Outdoor learning at the Envirothon


Warm spring weather arrived just in time for fifteen high school teams to compete at the 2014 Iowa Envirothon State Competition at Springbrook State Park near Guthrie Center on Monday. This year’s state winner was Marshalltown Whales 1. They will be sent to the 2014 Stewardship Challenge at Loyola University Chicago, Sunday August 3rd through Thursday, August 7th with 9 other teams from the Midwest. The Iowa Soybean Association is a sponsor of the annual competition.

Envirothon is a team competition for high school students testing their knowledge of natural resources. In the field and classroom, teams of five students are challenged to use their knowledge and critical thinking skills to conduct hands-on investigations, solve real-life scenarios and answer written questions covering five categories: Aquatics, Forestry, Wildlife, Soils, and Current Environmental Issues.

“Education has gone more and more to computer based so this really engages them back in the natural world,” Claire Lindahl, the executive director of the Envirothon said. “I’m always impressed with the oral presentations. I can see how excited the kids are to participate and compete in the Envirothon.”

DJ Kohl, a junior, competed alongside other classmates on the Alburnett FFA 1 team. The second year participant sat at a picnic table with his other teammates while trying to measure PH levels and other characteristics of water drawn from a nearby lake at Springbrook State Park.

“We do this through the FFA so it helps me stay involved. I’ve learned a lot through this and it helps me to get in touch with nature,” he said. “My favorite station is wildlife.”

Melody Bro, a watershed project coordinator for Tama Soil and Water Conservation District administered the aquatics test for this year’s Envirothon.

“There’s a lot to be said for the advisors that put a team together and prepare them for a day like this,” Bro said. “For many of these kids special events like this are their only exposure to the outdoors so I think this is a wonderful opportunity for all of our high schoolers to learn about these topics.”

The 2014 Iowa Envirothon runner up was Riceville FFA 1. The following teams were this year’s first place category winners: Marshalltown Whales 2 in Soils, Iowa City Benthos in Aquatics, Waverly- Shell Rock FFA in Wildlife, Glenwood 2 in Forestry, and Marshalltown Whales 1 in the Oral Presentation. The top FFA Score for the 2014 Iowa Envirothon competition was Riceville FFA 1. The Muscatine FFA 1 was runner up and Alburnett FFA 1 was the second runner up.

Story and photos by Joseph L. Murphy, ISA member communications manager

Recreating the skyscrapers of the prairie

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John Kauffman’s love of growing up on a family farm in western Iowa is reflected in every project he finishes. For the last six years, the Eagle Grove craftsman has worked to put smiles on children’s faces by building elaborate toy barns. Along the way he has also saved numerous barns from the fate of time.

Kauffman, using his woodworking skills and farm background, began building miniature barns for his nephew as a present. That barn (and more than 400 since) have brought joy to children on special days like Christmas and birthdays. Lately, besides building barns for aspiring farmers, Kauffman has been building wooden barns to help families remember barns that have been erased by passing time or may face demolition in upcoming years.

“Being a farm boy, I worked a lot of days in the barn. It was the hub of the farm so fifty percent of the day was spent in there. They are the skyscrapers of the prairie and many people don’t understand how neat they are,” Kauffman said.

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A short drive through the countryside reveals that many of Iowa’s historic barns are beginning to fall in disrepair and disappear from the landscape all together. Kauffman, one barn at a time, is able to preserve some of those memories for families, just in a smaller scale.

Whether it is a hip roof, gambrel, split roof or a modern mono slope barn, Kauffman can likely build it. He usually sits down and drafts out the details free hand using photos and notes that he has taken from talking with customers. He then cuts the wood by hand before assembling it. Intricate details are added to the interiors and exteriors to help those memories live or for children to be able to play with. Most of the barns he builds take 15 to 20 hours, but he said special projects take can much more time.

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“It feels good knowing, that in a way, I’ve helped preserve memories for some of these families,” he said. “Sometimes the barn that I made for them is all they have left and they cherish that.”

The barns are built to scale and, depending on the size and complexity, cost anywhere from $60 to $2,700. He has built classic barns of all types, machine sheds, out buildings and even hog barns. Many of his creations are shipped out of state. He has sent his work to New York, California, North Carolina, Louisiana and much of the Midwest.

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“These aren’t just for farm boys. The kid in town might be the next agronomist, the next co-op manager,” Kauffman said. “Children are our future. So when I hear that they are enjoying the barns and it helps keep their interest in agriculture, then I get enjoyment out of that. This is the fun side of agriculture.”

For more information on Kauffman’s barns you can visit his website at: http://www.woodentoybarns.com/index.php

Story and photos by Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager

Grist in the Midwest

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In a small office on the main street of Colfax Nathanael Johnson unassumingly conducted an interview. He listened intently as a veterinarian talked about antibiotic use, GMOs and even her approaching due date for her twins.

Johnson, a self acclaimed liberal doesn’t hide the fact that he was raised by parents embracing the 60’s values of hippies that populated the streets of San Francisco at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury during the summer of love. He attended the University of California, Berkeley and enjoys riding his custom bicycle on the winding streets of San Francisco. And most recently he has been tagged as an “agvocate” by reporting the facts about GMOs to a readership that prefers news about climate change, mass transit and subsistence farming.

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Grist.org an online news site positions itself as a source of intelligent, irreverent environmental news and commentary that has been providing thought provoking articles for readers since 1999. Their goal is to get people talking, thinking and taking action and they proclaim that they are making lemonade out of looming climate apocalypse. There is no shortage of humor on the site mixed with the dire news of the day.

So why is Johnson being celebrated by farmers in the Midwest as a person finally spreading the truth about Iowa agriculture to a California environmentalist culture that typically embraces news about organic food and climate change?

The answer, it turns out, can be found by simply asking him. And that is what a crowd of 150 people did during a question and answer event at the FFA Enrichment center in Ankeny. During the event he answered questions, talked about his stories and shed light on his approach to social concerns related to agriculture. You can read more about that event here: GMOs: “What’s the big deal?”

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This week Johnson was also in Iowa to continue his work on a story about new guidelines by the USDA on the use of antibiotics in livestock. It will be another story in a body of work that has straddled the rails of environmentalism and agriculture that in the past has brought two ideologically different groups together, at least for the moment, on the unlikely subject of GMOs.

Johnson recently completed a six month discovery of GMOs that was celebrated by some in the Ag industry as a win for those that have always believed in GMO crops. Environmentalists and foodies stomached the conclusion too because of his thorough explanations along the way. Just a month into his duties as a food writer he was asked to tackle the issue of GMO’s. As his research and interviews took him deeper and deeper into the subject his stories angered people on both sides of the issue. He quickly found that the messages surrounding GMO’s were supercharged no matter what stance is taken.

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I had the opportunity to visit with Johnson as I drove him to the vet clinic in Colfax and later to Dave Struthers pig farm near Collins. I found in talking to him that just because his ideology is rooted in environmentalism his job as a journalist searching for facts and reporting them without bias has led him to report on these issues as accurately as he can. Sometimes even in the face of his readership at Grist. I also found, as a journalist myself, that I can give credit to his editors and other management at Grist for allowing Johnson to explore these issues and report on them regardless of the findings with only accuracy as a guide.

Will his future stories be as accepted by those in the agricultural industry? My guess is probably not. However, after meeting and visiting with him during our drive through the Iowa countryside, I know that the stories will be constructed on facts. In doing so, Johnson will continue to build credibility – and bridges on the all-important topics of food and food safety.

Story and photos by Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager






Comfort food is gourmet at the Coffee Cup Cafe

Robin Morvant holds a slice a pie at the Coffee Cup Cafe in Sully.

Tucked on the town square of Sully in an unassuming storefront is one of Iowa’s food gems. A short drive off of Interstate 80 leads to a warm cafe experience that offers a utopia of acclaimed dishes.

The Coffee Cup Cafe, established in 1970, offers tasty food that has some hefty accolades. Their banana cream pie was named as one of the 10 best in the United States and their stacks of buttermilk pancakes have kept discerning patrons coming back for many years.

Robin and Darin Morvant have owned the cafe for the last 10 years, building a menu of tasty food that can be sampled six days a week from breakfast to dinner.

“I have people ask what coffee is our specialty because of the restaurant name,” Robin Morvant says with a grin. “I tell them regular and decaf. We’re not a gourmet food shop, we’re a comfort food shop, that’s what we do.”

They’re also known for customer service that comes with a smile and a warm welcome regardless if you are from Sully, a neighboring town, or even out of state.

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The name of the cafe and the town itself is rooted in the farms that have been growing food for generations. Farmers and community members visiting the cafe in the early days left their favorite mugs on a shelf  so they wouldn’t have to bring them back day after day. According to Robin, the numerous coffee cups on the shelf led to the cafe’s name.

The sense of community has grown over the years. On any given morning you can walk into the cafe and see about 25 people visiting about crop conditions, Sully civic news and even some of the hot town gossip.

“It is the highlight of their day to come here and to talk with their fellow farmers and neighbors,” she said.  “And I’m glad they have a place to do that. It seems like when the restaurant is closed the (town) square is dead.”

Most days you can find Robin and her mother, Dee Vander Wilt, in the kitchen preparing their famous pies. They make about 10 daily from scratch using only the best ingredients. Most of the recipes are secret but Robin did let me in on a tip that is sure to help your pie crusts at home.

Robin Morvant puts the final touches on a pie before serving it to a hungry lunch crowd.

“People ask how we get our crust so flaky and I tell them we still use real lard,” Robin said without apologies.

That lard is bought from Dayton Meat Products, a local locker in Malcom, along with some of the other ingredients they use in their foods.

Beyond sharing her tip about flaky crusts, Robin was tight lipped about the other recipes they use to make the acclaimed food at the cafe. But from my observations I think that the food and the experience at the Coffee Cup Cafe comes from more than a single ingredient. It comes from the warmth of the staff and patrons.

Note cards dating back to the beginning of the cafe hold the secret recipes to many of the great dishes served at the Coffee Cup Cafe.

“I love coming out here and talking to people,” Robin said.  “I like to think that this is an extension of my living room.”

Next time you are thinking about taking a road trip or are driving by the Sully exit on Interstate 80 take a detour and visit the Coffee Cup Cafe. As their slogan states; “Sit back and relax you’re home at the Coffee Cup Cafe.”

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Story and photos by Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager

Moving Day

Moving day. If you are like me, a slight chill just made its way up your back just thinking about the word moving. There aren’t too many things in life that are more traumatic. You have to pack all of your possessions, leave a comfortable place and then lug everything to a new space that holds new challenges. I’ve been thinking about moving a lot lately. Two years ago, we packed up our home and moved the family 27.8 miles (I know the exact distance because it didn’t qualify for an IRS tax deduction) to a new home and town. I’m also preparing to help move my mom from my childhood home in Forest City to a new place in central Iowa. In both cases, moving brings with it planning and hard work.

It was no different when I visited a friend last week while he happened to be moving. I didn’t know that’s what he was doing at the time or I would’ve conveniently been “busy” during the move.

You know how it is. Getting drafted into helping a buddy move to a new place somewhere. It seemed like the years surrounding college, I was always helping to move friends across campus. It always seemed like it was up three stories and the elevator didn’t work. Back in those days, the only reward for moving was several cold beverages, a backache and maybe some funny stories.

This move was not typical for me by any means. Not just because my friend has to do it annually, but because it holds an importance every time he does it.

For Tim Kaldenberg, an Iowa Soybean Association member and farmer from Albia, moving day means ushering his herd of 19 heifers and 40 cows through snow-covered pastures back to his farm. This move, like many traditional moves, has plenty of logistical challenges that can only be solved through hard work.


With good weather in the forecast and me in the copilot chair, we set out in his farm truck several miles down a blacktop. While we traveled, we talked about our families and plans for warm escapes from Iowa’s icy plains. When we arrived at the pasture, Kaldenberg stepped out of the truck, opened the gate and jumped back in. It was go time for the move and, with a fluid motion of his arm, he shifted the truck into four-wheel drive while plowing through a snow drift.

“Here cow, hey cow!” Kaldenberg yelled with his head out the window.

His secret weapon for this move was a payload of fresh, wet corn gluten feed. He leaned towards me, almost like he was about to tell me a secret, and said it was like candy to the cattle so he was sure they would follow.

As the truck sped up, Kaldenberg confidently kept breaking through small drifts and deep snow while a chain of cattle followed at a gallop. It was an amazing sight to see with the powdered snow forming a white trail behind them.

After crossing every pasture, we had to get out of the truck and open gates and assess the progress. That gave the cattle the opportunity to grab a snack before the truck sped away again. I found myself just as nervous as Tim was at times. He was nervous about the cattle following and I was nervous about getting stuck in a pasture miles away from a hard-surfaced road.


After close to two miles of drift busting and prayers that the cattle wouldn’t stray from the move we finally made it to the last gate.

“I woke up and knew today would be a good day to do this,” Kaldenberg said. “Sometimes you get a feeling that it’s a good time to work with them.”

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The move was over and we both looked at each other and smiled as the gate was closed. The heifers were in place to begin calving season. I went on my way back to Des Moines knowing that I was involved with an important part of Kaldenberg’s farm. I also knew that once calving season begins for him, it will be several months of working around the clock to make sure the heifers, cows and their calves are healthy regardless of the weather conditions.

That was a move for the ages and one that I would gladly sign up for again.


Story and photos by Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager



10 on the 10th of February

In keeping with our monthly feature of 10 on the 10th this month I’m sharing 10 of my favorite snow photos. February is one of the snowiest months in Iowa, averaging about seven inches each month, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Depending on your view of February and the winter months you will either find these images a refreshing reason why you live in Iowa or a reminder of what has already been a long winter. Either way we can all breath a sigh of relief knowing that we most likely won’t approach the 93.1 inches of snow that Elkader had during the winter of 1950-51. I hope you can find some beauty in the following images. Enjoy!

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Photos by Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager

Full Moon Farmstead

You never know what you will find as you travel through Iowa. Last week on the way to an early meeting I had to stop and take some photos as the moon made its descent behind a farm house near Granger. Nothing like watching the sun rise in the east and the moon slowly disappear in the west.Moon Farmstead-1

Photo by Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager

10 on the 10th of January

Some bloggers have been participating in monthly events that are a series of 10 photos documenting a day or event from the previous month. For those that don’t know me,  I’ll be the first to admit that I take way too many photos. With that being said, I though this might be a way  to share some of those hidden photos with readers. This month I thought I would introduce 10 on the 10th by including ten of my favorite fence related photos. Enjoy!


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Photos by Joe Murphy, ISA member communications manager