Decorah, Iowa: No Hassles Here

Environmental stewardship and heirloom vegetables are how this small Iowa town rolls. Steeped in Nordic history, Decorah embodies small-town values of hard work and community ties, while embracing a high level of cultural diversity.
By K.C. Compton
October/November 2013
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Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, is one of the world's largest heirloom seed banks.
Photo Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange

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Each year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS selects a handful of communities to highlight in our annual Great Places feature. Check out the other towns featured in our 2013 installment of 9 Great Places You've (Maybe) Never Heard of.

Decorah, Iowa. If you visit the City of Decorah’s website, the second item you’ll see on the navigation bar is “Sustainability.” The town embraces prosperity, environmental stewardship, and social and cultural vitality, without assuming any one of these qualities outweighs the others.

Writer, photographer and MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor David Cavagnaro visited Decorah for a week before deciding to move there from California 26 years ago. He still waxes enthusiastic about the community. “It has all the positive qualities we care about,” he says. “It’s easy to get around, has an enormous amount of cultural diversity, is full of friendly people, is in a scenically gorgeous area, and has among the highest percentage of park and trail acres of any community in the United States. I do my errands in an hour, on foot, and have great conversations along the way. There are just no hassles in Decorah.”

Traceable to its Norwegian founders, Decorah’s gardening ethos runs deep. The work of nearby Seed Savers Exchange has helped make the area an epicenter of the heirloom seed movement.

Decorah is in the Upper Mississippi River Basin’s Driftless Area. Abundant lakes and rivers offer opportunity for kayaking, canoeing, fishing and just lazing on the bank.

Andy Nimrod, director of Decorah Parks and Recreation, says Decorah is a community of people who love physical activity and appreciate beauty in their daily lives. “One of the truly remarkable things is how active kids are here,” Nimrod says.

“People here have a sense of pride in protecting our scenic little piece of Earth and taking care of our community. It isn’t a town of 8,000 people who all hold hands and agree with each other,” Nimrod says. “People disagree with each other — sometimes passionately. But there’s a willingness to participate in a process, work through the issues and then come back in ways that keep the community together.”

Stats: Decorah, Iowa

Population: 8,118
Climate: 35” annual avg precip.; January avg. high: 27 degrees Fahrenheit; July avg. high: 84 degrees F
Median household income: $47,370
Median home price: $147,300

K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden. Find her on .

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