Smokey D's: Putting Iowa BBQ on the Map

By Joseph L. Murphy

Any way you slice it, American barbecue is one of the most debated food topics. Some will claim Kansas City or Memphis barbecue is the best. And states like Alabama, Texas and South Carolina always find their way on top 10 lists. But more people are adding Iowa to those lists. Or at least they will if Darren Warth gets his way.

Sherry and Darren Earth are the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, King of the Smoker and the Houston Livestock World Championship.

Sherry and Darren Earth are the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, King of the Smoker and the Houston Livestock World Championship.

Warth, owner of Smokey D's BBQ in Des Moines, is familiar with all the arguments and best-of lists. But he says the best BBQ in the country is in Central Iowa, and he has the hardware to back it up.

"I walk in every morning, and I just love barbecue. Barbecue is 100 percent of our life," Warth said. "I go barbecue to get away from barbecue. My relaxation time is sitting over a pit on a Saturday during a barbecue competition."

That passion is paying off for Warth and his wife, Sherry. The duo is the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, the King of the Smoker and, most recently, the Houston Livestock World Championship. Add to that 82 state championships and 800 individual category awards, and you start to build an impressive resume that simply can't be touched by anyone else.

"It’s a balance," Warth said while explaining why his barbecue is so highly rated by judges. "It’s meat, it’s smoke, it’s spice and it’s sauce. It’s not one of those things overpowering the other."

In 2007, the former vice president of transportation for Ruan Trucking in Des Moines, walked away from a lucrative career to focus his full-time attention on championship barbecue competitions and a catering and takeout business.

"It went crazy," Warth said of a catering and takeout business that started in his driveway in 2005. "I was on the road 60 percent of the time. I was traveling everywhere."

That led the couple to open a location in the old Polk County Sheriff's building and eventually in the skywalk in downtown Des Moines. Today the Warths own three locations in the metro while still competing across the country in barbecue competitions.

"When I look at a restaurant and see how it runs I don’t think like a normal restauranteur," he said thinking about his start in the trucking industry. "I think about how efficiently I can get food to the customer and how I can have better customer service. If I can make a customer happy, the rest are just details. Everything is a process to me.”

Those details paid off on the tournament circuit and for his restaurants. He is quick to say the quality of pork, beef and other meats are just as important in a barbecue contest as they are in his restaurants.

"We use one word around here, and it’s 'consistency,'" Warth said. "It’s the consistency that really keeps bringing people back. We bring the consistency and quality that we have in competition barbecue to the restaurant business.”

To do that they use meat suppliers like Smithfield when purchasing their meats.

"We look for a heavy meat cover on ribs with as much marbling as possible," he said. "That ensures it will be a juicy product at the end, whether you are cooking for judges or customers."

Smokey D's business received a boost when famous food "judge" and traveling customer Guy Fieri, host of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” featured Warth's wings on his television show. Warth said even though Fieri featured his wings, most customers know Smokey D's for their ribs and burnt ends.

"If you think about Smokey D’s, you're thinking about ribs and burnt ends," he said. "People come here for ribs and burnt ends. There’s not much profit in them, but it is what brings people through the door.”

Any given day, Smokey D's will serve up barbecue to thousands of people. They’ll typically sell about 1,200 racks of ribs per week and serve 125,000 pounds of pork and beef per year.

"We have a weird demographic," Warth admitted. "You have grandma and grandpa sitting here and next to them is a Harley rider with tattoos down his arm and a screaming kid across the way. And it doesn’t seem to bother anybody because it is Smokey D's."

Over the past decade, Warth has built a business and championship pedigree that is tough to beat. Those endeavors paired with other fantastic barbecue restaurants across the state have put Iowa barbecue on the map.

Is it the best? It might be a solid claim for one of the most-debated food topics. One way to find out is to try Smoky D’s for yourself. For locations and other information, go to www.smokeydsbbq.com.

Originally published for the Iowa Food & Family Project

Winter sunrise

What do you get when you mix ground fog with the rising winter sun. Until recently I wouldn't have had a clue. But luckily on my way to work I kept a close eye on the fog and how it mixed with the woods until I came upon this scene. It was a light at the end of the tunnel to see this magnificent scene after so many months of grey weather.

The morning sun cuts through ground fog at Saylorville Lake.

The morning sun cuts through ground fog at Saylorville Lake.

Cali Sun stroll

What does a land locked Iowan do when he has few spare hours on a short trip to California? Considering I left the state at the height of a crippling ice storm the answer was clear. You do anything you can to embrace the sun and the ocean.

Surfers pause to judge the waves before making their way into the surf.

Surfers pause to judge the waves before making their way into the surf.

After googling surfing and San Diego my choice was clear. I would soak up the last hours of daylight on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard outside of Ocean Beach, California. If that didn't give me a shot of sunny vitamin D to replace Iowa's winter grey I knew nothing would.

True to planning my two mile stroll along the cliffs relaxed me and gave me the opportunity to take some photos while meeting some great people. The following images are a few of the sights that I absorbed along the way.

Richard Aguirre relaxes in his vintage Volkswagen van while enjoying the last rays of the sun on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in Ocean Beach, California.

Richard Aguirre relaxes in his vintage Volkswagen van while enjoying the last rays of the sun on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in Ocean Beach, California.

Ozzy a self-described volunteer homeless man plays guitar as friends listen near the water at Ocean Beach, California. Ozzy has traveled across the country via auto, train and foot. Last night he was happy to be reunited with old friends that he had accidentally crossed paths with again.

Ozzy a self-described volunteer homeless man plays guitar as friends listen near the water at Ocean Beach, California. Ozzy has traveled across the country via auto, train and foot. Last night he was happy to be reunited with old friends that he had accidentally crossed paths with again.

Finding the higher ground

 

Standing on a ridge looking over the terrain mixed with rolling hills, open fields and valleys a decision was made. At all costs and for as long as possible that ground was to be held.

Looking back, over 150 years removed, that decision doesn't seem all that important. After all, the person that made the decision was a trained military leader and had years of experience fighting Indians on the western frontier. It turns out that the decision was crucial to the success of the Union army during the battle of Gettysburg and some will say crucial to the success of winning the Civil War and preserving the United States of America.

General John Buford was responsible for that decision, but more importantly, he was responsible for knowing the terrain and understanding that the “higher ground” was crucial to stopping the main body of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia just long enough for the Union soldiers to secure their positions. Thus giving a battered Union army a slight advantage that would prove to be the difference in winning the battle.

Last week during a business trip to Gettysburg, I was able to stand on the ridge and survey the ground that Buford looked at on the evening of June 30 1863. It was a powerful moment to look over the terrain in front of us while thinking of what happened there a century and a half earlier.

Much has been written about the battle of Gettysburg. Bufordwasn’t a flashy person seeking glory and attention. Instead, he believed in himself and through leadership and the respect of his peers was able to make crucial decisions.

At the time and for decades to come not much was written about Buford though. Flashy names like Grant, Lee, Stewart, Sherman and Custer grabbed the headlines and the attention of historians. But it was the resolve and understanding of Buford that nudged history towards a victory for the Union.

To further demonstrate the power of that decision, it needs to be said that in modern sports terms the Union was having a disastrous season. Any team going through and 0-8-1 season would be questioning if they could ever win. Today coaches would be fired, fans would fill the airways with opinions on how to turn the tide of season or just give up for the year all together.

And that’s exactly what was happening during that time. The people of the north were tired of the war and President Lincoln had already fired two generals that weren’t getting the job done. Lee was trying to capitalize on the disillusionment of the Union by leading a campaign in the north to win a major battle and hope for an end of the war. All of these variables collided on the grounds just outside of the small town of Gettysburg. Making the decision by Buford that much more important.

Buford of course didn’t single handedly win the battle or the war. But his actions and heroic efforts delayed the Confederates long enough for the main body of Union troops to grab the true high ground on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge.

It has been said that the United States of America was born in Philadelphia in 1776 and preserved on the battlefields of Gettysburg in 1863.

What does all of this have to do with us today? It is a case study that should help us understand how important leadership is. In my mind, many layers came together to make the Buford's decision a success. Buford had earned the respect of his superiors that in turn allowed him to make important decisions. He had also earned the respect of his soldiers so they would carry out his orders without question. He was also able to see the larger picture and understand the importance of taking action.

Learning about Buford and seeing the battlefield made me survey the landscape of my career. I’ve had victories and setbacks as has everyone. I know that moving forward, I’ll keep Buford’s decisions in mind as I look for the higher ground.

Panama - For richer or poorer

Wealth and poverty. It is all on display in the small Central American country of Panama. During a recent trip to see the Panama Canal and gauge the progress of its expansion, wealth and poverty were the stark contrasts, a situation that is shared by many other Latin American countries.

The flight into Panama City reveals what most wouldn’t expect in Central and South America. Skyscrapers and a bustling modern metropolitan area. A tour guide boasted that Panama City has 109 skyscrapers — more than other major South American cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It even has more skyscrapers than Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, and Houston. But like many cities, the gleam of the skyscrapers doesn't always illuminate the struggles that are happening on the streets below.

The main economic driver of the country is the canal — a system of locks that have allowed large ships to navigate a north and south route stretching 51 miles through Panama safely. The route that shaves time and saves money for precious cargo. For instance, ships sailing from New York to San Francisco can save 7,872 miles instead of going around Cape Horn in South America.

Much of the cargo is either destined for or originates from the United States. In fact, 70 percent of the cargo passing through the canal falls in that category.

It is often said that money breeds money and in Panama's case that is just the beginning. The 109 skyscrapers are a result of foreign investments in the country since Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship ended in 1989 and the Panama-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2012. More than 100 branches of multinational enterprises including Caterpillar, BASF, Philips, Adidas and Trump International call the country home.

But life stays stagnant for the people in the shadows of the skyscrapers. Neighborhoods near Casco Viejo, the historical beginning of Panama City founded by the Spanish in 1673, can’t hide the poverty that is prevalent. It's a place that is optimistic for change but content with life. In many ways the situation of the people mirrors the geography of their neighborhoods. Stuck between the old city center of Panama and the booming skyscrapers across the bay. With wealth just out of reach.

 

What will help the poorest of the poor in Panama? The outside fortunes of investments continue to help, and a stable government with leaders that are focused on helping all citizens of Panama can go a long way. As I watched shipments of grain pass through the locks of the Panama Canal, I know that the American farmer is doing their part by utilizing the waterway to move their 600 million bushels of soybeans every year.

The toll money paid to the Panamanians for the service of the canal continues to churn a democratic economy that is lately turning its attention to not only expanding the canal for the future but also to helping citizens that have yet to see the benefits of the strong economy. With the more than $5.25 billion investment for the expansion of the canal, the Panamanian government has also dedicated money to improve conditions in provinces like Colon that have seen economic declines and rising poverty for much of the past 50 years. Colon is the port and canal entrance on the Caribbean or Atlantic side of Panama. The area is part of a massive restoration project that began in 2014. The focus is in restoring historic buildings, roads, parks and building housing.

There’s economic evidence that things are getting better for the citizens of Panama. According to Trading Economics, the unemployment rate decreased to 2.50 percent in 2015 from 4.10 percent in 2013. The highest recorded rate was at 16.30 percent during the time period between 1982 and 2015.

Will the light of Panama's economy shine through the shadows and illuminate the country? If the successful expansion of the canal is an indication Panama's economy will continue to thrive and so will their democracy. With some experts predicting unemployment rates trending around 2.06 percent in 2020. The combination of the expanded canal as an economic driver and low unemployment rates will help all of Panama's citizens enjoy the wealth it creates.

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association

The welder

If only the lines and scars on his hands could talk. Underneath the oil and dirt a diary of 43 years of lines would tell quite a story. Stories of hard work would be the easiest to see but after talking to Hartford Cooper for awhile earlier this fall those stories would just be the beginning.

Hartford Cooper pauses for a portrait in his rural welding shop.

Hartford Cooper pauses for a portrait in his rural welding shop.

Cooper, a long time fixture of Nodaway, IA, has owned a repair and welding shop off of Birch Avenue for over 30 years. The 78 year-old has welded a variety of projects during his 43 year career. 

His tool of choice and an irreplaceable tool for his business is a Lincoln Motor Generator. The now antique generator from the late 60's still provides stick and wire welding after many decades of service for Cooper.

When I met Cooper he was working on repairing the gears of an old feed wagon. The project took all of his focus and dexterity to line the gears up properly to make the wagon work again. He told me that most of his work over the years has come from area farm repairs but more and more of his time is spent repairing commercial garbage bins. The bins rust through over time and Cooper uses his years of experience to replace the bottoms with new steel sheets.

Mark Jackson talks TED in New York City

Mark Jackson traded the black soil of his Mahaska County farm for the concrete streets of New York City this week. The trip that carried him from Iowa to Manhattan was to raise awareness of his livelihood and how farmers strive to be sustainable in a changing food system.

Mark Jackson holds an Iowa Soybean Association hat in Time Square in the heart of New York City.

Jackson, a farmer from Rose Hill and a director with the Iowa Soybean Association, was invited to take part in a Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Talk this week in the big apple. His speech titled "Hands Across Generations" will focus on his family's passion for agriculture dating back to the 1800's on the rolling prairie of southern Iowa.

TED Talks are a series of speeches that are given to a live audience and shared through social media. For many connected to social media TED is a place to listen and learn.

“TED is a community with global reach,” Ronda Carnegie, head of Global Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives at TED, said. “There are over 1,800 Talks on TED.com, which have been viewed nearly 2.5 billion times. What's more, we have over 11,000 volunteer translators from around the world translating TED Talks into 105 languages.”

The talks are recorded and broadcasted on the TED website and then shared through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The result is millions of people around the world can see the conversations that were initially presented to several hundred people.For Jackson sharing his family's history and more importantly the work he has done to make his farm sustainable while increasing yields is a chance of a lifetime.

"The importance of having TED as a platform to tell my story is a unique opportunity. Stepping outside of our normal avenues to relate the importance of modern agriculture is critical to defend the sustainability efforts that farmers have achieved," Jackson said. "The Ted-Unilever collaboration is a first of its kind for the "TED Institute" and being selected to share the Iowa farmer's story is a major accomplishment within itself as Unilever realizes the value modern agriculture has brought to the sustainability conversation."

TED representatives talk with speakers during a rehearsal for the event. 

TED representatives talk with speakers during a rehearsal for the event. 

Mark’s work with the Unilever soy sustainability program made his story a natural fit for the TED presentation. Last year Jackson hosted top executives from Unilever on his farm to help them better understand modern agriculture practices and how soybeans move through the supply chain before being used as ingredients in Unilever products like Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.

“This TED event is about bringing the outside in, in the area of sustainability. Across many platforms, with many voices, many nationalities and many topic areas,” Jonathan Atwood, national vice president of sustainable living and corporate communications for Unilever, said.

He went on to say that Jackson brings a voice to the Iowa soybean story that in partnership with Unilever is creating a conversation about sustainability and how the worlds of business and agriculture can come together to make a difference.

“We reached out to Mark and others in the Iowa farming community to say come on a journey with us,” Atwood said. “We are thrilled that Mark is here to say ‘this is who we are, and this is what we stand for’ and that’s exciting.”

Jackson speaks with Gina Barnett during a rehearsal for his TED presentation.

Jackson speaks with Gina Barnett during a rehearsal for his TED presentation.

This week has been busy or Mark. He attended rehearsals, met with other presenters and learned more about the TED organization. All the preparations are leading up to his moment on the stage and the ability to tell his story of hands across generations.

Farmers in Mexico value U.S. soymeal

The United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC) is constantly looking for new uses for soy internationally and this week members of Qualified State Soybean Boards (QSSB) were able to see firsthand how markets are growing in Mexico.

Aquaculture has been a buzz worked in the United States lately but it is a practice that has been consuming U.S. soy for many years. Countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Mexico import large amounts of soymeal to grow tilapia and shrimp.

A worker pulls a net to capture fish in an aquaculture tank in Mexico.

A worker pulls a net to capture fish in an aquaculture tank in Mexico.

Molina Farms, in the town of Jamay near Lake Chapalais, is a family farm doing just that. By importing high quality soybean grain from the U.S., they are creating large profit margins for their fresh tilapia sales and fingerling sales.

Fingerling sales is the process of selling the tilapia when they are four grams to other area producers to feed out. Molina farms are concentrating on the breeding and genetics of the tilapia to gain a premium from other farmers who don't have the facilities or genetics to start tilapia from the beginning.

The Molina Family Farm also sells fresh fish from their farm. The fresh fish sales are offered directly to consumers in the region. To keep profit margins as large as possible, Alfredo Molina invests in high quality U.S. soymeal for his rations and is also using cutting edge technology for the area.

"We spend about $1.30 per kilo of tilapia in production costs and can sell the live fish for about $4.00 a fish," Molina said, speaking through an interpreter.

Molina showed the group the finishing ponds for the tilapia where about 20,000 fish are grown per 10 foot pond. When the tilapia is ready for market it weighs between 500-600 grams or just over a pound. They use a ration of soybean made up of 40 to 50 percent soymeal. Molina said that U.S. soymeal is preferred, but due to higher prices last year, they had to import from other South American Countries.

The Biofloc system aerates the water, keeping the algae and nutrients from settling on the bottom. The system allows the fish to feed off the remaining nutrients in the water and helps build their immunity. Because of the ecological system farmers need to make sure increased algae doesn't starve the fish of oxygen. Computer systems linked to a recently installed Wi-Fi network monitor oxygen levels and can automatically adjust levels as necessary. In the past, aquaculture farmers would employee a poly fish culture, having tilapia paired in rotation with catfish or shrimp, but that cut down on production of the valuable tilapia. According to Molina, Bioflock system helps him to raise a higher quality fish in less space while increasing the growing cycle.

"The Biofloc system is rough, but we need to master it," he said.

To fill market demand Molina is looking at raising shrimp at his farm, too. He told the group gathered that his working relationship with USSEC will help him to manage the new enterprise.

“It will be trial and error at first but USSEC offers excellent information about feed rations and what other farmers are doing to be successful,”Molina said.

Heather Lilienthal, director of producer services at the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), attended the USSEC tour in Mexico. She said seeing the uses of soy imported from the U.S. was fascinating.

"This was my first opportunity to visit an aquaculture operation and learn how this family is using soy in its feed," she said. "As they expand their operation and adapt to new technology, it reminded me of Iowa farms doing the same thing. Everyone is striving to be more efficient in order to meet growing demand for their products."

Celebrating Iowa's county fairs

What makes Iowa county fairs great? I’m guessing if you ask that question to a group of people you would get quite a few different answers.

While I explored five different county fairs this year, and many others in the past, I’ve always asked myself that same question. I’ve photographed and written about many of these fairs over the past 12 years working for farm organizations and have always came up with the same primary answer. County fairs are a place to showcase hard work and community spirit here in the Heartland!

Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey will visit about 30 county fairs across the state this year. For him, showing cattle in 4-H competitions at the Dickinson County Fair when he was young was a great experience.

"Fairs are an important part of the culture of our counties and rural areas,”Northey said. “They are a great opportunity for kids to showcase projects they have been working on for months and also for the public to learn more about modern agriculture. Showing at the fair fought me so much and I still have friends from my time in 4-H.”

Shannon Latham, Alexander, said the Butler County Fair was always a highlight of her summer growing up.

“It seriously was the social event of the season,”she said. “I enjoyed the camaraderie as much as the competition. I learned it’s just as important to be a gracious winner as it is to be a gracious loser.”

Setting project goals in 4-H inspired her to try new things when she was young and she said now she can look back at those experiences and see that it still helps her in managing multiple tasks and finding motivation in her role as vice president for Latham Seeds.

The magic of the county fair lives on in Latham’s children. Whether it is working with her teenage son on a woodworking project or helping her daughter show livestock.

“This year my daughter showed rabbits, goats and her horse,”Latham said. “She told me next year she wants to show chickens because ‘it’s always good to try new things.’ Don’t you just love it when kids actually repeat something you’ve said? I couldn’t think of a legitimate response to dissuade her, so we’re in the process of building a chicken coop!”

Visiting with old friends and representing the community also draws Latham back to the fair year after year.

“Now that I’m an adult, county fair week remains a time to catch up with friends and make new acquaintances who share similar interests,”Latham said. “I also spend a great more deal of my time during county fair week serving others. I volunteer in the 4-H food stand and help promote Franklin County as a member of the Tourism Committee.”

 

Reflections at the wall

On Monday I had the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. A fresh blanket of snow covered the National Mall and very few visitors were at the memorial. The wall was, as expected, a powerful reminder of the loss that the Vietnam War brought to many families and to our great nation.

The American flag is reflected in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The American flag is reflected in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

As a light snow filled the air, I looked at line after line of names on the black granite memorial. I took my time and read many of the names. As I would look at their names I tried to imagine who they were, where they came from and what they had witnessed during their battles. They gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country at such a tumultuous time in our nation's history.

It was a haunting and powerful moment, standing there looking at the names of those we lost as I also reflected on my recent trip to Vietnam. During that trip I looked at the people I passed, rural areas I toured and city blocks I visited always thinking about the history of that nation. To visit Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) and walk the streets where the Tet Offensive raged and buddist monks performed self-immolation in protest was a powerful experience. I've met many veterans here in the U.S. that will forever be scarred by the war. I often look through a box of old Polaroids my father-in-law, took during his time of service in Saigon.

Much of the war has been forgotten by the people of Vietnam. Nearly four decades have passed and many of the scars of the war have been covered up. I asked about how Americans were viewed today by the Vietnamese and I was told that not many of the younger generations know or talk much about the war. There are museums and memorials (I visited several) that detail the North Vietnamese heroes from the war but it seemed, for the most part, that between the throngs of scooters that packed the streets and the people going about their daily routines war had never touched their lives.

I guess for me it makes memorials like the Vietnam Memorial or any of the other war memorials in Washington D.C that much more important. It is important that we never forget those that fought and died for this great country. Many lessons can be learned by remembering the names of those we lost during a polarizing time in our nation's history.

It was fitting, as I left the memorial, to see the American Flag reflected among the lines of names listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

 

To read more about my trip to Vietnam follow this link: Caring half a world away.

  Reflections at the wall