Monday, December 31, 2012

Doc on Ag—Predictions for 2013

Note: Doc Callahan, retired professor, part-time farmer, and full-time pontificator, lays out his predictions for 2013. Doc’s viewpoints are not necessarily those held by CAST—or, frankly, anyone else.
So, time for a little prognosticating. Some naysayers will point out that I was off on several of my predictions last year, but you can’t blame me if the Mayans miscalculated their calendar and the Cubs didn’t win the World Series--for the 104th year in a row. Anyway, I’m confident this list contains the news you need to know before you even know you need to know it. So toast the passing of 2012 and let’s look at the year ahead.
1     Early in 2013, legislators pass a fair and concisely written Farm Bill that satisfies all interest groups. Later that day, a flock of pigs flies over the Capitol Building.
    Livestock producers and animal rights groups decide that Temple Grandin should arbitrate a ruling about the use of confinement buildings, cages, and stalls. She devises a plan that lets the animals decide.
   Jamie Oliver endorses a new McSlime Burger after he goes on an educational tour of packing plants and meat processing facilities with Dr. Oz, Oprah, and Andrew Zimmern.
   The Bureau of Aging and Nostalgia encourages a “Tech-less Tuesday” program. Some farmers seem interested until they realize that means milking by hand and not tweeting at all one day a week.
5    A new reality TV show features genuine farmers caring for their land and livestock. Its ratings knock Honey Boo Boo out of the top spot on cable networks.
   The book, Fifty Shades of Bacon, briefly hits #1 on the NYTimes nonfiction list, but sales fall off when the public realizes it really is a cookbook. (editor's note: Apparently Doc doesn't get out enough as our research shows this is actually a book published in 2012 and available on Amazon--and it does offer bacon recipes. When we contacted Doc, he said, "Dangnabit, it's impossible to write satire anymore cuz reality is stranger.")
7    Weird Al Yankovic records a parody of the agriculture parodies done by the Kansas farm boys. Its title: “Thank God--and You Tube--I’m a Country Boy.”
   Vendors at the Texas State Fair offer deep-fried-fat-and-cream-cheese-on-a-stick. Sales are brisk, but the Heart Association tweets, “Our hearts go out to anyone who eats this; #flatline #bypass.”
9    A new super tractor includes a cab equipped with heated seats, tinted glass, and a 56-inch flat-screen TV. A small jacuzzi is optional. 
     It looks like another great year to be involved with agriculture. Oh sure, we might have to contend with drought, floods, pests, weeds, regulations, fluctuating prices, bad publicity, and nematodes, but let’s face it—food production is important and rewarding.  Happy New Year, Doc   (by dan gogerty, cartoon from

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Farm Christmas--Red Barn, Mismatched Livestock, and Memories Stuck to Our Boots

When Dad spent hours building a classic barn for a Christmas gift, we kids were lucky in several ways. First of all, he is not a carpenter by nature. Baling wire and masking tape are his fix-it preferences, but he held a productive family farm together for decades, so maybe he was hiding his engineering talents. On that Christmas morning years ago, we found a beautiful red barn with white trim—and a hinged haymow door that had us baling the carpet and hoisting small Lincoln logs we used for hay bales.
My brothers and I were fortunate in other ways. Johnson’s Hardware in our small town and the Ben Franklin store in the nearby county seat had basic farm toys—cabless tractors, a wagon or two, a few plastic Holstein cows. We could usually find packets of white plastic fence and during the holidays, the bigger store might have something exotic like a four-row planter. But the offerings were basic, so we had to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Erector set pieces provided some props, and we could use small boxes, marbles, thread spools, or other items to make grain feeders, pig sheds, or water tanks. On special occasions, we used jelly beans or M&M’s for grain, but not surprisingly, the yield was mighty small by the time those loads made it to market.
Our animals looked like early versions of genetic engineering gone bad. They were mismatched sizes, several were bent from being stepped on, and at times I imagine a horse or camel was used to fill out the cattle herd in the pasture. The tractors weren’t much better. Enough of the tire rubber came off you’d think we were in the steel wheel era, and most of them had scrapes or mud left over from the summer when we’d set up a farm in the lane.
Now, when I check the Internet or walk through kids’ stores, I see plenty of the basic “Old Macdonald’s Farms” for the little ones, and an impressive variety of machines ranging from classics to high-tech monsters. But with fewer family farms dotting the countryside, I wonder if the “let’s play farm” experiences are the same. Old-style windmills, slatted corn cribs, and small, square hay bales are probably found only in the relics section on eBay. And now that we see so few pigs, chickens, or even cattle in the open air, I’d imagine the Christmas morning carpet is covered with less livestock--and many more action figures or discarded video game boxes.
I can understand. Even most farm kids aren’t going to ask for a confinement building or a liquid manure spreader for Christmas. Then again, you never know. I recall occasionally spreading shredded paper manure on the carpet after cleaning the pens in that classic red barn. We must have stepped in it too. Seems that once you’ve lived on a farm, it’s awfully hard to scrape the lifestyle and good memories off your boots.  by dan gogerty (barn photo from; carpet photo from aquietlifeinaloudhouse.blogspot)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are—but Maybe Shouldn’t Be

Jan. 2017: 
This Michigan homeowner found a trail of destruction after coyotes ransacked his abode.

July 2015:  Coyotes instinctively fear humans and usually run away when they see one. But, as they become more numerous in cities, there have been some rare exceptions.  

April 2015:  NYPD officers nabbed a wily coyote Saturday who made a rare trek to lower Manhattan. Sightings are increasing in New York City, and some experts say as many as 2,000 coyotes live in Chicago. Another report claims that "urban coyotes" have a longer life span than their country cousins.  

May 2014: Moose on the loose--this news video reports about a moose's two-city tour and the police efforts to keep it and people safe.

This recent National Geographic article looks at animals who now "commute" as they try to get around in our expanding cities.

Coyotes at Wrigley Field

The rural population shrinks as more people move to the cities, and it seems that some animals have the same idea. Recent news reports indicate that wild animals are joining the move to become urbanites--elk sightings in Kansas, bears lumbering into several cities, and a mountain lion shot in a Des Moines residential area.
In our mid-size town of Ames, a fox and her three kits set up home in a small park behind our house. One day my wife lifted our toddler grandson onto the merry-go-round and the fox darted out. Her kits were cute, and we hoped the family would help with our rabbit infestation, but the mother fox eventually moved on. Maybe she reckoned plentiful rabbits didn’t compensate for speeding cars and rambunctious two-year-olds.
Lately, the most brazen “wild things” are coyotes. When I was a kid in Iowa, we figured a coyote was either a romantic symbol of the Wild West or a not-so-wily creature that often had an animated anvil dropped on him from above. We would have thought it “cowboy cool” to have coyotes loping across the fields on the farm. Now they’re so thick local farmers need to take measures to protect their sheep from them. Facing gun-toting hunters, coyotes apparently think city life looks more appealing.
A recent report indicates that coyotes have been haunting Chicago’s downtown district and the Wrigley Field area. As a long-suffering Cubs’ fan, I know it used to be rather barren and lonely around Wrigley during post-season time, so maybe the coyotes found the right spot to hide out. However, 2016's World Series hoopla may have changed things--with all the celebration, maybe no one even noticed a few coyotes had joined the party.

But let’s face it—wild animals and tame people are not generally a good combination. We’re probably going to see more coyote road kill, bears in trees shot with tranquilizer guns, and mountain lions shot with real guns.
I’m not blaming the animals. Their habitat is shrinking, and especially during winter or drought, a McDonalds’ dumpster or backyard fish pond can look mighty tempting. And some people actually bring the wild things into their world. A Des Moines police officer says he has seen a Bengal tiger in a drug bust, an alligator in an apartment, and a number of monkeys. Exotic animals escape, a pet python becomes too big to trust around the family poodle, and in some cases, a wild animal that has been “tamed”—such as a raccoon—rips into a small child.

Attack of the Protective Ground Squirrel
I must admit, as a kid I tried to tame a creature from the wild. Ground squirrels had burrowed in at the far edge of our lawn, and with help from my brothers, we dumped enough water down the hole to make it surface. Wearing thick leather gloves, I grabbed it and transferred it to a big tub in the basement. I placed some water in a lid and gave it dandelion stalks for a snack. Beyond that, my eleven-year-old brain had no further plans. We went swimming at a small-town pool that afternoon, and by the time I returned, I figured the furry thing was domesticated.
When I reached in—gloveless--to pet it, the ground squirrel bit my right index finger, and like a snapping turtle, it would not let go. I shook it, yelled, jumped around in the basement, screamed some more, and before I could think of a solution, Mom was coming at us both with a wooden baseball bat raised in the swing-for-the-fences position. I had never seen Mom even bunt, so her solution scared me worse than the animal attack. With drops of blood flying, I raced up the stairs, burst out the door, and soon enough, the animal and I parted ways.
Maybe we all need to figure out how to coexist with wildlife. I know I learned a few lessons: Animals need their space. Wild animals don’t make good pets. And a Mom protecting her young should not be anywhere near a baseball bat. by dan gogerty (cartoon from; coyote pic from; ground squirrel pic from

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why I Am Not a Farmer: Patience, Pitchforks, and One Ugly Rooster

Update--July 2016: Why I Farm Project
The “Why I  Farm” project aims to honor the American farmer by sharing video stories and connecting with consumers.

Update--July 8, 2013--Why I Love Farming...
This blog link includes videos of farmers explaining why they farm---and why they are passionate about it. 

My earlier post below also praises farmers--but delves into... 

Why I Am Not a Farmer 

I loved growing up on a Midwest farm, and I still visit the home place as often as possible. But by age fourteen or so, I knew my days of tractor driving and hay baling were numbered. Maybe the decision came on a Saturday morning in a stuffy hog house as I lifted yet another pitchfork load of soggy manure. But when I think back on the main reason I left “the Good Earth,” I have to admit, it was my lack of patience.

Good farmers know how to be thoughtful and measured in their approach. Herding cattle? Easy and smart beat frantic and fast. Fixing an ailing truck engine? The right tools and a logical approach work more smoothly than a sledgehammer and duct tape. And waiting for rain during a drought? Patience and prayer are healthier than worry and profanity.

Even though I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer, I did give it one more test run a few years after leaving the family farm. My wife and I returned from two years of teaching high school in Australia, and I needed summer work. For several months, we lived outside of Iowa City and resided in the hired hand’s house across from a thriving farm operation run by two brothers.

I felt comfortable doing field work, hauling grain, and feeding livestock, and I could even handle the 6:00 a.m. rising time. But I did draw the line at 6:00, and one incident symbolizes why I knew we weren’t destined to be modern day Ma and Pa Kettles.
For several mornings in a row, the ugliest rooster ever born started up his cockadoodle-dos at 5:00 a.m. outside our bedroom window, and by the fourth sunrise performance, I’d had enough. I hopped out of bed, ran through the back porch, grabbed a pitchfork that was leaning next to the door (really—this was Grant Wood territory—you had to have a pitchfork ready in case of emergency), and acting like a man possessed, I went after the rooster. He was ugly but not dumb. Within seconds, he wiggled his way deep into a wood pile thirty feet from our house, and even though I stabbed and probed, he won.  His pathetic whining made me think I had possibly pricked his feathers a bit, but I gave up, and walked back in to a deserved assessment of my performance from my wife. “You looked pretty manly in your tighty-whiteys and carrying a pitchfork. I was actually pulling for the bird.”
Barnyard justice did prevail in the end. Two days later, I swallowed my pride and told the brother-farmers about the incident. They both stopped what they were doing, one of them snorted a bit and spit out a steamy wad of tobacco, and his brother said, “Well that figures. That old bird came over here yesterday and started messing with the geese. I shot him. Too tough to eat. He won’t be botherin’ you again.”
Probably best that I’m not a farmer. I can’t blame the rooster—he got the bad end of the deal. And I can’t blame pitchforks. Most farmers don’t pitch manure anymore, and as far as I know, I’m the only person dumb enough to use one as a deadly weapon against a "foghorn leghorn." But maybe instead of my lack of patience, I should blame farming in general. If the pigs would all play nicely, if the tractor would never have a flat tire, and if the rains would come at the right time in the right amount, I’d be Mr. Happy, standing on the front porch chewing on a piece of alfalfa and smiling at my Green Acres.
by dan gogerty (photo from

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Who Digitally Enhanced the Harvest?

Update, Nov. 2015: Virtual Reality and Farming
Big data and precision agriculture are influencing the farm scene, and some think virtual reality (VR) is next. A VR experience drops the viewer into the midst of the film--you feel like a character who can interact.

Technophiles debate the potential impact of new VR gear that will be available in 2016 from Facebook, Samsung, and Google. But most agree the content is key--and agriculture will certainly play a part. Last year, this project used emerging VR technology and 360-degree video to tell the story of a farm family.

This story also focuses on virtual reality and agriculture: We won’t need to travel the world to see how farmers in other countries are doing things--quick, virtual tours will give us the gist of things.

I'm all for common sense conveniences, but farm tech changes can almost be overwhelming. As this article says, "Farms of the Future Will Run on Robots and Drones." And this piece describes German farmers using driverless, satellite-guided machines in their fields.

On the other hand, when I sat frozen and tired on a 1960s cabless tractor, I was not a robot---but maybe a zombie. And the work wasn't virtual--it was real. Here's a look at some images from 

harvesting in those days of yesteryear...

I drove back to the old home farm a couple of times during the past few weeks, and as the brown corn stalks disappeared and the combine dust settled, I watched a changing portrait of the traditional Midwest harvest unfold. It’s like modern photography. You click a quick pic of the grandkids and look down at your tiny digital camera or smartphone and wonder—when did this happen? Where did the film, viewfinder, and manual focus go? You drive the Midwest country roads at harvest time and think—where are the people, the smoke billowing tractors, the livestock in the fields?

This is not a lament, just an observation. Tech and economics have Photoshopped the traditional Grant Wood farm scenes, and as Cronkite said, “That’s the way it is.” 

As you cruise the gravel roads, the first thing you notice is the lack of farms.  A country section that included three or four traditional farms—two-story house, barn, hog house, shed—now has one or two at most. Fewer farm kids wave as they carry feed buckets to the chicken coop; a family milk cow rarely stands near the barn chewing its cud; and those skinny dogs that used to shoot out of the lanes to chase your car as you drove by are now sitting passively in suburban yards contained by "invisible fences."

Fields have an altered tinge to them too. Combines look like Star Wars military equipment, and grain is augured into huge semi trailer trucks. You don’t see folks out in the elements so often. Not many farmers with padded coveralls and ear-flap hats sit on cabless tractors as they lean into a November wind and try to stay warm from the heat radiating out of the canvas heat-houser. With companies developing robotic machines, you might eventually need to go to a farmer’s computer control room in his office to see a human.

Animals also make fewer outdoor appearances. Some cattle still forage in the harvested fields for dropped ears of corn, but even in Iowa, the hog capital of the world, a resident can drive the roads for months without seeing a Wilbur, Babe, or Porky. Pigs used to root in the fields until the snows came, but most have moved into confinement motels—bit crowded, but the room service is attractive, and even hogs appreciate central heating. No comments from them about the indoor toilets.

It might even be tough to find a pitch fork on a Photoshopped farm. Watered-down manure gets hauled to those freshly harvested fields in gigantic honey wagons, and the “fecal gold” gets injected into the ground. I remember pulling conventional manure spreaders that flung the solids, and early liquid tanks that sprayed the contents. With an ill-advised turn and a sudden wind gust, the tractor driver could be fertilized as well.

The piece most obviously airbrushed from the harvest portrait is the farm corn crib. These slatted buildings would store and dry the ear corn until months later when a “sheller man” brought his machine. We’d rake and shovel ear corn into the huge contraption, and it would fling cobs into a pile and kernels of corn into wagons. When we were kids, the hard work of moving corn was sometimes interrupted by a mad scramble to take care of the rodents that had taken up residence in the corn crib. The mouse that scurried up the inside of my coverall pant leg made it to just above the knee before I could grab him and “persuade him” to go no further. After a hard day, the sheller man towed his machine back to town, Dad drove the last load of corn to the elevator, and we’d play king of the hill on a cob pile.

When the autumn sun sets over barren corn stubble and a harvest moon reflects light off metal grain bins, today's farmers take pride in completing a harvest on some of the most bountiful land in the world. The modern portrait of their labors includes hard work aided by technological advances and improved production techniques. But most don’t get the pleasure of walking cornfields to pick up the many ears of corn a rusty four-row picker left. Few get to haul bales of hay to cattle in the pasture or break the thin ice that coats their water tanks. And modern farmers miss out on the stimulation you get when you peel your frozen hands from the steering wheel of a John Deere 4020 after driving it from the field in below-freezing temperatures.

I get nostalgic for those harvest days, but I’m starting to think it would have been nice to “Photoshop” some of those images way back then. Maybe if I could have airbrushed out my static-filled transistor radio and digitally added a heated cab and sound system to my tractor, I might have been more in tune as I hauled corn and hummed along with the Stones singing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” by dan gogerty (cornfield pic from and corn crib pic from