The Iowa Beyond Hay Bales, Corn Fields And Deep-Fried Butter

The Iowa Beyond Hay Bales, Corn Fields And Deep-Fried Butter

1:40pm Sep 04, 2015
As candidates, staff and media flood Iowa, there will inevitably be photo ops with grain silos and bales of hay.
As candidates, staff and media flood Iowa, there will inevitably be photo ops with grain silos and bales of hay.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
  • As candidates, staff and media flood Iowa, there will inevitably be photo ops with grain silos and bales of hay.

    As candidates, staff and media flood Iowa, there will inevitably be photo ops with grain silos and bales of hay.

    Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

  • Mike Draper, owner of RAYGUN, shows off his latest line of T-shirts for out-of-state media in downtown Des Moines's East Village district.

    Mike Draper, owner of RAYGUN, shows off his latest line of T-shirts for out-of-state media in downtown Des Moines's East Village district.

    Clay Masters / IPR

  • Blake Rupe, owner and founder of Re-APP, Inc. at work at Vault Coworking & Collaboration Space in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

    Blake Rupe, owner and founder of Re-APP, Inc. at work at Vault Coworking & Collaboration Space in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

    Clay Masters / IPR

Every four years, politicians and the reporters who cover them spend months in Iowa wooing voters ahead of the February caucuses. There's inevitably a lot of photo ops with grain silos and corn fields in the background, not to mention interviews with weathered farmers who are supposed to stand in for the state's two million registered voters.

Iowans will do plenty of eye-rolling this campaign, but many have developed a sense of humor about those stereotypes. Mike Draper, owner of RAYGUN in Des Moines, has turned cliches about his home state into a booming business, poking fun at the people who make them. At his store, there's a whole section for national media, filled with T-shirts that say things like, "Is there a bale of hay I can interview you next to?"

Mike Draper, owner of RAYGUN, shows off his latest line of T-shirts for out-of-state media in downtown Des Moines's East Village district.

Mike Draper, owner of RAYGUN, shows off his latest line of T-shirts for out-of-state media in downtown Des Moines's East Village district.

Clay Masters/IPR

How campaigns act about — and in — Iowa could matter, according to pollster J. Ann Selzer. If they buy into the stereotypes about Iowa and agriculture, she says, they'll attract a totally different set of voters on caucus night. But if they broaden their scope "and understand that Des Moines is the third-largest insurance capital on the planet, very white collar, lots of people doing lots of different things, there's a whole other world besides ag in Iowa."

Here's what Iowans want you to know about the state:

1. It's not all corn fields

The Iowa of many people's mind may be the dour farmers in the iconic painting, American Gothic, or the corn fields of Field of Dreams. But most Iowans don't live off the land. Just 7 percent of the state's population works in agriculture, said David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University. Two-thirds of Iowans live in cities and suburbs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

2. It's having a diversity boom

Half of the state's population growth over the past 25 years has come from Latinos and immigrants. Iowa's Latino population increased five-fold between 1990 and 2010 to 150,000. The state's African-American and Asian populations have also exploded, according to Census data analyzed by Mark Grey, the Director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration at the University of Northern Iowa.

3. One of Iowa's fastest-growing cash crops these days is wind

The state's prairies aren't just ideal for growing corn and soybeans. They're also perfect for harvesting wind power. Iowa is covered with more than 3,000 giant wind turbines and has the third largest installed-wind-energy capacity of all states, behind Texas and California, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The turbines generate a third of the state's energy — a number which is set to rise as a more major wind projects go online in the coming years.

4. It's a hub for the insurance industry

Visitors to Des Moines sometimes tell Mike Draper, "It's bigger than I thought. You got buildings here?" Draper chuckles, "Yeah, we've got buildings here," including skyscrapers. Thank the insurance industry for some of that glossy sheen. The city is a major hub for the industry and home to 29 life insurers, thanks to a friendly regulatory climate, as reported by Bloomberg News.

Blake Rupe, owner and founder of Re-APP, Inc. at work at Vault Coworking & Collaboration Space in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Blake Rupe, owner and founder of Re-APP, Inc. at work at Vault Coworking & Collaboration Space in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Clay Masters/IPR

5. There's a thriving tech scene

Both Google and Facebook have large data centers in Iowa, and the state is home to a growing start-up scene. Blake Rupe, a 27-year-old who founded a smartphone app that tracks recycling habits, says she chose to stay in Iowa because of the community, and "the cost of living here makes it so much easier to own a business."

Copyright 2015 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.iowapublicradio.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A group of Republican presidential hopefuls will gather in Iowa today for Senator Joni Ernst's inaugural Roast and Ride fundraiser. As the name suggests, there'll be a pig roast and candidates riding motorcycles. It's set out in farm country with corn and cows and stuff - ah, Iowa, right? As Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports, the state might not be the stereotype you think.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: For years now, Iowans have been rolling their eyes at how the rest of the country views their state. Mike Draper, an Iowa native who went to college in Philadelphia, owns RAYGUN, a clothing store in a sleek district in downtown Des Moines.

MIKE DRAPER: I think it was eight years ago, when Obama was first running, we laughed about it because they were setting up something in, like, Western Gateway Park. And they were making sure to get some bales of hay on the stage. (Laughter) And, like, so you're surrounded by downtown redevelopment, multimillion-dollar artwork, but you're like get those bales of hay up there.

MASTERS: The national press leans on stereotypes like this about Iowa during presidential election season. Yes, Iowa is not as ethnically diverse as the rest of the country, but minorities account for a large part of the state's population growth. Also, think this state is a bunch of farmers?

DAVE SWENSON: Ninety-three or so percent of the state of Iowa does not work in farming. They're working in some other kind of job. They're not on the farm.

MASTERS: That's Dave Swenson. He's an economist at Iowa State University. Swenson says there's plenty of manufacturing jobs in the state and increasingly white-collar and service-sector jobs.

SWENSON: Might be health care, might be finance, might be insurance.

MASTERS: Or hi-tech. Both Google and Facebook have large data centers here. And the state is home to a growing startup scene. Blake Rupe is the 27-year-old founder and president of Re-APP. It's a smartphone app that tracks users' recycling habits. She was raised on a farm, has two degrees in international studies and runs her company out of a co-working space in Cedar Rapids.

BLAKE RUPE: The reason I've chosen to stay in Iowa besides just the community itself - although that's a huge factor - is that the cost of living here makes it so much easier to own a business.

MASTERS: Still, agriculture has a large role in Iowa. It's America's top producer of corn and pork. Denny Friest has both on his farm, but he's also got a new cash crop - a few gigantic wind turbines planted in his fields.

DENNY FRIEST: They're running more and more all the time because there is a big demand here.

MASTERS: Almost 30 percent of Iowa's electricity is generated from wind, one of the biggest producers in the country. Friest is in his 60s now but has worked the land near the tiny central Iowa town Garden City since he was a kid.

FRIEST: I, like a lot of people, like some of the things we used to have in the old days. But it's - some things - it's just - it's not going to go back to that because there's a lot more efficiencies in how we do things today.

MASTERS: Now two-thirds of Iowans live in cities and suburbs. Pollster J. Ann Selzer says if political campaigns buy in to the serotypes about Iowa and agriculture, they may limit their appeal to voters on caucus night.

J. ANN SELZER: If they broaden their scope and understand that Des Moines is the third-largest insurance capital on the planet, very white-collar, lots of people doing lots of different things, there's a whole other world besides ag. in Iowa.

MASTERS: For his part, Mike Draper of RAYGUN is hoping to capitalize on those stereotypes. He has a new line of T-shirts made especially for out-of-state media. One says, tell me about Iowa. You have to live here? - another misconception Draper often hears about Des Moines.

DRAPER: It's bigger than I thought. I mean, there's building here. We're like yeah, we've got buildings.

MASTERS: For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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