The New Landscape in Iowa

Iowa wind turbine
Planting crops around the wind turbine, farmers reap the benefits of both the soil and wind.

Entering Iowa from the northwest corner, hundreds of wind turbines rise majestically from the endless corn and soybean fields that are a staple of the Iowa landscape. Pulling into an access road, we drive up to a newly installed wind turbine that looks like it is ready to be commissioned. It is a GE wind turbine, and the GE on-site engineer has obvious pride as he describes the wind turbine specs, design, and geology of the area that makes this site so amenable to wind power generation.

He explains that this wind turbine is located on the Coteau des Prairies, sometimes referred to as Buffalo Ridge. The ridge is composed of thick glacial deposits that gently rise to about 900 feet, from the surrounding prairie flatlands.  The ridge runs eastward, from eastern South Dakota, through southwestern Minnesota, and northwestern Iowa. Numerous wind farms have been built along the ridge to take advantage of the high average wind speeds.

Iowa wind power accounts for about 20% of the electricity generated in the state and leads the US in percentage of electrical power generated by wind. Wind turbines will produce from 12 to 16 times more revenue per acre than corn or soybeans. And farmers can plant crops around the wind turbine, reaping the benefits of both. In addition, in the winter, winds are stronger, generating much needed revenue while the fields lay fallow.

Harn Soper of Soper Farms
Harn Soper at the site of Soper Farms organic vegetable operation
popcorn taster
Jarret, the facilities and livestock manager, with his daughter.

Meanwhile, we are on our way to Soper Farms in Emmetsburg, Iowa. This is the family farm of our friend, Jon. Soper Farms is a family-run enterprise, boasting 69 stockholders, ranging in age from 1 year to 90 years. They have served as absentee landlords of some 1,000 noncontiguous acres in Iowa. Jon’s cousin, Harn Soper, is in the process of converting 260 acres of Soper Farms from conventional corn and soybean row crops to organic vegetables and livestock. As Harn says at his website:

Without the hand of man getting in the way, nature very effectively creates, balances and evolves. It does so with all life forms interacting together. As farmers we have a choice between manipulating nature and managing nature in our pursuit to feed ourselves.

Our current farming model has evolved over many years onto a path of manipulation using GMO seeds and oil-based fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides as substitutes to nature’s abundant ability to nourish. As we’ve learned, this path, however well intentioned, has had a debilitating impact on our environment, our soil and the water upon which our farms depend.  The plan that we are building today follows the restorative path to manage nature as a partner so we too may create, balance and evolve.

chicken dog
Soper Farms official "chicken dog" trying to get to his hens.

Soper Farms’ five-year plan includes building a grass-fed cow/calf operation that harvests 160 organic cattle and 9,000 organic pastured chickens per year. Plans also include adding 80 acres of organic vegetable production to their operation.

We needed a farm store and the McNally’s Bake Shop building was a perfect fit,” Soper said. While the organic farm is the centerpiece of the endeavor, there is another side to the operation—an outlet for the farm’s produce. Soper  purchased the McNally Bake Shop building in Emmetsburg, and is converting the upper level to offices for sales and marketing and the development of value-added products like baked goods, cheese, and meat. Soper Farms intends to provide organic products for food stores and restaurants in the immediate area as well as food markets within a four-hour radius. The bakery will continue on the first floor and will expand to include a deli that will offer their fresh produce, beef, and chicken.

soper farm farmers
Jarret, his daughter and grandfather - 4 generations of this family are involved on the farm.

As you may have guessed, local farming and local food are an interest of ours, and as we drive across the country, Jay is reading aloud a very engaging book – Ben Hewitt’s, The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, published in 2010. It tells the story of a rural, working-class Vermont community -Hardwick, Vermont – that is attempting to blueprint and implement a localized food system. Book reviewer James Glave says it well:

This is what I love about The Town That Food Saved. It celebrates the possible and the necessary, it reveals the wonderful relationships and connections borne of an almost-complete local food system, but doesn’t shy from the enormity and messiness of the task. It reveals the rough outlines of how we might “take back” our food without descending into over-simplified strategies and pat advice about starting community gardens. What’s happening in Hardwick is less a conscious movement, and more a set of historical precedents embraced by a handful of eccentrics that happen to line up in the same direction. It’s an almost accidental critical mass, flailing its way forward.

Hewitt has written a second book – Making Supper Safe – here he exposes the vulnerabilities inherent to the US food industry, where the majority of our processing facilities are inspected only once every seven years, and where government agencies lack the necessary resources to act on early warning signs. The most dangerous aspect of our food system isn’t just its potential to make us acutely ill, but the ever expanding distance between us and our sources of nourishment. Hewitt introduces a vibrant cast of characters and revolutionaries who are reinventing how we grow, process, package, distribute, and protect our food, and even how we protect ourselves.

Ben and his family live in a self-built, solar-powered house in Cabot, Vermont, and operate a 40-acre livestock, vegetable, and berry farm. Check out his blog about life on the farm:  Ben Hewitt – The Future’s in the Dirt.

Writing about Ben’s books reminds me of the Andy Couturier book:  A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance, which tells 11 peoples journeys. Artists, philosophers, and farmers who reside deep in the mountains of rural Japan living simply yet surrounded by the luxuries of nature, art, contemplation, healthy food, and an abundance of time. Read my post Japan – Lessons in Simple Living for more details.