We are so excited that you’re coming to Des Moines for the 2021 National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference. We’ve been planning for a long time and can’t wait for you to experience our favorite state!
As a native Iowan myself, I wanted to help you get a feel for the locale. What restaurants will be close by the conference center? What are some major Iowa things to check out? If you’re bringing kids or meeting with family, what kinds of activities can you do together? What about some background on Iowa agriculture to prepare you for the traveling workshops? I’ve got you!
First, Iowa is solidly part of the Midwest. Temperatures during the conference will likely be 70 to 90 degrees F and humid. The conference will be in Des Moines, which is fairly centrally located in the state and at an interesting place geographically.
All of Iowa has been glaciated at one point or another. The north-central third of the state was glaciated very recently and remains the flattest part of the state with some of the best, richest, newest soil in the world. This glacier’s terminal moraine became the hill that our state capital was built on! So from the capital, if you drive north, south, east, or west, you can see different major geographic areas. More on our land formations here.
Because of Iowa’s rich soils, warm sun, and adequate rain, it has become a prime location for commodity row crops like corn and soybeans. Iowa is the top corn growing state and is either first or second for soybean production, sometimes trading with our pals to the east in Illinois. One of the major markets for these crops is feeding livestock, so Iowa also raises lots of pigs, laying hens, and beef cattle. Iowa is the top pork and egg producing state and is in the top ten in total cattle numbers. This lends itself well to a cycle where the livestock manure can then be used to fertilize the cropland that feeds the animals.
Some of these commodities you may see represented on the traveling workshops you have chosen. Other tours may show more specialty agriculture, from goats to grapes and schools to teaching farms. Iowa has a history of producing crops like apples and grapes, and has been growing the wine, beer, and spirits industries in recent years. In parts of the state where land is less flat, there are also more farms with grazing animals, like dairy cattle, goats, and sheep.
But do you want to get some recommendations on places to eat and things to do? Wait no more! Scroll down for the section headings you’re most interested in!
801 Chop House
For a fancy meal, consider 801 Chop House. This restaurant is housed in 801 Grand, an iconic building in the Des Moines skyline. This is just a 9-minute walk from the Hilton Des Moines Downtown, where conference goers are staying!
For a decidedly not fancy meal, go to Fong’s Pizza and get the crab rangoon pizza. It is amazing and weird and just an absolute experience. A real Des Moines metro oddity. Fong’s is a 10-minute walk from the conference hotel.
You really can’t go wrong with Spaghetti Works. This is a great restaurant for a nice, sit-down meal with good Italian-American food. Just an 11-minute walk from the conference hotel!
Zombie Burger and Shake Lab
Zombie Burger is a local haunt that stays busy – for good reason. You can find some very ridiculous and delicious burgers (the Undead Elvis is my favorite) as well as milkshakes with cereal in them. Yeah.
As it might sound, Hessen Haus is a local German restaurant in a neat part of town close to the Iowa Cubs baseball stadium and the Science Center of Iowa. This one is about a 13 minute walk from the conference center.
El Bait Shop
El Bait Shop is a favorite casual dive bar also nearby Principal Park. They advertise the largest craft beer selection west of the Mississippi, and of course have food.
Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company
At the heart of the Court Avenue district is Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company. This restaurant has good food, good drinks, and is in a neat building in a cool neighborhood.
The Machine Shed
If you’re looking to drive, The Machine Shed is a great bet. This locale really leans into the Iowa agriculture motif with agricultural décor and even wait staff in overalls. Very good food and a nice little gift shop to boot!
Things to do nearby
World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
The World Food Prize, founded by native Iowan Norman Borlaug, is housed at the old Des Moines public library in downtown Des Moines. The building has been beautifully kept and includes excellent artwork and interactive educational displays. Check to see if a tour lines up with your schedule!
Des Moines Botanical Garden
Also downtown, we have a great way to learn about and see plants! Who doesn’t love that?
Iowa Hall of Pride
The Iowa Hall of Pride is housed very close to the conference center, and serves as a bit of a museum for how awesome Iowa is. Which is, of course, very true.
Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market
To get a good cross-section for local agriculture, you can check out the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market! The market opens on Court Ave on Saturday morning. So if you’re staying for the post-conference tour on Friday, you can pop by for breakfast before leaving town! It is said to be the second largest farmers market in the country (after Pike Place Market in Seattle, WA).
Any brewery or winery
This may seem broad, but local breweries, wineries, and even distilleries have become a large part in Des Moines Metro culture in recent years. Folks will often meet up at a local craft brewery to share a flight, eat some popcorn, and play trivia or giant Jenga. If you want to feel like a local, this is a great way to do it!
Family activities nearby
Science Center of Iowa
The Science Center of Iowa is within walking distance from the conference center and has lots of great ways to engage youth. This could also be a fun stop to get ideas for your classroom!
Living History Farms
Living History Farms is about a 15 minute drive from the conference center, but really ties the agriculture and education pieces together. On site, there are several model farms from different points in history. There’s also a gift shop, and The Machine Shed restaurant is just next door!
Road trip ideas
Iowa State University
Iowa State University in Ames has a top-rated agriculture college, several teaching farms, and a campus designed by the same person that designed Central Park in New York City. I am very much biased, but there’s a lot of good stuff to see and learn at ISU.
The Shrine at the Grotto of Redemption
The Grotto is a monument built by a Catholic priest over several decades using a variety of rocks and stones. This stop tops my list of interesting roadside attractions in the state – and I think there’s an ice cream shop close by!
A Silos and Smokestacks partner site
The Northeast quadrant of Iowa is a National Heritage Area called Silos and Smokestacks. There are numerous partner sites in this area of the state that help tell the story of Iowa agriculture and industry. They range from Norman Borlaug’s boyhood home to local museums.
The Field of Dreams field
If you’re planning to drive east, stop at Dyersville before you leave! The original ball field in the corn field in the Field of Dreams movie is just out of town. Though the home is a private residence and the movie was not shot inside, you can visit the field, play catch, and snap some pictures.
John Wayne’s Birthplace and Museum
If you’re planning to attend the conference post-tour, you will already be seeing this stop! John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa, which is not too far south of Des Moines. The home has been made into a museum, and they have just recently built a new museum to accompany the home! While down in Winterset, you can also find covered bridges from The Bridges of Madison County, wineries, a cidery, and more.
Originally a German communal society, the Amanas are now a tourist destination. There are several colonies, each with charm. In the Amanas, you can find wineries, breweries, bed and breakfasts, a leather shop, a woolen mill, a furniture store, several German restaurants, museums, and more. My top picks here are the Ackerman Winery (try the rhubarb wine), Millstream Brewery (you gotta get the black cherry soda), and the Woolen Mill.
No matter what you choose to do while you’re here, I hope you learn something and enjoy your time here as much as I do.