Friday, January 18, 2013


"Where you from?"


When people think of Iowa, they think of Field of Dreams. They think of endless fields of corn unbroken but for the occasional farm place. That image is a mostly accurate start to the area I call home.

I live in a county named for a branch of the Lakota. I work in a county with the a higher population of livestock than any other in the entirety of the US. The county population is dwarfed by single farms that contain thousands of head of cattle or pigs, millions of chickens. When compared to it's original tall grass prairie state, where I live is the most altered county in the most altered state. The people who make a living from the land and from livestock have a single-minded focus to wring every pound and bushel of production from their animals and land.

They have been very successful in that focus.  The price of cropland has doubled and in some cases tripled in the past decade. The Great Recession only briefly paused growth, most people would not have noticed anything amiss without the barrage of bad news from the rest of the nation.

The people fall roughly into two groups. The old, original group is overwhelmingly of Dutch descent (I share this decent). The second, rapidly growing group is of Latino decent. As an aside, I'm never sure how to properly term this group. They are from Mexico and Guatemala for the most part, and I am happy to see them. As in most parts of the nation, the new group occupies the smaller, older homes and works the poorer paying jobs. The notion that the "illegals" are stealing jobs gets some traction locally, but I see very few white people fighting for the chance to work the dairies, chicken barns, slaughterhouses and roofing crews that the Latinos fill.

As this is a mostly biking centric blog, let me note that a cyclist meets his or her weather obsessing match in a farmer.


You could say that as goes the county, so goes the city. The economy of city is almost entirely dependent on the success of the farming in the county.

The town is stretched along a north/south highway. Barely three-quarter mile in width, it is about three miles long.

North is the industrial park, a mix of light industry, processed food, engineering and tech firms. A small biotech facility is a recent addition.

West is the grain elevators, lumberyard, ag support facilities, some industrial and most of downtown and the poorer residential. Most of the Latino population occupies this area.

East is the oldest section of town. Entirely residential, it includes the schools, the local college, library (a certain bike shop) and most of the churches.

South is the newest section. The box stores, golf course, and the largest and newest houses are in this area. It is also ties the industrial north for least bike friendly.

The people here, and in the county as a whole, are exceedingly conservative. The county has not voted for a Democratic president since FDR in the thirties. Obama's stance on abortion is alone enough to guarantee that he will never get this county's vote. Let us only say that my family's voting record does not follow the average pattern.

As far as cycling goes, the town is fairly friendly. The main highway is a no go, with high speed traffic and no extra room for a bike. Fortunately, there are multiple quiet alternatives. A single bike path parrells the highway, and provides an off street route for north/south trips. There is also a three mile trail that runs east to a small park in the country.


The wonderful thing about a small town is that the things that you need for a given week (food, post office, library, job) are all compressed. I can reach two grocery stores in less than a mile and a half, the library is one half mile, bike shop barely a quarter.

This compression has become one of the driving factors in my application to the bike store. My chief goal at the bike shop is to help people understand that bikes are a wonderful means for in town transportation. Even at a very slow pace, the longest possible trip would take fifteen minutes.

Three things make this a hard sell, and they are reasons that I hear repeated throughout the country:

1. Weather
2. Traffic
3. Education

Weather is the big one, especially this time of year. During the winter, temps are commonly below twenty, and we usually get a day or two where the high is subzero. Many days it is simply miserable to be outside. Wind is also an issue, at all times of the year. During the summer, heat indexes in the triple digits are common. Both the cold and the heat naturally make us seek shelter.

Traffic is an issue, but the reverse of what you would guess. Because traffic is so light in most areas of the town, driving is almost always faster than biking. The time to bike may be double, but that is still only about ten minutes.

Education lumps many things together. Since so few cyclists are seen, residents don't even consider it an option. They don't know how much you can carry with a basket on a bike. They don't know that you are actually warmer biking in most winter weather as opposed to riding in a car that doesn't get warmed up on a short trip. More basic still, they don't think that bikes are good for anything practical.

To be fair, it took 20,000 cyclists descending on my town of 6,000 to make me realize a bike's potential. I needed to train, and to train effectively I need to do some research, which led to reading about the daily usefulness of a bike, and a year later I use a bike whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Welcome to Sioux Center.

Let's see what happens.

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