Learning About Agricultural Production in America’s Heartland

On a trip that lasted three weeks and covered 5,900 miles, six students enrolled in the class “U.S. Agricultural Production Systems” learned firsthand how America produces its food, and why getting it from farm to table is a complex process.

An Amish farmer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania 'tedding' (fluffing) hay with mules to dry the hay before baling. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

An Amish farmer in Lancaster, Pa., ‘tedding’ (fluffing) hay with mules to dry the hay before baling. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Traveling in a 12-passenger van and accompanied by Tom Morris and Karl Guillard, both professors of agronomy in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, they visited nine farms and 14 farm support businesses, from Pennsylvania to Wyoming.

“How we produce our food is a popular topic, and classroom experience goes only so far towards explaining the details,” Morris says. “I feel strongly that before any coherent discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of current production methods can occur, students need to get out in the heartland to see how things really work. They need to throw their mental model of what they think agriculture is all about on the ground so it breaks into pieces. Then they need to reassemble that model and recalibrate their brains.”

For this reason, he offered the trip as an additional ‘hands-on’ component to his class on agricultural production systems. The class is one of four new courses the plant science department is offering about sustainable agriculture and agroecology.

(L-R) Jennifer Kruzansky '14 (CAHNR), Molly Deegan '15 (CAHNR), and Ph.D. student Julie Campbell meeting some of the piglets at the Friest Farm in Radcliffe, Iowa.

From left, Jennifer Kruzansky ’14 (CAHNR), Molly Deegan ’15 (CAHNR), and Ph.D. student Julie Campbell meet some of the piglets at the Friest Farm in Radcliffe, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Andrew Brown ’14 (CAHNR), an environmental soil science major who will begin graduate studies in hydrology and agronomy at the University of California-Davis in the fall, says the group got to talk with a wide range of people working on different aspects of agriculture.

“Everywhere you go, the challenges of agricultural production are slightly different,” he says. “It was great to talk with experts in different fields, and I feel the trip provided me with a scaffold on which I can hang all these bits of knowledge I acquired.”

Students saw the inside of a large storage building during a tour of a fertilizer plant at the Farmers Cooperative Company in Farnhamville, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Students see the inside of a large storage building during a tour of a fertilizer plant at the Farmers Cooperative Company in Farnhamville, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Students were introduced to a subsurface drip irrigation system for growing corn in the Central Platte River Valley of Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Students were introduced to a subsurface drip irrigation system for growing corn in the Central Platte River Valley of Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)


Initial stops were made at the Rodale Research Institute’s organic research station in Kutztown, Pa., and at a small Amish dairy farm in nearby Lancaster. As the group moved west, the land got flatter and the farms bigger, including a 2,900 acre grain farm and a 5,000 head dairy farm in the Maumee River Valley of northwest Ohio. By the time they visited the expansive 72,000 acres of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, and the enormous 100,000 head-capacity beef cattle feedlot on the plains of eastern Colorado, the group was entirely familiar with the open skies and seemingly endless vistas that characterize Middle America.

Jeff Edwards, University of Wyoming Extension Educator at the James C. Hageman Research Center in Lingle, Wyo. (right), explained the operation of a high tunnel growing facility. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Jeff Edwards, right, University of Wyoming Extension Educator at the James C. Hageman Research Center in Lingle, Wyo., explains the operation of a high tunnel growing facility. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

A replica of a sod house at the Prairie Museum in Colby, Kan., in the heart of America's Wheat Belt. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

A replica of a sod house at the Prairie Museum in Colby, Kan., in the heart of America’s Wheat Belt. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)


Molly Deegan ’15 (CAHNR), vice president of the Real Slow Food Club on campus, was wary about a planned visit to Monsanto, given the company’s predominantly negative image in the media.

After meeting some of their scientists, however, she says, “They turned out to be a sensible company doing a lot of interesting research. … As we made various stops, it became obvious that issues related to food production are not black and white.”

Mark Lindvall (left) of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge identified prairie plants during a walk at the refuge. The refuge leases grassland to the Rocking Arrow Ranch in Nebraska for their cattle to graze. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Mark Lindvall, left, of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska identifies prairie plants. The refuge leases grassland to the Rocking Arrow Ranch for their cattle to graze. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Jennifer Kruzansky and Joe Barrett looking out at the grasslands used by Rocking Arrow Ranch to graze their cattle in the sandhills of Nebraska.. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Jennifer Kruzansky and Joe Barrett looking out at the grasslands used by Rocking Arrow Ranch to graze their cattle in the sandhills of Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Tom Morris)

Added Jennifer Kruzansky ’14 (CAHNR), who will be starting a position with Food Corps in the fall, “The scale of the farms and ranches in the middle of the country was beyond anything I had ever imagined. Everywhere we went, we met good people who are on the front lines of agriculture in this country. This was a totally eye-opening experience.”

The students created two blogs that provide more information about the trip:
usagproductionsystems and USAgproductionstems-First Annual Field Trip