Friday, July 27, 2012

Is This Heaven? Biking through Farm Country Mixes the Field of Dreams with Dante’s Inferno

cheesehead helmets, sore knees, & Iowa hills
Eight times I’ve been on all or part of the forty annual bike rides across Iowa (Ragbrai), and that’s enough saddle-sore miles to know that a trip through the Midwest’s breadbasket state can offer plenty of contrasts. Most of the time, it is a peaceful, spandex-clad army cruising the back roads, savoring local farm food, and soaking up the remaining vestiges of small-town life. The Des Moines Register organizes ten or fifteen thousand riders who spend seven days pedaling from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. They chomp on sweet corn, inhale slices of blueberry pie, and invade towns with no stoplights but plenty of hospitality.
The 450- or 500-mile trek is a great way to see agriculture at ground level, and there is no denying, it’s grown into a monster success. But enough of the happy talk. As with anything worthwhile, a few warts can show up under those padded bicycle shorts, and this year, the conditions reminded us all that a ride through Pleasantville might have some bumps and bruises. A few examples:
#1 The Inferno: Earlier this week, the temperature reached the century mark for several days—news reports claimed the mid-afternoon pavement under our tires simmered at 130 degrees. On Tuesday, when we turned east, past the Lehigh Hill and into a stiff headwind, Dante whispered in my ear, “This is Level Five. You only have yourself to blame.”
#2 Hell Froze Over: Contrast this year to my first ride in 1981. On the second day, an 80-miler to Lake City, the temperature never climbed out of the 50s. A cold, slanting rain drove most from their bikes and eventually flooded our campsite. Citizens became angels of mercy and took shivering riders into their homes, garages, and barns.
#3 Healthfood: The term can be an oxymoron at times. Roadside stalls, church suppers, and tent breakfasts provide amazing food along the way. But the constant pedaling can be an excuse to carb-load, and not everyone eats salads, fruit, and lean meat. Pie for breakfast?  With a bacon-flavored Bloody Mary on the side? Or maybe pancake-on-a-stick, infused with sausage of course. The numerous fruit smoothies balance out the subsequent cold beers.
#4 That Fresh Country Air: And it is. Fog hugging the creeks in the pastures as bikers roll along just after sunrise—pure Grant Wood. But a confinement farm might change the mood if it’s upwind, and I remember following a loaded hog truck for a mile or so during one ride. Nothing like the smell of bacon when it’s still on the hoof.
#5 Physical Fitness: Yes, it’s aerobic, Yes, prepping for the ride gets you working out. But let’s be honest. The back? Quasimodo could sympathize. The legs? They burn fire going up some of the hills. Sunburn, helmet head, bugs in teeth, bike chain tattoos on leg calves—but the worst is still the old Dead End. No spandex girdle can keep the ride from being a pain in the padded bike shorts.
# 6 Alone Together: Those looking for a quiet ride in the park may instead choose New York City’s Central Park. Ragbrai is morning crowds swarming to the first town in a hunt for coffee and breakfast burritos, or a tire-to-tire companionship at 30-miles-an-hour downhill with someone from Germany chatting about farming. Those who don’t like the ambience of kybos or the wait for a warm shower should attend boot camp instead. 
# 7 Green Fades to Brown: The biggest negative this year was the drought—we had an eye-level view of a once verdant garden state. Corn and soybean fields that are usually green and lush were brown and shriveled. Lawns were steel wool, and streams were bone dry. You don’t fry an egg on the pavement this year—you barbecue ribs.
farmyard slip & slide cool down
But the optimism remains. The townspeople come out in force. The ride includes every type of person, every type of bike, and every type of story woven into the fabric of a one-week parade. Traditionalists on three-speeds coast by, a ten-year-old drafts behind friends like he’s in the Tour-de-France, a 64-year-old Englishman wears French clothes and rides an ancient bike. Riders might meet politicians, celebrities, Australians, Air Force members, or the 88-year-old mayor from McCallsburg.
Riders get hurt; riders get married; riders pedal along through the heart of the country wondering why they put themselves through it. Then they finish like my friend Don did this year. We load our bikes onto the car rack, and he says, “So, about January should we start planning the trip again? Some overseas friends wanna come for the next one, so maybe we could rent a camper. All tailwinds and 80-degree days next year.”  Did I mention that riding also affects the brain? by dan gogerty  (search the desmoinesregister for Ragbrai stories and photos)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Neighbor is a Verb When Communities Pull Together

During a late afternoon in June, four-year-old Kylee wandered off into the verdant maze of a 150-acre cornfield.  A hot wind rustled the stalks, and as darkness fell, the field resonated with the sound of green rippling waves.
(melendez, dmregister)
Word of the disappearance quickly spread in the north Iowa community, and before long, more than 280 volunteers were assisting Kylee’s mother in her frantic search.
This type of outpouring occurs in various forms around the world, but in Iowa, it is an example of old fashioned “neighboring.”  Friends and family would help round up stray steers, or a corps of men, women, and machines might gather to harvest crops for a sick neighbor.
Dad thinks that Iowa might be the only state where the word “neighbor” is used as a verb—“the Browns often neighbor with the Smiths.”  He also has some insights on how it has altered as agriculture has evolved.  “Self-propelled combines probably changed farm neighboring more than anything else. Used to be common that threshing grain would mean a gathering of twenty men, eight teams of horses, a separator and steam engine operator, water and coal haulers, spike pitchers, and a group of excellent cooks.  Now a farmer in an air conditioned cab can do much the same.”
Families and neighbors used to socialize after harvests, including hay baling and corn picking.  “From butchering to barn dances,” Dad recalls, “neighbors shared the work and the fun.  If a brief rain delayed threshing, the men might play baseball and occasionally tip the oat shocks to dry.  After a late afternoon meal, they could get back to work until past dark.”
Modernization has changed neighboring, but in many rural areas, folks still socialize at coffee shops, sale barns, and church or community activities. They also gather when a crisis occurs. Tornadoes flatten farms, fire sweeps through a horse barn, or a farmer gets killed working machinery in the field.
In the case involving Kylee, nearly six hours had passed, and desperation set in—some whispered about the den of wild coyotes in the area, and everyone worried about the extreme heat. The volunteers had been joined by a helicopter, a plane, and a search dog, but as midnight approached, it was a neighbor named Eric who heard Kylee call out during the last search round of the night.  As reported in the Des Moines Sunday Register, “He saw a white T-shirt. He ran to the girl and lifted her up in the darkness, her dirty feet dangling under the midnight sky.”
With her daughter wrapped in her arms, Kylee’s mom finished the night still amazed that so many people had come out to help.  But it has happened many times before, and it won’t be the last time community members gather to do some neighboring.  by dan gogerty   
*see the article, "Lost in the Cornfield," from the Des Moines Sunday Register by Mike Kilen, photos by Andrea Melendez 
*see CAST blog, "It's What Farmers Do," regarding examples of communities coming together to help others.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hair Bows, Crossbows, and Social Media

Sally Gorenz (front), owns two shotguns, a compound bow, and a love of competitive shooting, but she only hunts skeet and targets, not animals. Sally is CAST’s Administrative Assistant for Editorial and Social Media—see story below. Her love of the color green probably stems from her enjoyment of the outdoors and her obsession with the Green Bay Packers.  A senior at Iowa State, Sally has her sights set on working for an ag-based company and traveling around the world.

Megan Gaul (back) enjoys hair bows rather than cross bows, but like Sally, she has become an integral part of CAST’s move into social media. As Administrative Assistant for Membership and Marketing, Megan uses her skill at design and fashion to good effect while creating photo collages or web page formats for CAST—see story below for more about her input.  Megan danced around with several majors in her first year of college, but this ISU sophomore has settled on communications and event planning as her academic interests.   

Talented Interns from the Smartphone Generation Help CAST 
Reach New Audiences

I still visit with farmers and haunt the rolling acres where I grew up on a grain and livestock family farm, so I know that some of the best communication comes face-to-face---at kitchen tables, implement stores, or the local feed store.  But many farmers are using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs as enthusiastically as their urban cousins, and the organization I work for knows that digital techniques help convey the science-based information that policymakers and the public need to know about food and those who produce it.

Along with the traditional print publications, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology has been producing videos, a website, and an e-newsletter for several years. The response has been good as visitors from the United States and around the world learn about science-based agriculture.

Social media adds another layer to these options, and at CAST, the digital charge has been led by young people. The small CAST staff benefits from a steady infusion of enthusiastic, talented interns from Iowa State University, and several of the students have initiated programs that add to CAST's communication tactics.

Elizabeth Burns-Thompson led the charge with her passion for ag and communication. She understood how Twitter and other movements would influence the way agricultural sectors link up. Elizabeth moved on to law school and ag/communication work, but her ideas started the social media movement at CAST.

During the past year, two younger interns have continued the trend. Sally Gorenz grew up riding horses and feeding cattle on an Illinois farm, but she also is part of the generation that thinks of smartphones as a natural evolution of humans and their opposable thumbs. Sally keeps CAST involved with Twitter; she contributes net links to CAST's e-newsletter; she is starting a CAST presence on Google+; and she is the face behind CAST's Facebook site. As Sally points out, "Facebook is still the number one social media outlet, and through it you can reach many different audiences.  By getting involved you open yourself and your organization up for many different possibilities."  Sally has successfully instituted the "CAST Catch of the Day" feature on our Facebook page--a daily item of interest that often gets retweeted.  

Sally keeps up with other trends also. "Social media is always changing in one way or another.  Staying on top of it helps you put a name to your organization, expand your network with the click of a mouse, and keep you on your toes for the next social media outlet that is coming your way."

Another ISU intern calls on her experience as a communications major--and as a former dance team member--to keep on her digital toes. Megan Gaul uses her talents at design to format collages on Photoshop, and she has created a Pinterest page for CAST, with a special focus on food safety and other issues that are both informative and visual. She explains the new format. "We have recently started using Pinterest as a way to get people looking at CAST. This popular new form of social media is a virtual bulletin board that allows users to organize and share their interests with others. People use it to plan weddings, decorate homes, plant gardens, and share recipes, among many other things. Viewers can browse through other people's boards to discover new products and ideas. We've started boards that focus on food and food safety, plants and gardens, animals, and the always entertaining ag humor. As Pinterest continues to explode in popularity, we hope that it draws the younger generation's attention to CAST and what we do here." 

Other staff members stay plugged into the tools needed to keep ag and science information flowing, but the students who serve as administrative assistants help CAST broaden its audience and deliver its message.  by dan gogerty

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Big Heat: Dead Horses, Moon Sickness, and Hard-boiled Eggs

Summer 2016 Update:
As this article points out, the temperature of the Pacific has cooled, signaling the end of the El Niño part of the cycle; experts say there is a 75% chance of a La Niña pattern forming by the end of 2016. The Midwest is now experiencing an early spike in temperatures--as farmers deal with the heat, they can be thankful things have changed from the "good old days." 

*** Dealing with Heat Before Digital Tech and Before Air Con

For our Fourth of July family gathering on the farm, we set up the barbecue in the corn crib alley. Must be the concrete floors or the way air flows through the old grain storage structure, but it felt like refrigeration compared to the 100 degrees in the sun.  “Always been the coolest building on the farm,” Dad said. He pointed to the nearby house, now air-conditioned and filled with his grandkids and great-grandkids. “It used to have a screened porch on the west side, shaded by trees. In the 30s we could survive the heat by sleeping there. Other families I knew slept in their yards just trying to catch a breeze.”

This year’s Big Heat has Midwest farmers worried about crop production and shifting weather patterns. It also brings out stories of ice houses, cool basements, and survival in the pre-AC era. Records are falling, but many still use the 1930s as the example of iconic heat. Farm work had to continue even in the dust and ruin of the Depression Era droughts. Dad was a young witness: “Old Clyde told me they were threshing oats on a beastly hot day, when one of their work horses suddenly shivered a few times, buckled at the knees, and collapsed to the ground. Heat killed him.”

Occasionally, farmers bought ice blocks from the ice house in town, but most would cool milk, water, and maybe homemade beer in well pits or storm cellars. Dad remembers, “Farmers might use those thick old crockery jugs to take water out to the fields. They’d wrap wet burlap around the jar and place it in the shade of an oat shock to keep the water drinkable.” 

Members of my generation also knew old timers with peculiar techniques. We baled hay for a farmer who wore flannel shirts and pants tied with baling twine at the cuffs to “keep out the heat and help produce sweat that would cool by evaporation.”  A few others wore long underwear through most of the summer heat. They were also the characters most likely to spin the heat-induced yarns. “Mighty warm in the barn yesterday. Old Bossy’s udder was so hot I had to use pot holders to milk her, and she only produced evaporated milk anyway.”

Some of the true stories were about as strange as the whoppers. Dad told us what happened to a farmer one hot summer night. “Myron’s father took the horse out to cultivate late at night because the daytime heat was too severe.  He sat on the undulating seat behind the horse, above the waist-high corn, a full moon streaming down on the tops of the corn stalks. The wind rippled along the rows, producing a wave effect in the light, and Myron’s father became moon sick.  Nausea got him and he had to quit for the night.”

Air-conditioned tractor cabs and climate-controlled barns have changed farming during the dog days of summer.  When I was a kid working the fields, we’d try to adjust the canvas umbrella strapped to the tractor seat as we sipped ice water from thermos jugs. During chore time in the late afternoon heat, we’d throw bales from stifling haymows or maybe climb into a claustrophobic grain bin to shovel shelled corn into feed buckets.

When I was even younger, we had a small chicken coop near the barn, and in the summer it featured the rank smell of damp feathers, downy fluff hovering in the humid air, and hens clucking lethargically if at all.  Maybe the heat’s getting to me, but I’d swear that a few of the eggs they laid during those summer hot spells came out hard-boiled and ready to eat. Must be time for a cool change.  by dan gogerty