Expedition Farm Country: where forks, food and farming meet

Story by Erin Wicker and photos by Joe Murphy

For two days, food enthusiasts of all kinds gobbled up information straight from the source – farmers.

Expedition Farm Country took place Aug. 25-26 in southeast Iowa. From metro areas around the state, 38 consumers hopped aboard a bus tour to visit a variety of farms and meet the faces and families growing food, fuel and fiber around the state. Participants had diverse backgrounds, ranging from healthcare professionals and homemakers to banking representatives and bloggers.

Now more than ever, consumers have a growing desire to learn where their food comes from. This demand has created the need for the Iowa Food & Family Project, which hosts Expedition Farm Country each year. The initiative strives to empowers consumers to make informed decisions about the food they prepare, serve and enjoy.

“Anyone, no matter what profession or field they’re in, could all benefit from participating in the Expedition tours,” says participant Bobbi Roberts. “I really enjoyed it, and it was eye-opening for me as a ‘city girl’ to learn about the technology, hard work and care involved in raising our food.”

Experiences from the tours will stick with Roberts and other participants because of the impact made by meeting farmers, hearing their stories and seeing farming firsthand.

The tour kicked off at FFA Enrichment Center in Ankeny with a presentation from Kim Peter of AE Dairy who sampled probiotic-rich whole milk yogurt, the latest offering in the company’s product line to appeal to consumers’ requests and consumption habits. Peter also shared AE Dairy’s longstanding relationships with Iowa farm families and the company’s commitment to sourcing high-quality ingredients to make their famous beverages, yogurts, sour cream and dips.

“The secret to really good tasting dairy products is starting with milk that's hours fresh from Iowa family farms. At AE we're a different kind of dairy, and we hope consumers taste our passion in everything we make,” Peter says.

After the breakfast presentation, the bus made its way to the Oskaloosa area to visit Mark Jackson who raises corn, soybeans and pigs with his brother Tom and his son Michael (That’s right – attendees met Michael Jackson in real life). All three are passionate about improving the environment through conservation practices. Here, participants were able to climb up in machinery and see what cover crops — a crop like radishes or turnips that are planted in corn and soybean fields to manage soil erosion — look like growing in the field.

Conversations on Conservation

Mark Jackson is the author of the Iowa Food & Family Project’s Farm Life Journal series and has served as a director for the Iowa Soybean Association and hosted a TED Talk in New York. He uses his knowledge and passion to inspire others to learn more about the truth behind agriculture.

Tour of Mark Jackson's farm.

Jackson talked about climate change and how the drought this year has affected his farm. He estimates approximately 75 percent of his outcomes are dictated by Mother Nature, while 25 percent is controlled by seed varieties, herbicides and other practices.

“Selecting seed varieties are like picking out like a car,” Mark said. “We want the best drink holder, biggest engine and warmest seats. That’s what we’re doing with corn hybrids and soybean varieties.”

Talkin’ Turkey

After enjoying some sandwiches from Subway, the tour traveled to Tim Graber’s farm to find the source of the delicious deli turkey. There, he shared his family’s story as well as his passion for raising turkeys.

“We get them a little over an ounce, straight out of the egg. That’s kind of what I like about turkey farming – it’s nurturing the little guys when they come (we get all toms), taking care of them and keeping them clean, kind of like our family,” Tim said. “We get them off to a good start and it takes a lot of work and time, but if you put the extra effort in, it really pays off in the end.”

The Graber family

All the turkeys on the farm will go to West Liberty Foods, the largest supplier of turkey for Subway, which is owned by Graber and other farmers who supply the high-quality protein.

Before stepping foot on the Graber farm, the bus made a pit stop at the Agri-Way Partners cooperative. This feed mill was bought by about a dozen turkey farmers to have more control over their feed. According to Graber, one of the owners, he and other farmers wanted good quality feed because that’s what was good for the turkeys.

For the turkeys to reach 45 pounds, each animal will eat one bushel of corn (56 pounds of grain) and one-third bushel of soybeans (20 pounds).

Touring the Graber turkey farm.

Tour De Pork

Like turkeys, pigs also eat a lot of corn and soybeans, as participants learned at Brenneman Pork.

Founded by Rob and Char Brenneman in 1980, it hasn’t always been easy going. However, that’s never slowed down the Brenneman vision.

“We wake up every day to do better and be better than yesterday,” Rob Brenneman said. “We embrace technology and we do a lot of things right.

“We wake up every day to do better and be better than yesterday,” Rob said. “We embrace technology and we do a lot of things right.

One measure of success they use is pigs per sow per year. When Rob graduated high school, that number was 14 to 15. Today, it’s up to 35 or more.

Sustainability has different meanings to different people, Rob said. To the Brenneman’s, it means that the farm will be there to pass down to their children, career opportunities are available in rural areas, manure is used as fertilizer and manure management plans are in place.

One of Rob’s favorite mottos is “don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great,” which is evident to those who meet him and see his farm.

Today’s pig farms produce more than two times as much product with the same resources. One way the Brenneman’s do this is by embracing technology and research, which they accomplish through their research facilities. Expedition participants “suited up” to protect the health of the animals (often referred to as biosecurity), and off to the research nursery they went. Attendees went “hog wild” to hold the piglets and learn more about the research and where the pigs live.

Giving tours is something Rob and his family like to do often. He told stories about previous tours he held there, one of which was with a couple of senators. Rob was showing them how their manure was injected into the fields.

“When we were about 10 feet away, he said, ‘Wow, everybody should do this.’ But the majority of people already do it like this – and that’s our fault for not letting them know what we’re doing.”

Touring the Brenneman pork farm.

Dine at the Dairy

After a full tour of the nursery farm, the group headed down the road to Yarrabee Farms, a farm near Brooklyn that originated in 1860 and is now owned and operated by three generations of the Lang family.

“Since I started running the farm eight years ago, I saw a pretty big shift from state and federal regulations dictating how we do things, to consumers dictating how we do things,” Dane Lang said. Yarrabee Farms sells their milk to be made into cheese for Chipotle, and have additional audits for that, beyond what is required by the government.

While participants met several cows, Harley, grand champion at the 2017 Iowa State Fair, was the most popular.

After cows like Harley are milked, milk travels into a separate room which houses a 4,000 gallon and 2,000 gallon tank. There, it is quickly cooled from approximately 101 degrees to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. A sample from each tank is tested for bacteria and antibiotics; if any are found, all milk must be dumped. This is highly uncommon, however, as any cows treated with antibiotics are milked separately and dumped, Dane shared.

For the final Expedition stop, everyone hopped aboard the biodiesel-powered bus and headed down the road to the Lang’s beef farm, where they have cow/calf pairs. The idyllic farm was the perfect setting to wrap up the event and for participants to enjoy good food and good company.

Touring Yarrabee Farms and the Lang beef farm.

The farm tours provided attendees learning opportunities in sustainability practices, technology used in farming, the drought’s impact on farmers, modern animal housing, hormone and antibiotic use (or lack thereof), genetics, water quality and inspection requirements for meat and milk.

One participant, Dr. Amy Michelle Willcockson, felt the experience would have a profound and lasting impact on her personal and professional life.

“There’s so much we take for granted with our food, the next time I’m at a grocery store picking up a package of turkey, I’m going to have a very different perspective,” she says. “As director of Live Healthy Iowa, I want to provide a level of awareness and understanding to what really goes on with our food. I can bring it to what we do with the public to encourage them to learn, get involved and take advantage of opportunities like this.”

In a post-event evaluation, participants were asked to rank their knowledge of agriculture on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) before and after the tours. Respondents’ average knowledge before the tours ranked at 1.9, and jumped to 4.2 after the tours. Additionally, 100 percent of respondents said they would recommend the tours to a friend or family member.

Expedition Farm Country brought everyday consumers to the source of their food to gain a better understanding of where it came from. In a setting where no questions were off the table and all barn doors opened, they were able to see agriculture in a whole new light.

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