Fiber, fuel and food are the essentials for existence, and more and more Iowans are relying on outside sources for these basics of life. A forum hosted Saturday by the naturalists for the Kossuth County Conservation Board was focused on raising awareness of ways for reducing that dependence, which in many ways is more environmentally sound.
Speakers for the event ranged from local producers who are turning to alternative products or using alternative methods, representatives from the energy sector focused on renewable resources and more.

“We feel strongly that rural areas like this are in need of forums like this,” said KCCB naturalist Scott Moeller.

The idea, he said, stemmed from assistant naturalist Laura Karlen’s research about uses of industrial hemp as an alternative fiber. The plant was widely used prior to World War II, and there was even a facility in Algona to process hemp for use in things such as rope.

“We started wondering, why aren’t we producing more of our own products locally,” Moeller said.

“The vast majority of the fruit and vegetables on our tables are coming from someplace else,” he said, and the coal that fires our electrical plants and petroleum products for vehicles is being brought from other states and other countries.

“We can use our corn and soybean resources to reduce our need to use oil,” Moeller said, and use wind energy to reduce reliance on coal.

About 25 people took time to listen to nine presenters, and also shared in a locally-grown lunch, featuring bison and pork from local producers and vegetables from a Kanawha community-supported garden.

Here is your chance to listen in on the session’s presenters.

Community-supported agriculture

Jan Libbey served up a three-course introduction to community-supported agriculture, offering a true taste of locally grown food.

Libbey and her family, who live east of Kanawha, have operated One Step at a Time Gardens for eight years, providing members with fresh vegetable packages 20 weeks of the year. They also raise pastured poultry to be sold to members of the community supported agriculture enterprise.

In addition to operating her own farm, Libbey is head of the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture, which works to encourage locally grown foods.

Why such a passion for encouraging locally-grown options such as community-supported agriculture, farmer’s markets and on-farm sales?

Eighty percent of the fresh fruit and vegetables are imported to Iowa from other states and countries, she said.

“With that statistic, most of our food dollars get exported,” she said.

Libbey also pointed out that those fruits and veggies traveled an average of 1,200 miles to get to our stores.

“They’re being grown for endurance rather than flavor,” she said.

It hasn’t always been so.

“Historically, Iowa has been much more self-reliant,” Libbey said, making us less reliant on other areas and the transportation system to get food to our plates.

Among efforts she pointed out to return to more locally-grown food is a cooperative near Postville that works to market to institutional customers (restaurants, colleges, hospitals) in a 40-miles radius.

She can be reached for more information at (641) 495-6367;

Verne Reding and Martin Kramer

Two men who raise hogs for Niman Ranch told about the changes they have made to their operations, moving to a focus on production methods that are environment, animal and neighbor-friendly.

Kramer, from Algona, started raising hogs for Niman Ranch in 1999, following the 1998 crash in hog prices.

Reding’s farm is located near Wesley.

Niman Ranch uses a network of beef, sheep and pork producers nationwide to raise meat in strictly-controlled protocols based on humane treatment and quality product. The meat is marketed to restaurants nationwide, and is also available directly through a website market.

Arlyn Valvick

Concerned about the trends he was seeing in reliance on chemicals and on genetically-modified crops in traditional farming, northern Kossuth County farmer Arlyn Valvick took a chance in 1998 and put acres being taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program into organic crop production.

There is extra effort involved in raising certified organic crops (his include food-grade soybeans, corn, small grains and alfalfa), with lots of paper work and extra labor, but it is worth it, he said.

“The rewards far outweigh what’s involved in it,” Valvick said. “The markets have opened up and gotten a lot closer to me now.”

Valvick said that demand for organically-grown crops is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year, while actual organic production is growing at only 12 percent, meaning there is a tremendous opportunity at this point.

Why be cautious about how we use the land we have available for production? Valvick used an apple to demonstrate how much land we really do have for food production. He first quartered the apple representing the world; three-quarters is water. That quarter is then quartered (now down to 1/16ths) — one quarter desert, one quarter tundra, one-quarter too steep to farm. The remaining 1/16th is again quartered (down to each piece equaling only 1/64th of what you started with); of that, only one quarter is suitable to live on or farm. Take off the peel — that is the land actually being farmed for food production today.

Steve Bode

A different kind of red meat is being produced on Steve Bode’s farm just west of Algona — bison.

Bode, currently president of the Iowa Bison Association, raises about 20 calves a year, selling the heifers in the fall for breeding stock and typically feeding the bulls for meat production.

Most buffalo meat, he said, comes from two-year-old bulls.

Bode filled forum participants in on the nitty-gritty of raising bison — their biology, care and feeding — as well as giving tips on what to look for in buffalo meat, other by-products such as skulls and hides, and how he markets the meat he raises.

Linda Meschke

A grass-roots effort aimed at protecting the Blue Earth River Basin, and generating economic growth in the area, is promoting a concept called “Third Crops.”

Linda Meschke, director of the Blue Earth River Basin Initiative, shared the concerns and solutions with forum participants, pointing out that the Blue Earth River actually begins in Kossuth County’s Union Slough, then flows north to Mankato, Minn.

According to the initiative’s brochure for upcoming workshops planned in Fairmont, Minn., third crops could be any of several things:

“Third crops could be new, specialty crops added to a rotation. However, third crops also include practices and opportunities for increased agri-tourism, wildlife habitat, energy production, and a host of other practices that help diversify farms and landscapes, and produce environmental benefits otherwise difficult or costly to achieve. Third Crops could also be traditional crops used for new purposes.

“What are some examples of Third Crops? Specialty crops, such as herbs, nutriceuticals, and specialty vegetables. Organic or sustainably produced crops. Recreational opportunities such as eco-tourism, hunting or fishing. Environmental benefits, such as wildlife habitat, water storage, carbon sequestration, nitrogen mitigation, and a wide range of other opportunities.”

More information may be found at or at

Mon-lin Kuo

A professor and researcher at Iowa State University, Mon-lin Kuo is seeking new ways of using Iowa’s crops and crop residue.

Born in southern China and raised in Taiwan, Kuo came to the United States in 1968 to complete graduate studies in Missouri and California. He joined Iowa State University in 1990.

“In the last 10 years, I have been in a biocomposite research group,” he said, seeking alternative fiber sources to be used instead of wood in composite materials for building and manufacturing.

The most abundant potential fiber in the state of Iowa, he said, is cornstalks.

In addition to his research in the cornstalk fibers, Kuo is also seeking alternative adhesives to be used for wood products, specifically focusing on soy-based adhesives.

Dan Hernandez and Rochelle Heussman

Step by step, from a bushel of corn to nearly gallons of ethanol, representatives of Midwest Grain Processors cooperative led participants on a virtual tour through the ethanol plant near Lakota.

Rochelle Heussman and Dan Hernandez explained each stage along the way, as well as detailing the processes in place for reusing heat energy and water within the plant to maximize efficiency and reduce emissions.

The MGP plant is the largest cooperative ethanol plant in the state; it started operation in November. The farmer-owned facility uses the dry-mill process, which requires about $1.25 per gallon of capacity to build, compared to up to $5 per gallon for plants utilizing the wet-mill process.

Heussman said that using this process, each 52-pound bushel of corn will yield roughly 32 pounds of starch. That starch is then converted into 36 pounds of sugar, which in turns yields 2.6 gallons of alcohol and 15 pounds of carbon dioxide. Another product of the process is dried distillers grain, used as a livestock feed.

The Lakota plant fills five rail cars with ethanol each day, and produces 17 tons of DDG per hour.

Don Irmen

Ethanol is made from corn, and Iowa’s other primary crop, soybeans, is the key component in biodiesel.

Don Irmen, soy biodiesel marketing arbitrage manager with West Central Soy in Ralston, Iowa, said that biodiesel just makes sense.

“There’s a lot of farmers that grow beans, and they’re using diesel,” he said.

West Central Soy is the nation’s largest producer of biodiesel and is seeking to building more plants to meet a growing market.

Irmen talked about the advantages of biodiesel and the industry’s future, as well as touching on the by-products of livestock feed that come from the process.

John Bilsten

General manager of Algona Municipal Utilities and a member of the advisory council for the Iowa Energy Center, John Bilsten shared his industry’s forays into sustainable energy production.

As the Iowa energy industry seeks to reduce the amount of money leaving the state for fossil fuels to create energy, it is looking to many avenues.

One, Bilsten said, is wind energy. AMU is part of a consortium that operates three turbines near Algona, which produce 7 percent of the city’s power needs.

Bilsten also discussed the use of biomass to produce electricity, and a joint project being undertaken in Vincent, Iowa, that will look into using sources such as compressed air, wind and even corn for energy production.

Thursday, February 6, 2003
Food, fiber & fuel: Exploring alternative uses and sources
Shari Hegland, The Algona Upper Des Moines
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