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