A Flyover Zone That’s Worth a Linger

Drawing Inspiration for the future from the corn belt.

Q: In what town can you visit a facility that maintains and preserves thousands of varieties of open-pollinated heirloom garden seeds, leave your bike unlocked all night, eat locally grown foods, and marry your same sex partner?

A: Decorah, Iowa pop. 8,118

I’ve got news for the coasts. You’re not all that. Well, ok Portland, Oakland, and Brooklyn, you really are all that, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t unassuming towns in the middle of this great nation of ours developing local economies, creating progressive communities, preserving the best of the past, and busting stereotypes.

What I did on my summer vacation was take a road trip through about two-thirds of the country. I saw some great scenery, burned too much gas, camped, swam, hiked, and visited countless gas station restrooms. But not once did I dine in a chain restaurant or shop in a conventional grocery store. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the country is a-changin’ everywhere.

Demonstration Gardens

One of my favorite stops of all was the sweet little Northeast Iowa town of Decorah. The draw was Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that works to preserve biological diversity in our food supply by maintaining, regenerating, storing, and distributing heirloom garden seeds that have been passed down for generations.

Their carefully catalogued vaults preserve treasures such as Turkey Craw beans, a brown bean with snowy white speckles whose seed is said to have been first found in a wild turkey’s craw; Bloody Butcher corn, a drought resistant variety with blood red kernels dating back to 1845 Virginia; and Udumalapet eggplant, a stunning golden and lavender striped variety from India.

Demonstration Gardens

To understand why preserving these varieties matters to all of us (not just gardeners) consider that, according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations), about 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost since the beginning of the 1900s. For example, in China, nearly 10,000 wheat varieties were cultivated in 1949, but by the 1970s, only about 1,000 varieties were in use.

For an example closer to home, in 1900 there were about 8,000 varieties of apples grown in the U.S. Today only about 100 varieties are grown commercially, with just 11 making up 90% of all apples sold in chain grocery stores (source: Seed Savers). This lack of genetic diversity leaves our food supply vulnerable to pests, climate change, and disease. Remember the great potato famine of Ireland was a result of a disease that decimated the one variety of potato grown in Ireland at the time.

Orchard Pig

In addition to the seed vaults, the 890 acre heritage farm boasts demonstration gardens where the seeds are regenerated, hiking trails, a trout stream, a herd of rare Ancient White Park Cattle,  and a few Gloucestershire Old Spot Pigs, who feed on the windfall in the historic apple orchard. (diversity is important for animals too!) There’s also a vineyard, with grapes particularly suited to the Iowa climate. It’s a magical place and well worth a visit. You can also order seeds from their online catalog.

Decorah’s Courthouse

One thing you might not expect to find in a small Midwestern town is a thriving gay wedding industry, but Decorah’s got that too. Remember in 2009 Iowa became the third state (after Massachusetts and Connecticut) to legalize same-sex marriage. Shortly thereafter, local resident, Amalia Vagts, Executive Director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (elm.org), an organization whose mission is to expand ministry opportunities for publicly-identified LGBTQ Lutherans, her sister Rachel, a Decorah City Council member, and some friends launched the website Welcome in Decorah, to provide resources for gay couples hoping to marry in the town.

Though the site lists caterers, lodging, wedding venues, restaurants, and shops that welcome gay couples and their families, it’s a wedding resource for ALL couples wishing to marry in Decorah.

“My sister and I hatched the idea for this site the very day the decision came down,” said Vagts. “We were having coffee and talking about what a great place Decorah is for weddings, and I said, you know, we should create a destination wedding website. Finding the name was easy because it embodies what we wanted with the whole project…we just wanted everyone to know they are welcome in Decorah.”

Thus far 178 same sex couples have married in Decorah, all but 15 from outside the state, with the bulk coming from nearby Minnesota.

True to my heart, Decorah is also a place that supports its local farmers. Not only is there a farmers market downtown every Wednesday and Saturday May through October, but there’s a rockin’ food co-op. Oneota Co-op offers a great selection of local, organic produce, organic packaged foods, bulk foods, an extensive health and wellness section, and even a good selection of local meats, eggs, dairy, and sustainable seafood.

The deli, Water Street Café, is a popular lunchtime spot for downtown workers and residents and offers catering as well. It’s an amazing store, carrying everything a giant Whole Foods Market carries, but in a footprint that fits within a small-town city block. Thanks to the co-op our travel meals included such feasts as wild salmon with organic local squash, grass-fed local rib-eye steaks with tomatoes, housemade mozzarella, and basil—all cooked on a gas stove on our tailgate. We also enjoyed pastured eggs, local multi-grain bread, yogurt, and artisanal cheeses from Wisconsin all the way home. Take that McDonalds.

The orchard at Seed Savers Exchange

On one of our nights in Decorah, we attended a birthday party in a barn, where we sipped local microbrews among the fireflies and chatted with an interesting mix of musicians, co-op folks, professors at the local university, and city council members. Later, we sauntered back to our lodging, enjoying the warm evening air and noticing all the bikes that their owners had left unlocked, leaning against poles, or the sides of garages. One bike even sported a pannier with an unopened bag of potato chips sticking out. It’s really good to get out of San Francisco once in awhile and realize there’s a whole other world out there.

Do you have a favorite flyover zone? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Images: Mrsdkrebs (main), AJ Perling (courthouse), Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.