Meet a former Iowa Hawkeye and NFL lineman who is literally “Farm Strong”

October 5, 2015

Matt Kroul, Kroul Farms, IowaWe talk a lot about “Farm Strong” values here on our Farm Fresh blog — about the hard-working character and perseverance of Iowa farmers, who overcome the weather, the markets or whatever challenges are thrown at them to deliver the harvest every fall.

Sometimes, we mean “Farm Strong” by its most literal definition. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago while I watched Linn County farmer Matt Kroul and his college-student seasonal employees lift 20-pound pumpkins from the field, onto their shoulders and up on a hayrack.

Kroul, who once was a lineman for the New York Jets and a standout player for the Iowa Hawkeyes, has returned to his family’s farm in eastern Iowa. The family grows pumpkins, sweet corn, vegetables, row crops and cattle just south of Mount Vernon.

“There are so many parallels with football and sports to business and farming,” Kroul said. “I’ve said it a million times: You get out what you put into it. With working out and sports and this kind of (farm) business we run, if we don’t get a hay rack of pumpkins picked, we aren’t going to make any money. If we don’t get anything planted, we aren’t going to make money. Obviously, that doesn’t always work out when you are dealing with Mother Nature, but you try your best.”

Kroul said he always planned on coming back to the farm after his football career ended. He and his wife, Nicole, wanted to raise their kids in rural Iowa after living in big-city New Jersey.

Now with Kroul back on the farm, the family is tapping into the growing demand for locally grown foods. In addition to 25 acres of pumpkins, the Krouls grow 8 acres of sweet corn and 4 acres of vegetables. Plus, they grow traditional corn and soybean crops, and they raise cattle and egg-laying chickens.

The Krouls sell their produce at the popular Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon farmers markets in the summer. Visitors can also buy tomatoes, vegetables, pumpkins and flowers at the Krouls’ on-farm store, located along Highway 1. The Krouls don’t charge admission for guests to visit the farm or to explore the farm’s corn maze in the fall.

However, if you visit Kroul Farms this fall, keep in mind that you may need the strength of an NFL lineman to lift that giant pumpkin your kids are begging you to buy.

In addition to traditional jack-o’-laterns, Kroul Farms grows “warty” pumpkins, giant white pumpkins, mini pumpkins and Cinderella pumpkins, which looked like the carriage ride from the fairy tale.

“(Our customers) want anything unusual,” Kroul said. “You can find the best-looking pumpkin out in the field, but then people will walk up and get the one that doesn’t even stand up and falls over. You can’t figure anybody out.”

Be sure to check out to see why Matt Kroul and other Iowa Hawkeye football great have joined the “America Needs Farmers” (ANF) team to recognize the farmers who work hard every day to provide food, fuel and fiber for our nation.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau’s senior features writer.

Don’t hold your breath

October 1, 2015

Iowa hog farmerHere’s a question that should take your breath away: do Americans find Kim Kardashian more believable than Albert Einstein?

If you spend time checking out blogs or recent headlines, it seems Americans today trust celebrity over science (and scientists). This growing distrust is happening, in part, because science is confusing, not to mention, contradictory. And let’s face it; scientists aren’t always great at explaining themselves.

Case in point; a recent story, “Study Ties Farming to Air Pollution Deaths,”  claims farming, or the air pollution caused by agriculture, is killing people. But, take a breath before you read on, because this “study” mostly drew conclusions from air pollution deaths in China, India and Pakistan, which were caused by soot and factory emissions.

This is where confusion sets in for many folks, because just a couple weeks before this ‘air pollution’ study was published, the same newspaper that printed that story, printed one which claims growing up on a farm makes you healthier, and less likely to have asthma and allergies. Something about being exposed to ‘farm dirt’ and dust and livestock makes Iowa farm kids hardy, healthy and resilient to many illnesses. So, what is a common sense, health-obsessed Iowan to think, the next time they take a drive through rural Iowa, say, to visit a pumpkin patch, or take in autumn’s changing leaves? You know, thousands of Iowans enjoy a beautiful drive through the countryside this time of year.

Well, I say, breathe deep, and, take in the views in northwest Iowa while you’re at it; Sioux County has more livestock per capita than any other county in Iowa, and always ranks at the top, or near the top in the annual ‘County Health Rankings’ report.

One thing’s for sure; it’s easier to talk to a farmer, than a scientist if you’re keen to know more about clean, healthy living in rural Iowa. You don’t even need to jump in your car to do it. You can start here or here or here.

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Iowa Farm Bureau’s public relations manager.

Growing tomatoes and a toddler

September 30, 2015

Iowa toddler with tomatoesThe calendar officially says it’s fall, combines are slowly starting to roll out into the fields, and football season has started; I think it’s safe to say autumn is upon us.

At our place, we’re probably 95 percent finished with harvest. No, I’m not talking about corn. Actually, we live in the city; the harvest I’m referring to is my daughter’s tomato patch. At our house, our Mother’s Day tradition is spending the afternoon planting the spring flowers. This year, we had a bare spot between a couple flowering bushes, so we decided to plant a tomato plant.

Just as farmers’ crops matured and grew over the summer months, so did our tomato plant, and my two-year old daughter. While watering the plants one hot May night, little Kennedy walked up, wide-eyed, and expressed interest in what I was doing. When yellow flowers emerged on the tomato plant a few weeks later, she showed even more interest. By the time cherry-sized green tomatoes appeared, she was amazed at the transformation and couldn’t get enough of helping Mom and Dad with the flowers, especially the new tomato plant, which she took ownership of.

I spent the summer months explaining to Kennedy that the fast-growing plants were actually not “apples,” like she thought, but would, in fact, one day grow to become big red tomatoes. She just said, “No,” in disbelief and smiled back, then turned her wide gaze back to the plants. Quite a few green ones got picked, but she finally learned the tomatoes aren’t ready to pick until they turn red.

As spring turned to summer, slowly, the color of the tomatoes changed from green, to orange, and finally to ripe and bright red. Just as farmers’ crops grew all summer throughout Iowa, so did my daughter. The tomatoes she first called “maties,” later became “matoes,” and now she’s really close to clearly pronouncing “tomato.” I’m sure next year it will roll off her tongue with ease, and a part of me will sigh when she reaches that milestone.

Little did I know when I planted the tomatoes, that one little plant could provide so much fun and entertainment for our family and a valuable lesson for our daughter. And it’ll be a priceless memory for me; watching the excitement in Kennedy’s eyes as we checked each night to see if any were ripe and ready to pick. The pride and happiness on her face as she showed off her produce and handed out extras to friends and family is something I’ll cherish forever.

Kennedy loved hovering over me as I washed and cut the tomato, and she especially loved eating the juicy ones. As a parent, you’re really never sure how many of the lessons you provide will be received, especially when you’re teaching a two-year-old! I do know Kennedy learned a little bit about responsibility, since we had to water our plant regularly to keep it flourishing. She hopefully picked up on food safety, since we washed each tomato before I cut it and fed it to her, and I know she felt tremendous joy and excitement, just like farmers, when it came time to harvest the crops they’ve nurtured and watched over all season.

This new Dad learned how valuable and rewarding it is to teach your children about plant lifecycles and growing your own food, and I realized whether you live on a farm or in the heart of the city, there are countless learning opportunities for kids to learn more about food production and food safety, while having a ton of fun. I am already looking forward to next year, when my eager little gardener will be able to learn and help me even more. But as for our 2015 ‘urban harvest,’ it’s hard to tell who had more fun in the garden; me, or my daughter!

By Andrew Wheeler. Andrew is Iowa Farm Bureau’s public relations coordinator.

Remembering 1985 and the roots of ANF

September 16, 2015
Coach Hayden Fry

Coach Hayden Fry

The year was 1985: Madonna was topping the charts; high school angst filled the Big Screen with ‘The Breakfast Club’; and Americans got their first glimpse of mobile phones in the hit TV show, ‘Miami Vice’ . But, it was not all ‘high times’ in rural Iowa. Before the Farm Crisis, Iowa was home to 121,000 family farms. Nearly 20,000 went under when the 80’s ended.

Emmet county farmer, Jim Boyer, remembers it well. His family farm in Minnesota didn’t make it through the Farm Crisis. As a University of Minnesota agronomy student, he was encouraged to change his major to horticulture, and he graduated to a landscaping job in Los Angeles. He remembers the toll that the Farm Crisis took on his town. “On visits home, I noticed the small town stores had closed. We lost banks and so much more. I remember a lot of people left rural Minnesota and Iowa back then, and weren’t able to ever come back,” said Boyer. But, he was lucky. As fate had it, that farm kid work ethic paid off, and he bought the landscaping business, sold it for a profit, and returned. He knew all along that Los Angeles wasn’t for him, and he was ready to settle down. “I got into trucking back home, and was hauling grain products. On the route, I guess you could say I re-met a gal I first knew back when we were kids.” Fate lent a hand, and they fell in love. “When my wife and I got married, we took over her Dad’s hogs, and grew the farm from there,” says Boyer.

Jasper County farmer, Roger Zylstra, remembers the toll that the times took on family and friends. “In 1982, my dad said, “You know, this thing is chewing me up and I just don’t know what to do anymore. I’m going to move off and let you farm; you have more ambition than I do.” My dad was 54 at the time, still young really, so he found a job in town, and I took over the farming operation. Our farm was pretty modest back then, 350 or 400 acres, and we had around 900 pigs and 75 cows.” Zylstra’s family farm survived the Farm Crisis, although it wasn’t easy. “There were weather challenges—one year we had green snap which devastated our corn. There were marketing challenges and changes in commodity prices. It was really difficult. It occurred to me that you have to be better than average to be able to survive what’s going on.” Although Zylstra’s farm has grown, and he now farms with his son, he knew neighbors and friends who didn’t make it.

University of Iowa’s respected football coach at the time, Hayden Fry, a farm kid from Texas, was also troubled by all those shuttered store fronts, broken families and generations of farming, going under. Farmers needed to know that someone was on their side, on their team. So, he came up with a symbol of solidarity with Iowa farmers: a simple yellow ‘ANF’ sticker on football helmets, which stood for America Needs Farmers. When the little ANF sticker debuted on the national stage in the game against Ohio State, it reminded the nation that farmers and farm families are integral to America’s way of life.

Much has changed since 1985, and not just hairstyles, TV shows and cell phones. The growth of technology and innovation have allowed farmers to produce better crops and healthy livestock, while reducing their environmental footprint. Farming practices have changed, but, the men and women who grow our food, have not changed. They still raise their children, save for college and hope they have a reason and a job to come home to, after graduation. The need for farmers, rural Iowa families and food diversity goes on. Yes, ‘America Needs Farmers’, still.

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Public Relations Manager.

30 reasons America Needs Farmers (ANF)

September 15, 2015

ANF - America Needs Farmers on Hawkeye football helmetsYou haven’t heard the whole story behind the “ANF” on Iowa’s football helmets.

Yes, you may know that legendary Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry created ANF (America Needs Farmers) in the midst of the 1980s Farm Crisis, and how Coach Fry, a farm boy from Texas, used the decal and the national exposure his 1985 Rose Bowl team earned to raise awareness of (and support for) hurting farm families.

There’s more to the story. A lot more.

The Farm Crisis left a permanent mark on our state, but it’s not the reason three letters still adorn Hawkeye football helmets, 30 years later.

It’s the “why” – as in “why does America need farmers?” – that (literally) keeps ANF top of mind.

And that’s the side of the story you probably haven’t heard.

Iowa leads the nation in the production of corn, soybeans, hogs, eggs, and more, but why does that matter to you and me (the 98 percent of Americans who don’t farm)?

The 30th anniversary of ANF is a great time to reflect on it.

America needs jobs.
1. Agriculture accounts for 418,777 Iowa jobs, up from 332,000 in 2007. 1 in 5 Iowans works because of agriculture.

2. $112.2 billion (33 percent) of Iowa’s total economic output comes from agriculture, up from $72.1 billion (27 percent) in 2007.

America needs safe, affordable food choices.
3. Thanks to on-farm innovation and a variety of farming methods that offer us a range of safe and affordable choices at the grocery store, Americans spend just 10 percent of their disposable income on food each year; those in other countries spend much more. (Source: USDA, ERS)

4. According to the Iowa Farm Bureau Food & Farm Index, conducted by Harris Poll, Iowans trust farmers most for food safety information.

5. Hunger affects 1 in 8 Iowans. Despite the prosperity many of us enjoy, farmers’ work to keep food abundant and affordable has never been more important.

America needs responsible caretakers of our natural resources.
6. Iowa farmers have helped reduce soil erosion by 28 percent and have helped grow the number of Iowa streams with self-supporting trout populations by nine-fold since the 1980s.

7. Just seven conservation practices used on Iowa farms today, remove 58 percent of the phosphorus, 38 percent of the nitrogen, and 28 percent of the nitrates that otherwise would be present.

8. Iowa farmers have voluntarily restored 377,811 acres of wetlands (equal to 285,718 football fields) to protect our water.

America needs renewable energy.
9. Iowa leads the nation in ethanol and biodiesel production. These fuels burn cleaner, keep gas affordable, and allow the U.S. to import less oil from overseas. Farmers also helped Iowa generate more than 28 percent of its electricity from wind in 2014, best in the nation.

10. Between 2005 and 2012, as ethanol increased from 1 percent to 10 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply, dependence on imported petroleum produced declined from 60 percent to 41 percent. (Source: American Farm Bureau)

America needs a lot of “things” that we take for granted.
11. Adhesives, cleaners, inks, shampoo, tires and more. Yep, they all started on a farm.

America needs farm values.
12. More than 97 percent of Iowa farms are owned by families.

13. In 2015 alone, Iowa recognized 366 Iowa farms that have been in the same family for 100-plus years and another 101 that have been owned by the same family for 150-plus years. This longevity is a testament to farm families’ perseverance and their strong commitment to caring for the land and water to sustain future generations.

America needs pioneers.
14. Before the Farm Crisis hit in 1985, Iowa was home to 121,000 farms. Nearly 20,000 went under by the time it ended. Today, Iowa has fewer than 90,000 farms. With fewer farmers, those who continue to farm today have had to innovate and become more efficient to meet our growing needs. (Source: USDA NASS)

15. The average American farmer feeds about 154 people per year. In 1980, it was 115 people. (Sources: USDA, FOA, America Farm Bureau)

16. By 2015, our growing world will need 100% more food, and according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 70 percent of it will need to come from efficiency-improving technologies.

Because America says so…
Coach Fry has often said that he’s amazed by the outpouring of support he and his team received for creating the ANF decal and raising awareness of farmers’ importance.

Most Iowans are multiple generations removed from the farm and know very little about how farming works today.

And yet the sentiment and support for farmers remains. The reasons are personal.

Here are a few of my favorites, shared by Iowans over the course of the past year.

17. “We were restaurateurs for 35 years, and our livelihood depended on farmers having a good year.” Betty – Avoca, Iowa

18. “We need farmers to care and tend for the land that has been passed down from generation to generation. Our family farm has been in the family since 1873!” Kristen – LeMars, Iowa

19. “Farmers are great supporters of our schools on and off the playing field. They send their great student-athletes to school, after training them how to work hard at home. Some of the toughest football players we have are farm kids, guys that will give themselves up for a greater cause.” Greg – Manchester, Iowa

20. “The reason I need my farmer is that for 38 years I have been calling him my husband. The work that he does to support his family is so selfless. He is the happiest when he is the busiest. We love the lifestyle he has given us.” Julie – Whiting, Iowa

21. “Aside from the obvious things like food, clothing and fuel, America needs farmers today as a reminder of the values that have helped make our nation great: tenacity, perseverance, independence and character. It’s just in farmers’ nature to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and keep going, regardless of the obstacles in front of them. That is at the heart of what it means to be an American, a true entrepreneur.” Sara – Clive, Iowa

22. “Not all of us have a ‘green thumb’ to grow our own food!” Evelyn – Newton, Iowa

23. “(I need farmers) so I can pour milk in my cereal bowl in the morning without actually having to milk the cows.” Teresa – Madrid, Iowa

24. “Farmers provide the life-saving insulin my son needs for his diabetes.” Dana – West Des Moines

25. “Tailgating would fail if farmers didn’t produce.” Tom – Madrid, Iowa

26. “I need farmers because they are the ones providing me with my trucking job so I can provide for my family.” Bobby – Eldora, Iowa

27. “My husband and I both work in the agriculture factory business. I build grain dryers, while my husband makes grain carts and sprayers. We need farmers to keep our jobs strong.” Steph – Hampton, Iowa

28. “Our farmers are conscientious about food safety, water quality and soil conservation. Because of this, we will continue to enjoy a reliable supply of food products for generations.” Debra – Storm Lake, Iowa

29. “Being from a rural community, agriculture keeps the community going. As a teacher, the economy gives me job security.” Amanda – Emmetsburg, Iowa

30. “We need farmers to continue the tradition of hard work, family and friendship. When a neighbor is ill or worse, we all pitch in to get the work done.” Carol – Johnston, Iowa

Did we miss the reason you need farmers? Click here and tell us why you need farmers for a chance to win America Needs Farmers (ANF) apparel throughout this 30th anniversary of ANF football season!

Win this ANF (America Needs Farmers) Iowa Hawkeyes t-shirt!

By Zach Bader (Iowa Farm Bureau’s online community manager), with contributions from Evelyn George, Teresa Bjork, Dana Ardary, and Sara Payne.

Take a tasty bite out of fall at Iowa’s apple orchards

September 9, 2015

Teresa niece1Last week, I swung by Center Grove Orchard near Cambridge to buy the first honeycrisp apples of the season. Each year I visit the orchard, I can’t believe all the new additions to this popular agritourism destination.

When I first discovered the orchard about seven years ago, Farm Bureau member Steven Black and his family sold apples out of a renovated garage.

Now the orchard’s farm store is at least three times bigger, with a coffee shop (moms and dads love their coffee!), a bakery, dozens of seasonal employees and, or course, a large selection of apple-related gifts and goodies.

Admittedly, I usually just swing by the farm store every couple weeks to stock up on honeycrisp apples and never wander into the farmyard, with all the games and attractions for kids.

But last fall, I joined my sister, brother-in-law and 2-year-old niece on their first visit to Center Grove Orchard. And I couldn’t get over how much the orchard had grown. Seriously, it’s like Disneyland in the middle of corn country.

A long line of families streamed through the gate – many dressed in wool sweaters, scarves and leather boots for fall photos – even though the weather was a little warm for bundling up that day.

We watched kids jump in the shallow corn kernel-filled “pool,” ride pedal tractors, zip down the giant slide and climb into hayracks for a short trip to the pumpkin patch.

We ate hot dogs at a picnic table for lunch and devoured a half-dozen apple cider doughnuts for dessert.

It was a hoot to see my niece get dirty trying to pick up a pumpkin, which clearly weighed more than her, straight from the field.

Plus, I gained a new appreciation for the families that open up their farms, sometimes to thousands of guests on a perfect fall weekend, as agritourism destinations for all.

Matthew Johll, 17, helperThese farmers not only are creating lasting memories and new traditions for so many families. But at the heart of everything they do, farmers are also trying to educate Iowans about modern agriculture and how their food is grown and raised.

So plan a trip to a local apple orchard, pumpkin patch or corn maze this fall. And take the time to teach your kids a little bit more about agriculture while you’re there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you meet the farmers. They love talking about what they do!

To find an apple orchard or pumpkin patch near you, visit the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers website:

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Like Des Moines Water Works, I’m prematurely giving up on my two-year-old

August 27, 2015

Zach's daughterIt’s time to radically alter the course of my daughter’s education.

Yes, she’s meeting and exceeding many milestones people associate with two-year-olds, she’s a good big sister to her five-month-old brother, and our family physician is happy with her development.

But I need to see some real results right now!

Identifying letters and colors isn’t going to get her into college (much less a full-ride scholarship), kisses for the baby aren’t going to win points in job interviews, and no one’s going to hire an aerospace engineer who can’t consistently make it to the potty on time.

Instead, I’m in favor of the mentality Des Moines Water Works is taking toward another two-year-old, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The strategy, first funded by the Iowa legislature in 2013, is a science- and technology-based plan to conserve Iowa’s soils and protect water quality. It was developed by Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and scientists at Iowa State University. It’s being hailed by many local, state and national leaders (including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) as a plan that’s making great progress in protecting water quality, and it’s helping forge many rural/urban conservation partnerships around the state, like a partnership between the city of Cedar Rapids (Iowa’s second-largest city) and area farmers and landowners.

And yet, Iowa still faces water quality challenges.

It’s clear proof, according to Des Moines Water Works, that the Nutrient Reduction Strategy hasn’t cleaned up Iowa’s water and never will.

Instead, Water Works advocates for strict farming rules and regulations.

That sounds like a sensible approach to me. There must be some way to force my daughter to learn – to mandate a schedule and specific activities that will carve out her superfluous exploration and put her on a straight and accelerated path to learning and achievement excellence.

I mean, mandates are working well for the farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, right?

Please tell me the Chesapeake Bay regulatory approach is showing significant, linear improvements in water quality! Those guys have been on a “pollution diet” for five whole years. I really hope my daughter has cured at least one terminal disease by then.

Or maybe, I’m not giving my daughter (and Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy) a fair shake. Maybe it’s okay to admit that learning and improving water quality is hard work, and it takes time and cooperation.

Perhaps it’s okay to work together – to take into account science, weather, and different topography and soil types, and other variables to find the right water quality solutions for different situations – as opposed to mandating the same practice, permit or regulation in every instance.

I suppose I don’t need to defy doctors, teachers, scientists, and national, state, and local leaders.

Yeah. I think I’ll stop pooh-poohing solutions that don’t result in a desired long-term effect immediately and start laying the groundwork for future success.

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.


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