Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ag Social Media “Ain’t Nothing New”

   Ag producers of all types are taking to social media like digital pigs in cyber clover, and during the past two years, the number of farmers using cell phones, blogs, and Twitter accounts has risen exponentially. Cattle ranchers check the latest markets while feeding livestock, dairy farmers maintain blogs to enlighten others about modern milking techniques, and ag-enthusiasts from various backgrounds join Twitter sessions such as AgChat to keep up with the “buzz.”  A California professor believes marketing through social media could soon reshape the mainstream relationship between farmers and consumers, and many agree that agriculture has entered its own digital age.
   A few old-timers aren’t that impressed. Raymond turned most of the farming over to his son years ago, and he knows that digital applications are part of the operation now, but he contends that they had plenty of social media back in the mid-twentieth century. “Rural telephone systems used party lines back then,” he points out, “and you knew more about your neighbor than any Facebook page can tell you.”  Nearly 90 years old, Raymond is like the wiki-page of information about early rural phones. “Subscribers saved money by joining a group line, and each household had its own ring. Ours was two shorts and a long, and only one person could use the line at a time. If I called my friend Eddie about goin’ huntin’, the other eight or ten families on the party line had to wait to use the phone.”
   The system had obvious drawbacks. Others could listen in, and some dominated use of the line. Raymond claims he and Eddie kept it short. “Our calls were more like tweets or whatever my grandson calls ‘em. But when Eddie’s sister was talkin’ with her boyfriend from Marshall County, you may as well try an hour later unless you wanted to eavesdrop and listen to them saying ‘whatcha’ doin’?’ Sigh. ‘Nothing much; how ‘bout you?’ Sigh.”
   Raymond continues listing his reasons why social media “ain’t nothin’ new.”
   “Bloggin’ back then? You bet. Aunt Doris would call Mom every morning to keep us -- and anyone eavesdroppin’ --  informed about her arthritis. Mrs. Anderson explained her family’s trip to Clear Lake so well, Mom knew how many fish each of their eight kids caught. If phones then could send Polaroid snapshots, we’d a had to look at Mr. Anderson in his swimmin’ trunks. Makes me glad we didn’t have  Facebook.
“And Twitter? Our small town switchboard operator, Pauline, was a one-woman Twitter account. She could plug in all circuits and send a special call for emergencies, activities, or bargains at the Dry Goods Store. She might ‘tweet her followers’ about severe weather, a kid lost in a cornfield, or some local boy just back from military service.  I’ve read excerpts from some of them politician’s Twitter messages, and I gotta tell ya: Pauline’s messages were a whole lot clearer.
   “We even had spam back then. Remember I mentioned Eddie’s sister? The older folks might just make noise when lifting the receiver to nudge a long-winded conversationalist along. We kids were a bit cruder, more in the Three Stooges style of etiquette.”  
   Some in our small town like to point out that Raymond often has a cord running up to his ear from the iPod in his flannel shirt pocket. “Big band tunes.” he says. “It ain’t quite like being there, but I gotta admit, the sound quality is the cat’s pajamas.”  And Raymond has been known to use his cell phone on occasion. “Sure, they have some advantages. You couldn’t take the party-line phone with you on the tractor. On the other hand, no party-line phone ever interrupted Sunday church services with a hip-hop ringtone blasting out.”
   As Raymond knows, agriculture is now “wired, wireless, and plugged in.”  CAST provides several links to digital information, and we suggest you check out the CAST website, CAST YouTube videos, and the CAST Twitter account.       Dan Gogerty, December 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Didn’t Know I was a Post-Nutritional Recycler

During the pre-confinement era, hog houses had to be mucked out by hand, one pitchfork load at a time, and it was a Saturday morning ritual on our farm.  We’d prop a transistor radio on a dusty ledge, make sure our five-buckle boots were snug over our tennis shoes, and start slinging it. We’d talk, argue, yell top-40 lyrics, and think about how to get the smell out of our hair before the school dance that night.
A recent ag-essay refers to those who deal with manure as “post-nutritional recyclers.” (click HERE for the article) The writer is being facetious about politically correct statements, and his article asserts that manure is not waste, it’s a natural fertilizer that works smoothly with the cycle of farming sustainability. His light-hearted tone slides into scorn when he refers to those who fear manure pollution, and he seems to scoff at the outcry regarding water pollution. He believes farmers should be left to regulate their own manure management.
Most Midwest farms today recycle manure in “honey wagons,” huge caldrons on trucks or behind tractors. They pull the liquefied manure from pits next to the confinement “motels” that dot the countryside. Post-harvest is the best time to spread the nutrients, and last week I drove through a perfect storm of what some farmers call “the smell of money.”  Iowa’s Interstate 35, from Ames to Clear Lake, dissects the most heavily populated hog counties in the country, and on a warm October evening, the smell of “hog nutrients” hung in the still air like organic tear-gas.  The pits were getting emptied and the soil was getting enriched. Out-of-state drivers probably thought they’d entered a porcine twilight zone.
Some communities have tried to restrict hog confinement placement, and letters-to-the-editor reflect deep emotions concerning this issue.  Some claim regulations are overly-strict and the industry is vital to agricultural growth; others worry about health issues, decreased property values, and threats to groundwater. Although most seem to accept that hog farming is a vital industry, it’s the location that often raises a stink. You don’t need to be a “scratch-and-sniff” expert to know that manure smells different for the pig owners compared to the neighbors who live downwind. And water quality experts know that most farmers work hard to keep manure out of waterways, but fish kills and groundwater pollution in the Midwest indicate that some don’t do the right thing.
My brothers, cousins, and I generally worked without parental oversight on those barn-cleaning Saturday mornings. But occasionally, equipment would malfunction or sick pigs might need attention or maybe even an argument would break out. When the “nutrients hit the fan,” we needed some regulating. Manure is a natural part of animal agriculture production, and I guess the producers and the public need to figure out how much regulation the modern post-nutritional recyclers need.
CAST provides thoughtful, research-based publications (many for free download) on this topic and many other agriculture, science, and technology issues. Click HERE to search the list.
Dan Gogerty, November, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

It's What Farmers Do

October 2014Another example of “what farmers do.”  As this article says, “An Illinois community came together this week to harvest their neighbor's crop. Here, a look at the kind of sowing and reaping that doesn't involve a crop.”

October 2013:  An Illinois family gets help from neighbors in a time of

June 2013: North Dakota farmers came out in force to help a fellow farmer in need. They brought tractors, drills, and a helping hand and planted all day.  (photo--modernfarmer.com)

These types of community actions are common place in rural communities, and the blog below (from several years ago) reflects that spirit--especially in times when tragedy strikes a farm family.

Neighbor is a Verb

Statistics place agriculture near the top when it comes to fatalities on the job.  Regulations and technological advances have helped, but tragedy can strike even when a farmer is simply trying to finish the harvest. Mark Brown of Anita, Iowa, worked his final harvest on October 14.
Rescuers found him dead under his burning combine. He apparently was trying to unhitch part of the equipment to save some of the machinery from the fire. Brown had sailed around the world in U.S. navy submarines, but he settled on the land, and he became passionate about his family, his faith, and his farm. He also became a statistic in the ledgers of farm dangers.
Mark Brown’s untimely death points out more about agriculture than safety awareness.  As a Des Moines Register article put it, “One of rural Iowa’s greatest traditions was renewed.”  Neighbors arrived with combines, friends prepared food, and at one time, a line of 39 semitrailer trucks stood by to haul grain. The Brown family had 1,400 acres of corn still in the field, and the neighbors made sure the harvest carried on.
I left the Midwest and its rural communities for 25 years, but Dad sent letters with hometown news, and I was relieved to note that even as the farming landscape changed, some of the spirit remained. In the 90s, he wrote, “A few good old boys helped Albert and his two sons combine the rest of his corn while he slows down a bit for some chemo treatments.”  In another letter, he pointed out that “Arden spent much of the week in Des Moines where they’re treating his son for leukemia, so Scott and another neighbor did his chores.” 
Good neighbors bake pies for funerals, deliver sweet corn in the summer, and help roundup cattle that have gone walkabout. The community barn-raising days are mostly gone, but Dad’s letters contained anecdotes about the sharing that occurs in agricultural circles. “Larry and his family lost their house and belongings in a fire but some neighbors let them use the house and all its furnishings while they’re away in Arizona.” Dad pointed out that the ones giving usually got greater rewards from doing the deeds than the recipients did.
Being neighborly is not peculiar to Iowa. No doubt, rural folks around the world have ways of bonding together and helping each other out. Agriculture is a dangerous profession, but for many, it is more of a “family” than a profession.  A few days after her husband’s death, Nancy Brown looked out her kitchen window at four combines harvesting corn and said, “It’s what farmers always do.”  Dan Gogerty,

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Fog of Words: “Factory Farm” Moves from Oxymoron to Connotation

The term “Factory Farm” was an oxymoron when I grew up decades ago in the Midwest. Factories were for manufacturing. Our farms were for corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle. The two concepts were in parallel worlds. According to a survey reported in Feedstuffs (click HERE for link), the term still evokes parallel connotations. Although all sides seem to consider it a negative label, they do so for varying reasons. For some, the term represents large facilities where animals suffer, antibiotics are overused, and food safety is an issue. For others, the term is a slur used to generalize about all farm production systems that have moved beyond the old ways.

A non-factory farm is the one I grew up on. Cattle grazed in pastures by small creeks, hogs rooted around in the dust of feed lots, and chickens fluttered around, spreading feathers in small fenced areas. On still summer nights, I heard the hogs on the neighbor’s farm lifting the lids on outdoor grain feeders. Cattle in our pasture moved along in foraging groups and occasionally became truly “free range” when they broke through a weak spot in the fence. Chickens raised an alarm if a fox lingered too long outside the coop.

In reality, most of these farms are gone, replaced by larger family farms or by an agri-business set-up of some type. More grain and animal products are produced now, but which of these can be labeled as a “factory farm”?
A Google search of the term brings nearly half a million hits. Most definitions contain a reference to agribusiness and confinement practices, but opinions vary about size and specific practices. For some, any type of mass-production, when it comes to animals, is wrong. Others are certain that the old ways will not produce enough food to feed growing populations. The key question probably is: No matter what techniques are used, is the producer considering the welfare of the animal and the safety of the consumer? In the end, the farmer needs to answer this.

Factory farm is no longer an oxymoron, but I’m not sure it is yet a dictionary definition either. Many have their own connotations of the word, so the more we communicate about agriculture and solid farming techniques, the better. Research can help. CAST has published several related papers including a recent Issue Paper, Ethical Implications of Animal Biotechnology: Considerations for Animal Welfare Decision Making. Click HERE to access. CAST offers many other science-based publications, most of them free. To check the list, click HERE. Dan Gogerty Oct., 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Green Revolution Evolution: Passing on the Gift

The Green Revolution comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. With the World Food Prize conference this week in Iowa, Norman Borlaug’s legacy continues through the efforts of the people and programs honored there, and it turns out that Borlaug’s call to help the hungry has turned into a variety of voices and a chain of helping hands.

One of the co-winners of the World Food Prize, David Beckman, finished his speech to a gathering at Iowa State University Monday night by saying we all need to “give a damn” if we want to end poverty and hunger. The Lutheran minister and President of Bread for the World pointed out that it takes individual activism to enact the big political efforts that help those in need. For example, schools in the hills of Mozambique get built because a member of Congress in the United States worked tirelessly ten years ago to enact debt reduction for impoverished nations. He urged a green revolution that comes in the form of organizing, persuading, and legislating to give people the means to help themselves.

The other co-laureate, Jo Luck, took an organization that sounds more like a 4-H group from a Midwestern town, Heifer International, and led it to prominence as a globally effective resource for the poor and hungry. The organization has helped over 12 million families lift themselves out of poverty, and even though her movement is massive, her green revolution sustains itself with grassroots activities. Donors in one country provide a water buffalo for a women’s group in Nepal; they eventually make enough to send starter money to a needy group in China. The “heifer revolution” comes in the form of bees, trees, rice, and even silkworms.  As one African participant said, when the system flows smoothly, it is like “living waters in the heart.”

The Borlaug CAST Communication Award winner, Dr. Akin Adesina, travels the world and organizes United Nations committees, but like Beckman and Luck, he knows that the real global revolution occurs at the grassroots level—the smallholder farmers. He is passionate about the African Green Revolution, and a prestigious prize only spurs him on in his “mission to ensure that all Africans have access to better food and nutrition.” He went on to say, “When we improve the lives of African farmers, all Africans will benefit.

Borlaug’s Green Revolution succeeded due to scientific discoveries and practical applications. As demonstrated at this year’s World Food Prize forum, huge organizations, political groups, and big companies certainly make an impact, but smallholder farmers may hold the key to the ultimate success of the movement to end hunger. The green revolution may take many forms as it evolves, but in the end, it comes down to hands—hands that are discovering, working, helping, and passing on the gifts of food production.   Dan Gogerty, October 12, 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Essential Harvest

Somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, a farmer is digging out a cassava plant to use the roots for food and cutting up the stems for planting the next crop. In the Northern Hemisphere, a farmer is performing a similar task with potatoes. From scraping dirt off vegetables to driving massive machines across expansive fields, the harvest is crucial, and with the world’s growing population, food production remains the most important human task.
In this traditional time of harvest, many are still hungry, and the words that acclaimed scientist Dr. Akin Adesina says about his home continent ring true for us all: “It is a mission to ensure all Africans have access to better food and nutrition… We must accelerate a green revolution in Africa.” Dr. Adesina will be in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 13 to receive the prestigious Borlaug CAST Communication Award. But more importantly, he will continue his role as a leader and proponent for agriculture around the world. He knows we need common sense practices that feed people no matter where they are harvesting, whether that might be in his home country of Nigeria or in the fields of central Iowa.
In America’s Midwest, the harvest is occurring now in the cool of shortened days. Farmers in huge machines leave trails of dust across fields of corn and soybeans, and loaded wagons form silhouettes against glowing sunsets. When modern farmers finish the day and leave the relative comfort of the tractor cabs, they smell warm diesel exhaust and hear the drone of grain-bin dryers.
The meaning of “harvest” varies according to place and time.  With modern seed corn and science-fiction like machines, a farmer outside Des Moines can combine hundreds of bushels in a day. But as one old timer recently pointed out, “We’ve hauled nearly as much corn in the past few days as my Uncle Fred harvested during the entire fall of 1939. He hired out to pick corn by hand for a neighbor.  By Thanksgiving, he’d picked 4,400 bushels, and by my reckoning, that’s 260,000 ears, and he did it one ear at a time.  He got paid $175, enough to pay off his car loan.”
Whether farmers are eating their produce or using it to pay off loans, they need to use techniques that make sense for them, the consumers, and the environment. Whether they are bending over in a rice field or handling a $200,000 combine, they ultimately are doing the traditional and essential work of harvesting the crop. As Dr. Adesina says, “Agriculture is the key to poverty reduction and broad-based economic growth.”     by Dan Gogerty