I grew up on a grain and livestock farm and I continue to work in the agricultural sector in my day job, so I am always quick to point out that our state's agricultural landscape is far more diverse than people give us credit for. Yes, we are known for our corn, soybeans, hogs, eggs, cattle, and more. But we also have a lot of specialty agriculture, including wineries, orchards, pumpkin patches, hops farms, and much, much more.
A great example of that "much, much more"?
How about turtle farming.
When I saw the Villages of Van Buren's itinerary of activities for their annual "Scenic Drive Festival" included tours of one of the largest turtle farms in the world, I knew this was not something I was going to miss.
Getting to Millard's Turtle Farm outside of Birmingham, Iowa was an adventure in itself. You travel down a gravel road and to the end of a dirt lane. There, you find the enterprise which includes more than just turtles. This location includes a taxidermy business as well...and then some. Luckily for me and others, they did a nice job putting signs along the way to ensure we were headed in the right direction.
When I pulled up and parked, there were a couple of boys out front offering an opportunity to pay $1 to see turtles race. I politely declined but I enjoyed the chance to look at some turtles up close.
Millard's is a 3rd generation farm with another location in Oklahoma. I got the chance to jump in on a presentation inside the taxidermy office led by Fred Jr., the gentleman who comprises the 2nd generation of the business. There were approximately 15 others who joined in my group.
Essentially, the Millards hatch the baby turtles in dozens of ponds throughout the premises as well as at other locations. Those baby turtles are eventually shipped to China, fed out, and harvested for the growing population of Chinese who love turtle meat. The domestic market in the United States is pretty small and would certainly be dwarfed compared to the millions of pounds of turtle consumed annually in China.
How did they break into the Chinese market?
Years ago, a story was done by National Geographic and it was read in China by a businessman. My sense was this was all done before the explosion of the Internet. That story lead to a phone call which created a relationship. That relationship jump-started their farm and allowed it to grow into the multi-generational business it is today. It has afforded the Millards a chance to get into other businesses, including investing in domestic shrimp production. Farm raised shrimp and fish, and aquaculture in general, is far more sustainable than over-harvesting wild shrimp or fish. That added diversity has allowed the next generation, both boys in their 20's, to join the farm.
There are several other stories on the Internet about the Millard's farm and I would encourage you to do some more reading, as it is all very interesting.
Additionally, the trapping of turtles has become a hot issue in the Iowa Legislature in recent years. It's also an issue at the federal level as, like most farms, they have to contend with a bevy of regulations.
Inside the taxidermy building, samples of turtle soup were available as well as other products and even some turtle meat. I declined to taste the soup, but apparently many said it was quite delicious.
If you get the chance to tour the farm during one of their open-houses or join in on a tour bus, I would highly encourage to do so. You'll learn a lot, I promise. I certainly did!
As I was leaving the area where the turtle farm was, I spotted a couple of gorgeous buildings (church and, presumably a house?) in the countryside.
As always, I welcome your suggestions of places to visit and profile whether in Van Buren Countyor any of the other 98 counties in Iowa. If you have a good idea or would like to host the Iowa Adventurer, please drop me a note through this website.