We joined more than twelve thousand people in Indianola, Iowa yesterday for Senator Tom Harkin’s famous steak fry, where the steaks and the speeches were, by and large, pretty well done. Six of the democratic presidential candidates gathered on a hot air balloon field and vied to be the most uplifting speaker in their efforts to woo Iowa voters.

On our field trip to “flyover” country, we brought along a bit of blue state big city bias, but the souvenirs we collected over the weekend forced us to chuck our preconceptions and make room for the reality that Iowa is, in fact, a hotbed of sustainable agriculture.

You wouldn’t think so, looking out on all those amber waves of grain that flood our food chain with high fructose corn syrup and factory farmed animal flesh. We passed endless fields of corn, all of it destined for feed or fuel, none of it fit for human consumption.

And, indeed, the only corn we got to eat all weekend were the peanut butter-filled chocolate ears of corn my Drinking Liberally colleague Katrina shared with us at the airport on the way home. Locally made, but kind of bittersweet; after all, shouldn’t there be enough people-grade corn in Iowa that they could scare up some ears to serve at the Harkin steak fry? Instead, we got potato salad.

Gary Larsen, an Iowa farmer we met at the steak fry, shared our dismay. “People have got to eat more vegetables!” he told us.

“So what do you grow?” I asked.

“Corn and soybeans,” he answered. Gotta make a living, he explained. Larsen’s got 400 acres and three kids who don’t want to follow in his tractor tracks. “Farming has changed so much,” he lamented. “It’s gotten too big.”

I’ve been told that farmers are a deeply conservative bunch, with a horror of all things liberal, and Larsen certainly looked like a straight-out-of-central-casting commodity crop farmer. Turns out, though, that he drives a Prius and is totally OK with his openly gay son. Which is to say that he’s way more concerned about global warming than gay marriage.

Larsen worries that James Hansen may be right when he says we’ve got less than a decade to do something about climate change. He relies on cover crops instead of chemicals to keep his soil fertile, and his politics are as progressive as his farming methods (he expressed disappointment that Dennis Kucinich wasn’t at the steak fry.)

And Larsen’s not an anomaly. We also met Denise O’Brien, who founded the Women, Food & Agriculture Network and grows fruits and vegetables on a fourth generation family farm, which she graciously gave us a tour of during our visit (photos and post to follow). O’Brien ran for Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture last year, and nearly won, to the consternation of conventional farmers for whom the word “organic” spells panic.

Plenty of Iowans are working to counter agribiz monoculture and manure lagoons, from the folks at the Leopold Institute for Sustainable Agriculture to the Seed Savers Exchange, the Iowa Farmers Union, and even Iowa State University, where there’s a graduate program in sustainable agriculture.

We came home with a bagful of great souvenirs: a board game called Farmopoly; t-shirts from the Iowa Farmers Union with a Wendell Berry quote (“If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture”); and a Des Moines downtown farmers’ market burlap shopping bag with fancy wooden handles, which belonged to our Des Moines Drinking Liberally colleagues Tricia and Mike until I admired it, at which point they insisted on giving it to me!

So I’m taking my brand new bag to the Union Square Greenmarket to show it off and replenish our empty fruit bowl. I’ll leave you with some highlights from the steak fry. My favorite moment was meeting much-beloved-by-the-blogosphere Elizabeth Edwards, who graciously informed me that I “don’t look like someone who Eats Liberally”. We don’t generally endorse candidates, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it—Elizabeth Edwards for President!