Category Archives: Agritourism

Fall in Madison and Adair County (Iowa) – historic barn tour, Howell tree farm, fall crawl, flower cutting at PepperHarrow

Such a gorgeous fall Sunday in Central Iowa. We went down to Winterset in Madison County to cut flowers at the lovely PepperHarow Farm and realized midway that the annual Iowa Barn Tour was happening across Iowa so we drove west to two lovely old barns along gravel roads the first in Madison County, the second in neighboring Adair County.

if I’d know it was happening we would have visited more barns. I also found out, too late, that Madison County was having a “fall crawl” today, featuring 12 stops (farms, ag-venues, shops, state park) welcoming visitors to wander around (PepperHarrow was one of them, which explains why so many more people were there than during our first visit in July.) Even though we missed it I was glad to see this fall crawl happening since the farm crawl we enjoyed several times pre-Covid in Warren County south of Des Moines is no more. (So many things Covid has ended, livelihoods and pastimes as well as far too many lives).

the Iowa barn Tour in Madison County

We also stopped briefly at Howell Tree Farm en route to Winterset which was packed with families with children doing all kinds of fun pumpkin patch things. Our Two-year-old grandson would love it, including the merry go round where kids ride ponies.

Note to self: Return to the town of Earlham in mid-October when the cool upscale vintage store RJ Homes on the well preserved main drag are open. They are open one three-day weekend a month.

Inside the drying barn at Howell Farm near Winterset

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Filed under Agritourism, Des Moines, Iowa City, Uncategorized

Elizabeth Warren, Slipknot,Pork Belly on a stick at 2019 Iowa State Fair – Des Moines

I wouldn’t normally go to the Iowa State Fair on a Saturday — too busy. But I wanted to catch Elizabeth Warren’s brief stint on the Des Moines Register’s famous political soapbox, so we went. It was hot, although not as hot as it could have been, and very very crowded but we did get to see Liz, who performed well and apparently had the largest crowd of all the 2019 Democratic political candidates, to date. (I couldn’t tell – -we were in the thick of the crowd, standing next to a young documentary filmmaker from L.A. who was shooting footage for a film about the Iowa State Fair’s role in presidential politics, or some such.)

We also happened to hear former Colorado Governor Hickenlooper, who seems like a good guy — and although we skipped the Cory Booker soapbox appearance, we passed him and a large entourage, reportedly in search of vegen-worthy fair food.  Speaking of non-vegan-worthy food, I fell hard for the maple syrup cured-pork belly on a stick sold at the Iowa Pork Producers tent.

Dirck and “Captain,” the big boar (2157 pounds)

While Dirck had a proper pork chop, I went full stick — with what looked like a thick piece of well-cooked bacon, with a brown chewy gooey sweet glaze, twisted around a stick. Delicious. We double dipped in the ice cream department — getting a cone from the Iowa Dairy Producers early on and as we were leaving, a Bauder’s peppermint-hot fudge bar that we split.

The fair always makes for exceptional people watching but even more so this year because of the political campaign workers/reporters (telltale signs: a Princeton T-shirt, the DC regulation gear – blue button down shirt and khaki combo, etc), the unnerving folks wearing NRA T-shirts, camouflage gear and/or Trump 2020 shirts (Dirck had to restrain me from shooting them dirty looks. Probably best to ignore them.) Also, the hard metal band Slipknot (internationally-known, Iowa-born) was playing its first ever state fair concert to a sell-out crowd so there were some 20,000 maggots (slipknot speak for “fans”) — many wearing menacing black Slipknot t-shirts or other weirdo Slipknot gear (bright orange jumpsuits, creepy face masks like the band members). Many waited in a long line outside a trailer dubbed the “Slipknot Museum” that was parked in the middle of the Grand Concourse (fair speak for the fair’s main drag). It all added a little je ne sais quoi to the fair…

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Gorgeous day for a tour of Iowa barns – in central Iowa.

We should have set aside more time but in three hours we still managed to visit four distinctive barns in Central Iowa (Story and Marshall Counties) on a spectacularly beautiful early Autumn day. Thanks to the Iowa Barn Foundation for making this opportunity possible, free of charge (although I now realize I need to make a donation to support the foundation’s worthy work of preserving Iowa’s old barns, and in the process, its rural heritage and agricultural history.)

The hardest part of the two-day fall tour — held annually  statewide (the spring tour focuses on one geographic region) — was deciding where to go since there are so many barns on display. The Foundation breaks the state into nine geographic regions, which is a helpful start. I looked at the regions closest to Des Moines (central and south central) to see how many barns are listed and their locations. I thought we’d head southeast to Madison County but a few minutes into the drive, as I was looking closer at the Foundation’s list, I realized that Story and Marshall Counties had some particularly cool barns and a few were within miles of each other so we could see several in an afternoon. My patient driver (Dirck) switched course and we drove northeast instead.

Some other tour-goers I met told me that the Foundation used to provide maps showing the specific locations of the barns/farms, which would be helpful. Without that, some tour-goers now map out their tour in advance — which is a smart idea and an improvement upon my last-minute geographical plotting. Although in remote locations, we found the barns easily, thanks to  GPS and 911 emergency system requirements that the smallest of gravel roads have names or at least numbers.

The four barns we visited differed  in terms of architecture and degree of restoration — although they were all similarly situated, on remote gravel roads in the countryside, usually beside a pretty old farmhouse and a prosaic modern metal shed that has largely replaced traditional barns. As my resident ag expert explained, old barns weren’t built for today’s agriculture. They don’t have big enough doors or enough space for large machinery.  And today’s livestock hang out outside, unless they’re stuck in big metal confinement sheds.

The experience of visiting each barn also differed. At the first barn in the small town of Fernald, north of Colo, – a rare square barn built in 1875 and restored in 2004 – we pulled up to a farmstead with no signs of life, but the door was open to the pretty red-painted wood barn with a limestone foundation, accented by nearby pink and orange asters.  Great that we could walk right in, where we found a sign-in book and a table laden with plastic containers full of sweets – sweet rolls, Kringla, cup cakes, cookies, brownies, chocolates. No invitation to partake and no place to donate. I couldn’t resist trying a few sweets – including a decadent peanut cluster and German Sweet Chocolate brownie.

Built on a farm bought by the Handsaker family in 1853, the square barn inside was very rustic — they all were, with late afternoon yellow light filtering in through the windows and spaces between the wood plank walls, spotlighting the interior’s sturdy latticework of wooden beams.  (Because the barns were built before electricity, and electric lights. they often have lots of windows and natural light.) It was refreshing to wander around with no directions or posted cautions couched in legalese (i.e. warnings about taking your life into your own hands by walking on narrow rickety steps up to the barn’s second floor hay loft or wandering on the sometimes less that solid feeling wood planks of the second floor, past openings with sheer drops to the bottom floor.) The downside is that these barns were definitely not built to be disabled-accessible.  We brought our dog Millie along and had to keep her on a leash to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid/harmful.

Two women later pulled up from Pottawatomie County (near Council Bluffs, about two hours west) and they appeared to be tour veterans. I got the impression they pick a different region to tour each year.  One woman has received a grant from the foundation to restore her grandfather’s 1905 barn near Oakland, Iowa. I need to find out more about the Foundation’s grant-making but I gather it awards grants for restoration that recipients must match – and they also must agree to open their barn to public view during the tour. I also gather the Foundation lives on private donations. One barn owner told us they got a $50,000 grant. I don’t know what the max or min or average is. Or how much that covers of what can be very costly restoration projects.

At the second barn we visited in Colo –a more traditional straight-walled barn built in 1885 —  we joined four other people (three from Ames, one from Nevada – the state, not the small Iowa town near Ames)  on a  casual tour mid-stream led by the young owner who along with his wife has taken on the barn restoration as a hobby after moving to the farmstead a few years ago. Unlike some owners we met, they’re not farmers.  They both work in Ames but wanted to  live out in the country on an acreage. They do have some cattle and pumpkins growing in the garden and a beautiful Victorian farm house with a tasteful modern day addition. Their partially red-painted barn in on the National Historic Register and they are doing intensive labor to rebuilt the inside to near original state, with plank-and-batten siding/paneling (aka board-and-batten or wainscoting that alternates wide boards and narrow wooden strips called battens) and using original materials (white oak, pine, cottonwood) which has meant finding and bringing back wood from Wisconsin by rail and then by truck, as well as wood found online (“I’m a Craig’s list junkie,” he told us.) They are taking advantage of modern-day technology by using power tools rather than hand drills.

Unlike some of the owners, these owners did not grow up with or inherit their barn/farm so they have spent considerable time trying to figure out what various bits of the barn were used for and what materials they need to restore it. They hope to have the job done in a few years.

“I really do love doing this  kind of stuff – I don’t golf or play softball so I get out here to use my brain for a different purpose. I read a lot,” he told us. Noting how the  heavy wooden timbers are help together with wooden pegs (not nails) at the joints, he said, “When you think about all the ingenuity back then, it’s kind of staggering. It’s basically like a wood ship built,  upside down.”

The Barn Foundation’s website (full of interesting material) includes a piece by the previous owner written for the 2015 all-state barn tour, with great historical info:  The barn was built by an Irish family (the Mulcahys) who bought the land in 1872 from the federal government and they owned it until 1999 when it was bought, improbably, by a young couple from New York City who wanted to raise their kids on a farm. They started with the renovation- pouring a new foundation, putting on a wood shingle roof, and hiring “frame straighteners to square the roof.” Without this, the barn would have collapsed. The next owner (and author of this history) from Texas found the barn in distress, a decade after its renovation. He started another restoration, with a matching grant from the Iowa Barn Foundation. He loved the “old world air” of the farmstead, which includes other 19th-century burilindgs including two corn cribs, two chicken houses and a coal building. Interestingly, he notes: “I did not restore the barn to perfection; I believe one loses the historical essence of something when you replace all the parts with new. To that end, I’ve kept the original siding on the barn, warts and all. The barn has a sound foundation, roof, good doors and windows, plus nice red paint with white trim work. It looks like a structure that has survived the test of time and will for many years to come.”

The third barn (on Elmnolle Farm in State Center) is a massive round barn (65 foot diameter), made of peeling white-painted wood and a stucco roof, built in 1919 from a pre-cut kit designed and made to order in Davenport, Iowa. It cost $6000. I’ve seen a few round barns from the road but they are even cooler inside. They feel almost like cathedrals, the ceiling is so high and curved. There is a massive (12 x 35) clay block silo in the middle (built with blocks from Lansing, Michigan), surrounded by 13 dairy cow stanchions, five double horse stalls, two box stalls, two grain rooms, a milk room and tack room. Truly a “general purpose barn.” The barn is topped by a large round cupola with windows, louvers and a conical roof.

Although oddly round, the barn still has a classic inverted U-shaped, gambrel roof, aka “Dutch or barn-style roof,” which wikipedia tells me is a symmetrical two-sided roof with two slopes on each side, the first slope shallow the second steep, which is good for water run-off (preventing mold and mildew) but not as good as other roof styles at withstanding heavy snow or high winds. But the owner told us the barn’s overall round shape was, at the time, considered sturdier and better able to withstand strong winds than a straight-sided barn.

Considered experimental, back in the day, it was interesting to learn how the barn was laid out, like theater-in-the-round, for agriculture – apparently round barns were thought to make more sense space-wise than a more traditional barn, providing more storage and a circular layout so it’s easier to get to things than having to walk down long narrow corridors.    This barn was part of a century farm, which means the same family has owned it for 100 years. The woman showing us around turned out to owner of a parked nearby with the Georgia plates. She and her husband live there and here, on the farm first owned by her grandfather (“he was a little forward-thinking” she replied when I asked if people thought he was crazy to build a round barn)  and then her father (born the farm in 1916) and then her (born on the farm in 1941).

“As a little girl I loved to tag along behind my dad,” she recalls, although girls and women didn’t do as much farm work in those days as they do today. “I finally go to do a few things” including stacking hay. “It was scratchy and it was dirty.”

The round barn needs a new roof and shingles – no small or cheap task – and a new second-level floor, a bigger project than the maintenance effort they envisioned when they applied for their first grant of $50,000. They have been encouraged to apply for another.

The fourth barn, red-painted wood, restored in 2006, had a lovely little cupola at the top and the owners had a thick scrapbook full of family photos and mementos from the many years the barn has been in the family. One was a hand drawn map with the names and locations of various horses that bunked in the barn. The cupola says 1906 on it but apparently that marks the date when the barn was moved, a little back from its original location nearer the road. The owner didn’t know how old the barn was but said it was on the property when his grandfather bought the farm in 1893. The owner pointed out handprints in the cement floor – made by his grandfather as a child and his sister. Although the barn is now empty, he said it used to house milk cows and hay bales. And the current owners kids kept goats, horses, sheep and pigs in the barn.

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Filed under Agritourism, DESTINATIONS - Iowa

High Trestle Trail with Dog/Madrid (Iowa); Picket Fence Creamery/Woodward (Iowa); Hotel Pattee/Perry (Iowa)

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Selfie overlooking the High Trestle Bridge

For my sister’s final day in Des Moines, we finally got half way decent weather (high 40s!, some sun!) so we took a day trip with our sweet Lab mix rescue dog Millie northwest about 40 miles to the High Trestle Trail. What a treat to have the entire bridge to ourselves on an early spring day — and always a spectacular view and surprising structure to find in the middle of Iowa. (It was recently dubbed by the BBC as one of the world’s eight spectacular foot bridges.)IMG_1109 (2)

The good news is that it’s now easier to walk to the bridge quickly along the trail, thanks to a handy sign along highway 210 just west of Madrid, Iowa that helps you clearly find the dirt road (QF Road) that leads to the trailside parking, which is about a ten-minute walk to the bridge.

We stopped at Picket Fence Creamery in nearby Woodward,Iowa and tried a little tub of ice cream and some chocolate milk (that we earlier saw being bottled in the little shop beside the dairy that is on a largely unpopulated dirt road in the country). From there we drove ten minutes further west to the Hotel Pattee which is still hanging in there (last I heard it was for sale again) and is still incredibly impressive, with one-of-a-kind rooms, each decorated with art and artifacts to honor a specific aspect of small town Iowa life. The desk clerk gave us the key to the 1913 farmhouse room but several other rooms were also open so we wandered in them as well (the southeast Asia room, the Irish room, the Russian room…unfortunately the RAGBRAI room wasn’t open)…

Anyway, the three stops made for a perfect half-day road trip from Des Moines, perfect for visitors.

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Filed under Agritourism, bike trails, DESTINATIONS - Iowa, DINING, LODGING

Here’s my story about the (Iowa) Farm Crawl in the Minneapolis Star Tribune!

Hot off the press (and Internet), here’s the story I wrote last fall about “Farm Crawl 2017” that just squeaked in before the start of 2018.  click here to see the story online.

Midwest Traveler: Iowa’s Farm Crawl, where a farm is a farm

Iowa’s annual Farm Crawl is a quaint detour through some of the state’s smaller farms.


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Gorgeous fall day for a “Farm Crawl” in Southern Iowa

We drove an hour south of Des Moines on what turned out to be a lovely fall day (after a few initial sprinkles) for the 11th annual Farm Crawl — a driving (not crawling) tour rural in Marion, Lucas and Warren counties of five farms plus a local pottery place and a sale on the grounds of an 1850’s country church, where FFA (Future Farmers of America) kids set up shop, selling their iron works and meat from their “Cattle Project.”

Such a great way to see the Iowa count side and out-of-the-way small family farms, driving up and down hilly gravel roads, tire wheels kicking up dust, flocks of birds suddenly flying in formation from a telephone line, lots of open land and then suddenly, a rare round barn or a tidy red barn or a ramshackle farmstead or the sun-dappled  lawn of an old country church at a rural crossroads.

The Iowa we love.

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Wilson’s Orchard/Iowa Grown Market/Yotopia in Iowa City; bike trail and Heyn Ice Cream in North Liberty

Iowa Grown Market

Iowa Grown Market

I would not advise doing what we just did – riding the strenuous bike trail in North Liberty, near Iowa City – in 94 degree heat. But it was Sept. 23 and we were thinking “crisp fall day,” even after  weather reports forecasting near-record heat.

The roadside trail had its pretty moments as we cycled  south from Penn Meadows Park on Dubuque Street, past high dry corn and rolling, wooded properties near Coralville Lake. There wasn’t too much road traffic but when we turned right onto  Oakdale Avenue, we were deep in new subdivision land – not my favorite scenery. We found much the same heading north on 12th Street back toward town. There were also some killer little roller coaster bits, all the more killer in the heat. So not sure we’ll be doing this trail again. My quest to find a great trail in the rural countryside near Iowa City continues….

Wilson’s Orchard

We did appreciate the cold AC and sorbet inside Heyn’s Ice Cream, locally-owned and made,  inside a charming corner store  with an old-fashioned counter, in North Liberty.

We also took a very pretty drive to get to North Liberty from Wilson’s Orchard (a pretty place just north of Iowa City off Highway One that was packed with sweaty families with sweaty kids trying to pick apples on a ridiculously hot fall day. Good cider, donuts and, of course, apples. on trees in orchards lining a deep valley with weeping willows). The drive included a section of  RAGBRAI we rode a few years ago (very scenic but rolling, with lots of gentleman farms with white picket fences, perfect barns and big new houses that reminded me a bit of horse country outside Nashville).

Turning west off Highway One past a party barn, onto country road F8W/Newport Road, we stumbled upon a picture postcard perfect farm stand, Iowa Grown Market, (open June – October) where we could not resist buying some carrots, cherry tomatoes, a mottled pumpkin and a few other things we thought would survive sitting for hours in the heat in our car. (They did survive.)

Wilson’s Orchard (and sadly, the kids are looking at cellphones, not the view…)

In Iowa City, we had another very good lunch at the Bluebird Cafe (splitting the pulled pork sandwich, our favorite from last visit, and a good Greek salad) and stopped for frozen yogurt with “popping juice pearls” (kiwi/green; strawberry/red, passion fruit/yellow) at Yotopia (also locally-owned and made) before braving Kinnick Stadium to sit with thousands of other hot football fans (quite a few inebriated – this was a 6:30 p.m. game) watching the University of Iowa Hawkeyes lose (narrowly) to Penn State.



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Airbnb room with a view (Lake Superior) and Northern Waters Smokehaus – Duluth

Another great Airbnb (unlike the one I booked in Minneapolis where the weird host cancelled at the last minute). We are in a airy blue-walled room on the second floor of an old wooden house in a neighborhood high on a hill above downtown and the blue waters of Lake Superior. Some nice touches including a Polaroid camera to snap a few shots (haven’t used one in years), a white noise machine, pretty botanical prints on the walls, a map with pins to stick in to show where visitors are from. (Other Des Moines residents had been here, as had visitors from Tehran and Hamburg.) We shared a bathroom with the one other room, which wasn’t an issue.

After a brief stop at The Minneapolis Farmers Market downtown on Lyndale near Twins stadium to pick up huge red dahlias, raspberries, strawberries, scones and banana bread to take to Noah and Rachel’s new apartment on Emerson Street, we drove two hours or so to Duluth (not too much traffic) and tried our first batch of smoked whitefish at Northern Waters Smokehaus, a hip, foodie sandwich shop inside an old brick warehouse renovated into a marketplace with nice shops. I ate the fish on saltines with a smear of cream cheese, as directed.

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Filed under Agritourism, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Iowa State Fair 2017 – gorgeous weather brings lots of people but doesn’t feel crowded

The weather was so perfect (sunny and almost cool, not hot or humid) last Saturday that I feared the fairgrounds would be uncomfortably crowded. There were tons of people but the fair didn’t feel any more crowded than usual for a Saturday. There was a long line at the Dairy Barn, which is to be expected, and it remains the one place where I always feel sweaty, even in relatively cool temps, because there’s no shade.

But there was hardly any wait to get an egg-on-a-stick from the Iowa Egg Council inthe Ag Building or to get a ticket for the Sky Glider. We sailed right into the Pork Producer’s tent for dinner – maybe because it was relatively late? (about 7 p.m.)

The Midway did look cleaner, brighter and less seedy – as promised with the rebranding as Thrill Park. And I did overhear someone actually ordering a cheesy fried enchilada funnel cake – one of the “new foods” at the fair. No thank you. Other than that, just enjoyed the usual highlights, with the added bonus of having two of our grown kids and their significant others with us!

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Filed under Agritourism, Des Moines, DESTINATIONS - Iowa

Finds at the Downtown Farmers Market – Des Moines

“There’s usually nothing new down there,” my husband muttered as I persisted in heading down a side street (near the new HyVee) in downtown Des Moines during the Saturday morning farmers market.

And he’s usually right. But this time of year, chances are he’s wrong – and he was. Spotting a crowd gathered around a vendor, we arrived at Coeur Bread which turns out to be new (or new to us and this particular market location) and makes noteworthy bread, which is hard to do in such a crowded field these days. The flavors are different – raspberry feta is delicious, “hot chocolate” a little odd but not too sweet, jalapeno corn has visible kernels and a kick. And the texture is perfect – dense, chewy, crusty and dusty on the outside, both the little rolls (sort of the size of charcoal brickets) and the loafs, sweetly wrapped in brown butcher paper with a little brown ribbon.

I was also pleased to see the return of Butcher Crick, which sells gorgeous heirloom tomatoes – all kinds of odd shapes, unusual colors and best of all, discernable flavor. And the sellers are so enthusiastic it’s hard not to suddenly drop $8 on a handful of beauties.

With fresh produce so bountiful and widely available this time of year, I’ve come to restrict my Saturday farmer’s market shopping to things I can’t find elsewhere and raspberry-feta bread and dusty red or tiger-striped tomatoes fit that bill.

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