Consumers don't often fully appreciate the well-loved foodstuffs on their table. That's because most of them have never lived or even visited the source of these foodstuffs -- the farm. A recent tour of one region of America's heartland -- central Iowa -- provided me with a small glimpse into the hard work and enormous hour that go into growing and harvesting these products. Along the way, we gathered up our own crop of new products being cultivated for today's health-conscious gourmet consumer.
On the Farm
The Heartland Farm to Table Tour sponsored by the United Soybean Board, the Soyfoods Council, the National Pork Board, the Iowa Beef Industry Council, and the Iowa Pork Producers Association brought a handful of food writers through the heart of Iowa to see farm production, taste freshly harvested product, and learn new ways to prepare familiar foods.
Iowa's landscape holds 32.6 million acres of farmland, with the average farm sized at 352 acres. Among that, 10.3 million acres of soybeans are harvested annually, some are grown for livestock feed, while others are produced for human consumption. There are 3.6 million head of cattle roaming the land, while 15.6 million hogs are housed in Iowa. Iowa and its farmers feed the nation and the world.
Beef: It's What's for Dinner
One the most successful national commodity campaigns, the It's What's for Dinner advertising slogan, has brought beef back to the American dinner table. Now beef producers and their associations are working on new selections and prepared packaged beef to increase consumption.
Beef value cuts include new steaks and roasts cut from the chuck and round, which offer consumers many positive benefits, including convenience, affordability, and versatility. The result of a new cutting approach, beef value cuts take the best portion of what used to be sold as larger multi-muscle roasts and cut them into individual steaks or single-muscle roasts. These moderately priced cuts fall between higher-priced premium steaks and roasts and economical ground beef. Most can be grilled, skillet cooked, stir-fried, or broiled. With names such as Ranch Cut, Flat Iron, Western Griller, and Tender Medallions, these new cuts offer taste and texture characteristics comparable to premium steaks. The Flat Iron (Shoulder Top Blade Steak) comes from the second most tender beef muscle cut from the top blade roast. Each half resembles a small flank steak.
Iowa beef producers have gone a step further in promoting their farm-raised products by forming a partnership for "Iowa Quality Beef" branding. More than 940 Iowa and Midwestern cattle raisers are committed to raising their cattle with corn-based rations at a younger age and for a longer period of time, resulting in consistently tender, flavorful beef cuts. The producers are also processing their beef locally in a state-of-the-art facility in Tama, Iowa. The site features quality assurance programs and food safety equipment, as well as a processing and packaging system that ensures quality.
The beef producers, along with soybean associations have also sponsored environmental programs. The Iowa Soybean Association has formed environmental and agronomic programs designed to secure family farms and local conservation. Programs such as Watershed Management and Demonstration, Certified Environmental Management Systems for Agriculture, and On-farm Nitrogen Network allow soybean farmers to take control of their destiny, while simultaneously safeguarding the environment. Since many beef and pork producers also cultivate soybeans, these programs have a widespread impact on Iowa's agriculture and ultimately, the products that wind up on retail shelves and American dinner tables.
Beautiful rural farms with rolling fields and grazing cattle may not immediately bring the word science to mind, but much innovation and development are happening behind the scenes.
At Iowa State University, young minds are hard at work developing new products for retail in its Food Product Development Program. Researchers there are also studying a wealth of soy projects, while keeping focused on theories such as increasing Omega-3 content in fish, designing foods to improve nutrition, adding plant estrogens to meat and eggs, and increasing pork's nutrient value. Iowa State researchers are leading the way for studies that relate the consumption of soy isoflavens to bone health. Last year, the university unveiled a new soybean that produces an oil that doesn't need to be hydrogenated -- great news for food manufacturers scrambling to remove unhealthy trans fats from their products. The new soybean was developed through conventional breeding practices.
The university works with large corporations and small farmers alike. A recent project studied the pH level in hogs and the resulting meat quality. While campaigns like Pork: The Other White Meat may have led consumers to look for paler cuts of pork, research indicates darker, higher pH pork delivers a higher quality and better flavor. Producers in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota are now working with new treatment protocols to produce this higher quality. The resulting product will be finding its way to retail over the next several months.
The new Steamship Leg of Pork is another new innovation. A semi-boneless roast alternative, the steamship leg is making its way to foodservice and retail outlets. The 23-pound roast is sold frozen and packed in a 12-percent solution of water, salt, sugar, and sodium phosphate. Additionally, new Pork Chop on a Stick -- made famous at the Iowa State Fair -- is making its way to retail channels as producers continue to find new ways to make their familiar product special.
The top seven soybean-producing states in the U.S. are found in the Midwest from Ohio to Nebraska, plus Minnesota and Missouri. That soybean belt produces between 70 and 75 percent of the U.S. production each year. Soybean production has experienced an incredible rise over the past decade. In 1924, 1.8 million acres of soybeans were harvested in the U.S. That grew in 1954 to 18.9 million acres and to 63.4 million acres of harvested soybeans in 1996. Today, more than 72 million acres of soybeans are grown in the United States.
Once upon a time, Americans had to endure tasteless bites of obscure products to reap the benefits of soy. But today, soy is everywhere and its packaged retail products have improved to attain a level of mainstream acceptance.
New products the likes of Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods Low-Carb Bread Mix and Low-Carb Baking Mix are spurred on by innovative soy applications. The products facilitate low-carb diets as they have only six net carbohydrates per serving and ingredients such as whole grain soy flour, flaxseed mill, and high-fiber oat bran. The soy products of today far exceed their tasteless predecessors. New Soy Protein Coatings from The Solae Company provide soy protein-based breading alternatives to make tempting dishes, such as breaded shrimp, vegetables, and more.
And more products are on the horizon. Iowa farmers are working diligently on blending their commodities to create products such as Midwest Harvest Bratos from Wildwood -- pork and tofu combined into a fully cooked sausage that tastes remarkably good. Although they're only available in the Midwest right now, Bratos and other Iowan innovations are making their way to distributors and grocery shelves in every corner of the country.