Explaining Sustainability to Students

Remember finding a quarter as a kid? That used to be huge for me when I was young! If I had a quarter, I could get not just one, but two gumballs from the local convenience store. If I walked a little out of my way, and ventured past the bakery, I could bring home an entire loaf of day-old-bread. A quarter doesn’t go as far today.

We are fortunate to live in a society of abundance. What we want and what we think we need is sometimes as simple as a click away. We expect our items to be at the grocery store when we want them. Phrases like “out-of-stock” frustrate us. The idea of having to ration our food or money is almost unfathomable. So how do we then teach our students about sustainable agriculture and how most resources are limited?

journey 2050 photo

Journey 2050 takes students on a virtual farm simulation. This helps students explore sustainable agriculture on a global level. Each section of the game play is paired with a lesson plan that teachers can walk students through to ensure they have a good grasp of the concepts. The program encourages students to make decisions and adjust them as they see their impact on society, the environment, and the economy at a local and global scale. The students learn about farmers across the globe to learn about climate, market, and other various differences worldwide.

As the student interacts with each family, they learn the role of best management practices in feeding the world, reducing environmental impacts and in improving social performance through greater access to education, medical care, and community infrastructure.

To help understand sustainability, imagine a wooden barrel, made equally with three parts; economy, society, and environment. If you can only fill the barrel as high as the lowest slat on the barrel. The lowest slat becomes the most important and the one that should be addressed or fixed. To increase your overall sustainability, you have to raise that one lowest slat of the barrel.

Sustainability is a combination of these three areas – economic, social, and environmental. Most people are familiar with environmental sustainability, which includes maintaining soil health, protecting wildlife habitats, ensuring clean water, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But none of those things are possible without ALSO being economically sustainable.

Being economically sustainable means farmers can generate profit and help pay for those things to help protect the environment. Being economically sustainable also means that jobs are created, incomes can be earned, and the community can support itself. But those things aren’t possible without also being socially sustainable.

learning about Sustainability

Middle school student evaluates the sustainability level of his virtural farm.

Being socially sustainable means people have food to eat to keep them healthy, that they are well educated about the issues, and that the community has infrastructure like roads, electricity, etc. to help make things work smoothly and efficiently. These three elements of sustainability closely rely on each other.

The Journey 2050 program helps students understand that in agriculture and elsewhere there are finite resources. If students run out of money, they won’t be able to plant their next field. They have to wait to harvest and next time possibly prioritize spending differently. Students have to understand how to manage finite water resources, nutrient resources, and money resources. They need to manage their time. Sometimes, time is up before the harvest can be completed. The resources the student has invested into a particular field, have now been lost. Disappointment can be a powerful motivator to help students be more aware of the time. Just like in real life, farmers have only a certain amount of time to harvest their crops too. Managing all of these elements efficiently can lead to a sustainable farming operation.


Seventh grade student applying the correct level of moisture to the field. Note the sustainability barrel in the lower left corner.

Students get really excited when working with the Journey 2050 program. They shout things like, “I just bought a wind turbine to produce my own energy sustainably!” And, “I just made $140,000 harvesting my corn”. One student even commented, “Did you know I bought a well that is going to save lives by providing safe drinking water?”

farmers 2050For those students that just can’t get enough, there is also an at-home version of the game that is available as a mobile app called Farmers 2050. Farmers 2050 applies many of the same concepts, but then takes them further by turning raw farm products into finished goods (apples to apple juice or apple pies). Then players can sell their goods to other people in their community and other people around the world. This really gives students an understanding of how global agriculture is and how we can all contribute to a more sustainable world.

Teaching students about sustainability has benefits beyond understanding about how to feed the world in the future. If conscious thought is given to using what we have now to the best of our ability and making sure we conserve resources for future generations, I believe we can help our children live more satisfied lives now.


Getting the Most Out of a Classroom Visit

Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) is a nationwide educational program designed to help students develop an awareness and understanding that agriculture is the source of our food, clothing, shelter and other essentials. For nearly forty years, AITC has worked closely with educators and their students to bring standards based lessons to schools.

class photo by greenhouse

Students learn about soybean life cycles in a classroom lesson.

Here are a few ways to help prepare your students to get the most out of an Agriculture in the Classroom lesson or a visit from a guest presenter:

Prepare your students:

• Talk with your students about agriculture. What is it? Who needs it? And why is it important? A simple way to explain agriculture to students is that it is the food, fuel, and fibers they use everyday as well as the process of getting that food, fuel, and fiber from the people who grow it, the producers, to the people who need it, the consumers.


The book, “The Milk Makers”, was read to students before a lesson on milk and milk alternatives.

• Introduce books in your classroom on the topic that will be presented. The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has a lending library where you can check out materials for a two-week period. We ship the items to you at no charge and ask that you mail them back to us or return in-person at our office in West Des Moines. Iowa educators can check out items or request additional information. Contact us at info@iowaagliteracy.org

Get the most out of the visit:

• Ask questions and stay engaged with the lesson. Students are great observers and will need to stay focused for the entire 20-30 minute lesson. When they see that their teacher is valuing the information that is being presented, they will as well.
• Have requested supplies ready. Hundreds of lessons are available on the IALF Matrix and the supplies for each activity are clearly listed. Discuss with the guest presenter what lesson you will be covering that day and what materials each of you will need to supply. Please have those supplies ready and available.

me observing kids mixing in a bag

These students are using the pumpkins for more than just carving. The lesson, pumpkin pie in-a-bag.

What to expect during the visit:

• Be prepared to handle any student disruptions. No one knows your students better than you, so feel free to ask the presenter to pause for a moment if there is any behavior that needs your special attention. Your guest presenter is there as an expert in agriculture, not necessarily on classroom management.
• As a teacher, recognize that you are now a partner in the lesson. Your guest presenter is offering valuable tips and facts about the topic, but you are becoming knowledgeable about agriculture as well. A follow-up lesson could be any combination of book readings, hands on activities, presentations, or questions and answer sessions. Your guest presenter’s job is to make sure that you have the resources you need to be able to teach any lesson on your own.

Enrich the visit with follow-up:

girl in blue smiling.coloring vests

Projects like career vests can easily be created for classroom use.

• Many of the lesson plans from the IALF website include enriching activities that can supplement the lesson. If your Agriculture in the Classroom coordinator or other guest presenter conducts the lesson, consider completing the “Enriching Activities” included in the lesson plan after the visit. These activities will assist the student with the three dimensions of science learning: crosscutting concepts, science and engineering practices, and disciplinary core ideas. You also might want to consider inviting an area farmer to come and talk you and your students about what they do and what farming means to them. Your local Farm Bureau, county extension office, or soil and water conservation district could help connect you with an expert in your area.

tc chicks presentation

Middle school student gives a presentation with his chickens to teach preschoolers about caring for livestock.

• Have fun! Agriculture is a fascinating subject that aligns with the science and social studies standards that you are already teaching. Getting messy, working the soil, and exploring new sights, sounds, and smells, are all things that kids can easily get excited about.

Now that you have a few tips and ideas about what to expect, schedule your agriculture guest speaker today! You’ll be happy you did.


Places To Take Your Kids This Summer (And Some Fun Ag-tivities To Do When You Get There)

For me, summer has always brought relief. The schedule is relaxed. There is less pressure to get things done. Our family has more freedom to explore. But after a week or so, as a parent I begin to wonder, “am I letting my kids lose what they have learned?” “Are we beginning the dreaded ‘summer slide’?” “How can I sneak some education into their little Jell-O minds before they set?” Why not fill this summer with these delightful ag-ventures?

• Make it a point to check out your local county fair. These are a great time to get a look at different kinds of farm animals. You can tour building after building of suffolk sheepsheep, cows, goats, rabbits, chickens and more. Many are free to attend, and you can be sure to find one near you.

Introduce your young learners to the livestock they will encounter with the lesson, Animal Life Cycles. The activities include animal flash cards as well as excellent background information. Comparing similarities and differences between groups of animals is one fun way to get kids talking about the animals at the fair. Also in the lesson is a section called “Did you know?”

  • Discovering some interesting Ag Facts could include:
     Looking for animals that don’t have upper teeth in the front of their mouth (incisors). Answer: goats, sheep, and cows
     Finding a breed of chicken called the Aracauna lays eggs that are a light blue or green color.
     Asking what the word “cow” actually means? It is often used to refer to cattle in general, however, cow actually refers to female cattle who have had a calf.

Visit a processing plant or local locker. If you and your family eat meat, this might be a good way to help your children understand where their food comes from. Contact a butcher in your area to see if they would give a tour of their facility. Most processing plants will be able to show you how the meat from each animal is used. Lessons like From Pig to Bacon help kids learn about the many items that come from pigs, not just bacon. Sausage, ham, Canadian bacon, pork chops, cosmetics, gelatin, crayons, and chalk, a well as insulin and even heart valves are produced from pigs.

• Find a farmer willing to give a tour. Farms are busy places and are usually run by people who truly love their jobs. field on curve with two treesFarmers need to be experienced in a variety of things. From fixing fences to caring for sick animals, a farmer needs the skill and know how to do it all. In this activity sheet, Many Hats of an Iowa Farmer, your kids can get an idea of just how many hats an Iowa farmer wears. No matter how busy, I’ve yet to meet a farmer who isn’t willing to take a few minutes of their day to educate someone about the career that is more like a lifestyle. Remember, on your tour to wear chore clothes and sturdy shoes. The farm is no place for flip-flops.

Purchase produce from a farmer’s market. This is an area where cash is welcome, so let your kids do the math. Have them select something new and be responsible for making their purchase. Adding, subtracting, and simple multiplying can all be accomplished with your purchase (plus, you’ll be supporting local farmers). Here’s a fun activity called Eat ‘Em Up. You and your kids can review the plant parts that they eat, including roots, stems, flowers, leaves, fruit, and seeds. You can then choose a favorite fruit or vegetable to feature in a healthy recipe and prepare it with your family.

• If your little one is into big machinery, check out these museums.

It takes a lot of equipment to get a crop in and the history of those machines is really quite amazing. There is a lot of engineering behind some of these agricultural marvels. Kids love to learn how things work, and a tour of a tractor museum could be a great way to spark their interest, perhaps in building something of their own.

tractorsIn the lesson, Terrific Tractors, children will learn vocabulary words like tractor, planter, sprayer, cultivator, combine, and grain wagon as well as discover what each one does. Encourage your family to recognize the simple machines that are behind the farmers most useful tools.

Find a nursery or garden center. Planting a tree is a great way to teach children patience. It can make a lasting impact as a child watches their tree grow year after year. Beginning quite small as a seed and soon, even outgrowing them. You may want to visit a farm that sells evergreens and Discover Christmas Trees.

You might not be thinking of Christmas in the summer, but all-around Iowa, farmers are caring for the trees that may end up in your living room this winter. Here’s a guessing game you can play with your kids before you arrive. Ask your kids if they can name the crop after the clues you provide.

tree-privacy-screen-02o It is harvested one time per year.
o It is not a food crop.
o It is not produced by animals. (If needed, help your kids conclude that it is produced by plants.)
o It takes 6-10 years to grow.
o It has needles instead of leaves.
o It is primarily green and cone-shaped.
o It is most associated with the Christmas holiday.
o What is it? (a Christmas tree!)

Visit the World Food Prize building in Des Moines. I recently had the opportunity to visit and it was one of the most impactful tours I had ever been on. Learning the stories of the men and women who pioneered Iowa agriculture is really quite amazing. While walking through thecorner crops historical building there was something around every corner. The magnificent rotunda actually uses the four corners to tell the story, and origins, of four primary crops involved in feeding the world: wheat, rice, corn, and soy.

When I tell myself, “I can’t wait to make time to take my kids there,” I definitely mean it. I really shouldn’t wait. The importance of this one summer visit could make a huge difference in the way they see the jobs their father and I do. Him as a farmer and me as an agriculture literacy educator. The sense of pride I felt as I looked at the wonderful exhibits is hard to explain. It really made me feel like part of something bigger, something global.globe

Which one of these places will you visit this summer? Leave a comment in the section below to share your favorite Iowa Ag-venture.


Why My Kids Should Learn About Agriculture

I am a native of Iowa that did not grow up on a farm. I will be the first to admit that I was clueless as to the importance of agriculture. We had food on the table and in our refrigerator. I didn’t have to ask where it came from or if there was enough for the family. I can say that I really didn’t know where my food, fiber and fuel came from. I truly took a lot for granted.

Statistics say that most people today are three to four generations removed from the farm and they do not know where the food they eat comes from and really don’t know the importance of knowing anything about agriculture. Should I as an Iowan care?

  • Who are tomorrow’s influencers and decision makers:

The future of agriculture does depend on the next generation. As population grows, so does the need to be able to produce enough food to feed everyone. We need to be sure we are equipping young people with the skills and knowledge to make sound and informative decisions. The more we can teach students about where food comes from, how it is raised and if it is sustainable, the better decision makers they will become. According to the agriculture census, the average age of the American farmer is 58 years old, if this knowledge is not being passed to next generations, who will be farming tomorrow? It is vital to inspire, train and maintain a strong interest in agriculture, so we will be training and transitioning to a new younger generation of Iowan Farmers.

  • Job Markets of tomorrow:

Young people of today seek to get an education in a field of study where they will be able to find employment after a college degree is earned. Many Iowa kids have grown up on

oh the places youll go

or near farms, yet are unaware of the possibilities of what a degree in agriculture can offer them in the way of a job to do what they love to do. A degree in agriculture gives the knowledge and skills to offer students opportunities and many areas, such as: manage business, work in sales and food production, animal nutrition, plant genetics, land surveyor and journalism fields. Many young people work alongside their parents to take over the family farm, but there are many other opportunities to open doors for employment if working on the farm is not an option.

  • Introduction and exposure:

How early can students begin to learn and understand simple agriculture concepts? Children are eager to learn and understand at a very early age. We all eat. Helping very young students see the connections to farmers producing food that is healthy for us to eat is a great foundation. It helps young people develop an understanding about how food is grown and how farmers take care of the animal, the land and still provide healthy food to feed Iowans. Students learn that farmers have families and those families eat the food that is produced on the farm. These building blocks start making connections to food and farms, land and the need to always be learning.

  • They want to know & be involved

Oskaloosa Elem 2

Today’s youth want to know more about the food they eat. They are passionate about understanding and learning. Today’s technology savvy generation has so many possibilities right at their fingertips to make learning exciting and fun for kids of all ages. Farms use technology on the combines, in the barn and even on smart phones. Teachers can use computer programs and games to teach math, science, and so much more. We can even bring the classroom right into the barn with the farmer by way of FarmChat®. Farmchat® is a program that utilizes technology like Skype or Facetime to bring the farm experience into the classroom. Kids can see up close and personal and can ask questions, but they are never at risk of injury, because they are still safely seated at their desk.


Another fun and exciting way to use technology and excite the learner is Journey 2050. You can grow crops, raise livestock, craft and sell goods and engage with local and global partners as you level up. Feeding the world relies on balancing your economic, social and environmental sustainability so strive to be a leader. Along the way, real farmers from across the world will show you what they are doing on their farms. This is a great program to help kids start to really think about how we will sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050.

I have been blessed to be able to be part of Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation and have learned so much in the past few years. I encourage you to connect with your teachers and see how they are equipping students today with real world needs of tomorrow. Let’s all be able to say we are agriculturally literate – an agriculturally literate person understands the relationship between agriculture and the environment, food, fiber and energy, animals, lifestyle, the economy and technology. We need to be part of a team to build interest and excitement for agriculture in Iowa and beyond. We’d love to have you join our team and advocate for agriculture.


Play dough – Not Just for Playtime

One of my favorite things about the holidays is the extended opportunity to spend time with family. During this holiday break, I decided to do a few hands-on projects with little ones. One of their favorite things to do is to make and play with play dough. I have always let my granddaughters help me make a home-made version of play dough. It’s fun, safe for youngsters, and they can play for quite a long time with cookie cutters and childproof utensils.

This version of play dough came with a little “agriculture” lesson. My granddaughters are Tessa, age 5 and Izzie, age 4. They are very curious about all sorts of things, so I decided while we made the play dough, we could learn not only how it is made, but also where the ingredients come from. Farmers help to make almost all of the ingredients in home-made play dough.

wheat1Flour: Most flour is made from wheat that has been finely ground into a powder. The 1.jpgprocess of making flour from the grain has been around since prehistoric times using a stone club and a stone bowl to grind the grain into a fine powder. Wheat is now grown in just about every state in the United States. The United States in ranks 3rd in the production of wheat and is the #1 wheat exporting country. The top wheat-producing states are Kansas, North Dakota and Montana.

Cream of Tartar: Cream of tartar is a byproduct of wine making. It is made from sediment left in the barrel after grape juice is fermented. This acidic salt acts as a stabilizer. For example, cream of tartar helps meringue retain its shape and texture on top of a pie after it is browned in a hot oven.

soybeans1Vegetable Oil: Most vegetable oils are made from soybeans. Iowa ranks number one in the production of soybeans. Extraction of oil happens when seeds are pressed, then the liquid is sent through a filtration system to sift out remaining seed residue.

OD-BA499_SALTS_OZ_20140108171619Salt: Salt is not an agriculture product. It is a mineral collected by evaporating salt water or mining rock salt.

Food Coloring; artificial and natural food dyes are added to food and beverages to make them more desirable to consumers. Artificial colors are made from petroleum. Natural colors are extracted from fruits, vegetable, and even insects.


  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon cream of tartar
  • Food coloring
  • Saucepan
  • 1 cup flour


  1. Combine water, oil, salt, cream of tartar, and food coloring in a saucepan and heat until warm.
  2. Remove from heat and add flour.
  3. Stir, then knead until smooth. The cream of tartar makes this dough last 6 months or longer, so resist the temptation to omit this ingredient if you don’t have it on hand.
  4. Store this dough in an airtight container or a Ziploc freezer bag.

When it comes time to play, I get out the cookie cutters, plastic utensils, rolling pins,biscuit cutters and anything else they can use with their play dough. We have contests to see who can make the most different things with our “tools”. Eventually some of the green gets mixed with some of the red and the original pretty play dough looks a bit messy, but I can always be assured that we thoroughly enjoy make home-made play dough and playing with it! Take time this week and mix up a batch for the young ones in your home!

– Sheri

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!



Christmas Tree Farming

When we think of the word ‘agriculture’ what usually pops into mind are rows of corn and soybeans or maybe a barnyard of cattle and pigs. But by definition, agriculture is the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, fiber, and other products. This time of year the growing crop soon to be harvested to produce other products is Christmas trees!

2a.jpgYes, real Christmas trees (not the plastic, store-bought ones) are an agricultural crop! Christmas trees have been commercially sold in the United States since about 1850, when most were cut from forests. Midway through the last century, tree farms began to appear, and now most Christmas trees are grown on farms.

Nearly 2,700 operations sold 12.9 million Christmas trees valued at $249.8 million in 2009. That is a decrease from 2007 when the Census of Agriculture reported 13,374 farms growing cut Christmas trees and short-rotation woody crops with sales of $384 million.

Iowa Christmas tree farms devote over 1,500 acres to Christmas tree production in Iowa and as a result harvest approximately 39,500 Christmas trees each year. The result is a $1 million dollar industry contributing to Iowa’s economy.

3a.jpgIt takes 6 to 12 years to grow a Christmas tree before it is ready to be sold. Most tree farms in Iowa are 3 to 8 acres in size and sell trees by the choose-and-harvest method, where customers come to the farm and cut their own trees.

There isn’t just one type of Christmas tree grown. Tree species commonly available at tree farms and commercial lots in Iowa include Scotch pine, white pine, red pine, Fraser fir, balsam fir, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, white spruce and Colorado spruce.  Which tree is right for your home depends on a lot of factors. Be sure to consider look, shape, needle length, smell, number of branches for hanging ornaments, and stiffness of branches for hanging heavier ornaments. Here are a couple of the Christmas trees we found at Walnut Ridge Farm and the differences between them.

15a.jpgBlue spruce have needles that are 3/4 to 1 inch long. The needles are stiff and sharp tipped. Branches are dense and strong to hold ornaments well. The color ranges is from green to blue/green depending on the seed origin.

14a.jpgWhite pine have needles that are 2 to 3 inches long and very soft. The branches are not as strong as some other species. White pine is the only conifer species native to Iowa.

13a.jpgScotch pine have needles that are 1 to 3 inches long and semi-soft. Branches are strong and hold ornaments well. Because Scotch pine grow in many parts of the world there is a wide variance in appearance and needle length.

12a.jpgConcolor fir have needles that are 2 inches long and softer than other fir species. The color is light green to blue/green and has a unique citrus fragrance. Branches are strong and hold ornaments well.

11a.jpgFraser fir and Canaan fir have needles that are 1 inch long and a silver/blue on the underneath side. They have a pleasant fir fragrance. Branches are strong and hold ornaments well. They are native in the mountains from West Virginia to North Carolina.

23915910_10155686669991125_7350921809862992924_n.jpgMy favorite trees are the Douglas fir for their rich smell. But, we ended up selecting a Fraser fir (a close second) because it was the right size and shape that we were looking for. It has a lot of branches – and good sturdy branches – for all of our heavy ornaments. We cut the tree as close to the ground as possible and then shaved off a few of the bottom branches to ensure it would fit in the stand at home. We loaded it onto the wagon and hauled it up to the headhouse. The folks at Walnut Ridge shook the tree for us to get all of the dead needles off (and any spiders that may have been lurking) and then wrapped it in netting for easy transport. We set it up at home and then spent a couple of hours stringing lights and hanging ornaments…and voila!

If kept in water, trees will stay fresh and hold its needles well for 4 to 6 weeks. Visit the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association to find a Christmas tree farm near you and take advantage of this unique agricultural crop!


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!


What’s Cookin’? Chocolate Milk!

What’s Cookin’? Chocolate Milk! I am an avid milk drinker. I like it skim, 2%, and chocolate! To me there is not much better than an ice-cold tall glass of chocolate milk.choc milk Chocolate milk might seem like a simple topic, but I recently became aware of some shocking statistics and thought it would be interesting to investigate. I recently read that 7 percent of Americans believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows and that 48% surveyed do not know where chocolate milk comes from. I would like to shed a little light on some history and then make an awesome chilled glass of chocolate milk.

For a little history on milk, I will refer to a 2015 blog of AG 101:It’s More Than Just Milk. In this blog, we walk through the process of milk production – from the cow to the refrigerator. Our milk comes from dairy cows. Yes, the grocery store sells soy milk from soybeans and almond milk from almonds. But for today, we are focusing on that old-fashioned goodness that comes from cows. The ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????process is very interesting and I highly suggest reading the blog to help clear up any misunderstandings of the process.

The next question would be, if white milk is from dairy cows…where does chocolate milk come from? The easy answer is that the same kind of normal whole white milk comes p15705pcfrom black and white Holstein cows or a reddish colored Devon Cow. (Another great blog on varieties of cows is Never Too Old to Learn Something New.) All cows of any hair color or coat pattern produce the same kind of milk. There may be differences in quantity or quality but it’s all white milk.

The chocolate comes from adding the chocolate as a separate ingredient. Chocolate is from the cacao bean. Read more about the cacao bean in the blog What’s Cookin’? Dark Chocolate Basil Cake. The chocolate we have come to love originates from a tree grown in tropical climates. The blog does a great job of explaining how we get chocolate from the cacao bean. Chocolate is made when we grind and mix the chocolate of the cacao bean with sugar and other additives.

The actual creator of chocolate milk is Hans Sloane from Ireland in the late 1700’s during a trip to Jamaica. Given a local beverage made from the cacao plant that made him nauseous, he decided to add milk to the local beverage and found the new beverage not only very pleasing to taste, but also healthy.

Making a sweet chocolatey glass of milk is easy nowadays. There are only a couple of ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????ingredients and the resulting beverage is cold and delectable! For starters choose the kind of milk you prefer: Whole, Skim, 1%, 2%. This drink is best served very chilled, so be sure the milk is cold.

The chocolate I use comes from a chocolate syrup or my favorite is a chocolate powder which contains sugar, soy lecithin, salt, carrageenan and vitamins and minerals.


8-10 oz. Milk

2 heaping tablespoons chocolate powder or chocolate syrup

Slowly stir the chocolate syrup or chocolate flavored powder into cold milk, stirring until completely dissolved. And voilà – a delicious ice-cold glass of chocolate milk is the result! Go ahead, enjoy a glass with me! I am enjoying this part of my blog best of all! Cheers!