Food Brings Everyone To The Table

By Bethany Baratta, Iowa Soybean Association

Food is the ultimate unifier. In Iowa, a top agricultural state, we celebrate the contributions from agriculture not only on National Day in March, but all year long.

Food is the ultimate unifier. It brings everyone to the table, and this year, it’s the theme for National Ag Day, celebrated March 23.

Ag Day recognizes and celebrates the contribution of agriculture to our everyday lives. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat, it’s agriculture that provides safe, abundant and affordable products.

Here in Iowa, a top agricultural state, we celebrate the contributions from agriculture all year-round.

Home to some of the most productive soil in the country, Iowa is a leader in soybean and corn production. Those crops lend themselves to not only feed record numbers of pigs and poultry, but also biodiesel and ethanol to fuel our cars and trucks.

Recent statistics show that Iowa’s agricultural production and processing industries represent more than 10% of the state’s total gross domestic product (GDP).

From Farm to Restaurant Kitchen

In Chef Dominic Iannarelli’s kitchen, understanding the origins of food is important. 

Dominic Iannarelli, executive chef of Jethro’s BBQ restaurants and Splash. Photo Credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

As the executive chef of Jethro’s BBQ restaurants and Splash, he strives to build a deeper connection between agriculture and food among his chefs. To better understand how livestock makes it from the farm to his kitchens, Chef Dom learns directly from the source – farmers and meat processors.

“In the Midwest, we forget how many people have never been to a farm,” says Chef Dom, who grew up in Wisconsin surrounded by friends who grew up on dairy farms. “That’s the main reason why our chefs visit: to get people in tune to what farming is and how meat production happens.”

He says farm and meat processor visits have grown into an understanding of animal welfare. The conversations have carried over into the restaurant kitchens, where he works to reduce product waste.

“It all starts with chefs seeing that meat doesn’t just start in a box,” Chef Dom says.

Pork’s Main Ingredients: Care and Soybeans

The pork chop you order from a Jethro’s menu could very well have originated on Val Plagge’s farm near Latimer.

Since 2008, Val and her husband Ian have raised pigs, soybeans and corn. They have four children and were both raised on multi-generational farms. 

Val Plagge and her husband Ian are multi-generational farmers and raise pigs, corn and soybeans. Photo Credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

“I’m proud that we produce quality pork products,” Val says. “Here in Iowa, we have all the resources to provide a quality and cost-effective protein that restaurants and families use.”

Iowa ranks first in the nation in pork production with more than 5,400 pig farms. The industry also supports more than 147,000 jobs, or nearly 10% of the state’s workforce, generating nearly $12 billion in economic activity.

Soybeans are an important component of producing pork. Soybean meal, which comes after processing whole soybeans that Iowa farmers grow each year, is a vital ingredient in the food pigs consume across their lifespan.

In 2019, 115 million bushels of soybeans – or about 23% of all Iowa soybean acres – went to feeding pigs.

The Plagges work with their local cooperative to feed their pigs four varied recipes – each containing soy protein – all determined based upon their pigs’ growth stages.

“We need to keep our feed protein levels at a certain percentage to ensure our pigs are growing strong and healthy,” Val says.

Put Pork on Your Fork

Healthy pigs make tasty pork, and a versatile protein choice for chefs at Jethro’s and Splash. At Jethro’s eight restaurants, pork is a top protein pick. From bacon on a burger to a meaty rack of ribs, the restaurant’s menu celebrates all that pork has to offer. In fact, Jethro’s has two locations that celebrate pork specialties in their names alone: Pork Chop Grill in Johnston and Bacon Bacon in West Des Moines.

“I don’t think any other protein has more versatility than pork. It’s hard to think about not having pork for the center of plate. Whether it’s for sausage making or lard for pies – pork lends itself to any sort of cooking technique,” says Chef Dom. Jethro’s sells 1,000 slabs of ribs per week in its restaurants.

Whether it’s a juicy pork chop on the grill, pork loin sliced for sandwiches or ground pork for tacos and stroganoff, the Plagges enjoy a variety of pork options across the family’s varied ages and taste buds.

“It’s families like mine that are behind the pork loin you can find in the grocery store or the package of bacon that’s either going to be added to a dish or eaten solely,” Val says.

Fun Pork Facts 

Dominic Iannarelli, executive chef of Jethro’s BBQ restaurants and Splash. Photo Credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

Jethro’s monthly pork purchases by the numbers:

34,000 pounds of pork (excluding bacon)

10,000 pounds of pork butts and ribs

6,000 pounds of pork loins

4,000 pounds of bacon

2,000 pounds of pork bellies

2,000 pounds of hams

Chef Dom’s favorite pork dish: Baby back ribs, dry-cured pork on charcuterie boards, and roasted and chopped pork

Val’s favorite pork dish: Smoked pork loin and grilled pork chops