One of the challenges I face as Ambassador is representing to Kiwis who have not yet been there the vast size of the United States and the great diversity of our people, landscape, culture, and politics. I am often surprised when I hear folks discuss America as though it were a homogeneous monolith, as though a nation of almost 350 million people spread across a half dozen time zones — from the Atlantic to the far western Pacific, from the Arctic Circle to below the Equator — could be of one flavor, one template, or one mind. Such a view is a bit nutty, if you stop to think about it.

To highlight the rich fabric of American life and offer ideas for travelers to consider, over the past several months I’ve invited a few of my State Department colleagues to write articles for my blog about their home cities or States, from an insider’s perspective. I started with a two-parter that I drafted myself about Los Angeles and then ping ponged around the country based on which guest bloggers were available, focusing on tourist destinations and places to live that might be of particular interest to Kiwis and Samoans. Quite a few of the places we’ve featured were probably new to you, which is exactly the point.

Click through for image source. So…where do you want to go next?

Where we’ve visited so far.

Thus far we’ve talked, among other things, about the mighty glaciers and wildlife of Alaska, epic bicycle tours across Iowa, glorious rainbows of autumn leaves in New England, leisure resorts and luxury spas in New Mexico and South Carolina, exhilarating and soulful regional cuisines, heritage tours of Virginia, and the exuberant quirkiness of Austin, Texas and Eugene, Oregon. In all, we’ve stopped in 15 of America’s 50 States and 16 Territories and insular Commonwealths. I thought it might be nice at this point in our road trip to review briefly where we’ve been, a bit like looking at photos part way through a long holiday. (Clicking on the title of each blurb below will take you back to the whole original article.)

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA (part one & two),  by David Huebner

My hometown of Los Angeles is immense, dynamic, willful, wildly diverse, explosively creative, and improbably beautiful. A city that revels in its own natural eccentricity and instinctive iconoclasm, it is home to people from more than 150 countries speaking 226 different languages (only about 42% of the population speaks English as a first language). As the epicentre of Earth’s motion picture industry, the City of Angels has a long love affair with imaginative industries; one in every six residents works in a creative industry. The Stevens Institute for Innovation asserts, “There are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers, and musicians living and working in L.A. than in any other city at any time in the history of civilization.”

Click through for image source. A fine December day in L.A.

A fine December day in the City of Angels.

A few of the famous enclaves in the greater L.A. area.

A few of the famous enclaves in the L.A. metro area.

A warm Mediterranean climate draws throngs of visitors and residents alike to our wide sandy beaches throughout the year. Snow-capped mountains, dense forests, wild lakes, and pristine deserts are within easy drive of the city center, providing a wide range of accessible outdoor activities including skiing, fishing, tramping, camping, horse riding, cycling, and just plain luxuriating. Families can head to one of our many amusement parks including Universal Studios Hollywood, Magic Mountain, the Santa Monica Pier, Knott’s Berry Farm, and (of course) Disneyland … shoppers can enjoy our iconic marketplaces including Rodeo Drive, Colorado Blvd., and Fashion Island. It’s not hard to see why more Kiwi tourists already visit L.A. than any other city in America.

SOUTH DAKOTA,  by Adrian Pratt

If you are looking for an authentic experience in America’s heartland, South Dakota is for you. Iconic attractions such as Mount Rushmore, the old gambling town of Deadwood, Rapid City … the stunning beauty of the hills and prairies, the wild bison of Custer State Park, a rich Native American culture … extraordinary camping, skiing, hunting, and fishing … Wild West historical sites, relaxed, friendly small town life. Life is slower in South Dakota, but it leaves visitors more time to experience the untamed West of American folklore.

Iconic Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln look out over the South Dakota heartland.

Iconic Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln look out over the South Dakota heartland.

Click through for image source. In the Badlands.

In the Badlands.

The State possesses a majestic, almost primal beauty.  Badlands National Park draws thousands of visitors each year who come to see one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Visitors to the Black Hills Caves can explore a massive network of caverns with striking geologic deposits, or head to Black Hills National Forest to enjoy the cloud-piercing granite peaks and forested mountains that dominate the skyline of western South Dakota. You can tour the ranch country where the visually iconic Kevin Coster movie “Dances with Wolves” was filmed, or visit an array of quirky attractions such as the beloved Corn Palace.

 NEW HAMPSHIRE,  by Marie Damour

In her guest blog, Marie made the case that New Hampshire is one of the most beautiful States in the Union. It’s a picture postcard kind of place with friendly people, rich history and culture, and a large variety of activities that caters to a multitude of different taste. Mountains, snow fields, rivers, seashore … pristine forests, lakes (and skiing of course, camping, hiking, rock climbing … hunting, fishing, sailing, sleigh rides, dog sledding … the recreational list is almost endless.

Click through for image source. A typical woods road in autumn.

A typical backwoods road in autumn.

Click through for image source. One of New England’s famous covered bridges.

One of New Hampshire’s famous covered bridges.

The stunning White Mountains are the Granite State’s main attraction, with visitors enjoying both winter and summer sports at Mt. Washington Resort at Bretton Woods. The charming mountain village of Jackson is famed for its fall foliage, covered bridge, and lovely waterfall. The 270 lakes and ponds of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region offer travellers to the State an authentic New England summer vacation. Friendly salt-of-the-Earth New Englanders round out the experience, making the State delightful to explore in any season.

 AUSTIN, TEXAS,  by Jessica Rowland

Renowned as the Live Music Capital of the World, the city of Austin features year-round performance events including the Austin City Limits Music Festival, South by Southwest, Texas Rock Fest, and the Austin Reggae Festival. For those of us with an appetite, Austin regularly clocks in as one of the world’s top culinary destinations, with a great diversity of choices including the likes of breakfast tacos from Juan in a Million, bib-required BBQ at the Salt Lick, and authentic Mexican food accompanied by pitchers of margaritas at Guero’s Taco Bar.

Click through for image source. I’ve always loved the sunsets in Hill Country.

A beautiful sunset in Hill Country.

Click through for image source. Roller Derby girls are Texas tough, and it’s a fun sport to watch.

Roller Derby girls are Texas tough, and it’s a fun sport to watch.

Art lovers will enjoy the Blanton Museum of Art, the Arthouse at the Jones Center, and the Mexic-Arte Museum – all world class. Outdoor pursuits abound in Austin, with rock climbing at Enchanted Rock, swimming in natural spring-fed Hamilton Pool, and Lake Travis for water sports enthusiasts. Visitors that venture a little further can enjoy the delights of the Texas Hill Country, which surrounds Austin in every direction. And the city has the best municipal motto I’ve ever heard … ”Keep Austin Weird.”

OREGON,  by David Edginton

Oregon offers outdoor recreation opportunities that rival any on Earth. In the winter, skiers carve the slopes at Mt. Hood and Mt. Bachelor. Trampers and campers explore the State’s eleven national parks. River rafters head to the Rogue River, with its 56km long run dotted with class 3+ rapids. The Oregon Coast offers visitors the 150m tall sand mountains of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, and one of the world’s largest sea grottos in the Sea Lion Caves.

Click through for image source. Trillium Lake with Mount Hood in the background.

Trillium Lake with Mount Hood in the background.

Click through for image source. Part of the beautiful Oregon coast.

Part of the beautiful Oregon coast.

You can finish your day on the coast with a stop at Mo’s Restaurant for some of the world’s best clam chowder. Those looking for a more urban feel can head to Portland for the Oregon Brewers Festival or the annual Rose Parade. Then head south to Eugene for a slice of delicious Track Town pizza while enjoying the city’s annual festival – the Eugene Celebration. An outdoor paradise, with urban sophistication – Oregon has it all.

MAINE,  by Sarah Flewelling

Setting foot in Maine is like walking into a fairytale. You will find yourself in the midst of charming coastal towns, enchanted countryside and a host of quirky personalities. The most discerning outdoor enthusiasts can find peace in the massive, uninhabited Baxter Park, highlighted by Mt. Katahdin, where the unchecked woodlands are a hunter’s paradise.

Click through for image source. Part of the stunning Maine seacoast.

Part of the stunning Maine seacoast.

Click through for image source. Moose, the ubiquitous official State animal of Maine.

Moose, the ubiquitous official State animal of Maine.

If you’re not into hiking or hunting, head to Sugarloaf Mountain for one of the longest ski runs east of the Mississippi River, or travel to one of the coastal towns to gorge on seafood (or moose burgers), experience some of the best local breweries in America and take a ferry ride to the smaller islands off the coast of Maine. The State is world famous for lobster, and timing your trip around the Lobster Festival is recommended. Maine is one of the last untamed frontiers in America, and its seasons offer a magnificent diversity of activities, festivals and scenery, none of which is to be missed.

NEW MEXICO,  by Lynda Hinds

New Mexico is a place where simple activities become rich, life-altering experiences. Arid flatland and cozy forests positioned atop gently rolling hills stretch impossibly far into a distant horizon, where colossal mountains burst forth like craggy giants. Visitors can pay tribute to the past by visiting the home of the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid, or travel along Route 66, known as the Main Street of America. More spirited adventurers may choose to view the world from the seat of a hot air balloon during the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

Click through for image source. New Mexico’s iconic Shiprock.

New Mexico’s iconic Shiprock.

Click through for image source. At the annual Taos Pow Wow.

At the annual Taos Pow Wow.

Those seeking an “out-of-world” experience can head to Roswell, the site of the infamous (yet still unconfirmed) alien landing.  If up isn’t so much your cup of tea, travelling below the Earth’s surface in the Carlsbad Caverns rewards all visitors with a magnificent expanse of rock formations. Or you could simply bask in the glory of the sun in the White Sands National Monument, atop great dunes of brilliant white grains.

ARKANSAS,  by Dana Deree

Any state that can produce Johnny Cash, Sam Walton, Bill Clinton, and Maya Angelou clearly has something going for it. Arkansas is the perfect blend of interesting people and beautiful places. Among the most extraordinary locations to see are Blanchard Springs Caverns and Mystic Caverns, examples of the many subterranean wonders found in the State. Or stand atop Whittaker Point – an iconic outdoors scene and possibly the most photographed rock in the state. Arkansas’ capital city, Little Rock, is only 50 miles from Hot Springs – a mountain, city, national park, and an unforgettable experience all rolled into one. Arkansas – the Natural State – has it all.

Click through for image source. Feeling at peace over Whitaker Point.

Feeling at peace over Whitaker Point.

Click through for image source. Deep in netherworld of Blanchard Springs Caverns.

Deep in netherworld of Blanchard Springs Caverns.

From the heights of Mount Magazine to the otherworldly depths of Fitton Cave, Arkansas’ scenic beauty stands testament to the interaction between the elements. Countless rivers and streams dot the landscape, along with waterfalls, hot springs, mountains, dense forests, and grand scenic vistas. It is an outdoor wonderland, the ideal place to breathe deeply and explore.  Well-developed recreational infrastructure and welcoming folks make travel easy.

 ALASKA,  by Erin Roberston

The word “Alaska” is derived from the Aleut word for “Great Land,” and is a fitting name for a state that includes five different indigenous peoples with eleven distinct native cultures. Such vibrant diversity makes Alaska particularly attractive to visitors seeking to immerse themselves in America’s rich cultural heritage. Your first stop should be the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which offers traditional music & dance, storytelling, totem carving, weaving, and painting.

Click through for image source. The wild beauty of Alaska.

The wild beauty of Alaska.

Click through for image source. An orca whale breaches in Glacier Bay.

An orca whale breaches in Glacier Bay.

Click through for image source. Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shines above Bear Lake.

Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shines above Bear Lake.

Denali National Park features an abundance of exotic wildlife for visitors to enjoy, as well as Denali itself – a 20,320ft peak, the tallest in North America. Luxury cruising past calving glaciers, wilderness treks, kayaking with whales … scenic railroad tours through the Yukon, guided Arctic expeditions, blue-water yachting … glacier walks, helicopter tours, dog sledding, the surreal romance of the Aurora Borealis … Alaska has something for everyone.

UTAH,  by Chad Berbert

Utah is a land of dramatic landscapes that evokes wonder, awe, and adventure. From world famous desert red rock to the peaks of the Wasatch Range, the diversity of Utah’s geography is both astounding and inspiring. Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks best capture the stunning beauty of the State, affording visitors an enchanting outdoor experience. Alpine enthusiasts will revel in Utah’s 14 world class ski resorts, and can visit a wide range of Olympic facilities from the 2002 winter games held in the State. Utah’s famous Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, and a must see for tourists.

Click through for image source. The iconic Monument Valley.

The iconic Monument Valley.

Click through for image source. Lake Powell, an amazing 160,000-acre natural waterpark where I first learned to water slalom.

Lake Powell, an amazing 160,000-acre natural waterpark.

Utah is home to a thriving arts scene, including the world famous Sundance Film Festival. When all the outdoor activity works up an appetite, tourists can sample great food including unique haunts such as Ruth’s Diner, nestled in an old trolley car in Emigration Canyon. History buffs should visit the Golden Spike National Historic Site, which commemorates the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. And don’t miss the Historic Temple Square, the world headquarters of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

 HILTON HEAD, SOUTH CAROLINA,  by Joe Bergen

Hilton Head Island is the embodiment of Southern grace and charm. A vacation paradise that entices more than 2.5 million visitors a year, Hilton Head is one of America’s premier tourist locales. Golfers enjoy world class sites like Harbor Town Golf Links, site of the RBC Heritage golf tournament. Its warm waters tempt those vacationing with small children to enjoy long, lazy days of summer on the beach, and perhaps spot a loggerhead turtle. The resort town is also home to an extensive network of pathways that stretch for over 150km, ensuring visitors the opportunity to see most of the town from the seat of their bicycle.

Click through for image source. The sun rises over one of Hilton Head’s many wide sandy beaches.

The sun rises over one of Hilton Head’s many wide sandy beaches.

Click through for image source. May River Course in Palmetto Bluff.

May River Course in Palmetto Bluff.

Heritage is also on offer in Hilton Head, including Civil War battle sites like Fort Royal, African-American heritage site Penn Center (one of the first schools for freed slaves), and the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The annual Wine and Food Festival is a must, and no trip to the State is complete without a visit to Skull Creek Boathouse, rated one of the best outdoor bars in America. With culture, history, golf, and beautiful warm water beaches, your family will treasure a Hilton Head vacation for a lifetime.

 IOWA,  by David Edginton

With its warm hospitality, authentic Americana flavour, and beautiful natural scenery, Iowa is a special place to visit. Natural wonders include the mighty Mississippi River, the serenity of the Iowa Great Lakes region, the rugged Maquoketa Caves, and the Effigy Mounds National Monument. Carnival enthusiasts will love spending long summer days at the Iowa State Fair where they can view the famous Butter Cow, or head north to Cedar Falls for the city’s annual Sturgis Falls Celebration.

Click through for image source. An iconic Iowa landscape … moonset over cornfields as far as the eye can see

An iconic Iowa landscape … moonset over cornfields as far as the eye can see.

Click through for image source. The Cedar Covered Bridge.

The Cedar Covered Bridge.

Cyclists can test their mettle at RAGBRAI, the oldest, largest, and longest bicycle touring event in the world. Pella Tulip Time and the Amana Colonies highlight the State’s Dutch and German heritage.  Those looking for a slower pace can spend time traversing the famed Bridges of Madison County. Of course, no mention of Iowa would be complete without a nod to the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville.  A famous line from the movie says it all – “Is this Heaven?  No it’s Iowa.”

VIRGINIA,  by Corey Crane

If you decide on Virginia for a vacation, be warned that choosing between the State’s numerous and tantalizing options may be quite difficult. Rich in both natural beauty and American Heritage, the State is a veritable treasure trove of attractions and wonders. From Mount Vernon, to Monticello, to historic Jamestown, there are more than 120 national monuments and landmarks – a wealth of destinations that will delight any history buff.

Click through for image source. Along Virginia’s beautiful seashore.

Along Virginia’s beautiful seashore.

Click through for image source. Living history at Colonial Williamsburg.

Living history at Colonial Williamsburg.

If natural beauty is your draw-card, don’t miss Shenandoah National Park and the amazing Skyline Drive with 105 miles of vistas and more than 70 overlooks. Visitors also can enjoy Luray Caverns, home of the Stalacpipe Organ, the world’s largest musical instrument. Sun, sand and surf are the order of the day at Virginia Beach, home of the North American Sand Soccer Championship. Roller coasters, dozens of cafés and restaurants make this the perfect place to tiki tour around. There truly is something for everyone in the state of Virginia, from the historic to the spectacular, and a world of sights and sounds between.

COLORADO,  by Libbe Wride

The beauty of this mountainous enclave in America is unquestionable. The State features high plains in the east, adventurous canyons in the west, and the majestic Rocky Mountains in-between. Colorado blends outdoor adventure with urban sophistication. Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place to start your adventure, with ample tramping, fishing, camping and a wide range of other activities readily available. Skiing is synonymous with the state, with iconic runs headlined by Telluride, Aspen and Vail among other world class alpine destinations.

Click through for image source. Alpine glow on the Maroon Bells peaks, reflected perfectly in Maroon Lake.

Alpine glow on the Maroon Bells peaks, reflected perfectly in Maroon Lake.

Click through for image source. Enjoying an exhilarating Colorado run.

Enjoying an exhilarating Colorado run.

Visitors can explore massive sand dunes, or go to Mesa Verde National Park to see the distinctive carved-stone and mud-brick cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo civilization. A stop in Denver offers a splash of urban sophistication and high culture. And it’s important to note that the folks in Colorado practice the high art of brewing. The largest breweries in the State include Coors, Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser plant, and the New Belgium Brewing Company. Denver’s breweries combine to make the city number 1 in beer production per capita in America, and number 2 in number of total breweries.

OHIO,  by Colin Crosby

Nestled in the heart of the Great Lakes, visitors to Ohio can experience a true slice of authentic Americana. In the summer, beachgoers head to the north shore of Lake Erie and popular spots like Cedar Point BeachEast Harbor State Park, and Headlands Beach State Park – the largest natural sand beach in Ohio. Those seeking adventure tourism experiences travel inland to Hocking Hills State Park in southeastern Ohio, and the wonders of Lake LoganCantwell Cliffs and Ash Cave.

Click through for image source. Ohio is home to many of America’s great amusement parks.

Ohio is home to many of America’s greatest rollercoasters.

Click through for image source. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Centre, Taft Museum of Art and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre will appeal to visitors looking for a more urban experience.  Families can enjoy a full day’s activities with the kids at the Cedar Point and King’s Island amusement parks, among the best in the nation.  Add to that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and you can see why Ohio is a must stop on your next trip to the heartland of America.

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There is a lot more to see and do in the United States, so where would you like to go next?

If you let me know what you are interested in, I will happily find a colleague somewhere in the State Department who can write about the topic from an insider’s perspective. Whether it’s a city, State, ecosystem, outdoor activity, indoor pleasure, culture, cuisine, or special interest, I would be happy to add your suggestion to our American road trip itinerary. I would also welcome guest articles for this series directly from readers, but please contact me first about your interest. (I would particularly like to identify guest bloggers about American Samoa and Puerto Rico.)

So…where do you want to go next?

So … where do you want to go next?

Last year approximately 200,000 Kiwis (and many Samoans) visited the U.S. I have not debriefed all of them, but the folks with whom I have spoken seemed to really enjoy themselves. A lot of the first-time travelers, including several reporters and political figures, were positively, warmly, and even greatly surprised by what they saw and experienced. That’s no surprise to me, which is why one of my goals as Ambassador is to increase significantly the number of people from here who travel to the United States on vacation, for business, or to attend college or university.

When considering or planning a visit to the United States, take a look at Discover America, a great source of ideas and information. If you have particular locations in mind for your trip, each of our States and many of our cities have official tourism websites to which you can easily google. You can check out my Travel USA board on Pinterest for ideas if you don’t have a particular holiday or location yet in mind.

As to logistics, see Getting a Visa is Easier than You Think or our official portal on non-immigrant visas to learn just how straightforward it is to get to America. If you are a Kiwi currently studying in a tertiary education institution (or graduated less than a year ago), read my Twelve Month Work and Travel Program blog article to discover a particularly exciting, easy, and potentially very productive way to have a game-changing overseas experience.

Any questions, just ask. And stay tuned for the next stop on our great American road trip.

This installment in my series of insider guides to great places to visit in the United States focuses on the great State of Iowa, in the American heartland. Our tour guide today, for a second time, is my Embassy colleague David Edginton. Do you recognize the title he selected? If not, he explains near the end of the article.

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IS THIS HEAVEN?  NO, IT’S IOWA.

 by David Edginton

In a previous guest post I talked about Oregon, where I grew up and went to university. In 1993 I moved to Iowa, which became my home for the next ten years. Iowa might not be at the top of your U.S. vacation destination wish list, but – with its warm hospitality, authentic Americana flavor, and beautiful natural scenery (including the mighty Mississippi River, serene Iowa Great Lakes region, rugged Maquoketa Caves, and bucolic fields of corn as far as the eye can see) – it should be.

Moonset over cornfield. Click through for image source.

An iconic Iowa landscape … moonset over cornfields as far as the eye can see.

The riverboat Twilight as it plies the Mississippi River. Click through for image source.

An iconic Iowa waterscape … a historic riverboat plies the mighty Mississippi River.

Roseman Covered Bridge in Madison County, Iowa. Click through for image source.

One of the many covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa.

Iowa’s east and west borders are formed by water – the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, tracked by two national scenic byways (the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway and the Great River Road). Between the rivers lie wonderful, diverse, renowned, and sometimes quirky travel destinations, including the birthplace and Presidential library of U.S. President Herbert Hoover, Dutch and German heritage communities, the world’s largest statue of a bull, the famous covered bridges of Madison County, and – of course – the iconic baseball diamond from the movie Field of Dreams.

Nestled amidst the States of Minnesota to the north, Missouri to the south, South Dakota and Nebraska to the west, and Illinois and Wisconsin to the east, Iowa truly sits at the crossroads of America. At 145,743 square kilometers, the State is roughly the same size as the South Island of New Zealand. We have just over 3 million residents, largely living in small towns and rural areas. (Our largest city, the capital of Des Moines, has just over 205,000 people.) We are an independent sort, and our State motto is “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.”

The Iowa flag. Click through for image source.

The Iowa flag.

Iowa’s nickname, the Hawkeye State, was adopted around 1838, before the territory was even granted statehood. The moniker appears to have originated when when James G. Edwards changed the name of his newspaper to The Hawk-Eye and Iowa Patriot in tribute to great Chief Black Hawk. Black Hawk was a leader and warrior of the Sauk Native American tribe who had won the respect of friends and foes alike during the Black Hawk War of 1832.

Native Americans have inhabited Iowa for more than 13,000 years, including the Ioway, Sauk, Meskwaki, Sioux, Potawatomi, Oto, and Missouri tribes. The Sauk and Meskwaki are associated with a millenium-old cultural phenomenon along the Upper Mississippi River known today as “effigy mounds.” The regional tribes of the time built mounds of earth in the shapes of birds, bear, deer, bison, lynx, turtles, panthers, or water spirits. Native American lore describes the mounds as ceremonial and sacred sites. Archeologists believe the mounds delineated territories of choice gathering and hunting grounds.

Aerial photograph of the Marching Bear Group, Effigy Mounds National Monument. Click through for image source.

Aerial photo of the marching bear group in Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Effigy Mounds National Monument, located just north of the tranquil Mississippi River town of Marquette, preserves 200 of these early Native American earthen mounds. The park has 14 miles of hiking trails and is only accessible by foot in order to prevent deterioration of the site. Park rangers give guided tours and prehistoric tool demonstrations from June to September. It is a must-see when visiting the State.

European exploration was first recorded in 1673 when Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet were dispatched by the French governor of Canada to explore the upper Mississippi River region. On June 17, 1673 they arrived at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, thus becaming the first Europeans to lay eyes on what would become the State of Iowa. One of Iowa’s premier state parks — Pikes Peak State Park overlooks this spot and is a popular summer destination for camping and hiking.

The Marching Bear Group at Effigy Mounds National Monument.  Click through for image source.

Autumn in Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Beginning in the 1830s American settlements began rapidly appearing in the Iowa Territory as homesteaders came west from the Atlantic seaboard, and by 1846 Iowa had become the 29th State admitted to the Union. By the 1860s, Iowa had become an agricultural powerhouse, supplying huge quantities of food to the rest of the growing nation.

Today, almost 90% of Iowa’s land area is still devoted to agricultural, which remains the largest industry. Iowa ranks first among the 50 States in corn, soybean, pork, and egg production, and 2nd in red meat production, net farm income, and overall agriculture export value. Iowa produces about a quarter of the country’s ethanol and biodiesel fuel. Farming is complemented by vibrant manufacturing, finance, research, and high tech sectors.

Warm greetings from those who make the trip via road into the great state of Iowa.

Typically warm Iowa greetings.

Among Iowa’s notable sons and daughters are a U.S. President (Herbert Hoover), Lord of the Rings lead actor Elijah Wood (which makes sense, given how much Iowa looks and feels like the Shire), the iconic John Wayne, St. Louis Rams star quarterback Kurt Warner, a U.S. Vice President (Henry Wallace), polling icon George Gallup, and five Nobel prize winners. Renowned African-American inventor and scientist George Washington Carver studied and then taught at Iowa State Agricultural College (later renamed Iowa State University) in Ames.

I lived in Cedar Falls from 1993 to 2003 and loved every minute of it. Established in 1845 as Sturgis Falls, the city honors its founders each year with a three-day celebration that bears their names, the Sturgis Falls Celebration. It’s the kind of typical American festival seen in small towns and cities across the country throughout the summer, featuring great food, live music, carnival rides, picnics, plenty of community spirit, sports, and a parade right down Main Street.

Downtown Cedar Falls. Click through for image source.

Downtown Cedar Falls.

Downtown Cedar Falls has been nationally recognized as a Great American Main Street, as well as one of the National Historic Trust’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations. Brick sidewalks, public artwork, and vintage lamp posts line the vibrant, historic district where you can enjoy shopping, dining, and entertainment. If you find yourself there and hungry, try my favorite restaurant, Montage, with its award-winning wine cellar. (I recommend either the Southwestern lime chicken or the piñon crusted grouper. And if you crave a taste of home, they have Marlborough-based wines in stock.)

Cedar Falls is also a college town, with the highly regarded University of Northern Iowa (UNI), one of the State’s three main public-fundedtertiary schools. The university is consistently named one of the “Best in the Midwest” by the Princeton Review and has ranked second for twelve consecutive years on the list of best regional Midwest universities by U.S. News & World Report. UNI’s teacher education and accounting programs are considered to be among the best in the nation. (If you are interested in learning more about UNI, contact our Educational Advisor Drew Dumas.)

Historic Lang Hall, built in 1901, it is the oldest remaining classroom building on campus. Click through for image source.

110-year-old Lang Hall on the UNI campus.

Iowa’s State capital and largest city is Des Moines, named after the Des Moines River that cuts through the downtown. (The French Rivière des Moines literally means the River of the Monks.) The city has a population of about 205,000, with a greater metropolitan area of approximately 580,000 residents spread across five counties.

The Des Moines metro area has a strong economy led by finance, insurance, services, and trading companies. Forbes magazine ranked it the best place for business in 2010 and 2011, as well as the best city in America for young professionals. It’s also a beautiful, vibrant place with a strong art and culture sector, great restaurants, superb botanical gardens, and one of the most visually stunning State Capitols in the nation.

Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines. Click through for image source.

Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines.

Set atop a hill, the Iowa State Capitol offers a panoramic view of the city’s downtown and surrounding landscape. The building was constructed between 1871 and 1886, and is the only five-domed capitol building in the country. Among its many stunning features are great windows, high ceilings, and a towering central dome covered with 23-carat gold. I worked as an intern in the Capitol 1991 when I was pursuing my degree in political science.

While living in the city, one of my favorite spots for a study break was the indoor Des Moines Botanical and Environmental Center. Set on the east bank of the Des Moines River, the 5.7 hectares center is one of the most popular tourist sites in the State, with tropical and sub-tropical plants, cacti, succulents, and exotic orchids all collected within a huge geodesic dome. Large koi, white catfish, turtles, and free-flying birds are also housed within the dome.

Why eat with a fork when you can have your food on a stick?  Click through for image source.

Why eat with a fork when you can have your food on a stick?

If you are going to be in Des Moines in August, be sure to visit the Iowa State Fair. A true American classic, the extravaganza inspired the novel State Fair, a broadway musical, and three motion pictures. It draws more than a million visitors each year to enjoy many hundreds of food stalls and exhibitors, 50 different foods on-a-stick, stomach-churning midway rides, a double Ferris wheel, sugar-dusted funnel cake, live country music, and much more.

The Fair places a great deal of emphasis on the agricultural culture of the State, and the program includes the traditional competitions for the largest farm animals — the Big Boar, Big Ram, Super Bull, Largest Rabbit, and even Heaviest Pigeon. There are also livestock shows for sheep, swine, beef and dairy cattle, horses, goats, llamas, rabbits, and pigeons, as well as cat and dog shows. A whopping 30,000 blue ribbons are awarded each year.

Tractor dancing at the Iowa State Fair. Click through for image source.

Tractor dancing at the Iowa State Fair.

For us humans, there are hog-calling, cow-chip tossing, husband-calling, pigeon rolling, rooster crowing, pie eating, monster arm-wrestling, outhouse racing, and many other competitions. You can enjoy the vast baking, handicrafts, and agricultural displays. And you can’t miss the world-famous Butter Cow, an Iowa State Fair staple since 1911.

Yes, the full-sized cow is carved each year out of more than 600 pounds (272 kilos) of creamy delicious Iowa butter, as are a variety of companion sculptures in the same exhibition hall. The array of other butter sculptures varies each year and has included Jesus and the Last Supper, Elvis, Grant Wood’s American Gothic figures, John Wayne, the Peanuts comic strip characters, and Snow White & the Seven Dwarves.

2012 Butter Cow sculpture at the Iowa State Fair. Click through for image source.

The 2012 Butter Cow sculpture at the Iowa State Fair.

Other great excursions for visitors and residents alike year-round are to towns and villages of European immigrant heritage that have retained their distinct cultures and traditions, including the Dutch-origin town of Pella, the German Pietist communities at Amana, and the Amish communities around Bloomfield.

Today, the landscape in Pella remains distinctly Dutch, with windmills and abundant tulip gardens that help to set the scene. For three days each year in May, Pella transforms itself into Holland in America as it hosts Pella Tulip Time, an annual celebration of the town’s Dutch ancestry. The festival features town residents wearing Dutch attire, parades, traditional Dutch foods, vintage crafts, and tulips. Lots of tulips.

In Pella. Click through for image source.

In Pella.

The Amana Colonies are seven villages established by German Pietists and dedicated to communal living. By holding to specialized handcrafts, sustainable living, and traditional German farming techniques, the colonies maintained a self-sufficient local economy, importing virtually nothing from the outside.

Today, visitors can enjoy the culture and heritage of the Amana Colonies, including traditional restaurants, craft and woodworking shops, a winery, a brewery, and an array of seasonal festivals. I am particularly fond of the Ox Yoke Inn Restaurant, whose ample and delicious meals are served family style, holding true to the original Amana Colonies traditions.

Farming the traditional way, in the Bloomfield Amish community. Click through for image source.

Farming the traditional way, in the Bloomfield Amish community.

You can also combine literature and sightseeing by visiting Iowa’s Madison County. In 1992, University of Northern Iowa business professor Robert James Waller penned one of the great American novels of the later 20th century, The Bridges of Madison County, about a lonely Italian war bride living in Iowa in the 1960s who engages in a love affair with a photographer visiting the county’s famed covered bridges. The book sold 50 million copies and was made into a hit movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

Madison County‘s covered bridges are well worth a visit, even if romance does not ensue. Six of the nineteen bridges remain in original condition and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, namely the Roseman, Holliwell, Cedar, Cutler-Donahoe, Hogback, and Imes covered bridges. You can combine your visit to the area with a stop in the Madison county seat of Winterest, the birthplace of iconic American actor John Wayne.

Cedar Covered Bridge, Madison County, Iowa. Click through for image source.

The Cedar Covered Bridge.

If you are an energetic outdoors type, you can tour the bridges by bicycle. If you’re a serious cyclist, you should come for RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), a seven-day bicycle ride that draws recreational riders from overseas and throughout the United States. The event was born in 1973 when two of the Des Moines Register newspaper’s feature writers decided to go on a bicycle ride and file new stories across Iowa – and ended up picking up more than 300 other riders along the way, creating a State-wide sensation.

Now in its 40th year, RAGBRAI is reputed to be the oldest, largest, and longest bicycle touring event in the world. Riders traverse the entire State – starting by dipping their rear wheels in the Missouri River, finishing when their front wheels hit the Mississippi River, and stopping in towns along the way. The route averages approximately 475 miles (760 km). More than 10,000 official riders participate in the event, with thousands of unregistered riders joining the pack each day.

2011 RAGBRAI route map. Click through for image source.

2011 RAGBRAI route map.

The tour has a party atmosphere and is great fun. Each year eight host communities are selected as the overnight stops, and those towns lavish traditional Iowa hospitality on the riders with entertainment, feasts, and other festivities. Many riders participate as part of a team, often with a light-hearted approach. For example, Team DAWG are known for barking as they arrive and leave communities, the Subtle Savages ride in kilts, and Team Dragbrai ride in drag.

If you do the ride, you’ll see Iowa’s great natural beauty. The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America, flowing more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km) north to south. A great way to experience the river is to step back in time and take a cruise on a historic steamboat, paddle wheeler, or even Victorian-era luxury liner, referred to as “floating palaces” by iconic American novelist Mark Twain. Two of most prominent ships operating on the Mississippi are the Celebration Belle and Twilight Riverboat.

Celebration Belle making its way up the mighty Mississippi River. Click through for image source.

Celebration Belle makes its way up the mighty Mississippi River.

Another way to explore the Mississippi is by biking or driving along the 3,000 mile Great River National Scenic Byway, which runs the entire length of the river in the U.S. The Iowa section of the road runs from Lansing to Keokuk and presents a wide variety of recreational and entertainment opportunities, from beautiful scenic views of majestic limestone bluffs, to charming river towns such as Dubuque and Bellevue, to boating, fishing, climbing, hiking, and camping options.

I also highly recommend visiting the Iowa Great Lakes, a group of natural glacial lakes in northwestern Iowa. Referred to simply as Okoboji, the area is a popular tourist destination featuring fishing, motor boating, sailing, swimming, water skiing, and lake-front rental houses. When you visit, you’ll see ubiquitious bumper stickers, mugs, and shirts touting the fictitious University of Okoboji, where many locals claim to have received an education. Festivals and sporting events are held under the school’s banner, including the University of Okoboji World Tennis Classic.

The lazy days of summer at West Lake Okoboji. Click through for image source.

The lazy days of summer on West Lake Okoboji.

Iowa has an extensive system of State parks, forests, and wildlife preserves teeming with abundant, diverse wildlife and recreational opportunities. If you are a bird fanatic, you’ll particularly enjoy the three impressive birding trails, including the Makoke which winds through 8 counties. Perhaps the most unique park in the system, though, is  Maquoketa Caves, a system of bluffs, limestone formations, and 13 caves that provide adventure and a chance to explore thousands of years of geological history.

The huge Dancehall Cave includes walkways and a lighting system. Some of the other caves can only be explored by crawling and climbing. A trail system links the caves, formations, and overlooks. Highlights along the walking trail include the dramatic “Natural Bridge” which stands 15 meters above Raccoon Creek, as well as the 17,000-kg “Balanced Rock.” Each season brings exceptional beauty — from spring wildflowers to the lush greenery of summer to fall’s dramatic golds and crimsons to peaceful winter beauty decorated with snow and icicles.

 

For me, no discussion about Iowa would be complete without mention of the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville. Perhaps it is because I first played baseball with my son there, or that it is emblematic of the perfect calm that one can find on a late summer’s day in the Hawkeye state. The site has always moved me.

If you are not familiar with the movie, it is essentially a story of redemption between a father and his son. “Is this Heaven?  No it’s Iowa,” refers to a scene in the movie in which the ghost of famous American baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by Ray Liotta) has just appeared at the Field of Dreams and – amazed by the beauty around him — poses the  question to the main character Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner). With a knowing a smile – a smile Iowans know quite well – Kinsella responds, “No, it’s Iowa.”

The “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville, Iowa. Click through for image source.

The “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville.

Kinsella would get no argument from me. Iowa is a very special place that has to be visited to be fully appreciated.

The State is filled with exciting, wonderful things for families and solo tourists to see and do, whatever your interests. You’ll be glad you came. Of course you’ll see new sights, take great photos, enjoy the culture, and have a great vacation, but you’ll also end up developing a personal connection with the places and people that you meet. Iowa is that kind of place.

- DE

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For more information about Iowa, things to see and do there, and how to plan your trip, take a look at Travel Iowa, Iowa Tourism, and USA Discover America

Two weeks ago I talked about the oldest tertiary education institution in the United States, private Ivy League titan Harvard University. This week I thought I’d turn my gaze westward, to a highly regarded public university in our great heartland State of Iowa.

Click through for image source.

The University of Iowa was established in 1847 in Iowa City, located in the southeast region of the State. Founded less than two months after Iowa was admitted to the Union, the University has grown to encompass more than 120 major buildings spread over 1,900 acres.

The school has a sizeable student population – approximately 21,500 undergraduates and 8,000 graduate and professional students – but it assiduously maintains an impressively low student-faculty ratio of 16:1. Small class sizes and close interaction with professors are two of Iowa’s great assets.

Described by education commentators as a “flagship public university” and a “public Ivy,” the University of Iowa is widely recognized as a leading research institution and one of the nation’s most prestigious public academies.

Among other distinctions, the University has had 21 graduate programs ranked in the top ten in their fields according to U.S. News and World Report, with various undergraduate programs placing in the top 25 nationally. Asian Correspondent ranks Iowa as one of the top ten international universities in the U.S.

Center of campus. Please click through for image source.

The historic center of campus, which was the first Iowa State Capitol.

Like many public universities (i.e., tertiary schools established and supported by an individual State), Iowa offers a large array of colleges and degrees from which to choose — 11 different faculties with more than 100 distinct fields of study. It is alway a challenge to parse academic highlights, but I think it’s safe to say that the University has particularly notable strengths in medicine, public health, nursing, business, genetic research, hydraulics, speech and hearing, and creative arts, among other things.

Plus, the University contains the world’s most advanced driving simulator, used for behavioral and technology research. There is an innovative engineering communication program. Iowa scientists have made significant contributions to America’s space program, designing and fabricating research instruments for more than 50 successful space missions. The business school has among the most successful job placement and cost recoup records in the world.

Medical school. Please click through for image source.

Part of the new medical school complex.

Iowa’s Art Building West. Flooded in 2008, it will reopen this year for student use.Please click through for image source.

One of the creative arts buildings.

The University of Iowa Campus as seen from across the river. Click through for image source.

The Advanced Technologies Laboratory.

Perhaps the University offering best known outside the United States is the highly regarded Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Founded in 1936, the Workship is a graduate degree program in creative writing designed around actual writing, group readings, peer critique, and public performance. It was the first program in the United States to offer a Masters in Fine Arts in English.

The Workship has produced 25 Pulitzer Prize winners and numerous best-selling authors. In 1967 it launched a special International Writers Program that pulls together a small number of overseas students each year to write, collaborate, critique each other’s work, network, and engage with American professionals and audiences. It’s a highly selective and very powerful opportunity. Thus far 15 Kiwis have attended including poet Hinemoana Baker, about whom I wrote twice in 2010.

The Adler Journalism Building’s courtyard contains a sculpture by James Sanborn, most famous for his work ‘Kryptos’ located outside the CIA’s offices in Langley, Virginia. The words being thrown from the statue are headlines.

The journalism faculty courtyard with a dynamic work by James “Kryptos” Sanborn.

To maintain its small average class size, the University supports a large faculty that contains a great variety of noted scholars, cutting-edge research scientists, well-known authors, Pulitzer Prize winners, former political figures, highly specialized physicians, and numerous members of prestigious scholarly academies.

Notable alumni of the University include Ashton Kutcher, Tennessee Williams, Gene Wilder, iconic American painter Grant Wood, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, Mary Beth Hurt, Tom Brokaw, pollster George Gallup, Paul Harris (founder of Rotary International), dozens of NFL football players, and miscellaneous larger-than-life personalities such as WWE professional wrestling star Ettore “Big E Langston” Ewen.

The University of Iowa Campus runs along the Iowa River, perfect for picturesque strolls. Click through for image source.

The campus sits along the banks of the scenic Iowa River.

Because the University was established and continues to be supported by the State of Iowa (i.e., funded by taxpaying Iowans), the children of Iowa residents receive a discount on tuition. That’s a common phenomenon in public universities in the United States.

Financial assistance, however, is available to all students (including international students) who qualify based on need or achievement. Overall, more than 70% of the students at the University receive some financial aid, and an impressive 20% of all undergraduate students receive full scholarships.

Autumn spans a beautiful several months in Iowa, when the leaves turn to fiery shades or red and yellow.

Typical for American schools, the campus has plenty of open, airy, green spaces.

In addition to acclaimed academic programs, Iowa has the usual American blizzard of extracurricular choices for students. Among its major strengths are sports and athletics. The varsity football team is a perennial Big Ten Conference powerhouse and competitive nationally in the top 25 college teams every year.

The University also has successful Division I teams in more than 20 sports for men and women including golf, rowing, basketball, baseball, field hockey, tennis, track & field, and much more. The wrestling program has produced numerous national champions in recent years.

Please click through for image source.Hawkeye football

71,000 fans regularly pack the University stadium to cheer the varsity football team.

There are more than 450 student clubs and organizations including the usual range of outdoor adventure activities, intramural sports teams, a student-run television station, vibrant Greek (fraternity & sorority) houses, and groups devoted to various political, philosophical, international, environmental, social, cultural, arts, music, religious, and professional interests.

There is, for example, a Juggling Club. The Dance Marathon Club runs 24-hour dance marathons that have to-date raised more than US$ 11 million to support youth with cancer. The Tuba-Euphonium Studio engages in a variety of activities including building immense musical instruments and playing a highly popular Christmas concert.

Please click through for image source.

The Tuba-Euphonium folks at work.

Although I would argue against choosing to attend any university on this basis alone, I should note that Iowa also has a dynamic social scene, legendary in scope, diversity, and vigor. For those who value league tables as evidence of things, Iowa is consistently ranked in the top ten “party schools” by both Playboy magazine and the Princeton Review.

Fortunately, I hasten to remind, that reputation for fun coexists comfortably with a strong, consistent reputation for achievement and excellence.

University of Iowa, in the American heartland. Please click through for image source.

Students gather for Earth Day celebrations.

Like other American schools, Iowa has enduring campus traditions that enrich student life. Just to name a few off the top of my head …

The Unversity’s colors are black and gold, perhaps reflecting rich dark soil producing abundant corn. (More than 90% of the land in the State of Iowa is devoted to agriculture).

The University’s students and sports teams are nicknamed the Hawkeyes, which is derived from the home State’s own nickname. (The State of Iowa has long been known as the “Hawkeye State,” purportedly in honor of great Chief Black Hawk, leader of the Sauk Indians.)

Herky the Hawk enters the stadium amidst band and cheer squad before the football team. Click through for image source.

Pre-game pageantry.

The Hawkeyes have a heated cross-state sports rivalry with the Cyclones of Iowa State University which culminates each year in a hard-fought football battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy.

One of the more curious local traditions is the voracious consumption of large turkey legs — sold by the legendary Chuck from his “Big A#@ Turkey Leg” stall — before the start of football games at the University. Chuck is beloved by generations of Hawkeyes for his largely good-natured heckling of the crowds of sports fans who pass his barbeque pit on their way into the stadium.

Chuck doesn’t mess around when it comes to Big Turkey Legs. Click through for image source.

Chuck pumps up crowds of tailgaters with his Big A#@ Turkey Legs.

Traditions, though, aren’t just about fun, food, spirit, and good-natured rivalry. The most impressive elements of Iowa’s culture spring from its historic, long-standing reputation for inclusiveness, diversity, open-mindedness, and educational innovation.

Iowa was the first public university in the United States to accept men and women on an equal basis (in 1855). It was the first to officially recognize an LGBT/straight student alliance (in 1970). And it was the first university in the world to accept creative work in theater, writing, music, and art on an equal basis with academic research for degree purposes. The philosophy and core values that drove such steps continue to guide, inform, and enrich the University today.

Students enjoy patio cafes and restaurants in Iowa City during their free evenings.

Students can enjoy large numbers of patio cafes, bistros, & clubs in pedestrian-friendly Iowa City.

As I noted earlier, the University is located in Iowa City in the southeast part of the State, an easy drive to the capital of Des Moines or over into Illinois, Wisconsin, or Missouri.

A charming college town, Iowa City has approximately 68,000 permanent residents and a reputation for being passionate about the arts, with numerous music festivals, three live theaters, and regular visits by Broadway touring companies.

The population has a particular focus on creative writing. In recognition of the town’s “quality, quantity, and diversity” of publishing, UNESCO has recognized Iowa City as one of its six world “Cities of Literature” (along with Dublin, Edinburgh, Norwich, Melbourne, and Reykjavik).

If you would like to learn more about the vibrant culture, entertainment options, clean-green reputation, and other joys of Iowa City life, please browse the municipal website.

For more information about the University of Iowa, including the application process, check out its main website or the graduate program website. If you have a particular interest in creative writing, see the Writers’ Workshop page. And of course, you can contact our Embassy’s educational adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov.

Next up in this series will be the University of Southern California, so stay tuned. If there are other specific universities or particular types of tertiary education institutions that you would like me to highlight thereafter, just let me know.

I am pleased to welcome to New Zealand  Dr Pamela Ronald, Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. A distinguished academic and profilic writer, Dr Ronald studies the role that genes play in plants’ responses to their environment. She runs a research laboratory and has, for example, genetically engineered rice to survive flooding and to resist various diseases.

Dr Ronald has been up in Auckland at the New Zealand Bio Conference, talking about how organic farming practices and genetically engineered seeds can contribute to sustainable agriculture and food security.

Pamela with her husband Raoul W. Adamchak. Photo credit Pico van Houtryve, picophotos.com.

Dr Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak.

Her husband, Raoul W. Adamchak, is an organic farmer. The spouses collaborate on interesting joint projects and together authored a book entitled Tomorrow’s Table:  Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. The work was named one of the best books of 2008 by several reviewers and was recommended by Bill Gates for folks interested in the challenges faced by farmers.

Organic farming, genetically engineered crops, and food security are all hot topics at present. They tend to generate vigorous debate, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask Dr Ronald a few questions while she’s close at hand.

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Pamela Ronald. Photo credit Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Dr Pamela Ronald.

DH: Dr Ronald, welcome to New Zealand. Thank you for taking time to talk. I know how busy your itinerary is.

PR:  You’re very welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here in Auckland.

DH:  To jump right in … How did you become interested in plant genetics?

PR:  My mother is a gardener and an excellent cook, and her parents were small farmers in Iowa. I became interested in farming and food through her.

I also spent a lot of time out in the wilderness as a child and developed a great love of plants.  When I went to college, I found genetics to be a fascinating subject, especially plant genetics.

DH: How is it that a plant geneticist and an organic farmer can share enough common ground to collaborate on a book?

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