Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Considering Your Honor Code—Using Strawberries, Eggs, and Pumpkins

Imagine you select a cart full of items at your favorite grocery store, and at the checkout counter you find only a list of prices and a slotted box where you deposit your pay—using the honor system. Now comes the moral decision: carefully calculate the total to the penny; round it off, maybe even paying a bit over at times; or underpay and walk out ignoring your nagging conscience that is whispering in your ear.

Big food chains might not last long with this arrangement, but some ag-related enterprises still use the honor system—and the good news is, it seems to work. A shining example of this comes from California where the Swanton Berry Farm has been trusting customers to do the right thing for years. Famed for its ocean view, organic strawberries, and jam-covered scones, the food stand’s main attraction might be the old-style payment system. According to the founder, Jim Cochran, many people leave more money than they owe.

Such a code has probably been around for centuries. Dad points out that during the first half of the 1900s, some farmers in the Midwest provided gasoline at the front of their property so drivers could use the hand pumps to fill their Model T’s or International Harvester Pickups. The farmer might be off milking or plowing, and the customer would figure the bill and deposit money in the lock box or coffee can. A few of these original country “come and go’s” might also sell Orange Crush, Baby Ruth bars, and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

By the late 60s, our small hometown featured Pooch’s gas station and his haphazard mixture of fuzzy math and idealistic self-checkout. His old barn-like service garage had become a magnet for youngsters with cars—a type of American Graffiti teen center offering pump-your-own gas and a wobbly hoist to do auto repairs. The pop machine sat nestled between Penz Oil cans and cases of Coke bottles, and the key was in the machine door. The counter at the front became the open cash register where coins and bills would eventually pile up. Usually on Fridays, Pooch would say something like, “We’re $2.75 short this week, boys.”  The guys would chip in to cover for some cheapskate, and the fiscal cycle would start over again. Pooch didn’t make much money with his business practices, but he deposited plenty of goodwill in town.

Obviously, the honor system doesn’t always work. Research shows that Americans are about evenly split regarding the number of people who are honest and those who take advantage of the system. Many say the world’s moral climate is going through a big chill, but examples of the country food stand are probably evident around the world. During the years we lived in Japan, my wife and I could walk Tokyo side streets during harvest time and find self-pay stalls stocked with sweet potatoes, fresh ginger, and turnip-like daikons. Now that we’re living in Iowa again, we might pass an occasional sweet corn stall or pumpkin patch that still uses the honor system.

Eventually, someone comes along and uses the dishonor system. But as the owner of a fresh produce and egg stall in California’s Napa Valley says, “A lot of people leave more than we request, along with notes that say they really value what we’re doing here. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive.”  by dan gogerty (photo from

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Gotta Get Exposed" Update

After last week's blog, reader comments indicate solid support for the "gotta get exposed" theory explained in the blog entry below. Several country folks added insights such as these: 
  • "We ate enough wild mulberries to clean out our systems."  
  • "We milked the herd while eating popcorn every Sunday night in the barn." 
  • "My city cousins got sick often. The bad germs seemed to leave us farm kids alone."  

Of course, personal anecdotes aren't scientific, but another news article did pop up after we published the blog. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Pediatrics says city children are more likely to have food allergies than kids who grow up in rural areas.

For a different take on rural life and foodbourne illnesses, check out the CAST blog from April 6, "What's Making us Sick?".  We look at the ten most deadly outbreaks of food and waterborne illnesses in United States history and relate the incidents to growing up on a farm. 

You also might want to visit the CAST Pinterest site, including its section on "Food and Food Safety."

Note: The next new blog entry will be posted on June 27.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Hygiene Hypothesis—Farm Germs Might Be the Best Medicine

Update Sept. 2016:  Studies are fine... but a bit of old-fashioned fun might be the essential cure.

Many studies, including this new international report, suggest that farm life helps ward off allergies and promotes the “hygiene hypothesis.” As an old farm kid, I’m in agreement, but we need to notice words such as “indicate,” “suggest,” and “possible” in the studies. They usually don’t address cause and effect. And they don’t include another possible ingredient in the mix—the fact that part of farm kids’ healthiness came from a free-range mode. We had room to move, in the open air, away from tech devices… and we had fun (see below).

July 2016: Germs, Nail Biting, and Thumb Sucking
Yet another article about the hypothesis that exposure to pathogens lets the immune system adapt as it learns to tell the difference between harmless and harmful irritants. This story also indicates that nail biting and thumb sucking can possibly help ward off allergies.

2016: Let 'Em Play
A British study notes that the time that children have for exploratory, hands-on play--the kind where they go out and get dirty--is worryingly on the decline and that as a result, today’s children risk losing out on learning essential skills that will set them up for the future.

Farm Kids Build Immunity--Dirt, Fresh Air, and Fun 

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 (photo from

Friday, June 8, 2012

Doc on Ag: Hog Production Encore--Stalls, Pens, and a Pig’s Point of View.

Doc Callahan continues what he started last week as he answers more inquiries about hog production--this time with a focus on the use of gestation stalls.
Dear Doc,
The nearest I’ve been to a pig farm is when I tailgated a semi-trailer full of hogs on I-80. I now know pigs can project a healthy warm stream through truck slats, but a car wash solved that problem. My question relates to a term I’ve seen in headlines recently. I’d be as happy as a pig rollin’ in mud if you could tell me what a “gestation stall” is.  Ralph
Dear Ralph,
I’m glad people like you are trying to understand this complicated, controversial issue. Gestation stalls—or crates—are individual pens designed to house pregnant sows. Most are made of metal bars, six and a half feet long by two feet wide. These tight quarters keep sows from fighting and allow farmers to gauge feed and medicine more efficiently. But many disagree with the use of stalls, especially if it’s long-term. They say the cramped quarters are unnatural, unethical, and maybe unhealthy. Some farmers use similar “farrowing stalls” in the short-term to keep sows from rolling on the newborn pigs. Refer to the links at the end of this entry for insights from various groups and experts. So far, researchers have not been able to get a clear definition from those most affected--the pigs. Where’s Charlotte the spider when we need her? Doc
Dear Doc,
Holy McParadigm shift, Batman. I read that McDonald’s has joined Burger King, Cargill, Smithfield, and others in saying they will phase out the use of gestation stall pork. Will my McRibs eventually get phased out too? Robyn
Dear Robyn,
Many restaurants and processing companies say they are phasing out the use of pork raised in stall conditions. In some cases, “phase out” means a ten year process. Public sentiment seems to support this move, but reading public sentiment can sometimes be like reading leaves in a teacup—one that contains a tempest. However, most experts agree that the use of stalls will eventually go. Research seems to indicate that both gestation stalls and open pens are effective, but the public wants open pens. The National Pork Board thinks farmers should be the ones to choose the system. Most sows we surveyed grunted in a way that indicates they mainly think about food, but they also hint that the ability to roll over, root around, and wallow in mud would be nice.  Doc (p.s. I have a feeling the McRibs will stay, but the McPrice will go up a bit.)
Dear Doc,
I read your advice last week about hog confinement buildings, and I must say: For an old codger, you balance yourself on the hog lot fence quite nimbly. Would you care to fall off one way or the other and give an opinion? What do you think about sow stalls and open pens?  Solomon
Dear Solomon,
Ambiguity is my middle name, but I’ll try. The research I’ve read shows pros and cons for both methods, and a sudden “whole hog move” from current conditions could cause animal health problems, food safety issues, and economic concerns—especially for small farmers. However, even though more than 75% of sows in the U.S. are now housed in stalls, it appears that open pens are the wave of the future. Maybe it’s back-to-the-future for some. When I grew up on a small pig farm during the 60s, our animals were not just open pen, they were open border. They got loose so often, we issued them passports. But back to your question. I hope science and research can come up with humane ways to make open pens “ethical” for hogs and economical for producers and consumers. I imagine most pigs feel the same—just don’t tell them what comes at the end of that final joy ride they take in a slatted truck down I-80.   Doc
Some links that might help (for further research, I suggest you examine research, blogs, and articles from farmers, interest groups, and pork organizations; Temple Grandin is also an interesting source):
This recent Des Moines Register article reports from the World Pork Expo and the “buzz” about the imminent end of stall use.
This CNN article explains the situation from a general consumer view.
This research paper from Iowa State University looks at alternatives to sow gestation stalls.
This research paper from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology evaluates the scientific evidence of gestation stalls for sows.
This writer outlines the problems that come with a change to open pen use.
This professor comments about the messages coming from agriculture and the need to do better.
(by dan gogerty)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Doc on Ag: Advice about Hog Production Techniques

Doc Callahan, retired professor, part-time farmer, and full-time pontificator, receives countless inquiries a week, and after hours of deep thought, he provides the road apples of knowledge that help fertilize the mind. This week, Doc answers important questions about hog production.
Dear Doc,
Plans to build a hog confinement system for 10,000 pigs near Des Moines were scrapped because of protests from area residents, but here in Story County, three huge hog hotels are going up. My cousin says these buildings are the best way to raise hogs, but I say CAFOs are No-No’s.  Who’s right?  Ron

Dear Ron,
Opinions vary, often depending on which way the wind blows. Some research indicates that confinement facilities offer a safe, protected environment so farmers can control disease and produce the most pork for the lowest cost. Others say the hog hotels are not ethical, and they pose threats because of possible manure run-off and other environmental factors. You can find many pros and cons online, in newspaper editorial sections, and at community meetings. I suggest you look at various viewpoints including social, economic, and scientific insights. Rational thinking aside, it often comes down to location, location, location. You might want to look up the acronym NIMBY.  Doc

Dear Doc,
When a warm, humid breeze is flowing from the south, my neighbor’s hog CAFO sends its calling card, and we can’t hang out laundry, open house windows, or barbecue outside on the patio. Their operation is built according to legal codes, so is there anything I can do to let them know about my frustration? Chris

Dear Chris,
The newer hog systems seem to control the smell better, but the Holy Grail of odorless pigs has not yet been achieved. Most pork producers live on the land with their pigs, and they conscientiously try to avoid being toxic neighbors. Maybe you could politely ask your neighbors how they handle the smell. If the actual owners do not live on the farm, I suggest you let them know what they are missing by sending them my patented CAFO Scratch-and-Sniff Kit. The instructions ask them to voluntarily unwrap one of the scratch-and-sniff cards whenever they have guests over for backyard barbecues. A few swipes on the card with a grill brush, and they can experience the fragrance of a fully stocked nearby confinement building. Disclaimer: our research shows that the chances of such absentee owners using the boards are similar to the chances that pigs might fly.  Doc

Dear Doc,
I heartily support farmers and ranchers, especially the many hardworking families that produce the affordable, safe food we consumers need. But I saw the Chipotle “Back to the Start” video during the Grammy Awards, and I’m feeling kinda willy-nilly about CAFOs, especially hog confinement farms. Would free range farming be better?  Alice

Dear Alice,
I also noticed Coldplay’s lyrics, Willie’s voice, and the animated pigs that frolicked when released. I even gave up pork for two days until a tenderloin at the local diner broke my resolve. Free range versus confinement is certainly a tough call, but one thing seems clear: Anyone who eats meat should be thoughtful about production techniques. While some say free range pigs are happier and healthier in a “natural” setting, others point out that pigs on the loose fight, contract diseases, and gain weight more slowly. With our growing need for food, maybe we can blend the most efficient and humane techniques in all areas of pig production—a mixture of science, common sense, and compassion. Visit a farm if you ever get the chance, but for now, I’ll list a few sites below that might be helpful.  Doc
  • Some think only hobbits, elves, and rugby players came from New Zealand, but this Kiwi farmer’s website is a thoughtful, reader-friendly location providing insights about hog production issues. I highly recommend it. 
  • This National Hog Farmer site offers various links and articles about CAFOs. 
  • The Niman Ranch professes to “raise livestock traditionally, humanely, and sustainably.”  
  • The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance “Food Dialogues” site offers many short videos from people working the land. 
  • CAST’s well-received Commentary, The Direct Relationship between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes, looks at the way production practices could affect food safety.                                        (by dan gogerty, photo from ARS)