Thursday, July 28, 2011

Zen and the Art of Bicycling Madness

 Joining the Two-wheeled Migration across Iowa
During the final week of July, the Des Moines Register organizes Ragbrai (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), a trip that attracts thousands of riders to the country roads of Iowa as they take seven days to get from the Missouri River to the banks of the Mississippi. Like a peaceful, spandex-clad army, they eat their way through the heart of the breadbasket, and in doing so, they savor the products that farmers produce, and they experience the remaining vestiges of small-town life.
In 1981, I rode with the ninth annual Ragbrai event, and I’ve joined in several times since then. No need to point out the changes in me over the years: body parts that protest more, increased awareness that Iowa is not flat, and a decreased appreciation for the ambience of portable toilets.  Because this year’s ride comes thirty years after my first, it’s more interesting to look at the changes and similarities that have occurred in the agricultural world we bike through.
Ten Observations from the Changing Fields of Dreams
1.     Fewer animals graze in pastures or stand in feedlots. Most are in confinement buildings. However, hog farms still send out that sweet smell of bacon on the hoof if the wind is in the right direction.
2.     The fields are still lush in a year when rain has been plentiful. The pollinated corn is uniform and planted in every available spot, and soybean fields are amazingly well-behaved: weeds seem to be lying low for now. Genetically modified crops rule the landscape.
3.     Disappearing farms. Biking a mile of country road used to mean passing two or three farms. A thousand acres is no longer a big operation. The fields are beautiful and productive, but the rolling plains seem a bit lonelier.
4.     Rural towns may be shrinking, but small-town hospitality is alive and well. Buy food from the kids at an ice cream stall; get your picture taken in front of the Prohibition Era jail; listen to the local talent sing country rock songs or watch them clog dance; strike up a conversation with a farmer at the town’s beer garden.
5.     Food is still the focus. There’s just more of it. We still have pork chops, beef burgers, chicken sandwiches, and pie (a religion for many bikers). Smoothies and breakfast burritos have moved into prominence on the menu, and even some tofu, pasta, and salad items are edging in.
6.     Bike technology has boomed in the 21st century, but a disgruntled proctologist must still be designing the bike seats. Unlike the casual wear of the past, most riders wear padded spandex shorts and Tour de France looking jerseys. By the end of a hot day full of hills, most of us need an extreme makeover no matter what we were wearing or riding.
    7.     The beat of the road has changed—but only to a point. Katy Perry and some hip-hop might boom out of boxes strapped on bikes, but Lynard Skynard and Parrot-head Buffet top the charts overall. With the average participant age in the forties or above, I guess enough riders are still looking for that lost shaker of salt.
    8.     Farm equipment has gone science-fiction style. You can see the classic putt-putt tractors on display in some of the towns, but the newest harvesters and mega-tractors look more like transformers that could double as space stations. The costs probably resemble that too.
9.     Climate change or not, Iowa’s weather is controlled by a supernatural being with a wry sense of humor. This year, tropical heat and humidity. Thirty years ago, the coldest summer day on record with a slanting rain. Usually, it’s summer beautiful, but you can count on a headwind no matter which direction you turn.
10.  The people in the pack and along the way make the trip. More groups now (Team Donut, Team Road Kill, Team Wasabi from Tokyo, and 130 fit-looking riders from the Air Force), but mixing friendly riders from around the world with the good folk of Iowa still seems to produce a week of goodwill for all concerned.  It’s ag-world at its best.  by Dan Gogerty, CAST Communications Ed.
Note: Many blogs, photo links, and news stories document the ride. These two are good for starters: Nathan Hurst gives some basic facts (248,000,000 calories consumed on the trip!) in this link. For an inspiring look at some riders who overcome challenges, check out the story and video from Erin Kiernan. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Trying My Best to Live and Let Live

Sweet Corn, Raccoons, and Dead Goldfish

                In a Beatles’ song from the sixties, Rocky Raccoon loses a fight and fades away.  Now that sweet corn season has arrived, plenty of farmers wish the same fate would befall the raccoons that raid their corn patches.
            Old timers claim raccoons have a sixth sense about sweet corn. They raid patches the night before the farmer plans to harvest the ears.  It’s safe to say that raccoons cause thousands of dollars worth of damage each year, but the saddest fact comes from the scene left behind: raccoons often take a few bites from a perfectly ripened ear, discard it, then grab another one. The patch ends up looking like one of those unexplained crop formations done by a bad artist with anger management issues.  
The battles against raccoons fall into several categories:                                                                                                              
·          Frightening them: Lights, scarecrows, dogs, and noise are key methods, but many report that after a day or two, the animals just ignore the irritant. One farmer claims that he set a radio to play hard rock music after dark, but on the second morning, he found empty beer cans, cigarette butts, a multitude of raccoon tracks, and ravaged corn.                                                                                                                                                                                                
·         Exclusion: I’ve heard mothballs or ammonia might help, but most sweet corn patches are large, and scented repellents don’t seem to work. Electric fences can help, but my brother swears that he had a raiding party that used a volunteer raccoon to sacrifice itself by lying over the wire, and the rest leapfrogged over to do their damage.
·         Trapping: Raccoons are curious, and it doesn’t take much to lure them into a live trap. The problem is this: what do you do with an irritated 25-pound ball of fur rattling in a cage? The recommendations I’ve heard include calling the authorities (especially if the animal might be diseased), taking them for a long ride and releasing them (passing on the problem), or taking them for a “Goodfellas drive” (the don’t ask, don’t tell solution). Other types of traps are available, but it’s best to find out about local laws and humane treatment issues.

           Sweet corn season is a religious experience in the Midwest, so the struggle with raccoons will continue in earnest on that stage. My recent personal battle involved the small fish pond in our back yard and the nine large goldfish that became raccoon sushi. In one week, I caught six of them in a live trap. No need to go into details, but I will say: no animals were harmed in the making of this blog.  If the raids in my yard continue, I’m not sure I can guarantee that will continue to be the case.    Dan Gogerty, CAST Communications Editor

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trying Really Hard Not to Get Food Poisoning

August 2013 Update:  Prepackaged salad mix has been pinpointed as the source of an outbreak of cyclospora -- an intestinal illness tied to a rare type of parasite -- that has sickened scores of people in Iowa and Nebraska, health authorities report. This video/article gives information about the outbreak and advice regarding food poisoning

** Salmonella, E. coli, and food recalls. A guy could get paranoid. This blog from the past still contains information regarding food poisoning and how to avoid it.
Three and a Half Suggestions that could save your life:
#1 Listen to the experts. The FDA publishes papers such as 7 Tips for Cleaning Fruits and Vegetables. Valuable pronouncements like “wash hands, refrigerate produce, and don’t eat rotten fruit” might be common sense. But other gems are less obvious. In another online article, an Ohio State University professor provides a website with some research-based information about avoiding foodborne illness: What to do when you eat out and find lipstick on your water glass (relax); what to do if you have a plate with a crack in it (complain).  After reading his material, you might decide to carry your own fork around with you.
Poison Hemlock: Parsley's Deadly Cousin
#2 Don’t confuse lambsquarters with poison hemlock.  According to weed scientists, nature provides us with some common weeds that are edible and, in these tough economic times, cheap. In his classic novel, Ray Bradbury had the right idea by concocting dandelion wine, but he didn’t go the step further by frying the yellow blossoms, as this article, Weed Society Lists Some Unwanted Plants That Can Make Tasty Treats, suggests. The weed experts confirm that I also was on the right track when I had to forage and eat off the land to achieve a certain merit badge when I was a fifteen-year-old Boy Scout. For one item on my gourmet survival menu, I boiled up some lambsquarters, a broadleaf weed that grew among the thistles and cow pies in our farm pasture. Even Andrew Zimmern would scoff at my meal that day.  
     The weed folks warn us about toxic plants that put on a false front. Poison hemlock apparently looks like parsley, and I suppose I could have accidently cooked up some of the deadly nightshade that had killed a 200-pound pig on our farm a few years before.   
     The weed scientists give another thoughtful suggestion: Avoid weeds that might have been sprayed with pesticides.  We’re probably getting enough of those from the fruits and veggies we buy at the store.
#3 Carefully research the brave new world of “gastronomic adventures”:  As reported in a Culinary Trend Mapping Report, consumers are finding new sources of tastes on the food spectrum.  From curries to Sea Buckthorns to tamarind, today’s recipe items include international spices, selections from the wild, and reworked flavors from the past. The online article about this trend mentions two Japanese items: yuzu, a tart citrus fruit, and wasabi, the sinus-clearing horseradish-like condiment famous for its pairing with sushi. Which takes us to the final tip.
#3½   Don’t eat raw meat sushi at a county fair in Iowa:  This last suggestion rates only a half point on the scale since a reader can decide to go either way with it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of fish sushi I’ve found in Iowa, but here in this Midwest state, we’re known for cooking (at times incinerating) our meat properly.  An online article from Tokyo, Sushi Brings Out Japan’s Carnivore Girls, states that raw meat sushi is experiencing a boom there. But a follow-up article, New Rules Planned for Raw Meat Sellers, advises caution. During my years working in Japan, I only ate raw meat once, and that was unknowingly. The paper thin slices of red meat covered in a soy-based sauce we were served in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture turned out to be horse. We suffered no ill effects, but as far as I know, the many other servings of sushi/sashimi I had during those years all came from something that swam in the sea.
As our diets change and our nutritional sources diversify, the food industry faces new challenges to provide safe, abundant food. CAST has published several papers and a video that add to the much needed core of credible information explaining the issues.  Check out  Food Safety and Fresh Produce: An Update (this link includes free access to a published commentary and a three-part video). Many more publications are available at the new CAST website.
By Dan Gogerty, CAST Communications Editor