Posts Categorized: People

What’s Leadership Iowa?!

Inspire(d)’s Benji Nichols participates in 2019-20 Leadership Iowa Class.

It’s not very often that we get to do interviews with each other, so I (Aryn) jumped at the chance to put Benji Nichols in the hot seat! Honestly, even though we work in the same office, it’s kind of tough to catch up with him – that guy is busy! When he’s not out bringing the world the latest Inspire(d) Magazine, or doing his many varied tasks for our business, he’s been on the road to far-flung Iowa locales, learning about different aspects of our great state.

Why, you may ask?

You might have seen some of Benji’s posts on social media talking about a program he’s doing through 2020, Leadership Iowa! We are super proud he was selected to participate, and wanted to share a little more about its purpose.

Leadership Iowa is “Iowa’s premier statewide issues-awareness program for current and emerging Iowa leaders.” Basically, it’s a like a grad program for civic leadership on a state wide level. The program brings together 40 diverse adult professionals for eight monthly sessions across the state, and provides an in-depth look at different topics –economic development, education, government, agriculture, and more. Leadership Iowa exists to educate, inspire, and grow a network of informed leaders and to encourage their ongoing local and statewide involvement to create a better future for Iowans. The program is a part of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry Foundation, now in it’s 38th year, with over 1,000 alumni across the state and beyond.

Check it out, and make sure to follow along here and on social media for more of Benji’s adventures – you know he’s going to have them!  Inspire(d) Facebook  –  Inspire(d) Instagram

To kick off the series, here’s a quick Q&A between Aryn and Benji!

Aryn: Why Leadership Iowa?

Benji: In March of 2019, I had the opportunity to attend the Iowa Rural Economic Development Summit in Grinnell. While there, I connected with a couple of other Leadership Iowa (LI) Alum, including Jenae Jennison, director of external engagement at Central College in Pella. Through conversations it seemed like the LI experience could be a great fit, and I was nominated to apply for the 2019-20 Class. The program accepts only 40 participants from across the state each year, with a full application process and tuition. It truly focuses on giving participants valuable, professional insights into the issues and opportunities that Iowa faces as a state, and that follows through the entire eight-month course.

In terms of why I really wanted to be a part of the program – I feel like now, more than ever, we all need to keep reaching to find the common ground that makes rural America work. The Midwest is a highly misunderstood, and often overlooked place from a national viewpoint. Decorah, and Northeast Iowa hold those same exact traits on a state level (misunderstood and overlooked). We (Aryn and I) have spent the last 12 years building a company that focuses on the positive in the world, and we believe we can make real influences within that, and would like to be a part of the larger picture in our state and the Midwest. It’s an exciting time to be in the midwest – and opportunity abounds!

Aryn: (YES! Love it!!!) … Is Leadership Iowa a political program?

Benji: No, not as such. The program does bring together statewide leaders from a professional, often grassroots level though, and several notable Iowa politicians are alumni. Being sponsored by the Iowa ABI Foundation, obviously the hope is to help continue strengthening the Association of Business and Industry’s ties across the state, but those cross almost every imaginable sector and part of our State’s economy. The program does tend to find access to several state leaders, which provide amazing small group opportunities to engage.

Aryn: How often do you meet? Are you finding it hard to make the time?

Benji: LI meets for 2-3 days each month for eight months, with essentially an optional month thrown in the mix (January… in Iowa!). We meet all over the state, so yes, it is a pretty big commitment, but also a fantastic way to see locations in the state that one might otherwise not. Our first meeting was in Perry. Talk about a town that is working hard to reinvent themselves not only for visitors, for for future generations, and current business owners. Last month’s meetings were in Iowa Falls, focusing on agriculture in Iowa. Central Iowa is definitely home to big ag, but also to some really innovative ag education programs, as well as the heart of Iowa’s booming wind energy sector – which leads directly into agriculture as most windfarms are located on ag land.
Living in the northeast corner of the state, the sessions can be quite a drive – but our class has members from Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids. We work to do some carpooling, and luckily I enjoy driving! Being self-employed adds a real challenge to the equation as well. Many full-time employers often encourage participation by employees, and help fund tuition costs, travel, and time off from work. Luckily Inspire(d) is helping me take on the expense, travel, and time to be a part of the program (thanks Aryn!). In just our first two meetings I feel that the program has been completely worth it. The level of connection with other participants, and our access to explore issues across the state is unparalleled.

Aryn: What’s next?

Benji: We’ve had our first two meetings – orientation in September (Perry, IA), and our session on agriculture in Iowa in October (Iowa Falls, IA). I’m headed to Ft. Dodge next week for our session on education, and look forward to breaking down some of the topics in posts here on the Inspire(d) blog! The program runs through June of 2020 for our class, with opportunities to stay engaged through the alumni network – it’s an amazing group of Iowans, and I’m truly grateful for the chance to be a part of the organization.

Look for another post soon with updates on Benji’s experiences with Leadership Iowa!

Community Builder: Luke Zahm

BY ARYN HENNING NICHOLS
Originally published in the Fall 2019 Inspire(d)

Much of Luke Zahm’s mission in life has been about creating identity.

Whether it’s as a chef, or at his popular farm-to-table restaurant, Driftless Café, or beyond that, cultivating identity for the Midwest.

“I found my identity and connection through food,” he says. “Being from La Farge, Wisconsin, I didn’t have much of a sense of place when I was younger. My mom worked at Organic Valley for 25 years, and when OV kids went off to college, we were given stacks of coupons for free products, which was amazing.”

“Sometimes I would trade them for beer,” he continues with a laugh. “Free milk, eggs, cheese, butter, orange juice – all that stuff was gold when you were in college. But often we’d use them to buy our own food. So I walked into a Whole Foods for the first time in Chicago, picked up a piece of Organic Valley cheddar, and saw La Farge, Wisconsin, written on the back, in a way that had relevance and meaning. And it struck me: ‘These are my people, this is where I’m from!’ That never left me. I loved watching the Driftless Region grow in that way.”

Before that, Luke often said, “I’m from somewhere near Madison.”

His first experience in a restaurant was a high school job at the Subway in Viroqua where, as luck would have it, he would meet the woman he’d marry someday: Ruthie Yahn.

Ruthie and Luke Zahm outside Driftless Cafe

Ruthie and Luke Zahm outside Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. / Photo courtesy Driftless Café

“I was a certified sandwich artist – my Mom still has the certificate – and Ruthie was a small town princess,” Luke says, clearly settling in to tell a good story. “She was the worst customer I ever had! I was going through a Goth phase – and she came in and ordered a sandwich and was all, ‘Do you even know what you’re doing? Can I just come back there and make my own sandwich?’”

Luke, now 40, laughs. Life went on for the two – Ruthie headed to college in Tempe, Arizona; Luke in Chicago. But a restaurant would bring them together again – a Wisconsin supper club – where they both worked the next summer.

“She came to work all tan, and says, ‘Oh hey, I’m Ruthie,’ flirting, and I said, ‘Ohhh, I remember you.’”

They once again went separate ways, but eventually, both transferred to U.W. Madison. They – along with many other old friends from Southwest Wisconsin – met back up and became a tight-knit crew. And Luke and Ruthie fell in love. After they graduated in 2003 – Luke’s degree is in behavioral science and law, and Ruthie’s in nursing – they got married, and stayed in Madison for several years more.

“I thought I was going to be lawyer,” Luke says. “But I was working in restaurants the whole time, and I always felt a pull back.” To food, and to the Viroqua area as well. They moved home in 2011, with their two kids, Ava and Benjamin, in tow, and Luke went to work as an executive sous chef for The Waterfront Restaurant in La Crosse.

“I started hanging out with a lot of big chefs – getting all techy with molecular gastronomy,” Luke says. “Eric Rupert (a Madison-based chef) was my mentor, so I was telling him about all these experiments. He literally grabbed me by my head and said, ‘Dude, you are from the mecca of organics. It gives where you are so much shape and meaning. Cook that food. That’s your role.’ At the time I didn’t love hearing that. But I kinda knew it was in my DNA.”

It was a pivotal moment for Luke. He went back to the basics, spending 14 months working at the Viroqua Co-op bakery and deli.

“They opened their doors to the idea of the restaurant I wanted to create. They helped me articulate what I wanted, and gave people a chance to taste my food,” he says. It was during this time he and Ruthie had another baby, Silas. So life was busy. But they decided to take the leap to create Driftless Café anyway.

“We cashed in all our chips. 401K, savings – all of it went into this idea of this restaurant,” Luke says. “I was taking our new baby to bankers meetings, saying, ‘Here’s what we have. Loan us money!’ Nobody would do it. One day, I had a conversation with a local farmer. I was explaining my vision of what I wanted the Café to be. I wanted to put a spotlight on what farmers are doing, honor the heritage of their roots, plus what they are coming to be.”

When yet another loan didn’t come through, the previous owner of the Driftless Café came to Luke and said, “I’ll sell you the place.” Then that local farmer said, “I’ll finance it.”

“Now, I know I’m not the only farm-to-table restaurant out there… but I may be the only farmer-financed,” Luke says. “It was an amazing show of community trust. They really took a risk on this idea that Ruthie and I were worth it.”

Driftless Café opened under Luke and Ruthie’s ownership in 2013, and the restaurant quickly became a leader in local, farmer-focused dishes inspired by the region. And in 2017, Luke was named a James Beard semifinalist.

“Driftless Café’s motto is to do what it does at the highest level we’re capable of,” he says. “We want to be the authority on local cuisine, a bridge for the community, and a voice into the future.”

Luke at the Driftless Cafe bar

Luke at the Driftless Cafe bar / Photo courtesy Driftless Cafe

The same thing goes for Luke’s involvement with Viroqua Chamber Main Street – he’s been board president for the past three years. “I found I have a voice in it,” he says. “And I want my children to understand that to live and work in a community you have to be involved and active.”

The board has worked to inspire and empower future and current entrepreneurs to invest, sustain, and build up the community.

“In order to market the region, we have to capture those who are working to make things happen,” he says. In fact, years ago, Luke went to the Food Network in LA to pitch an idea for a show about food and a sense of place, highlighting this corner of the Midwest.

“They said, ‘To be fair, nobody gives a sh*t about the Midwest. All revenue is generated by the coasts. Good luck with the underwriting,’” he recalls. “Back in Wisconsin, I said, ‘Nobody gives a sh*t? I just don’t buy that.”

So when Wisconsin Foodie, an Emmy Award-winning show on Wisconsin Public Television, came to Luke about hosting the show after longtime host, Kyle Cherek, planned to step down, he was – of course – interested. After co-hosting a few shows last season, Luke took the job.

The TV spotlight might take some getting used to, though.

“I was canoeing with my daughter and her friend when another boater yells, ‘Hey, congrats on Wisconsin Foodie!’ I’m kind of an introvert, so it’s strange when people I don’t know recognize me,” he says with a laugh. “I’m trying to grow into that.”

“Maybe next time I’ll keep my shirt on,” he adds.

Life is – once again, or perhaps still – busy. Luke’s on the road four days a week filming with Wisconsin Foodie, plus working events and catering gigs, and keeping up with Driftless Café itself. He recently handed the reigns of Executive Chef over to Mary Kastman, an acclaimed chef from Boston who moved to Viroqua last year.

“Mary views and cooks with a different lens than I do, and I think that’s so important,” Luke says. “I see and taste the things she’s making and I’m floored. It’s so amazing how the same ingredients can make such different outcomes. I’m excited for her to create her own identity with food here.”

And luckily, Ruthie is – and has been – on board for it all.

“To be fair, Ruthie is the brains of the operation. Beyonce’s got it right, you know, ‘who runs the world?’ She takes care of it, and makes sure it works for our family,” Luke says. “Part of me would love it to slow down, and another part of me never wants it to slow down. When Ruthie quit job as labor and delivery nurse, we said, ‘Let’s do this thing ‘til it practically kills us.’ And when we put our heads together we could move mountains.”

At the very least – or perhaps the very best – they’ll move hearts and minds.

“Rural America feels like they’re not being heard,” Luke says. “Being from La Farge, or any small town – you’re telling me this doesn’t matter, and I’m going to prove to you that it does. I want to change how the conversation is going. I want to make sure at the end of my run with Wisconsin Foodie that people won’t ever be able to say this is flyover country again.”


Aryn Henning Nichols loves Viroqua and the Driftless Café, and is super inspired by Luke and Ruthie Zahm. They are walking their talks, and it is certainly showing.

Community Building is one of the most important things we can do in this life, so each fall, Inspire(d) features folks in the Driftless doing positive things to build community where they live.
Check out other Community Builders here!

Seed Savers Exchange Benefit Concert: Q&A w/ Lissie!

 

Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) near Decorah, IA will once again host an incredible lineup of mid-western musicians for an on-the-farm benefit concert, Saturday, August 3, 2019. The benefit concert is hosted in the natural grass bowl of Lillian Goldman Visitors Center on the SSE Heritage Farm, offering a magical setting for some of the mid-west’s best roots musicians, including; Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles, LissieDavid Huckfelt of The Pines, Pieta BrownMichael Rossetto, and Special Guest Mr. Greg Brown. Tickets are available at this link for $25 in advance, $30 day of at the gate.

Seed Savers Exchange has been providing a home and outlet for heirloom and open pollinated varieties of seeds since 1975, encouraging gardeners and farmers worldwide to grow, harvest, and share heirloom seeds, as well as recount the inspirational stories behind them. SSE aims to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

“For Lissie, her past—the last decade or so, to be specific—is something still very much alive and open to interpretation and rephrasing. With the release of When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective, Lissie is poised to show listeners that her past is hardly static, that the songs she wrote nearly 10 years ago are still fresh and vibrant, evoking feelings old and new.

In the eyes of the midwestern songstress, who in recent years made a conscientious return to her roots with the purchase of some 50 acres in northeastern Iowa, the operative metaphor at work in her career—and in the creation of the retrospective album—is something deeply entropic: gardening.

“When you garden,” she says, thoughtfully, “it’s like all of the things you eat and grow are beautiful, and as they die and decompose, that carnage becomes the food for the plants you grow next year. When you’re out in nature and there’s four seasons, you see the cycle… It spurs my creativity to see how life becomes death becomes life. It’s this beautiful, comforting thing because it’s a constant.”

And that entropic beauty shines through in her work on When I’m Alone. When you listen to the lush, atmospheric arrangements of Lissie’s best-loved, most career-defining tunes, you can almost hear the “carnage” of each past moment and remembered feeling coalescing to form this beautiful, dark tempest of emotion and memory.” (Red Light Mgt.)

Inspire(d) would like to thank Lissie for taking a few moments away from her garden in NE Iowa to answer a few questions in advance of the Seed Savers Benefit Concert.

Inspire(d): What’s the most fun or rewarding thing you’ve ever grown?

Lissie: I get really excited about broccoli! It’s usually one of the first things my garden produces and it’s so gratifying to see the little head start to form & grow.

Inspire(d): Why does the work of Seed Savers Exchange spark you?

Lissie: New growth from the Earth & gardens’ represent hope for me. When I visit Seed Savers and see the wide array & diversity, visit Diane’s garden and tour the old trees, I dream of a brighter future & getting my hands dirty!

Inspire(d): In the beginning of Seed Savers Exchange, it was a stash of morning glory and tomato seeds that Diane Ott Whealy’s Grandfather brought over from Germany that started the organization on it’s path. Has anyone ever handed down a seed or a story about a garden variety to you?

Lissie: No but I wish! I loved reading Diane’s book about the birth of SSE. I’ve got a healthy crop of Grandpa Ott’s morning glories taking over my garden right now!

Inspire(d): Seed Savers now has over 20,000 plant seeds in their collection – hundreds which have gone to the Svalbard Gobal Seed Vault in Norway. Any favorites you hope are in that stash, or specifics you can’t imagine the world without?

Lissie: I actually performed at the Polar Jazz Festival in Longyearbyen & what a magical place & idea! That all this rich diversity of food is being protected & preserved, is so important! I love the classic German Pink tomato but really think that all 20,000 are essential. With a changing climate, who knows what challenges agriculture will face! Variety seems key to adapting!

Inspire(d): You might know that Seed Savers has an amazing orchard with over 1,200 varieties of Apple Trees. It’s quite a place, encompassing many varieties that have all but disappeared – with a long view plan for revitalization. Are you more of an apple pie or apple crisp type person?

Lissie: Apple pie! But if I can cheat, apple sauce all the way!

Inspire(d): Hopes, wishes, or dreams for the 2019 Seed Savers Exchange Benefit Concert?

Lissie: I feel very honored to be a part of the SSE world now and to share the bill with a legend like Greg Brown & alongside so many artists I admire! I hope for good weather, some collaborations perhaps & united good vibes! And I hope that lots of money is raised to continue to support their incredibly important efforts!

*

(To read an interview with mid west musician David Huckfelt about his connections to Seed Savers Exchange, please click here.)

Seed Saver Exchange Benefit Concert
Saturday, August 3, 2019
Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles
Lissie
David Huckfelt of The Pines
Pieta Brown
Michael Rossetto
Special Guest Mr. Greg Brown

3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA
5pm gates, 7pm show
Tickets available seedsavers.org/concert
$25 advance / $30 at the gate
(563) 382-5990
https://www.seedsavers.org/