Food U Goes Behind the Scenes

By Ann Thelen

Earlier this summer, the Iowa Food & Family Project launched Food U – our new consumer-facing initiative dedicated to empowering food-minded Iowans to gain firsthand experiences and learn from experts in the agriculture and food industries.

Food U is an exclusive program for Iowa Food & Family Project (Iowa FFP) Champions. Throughout the year, Iowa FFP Champions – individuals like you who want to take a proactive role in learning more about all things food and farming – are invited to participate in special weekday learning activities. The activities include business and farm tours and meeting with individuals and groups who are involved in agriculture.

Eighteen Iowa FFP Champions participated in the inaugural Food U event on June 28 and toured several facilities in central Iowa. The sites included the Monsanto Learning Center and the Iowa State University Dairy Farm. The event also included lunch and a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour of Jethro’s BBQ Steak n’ ChopPlease note, by clicking the links you will be leaving a partially funded checkoff site. 

Participants in the first Food U came from a variety of industries, including healthcare, food banks, administrative services, communications, grocery stores, education and manufacturing.

“The Food U events and tours are geared toward having open and honest conversations with consumers to deepen an understanding of modern agriculture and food production in Iowa,” says Aaron Putze, APR, Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) communications director who also helps coordinate Iowa FFP.

An overview and highlights of each of the tour stops included:

Monsanto Learning Center


Monsanto is known as a leader in biotechnology and the seed industry. To share their industry-leading knowledge and research with customers, Monsanto developed several learning centers. The learning centers provide growers, dealers and agronomists with information regarding production practices and reinforce stewardship of biotech products to enhance their sustainability.

At the Monsanto Learning Center in Huxley, in addition to the indoor tour facilities, there are 50 acres of the latest innovations in field demonstrations focusing on precision planting technologies, corn and soybean germplasm, and biotechnology and agronomic systems.

While at the Monsanto Learning Center, participants learned about advances in agricultural technology and information surrounding timely topics, such as GMOs, seeding practices, soil monitoring.

Many Food U participants commented they gained an appreciation for the education, technology and work that goes into agriculture, including sharing the following points that stood out during the tour:

  • There are only 10 GMO crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, squash, papaya, potato and apple.

  • Growing and creating food is complex and relies on a connection between all parts of the process – good weather, working machinery, timing, monitoring and analysis. Learning about the process helps me better understand how foods are priced.

  • Sustainability, technological advances, productivity and profitability can happen in tandem.

  • There is an amazing amount of technology, information and research being used to improve today’s farm products. The advancements in farming technology, especially how farmers use it in planting and keeping track of their fields.

Iowa State University Dairy Farm

Dairy is the fifth-largest agricultural business in Iowa, generating $4 billion a year in economic activity. There are about 1,200 dairy farms in the state and 99 percent of them are family-owned. With June being National Dairy Month, Food U was a perfect opportunity to learn about dairy’s goodness! Milk is one of the freshest products in grocery stores, going from the farm to store shelves in about 48 hours.

At the Iowa State University Dairy Farm, which is used for teaching, research and outreach activities by working to create the next generation of dairy lovers, participants were treated to a tour by dairy expert Dr. Leo Timms.

Dr. Timms shared his passion for and knowledge of dairy cows while providing an inside look at a dairy barn and seeing the commitment to animal well-being, environmental stewardship and production of high-quality, safe milk and dairy products.

The 887-acre farm opened in 2007 and has 400 milking cows, each producing around 90 pounds of milk, or about 10 and a half gallons, a day.

While all Food U tour stops received high rankings, the dairy farm was a favorite of the Champions.

  • Dr. Leo Timms was an awesome guide with so much information to share. Like so many farmers, it was obvious that he cares about the cows and the dairy industry.

  • The amount of time it takes to milk the cows was amazing – modern technology has improved that process and made it so much faster than the “old days!”

  • It was impressive to learn about the dairy business, from milking the cows all the way to the final product going out the door.

  • Cows chew 400 to 500 and up to 600 minutes every single day – that’s equivalent to approximately 7 to10 hours. Fun fact: There are 1,440 minutes in a day.

  • The animals are very clean; they wear Fitbit-type technology in the form of necklaces that monitor their health, they have pedicures and foot washes. All these items help with cow health, and animal health is very important for farmers.

  • The individualized care that each dairy cow receives is astounding.

Jethro’s BBQ Steak n’ Chop

Jethro’s BBQ is a popular and award-winning central Iowa restaurant chain that is known for its smoked meats, including pork, ribs, chicken and bacon. In fact, Jethro’s is the single largest purchaser of pork in the state, purchasing more than 1 million pounds from Iowa farmers each year.

For many years, owner Bruce Gerleman searched Ames to find a new home for Jethro’s. Ames is of course home to Iowa State University and avid Cyclone sports fans. In 2017, Jethro’s BBQ opened It’s “Steak n’ Chop” restaurant in a 16,000-square-foot building and features their famous “Amazing Slow Smoked Meats” plus, steaks and pork chops. Food U Champions enjoyed a special lunch in a private room at the Ames location.

The man behind the incredible food creations is Chef Dominic Iannarelli, named 2014 Chef of the Year by the Iowa Restaurant Association. He is director of restaurants for Splash Seafood in Des Moines and Jethro’s BBQ. Chef Dom joined the Champions for lunch and shared details of what goes into their award-winning meals. Participants were as impressed with the food as they were with the information Chef Dom shared.

  • Jethro’s wowed me with the fact they have such low waste, don’t use fillers in their food and make nearly everything from scratch right in-house.

  • Their kitchen was impeccable. I had no idea about the enormous thought, planning and preparation that goes into planning a meal or adding a food item to a menu. Much like farming, chefs work long hours. Chef Dom often works 14-hour days.

  • At least 85 percent of the pork that is purchased comes from Iowa, it’s extremely high-quality and comes from family farms. If it’s not from Iowa, it’s from an hour or so outside the state’s borders.

  • Jethro’s food isn’t processed – they use real cream, real butter, fresh ingredients and don’t even use commercial thickeners. They focus on having the freshest food possible.

Tour Champions

Individuals participating in the June 28 Food U included Mark Anderson, Des Moines; Cristen Clark, Runnells; Sara Goemaat, Belmond; Kent Guthrie, Des Moines; Linda Hinzman, Cedar Rapids; Julie Kohles, Johnston; Marian Poulson, Mingo; Cindie Robinette, Des Moines; Nancy Schade, Walker; Katie Sharon, West Des Moines; Emily Shearer, Des Moines; Kristin Shelton, Huxley; Joan Studts, Marshalltown; Ann Thelen, Johnston; Christy VanBuskirk, Hedrick; Duane Visser, Marshalltown; Karen Visser, Marshalltown; Pat Voll, Des Moines; and Steven Williams, West Des Moines.

“Food U was an amazing experience. I was able to see – firsthand – the significant work, and incredible impact, Iowa farmers make across the globe,” says Emily Shearer, a participant and Iowa FFP Champion who works full-time as the Food Acquisition Coordinator for the Food Bank of Iowa. 

“Whether it was learning about how advancements in equipment technology help farmers access their farm’s processes right from their cell phones; getting a private tour through the kitchen of a local restaurant cooking locally sourced food; or seeing how milk is made – from start to finish, Food U gave a great insight into the work being done all over our state. Regardless of your level of knowledge about food and farming, there was truly something for everyone.”

A second Food U event for Iowa Food & Family Project Champions is planned for September 14.

Apply to be an Iowa Food & Family Project Champion!

Interested in attending a future Food U event or furthering your understanding of agriculture through the Iowa Food & Family Project? Apply to be a member of our Champions Program. As a Champion, you'll be invited to Food U events, get priority access to speaking engagements, participate in surveys and focus groups, and receive a quarterly newsletter.