The intertwined fates of the agricultural economy and the vitality of small-town life were on display recently during the 2023 Evolution of the Heartland tour through Audubon and Carroll counties in western Iowa.

“The goal of Evolution of the Heartland is to bring people who are unfamiliar with rural Iowa and agriculture to rural communities; to experience their main streets, their businesses, ag businesses, tourist attractions; and help them experience the quality of life we have here,” said event founder and organizer Shelly Greving of Emerge Marketing Solutions.

Billed as an immersive rural Iowa experience, tour participants visited a variety of businesses, enjoyed meals prepared by local eateries and met with regional and state economic development leaders.

“I really like the idea of this event, focusing on our rural communities and the agricultural influence and how important it is to incorporate both,” said Adam Hansen, outgoing president of Audubon County Farm Bureau, which was one of the event sponsors. “We definitely see this as an opportunity to tell our story and get more people around here.”

Population concerns

Hansen noted that Audubon County has experienced some of the most severe population decline in the state in recent years. This makes it more difficult for businesses in the region to be fully staffed and has dragged down enrollments in local school districts.

“I definitely see issues with our population, and it would be nice to build new businesses here, expand opportunities and grow our population base, schools and communities,” Hansen said.

Greving said highlighting all that rural Iowa has to offer — that it is a great place to live, work and raise a family — is a big motivator for her.

“What I was told growing up is that there’s nothing here, no opportunities, go somewhere else and make a living, you know, go off to the cities,” Greving said. “Because of that, I felt so much passion for my rural community. I wanted to turn that narrative around and make a difference.”

Tours and meetings were held at Brinkman Ag Solutions, Iowa Yak Ranch, Irlmeier Ostrich Farm, NexGen Ag Supply, PigEasy, Puck Enterprises, Templeton Family Farms, Van Wall Equipment and Wiese and Sons Hereford Breeders throughout the day.

About 120 people took part in the event, which trekked between Manning, Audubon, Templeton and several rural sites. 

“As we’ve been looking at growing Iowa, what we want to do is bring people here to experience what we have to offer. We want to show off one of the best parts of Iowa, that the American dream is still alive here,” Greving said.

Rural innovation

Puck Enterprises of Manning was featured as an ag business that went from innovating in a garage to shipping products across the globe.

Jeremy Puck, CEO of Puck Enterprises, grew up near Manning and from an early age helped his father with a hog manure application business. Leveraging that experience, Puck began experimenting with hose designs and manufacturing techniques, as well as rapid hauling equipment manufacturing.

Puck Enterprises now specializes in both facets of the business. It designs and manufactures trailers and other hitch attachments. It also offers a variety of hose lengths and sizes, for use in everything from farming to firefighting. Puck also still offers manure application, using his company’s hoses and hauling equipment, for farmers around the area.

He said the company now employs about 250 people nationwide, with a majority based at the home office in Manning. Additionally, all manufacturing is handled at the Manning facility. One of the newest areas of expansion is high-pressure water transfer for use in fracking by the oil and gas industry. 

“We are always looking for new ways to (innovate) more quickly,” Puck said.