Apples, Pigs, Groceries and Lots of Learning!

By Ann Thelen

On a warm fall day in September, fifteen food-minded consumers explored the central Iowa countryside to learn about growing apples, raising pigs and what it takes to run a successful local grocery store. The daylong adventure was part of the Iowa Food & Family Project’s (Iowa FFP) Food U – an exclusive program for Iowa FFP Champions.

Throughout the year, Iowa FFP Champions – individuals like you who want to take a proactive role in learning more about food and farming – participate in special weekday learning activities. The activities include business and farm tours and meeting with individuals and groups who are involved in agriculture.

“It is so important to know where our food is coming from. Going on Iowa FFP’s tours gives me a great insight into where our food comes from and how it is cared for,” says Andrea Love, an Iowa FFP Champion from Pleasant Hill.

During the September Food U event, participants met experts in agriculture and food production – including a horticulturist, lifelong farmer and butcher at a meat counter – and asked open and honest questions about how food is raised and reaches their plate.

“It’s a unique opportunity for those interested in food and wellness to go behind the headlines and web pages to see and experience agriculture firsthand,” says Kelly Visser, consumer engagement manager for the Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa FFP. “We welcome the interest and encourage additional Iowans to participate in our activities.” 

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

Apples and More at Center Grove Orchard!

  All apples grown at Center Grove Orchard are harvested by hand and sold in the store on site. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

All apples grown at Center Grove Orchard are harvested by hand and sold in the store on site. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

Center Grove Orchard, owned and operated by the Larry D. and Pat Black family, has been open since 1994. They planted their first apple trees in 1986, and now have more than 20 acres with 6,000 apple trees of many delicious varieties.

Center Grove Orchard revolves around passion — passion for the land, for the community and for offering wholesome, family-friendly fun. As a working farm and apple orchard, the orchard offers a lively farm atmosphere while providing visitors with an enjoyable, educational experience in a peaceful country setting.

While growing apples may seem like a straightforward crop, production has changed in the past decade. Namely in the way apples are grown, as it may feel like you’re in a vineyard instead of a traditional orchard.

“I was surprised to learn that Center Grove grows most of their apples on trellises versus traditional apple trees,” says Emily Sherer, an Iowa FFP Champion from Des Moines. “They also sell 100 percent of their apples onsite instead of retail outlets.”

Many participants were surprised at the complexity of the apple business, including sharing the following points that stood out during the tour:

  • Pest and disease management is a critical issue for apple producers. Without proper management, it wouldn’t be unheard of to lose 50 percent of the annual crop. Common pests are Japanese Beatles and Codling Moths.

  • To combat widespread infestation of Codling Moths, Center Grove uses pheromone disruptors. Strategically placed tags – often 200 per acre – provide the disruption without spraying the insects.

  • Every apple tree is grown from a rootstock and never from seeds.

  • Apple trees are hardy and need cold weather to produce a strong summer and fall crop.

  • One employee picks nearly all the orchard’s apples. During picking season, he works up to 11 hours per day.

  • Honeycrisp and Jonathan are their most popular apples.

  • Honeycrisp apples cost more because they are harder to grow, are more labor-intensive than other varieties and are also in higher demand.

On the Farm with Dave Struthers

Dave and Elaine Struthers and their four children have a feeder-to-finish hog business and raise corn and soybeans on their farm in Collins. Dave started farming in 1985 when he was 17 years old. He bought his first 120 acres and started raising livestock to pay for the land. In addition to farming, the family is active in community and statewide agriculture organizations.

The Struthers’ pork operation is owned and managed as a family farm corporation. While Dave’s parents still have ownership in the farm, they are retired. Dan and DeAnna Struthers, his brother and sister-in-law, also have ownership in the operation. Together, they farm1,150 acres in crops and market 5,500 head of hogs each year.

  Dave Struthers, a pig, soybean and corn farmer in Collins, helped bring to light the continuous and sustainable cycle of raising pigs and growing crops for livestock feed. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

Dave Struthers, a pig, soybean and corn farmer in Collins, helped bring to light the continuous and sustainable cycle of raising pigs and growing crops for livestock feed. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

Dave is a Story County Pork Producers member and has served on the Iowa Pork Producers Board of Directors since 2009, including serving as president in 2015. He is also an Iowa Soybean Association member, and his family is part of a distinguished group of farmers who have received the Wergin Good Farm Neighbor award. The award recognizes Iowa livestock farmers who take pride in doing things right.

He has also been involved with the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network® and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, winning the organization’s Outstanding Young Farmer award in 2001.

On the farm, Food U participants saw the vital role livestock comfort plays in their operation and how they make their livestock feed in their own mill. The Struthers family sells their pigs to Farmland Foods in Colo for bacon and sausage production.

Julie Kohles, an Iowa FFP Champion from Johnston, said every Food U tour is a rich learning experience.

“I had some apprehension before going to the pig farm because I am an animal lover and thought it might be difficult to see the pigs,” she says. “After hearing Dave speak, it was obvious how important it is to him the pigs are treated well. I appreciated hearing him say that his family eats the pork they raise, so he wants it to be as healthy as possible.

“Hearing how he spoke about this farm gave me such a positive impression about his family farm and how the work is done.”

Anita McVey, an Iowa FFP Champion from Boone, echoed those sentiments.

“Farmers, such as Dave Struthers, not only invest in their land and animals, they love them. They are educated, passionate and careful stewards,” she says.

More than Bricks and Mortar at the Brick Street Market and Café!

Brian and Mary Lohse, the owners of Brick Street Market and Café, grew up in Bondurant and returned to the small Iowa community to raise their family.

While they loved the community, it lacked one vital thing – a place where a family could go to get their weekly groceries or that inevitable trip for the one item you forgot so that the recipe isn’t ruined. More than once over the past decade, this Bondurant husband and wife have looked at each other and said, “If we ever come into any money we should open a grocery store here in town."

  Food U participants met with department heads throughout Brick Street Market in Bondurant to learn about their areas of grocery expertise. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

Food U participants met with department heads throughout Brick Street Market in Bondurant to learn about their areas of grocery expertise. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

That dream soon became a reality when the couple won a $202 million Powerball Lottery jackpot in 2012. Today, the full-service grocery offers a deli, bakery, restaurant, meat counter with a butcher, selection of Iowa wines and hometown charm and convenience that is a dream come true. Not just for the Lohse's but for area residents, too! On a typical day, 200 customers shop in the store.

Onsite, Brick Street Market’s Butler Café (named after Bondurant's iconic Butler's Cafe) serves up delicious meals, including an award-winning pork tenderloin sandwich. In fact, the cafe is a featured stop on the Iowa Pork Producers’ Tenderloin Trail. Their famous beef burger is a Butler family recipe made famous in the 1940s at the original Butler’s Café in Bondurant.

“While I enjoyed all three stops, the story of how the market began and meeting some of the people who help choose, create and distribute the products was very informative,” says Tracy Leith, a participant from Urbandale. “There is a lot of thought, sourcing and personal connections to what the employees are doing to bring great food choices to the public. The many ways Brick Street Market cares for and is involved in the community is awesome!”

Iowa FFP Champions are volunteer participants representing a variety of industries and occupations including healthcare, food banks, administrative services, engineering, communications and education.

Participants in the September Food U included: Cristen Clark, Runnells; Lisa Howard, Cedar Rapids; Lynn Jones, Newton; Carol Kohles, Johnston; Julie Kohles, Johnston; Tracy Leith, Urbandale; Andrea Love, Pleasant Hill; Anita McVey, Boone; Karen Nall, West Des Moines; Ann Neville, Tipton; Nancy Schade, Walker; Emily Shearer, Des Moines; Ann Thelen, Johnston; Erin Tveter, Urbandale; Christy VanBuskirk, Hedrick; and Dixie Walker, Cedar Rapids.

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.