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February 23, 2012 / HandsOnCorps

Mapping Our Cultural Landscape: Lessons from Iowa

As I hit the six month mark of my VISTA year, it’s unbelievable to me that my term is halfway over, but at the same time, I also feel that I have been living here inIowafor much longer.  Before taking the position of School Engagement Coordinator at the Volunteer Center of Story County coordinating school garden and Farm to School education, I had never set foot inIowa, or even any of the states that bordered it.  I was a liberal East Coaster born and bred, and to be honest,Iowascared me a little bit.  It was the land of big agriculture and it was really flat, and that was the extent of my knowledge.  While those two things are indeed true in many respects (though the Northern and Eastern parts of the state are not at all flat, and very beautiful!), much of what I have gained has been an entirely new perspective on my country, and on the Midwest andIowaespecially.    I have gotten to know individuals who I would never have crossed paths with had I not taken “the plunge” and moved toIowa.  Most valuable to me has been the lesson that wherever I go, I will find not only a community of talented, passionate people that are interested in the same change that I am, but equally important, those that have a different perspective on things, but with whom I can exchange a great deal of valuable insight, and also get along with on a personal level.

There have been many moments in the last six months where I have felt like a fish out of water.  But these moments have also been my most memorable and valuable ones.   For example, the moment I found myself sitting in a room full of corn and bean farmers (each of whom cultivate anywhere from 300 to 3000 acres, and likely inherited that land from their fathers) learning about the nuances of cover cropping in a corn and bean rotation.  Out of my element?  Definitely.  But I learned about much more than the optimal time to kill your winter rye before planting.  That workshop is something that I perhaps could have imagined aboutIowapreviously, but I never would have guessed that in the next rooms, there would be discussions on season extension using hoop houses, and fruit and nut tree propagation.  And that all of these different farmers and non-farmers would later in the evening gather to enjoy each others’ company, and drink a lot of Iowan whiskey.

That has been the most valuable lesson I have learned from my time inIowa– that people are incredibly complex, and that all the broad stroke definitions that we come up with to define different places or different people are at best ignorant, and at worst very damaging.  In the often contentious world of agriculture, one would think thatIowawould be ground zero for the kind of intolerant blame games that are so common.  And that doubtless does happen.  But what I have begun to discover in my six months is that a culture of coexistence and exchange is flourishing here – one that can be an example to us all.  I have been lucky to meet incredibly talented, passionate and above all welcoming and warmhearted people, such as I can only hope to encounter when I move on afterVISTA.  Will I stay inIowa?  Likely no (centralIowareally is quite flat).  But the experience that myVISTAterm here has given me is one that will inform the rest of my life, and has truly changed my perspective on the incredibly diverse cultural landscape that makes up our country.

Kristen Loria

HandsOn Corps VISTA: Volunteer Center of Story County


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