Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Let Them Eat Dirt--Farm Kids and Good Germs

The famous five second rule has been studied and debated, but it usually comes down to what the food is, where it falls, and who it's for. A grape that goes walkabout for a bounce or two on my kitchen floor? I'll probably wipe it off and pop it in. A small square of watermelon that flies off my grandson's high chair tray onto the carpet? Trash it. 

But the authors of the latest research on kids and cleanliness have me once again thinking about proper germ etiquette. In their book, Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World, two respected doctors say that parents whip out the hand sanitizer too often—dirt and germs help microbiomes develop, and that makes for healthier kids. 

As they wrote, “At first we studied microbes that cause disease, and we feared them just like anyone else. But more recently we began taking notice of other microbes that live in and on us--our 'microbiota.' As we continue to study the microbiota of humans, it is becoming clear that our exposure to microbes is most important when we’re kids. At the same time, modern lifestyles have made childhood much cleaner than ever before in human history, and this is taking a huge toll on our microbiota--and our lifelong health."

I grew up on a farm, so I'm still trying to get hay chaff out of my hair and the smell of Bossy our milk cow off my hands. The following blog from a few years back explains my take on dirt and germs--click here to access the original posting that includes several more links about the hygiene hypothesis, including some scientific research.

Farm Germs Might Be the Best Medicine

Research suggests that farm kids have fewer allergies than city kids do—and the hygiene hypothesis might demonstrate why. According to some experts, we’re too clean nowadays. Our immune systems protect us by learning how to fight bacteria and other invaders. We need to “get down and dirty.” 

I’m a bit skeptical of this theory, but because of my upbringing, I want to believe it. Raised on a Midwest farm a long time ago—in a galaxy far, far away—my brothers and I were the perfect study group for the “unhygienic theory.”

About the time JFK was asking the country to ask not, we were exposing ourselves to just about any germ that had ever heard of central Iowa.  During summer—before we were old enough to do much farm work—mom would open the screen door after breakfast, letting us out and a few flies in. Dad and his brother ran the traditional corn, soybeans, pigs, and cattle farm, but in reality, it was a 400-acre magic kingdom for my brothers, cousins, and me.

The creeks, barns, pastures, and groves provided the types of playgrounds no modern designer could match. And even though we never thought of it, these places must have been crawling with enough germs to make a bacteriologist drool.

During a typical day, we might crawl through poison ivy, build dams in murky stream water, and run through clouds of ragweed pollen. Our kid quests would take us under rusty barbed wire fences, through tick infested groves, and across pastures laden with fresh cow pies hidden in the grass.  By lunchtime, one of the gang had been stung by a bee, stabbed by a fish hook, or hit in the back with a mud pie.

We didn’t call it locavore food back then, but the hearty noon meal gave us a few minutes to pick cockleburs out of our socks and flick a few garden peas at a brother when the folks weren’t looking. For their part, Mom and Dad would take a head count, tell us to be safe, and then release us hounds again after the 12:30 cartoon show was over.

We’d had the usual school vaccinations, and in those days, the folks might “cleanse us” with deworming medicine or take us in for a tetanus booster shot if we stepped on something nasty in the creek. By the time we returned to the house each summer day, Mom could shake the dust off our overalls, but we had spent the hours as host organisms in a rural petri dish, so I imagine a half billion or so germs stayed attached. 

After supper, we slid out into the yard where we played ball or set up miniature farms in the dirt.  The barn cats scratched around with us, and my brothers occasionally shared their tootsie roll pops with our dog, Smoky. By the time the mosquitoes let up and the lightning bugs started flashing low along the grass, we knew it was time to go in.

I don’t know if we farm kids ended up with fewer allergies and illness, but if having fun is a way to immunize yourself from disease, then we had a heavy dose of some powerful medicine. 

 by dan gogerty (drawing from Don Smith, photo from corbisimages.com)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Why Farming Is Like March Madness

March brings us spring, St. Patrick’s Day, and the craziest part of the basketball season—March Madness. Fans across the United States will get their fair share of wins and losses, upsets, heart-pounding moments, and excitement. Many elements make up a game of basketball in March Madness which reminds me of a lifestyle that has taught me a lot—farming. So to combine two of my favorite obsessions, here are eight ways March Madness relates to farming.

1. Unpredictable Brackets Are Like Unpredictable Markets
Mathematicians predict that you have a 1 in 9.2 quintillion chance of picking every outcome in the March Madness bracket—how about that for odds? But just as the bracket is unpredictable so are the markets for the agriculture industry. If farmers knew how the markets would play out then I guarantee you my dad would have fewer gray hairs on his head. Farmers take risks every day when it comes to the markets. It seems to change at least four times a day; 8 a.m. corn up 4, 11 a.m. corn down 5, 2 p.m. corn is back up by 4. Just as we speculate about who is going all the way in the tournament, farmers contemplate when to sell and when to hold off for the best outcome.

2. Predicting When the Lightning Will Strike
In most basketball games, teams get hot and cold, and in March Madness you never know when a team is going to bring the heat that makes the thunder roll and the lightning strike—I guess that’s why they call it March Madness. It’s no different for farmers—they are always watching the weather to see how it will affect their operation. But the weather can take an unexpected turn at any moment and leave farmers scrambling to make up for the sudden change in plans—just like a team that loses its momentum and then has to work to catch up to its opponent.

3. Peaking at the Right Moment
In any sport, a team wants to peak at the right time of the season, just as farmers want their crops or livestock to peak at the right time. A team’s momentum in the tournament is like that cornfield that fills out and ripens for harvest at the perfect time.

4. Knowing the Game Plan
Good basketball teams have a game plan that involves offensive and defensive strategies. Farmers work in the same manner with a game plan set in place for their operation. It usually begins before planting even starts—taking yield counts from previous years, selecting the right variety for a specific soil type, knowing what insurance to take for certain fields, and working to minimize soil erosion on all fields. They plan ahead to determine which fields to take out of production and put on the bench for a break. Just as coaches know who to play in certain situations, farmers know what to add and take out to ensure a profitable crop.

5. Referees for Basketball—Regulations for Farming
In any sports match we have referees to make calls—some we agree with and some that have the power to turn a whole game around. Regulations are the referees in the farming world—some protect and help the farmer, and some seem to work against a farmer’s best interest. Either way, farmers and basketball teams have to work with the calls made and make the most out of any situation.

6. Slam Dunks
There are moments in all games when the spirit and moral is low, but a flashy slam dunk is all a team needs to turn things around. Slam dunks come around every once in awhile in the farming world—it’s a moment when things just click together, something as simple as a storm passing on a field of fresh cut hay or a sick animal finally overcoming its illness. Slam dunks keep us going for the promise of a new day.

7. Fans
No matter where the tournament takes a team, they will have fans that bring spirit and encouragement to each game. In a way, farmers have their own set of fans they can fall back on when times get tough. Faith and family are two things a farmer can always lean on for support. No matter where a team or farmer goes, fans provide support and encouragement every step of the way.

8. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
The team is more than just the players alone; the coaching staff, managers, athletic trainers, bus drivers, and athletic directors come together to make the tournament a success. Farming is no different—family members, farm managers, farm hands, veterinarians, seed dealers, neighbors, and the community join to make the wheels go round. With all working together, no dream seems too big to accomplish.

In many ways the NCAA tournament relates to farming, but one key difference is that farming goes year-round. Food production does not take a time out. All these elements give a glimpse of what farmers go through 365 days a year. It’s a long journey—filled with trials, tears, excitement, and happiness—but it comes together in the end to make it all worthwhile. Exciting ball games; essential food production. Swish!

by Hannah Pagel (ISU junior and CAST admin. asst. intern)

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

WOTUS, Clean Water, and Bursting Dams

Farmers, environmentalists, and politicians are often trying to keep their heads above the rising tide of water controversies. They swim in the churning currents of water rights, food production, regulations—and the need for all to have access to safe water. Two current news items, a science-based research paper, and a visit with farm kids playing in a pasture creek might give you some insights.
Waters of the United States (WOTUS)--What the heck is a nexus? 

President Donald Trump filed an executive order to review the WOTUS rule, and new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt hinted a rewrite may include the removal of the so-called "significant nexus" test. This recent article explains the basics of the “nexus principle” and the probable changes coming to the WOTUS rule.

Clean Water Rule--will they turn off the water works?

This article/podcast provides an overview of situations involving agriculture and the Clean Water Rule, and it also looks at a specific water dispute, the lawsuit involving the Des Moines Water Works and farmers in three Iowa counties.  

Assessing the Health of Streams--what's the prognosis, doctor?
The Clean Water Act of 1987 states that the elimination of pollutant discharge into navigable water is a national goal. Despite conservation efforts, water quality problems still exist; agricultural states struggle with balancing productive landscapes and water quality. Legislation, potential regulations, or allocations of millions of dollars to change agricultural practices seem warranted only if we know stream water is favorably impacted by modified agricultural practices, and in which streams the greatest potential impact might be observed. This science-based research paper from CAST looks at these situations: Assessing the Health of Streams in Agricultural Landscapes: The Impacts of Land Management Change on Water Quality.

When the Dam Bursts--excerpt from an earlier blog

Eight of us are scattered in the creek and along the bank where the water cuts into the cow pasture. We’re moving stones and clumps of sod or pushing large sticks into the shallow water. Breeches in the small dam continue to pop up, but we’re slowing the flow. Our preteen mob of siblings and cousins can accomplish plenty if we call it play and not work. 

A scraggly cottonwood tree clings to the east bank, and the light breeze jostles the shiny leaves that reflect the afternoon sun. Nothing else is going on in the world—our horizons end where corn rustles in nearby fields and where livestock barns form distant silhouettes in the summer haze. Our parents are light years away in a fog of work and whatever else grown-ups do. We have cool water, bare feet, and warm sand. The small pool grows enough to convince us of our powers. 

The younger ones aren’t much help, but they’re into the buzz of it all. They see the water rise, hear us brag about making a swimming hole, and maybe believe us when we talk of constructing a dam like the beavers did a mile or so downstream in the woods.

For a while we ignore the blowflies, and we’re too wet to feel the sun searing into our shoulders. A couple of us dog paddle and scrape our knees in the backwater. Terry, the oldest of the cousins, names it the Grand Coutie Dam.

About the time a rip in the dam opens up, the youngest cousin gets tangled in nettles and a few of us start a mud fight. Eventually a cloudbank casts a long shadow, and the breeze shifts to the northwest. We dog paddlers shiver a bit and pull on our T-shirts.

“Hey, I think Mom’s baking chocolate chip cookies this afternoon,” my brother says. On the walk home, we avoid the bull thistles by following the cattle path in the pasture. The younger ones lag behind, but we turn around often enough to make sure they’re coming. 

Mom makes us step out of our wet Keds, but she knows the kitchen will soon be marked with mud, cockleburs, and loud boasts about conquering the creek. By the time we’re halfway through our cookies and milk, clear flowing water has opened several large holes in Grand Coutie. Tomorrow, the bend in the creek will look about the way it did earlier this morning when the sun rose over the farm. 
by dan gogerty (bottom pic from rxflyfishing.com)