Spanish degree takes Iowa State senior on global adventures

College student on dairy farm

During a trip to Germany in fall 2019 for the IAAS European
Directors Meeting, Adam Bittner visited an organic dairy
farm in Cologne. Photos provided by Bittner.

AMES, Iowa — Adam Bittner’s enthusiasm for agriculture, language and travel has taken him from local farms in Iowa to a cattle ranch on the southern tip of Argentina — and so many places in between.

Bittner graduates from Iowa State University this weekend with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a minor in U.S. Latino/a studies.

He grew up in York, Pennsylvania, a suburb in the metro area of Washington, D.C. But what started as a high school summer job in the metro area as a farmhand with black angus beef cattle turned into Bittner’s love for farming.

“It opened up a whole new world to me of agriculture,” he said. “I think that was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was the first step to get to Iowa.”

As a freshman at Iowa State, Bittner started out studying agricultural business.

“That first year changed me a lot,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone at the university. I was 1,000 miles from home, completely restarting. Some weekends I would be flying home. Then the spring of my freshman year, my dad passed. That was hard … but everything happens for a reason, and it taught me a lot. I was able to find meaning in it.”

He had an opportunity to transfer to a university closer to home but said Iowa had a hold on him — the people, in particular.

“I’m really thankful that I’m going to be able to have the title of an ISU grad,” Bittner said. “Everyone goes through a lot in college, but the community at Iowa State, in Ames, in Iowa, is what kept me there.”

Discovering the world

Through his first internship at the insurance company Nationwide, Bittner traveled about 500 miles a week visiting large- and small-scale farming operations around the D.C. region. He says this experience showed him countless examples of where our food comes from.

In spring 2019, Bittner decided to take a gap semester. He found an internship in Patagonia, Argentina, where he worked on a 100,000-acre estancia (a working cattle ranch). At this point, Bittner didn’t speak much Spanish, but it didn’t matter. He learned what it meant to live off the land, spending his days working the ranch, drinking mate and finding ways to connect with gauchos.

“It was an off-the-grid location. We were creating our own power with stream and solar panels,” he said. “There weren’t any jet trails in the sky. This place is so remote. It’s a unique way of living that you can’t replicate in many other places in the world.

“It taught me a lot about where I wanted to be in life, where I was putting my energy and what is possible for me. It was like living in a total dreamscape.”

Bittner returned to Iowa State that fall and realized that ag business wasn’t the right fit, so he looked at the world languages and cultures department. He added a minor in Spanish, and it eventually became his major. It wasn’t a random choice; he grew up surrounded by Puerto Rican and Cuban friends and appreciated the culture.

Language + agriculture

He joined the International Association of Students in Agriculture and Related Sciences (IAAS) student organization, getting involved in sustainability events and supporting local farms and food systems technologies. In November 2019, he traveled to the IAAS European Directors Meeting in Germany.

“That event made me more of a global citizen,” he said. “I was the only American who went. I was mixing with all these other Europeans.”

In February 2020, he traveled with IAAS again, this time to the Youth Assembly in New York, a leadership event centered on international education and cultural exchange. Then COVID-19 hit, and Bittner decided to try something new. Through IAAS, he taught English online for 90 students, most of whom were from Greece, Morocco, Guatemala and Mexico. He grew his global network once again.

Last year, he spent two weeks touring organic farms, agroforestry operations and an indigenous coffee co-op in Guatemala. Then, he traveled to Turkey for a month, serving as the emcee for the World Congress. Today, Bittner is the national exchange coordinator for IAAS for the U.S., facilitating agricultural exchanges for students from around the world who want to work in agriculture.

Bittner is wrapping up his final semester in Spain.

What’s next is up in the air. He ping-pongs between ideas but there’s a thread through everything: applying his language skills and global connections to advocate for small-scale farmers.

“People are starting to wake up to where their food comes from, which is good, but there’s a lot of misinformation,” he said.

Bittner may participate as an agriculture extension agent with the Peace Corps. His plans also include moving to Puerto Rico – with one of his childhood friends – to work for an agricultural consulting startup. Startups excite him because “the sky’s the limit.” Plus, it won’t be his first foray into entrepreneurship. Before the pandemic, Bittner joined a friend from Algeria to start an import-export company that would bring his family’s olive oil from Oran to U.S. markets, although the pandemic put this venture on hold.

Last fall was Bittner’s final semester physically on campus.

“It was emotional leaving,” he said. “It felt really surreal. I’m a fifth-year senior, I took a gap semester, I’ve changed majors – but it feels like it went in the blink of an eye. Already I’m looking forward to what’s next.”