A Visit to Iowa – CornQuest 2014

One of the most enjoyable and unexpected opportunities food blogging has given me is the chance to travel and to learn about new aspects of the food industry.

Iowa CornQuest Group

Left to Right: Becky, Liz, me, Stephanie, Angie, Tanya, LisaJulianneLindsay, Anna

Last week, the Iowa Corn Growers Association invited a group of bloggers and me to visit Iowa and learn more about the corn industry and the farmers behind it, who work tirelessly to grow food for our tables. Although I grew up in Kansas, I am very much a city girl, and I didn’t entirely know what to expect.

Field CornTo be honest, before our trip, when I pictured the corn industry, I envisioned giant, mechanized fields with little human involvement. What I didn’t expect is that the majority of farms are still family owned and operated, and many have been in the same family for generations. The farmers with whom we met view farming not as only a job, but as a calling. Their passion for their fields, as well as for their duty to preserve their land for future generations was both evident and inspiring.

Field Corn 2In addition to spending time with farmers, we also had the opportunity to have honest discussions with members of Iowa Pork, Iowa Beef and Common Ground, an organization that seeks to unite voices in the corn industry and educate consumers. We had open, honest conversations with individuals who ranged from PhDs, to lifetime farmers, to those who became farmers by marriage. The conversations continued among our group of bloggers too.
Lakefront-GroupEvery single person we met cared deeply about their work and the quality of the food they produced. They were raising families of their own and wanted to feel as good about the food they were feeding their children as any of us would our own.

We also learned that sweet corn—the corn that you and I eat—is only 1% of the corn that is produced. The remainder of corn is field corn and is used for animal feed, as well as to make dozens and dozens of products that range from corn starch to corn syrup to ethanol.

We received an up-close ethanol experience at the Iowa Speedway, an Indy racetrack where we sped at 100+ miles per hour. I had a blast, but I’m glad that I wasn’t the one behind the wheel!

Iowa SpeedwayAnother incredible opportunity we had was to tour Meredith Corporation, publisher of many popular magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens. Meredith is also home to the BHG test kitchen, a.k.a. where I’d like to cook every single meal for the rest of my life.

BHG-Test Kitchen

BHG-SignThroughout the trip, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were a frequent topic of discussion. In a nutshell, GMOs are the result of a laboratory process where the genes of an organism (such as corn) are modified to have particular traits. In the case of corn, the plants are engineered to resist negative circumstances, such as droughts and pests. They have many benefits—less need to use pesticides, since the corn is designed to resist pests inherently; higher yields, which can be regarded as important to feed a growing population—but I did walk away with my concerns about them too.

TractorLet me be clear that I am not a GMO expert, nor am I making a claim on GMOs one way or another. I was happy to hear from every farmer that we met that they do not feel compelled to grow GMOs, nor to buy GMO seeds from one company or another. Many of the farmers grow a mix of both GMO and non-GMO corn and purchase their seeds from a variety of producers.

At the same time, however, I do still have misgivings about the amount of processed foods in the American diet, many of which rely on GMO and non-GMO corn products, as well as the fact that GMOs are still (relatively) new—the commercial sale of GMO products began around 1994—so the long-term health effects have not been studied in decades of detail.

Ultimately, I feel that as consumers, we have an obligation to try to understand our food choices as best as we can, a task that can be overwhelming. We have so much information at our disposal, much of which is conflicting. My general food philosophy, both on this blog and outside of it, is to try to eat a balance of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits every single day, and not to feel guilty about indulging a little too.

Corn field, sideNow, thanks to my experience in Iowa, when I place those items in my shopping cart, I will remember that food does not come from the grocery store—it comes from the fields, the barns, and the care of hardworking families in Iowa, my home state of Kansas, and throughout the country and world.

SunsetThank you to the Iowa Corn Growers Association for this incredible opportunity. Although my trip was hosted, all opinions are my own, and I was under no obligation to write about my experience. I feel passionately about the sources and the quality of our food, and I am so grateful to have this space to share my thoughts with you!

 

And for the curious, a few resources to read more on both sides of the issue, courtesy of Becky:

About Erin Clarke

I’m fearlessly dedicated to making healthy food taste incredible. Wearer of plaid, travel enthusiast, and firmly convinced that sweets and veggies both deserve a place at the table. MORE ABOUT ERIN…

24 comments

  1. I had such a great time when I attended Iowa Corn! Those farmers are so passionate about what they do, it’s a pleasure and privilege to get to see them at work!

  2. This looks like it was such a fun and memorable trip. It’s so important to recognize and make others aware of where their food comes from. Plus, BHG test kitchen? Ugh, yes!

  3. Perfect recap – I share so many of your same thoughts. Best of all, it was wonderful to connect with you in person for a few days. <3

  4. We buy from local farmers here in Western NY, and they told us that they had no choice but to grow GMO corn for it cross contaminates anyway. Our tummies cannot take it…sadly.

    • Hi Joyce! That is really interesting. The farmers we spoke with said they were not in the same situation, but things may work differently in different parts of the country. I think it’s great that you talk to your local farmers about it. That is so important!

  5. Looks like a wonderful trip, Erin!

  6. What a blast to be there with all those bloggers! I’m jealous you got to see that amazing test kitchen! Sounds like a really interesting trip!

  7. What a great trip. And what was the main thing I noticed? Your boots! OMG. To die for. It’s not easy being this shallow.

  8. This is a wonderfully well written recap!

  9. How wonderful, I love these kinds of Paddock to Plate experiences, it really gives you a solid appreciation of where your food comes from. PS: Love your style Erin, you are so super cute. :)

  10. That looks like so much fun! I’m glad you enjoyed it!!

  11. This looks like so much fun and such a great way to learn!

  12. Loved meeting you here in Iowa! If you or your readers have follow up questions, my fellow Common Ground volunteers and I are always happy to answer!

    • It was so great meeting you too Katie! Thanks so much for a wonderful experience, and I will certainly direct any questions your way. Have a wonderful day, and I hope our paths cross again soon!

  13. Such gorgeous photos! Iowa was lucky to play host to you, Erin! Thanks for including the links to our site – if there are ways we can link you up with university-based experts to answer any questions you or your readers have about food, please let me know! We’re happy to make the handshake for all questions from the simple to sciencey and silly to serious. Cheers!

  14. Thanks so much for visiting our farm during your trip to Iowa! Our doors are always open, so look us up next time you’re in the area. :)

    I appreciate your thoughtful questions about GMOs. As a mom and a farmer, I’m always looking for ways to help preserve our resources and reduce our footprint so my kids have the opportunity to farm (if they choose!). GMOs are one of the tools we use on our farm. I love that we have access to the experts who study them and approvals from the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization build my trust in them.

    • Hi Julie, Thank you again so much for your time on the tour, as well as for your thoughtful comment. I so so appreciated being able to have open conversations with you in Iowa, and the visit to your farm was one of the highlights of the trip. It was absolutely humbling to see your and your family’s dedication. The entire trip was an experience I won’t soon forget!

  15. Erin – Thanks for joining us in Iowa! Your post about the trip is wonderful! You must let me know the next time you are in KC! : ) – Bethany

  16. Erin-
    It was great to meet you at our dinner that Wednesday evening when you were here in IA for the corn tour! I’m glad to see you had a great experience! As farmers we really appreciate it when consumers take the time to learn where their food comes from and how it is grown and raised directly from the source-the farmer! I loved talking to you about our family farm and if you have any questions about GMOs, cattle, etc, don’t hesitate to contact me! GMOs are just one of many “tools” that us farmers use in order to raise more food all while making the land better for our future generations. While we are raising the 7th generation on our farm, we are trying to do everything possible to be able to pass it down to them some day down the road! They love it! You can see it when they are out there riding in the combine or feeding the cattle!

    That’s all for now! I hope you keep in touch!
    ~Sara

    PS Harvest 2014 has officially started this week! :)

  17. We share similar food philosophies! Great write up Erin!! So glad we met!

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