Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cattle Grazing in the Living Room

Note: According to recent reports, more people in their 20s and 30s are going into farming. Young people are joining university ag programs, farmers markets, and ag social media forums.  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called for 100,000 new farmers within the next few years, and Congress has responded with proposals that would provide young farmers with improved access to USDA support and loan programs. The blog post below is an update of last year's holiday entry. CAST wishes you all a Happy New Year.

     On the day of my eighth Christmas, I spent much of the time harvesting the carpet and penning up a herd of cattle in the living room.  First I had to arrange the plastic fence that stretched from the barn to the TV stand.  Most of the cattle grazed comfortably in one spot unless my brother ran through the room and did a four-year-old’s version of cow-tipping.  The field that needed harvesting was between the lounge chair and the sofa.  I did not have a real combine in those early years of farming, but I had real kernels of corn, so loads of grain magically appeared, and I hauled them from my “south forty” using a green cab-less tractor and non-hydraulic wagon.
     I had some distinct advantages as a starting farmer: Dad’s Christmas gift was a red wooden barn he had made, with a hinged hay-mow door and the classic white trim around the edges.  From past birthdays and a few trips to the local Ben Franklin Store, I had some basic equipment and enough cattle and hogs to start a decent operation.  And few farmers enjoy climate control as I did.  On that winter day, I farmed in 72 degree comfort as sun rays slanted in through the large picture window.
     With some creative applications of Lincoln Logs and erector set pieces, my ag-operation grew, but I imagine my interest waned as I discovered the hard work and constant attention a farm requires.  Or maybe I just had to move the barn and livestock so Mom and Dad could use the living room again.  Either way, I hope that in this era of high-tech equipment and confinement farms, some kids still take possession of a barn with a cupola on top and some plastic cows that need a section of fresh carpet to graze on.  Dan Gogerty (photo, ars/usda)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Take This Job and Love It—even if it only pays 50 cents an hour…

First, to state the obvious. Basic child labor laws are essential to keep youngsters from dangerous jobs (coal mines and factories come to mind) and to let them have a chance for play and education. But even in the Dark Ages of the 1950s and 60s, we hopped on the yellow school bus every day, and with four siblings and nine cousins just down the road, we used our Midwest farm as a year round playground.
Along with building dams, snow forts, and  haymow hideaways, we also learned to chore early--moving buckets of grain, milking our lone Guernsey, and eventually grabbing pitchforks to haul manure (my vote: chicken coops are the worst; I still have poultry dust in the upper reaches of my sinuses).
We eventually moved on to driving tractors and walking bean fields, and that’s where the proposed child labor laws come in. The ag community seems abuzz about the possibilities, and many are probably shouting “over regulation” and forecasting doom for farm families and student livestock groups. That might be true; I don’t know the finer points of the proposals, but if something is enacted to truly help with the safety and well-being of children, it’s hard to argue with it. However, if regulations interfere with regular “growing up on the farm" work and proper livestock show handling, then something seems amiss.
Stringent laws would have kept me out of the soybean fields at age thirteen.  We had “walked beans” for Dad a year before, so I knew a bit about pulling the right weeds. When a neighbor needed a crew the following year, brothers, cousins, and I grabbed our gloves and hopped in a pickup truck to head down the road. I think the first job made us 50 cents an hour, so it’s obvious our union rep wasn’t very effective. But we had some fun and made some spending money to go along with bug bites, blisters, and sunburn.
We also learned how to cooperate—or fight—as a crew.  And at times we worked for some enlightening farmers.  One old timer, Clare, lived in the woods and his fields were set along creeks, groves, and rocky pastures. He’d tell us tales of his trapping days on lakes up north: “I’d pull a muskrat from a trap and have him skinned by the time I skated to the next trap.”  We didn’t care if he exaggerated: “We hit a bee hive when shelling corn, and the bees came at us so thick, we were wipin’ ‘em off our brows.”  He taught us how to cool down on a 95 degree day—he took us to a natural spring near the field and showed us how to first put cold water on our wrists then necks before drinking it.  When we grew a bit older, we heard stories of Clare’s booze-running days in the Prohibition Era, but as with most of the tales, we weren’t sure what to believe.
As we matured into hay baling, tractor field work, and hog management, we grew to be less starry-eyed about joining the adult work force, but eventually the gas money I made for the ’56 Chevy dad had as a second car came in mighty handy. I also had a college savings account at the local bank, but I’m sure the amount in it suffers from huge inflation in my mind as I think back to my thrift—or lack of.
So, child labor laws?  I know taxation, safety regs, and other policies have changed, and in many cases, changed for the better. But are new laws going to interfere with farming operations and youth livestock groups? I hope all sides concerned can use a bit of common sense to protect children but also protect useful activities on farms and in clubs.
Personally, I’m glad we had a chance to do a bit of paid outsourced work.  But to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded some government regulations on the unpaid chore work on the home farm. I have a feeling that when I shoveled corn in a huge grain bin or helped vaccinate the hundred pigs in the hog house, the tune running through my head was probably the original line from the classic country song: Take this job and shove it.  
by dan gogerty (photo:

Friday, December 9, 2011

Where’s Mr. Ed When We Need Him?
My only encounter with horsemeat was innocent enough.  I had no idea it was coming with the meal, but I ate it.  Our family was traveling in rural regions of Nagano Prefecture in Japan, and we stayed at a Ryokan--traditional guesthouses that usually provide expertly prepared local fare for the evening dinner.  As the meal progressed, the kimono-clad waitress placed various dishes in front of us, and one contained a paper thin slice of red meat, cooked on the edges but basically rare, soaked with a soya-based sauce. 
During our many years in Japan, we ate plenty of food we hadn’t completely identified, so by the time a friend at the table told us what it was, I’d finished half of the small portion. I ate the rest. I’d probably do the same again in such circumstances, but I wouldn’t order horse meat in my Iowa home region. It wouldn’t be an option, and I just don’t have any desire to eat horse. But some people do.
Midwest gal diggin' into
the glazed grasshoppers
With the change in government policy, it certainly seems that the U.S. will have horse slaughterhouses and will export meat. It’s also certain that many have passionate views about the legal move, but I think one concern should be paramount: The welfare of horses. Is it better to allow slaughter in the U.S. because the ban actually made conditions worse? Not all would agree, but a December 2 blog entry from Brandi Buzzard explains why a horse lover might support the lifting of the ban.  Check out the many other opinions on the Net about this issue if you want.  I’m sure you’ll find views from all ends of the spectrum—except from the horse’s mouth. Where’s Mr. Ed when we need him?
Buzzard’s December 5 entry is more about freedom of choice when it comes to menu items. As she says, income, religion, morals, and taste all enter into the decisions. Once again, not all would agree, but I do understand her point.  In Bali, a boy showed us a large fruit bat in a cage that would soon be on the dinner table. I didn’t eat bat, but we tried frog legs there. In Beijing, we ate at a restaurant that boasted various donkey dishes. I couldn’t get the image of Eeyore out of my mind, so we passed. But in Japan, we did use chopsticks to try the stir-fried, glazed grasshoppers that the locals offered. Crunchy on the outside; chewy on the inside. I haven’t ordered them since. by Dan Gogerty

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ma Kettle Has a Tattoo: The Stereotype is Now the Exception

As a kid growing up on a farm in the 50s/60s, the only people I knew of with tattoos were WWII military vets.  And I can’t specifically picture the designs because nobody flaunted them back then. So when I read a recent blog from“Dairy Carrie” about farmers with tattoos, it reminded me that farmers are a diverse lot indeed. Her posting features some intricate designs—crosses, flowers, skull art--but the one that intrigued me the most is the tattoo wedding ring. It makes sense. My last sustained bout of farming was decades ago, a tour of duty on a hog farm between teaching jobs, and even though I wear only a small gold band on my finger, I still have the scar from when I caught the ring on the metal bar of a feed wagon and ripped my finger open.
Dairy Carrie’s point was not about my farm safety practices; she opens up a forum for those who know that farmers aren’t all cut from the same mold. Green Acres reruns, corn seed ads on TV, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic may have convinced generations of city folk that farmers all wear denim, drive pick-ups, and chew tobacco, but even in my youth, farmers weren’t sun-wrinkled peas in a cultivated row of pods.
A hog farmer three miles north of our central Iowa farm had a go-cart track in his pasture for teen racers, a family five miles west turned a cattle barn into a successful roller skating rink, and my brothers helped me mow and tend a putting green in our backyard so we could hack away with the wedge and putter that an uncle passed on to us.  From late-night coon dog hunts to competitive tractor pull contests, the community did plenty of what might pass for stereotypical rural pursuits. But other farmers were musicians, artists, and airplane pilots—the neighbor who took up ultralight aircraft was only in for the short haul; he walked away from a crash on his maiden flight and decided farming was already dangerous enough without adding stunt flying to it. 
The rural folk didn’t all listen to Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. Many of us farm boys started ruining our hearing by plugging transistor radio buds into our ears and listening to Bob Dylan while we cultivated endless rows of corn.  I remember a dusty July field and the metal box radio bolted to the vibrating fender of a 4020 John Deere; I might hear muffled riffs of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” whenever the tractor was turned in the right direction.  From country music to rap, technology now offers farmers a much broader range.  A few years back, my brother was combining beans in the evening and listening to public radio FM classical music. He called the DJ on his cell phone to request Beethoven’s 7th, and some time later, when the announcer introduced the song, he mentioned that it was requested by a farmer in the field planting crops. My brother made a good-natured call later to let the urbanite know what season of the year it was, and he continues to listen to everything from Gershwin to Zeppelin in his modern air-conditioned cab.
Even though farmers make up an ever-shrinking percentage of the population, they are probably even more diverse now in the high tech digital age.  In some ways, maybe the traditional idea of a farmer is no longer a stereotype but instead a rare lifestyle in its own right. There’s something reassuring about visiting my hometown and seeing folks like my brother-in-law.  It always seems to be chore time; he’s setting his own pace to move from one to another of the endless tasks; and his Great Dane is sitting tall in the passenger’s seat of the pick-up truck when they drive by on the dusty gravel road. On second thought, I think the dog is usually driving.  by Dan Gogerty  (graphic from

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Frost’ll Get ‘Em

Farms aren’t what they used to be. Decades ago, about this time of year, frost would tinge the stubble left after the harvest, and soon winter weather would halt the plowing and dictate a change of pace. The crops were in, and farmers could shift into a lower gear. Wait--check that. Farms were probably never what they used to be. Most farmers didn’t slow down; they tended livestock, fixed machinery, and worked other jobs to make ends meet.
And nowadays, with confinement livestock systems, genetically modified crops, and wireless  Internet access, farmers are often logging on to a year-round digital schedule much like their urban counterparts. But I imagine a few folks still buck the trend and live at their own pace no matter what season of the year pops up on their “Gone Fishin’” wall calendars. One of those off-the-grid characters lived in the small rural town of my childhood.
In the sixties, Pooch’s gas station sat just off Main Street, but in some ways it was in its own time zone.  You would eventually get your tank filled, and you might get your windshield washed, but if you were in a hurry, you soon adapted to Pooch’s own version of self-service.  “Go ahead.  You know how the pump works.”  He might be busy in the grease pit or he might be on the padded wooden bench, opening his tobacco pouch and listening to one of the locals saying, “You got some mighty big horse weeds along the side of the building, Pooch.”
 “Ain’t that the truth. Oh well, the frost’ll get ‘em soon enough.”  Lighting his pipe and talking with friends outranked weed-eating on his priority list.  So did having a cup of coffee with his wife, Hazel.  With his house adjacent to the old barn that had been converted into the gas station, Pooch could sit in his kitchen, and with the help of a rearview mirror he had attached outside the window, he could see if anyone drove up to the pumps. 
Pooch functioned according to his own clock.  He was a good mechanic, and before taking on the gas station, he had run a corn-shelling operation and been a farmer.  His livestock got fed, but if friends drove up during chore time, Pooch could be persuaded to “put the buckets down til later” in exchange for a local road trip.  He and the boys knew where the morel mushrooms hid out and which fishing holes paid the highest dividends for the least effort.
Pooch treated everyone with respect, whether they were fishin’ buddies or high school kids.  His gas station was the teen-center during the American Graffiti Era.  After football practice, we’d park our ‘57 Chevys and ’65 Mustangs along the dusty street, and inside we’d shoot the breeze while eating ice cream bars and drinking Dr Pepper laden with salted peanuts we had dumped in the old style bottles.  Pooch’s payment system was a haphazard mixture of fuzzy math and an idealistic honor code.  The pop machine sat nestled between Penz Oil cans and cases of Coke bottles, and the key was in the machine door, so we grabbed our own.  Usually on a Friday, Pooch would say something like, “We’re $2.75 short this week, boys.”  We’d grumble at each other about who was the cheap skate and then toss enough coins on the counter to cover the deficit. 
Pooch didn’t make much money with his business practices, but he deposited plenty of goodwill in town.  He might tell a story, make a wry comment, or occasionally set up the practical joke that most “newbies” experienced when they first came to the station.   Some guys would be sitting around while a few worked on an engine, and Pooch would ask the “inexperienced kid” to pull the lever that adjusted the height of the car lift.  A short in the wiring resulted in a jolt equivalent to getting shocked by a livestock electric fence.  The initiate would do a little dance and utter a few phrases, but nobody ever got hurt, and the state safety inspectors were none the wiser.
An early frost took Pooch, but his philosophy lingers. Some things are worth getting excited about, but we need to set our priorities, and in his own way Pooch foreshadowed the “don’t sweat the small stuff” movement with his opinion of the hassles and unnecessary tasks we often take on.  “Don’t worry; the frost’ll get ‘em.” 
by Dan Gogerty (photo from; edited from a version originally published in Our Iowa Magazine) 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

International Delicacies--Tarantulas, Eyeballs, and Squid Pizza

Feb. 2014: Bon app├ętit...
This new article offers us international treats ranging from tarantulas to puffer fish to birds’ nest soup--and coffee from beans that are produced by an Indonesian cat (you might not want to know the process).

From Sept. 2013:  In case you've been anxiously waiting, somebody has released the revised edition of 40 Ways to Cook Crickets, Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin

The media is crawling with reports about the UN recommendation that we all consider eating insects. Apparently, two billion people already do--and that doesn't count those of us who involuntarily suck in bugs while biking on warm summer days. Edible insects are being promoted as a low-fat, high-protein food that comes with appetizing side benefits: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and livestock pollution, creating jobs in developing countries, and feeding hungry people around in the world. 

I'm no culinary expert on bugs, but I will recommend the glazed, stir-fried grasshoppers at a yakitori shop in West Tokyo. A table full of Japanese salarymen offered us a serving, and we couldn't refuse the hospitality as my daughter shows in the photo at the right.
Glazed, stir-fried grasshopper

Eyeballs on the menu?  This npr article points out that they are taboo for many, but in some countries, diners can "see eye to eye" with the idea. Maybe eyeball consumption gets a blank stare from diners because of the texture or perceived taste, but some experts says it is because eyeballs represent faces--and some cultures have a thing about eating anything that's looking at them.

I may have eaten eyeballs in some dish or another along the way, and I've certainly been served whole fish on many occasions. But when it came to the head, I checked out the cheeks, not the eyeballs. A friend who liked to fish told me years ago that a little pocket of fatty meat in the fish cheek is the best part, and after my non-scientific, random research, I'd say he's right.

The eyeball article got me thinking about food preferences around the world, and this entry I wrote from November of 2011 captures some of the varied fast-food items that are dished out--from a Rugby Burger to a McGrillschnagg.

McSquid Burger?  Menu Globalization Works Both Ways

A recent online story highlights the obvious: Tastes around the world vary.  And even though major fast-food companies appear to be homogenizing the world with a one-size-fits-all product, they occasionally bend to local customs and sometimes benefit from taking their menus outside the box.  The MSN article, “Ten Fast Foods You Can’t Buy Here,” shows food items that major companies have modified to appeal to local tastes outside the United States.  Subway outlets in India offer curry and tandoori flavors in their sandwiches; Pizza Hut’s Chunky Loaded Pizza in Malaysia has so many layers, some think of it as a casserole; and Burger King’s dessert in Holland, The Hot Blondie, might not be politically correct to everyone, but the brownie, chocolate, and ice cream mix would probably appeal to most taste buds.

Squid Pizza
I should have jumped on this trend years ago. My wife and I spent four years in Australia during the 70s, and we knew we weren’t in Iowa anymore when the burgers we ordered came with “the works.”  Aussie grass-fed beef patties were topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, a fried egg, and beetroot; some snack bars in the Outback added baked beans and mashed potatoes. I needed a funnel to get it in my mouth without losing half of it. So now in the online article I see that Wendy’s in New Zealand stacked up a similar formula and called it a Rugby Burger. I’m not sure how many in the United States would scrum up for a burger garnished with beets. 

And in Japan, Burger King has the Meat Monster with cheese, bacon, onions, tomato, and chicken precariously perched on a burger. The carnivorous irony of it all. When we lived in Japan during the 80s and 90s, the object was to do as much as possible with small portions of meat.  At that time, McDonald’s offered a Ginger Chicken burger and a three-section rice container, with sprinkles of tuna, egg, and hamburger layered over the respective sections. The McEverywhere franchise had the traditional meat patty in a bun wherever we travelled, but I did hear rumors of protests in cow-worshipping parts of Hindu India. Now I see they’ve added a McVeggie there, plus a type of Bubur Ayam chicken soup in Malaysia, and two items in Switzerland that must make the locals yodel with joy: the McZuri (veal) and the McGrillschnagg (sausage).

Before McDonald’s and Starbucks conquered the universe, Kentucky Fried Chicken had outposts in most of the countries we visited. As far as I know, the secret recipe for chicken did not lose much in translation, but I see that KFC has now added a dessert called the Krusher in Australia, Germany, and South Africa. With flavors like mango, Kit Kat, and Triple Choc Crunch, the drinks are mixed with large chunks of fruit or candy. How do you say “finger-lickin’ good” in German?

Of course, mass-produced fast food does not represent what the “locals” eat in general. Consumer tastes are influenced by tradition, religion, availability, climate, and economics. But the world has become more internationalized, and global corporations overwhelm local restaurants and threaten mom-and-pop grocery stores, so I guess it’s good to see that the mega-companies occasionally bend a bit too. Maybe the influence works both ways. Twenty years ago we took our children to a Tokyo Pizza Hut for the lunch buffet that included pizza slices topped with everything from corn to pineapple to squid. Nowadays in Ames, Iowa, I can order a large variety of pizza toppings and sample plenty of ethnic food. The old days of choosing only between a meat or cheese pizza are over. No McSquid burgers here yet, but I’m fine with that.  by Dan Gogerty (photo from