The last week of the 99 County Tour showcased each of the important themes of the monthlong statewide tour. Harboring the American sense of adventure, unearthing the individual stories of small-town neighbors, and emphasizing the vital bond of community collaboration, the 99 County Tour merely echoed the accomplishments of the Heartland’s Hawkwye State.


Days nineteen and twenty magnified Iowa’s intimacy. There’s a unique character combination that seems to mix all too well in Iowa: The ability to be both genuine and personable. This concoction carries to the country, yet Iowegians cook it up quite well. Stop number 79 of the tour was on the campus of Drake University. Here, collegiate minds will fertilize the aronia berry bush, which sits beside a cedar shed in the soon-to-open outdoor classroom and community garden. Complimented by the community garden of Pottawattamie County, Drake University represents the 99 County Tour’s high regard for communal cultivation.

We’ll never forget our friend Connie, who personified such community spirit. After hearing about the 99 County Tour and it’s mission, Connie added her own personal touch to the Crawford County stop. Unsure of where to plant the 80th aronia, the 99 County Tour thanked Connie for her hospitality, as she placed a plant in her own backyard. Such eagerness characterizes each stop at Mills, Page, and Fremont County. Every individual we met expressed a genuine interest in our travels; they sympathized with our struggles and shared in our successes. With each bush, these counties felt that they were an important part of the connection. They invested in each other, and recognized the importance of the larger project.


Drops of sweat fell from the foreheads of the 99 County Tour during days twenty-one and twenty-two. Both these busy days represented the rampant and exciting energy that moved the tour forward. Each day was a mark of progress; as the tour continued, we innovated, adapted, and moved forward. Such an a spirit applies to the state. After planting in both Plymouth and Cherokee counties, the 99 County Tour made its way to Clinton, enjoying Johnson, Washington, Muscatine, and Louisa along the way. Though constantly on the move these two days, the 99 County Tour never felt like a passer-by. In Clinton, the 99 County Tour stopped at StarrMatica‘s corporate headquarters. An interactive online learning system, StarrMatica introduces a country-wide platform for computer-based learning.

With companies like Google and MidAmerican Energy investing in Iowa, the state keeps innovating. Taking advantage of its roots while also exploring new markets and technology, Iowan communities seem to mirror a statewide example. StarrMattica represents a small-town idea with national appeal. Jackson and Scott county made up stops ninety-three and ninety-four, emphasizing the importance of small-town communities. Cultivating creativity, these final stops featured some of the most interesting and enjoyable parts of the state.


The final day of the 99 County Tour culminated the importance of community for both this tour and the people of Iowa. Stopping in Davis, Appanoose, Marion, Dallas, and Guthrie counties, each of the final five destinations of the 99 County Tour represented individual importance in a broader context. Returning to Warren County, the 99 County Tour planted its final aronia berry bush at La  Vida Loca Winery: a restful gathering place for Iowans across the state. Surrounded by friends both old and new, the tour celebrated its final planting on a porch built by small-town hands. Here, we realized the state’s exchange extends beyond a single farm, family, 0r business. It’s about the intersection of community and collaboration, where individuals and organizations big and small, rural and urban stand together, working to grow Iowa. Here at Conversation Starters, we feel honored to have visited all 99 counties of Iowa. We celebrate tremendous stories both in Iowa and across the country through our Virtual Roundtable platform. Next up? Real world roundtables, Community Cookbooks, and other programming from Pennsylvania to New York, to California and more! Here’s to the Heartland. See you on the road.


DAY EIGHTEEN: Weekend Warriors

With twenty-two stops still teasing the schedule of the 99 County Tour, the caravan decided to kick it into high gear with visits on Saturday. Between Sawmill Hollow specialty stops and county plantings, the 99 County Tour worked its way through the Hawkweye State.


The first planting was at the Hy-Vee in Sioux Center, Iowa. Since Hy-Vee is such an important part of Sawmill Hollow’s business story, Andrew wanted to say “Thank You” to a company that has truly helped Aronia berries blossom. 


After Sioux Center, the 99 County Tour headed to the O’Brien County Fairgrounds in Primghar, IA where Figure Eight races raged on by. “All the noises and fast cars were really exciting, I’ve never seen anything like it! I love how many new things I’ve been able to see on the tour,” Conversation Starters team member Lila said as she described the scene. Andrew planted next to the 4-H non-livestock building which lies adjacent to the racetrack. Enjoying the ridge racers as they turn around the track, the Aronia berry bush serves as the 99 County Tour’s own checkered flag. 

On our way home, we realized there are only 20 counties left to go. Reflecting on the previous 79 counties of the 99 tour, it has truly been an amazing experience, and we’ve enjoyed every single location. The Conversation Starters team is ready to run the last leg of the journey. On your mark, get set, and take your seat at the table for this final part of the 99 County Tour. Add to the national conversation by checking out the Conversation Starters Facebook page, our Twitter (@StartConvo) and our Instagram (@growingtheconversation). Here’s to the Heartland!

DAY SEVENTEEN: American Gothic Revisited

To wrap up week three on our 99 County Tour, Conversation Starters popped to Fairfield, Henry, Burlington, Fort Madison, Sigourney, and Keosauqua, IA.


On our way to these six counties, the 99 County Tour passed a sign for the “American Gothic House.” Knowing that the famous backdrop for Grant Wood’s 1930 painting, American Gothic, lie somewhere in Iowa, the 99 County Tour made it a concerted effort to find the painting that, according to some critics, embraces rural America and the pioneer spirit. Just as John Sharp and Grant Wood stumbled upon the Dibble House, the 99 County Tour accidentally crossed the twentieth- century landmark. After satisfying our artistic tastebuds, we stopped by to learn a little bit more about the 1930’s relic. Grant Wood‘s painting reflected a father and his daughter in rural America, and Wood used his sister and dentist as models. He also only sketched the house once before having everything he needed for a very successful painting! “It was such an honor to stand in a spot with so much history and significance for Iowa.” said Conversation Staters team member, Lila.


The caravan skidded to a halt for  the first planting at  the Fairfield Public Library. Fairfield is the site of Iowa’s first Carnegie Library, so after dipping into the reading-well with the local librarians, we took a hop, skip, and a jump down the road to the Carnegie site. There are 1,689 Carnegie libraries in the United States, all built with money donated by businessman and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. Stipulations for a library proposal included a demonstrated need, a provided building site, and an everlasting commitment to free access.


After Fairfield, the 99 County Tour headed to Mount Pleasant, where we had the pleasure of planting at the Mackay Mitchell Envelope Company. We enjoyed speaking with the employees of Mackay Mitchell, and exchanged many reflective and humbling stories about starting a business. From plump berries to slick envelopes, each product boasted a uniquely Iowan story. Mackay Mitchell was really interested to learn about Western Iowa’s Aronia, and the 99 County Tour enjoyed showcasing yet another Iowan success story.


This site was especially important to Andrew because of its connection to businessman Harvey Mackay, who grew the envelope company to where it is now and is the author of one of Andrew’s favorite books: Swim With The Sharks. The Mackay Mitchell group gave Andrew two audiobooks and two hardbacked  novels to add to his Harvey Mackay collection. We left the company employees with some of Sawmill Hollow’s Aronia berry productsand thanked them. Then we were on our way.


Our next stop was in the beautiful town of Burlington, which is home to Snake Alley, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not “Crookedest Street in the World,” multiple World War cannons, and the first American Flag spot west of the Mississippi. It was an honor to add an Aronia berry plant to this mix of important monuments. Spotting some purple polka-dots piping through the fields, the 99 County Tour identified some lavender flowers. Sprinkled throughout the Burlington, these lavenders reminded the 99 County Tour of Todd and Mary Hamer’s Loess Hills Lavender Farm.


After arriving at the Fort Madison Community Gardens, the 99 County Tour was surprised to find out that the magnificent castle-like structure adjacent to the planting location was actually the Fort Madison prison, which will soon be evacuated and replaced by a new structure down the street. On our way out of town we stopped at the Fort Madison replica to learn more about this special town.


As the day drew to an end, the 99 County Tour found itself in Sigourney at the Keokuk County Courthouse. This beautiful structure is at the center of town and  the site of many historic artifacts. Old newspaper articles, an old American flag used for funerals, and this fabric all were featured in the courthouse. Intrigued by these irreplaceable pieces of history, the 99 County Tour grabbed some additional information on the history of Keokuk County.


Our final stop of the day was at the Van Buren County engineer’s office on the edge of Keosauqua. We planted in The People’s Garden, which Andrew Pittz couldn’t have been prouder be a part of.

Next week starts the end of the 99 County Tour. Take your seat at the table and add to the national conversation by checking out the Conversation Starters Facebook page, our Twitter (@StartConvo) and our Instagram (@growingtheconversation). Here’s to the Heartland!

DAY SIXTEEN: The Beauty of Northwest Iowa

Today we were fortunate enough to spend more time in the beautiful landscape of Northwest Iowa. Over the past few weeks we’ve really had time to appreciate all the different regions of Iowa and what makes them each so special.


Our first stop on the tour, after a number of morning meetings and deliveries of course, was at the Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg, IA. We approached a beautiful campus, so we were very happy when the groundskeeping crew joined us in the campus arboretum to assist planting the Aronia berry. The Emmetsburg Campus of Iowa Lakes also features a landscaping program in which students will identify the Aronia berry plant and learn about it as part of classroom curriculum!


After departing Emmetsburg, we took a short drive over to Estherville, IA where we met Sara Montandon, Parks and Rec, Barb Mack, Community development director, and Penny Clayton, City Administrator. As we were planting, Andrew asked about their favorite events in Estherville, to which they all replied “Sweet Corn Days.” After a few more details, Andrew said “You mean to tell me there are six thousand free ears of sweet corn, a sweet dance, and even a duck derby…? You can bet where I’ll be the first weekend in August, as long as the berries aren’t ripe!”


After Estherville, IA we headed to Spirit Lake where we planted at another Iowa Lakes campus. Dee Hiney, facilities management, was able to join us for both campuses, which was great because we got to tell her how pretty the college was twice! Heather Asmus, Spirit Lake campus supervisor was telling Andrew about the nursing program, the new event planning program, and the business school when Andrew smiled, “”How perfect, this is a healthy product, event planning is what made people aware of this Iowan product, and hopefully this is an example of what a small business can do when it loves what it does.”


Our final stop of the day was in Spencer, IA where we met Delray Bredehoeft (Parks and Recreation) and Jan Bredehoeft, his wife. Del taught andrew about this schoolhouse and how the kiwanis organization raised the funds to preserve this piece of living history. Andrew replied, “My great grandmother taught at a one room schoolhouse in Mondamin for years and it’s probably one of the reasons why my mom decided to be a teacher, and it’s really neat what ya’ll have done here.” He added, “I’m sure that grandma Blair and all the other teachers like her are smiling down.”

Take your seat at the table and add to the national conversation by checking out the Conversation Starters Facebook page, our Twitter (@StartConvo) and our Instagram (@growingtheconversation). Here’s to the Heartland!

DAY FIFTEEN: Sailing by the Walter Scott

With some unexpected detours, the 99 County Tour took a trip back in time. Moving past the 1950 Five and Dime, the 99 County Tour caravan transformed into Doc Brown’s Delorean. Ripping through the time-space continuum, the 99 County Tour landed in what felt like the late 1860’s.


Our first stop of the day was at the old-time Fort Museum in Fort Dodge, IA. This recreation of the 1862 frontier Fort Williams, built by William Williams, is a rich cornerstone of Iowa’s history. With it’s model town, including a drugstore, printing press, mimi jail, and it’s gigantic Fort replica, The Fort Museum was certainly a trip back in time. Alan Schafer, Museum director, and Mary Jo, program coordinator at the ISU extension, joined us at this historic location and told us all about the City of Fort Dodge’s founder, William Williams, who was the re-creator of Fort Williams.


Returning to the present day, we visited Clarion, IA’s ISU Extension. There, we chatted with Jessica, Teresa, Kelly, and friends who were in disbelief at the amount of antioxidants in the Aronia berry. At one point, Teresa exclaimed, “Really? The highest antioxidant fruit? I’m going to be out here eating these things everyday!”


After leaving Clarion, IA we arrived at Waldorf College. Waldorf College is a small institution nestled in the center of Forest City, IA. Gary and Alan, the groundkeepers, appreciated that Andrew did all the dirty work. At this point, playing in the dirt is all but second nature for the 99 County Tour.


On the way out of town we stopped to admire Andrew’s ideal RV, something we do pretty often, but this time we got to speak with the General Manager of the Winnebago Visitor Center, Doug Formanek. After exchanging some road stories, we prepared for the next leg of our journey, but left Doug a sample of our beloved Aronia Cayenne sauce. We learned that Winnebago boasts a big blowout during the third weeks of July – and we promised to make our way back for Doug’s festival.


Our third to last stop of the day was at the Britt Public Library where we met Lily and Ethan Hill, two active students at the library. Jeanie Purvis, the city administrator, and Linda Friedow, the library director, also joined us for this planting. They recognized the importance of Lily and Ethan’s investment in the event, and we got to learn all about the unique library programs. The 99 County Tour felt pretty jealous about the programming – a mad scientist contest with crazy goggles, wiry hair, and white lab coats sounded like a great addition to the nationwide Dig Into Reading Program!


The Algona Public Library was next, but this time with a new theme. Instead of Dig Into Reading, Children’s librarian Amanda Pilgrim created an innovative program: Read, Grow, Blossom. Amanda took this theme to heart when she explained, “We put in a community garden and we’re trying to plant everything that’s green and growing!” She also impressed Andrew with her knowledge of plant propagation when she ask “Cuttings or seeds?” Algona’s one-of-a-kind program included 400 students. Amanda supplied us with a “Read, Grow, and Blossom” bag for the road. From this point on, we carry Algona with us to each of our stops.


On our way out of town we were passing the Daily Bread Bakery when Andrew yelled “STOP!, I know these guys!” He then reminisced on meeting the Daily Bread family at the Des Moines farmers market and hearing about them through the dietician at the Sioux City Hy-Vee. After calling Alison Hill from Daily Bread, we decided to surprise the rest of the Daily Bread team with an Aronia berry bush of their own.


Our final stop was at the Scenic Lake Nokomis Park where we planted along the banks. Andrew fell into the fort wilderness feel as he shared, “Huckleberry Finn and a raft are going to appear at any moment!” Reflecting on the lush river life and nineteenth century log-cabin forts, Twain’s Walter Scott might as well billowed past us downstream.


Grab your paddle and ride down the ravine with the 99 County Tour tomorrow. Take your seat at the table and add to the national conversation by checking out the Conversation Starters Facebook page, our Twitter (@StartConvo) and our Instagram (@growingtheconversation). Here’s to the Heartland!

Day Fourteen: Diggers and Detours

Monday set the standard for another incredible week of the 99 County Tour. We visited Des Moines, Rockwell City, Pocahontas, Storm Lake, and Sac City, IA today- continue reading to hear about our adventures on today’s #99CountyTour!


We started our day in the beautiful Capitol city of Des Moines, IA where we stumbled upon a group of students participating in the Second Chance Program. Second Chance provides community service opportunities for previously troubled youth. The teenagers participate in unique jobs around the community such as assisting soccer practices, garden work, etc. The program emphasizes the value of service.


After leaving Des Moines, the 99 County Tour traveled to Rockwell City, IA where we arrived at a castle. It was similar but less permanent to those in Ida Grove. This unique “Kid’s Kingdom” was actually crafted by members of the Rockwell City, IA community.


Around midday, we arrived in Pocahontas, Iowa’s “Princess City.” The City Hall shared a facility with the Police Department and local community center. We really enjoyed planting at such a central part of the community; though you couldn’t literally “paint with all the colors of the wind,” Pocahontas County radiated with history and vibrant neighborhoods.


We were sad to leave a town with such a glorious title of, “Princess City,” but as soon as we pulled up to Buena Vista University, we were immediately uplifted. This Storm Lake, IA campus rests on the edge of a magnificent lake. It’s scenery, buildings, and landscaping are absolutely remarkable and we couldn’t wait to add an Aronia berry bush to this already beautiful location.


At the planting we were joined by representatives of Buena Vista’s communications department and their unmistakable groundskeeping crew. Andy Taylor, from BVU, summed-up the importance of what the 99 County Store means, “I think this is great. Doing something special and unique is so important because otherwise everything becomes just run of the mill.” We couldn’t agree more, which is why we were so happy to include our unique Aronia berry bush to this oasis in Northern Iowa.


Our day just kept getting better as we arrived in Sac City at the Public Library. Little did we know we were walking into one of the biggest “Dig Into Reading” programs we’ve seen yet. Brandie Ledford, the library director, explained that the program currently homes 140 students in addition to, “programming for every age group of the library.” The Conversation Starters team truly appreciated Sac City library’s commitment to the Dig Into Reading theme for all age groups!


Meanwhile, Conversation Starters team member, Lila, found herself buried in a reading cave. The only light at the end of the tunnel was a shovel, an ACE watering can, and a carton of Aronia berry plants which safely led her back outside to farmer Andrew Pittz, Director Brandie Ledford, and newspaper editor Dale Wegner.


During the planting, Andrew asked Brandie and Dale what kinds of things Sac City was most known for. Brandie told Andrew about the most preserved Chautauqua Building in Iowa, located just across the river. Welcoming the detour, the 99 County Tour added an unexpected stop to its schedule.


Chautauqua buildings were known for housing speakers, poets, artists, musicians, and other creative thinkers throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. We enjoyed spending time at such an enlightening landmark – yet another stamp of Iowa’s cultural history.

With little more than 30 counties to go, the 99 County Tour is hitting its peak. Take your seat at the table and add to the national conversation by checking out the Conversation Starters Facebook page, our Twitter (@StartConvo) and our Instagram (@growingtheconversation). Here’s to the Heartland!

Day Thirteen: Gems and ‘Jewells’

The 99 County Tour road warriors packed up their bags, grabbed a cup of coffee, and moseyed on over to the macadam for seven more stops of the 99 County Tour.


Our first stop of the day was at the Toledo Public Library where we admired the beautiful architecture. The library was built during the WPA program and houses many great books. It also serves as a touchpoint for the community, and Andrew said “it was an honor to plant an Aronia berry here.”


Next, we arrived in Osage, IA where we planted at the city hall. We shared stories about the Healthiest State Initiative, what Osage was already partaking in. We also had a blast meeting and greeting local store owners. Osage truly had a beautiful main street.


Around midday we found ourselves in Worth County after our planting at the Northwood City Hall. Rose, who planted with us at the City Hall, insisted that we visit the fairgrounds where we found beautiful flowerbeds and young people caring for their horses. This community is carrying on a rich tradition of equestrian activities, and it was great to see these young expert riders having a wonderful time.

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After admiring the beautiful horses, we traveled on to Mason City, IA where we planted at the Library. The Mason City Globe Gazette already published an article called Berries Are A Farmer’s Way of Saying Thanks to Iowa, in which Andrew stated, “It was great to connect with the library here in Mason City, see the Frank Lloyd Wright hotel, and I have already marked my calendar for next year’s North Iowa Band Festival,” he said.”


The Hampton, IA Public Library was next. The librarian had great reading programs in Hampton, but Andrew also enjoyed hearing successful small business stories in the community and sharing about Aronia berry planting with the potential Aronia berry planters in Hampton.


As our day was drawing to a close, we stopped by the First United Methodist Church in Iowa Falls, IA. For Andrew, this stop on the 99 County Tour wasn’t all to unfamiliar – he had been baptized at this church. Iowa Falls provided a special spot for the 99 County Tour.


Our last stop of the day was in Jewell, IA at an ice cream shop called Sweet Treats. This was very fitting since Sweet Treats was the first ice cream shop to carry organic Aronia berries! Andrew was feeling punny as he teased, “Sweet Treats is a ‘Jewell’ of a business. But seriously – you’ve got a great family owned business, and whether they’re selling their product at the farmers market or at their ice cream parlor on the farmstead, you’re going to be saying: I scream, you scream, we all scream for Sweet Treats Aronia Berry Ice Cream.” Sweet Treats has a great story to tell, and the 99 County Tour enjoyed tasting a bit of their success.

The 99 County Tour loves setting records: That was 14 stops in two days – the best two-day string we have completed thus far. Get ready for next week to take your seat at the table and add to the national conversation by checking out the Conversation Starters Facebook page, our Twitter (@StartConvo) and our Instagram (@growingtheconversation). Here’s to the Heartland!