Herbicide is applied under the planted tree to reduce competition for water and nutrients. The area between the rows is mowed as needed.

Oranges do not continue to ripen after they are picked, so growers must closely monitor the crop to ensure they are harvested at peak maturity.  Oranges picked too soon are not as sweet.  Oranges picked too late will quickly become soft and loose their sweetness.  Fruit size and color are helpful factors in monitoring maturity, but commercial growers also utilize internal assessment to decide when a section of an orange grove is ready to harvest.  A sample of fruit is taken and tested for its juice, sugar, and acid content.

Once the oranges are ripe, workers carefully handpick the fruit and place it in large canvas bags. The bags are then placed into specialized vehicles that bring the harvested fruit from the grove to roadside tractor-trailers. Oranges grown for fresh consumption are hauled to packinghouses to be washed, graded, and packed. Oranges produced for juice are transported by truck to processing plants for juice extraction. Check out this video to see an orange harvest an action. 

That’s the agricultural story of oranges! What other crop or animal product would you like to learn more about in an Ag 101 post?


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!



Science 101: Photoperiodism

Saturday is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Since June 21, the Summer Solstice, the days have been getting shorter. As a parent, I look forward shorter days and longer nights for one reason. My kids go to bed easier. They are cranky and do not function well unless they get 10-12 hours of sleep, and they sleep better when their room is dark. Many plants are similar.

Poinsettias, strawberries, cotton, and soybeans may not seem to have a lot in common, but the plants they come from sure do. They set flowers in response to shorter days and longer nights.  And without flowers, they will not produce what we want – beautiful red bracts for the Christmas season; fiber for clothes; sweet berries to eat; and beans for biodiesel, livestock feed, vegetable oil and more.

There is a key science phenomenon behind this seasonal response to day-length.  Photoperiodism is the ability of plants and animals to use the length of daylight or darkness to trigger development or a modification of activities. In many organisms, photoperiodism causes seasonal activities like growth, flowering, reproduction, migration and dormancy in some organisms. Temperature and moisture affect growth and other seasonal activities too, but they are much less regular in timing. Consequently, they are less effective “clocks” to trigger activities needed for organisms to survive and reproduce.

In the plant world, flowering is the most common and significant activity affected by photoperiodism. Plants are divided into three categories: short-day, long-day, and day-neutral. While these names suggest that the length of daylight triggers flowering, it is actually the night length that is most critical to development.

Short-day plants bloom when the length of day drops below a critical threshold. This threshold varies by species, but short-day plants generally require greater than 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness to flower. Other short-day plants include the chrysanthemum, Christmas cactus, rice, green onion, and sugarcane.

Conversely, flowering in long-day plants is triggered when daylight lasts longer than their critical threshold, typically in spring or early summer, after the spring equinox.  Examples of agriculturally significant long-day plants include lettuce, spinach, turnip, radish, sugar beet, and potato.

You might be wondering; how do plants sense light? Unlike my kids, plants do not have eyes to tell night from day. Instead they have photoreceptors, specialized proteins bonded to light absorbing pigment within cells. When the pigment receives certain wavelengths of light, the photoreceptor protein is altered and causes changes in hormone production, gene expression, and growth.

So, why does photoperiodism matter and how does it affect farmers?

Day-length influences a wide range of plant responses in the crops farmers grow across the country and around the world. Flowering in soybeans, bulb formation in onions and garlic, runner development versus flower bud initiation in strawberries, and even seed germination of some plants are affected by the amount of daylight and darkness.  Because of this day-length plays a big factor in what farmers grow when and where.

Some crop’s critical day -length differs among varieties. Soybeans, for example, are classified into maturity groups according to their response to photoperiod. Maturity group zones were developed to define where a soybean cultivar is best suited.

Some crops’ critical day-length differs among varieties. Onions, for example, can be short-day, long-day, or day-neutral. Farmers choose varieties best suited to their part of the country. In the South, winter temperatures are milder and summer and winter days do not vary much in length. Because of this, southern farmers plant short-day varieties in the fall for a late-spring harvest. Short-day varieties can be grown in northern states, but the bulbs will not grow as large.

soybean4All soybean varieties are short-day plants, but there is still some variance in the critical day-length threshold required for flowering. Therefore, photoperiod response is one of the primary factors used to classify soybeans into maturity groups. Plant breeders use maturity groups to define where a soybean variety is best suited. Soybean maturity groups range from earliest (000), to latest (10). There are gradations within maturity groups formed by adding a decimal to the number. For example, a seed company may offer a soybean variety with a 3.6 relative maturity.

Soybean yield is a product of the number of days seeds have to develop and the rate at which they develop. Later maturing varieties have more days for seeds to develop, which helps increase yield.

Earlier maturing varieties, on the other hand, produce more leaves before flowering starts. Leaves are the plant’s energy factory, and energy is needed for seed development. So, as you go up the maturity group scale, the signal to start flowering is delayed. This gives the plant more time to develop a bigger factory, thus increasing the rate of seed development and yield potential.

Soybean field lit almost orange during sunset, with background of blue sky and some cloudsIf a late-maturing soybean is planted too far north, frost may occur before the seeds are fully mature. If an early variety is planted too far south, seed development may take place when the plant is stressed from summer heat or drought. Either scenario can result in lower yields.

Farmers choose maturity groups based on their location, weather, and other factors. If spring planting is delayed by weather, they may choose a maturity on the earlier side of the range suitable for their location. Some farmers choose to plant a variety of maturities so their crop matures at different time.  This helps to spread risk and time planting and harvest around other farm activities.






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 www.iowaagliteracy.org where you will find this and other classroom lessons.


Locally Grown

It’s January and I just bought some locally grown lettuce. The grocer specifically labeled it as locally grown with a fancy sign making it look like it was better lettuce than the other stuff. So I saved the world! I just bought local which is surely better….right?

Well, not necessarily. It may come as a surprise, but if you are buying or eating locally grown food, it may not be food grown in your community. There is no set determination for the definition of locally grown. Locally grown products may have been grown at a local farm just up the road, in the same county as your farmers market, or possibly even within the same state. However, in other cases, locally grown produce may have come from 250, 400, or even 1,000 miles away from the point of purchase.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defines locally grown as “being transported less than 400 miles within the state in which it is produced.” But retailers, states, farmer’s markets, and other organizations may use their own definition.

By the Food, Conservation and Energy Act definition,  if I was a farmer in Council Bluffs, Iowa (western side of the state) I could sell my produce in Bettendorf, Iowa (eastern side of the state) which is 310 miles away. Similarly, if I was a farmer in Hornbrook, California (extreme north) I could sell my produce in San Diego, California and call it local. But that is more than 800 miles distance to the south! Seattle, Washington which is two states away and north is closer to Hornbrook at only 480 miles away – but then my produce couldn’t be called local.

Specialization and Trade

There are a couple of theories behind local food. 1) It is better for our health, 2) it is better for the environment, and 3) it is better for the local economy. Let’s look at the environmental argument first.

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” – Steve Sexton.

This is called comparative advantage. Ignoring the concept and the advantage means it will require more inputs to grow the same amount of food. This means more land will be used. More chemicals will be used. More carbon emissions will be spewed out into the atmosphere. There are a number of different models floating around on the internet, but they suggest that if we were to transition to a purely local production system in agriculture it would take between 25 percent and 50 percent more land to produce the same amount of food we produce today.

The other environmental concern is carbon emissions from transportation of food. But estimates suggest that only 11 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. The bulk of carbon emissions in the food system – 83 percent – come from production. So while it would be nice to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation, we can make a bigger impact by improving technology on the farm and reduce emissions on the production side of the system.

Healthy Options

Local food is often associated with organically produced which is often associated with being the healthier option. But is it? This one is a bit more complicated to unravel. Local food is defined (yes, but earlier I said it wasn’t defined….stick with me here) by the distance it travels from where it was produced to where it was sold. By definition, that means it has nothing to do with the quality of the food or whether or not it is healthier.

What can have a larger impact on the health benefits of the food is what time of year it is grown and produced. For example, a tomato that is grown in the summer months with adequate rain and nutrients will likely develop more natural sugars, be packed with vitamins and minerals, and be very ‘healthy.’ By contrast, a hot-house tomato that is grown in the winter months with less daylight will not be as healthful. It won’t have had the same opportunity to develop those nutrients. BUT, the difference is small and really negligible. The most important part of a healthy diet is eating lots of variety of whole foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat meat. Drink milk. Worry less about where the food came from and more about portion size and diversity of diet.

Many local food producers are small-scale farmers and many of those raise produce organically. There is an assumption that organically grown produce is raised without chemicals, but this isn’t necessarily true. Organic growers can still use pesticides. So if your goal is to reduce exposure to chemicals then buying local isn’t a sure thing. And buying organic isn’t a sure thing.

IMG_2105.JPGConsider this: nearly all apples contain detectable levels of pesticides. But, the presence of a chemical doesn’t equate to the presence of a risk. Fewer than 0.1% of apples tested have pesticide residue levels higher than the governmental limit. Even though most apples tested have detectable chemical residue, most were far below the permissible level. So the benefits of eating the apple and getting good nutrients outweigh the risk of chemical exposure.

A Boon to the Local Economy

While the premise of buying locally produced food falls short on the environmental factors and the health factors, it shines when considering the local economy. Studies have shown that small farms are more likely to earn a positive net farm income by selling locally. Other studies indicate there are nearly 32 jobs created for every $1 million in revenue generated by farms who are directly marketing their produce. This is compared to only 10.5 jobs per $1 million with large farms.

In our modern society, the number of farmers continues to decrease. As farms get larger and more efficient, the number of people it takes to grow food declines. Currently, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. But, local food can help increase the number of farmers. Local food sales receipts are upwards of $4.8 billion. These direct-to-consumer sales are great, but the real answer might lie in connecting small and mid-sized farms to large-scale food buyers.

nfsn-social-link-share.pngLocal producers can also benefit through programs like Farm to School. This national program is used in more than 42,000 of the roughly 100,000 school districts across the country. The premise is to connect local producers to local school districts providing the ingredients they need to produce up to 30.5 million school lunches every day. This is a great way of helping source local produce. There is an educational element to it so kids can learn about where their food comes from. But the primary benefit is giving priority to local producers.

Local food can also come in the form of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. This can be a fun way of getting to know your local farmers. All goods are locally produced and usually seasonally grown. It can be fun to get a box of lettuce and carrots one month and a box of turnips the next month! Anyone know any good recipes for turnips?!!!?

Ultimately, food choices are hard. Locally produced food is a nice idea. But it doesn’t always make sense. It can be a factor when you consider what produce to buy, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. And don’t confuse local with organic or other gimmicky descriptors. Just eat a well-balanced diet. Not too much, not too little.


Holiday Favorite Full of Rich, Creamy Flavor & Agriculture

I love this time of year. There’s a crispness in the air. People seem just a little bit lighter and joy-filled. We all seem to have traditions that we do every year. In my house, it’s the time spent laughing while decorating cookies or making personal gifts with the grand kids to give to family. We enjoy special kinds of foods like cranberries, pumpkins, and eggnog.

I only get to enjoy eggnog at Christmas time. It is a special treat that is sweet and reminds me of the holiday. My dad and I would drink eggnog every Christmas. It was the store-bought kind…but still very special because it was shared with dad. Now it’s my turn to share it with my children and grandchildren. This year I decided to make it at home. I liked the idea of being able to make it and share it with themeggnog.

Eggnog is not a difficult beverage to make and the ingredients are easy to find in the grocery store. Just a few items that when blended together make a rich and creamy treat. It contains the same ingredients as ice cream. Maybe that’s why I like it so much!

Before I share the recipe, I will share a little agricultural close-up-of-brown-eggs-in-crate-597185291-593ad8085f9b58d58a2d0ef2information about the ingredients.

The main ingredient in eggnog is the eggs. Iowa is the number one egg producing state. Eggs are full of vitamins, and protein.

Sugar comes from two agricultural crops, sugar beets and sugar cane. Masugar-cane-and-sugar-beet1ny people associate sugar cane with Hawaii. It is a tropical crop because it grows best with lots of sun and water. It is harvested by chopping down the cane, but leaving the roots for the next crop of sugar cane. Sugar can also be made from sugar beets. Grown in soils of the upper Midwest, the sugar beet plant’s root is harvested to produce the sugar.

Salt: Not really an agriculture product, but it is a product that people use every day. The great source of salt is in our seas and oceans, but salt can also be mined from underground beds.

Milk: Milk or heavy cream provides a perfect source of calcium and vitamins. Iowa ranks 12th in the United States in production of milk. What’s the difference between milk and heavy cream? Both are made from cow’s milk, consisting of water milk and butterfat.  Cream has a much higher butterfat content. Remove butterfat and you have lower fat milk products like low-fat milk and skim milk.

Vanilla extract is made from the seed pod, or bean, of the flat leaved vanilla orchid. They are picked unripe, submerged into hot water and then laid out to dry. Vanilla extract is made by macerating the vanilla beans and mixing them with water and alcohol.

Nutmeg: Nutmeg is the seed of a dark leaved evergreen tree – myristica fragrans. It is cultivated for the two spices made from its fruit  – nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is made from the seed and mace is made from the dried shell of the seed. Nutmeg is a sweeter spice full of vitamins and essential oils.

Eggnog Recipe:

6 eggs

¾ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

4 cups whole milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup heavy whipping cream


In a heavy saucepan, whisk together the eggs, sugar, and salt. Gradually add 2 cups of milk and cook over low heat until thermometer reads 160 degrees – 170 degrees. (This will take 30+ minutes. – Do not let the mixture boil.)

Transfer to a bowl when temperature is reached.

Stir in vanilla, nutmeg and remaining milk. Place bowl in shallow ice water bath and stir until the mixture is cool. If the mixture separates, it can be processed in a blender until mixture is smooth. Refrigerate 3 or more hours.

To serve the eggnog: Beat the heavy cream until peaks form and gently whisk into cooled mixture. Sprinkle with extra nutmeg just to make it look festive. Enjoy!



What’s Cookin’: Fresh Cranberry Sauce


I often take advantage of shortcuts when cooking during the holidays.  I think a pumpkin pie made with canned pumpkin puree, is just as good if not better than starting with a whole fresh pumpkin.  Cranberry sauce, on the other hand, is worth the extra effort to start with fresh cranberries.  Cranberry sauce is simple to make, you can adjust the amount of sugar to your tartness to your family’s liking, and the flavor and texture far exceeds that of any canned sauce.  With just a few ingredients and 15 minutes, it is guaranteed to be a hit on your holiday table!

Before I share the recipe, here’s the agriculture story behind the ingredients.

cranberreis2CranberriesCranberries are one of only a few fruits in the grocery store that are native to North America. Native Americans used wild cranberries long before Europeans arrived and the first thanksgiving was celebrated. They ate them fresh, dried the fruit for longer storage, and made tea out of cranberry leaves. The also used the versatile fruit to cure meats, dye fabric, and treat wounds.

You probably think of water when you picture where cranberries grow. Cranberries naturally grow in bogs and wetlands, water-soaked areas that create a transition from dry land to open water.  But cranberries do not grow directly in water. Wild cranberries naturally grow right at the edge of the water, taking advantage of the rich and acidic soil there.

Cranberries grown for juice, dried fruit, and other processed foods are wet harvested. This technique takes advantage of the fruit’s natural ability to float.  Farmers flood the bogs with water and use machines to shake the berries loose form the plants.  The floating berries are then corralled together and loaded into trucks.  Fresh cranberries, like the ones used in this recipe, are dry harvested using a mechanical picker.

sugarSugar:  Sugar you buy for baking and other sweet treats can come from two agricultural crops,  sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar beets are a root crop grown in the upper Midwest.  Sugar cane is a tall perennial grass grown in more tropical environments like Florida, Latin America, and South America.  Although the plants are very different, the process of turning juice from sugar beets and sugar cane into granulated sugar is very similar.  After the juice is extracted, it is purified, and the crystals form as the water is removed through several stages of evaporation.

lemonsLemon Juice:  Lemons are the fruit of a small evergreen tree, native to Asia. In the United States, California is the land of lemons, producing 92% of U.S. lemons!  Even though we think of lemon as summer fruit, winter and early spring is when lemons and other citrus fruits are harvested.

The juice of the lemon is about 5% to 6% citric acid, with a pH of around 2.2, giving this fruit its distinctive sour taste. Lemons are a great source of calcium, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium, minerals and antioxidants.

butterButter: Fresh whole milk from dairy farms is collected and brought to the creamery. The cream is separated from the milk and rapidly heated to a high temperature. Pasteurization removes any disease-causing bacteria and helps the butter stay fresh longer.  The cream is then churned by shaking or beating it vigorously until it thickens. The remaining liquid, appropriately called buttermilk, is removed. The clumps of butter are then washed and formed into sticks or blocks. Check out this video to see exactly how butter is made.

Fresh Cranberry Sauceingredients

12 ounces fresh cranberries

1 ¼ cup sugar

1 cup water

1 T butter

1 T lemon juice


20171122_100619Bring water and sugar to a boil in a saucepan.  Add cranberries and return to boil.  Reduce heat and bil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and butter.  Pour into a bowl, cover, and cool completely at room temperature.  Refrigerate until serving.



Beggar’s Night Favorites

Usually when we think about agriculture, we think about all of the healthy fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, and grains that we eat. But nearly all food comes from agriculture – even our indulgences like candy!

According to Candystore.com, Iowa’s most favorite Halloween Candy is Reese’s Cups. Second and third place contenders are M&Ms and Butterfingers.


Source: CandyStore.com.

Let’s break these down and look at the agriculture that helped make these sweet treats.

Reese’s Cups
It is no surprise that the three most popular candies are chocolate. Chocolate is a mixture of cocoa powder, milk, cocoa butter, milk fat, soy lecithin, sugar, and maybe a little salt. We discussed chocolate and how it comes from the cacao bean before. Milk and milk fats come from dairy cows. Chocolate comes in a wide variety. Different types of chocolates have different amounts of these core ingredients. Dark chocolate will have a higher ratio of cocoa powder than milk chocolate. White chocolate doesn’t have any cocoa powder – only the cocoa butter. Milk chocolate is somewhere in the middle.

Soy lecithin you may not be familiar with. Lecithin are fatty compounds that can come from plant or animal sources (eggs, cotton seeds, etc.). Soy is abundantly produced in Iowa, throughout the Midwest, and throughout the world which is why soy lecithin is found in so many of our foods. It acts as a great emulsifier that helps oils and water stay mixed in our food products. Just a small amount goes a long way to helping improve the texture, appearance, and shelf life of food.

Peanuts are the second main ingredient in Reese’s Cups. Despite the name, they are not nuts at all. They don’t grow on trees like almonds, walnuts, or pistachios. They are grown underground! They are legumes and related to beans and peas. What we know as peanuts are produced as part of the root structure of the peanut plant. Legumes are important in agriculture because they host bacteria in the soil that help turn nitrogen into nitrates. Plants use nitrates in soil to stay healthy. Peanuts and other legumes are used in crop rotation to help keep soils healthy. Peanuts can be roasted, boiled, and also ground into peanut butter.

The term “sugar” can be used to either refer specifically to sucrose or it can be used generally to refer to all simple sugars (lactose, glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose, etc.). chocolatiers may use any of these sugars to sweeten their chocolate. Most commonly, sugar comes from sugar beets grown in the upper Midwest (Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana) or sugar cane grown in more tropical climates (like Florida).

Reese’s Cups also use another sweetener called dextrose. Dextrose is a simple sugar obtained most often from corn (field corn,  not sweet corn), but can be obtained from other sources as well, such as wheat, sorghum, and tapioca.


The primary ingredient is of course chocolate. It is a slightly different ratio of cocoa powder, milk, and sugar, etc. but it has all of the same component parts. What makes M&Ms fun and unique is their colorful candy shells. To get the right appearance and to not let the candy shell mix with chocolate center, the chocolate is sprinkled with a little bit of cornstarch. Cornstarch (from field corn) acts as a moisture barrier to keep the candy shell crunchy and not mix with the chocolate. The shells are then made from a little corn syrup, dextrin, food colorings, and gum acacia.


The flakey buttery center of Butterfinger candy is a mix of corn syrup, sugar, ground roasted peanuts, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, molasses, confectioner’s corn flakes, salt, soybean oil, and cornstarch. You can see a common theme in these candies (chocolate, sugar, etc.). The molasses, corn syrup, and peanut butter are all mixed together. Molasses comes from sugar beet or sugar cane juice that is boiled down until it yields a thick, dark syrup. It can also be made from sorghum, dates, or pomegranate.

The sticky rich mixture is poured over confectioner’s corn flakes. These are not like the breakfast cereal. They are small pieces of field corn that have been rolled flat and dried. The corn flakes provide the candy the crispity-crunchity texture. Finally chocolate is poured over the center filling. Check out the video on how Butterfingers are made.

As you can see, a lot of the ingredients used in these candies come from Iowa and Midwest agriculture. Corn syrup, corn starch, and corn flakes from field corn. Sugar and molasses from sugar beets. Soy lecithin and soy oil from soybeans. And milk! No wonder Iowans like these sweet treats.

Of course these candies probably can be considered a part of a healthy diet. So don’t overindulge. But we hope you enjoy Beggar’s Night and have a Happy Halloween!


Hey, That’s Not Hay!

759-pumpkins-on-straw-bales-pvI recently saw a sign at a local store advertising hay bales for sale. I looked around and didn’t see any. There were pumpkins, potted mums, gourds, Indian corn, and baled straw— but no hay.  It took everything in me to keep from shouting out, “Hey, that’s not hay! It’s straw.”

I see this mistake often in children’s books, on crafting and decorating blogs, and at craft stores and garden centers. Calling hay straw irritates me. It’s like calling a soccer ball a volleyball or dish soap shampoo. They may look similar at first glance, but they have very different uses.

So, what is the difference between hay and straw?

First, let’s talk about the similarities. Hay and straw are both agriculture products made from plants. They are both cut and formed into big round, big square, or small square bales. But that is where their similarity ends.

The biggest difference between hay and straw is their indented use. To put it simply, hay is food for animals and straw is bedding. The cartoons below illustrate this point well, and should ingrain the difference in your mind forever.

What they are made from is extremely important, too, and explains why each serve a different purpose. Hay is made from the entire plant; leaves, stems, flowers, and sometimes immature seeds. The whole plant has a much greater nutritional value than just dried stems. Hay is cut before the seeds have matured. This keeps valuable nutrients in the stalks and makes a nutrient-rich feed for horses, cattle, and other ruminant animals.

hay in fieldThe nutrient and protein value of hay will vary depending on what plant it is made from and when it is harvested. The fiber content of hay increases as it grows, while the protein content diminishes. Most of the protein in hay is in the leaves, while the stocks are richer in fiber.

Plants grown for hay can be divided into two categories: legumes and grasses. Legumes generally have a higher protein and calcium content than grasses because they have a higher leaves to stalk ratio. Alfalfa and clover are the two most common legumes grown for hay. Grasses used for hay include rye, timothy, orchard, and fescue. Farmers specifically plant these crops to make hay, and usually get about three cuttings of hay off one field per year.

baling-straw-360x238Straw, on the other hand, is a byproduct of cereal grains like wheat, barley, and oats. When the seeds of these crops are harvested the stems, or stalks, are left behind. Most of the stalks’ nutrients were depleted while producing seed, leaving little nutritional value as a feed source. The stalks can, however, be baled and used for straw.

Straw makes a good, inexpensive bedding for livestock. The dry stalks absorb moisture from manure, and provide a soft, clean place for animals to rest. Straw is also commonly used as garden mulch, to help establish new grass, and for outdoor décor.

If you are shopping for straw, be sure to look for golden yellow-brown bales made of stems only.  Hay is light green and include leaves and dried flowers or seed heads.

I highly recommend checking out Lucus County’s Hay Bale Art Contest to see a creative and entertaining use of bales. This annual fall event in south central Iowa includes more than 20 giant sculptures made of bales of all shapes and sizes. My kids and I visited a few years ago, and they are still talking about it.