Bison on the Prairie
Bison on the Prairie © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Ask Americans which state comes to mind when they hear the phrase 'nation's heartland' and most will answer Iowa. Iowa's reputation reflects that part of the American identity that celebrates small-town life, where friendly, hard-working families live against a backdrop of rolling farmland and virgin prairie: picture the white farmhouse amid endless cornfields in the film Field of Dreams (the site of which can be visited in Dyersville).

To some extent, the ideal is true. Farms account for 89 percent of Iowa's land. And the desire to retain at least some of the traditional elements of farm life, rather than capitulating to big-business agriculture, is strong. Organic operations are springing up across the state, and visitors will find there is nothing more pleasant than spending a weekend morning wandering through one of Iowa's many local farmers markets, like the Downtown Farmers Market, which sets up right at the centre of Des Moines, the state capital. Efforts to preserve Iowa's rural heritage abound. The Iowa Barn Foundation, out to save and restore these structures, sponsors the free All-State Barn Tour every September. The Madison County Covered Bridge Festival has been a time-honoured tradition in Madison County since 1970. The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge has reconstructed the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, complete with bison and elk.

Iowans have also embraced change in certain areas, which is a boon for visitors. An initiative to plant alternative crops has resulted in a fledgling wine industry. Today, travellers can explore three different wine trails. At the famous Iowa State Fair, the tradition of sculpting a cow from butter remains, but it has been joined by a line-up of the latest rock 'n roll stars. Along the Mississippi River, visitors can choose between watching the sunset from the stands at a minor-league baseball game in Davenport and trying their luck aboard a luxury riverboat casino in Dubuque.

For a real taste of America, visitors should head to the Hawkeye State during a presidential election year to witness some good old-fashioned stumping. The Iowa caucus is the country's first major electoral event for candidates seeking their parties' nomination, so contenders (one the future US president) usually make numerous appearances at local diners and town halls, lead parades, host barbecues, even clamber atop bales of hay to address voters. Around the 4th of July, campaigning reaches a fever pitch.

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