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Peggy Whitson, Iowa farm girl turned astronaut
INSPIRATION: Astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson, who grew up on an Iowa farm, shared her stories of adventure, perseverance and achievement at 2018 Farm Bureau annual meeting.

From a southern Iowa farm to outer space

Former NASA astronaut and Iowa native Peggy Whitson keynotes 100th IFB annual meeting.

More than 1,000 Iowa Farm Bureau members gathered in Des Moines Dec. 3-5 to celebrate the 100th annual meeting of the state’s largest farm organization. The IFBF annual meeting was the culmination of “The Year of Farm Bureau,” as designated by Gov. Kim Reynolds in January 2018.

This year’s annual meeting carried the theme “A Century Strong.” Farmers attended sessions on issues and challenges facing agriculture and rural communities. They also heard a keynote address from Dr. Peggy Whitson, a former Ringgold County farm girl, who went on to become a NASA astronaut.

IFBF President Craig Hill said IFBF is strong because of its members and sound business decisions made by the organization’s founders and previous leaders. “Our foundation was thoughtfully constructed to withstand the test of time and has been thoughtfully preserved over the decades. I have no illusions that we alone can predict the future; we need only to look back with amazement to the first 100 years of Farm Bureau to know we are in store for a trajectory of accelerated change.”

Innovation paves success
Hill, a Warren County farmer, assured members that while their organization is strong, the path forward that guarantees success for all of Iowa agriculture is paved by innovation. “Technology moves us forward, and we need to get behind innovation and good old Iowa entrepreneurship to maintain our leadership as an agricultural powerhouse,” he said.

“I believe Iowa’s biggest challenge to growing innovation is about raising awareness of the talents and gifts that already exist within our beautiful state. Iowa has been an innovator for years, birthplace of everything from John Deere to sliced bread. The list goes on. … But raising innovation awareness and encouraging economic development in our rural communities is essential. I can tell you with confidence that if we continue to abide by our core values of integrity, grassroots leadership and innovation, we will remain strong.”

How Iowa girl became astronaut
Whitson grew up on a farm near Mount Ayr in southern Iowa and has fond memories of showing calves in 4-H. Whitson said she learned the importance of resilience, teamwork and adaptability while on the farm, and her upbringing inspired her to reach for the moon.

“I remember when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the first person to do so. I remember that historic event because it was the next year that my dad got a pilot’s license. When I graduated high school, it was the first year NASA chose female astronauts, including Sally Ride,” she said. “That’s when I realized my interest in biology and chemistry might be something that would allow me to become an astronaut. It didn’t happen overnight. But I became the first female to command an international space station. Today I tell people, whatever your goals are, set them high. But enjoy the journey of getting there.”

Sharing her story, titled “Dreams Are Possible: Farm Girl to Space,” Whitson captivated the Farm Bureau audience at the organization’s 2018 milestone convention. She also discussed the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) education in schools today for the future of agriculture.

Whitson completed her third and final space mission in September 2017. She is the first woman to command the International Space Station twice. She achieved the most space walks of any female astronaut and spent more time in space, a total of 665 days, than any other American. While she was breaking records, Whitson was also conducting groundbreaking re­­search on subjects with implications for the future of humanity: robotics and artificial intelligence, medicine, agriculture, logistics, and engineering.

“Dr. Whitson’s remarkable life story is an inspiring example for others to follow,” Hill said. “From humble beginnings on a Ringgold County family farm to daring stories of space flight and crash landings in the fields of Kazakhstan, her adventure, perseverance and achievement were a fitting way to round out our centennial celebration.”

Changes in consumer demand
Other speakers and presentations at the convention also emphasized the importance of people involved in agriculture being able to accept new ideas, new technology and adapt to the changing times.

Looking at consumer trends in restaurants and grocery stores, Jessica Dunker, CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, noted that consumers are hungry for unique cuts of protein, and are ordering more beef, pork and chicken when they dine out. 

She said, “Southern comfort food, such as pulled pork, has flourished in top national chains and local establishments alike. Pulled pork use in restaurants increased 66% over last year.”

Reynolds Cramer, CEO of Fareway grocery stores, which is owned by his family, said his family’s confidence in Iowa livestock farmers drives that company’s success. With 123 stores and 11,000 employees, Fareway has added new meat market stores that cater specifically to Iowa carnivores.

“At Fareway, we're proud of not only the job we do, but the job you farmers do. This is why we have quality products of all kinds in our meat case. We know people aren't going to stop buying protein foods; that demand is always going to be there. But as consumer tastes and preferences change, the products have to be marketed a little bit differently," Cramer said.

Encourage economic growth
A seminar on promoting and fostering economic development in rural communities was standing-room only at the annual meeting. Megan McKay was one of three entrepreneurs who shared her journey to success. 

When McKay started Peace Tree Brewing in Knoxville in 2009, her goal was to enrich the quality of life in her hometown, so she developed craft brews, but her business vision was about more than creating a product. 

“It was something we could make in Knoxville. We could create a tap room where the community could gather, we could create jobs, and we could incorporate the arts and enrich our community,” McKay said.

Today, Peace Tree distributes its beer throughout Iowa and in Nebraska and has added taproom locations in Des Moines and Grinnell. Importantly, McKay said, the brewery has created a meeting place in Knoxville where people like to gather. “We wanted to create a spark in our town, and we’ve done that.”

For a look at presentations, award ceremonies and more from the 100th annual IFBF meeting, visit

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