Engineering Firm Serves Ag, Food Industries
Warning! Your browser is extremely outdated and not web standards compliant.
Your browsing experience would greatly improve by upgrading to a modern browser.

Why Iowa? Q&A with Derek Johnson, PE


Derek Johnson


After earning a degree in civil engineering from Iowa State University, Derek Johnson started his career at an engineering firm in Chicago. After eight years there, Johnson and his wife moved their young family back to Iowa and the Des Moines area in 2011. 

Johnson joined ISG in 2014 to start and build the firm’s Des Moines office and expand its Iowa presence. The professional design and engineering firm was founded in Mankato, MN, in 1973, and has grown to 10 offices, including Storm Lake and Waterloo in Iowa, and more than 300 employee-owners across the Midwest. The Des Moines location now employs about 50 people and has a new office in a renovated factory in Des Moines’ East Village district. 

ISG provides design and engineering services in 12 Business Units ranging from Food and Industrial to Sports and Recreation and Education to Public Works across the Midwest. 

Johnson and his wife Kristen have 2 children: Cole and Molly. He is active with Des Moines Partnership Downtown Development Board, coaching various youth sports, ISG Board of Directors, past Director with the Historic East Village Neighborhood Association and diligently working on the Honey-do-list. 

1. What agricultural and food processing facilities has ISG been involved with? 

In our 40+ years, ISG has built a strong base of expertise and clients in agricultural production and processing, working with some of the most innovative companies and producers in the country. 

We have designed and engineered facilities representing about 40% of laying chickens in the U.S., from laying barns to egg processing facilities, including egg grading, breakers, dryers, and plants for further processing. We also work in both growing operations and processing in the swine industry and have expertise in helping companies and livestock producers with both permitting and wastewater treatment and management. 

We work with grain elevators and grain handling facilities for companies and cooperatives in rural communities. A trend we’ve seen increasing recently is the growth and expansion of smaller, local meat processing plants in communities across the Midwest. 

Additionally, we design drainage systems in rural areas that not only improve performance for producers but also improve water quality for all of us. ISG is the leader when it comes to innovative design solutions for rural systems. 

2. What advantages does Iowa offer to companies building ag facilities in the state? 

Iowa offers several advantages to companies that locate any type of agriculture or food processing facility in the state. First, the proximity to raw materials from livestock to crop production is second to none. Iowa also provides both the land resources and water availability that facilities need, and logistics infrastructure allows shipping of goods and materials both in and out, with Interstates 35, 80, and 29 running through the state and quick access to Interstate 90. There is also great rail access and intermodal facilities. Finally, the practical approach taken by the state’s regulatory agencies strikes a good balance between protecting the safety and natural resources, but also provides opportunities for growth and expansion for companies and producers. 

Nearly all of Iowa’s land is utilized for agriculture. This natural resource serves the state well but has also shaped its education and legislation for over a century. Having that unified direction is exceptionally valuable and a huge leg up over the competition. 

3. How are ag facilities today improving efficiency, sustainability, and safety? 

Innovations in technology and facility design are improving efficiencies, producing less waste, and providing a safer work environment in nearly every type of facility we work with. Adding robotics, remote controls and operations, and tighter operational controls are allowing facilities to reduce repetitive tasks for employees and better monitor processes and animals. 

We’ve also seen a more intense focus on water quality in a number of ways. We’re working with clients on how water is recycled and reused in facilities as well as new technologies to improve water and wastewater treatment processes. These technologies along with the nutrient reduction and nutrient management strategies that producers are implementing are making an impact across the state. 

Across a number of ag sectors, we are also getting better at adding value to things we considered by-products 15 or 20 years ago. Whether it is the increasing demand for dairy ingredients like whey and dairy protein, or better analysis of the nutrient value in manure, it adds value to products for farmers and the ag industry. 

4. What advice would you give someone considering a move to Iowa? 

I can’t say enough about the value of our move back to Iowa for our family. Living in Chicago was a great place for a young single person and young married couple, but when we had children, it was really obvious that we wanted to move back. For some reason, it just seems like there are more hours in the day to get things done. I grew up in a small town in northwest Iowa, and even larger cities like Des Moines seem to have the small-town feel and values, but with everything a city can offer. 

We’ve found that people in Iowa – at every level in companies – are more approachable and accessible, but also at the cutting edge of technology. There is a lot of pride in the state, and that shows in the investment of time and resources people put into making it better. 

5. Please give us three recommendations of things to do or places to go in Iowa. 

Check out Des Moines! There is no shortage of great things happening, with the building of the Lauridsen Skatepark and the development of the Central Iowa Water Trails project. Des Moines is also a great sports town, with top-notch minor league sports action that is both affordable and approachable, including Iowa Wild hockey, Iowa Wolves basketball, Iowa Barnstormers football, and Iowa Cubs baseball. 

The Historic Park Inn in Mason City is the only remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Originally opened in 1910 as the City National Bank and Park Iowa Inn, the building was restored in 2011 and is now a boutique hotel. It is a hidden gem with terrific food and well worth a day trip and overnight stay. 

The Driftless Area of northeast Iowa along the Mississippi River provides unique scenery and a great craft brew scene. 

Published April 2021. 

Corridor News