Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Farmers Are Thankful, Too

Thanksgiving.  The time each year when most American’s reflect on the blessings they have in their lives.  The people, health, activities, events, and things we have that make life good.  Often we hear or see tributes to the farmers who raise the food that we eat on Thanksgiving and all year long.

So what are farmers most thankful for?  There are many different things that farmers are thankful for each year, and I cannot say this is completely inclusive or that it speaks for all farmers, but I am very confident it resembles most other farmers. 

A safe growing season. 
Ample rain. 
Long, warm growing season. 
Our fertile, black soil. 
A bountiful harvest. 
Successful calving seasons or pig farrowings.
Healthy animals.
Beneficial, safe treatments for livestock when they are sick.
Working with family in our farming operation.
Raising our kids on a farm with plenty of open green space.
Living in our rural community.
And most importantly people around the world that trust us to feed their families.

Farmers are grateful for our land and what careful cultivation can create for our family, community, and others.  I think there are few better to handle the challenges of continuing to cultivate, preserve, and improve our natural resources than farmers.

Enjoy a Happy Thanksgiving with your family and friends with a big meal from our bountiful, safe, wholesome, and diverse food supply.   

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Des Moines Water Works versus Dells Water Parks

Like millions of Americans we celebrated the last weekend of summer with a road trip on Labor Day weekend.  Our recent tradition has been a getaway with my sisters and our families for what we call “cousins vacation.”  This year our trip was to the water park capital of the world - Wisconsin Dells.  We had a great weekend of family, food, pools and water slides.  The pools were crowded with families all enjoying what was probably that last hot weekend of 2015. 

As I floated the lazy river and wave pools for hours, there were a few things I began to notice about the pools.   First, it was obvious the park works hard to keep everything spic and span, clean and safe. Probably the most telling sign was the eye reddening, skin irritating doses of chlorine in the water.  That smell of bleach water that assures us the water is safe and clean.    But there were also some mixed signals.  There was the glob of hair clinging around a drain, the chewing gum I stepped in wading into the wave pool, the kid in the inner tube next to me hacking up water back into the pool, and of course there’s always the youngsters like my nephew in water soaked swim diapers in the pool.  And I should not forget there were thousands of barefoot people walking hallways, hotel rooms, parking lots, pool lounges, and rest rooms and then walking right into pools.   Did I still feel safe in the water? – Yes, just like the thousands of others around me.

Being surrounded by this “clean” water it made me think of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against the three county drainage districts.  We all want and need safe, clean water, however, the rhetoric needs to be put in perspective.  The waterworks needs to bring the nitrates in their drinking water to the EPA’s 10 ppm (parts per million) standard established in 1992.    That’s a high standard when dealing with surface water from rivers, rather than sourcing drinking water from groundwater.  Accusations have been thrown around on who is responsible and what must be done to make it safer.  

Most people do not go to a pool or water park expecting clean, fresh water without the additional chlorine treatment.  Reasonable people understand that even though the water is pulled from common sources, extra treatment is needed to keep it safe because the amount of traffic and various contaminates that may make it unsafe.  A similar and realistic expectation needs to be made for the nitrates in the water flowing into the Des Moines Water Works.  There will always be a need for treatment of drinking water.  It may be adding chlorine, adjusting the alkalinity, changing fluoride concentrations, improving the hardness, or removing excess nitrates.   Even if no agriculture fertilizer was applied, there would still be a need for a nitrate removal system because of Iowa’s natural soil fertility and Midwest weather patterns. 

Thousands of people bring their families to Wisconsin Dells every summer to enjoy the water parks and pay absolutely no attention to the little things that add up to water quality.  They are reassured by that ever present chlorine smell.  Meanwhile, Iowa has thousands of farmers who are paying close attention to the little things they do every day and do their part to improve and preserve water quality in our rivers and streams.  Farmers are working hard following the plans outlined in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy to responsibly apply crop nutrients and control run off to improve Iowa’s streams and rivers.  Improvements on water quality are coming, but the ultimate results won’t happen immediately.  It will come over time as the efforts are multiplied across farms throughout Iowa and the most practical solutions are identified and shared.  Farmers need to share the successful stories to reassure Iowans of their water’s quality and safety.

It’s hard for many people to get past the rhetoric and scare tactics being used by the Des Moines Water Works, but my weekend at Wisconsin Dells showed me that most people are reasonable when it comes to their expectations of water.  Let’s move forward using that common sense.  Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a good place to start.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Do As I Say, Not As We Did

This summer our family had the opportunity to host a group of Danish farmers.  The bus load of men from across Denmark came to America to learn more about risk management, agricultural manufacturing, and production practices.  The group was a cross section of family farmers, most with livestock, a few with only crops, and a couple who were organic producers.  They had visited the Chicago Board of Trade, John Deere, Pine Lake Ethanol, and came to our farm as they wound down their trip.

After touring the farm, visiting the feedlots, checking out the corn crop, and taking self guided tours around the machine shed, we sat down for a barbecue.   Then we started to solve the world’s food problems over a cold one.  I had prepared myself to explain and justify the use and safety of biotechnology, but I quickly realized most of our visitors were bigger proponents than me.   “I feed GMO soybeans to my broilers (chickens).  I just can’t grow them myself.  Don’t do what we did.  The European Union ignored science and now we are stuck.”

He explained that they had pretty good soils as a whole, not like central Iowa, but generally very productive.   Denmark limits nitrogen to rates below the economic optimums.  In Europe it’s about 50% less than they used in 1985, plus farmers are restricted from using GMO seed.  While land prices and inputs are comparable in price, yields are limited.   He said they are competing in a world market, and the regulations put Denmark at a big disadvantage.   They had the research but followed the emotional argument.

He then asked, “Do people pay the real cost for organic milk and eggs in America?”  I really didn’t know how to respond, but luckily he continued, “Organic products are subsidized in grocery stores so they are cheaper than conventional milk and eggs.”  Again he reminded me that America shouldn’t do what Denmark had done.  They ignored the real consumer demand for the organic product, which is much lower at real prices.  

As we continued our discussion politics came up.  They had just had elections and with the various parties, the top vote getters were still forming a coalition for control.  “We’ve spent decades trying to get out from the control of government rule (a monarchy until 1849), but they keep adding more rules and laws.  We aren’t trusted.  Don’t do what we do.

I thought a lot about that last thought since then.  Our founders fled Europe for freedom, and it seems like ours keeps eroding away.   Our ag regulations keep growing all the time, and I am afraid we will do as they did, not as I say.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

4-H’s Lessons of Life

This year’s 4-H projects came to a close this week when the kids’ steers were sold at the local sale barn in Tama.  This is not the first time through the production cycle for them, so there were no long good-byes.  As Abby and Nick helped load the steers, we took time to save the ear tag that read “Spike” from one steer.   Abby herded them out of the barn quietly, and as each one passed the gate Nick patted them one by one for the last time, and then he announced “That will be some good hamburger.”  I guess I wouldn’t expect anything different from a farm kid who affectionately named his pigs Sausage, Ham, and Bacon the day they arrived back in March.

There’s many lessons learned each year with their livestock.  Each year the knowledge gets a little deeper.  Animal care and health, feed rations and nutrition, and of course learning more about exhibiting and showing.  The character and responsibility they gain are tough to quantify but are more apparent each year.   They can’t do it all by themselves, and they shouldn’t.  Some people say 4-H showing is more for parents than kids, but just like school or sports kids need guidance, encouragement, and assistance to learn and become better.  The family time and new friendships gained are invaluable as well.   The idea of creating a network and resources to get help or exchange ideas will benefit them long after 4-H.  There are very few activities that teach the life skills and about life itself like these projects.

Growing up on a livestock farm, the kids knew the reason for a market hog or steer was to provide food for people.    As Abby puts it, “People have to eat and these will taste good”.  So the kids learned to do the best possible way to raise their animals and market them to provide a safe wholesome food supply.  There is also a special respect for life that cannot be learned any other way.  On our way home from the sale barn, their attention turned back to plans and goals for next year.  The kids are anxious for this year’s calves to be weaned and up for sale so they can start the cycle over for another year. 

Nick’s gilt named “Bacon” found an unexpected home this year.  She turned out well enough as Reserve Grand Champion to earn a spot in a local show pig producer's herd after the county fair.  This has led to a lot of questions of the hows? and whats? about the entire livestock production cycle.  Learning about the wonders of nature and people is a never ending cycle.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fair, Food, and Politics

When it comes to the pulse of politics, the nation comes to Iowa for the Iowa State Fair.  The first in the nation status makes Iowa a central power in telling the nation who should be each party’s nominee.  The honest, hardworking, common sense Iowans are interviewed on the nightly news and morning network programs. 

When it comes to food the nation passes over Iowa and the heartland to focus on the coasts.  Hollywood and Washington DC are the focus.  Actors and superstars are the "experts" on food production practices and technology while lobbyists and activists fill the streets and hallways of the nation’s capital.  All of them quote food production facts commonly found searching random websites or memes on Facebook.  The national media loves to tell the Iowa story when it comes to politics, especially when a candidate is holding a deep fried food on a stick, but when it comes the politics of food, food production, and food safety Iowa is the last place they want to come.  Iowa’s status as first in the nation doesn’t end at the caucus.    Iowa leads the nation in corn, egg, and pork production.  It’s essentially the capital of our food production.

Politics in food is nothing new.  Remember the original Tea Party?  Two of the latest topics are biofuels and biotechnology, which have hit the political circus because of the effects of food prices, availability, safety, and production.  Facts fly freely in debates on the topics and most claims go unchecked.  It’s the passion and emotion behind the facts that really garners the attention from Americans.  The sensationalized facts are repeated over and over again by foodies, celebrity moms, and anyone with a keyboard or smartphone.  The Iowa farm families who are sought out for photo ops with politicians are not included, or worse, their testimonies are marginalized because the facts come with point blank honesty and a solemn voice.

Farmers and our families are not going to get the prime time spots to tell our stories of the safe and wholesome food we produce to feed America and the world.  Each and every one of us must tell our story of how we produce the meat, grains, vegetables and dairy consumed each day.  We have to use the facts, but weave them into a compelling story of what we are doing each day and give examples of our first- hand knowledge.  We need to tell our story any and every way we can in coffee shops, carpools, ball games, elevators, churches, on Facebook and Instagram.  We may not often get the major media sources, but when we do we need to share the facts so American families see the passion we have what we do, because every story matters. 

Your story may be like the Pork Chop On A Stick that Hillary Clinton carried around the fair on Saturday because it may not be completely eaten, but one bite may get the message across.  Those fifteen minutes of fame will make a difference to someone.  This is my contribution to telling the true story of agriculture, because farmers matter. Welcome to the Bacon Burger Blog.