7 Agritourism Destinations in Iowa

Before we go over my favorite agritourism destinations in Iowa, we should first discuss what agritourism is.

To me, agritourism is kind of a strange word. Agriculture and tourism don’t really sound like they go together. When I hear the term tourism, I picture something that belongs smack-dab in the middle of a city. I see a dad with knee-high socks, a fanny-pack, and a camera snapping pictures of the Statue of Liberty – not agriculture.

However, agritourism is when tourists can take part in and see farm or agriculture life that will profit the owner. It’s all focused on the experience that the consumer can get. There are many kinds of agritourism. Some include u-pick farms, farmer’s markets, day camps, and vineyards. Living in Iowa means that we are not short of any agritourism opportunities.

Every summer, Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation puts on many professional development workshops for teachers. Each workshop dedicates a day for tours of agriculture in the area. During my time with IALF this summer I’ve been able to experience agritourism first-hand. Check out our workshops here.

Here are some of my favorite agritourism stops that I have personally visited!

7. Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area – 

A national heritage area is a region of land advised by the National Park Services. Each heritage area dedicates its existence to telling the story of a historic event in the United States. There are currently 55 National Heritage Areas in the country focusing on assets such as mining, the Augusta Canal, Abraham Lincoln’s life, and others.  Silos and Smokestacks tells the story of American agriculture through different sites in the northeast corner of Iowa. These sites range from Eagles Landing Winery to Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum to Reiman Gardens to everything in between. Searching the Silos and Smokestacks website is a great way to find more agritourism spots in Iowa to visit!

6. Cinnamon Ridge Farms – 

Cinnamon Ridge Farms is a dairy farm located in Donahue, Iowa. They have 150-299 Jersey cows at any one time that produce some of the best milk in the United States for their breed. Cinnamon Ridge Farms is a robotic dairy, meaning they use robots instead of people to milk their cows! I was able to visit Cinnamon Ridge this summer, and I was amazed by the technology of the robots. How cool is it that the farmers can see exactly how many times a day each cow is being milked? And from that technology, they can tell if any of the cows are sick? If you want to see these milking robots for yourself, this farm gives tours, hosts meetings, and has day camps for students. Before you leave the farm, make sure to stop at The Country Cupboard. This self-serve store sells products derived from Cinnamon Ridge Farms and other local farms, including cheese, bacon, eggs and more.

5. Living History Farms –

Living History Farms is an outdoor historic interactive museum. Visitors will experience the advancements in farm sites over the last 300 years. As guests travel through time, they can see how Iowa was once full of fertile prairies and has been turned into productive farmland. The sites include historical information and interpreters that fully immerse themselves in the period they represent. These historically accurate sites re-create a snippet of what life was during the time of significant agricultural technology changes. In addition to touring the farm and town sites, there are many programs all year long. Some include historic baseball, historic cooking classes, historical dinners, and day camps. Even though the church at Living History Farms isn’t directly agriculture-related, it’s one of my favorite buildings because of the historical beauty. Actually, I’m looking to have my wedding here this winter!

4. Botanical Garden in Des Moines – 

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden mission is “exploring, explaining and celebrating the world of plants.” Unlike some agritourism destinations, this botanical garden has education programs for all ages: youth, families and adults. When visiting the botanical garden, guests will have the opportunity to walk through an indoor and outdoor portion with plants blooming of all sizes and colors. My favorite part of the botanical garden is the conservatory. It’s great to visit during the wintertime because of the weather inside that the tropical plants need to survive. The conservatory is an 80 foot by 150-foot Plexiglas dome that you can feel the heat of the sun even in the dead of winter. After walking through the conservatory, guests can venture outdoors to visit the many other gardens. When visiting, don’t forget to stop at Trellis Café for lunch. They serve a locally sourced, plant-based menu that always is serving in-season choices!

3. Center Grove Orchard – 

I have been to several orchards and pumpkin patches over the years, but Center Grove Orchard is the one I keep finding myself going back to. I grew up going here every year as a child and even worked here for two years in high school. Larry D. and Pat Black’s family planted their first apple tree in 1986. More than 30 years later, one apple tree has turned into 20 acres of 6,000 apple trees of many varieties. Center Grove also has more than apples! Guests can also pick pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers and strawberries themselves, depending on the season. On the tourism side, they have a corn pool, an old schoolhouse, an apple school, jumping pillows and more.

2. Farmers Market – 

Farmer’s markets are a great place for consumers to see who is producing local products. When buying food at a grocery store, consumers only see the product and the packaging and decide to purchase the product solely on that. During farmer’s markets, consumers can have direct conversations with the farmers and producers of the product. They can learn more about the product and how it was produced. There are over 250 farmer’s markets in Iowa, but the most popular one is the Downtown Des Moines Farmer’s Market. It received a #2 out of 101 rating by the Daily Meal for the best farmers markets in America in 2013 and 2014. Every Saturday morning from May to October, downtown Des Moines floods with consumers waiting to purchase agricultural goods from over 300 locals from 50 Iowa counties.

1. Iowa State Fair – 

While some may argue that the Iowa State Fair has turned more into nostalgia and entertainment, agriculture is still at the core of the Iowa State Fair. In fact, their mission statement is “To celebrate Iowa’s agricultural heritage by providing a quality environment and facilities to further education and to offer entertainment and competition for all ages. Offer opportunities for individual growth for all involved.” The Iowa State Fair has always tied into agriculture for me. I don’t think I have ever missed a year (besides 2020), and my high school FFA chapter put on the Avenue of Breeds every year. My state fair experience in high school was always taking care of the livestock at the Avenue of Breeds and informing the public of animal agriculture. Livestock shows, educational demonstrations, live entertainment, attractions and food are just a few of the many activities held during the 11 days of the state fair each year. The Iowa State Fair is an excellent place for people outside of the agriculture industry to have exposure to livestock, agricultural products and where they can learn more!          

There are so many other great agritourism spots in Iowa that I missed. Let me know in the comments which ones are your favorite and which ones you plan on visiting!


Successfully Supporting Student Learning through a Global Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many teachers and schools to consider mixed instruction for students or to transition to 100% online classes. Many Iowa schools will move between remote, hybrid, and fully in-person models assessing the changing conditions as they move through the school year. With this need for in-person and virtual lessons, the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has developed virtual learning models that can be paired with our normal teacher lessons and can suit both needs.

Virtual learning resources already developed include Seesaw lessons (K-2). These lessons are easy for teachers to assign to their students directly. There are also virtual lesson modules (3-5, 6-8, 9-12) that can be easily copied and pasted into whatever online learning platform the school is using. These lessons follow the widely established 5E teaching sequence – which includes the progressive stages Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. Teachers can also take advantage of the Journey 2050 online module. This curriculum and online game help students identify what sustainable agriculture looks like around the world and what their role in it could be.

School districts are implementing strategies for safely reopening schools that involve some amount of continued online instruction and virtual learning for groups of students or periods of time. Students are
participating in a combination of facilitated and independent learning opportunities that take place at school and at home, which will require some new instructional approaches and content. Agriculture in the Classroom programs already offer content-rich virtual programming distributed to local school partners. The reopening of schools will require teachers to further adapt to the “new norm” of teaching and learning. Changes include finding new ways to blend face-to-face and virtual teaching, staggered teaching times, teaching in new settings, complex scheduling, and more. Partnering with Agriculture in the Classroom can
help to support teachers at the time when they most need it. As schools modify schedules for students and consider combinations of face-to-face and virtual learning, families will continue to face challenges with

Unusual times call for unusual solutions. Teachers and Agriculture in the Classroom partners can potentially extend and expand learning spaces into the community. The National Council for School Facilities suggest 44 square feet per student to allow for social distancing. With this guideline schools could operate at 60% of current classroom capacity. That means that additional space around the community is needed. Cafeterias, gymnasiums, community centers, and other public buildings could all be utilized or converted into learning spaces to help ensure social distancing.

Additionally, teachers could use the school grounds for learning. The risk of spreading COVID-19 and other infectious diseases is known to be lower in outdoor settings. Outdoor learning carries the additional benefits mental health and well-being including stress reduction, physical health, increased student engagement, and increased academic success. Outdoor learning spaces can be cost effective too.

School gardens are an obvious way to utilize outdoor spaces for learning. Students can construct raised beds, cold frames, or even full greenhouses. The best success with a project like this would be to focus on quick growing spring crops (spinach, radishes, etc.) that could be planted in April or early May and reap a harvest before school lets out. Throw a few pumpkin seeds in the ground or some potato eyes and let the summer maintenance of the garden be minimal. No need to actively weed all summer long. If the grounds sprinkler system gets the garden, then great! With any luck the students will come back to school in the fall ready to digs some potatoes and pick a great big pumpkin or two.

Outdoor learning spaces can also include research plots where students could monitor corn and soybean growth. Schools could construct chicken coops and students could do language arts lessons writing poems to their chickens (poultry + poetry = pouletry?). Students could plant their favorite fruit trees and develop a school orchard. Any harvested fruit could be added to the school lunch program or maybe processed into jams and jellies. All of these gardens or growing areas make perfect pollinator habitats too. What better way to help bees, butterflies, and other insects?!

While teachers have the brunt of the work ahead of them, online and virtual learning also puts a significant workload on parents too who might have to supervise their kids through the learning process. Supporting learning at home can help families cope and face challenges of childcare. Through this, Agriculture in the Classroom programs can engage the whole family – not with new, additional activities, but with activities they would already do, like cooking. Pick a favorite recipe and learn about all of the ingredients that went into it and how those ingredients were grown. This can engage the whole family with fun learning and promote family bonding.

While there is no perfect solution to education in these new and unusual times, we can all help support teachers and student learners – using agriculture!


Milk for Cereal, Cookies, and… Fertilizer?

Nine gallons. Yep, you read that correct – nine. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. My family of four will go through nine gallons of milk a week. It is the determining factor of when we go to the grocery store. “The milk gauge is on E” is the phrase we use. So it’s off to the market. During this time of social distancing this weekly chore is completed with military precision. Face mask? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. List? Check. One credit card and one store loyalty card? Double check. I push my cart up and down the one directional aisles not stopping to visit, just getting the job done. Then I get to the dairy section. If it is fully stocked, I’ll grab what we need for the week. If not, I’ll just grab four or five gallons and know I’ll have to make a “quick milk run” sometime in the next few days. So when I discovered farmers were having to dump milk, I had to find out why.
You might wonder why we go to the store for milk. After all, we raise cows on our farm. Why not milk our own cows? Well, we raise beef cattle. Yes, they are cows and yes, they do make milk for their calves, but not an abundance of milk like dairy cows produce. Since we do not have a dairy we do not have the necessary equipment needed to collect the milk. And we have no way to process our cow’s milk.


Kindergarten students try their hands at milking using water and a glove.

Why does cow’s milk need to be processed?

The milk we purchase at the store has gone through a process called pasteurization. This process heats the milk to kill the bacteria. Raw milk, or unpasteurized milk, can contain dangerous microorganisms. Not something that you would want to serve to your family.

In addition to being pasteurized, milk is homogenized, passed through screens with small holes, breaking the milk fat down into smaller particles. This creates a more uniform liquid and is much nicer to drink. You can drink non-homogenized milk by skimming the cream layers off the top, or by shaking it vigorously to evenly distribute the cream.

There are several steps involved to get milk from the farm to the grocery store. I prefer milk from the grocery. The amount of time it would take me to hand milk over a gallon a day, heat it to the proper temperature, skim and/or shake the milk, would not allow me time to complete my job as an agriculture classroom coordinator. This is the reason why we need dairy farmers. Every one of us is allowed the privilege of working a job we want because we have entrusted a farmer with the job of feeding our families.

Photo one

Reading the book, The Milk Makers, to a class of students

Part of my job involves teaching students about where milk comes from. In the lesson All About Milk! (and milk alternatives) students discover the different varieties of milks and milk alternatives available. We read about dairy farmers that raise cows and milk them 2-3 times a day. We discuss how milk is consumed or processed into ice cream, butter, yogurt, and other dairy products. Then the students learn milk is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals – especially calcium and is rich in potassium and vitamin B12. We talk about how Vitamin D is also added to milk to help with the absorption of calcium. Next, we taste test different samples, chart which types we like best, and read the book The Milk Makers by Gail Gibbons.

Milk Makers

The Milk Makers by Gail Gibbons

Why is milk being dumped?

Due to COVID-19 virus, schools and restaurants were asked to close operations to help “flatten the curve” so our healthcare system wasn’t overwhelmed. This caused our dairy needs to shift.

Keiko Tanaka, a professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Kentucky, authored an article that discusses the challenges the milk industry is currently undergoing. In the article, Why Farmers Dump Food, she underscored that of the two main supply-chains in the U.S. food industry – one for household consumption and the other for commercial use – more than half the spending comes from the large-scale commercial side, which has been practically decimated.

And making an immediate shift for the sudden demand change, she noted, is far from simple. Milk processors, for example, “do not have the equipment to package [excess milk] into smaller containers for grocery stores and retail use” when there has been already a glut of cheese and other dairy products with longer shelf lives. Like vegetable and fruit farmers, dairy farmers have little choice but to dump excess milk,” Keiko and her team of researchers stated.
So what do you do when you have thousands of gallons of milk and the processing plants you used to deliver to are not accepting milk? Farmers are industrious and some are turning lemons into lemonade. More specifically, milk into fertilizer.

Where and how to use it?

Farmers grow crops that require nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. And milk contains all three. And, these three nutrients are readily available, unlike manure which contains undigested food that will need to break down before it can fertilize the soil. One thousand gallons of mike can contain 44 pounds of nitrogen, 18 pounds of phosphorous, and 17 pounds of potassium. By using the correct rates for their crop, farmers are recycling surplus milk.

There are some downsides to this alternative fertilizer. Milk has a very high biochemical oxygen demand. That means it will consume oxygen from waterways. Farmers need to be sure they are not applying it where it could run off and damage ponds or streams and potentially kill aquatic life. Surface application is an option, but if you’ve ever left the milk out too long you know it can start to smell bad. Milk degrades quickly, so one way to avoid the rotten smell is by injecting the milk directly into the field. While using milk this way is not ideal, it is a way for some farmers to recoup financial losses that occurred by having to dump gallons and gallons of milk.

Next time you pour your milk on your cereal, or dunk your chocolate chip cookie into a tall, icy cold glass of milk, I hope you can appreciate what went into providing that milk for your use. And maybe think of the farmers who had to try and do the best they could with it, using it to produce another crop. This is what farmers do. They work the hardest they can each year, raising their crops and caring for their livestock, and are always looking ahead to what they can do next year.


Agriculture Across the U.S.

You can see agriculture almost everywhere you look here in Iowa. Over 90% of our land is used for farming, allowing Iowa to lead the country in the production of corn, soybeans, pigs and eggs. But what about other states? Is there significant agriculture across the nation?

ocean view

View of the Atlantic Ocean from Hampton Beach, NH.

When I was visiting friends on the East coast, a member of our group made the off-hand comment that there was, “no agriculture in sight.” No agriculture in sight? We were looking out at the ocean!

But that may not have been quite accurate. The Atlantic Ocean is where the fishing industry and aquaculture are a huge part of agriculture. Aquaculture is a specialized branch of agriculture and aquaculture in seawater is known as mariculture. Large quantities of marine animals can be grown in relatively small areas using nearshore and offshore cages. Using the ocean to produce food to feed an ever-growing population made me think about all of the different ways that food is grown in other parts of the country.

large fish cages

Fish cages used in mariculture operations.

Row crops are widely grown in the Midwest, sometimes known as the “fly over states.” But let’s not be too quick to pass over these important states, which are the country’s farming powerhouse. Crops like corn, wheat, sunflowers, and soybeans are all grown in the across the Midwest. This region can be broken into two distinct parts. The eastern part is considered the Corn Belt, and the drier portion in the west has

combine wheat

Combine harvesting grain.

been called the Wheat Belt. Crops are planted in the spring when the soil is warm enough to allow for germination and then harvested in the fall once the seed, or grain, has dried enough to be transported and/or stored. Large tractors are used to pull implements like disks, plows, planters, and a machine called a combine does the hard work at harvest time. This equipment can only be run when it’s dry, when the field is not muddy, so watching the weather and planning accordingly is common on the farm.

Southern agriculture includes signature crops like cotton, rice, sugarcane, citrus fruits, pecans,  and peanuts. Many southern states specialize in different crops. Georgia leads the country in peanut production, raising three times as many peanuts as any other state. North Carolina leads the country in growing tobacco. And Arkansas, getting almost 50 inches of rain per year, is prime land for producing rice since it has a long growing season. Texas leads the country in growing cotton which is harvested by large machines. The U.S. ranks third in worldwide cotton production.


Image of cotton bolls on the stems before being harvested.

States with large amounts of land like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Utah, Montana, and Nevada allow for cattle ranching. Ranching is where cattle graze on private and public lands and their offspring are taken to feedlots to be fattened before slaughter. A cow can live up to 15 years producing one calf each year after age two. So, using natural grasslands to produce feed for animals is another type of agriculture found in the U.S.

With three distinct climatic zones, and in some parts of the state a growing season of 365 days, almost any fruit or vegetable can be grown in California. California’s central valley produces over 350 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The growing season can be determined by the average number of days that the temperature rises high enough for a particular crop to sprout and grow. Crops like almonds, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes, and strawberries grow well in places like California.

Thanks to my experience at the National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference last summer, I learned that agriculture is not limited to just the Midwest. Agriculture is an important industry to all 50 states. From farming, to fishing, forestry, flowers and fabric production people are growing, and harvesting, products in every state. The conference moves around the country to showcase and highlight different aspects of U.S. agriculture. To see the variety of agriculture through the conference, find more information and register to attend at www.agclassroom.org.

utahSo, no matter what state you are from, agriculture matters. I encourage you to join us in Utah for this year’s 2020 conference to see for yourself specific examples of agriculture in across the U.S.


Superheroes on the Farm

Last night, my family and I watched a movie about Marvel superheroes. Iron Man, Spider-man, and Captain America are all known for their amazing feats of strength, speed, and endurance. They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary with seemingly no effort whatsoever. They easily defeat whatever supervillain that they come across and save the day.

The movie was fascinating entertainment. My two boys even stopped picking on each other for almost two whole hours. But it made me think of those everyday superheroes who we don’t usually consider (you know, the ones who don’t wear capes).

In the lesson titled Farmers are Superheroes, Too!, superhero book coverstudents are asked to name a superhero, and then name their super power. Questions like, “How do these superheroes help people?” “Why are they important?” and “Are these superheroes real?”  leads the class to consider the possibility of real-life superheroes. Firefighters, police officers, doctors and nurses save lives everyday in real and dramatic ways.

But what about farmers? Would you consider a farmer a superhero? Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics that it takes to be a farmer.

• Super strength – Farmers lift heavy items every day. Square bales of hay, 50-60-pound seeds sacks, and even newborn calves that can weigh up to 80 pounds are items that a farmer needs to be able to lift. Most equipment that farmers works with is very large and the parts to fix that equipment are very heavy.

• Ability to fix things – It’s not very often that a farmer’s tractor breaks down next to a repair shop. It’s an almost certainty that things will break on a farm. Farmer can save time and money by knowing how to fix a lot of things themselves. Having the right tool for the job helps so farmers have to have super-sized tool boxes.

• Powers of duplication – A farmer can make one corn seed turn into 800 corn seeds. Farmers also grow their herds or flocks by managing a breeding program and keeping careful records.

• Healing powers – If an animal on the farm gets sick, a farmer will care for it working with a veterinarian to administer the proper medicines.

• Green thumb – A farmer has to be able to grow a lot of different things. corn and beans in handsTo know what a plant needs and to know when it needs it calls for super knowledge, the knowledge of the 4Rs.






• Excellent vision – Using soil testing and soil maps a farmer can even see under the soil to be sure his or her plants have everything they need to grow. Monitoring nutrients is an important super strength needed to raise a good crop.

soil map

Map used to determine what types of soil are on a farm.

• Ability to drive many types of vehicles – Farmers drive trucks, tractors, ATVs, drones, and a variety of other vehicles and equipment. Using auto-steer technology, some farm vehicles can even auto steer themselves.

Even if you don’t agree that a farmer is a superhero too, you have to admit that they are on a mission. Every day they are on a mission to provide food, fuel, and fibers for the entire world. In fact, one farmer alone feeds 166 people. And that, I think, is pretty super.


Tractors – A Memorable Collection in Many Sizes

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for Thanksgiving to be over. Don’t get me wrong. I love the turkey centered holiday bringing families together to count our blessings. But putting the delicious leftovers away always puts me in the mood for Christmas!

As the mother of two boys, Christmas (in part) means a chance for new toys. As the mother of two boys who happen to live on a farm, that equates to farm toys. Even before my sons could crawl they seemed to want a tractor or a plastic farm animal within their reach. The first toy tractor in our house (if you don’t count my husbands’ precision collectibles) was a plush John Deere pillow. My oldest dragged that pillow around the house with him and when preschool started, it kept him comfortable at naptime.

John Deere pillow my son used for naptime for while he was in preschool.

Next came the “real” farm toys, in every shape and size, but only in one color. Around our house it was always John Deere green, because that’s what dad and grandpa ran.

However, tractors do come in other colors and Ertl® has been producing farm toy replicas since 1945. Industry brands such as John Deere, Case IH, New Holland, and AGCO can usually be found at your local feed store, large chain stores like Walmart, and of course, on Amazon. When Fred Ertl, Sr. founded the company in Dubuque, Iowa over 70 years ago, I wonder if he ever imagined how popular the die-cast models, made right here in Iowa, would become. Red, yellow, blue, or green these model toys would become important to future farmers around the world.

What is it about a tiny tractor that is so compelling to youngsters who dream of farming? Is it the attention to detail? Is it the way the toy vehicle moves mimicking the driving patterns of their larger counterparts? Or maybe it’s the possibility of having an entire collection that can be farmed with, rain or shine in playrooms and basements?

Toy tractors in 1:16, 1:32, 1:43, 1:64 and 1:87 scale.

A young farmer’s collection can come in many sizes. It all depends on the scale.

ERTL® Toys Scale, How it works

  • 1:16 scale is the old-reliable of the die-cast toy line. When Fred Ertl Sr. started creating die-cast toys in his home in 1947 this was the scale that he created. 1:16 scale means that the toy is 1/16th as large as the real machine. For example if an 8320 tractor is 16-feet long the reproduction will be 1-foot long.
  • 1:32 scale is slowly becoming the new star of the die-cast toy line. More economical than the larger 1:16 scale the 1:32 scale is starting to grow in popularity. 1:32 scale means that the toy is 1/:32nd as large as the real machine. For example if an 8320 tractor is 16-feet long the reproduction will be 6-inches long.
  • 1:64 scale is the versatile scale. With its inexpensive prices, small size and light weight these toys can go anywhere. Some people who purchase the 1:16 of 1:32 scale toys for play at home also purchase these toys. Many consumers realize that these are a great size for travel or even to take along on social events where the little ones will need something to keep them entertained. 1:64 scale means that the toy is 1/64th as large as the real machine. For example if an 8320 tractor is 16-feet long the reproduction will be 3-inches long.

So, for farming enthusiasts young and old alike, nothing can beat the feeling of unwrapping the latest addition and adding it to their collection.


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.


Agriculture Products Differ with Geography: Iowa vs. Panama

-Traveling leaves you speechless

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

Does Panama produce corn like Iowa?

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

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


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


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




Agroforestry – what is it?

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

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

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

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


8 Great Spring Lessons about Animals, Plants & Seasons

Agriculture is always good topic for teaching science, but spring is probably the most popular time to include topics related to plants, animals, seed, seasons, etc. Why? Because classroom learning becomes more real and relevant when we can make connections to what is happening outside of school. Students can tell the weather is becoming warmer. They see leaves beginning to develop on trees, young calves in pastures, and tractors planting seeds in fields. These changes that happen outdoors in the spring can spark beautiful science conversations in elementary classrooms!

Below are eight of our favorite lessons and books for teaching elementary students about seasons, and plant and animal life cycles in the spring.

  1. Farm by Alishea Cooper. The farmer or farm animals are the main characters of most farm-themed books.  Not this one.  The farm itself takes center stage.  Through lyrical writing and beautiful illustrations, this books takes the reader on a journey to learn about what happens on a farm in the spring and throughout the year.
  2. Eggology. Incubating eggs is a popular spring activity in elementary classrooms. This lesson provides teachers with many ideas and resources for turning an incubating experience into a rich science learning experience. Through three engaging activities, students learn how the basic needs of a growing chick are met during incubation
  3. Hatching Eggs in Room Six. Whether you incubate eggs in your classroom or not, this book is a prefect way to introduce students to the concept of incubation. It highlights the life cycle of chickens, parts of an egg, incubation, and caring for freshly hatched chicks.
  4. From Chicken Little to Chicken Big. Chickens are a perfect animal to learn about when discussing life cycles and physical characteristics. In this lesson students identify different breeds of chickens, examine their physical characteristics and sequence the life cycle of a chicken.
  5. Animal Life Cycles, This lesson goes beyond chickens to help students learn about animal characteristics and life cycles. Students are introduced to six major livestock species, discover that all animals need air, food, water, and shelter to survive, and compare and contrast animal life cycles.
  6. Seed Germination Necklaces. Planting a seed and watching it grow is one of the simplest, but most mesmerizing things you can do with students. Unfortunately, most of the magic of seed germination happens underground where students cannot see the changes that happen as the seed swells and roots and leaves emerge from the seed. This lesson solves that problem by germinating corn and soybean seeds in a clear bag.
  7. Soybean Life Cycle Sequencing. The soybean plant is an excellent plant to use when teaching life cycles, because it has a very typical life cycle and it is grown throughout Iowa and most of the United States!  After reading My Family’s Soybean Farm by Katie Olthoff, students works as a group to sequence pictures of the soybean life cycle stages and complete a worksheet to match vocabulary introduced in the book to the stages of the soybean life cycle.
  8. Growing Plants in Science and Literature, More than Empty Pot. Students will use the story of The Empty Pot to explore literature and science, practicing story mapping and learning about the needs of plants and the importance of soil and water. Like the characters in the story, students will plant and observe the growth of seeds.


Now it’s your turn!  What is your favorite way to incorporate agriculture in into lessons in the spring?