In Iowa, Sustainability, Not Just Agribusiness



There's a lentil stew gently simmering in a pot, and a lemon-cumin caramel au beurre sale cooling in another. There are ribbons of basil. And there is the lamb.

X, my partner in food and love, rubs it with olive oil and thyme, and pan-sears it in a blazing hot iron skillet. When everything is assembled and the plate placed in front of me, I cut through the slightly crunchy exterior to reveal perfectly rosy flesh from which delicate aromas arise. The first bite I take is of lamb alone. The texture is a perfect balance between firm and tender. Flavors slowly build, and I can almost taste the grass the animal ate at Wallace Farms.

Nick Wallace, who runs the farm, is one of the extraordinary farmers I met during the weeks I spent in Iowa this winter. Yes, Iowa. My friends warned me: flat country with vast fields of corn and soybeans spreading in all directions. Not much else. Agribusiness. No real food. But the people might be friendly.

The people turned out to be very friendly indeed. I was welcomed wherever I knocked—except, of course, at the French department of the university, which never returned my e-mails. And it is also true that the state is flat. As far as I drove from Iowa City, all I saw was vast plains sporadically punctuated by hills and stands of trees. A thick blanket of snow hid the soybean and corn fields. Yes, agribusiness.

But Nick Wallace has gone in another direction. Partly, he explained, because the initial investment of a factory farm is too much for a young farmer like him, and loans hard to obtain, but mainly because his personal history led him to "believe" in healthy food. Eight years ago, he took over land that had been, for more than a decade, heavily treated with chemicals. He patiently waited for the soil and its ecosystem to come back to life. He started to cultivate pasture for his cows and sheep.

Nick followed every step to get the USDA organic certification but finally decided against it. "I don't need a label that I'd have to pay for when I only direct market my meat and customers know me and trust me," he told me. He doesn't want to sell to restaurants, because they ask for the best cuts at wholesale prices. He therefore designed his own distribution system in the form of buying clubs. He meets his loyal customers once a month in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen. He finds inspiration in Joel Salatin. He reads Michael Pollan.

I also met Lois Pavelka. A former nurse, this kind, unassuming woman took over the family farm when her husband died. Later, she fell in love with her neighbor, Bill Ellison, a widower and farmer himself, and they now run a small farm that provides the best restaurants in the area with lamb, beef, and pork. The cattle are mostly grass-fed, but they finish them with grain, she told me, because they like the taste it gives the meat. The cattle roam the farm's pastures, except during the winter. Grass-fed and free from the pain of factory farms, the animals really don't need to be genetically engineered.

I met Eric Menzel, a doctor of anthropology in his thirties who turned to farming because he couldn't find the high quality of food he was looking for. Eric helps Bill on the farm and gets to use part of Lois's historic farmland in exchange. He organically raises chickens for eggs and meat, and in season he cultivates a vegetable garden. He sells at the nearby farmers' markets and supplies restaurants. Eric worked as a chef for many years to help pay for his studies. He loves food and experiments with Bill and Lois's cows' milk. I tried one of his fresh cheeses. Similar to a ricotta, it had a slight tanginess nicely offsetting the richness of whole milk. The creamy yet pungent Camembert-like cheese I tried on my second visit was delicious too, and it made me nostalgic for France.

I also met David, Simone, Matt, and Kurt, and exchanged emails with Tomoko, Susan, Tammy, Gary, Linda, Donna, and Kathy. Some are chefs who favor local and seasonal food, others work hard to put farmers and consumers in touch through farmers' markets or food coops. Others design and operate educational programs for farmers, ranging from marketing to niche product development to farming techniques. And at the center of this widening network, there are farmers who try and grow quality food as sustainably as possible. All of these people, and so many others, helped to paint for me a new picture of Iowan agriculture.

I came here a prejudiced food snob. Yes, I am lucky that X is a great cook, but I was just as lucky to meet these farmers, and to taste their products. I am amazed and humbled by the quality of the ingredients we found. I have been charmed by the people who produce them, by their stories, and by their passion for what they do. I'll return to Paris missing this landscape, these Iowa farmers, and their food.