Monday, July 29, 2013

Your Momma, Andy of Mayberry, and 35,000 Bikers

It’s only common sense nowadays: lock your doors, padlock your possessions, and protect your personal information. But on the 41st annual bike ride across Iowa (Ragbrai*), thousands of folks were breaking these rules—and many other axioms of the modern world. After all, momma always told you not to stop to help strangers along the road if they looked suspicious—and a haggard-looking biker sporting a pig-adorned helmet and wearing a jersey that says “Team Road Kill” must certainly fit that category.

This year’s ride through the rolling hills and verdant fields of Iowa boasted some of the kindest weather, shortest routes, and largest crowds in the event’s history. More than 35,000 bicyclists broke attendance records by joining the day-three leg of the week-long trip. But many things about this ride remained the same.  As always, folks in these Midwest towns unlocked their doors to strangers.

A family on the north edge of Perry opened up their house—with bedrooms and showers—to eight or ten bikers, including us. They also welcomed twenty or thirty campers in their beautiful paddock area.  As with many hosts, they provided bananas, rolls, and lively conversation—for free.

We’ve consistently had good luck in our years of cycling home-stays. We’ve slept on the porch of a classic old home in Jefferson, in the small recreation room of a family with three kids in Council Bluffs, and in the basement of a home brew specialist in Harlan.That incident was due to an act of nature. We were camped in yards when tornado sirens started wailing at 3:00 a.m. The man opened his basement to 25 or so campers, and even though we didn’t get into his strawberry wine, we didn’t get much sleep that night.

The most trusting host had to be a Tipton woman from a few years back. We biked up to her house and read a note on the door: “I’m at the church serving food. Go right in. Shower on your left. Fresh pie on the kitchen table.”

I bike with team Wasabi, a small group of friends who teach or did teach at an American school in Tokyo. Although we often ride together, it’s common to cruise alongside complete strangers for long stretches of the trip. You won’t exchange social security numbers or passwords, but in some ways, nobody is a stranger on this type of migration. You’ll hear accents from around the country and around the world. Folks describe their homes, from Dusseldorf to Denver to Dubuque. They might explain why they’re biking—for a cause (“I’m celebrating one year of beating cancer”) or a family bonding (“If I don’t strangle my husband from behind on this tandem bike, our marriage is secure”), or for metabolism purposes (“If I bike, I can consume mass quantities of ice cream, pork chops, and beer”).

With Governor Branstad, Lance Armstrong, and other notables along, you’d think I would have caught sight of a celebrity. I did see gold-clad Elvis, Batman on a bike, and the guy riding a pimped-up plastic Big Wheel. But the crowds were massive, especially in the small-town stops. Many of us would park our unlocked bikes in some alley as we visited food stalls, historical displays, or the get-your-picture-taken-with-a-goat guy. I would imagine something got stolen during the week, but I didn’t hear of it. Even the money paid to the goat guy was legit. He was raising funds for Heifer International.

And the road still features Good Samaritans in these modern times. If you have a flat tire and little mechanical ability, you have to rely on the kindness of strangers. On Ragbrai, any breakdown or accident results in multiple offers of aid. The Air Force Bike Team became the superheroes this year. Members of their squad stopped so often along the route to help, it’s a wonder they made it into the last town each day before dark.

Maybe I have stardust in my eyes about this year’s trip. After last year’s intense heat and headwinds, the butt-busting miles seemed almost pleasant. And maybe others can tell you of theft, rudeness, or late night debauchery. But all-in-all, Ragbrai 41 seemed to confirm the fact that Andy of Mayberry values still float around the countryside. I am, however, still concerned about the sight of so many of us baby boomers prancing around in spandex. Now that’s something your momma should definitely warn you about.  by dan gogerty (banana pic from

*The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.  Check this link for information and photos—including blog entries from Des Moines Register journalists.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Backyard Chickens and a Sex Problem

Update--July 26, 2013:  The fox is in the henhouse, but this time it’s apparently a corporate fox with a misleading message, and the infuriated chickens are in a mood to do some serious pecking. Panera Bread Company’s ad campaign insinuates things about poultry farmers and antibiotic use, and some real farmers answer the call. Click here to get blog entries from Dairy Carrie and others.

Gender Bending--Poultry Style

Backyard farming has caused a stir, and when it comes to chickens, some say it has been tainted by fad followers. They accuse so-called hipsters of buying into the trend until they get disillusioned, often dumping the chickens when fresh eggs don’t magically appear. A recent article analyzes the situation, and sure enough—the problem boils down to a matter of sex.

When urban farmers order hens for their new Green Acres pursuit, they sometimes receive a certain amount of roosters with the shipment. As you might expect, the males generally make a lot of noise and bother the productive females. They don’t even taste very good. Apparently, sexual misidentification is hurting this backyard chicken movement.
Even Mike Rowe had trouble sexing chicks.

I can sympathize. Some years ago I was teaching at an international school in Tokyo, and I became the resident “sexer” for the place. The school had an animal refuge, a room for abandoned pets and other assorted animals. Judith, a teacher from California, ran the operation because of her compassion and her desire to give city kids exposure to animals.

Although I taught in a different section of the school, Judith knew I was an Iowa farm boy, so anytime she had trouble identifying the sex of an animal, she sent it my way. I’d be in my office, prepping a lesson about the symbolism of the green light in Gatsby, and a pair of ten-year-old kids would troop in with a box containing three new-born hamsters. “Judith wants you to sex these.” This line could come out in varied ways as the students there came from twenty or so different countries, but the basic concept attracted the attention of my office colleagues. So I would hold the rodent by the tail, turn it over, knit my brow, try to look sage, and then say “male” or “female.” I never received any complaints about my scientific work, although the animals didn’t seem impressed with my techniques.

During a subsequent summer, my family and I took a six-week trip back to the States, leaving our two male pet gerbils in the care of a neighbor. When we returned to Tokyo, the neighbor used broken English and expressive Japanese to explain that we now had nine gerbils. I didn’t tell Judith. I didn’t want to lose my sexing cred.

Back to the chicken hipster thing. Farming takes planning, perseverance, and a certain amount of knowledge. As I mentioned in this blog two weeks ago, my sister and her husband have twenty fast-growing chicks in the coop on their farm. They bought them for the right reasons, and they’ve put in the hard work, but it’s still no guarantee. My brother-in-law reports that hawks have been roosting in the tree just above the coop. They’re looking for a hole in the woven wire fence or a feathered escapee. And when it comes to mealtime, these hawks don’t do any sexing. Their menu has room for either gender.   

by dan gogerty (photo from, Dirty Jobs)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Big Gulps, the Petersons, and the End of the World

Note: Doc Callahan, retired professor, part-time farmer, and full-time pontificator, occasionally adds his advice column expertise to our blog. Doc’s viewpoints are not necessarily those held by CAST—or, frankly, anyone else.

Dear Doc,
     A new study says that the amount we eat is affected by how foods are packaged, especially their size labels. Could this be true or should I just be paranoid that the authorities are trying to limit my choices?
Big Gulp in Galveston

Dear Big Gulp,
     So, the shadow of Mayor Bloomberg apparently falls as far as Texas. The study you refer to is interesting. Do we pay more because of the name given to a drink? Do kids drink more if they have to use two hands to lift it? Could be. But maybe this drink size thing is getting more complicated than it need be.

     For example—I don’t drink coffee, so I’ve been as confused as a luddite with a smartphone the few times I’ve been in a Starbucks to get a tea. I didn’t have my Italian phrase book with me, so I ordered a Tall. Later I looked up the definitions of their portions, such as Demi, Grande, and Venti. Apparently, when Starbucks started, Tall was basically a Large. Now, it’s basically a Small. I’m basically confused.
     Things were much easier when I was a kid. We went to Pooch’s gas station in town, and the Coke bottles were one size—those classic 8-ouncers. The Dr Pepper bottles didn’t have the cool curved shape, but they held the same amount--until we poured a packet of Planters Peanuts into the bottle.
     My advice. Don’t get fooled by labels. Order wisely. Drink only until you’re full. And if you need a wheelbarrow to haul your drink out of the convenience store, you’ve probably overdone it.

Dear Doc,
     The Peterson Brothers keep releasing cool parodies and informational videos about agriculture. They always seem to be upbeat about life on the farm. Is everybody that happy when they haul manure and stack bales of hay?
Doubting Thomas in Toledo

Dear Thomas,
     Most farmers don’t float through the day singing “Green Acres is the place for me,” but the Peterson lads seem to maintain positive attitudes regardless of weather, breakdowns, or early morning film shoots. 
     It’s a good thing video cameras didn’t exist when I was a kid on the farm. My brothers and I slept in the basement, and Dad’s early morning call--“Time to get up, boooooys”--didn’t elicit sounds of joy when we knew pitchforks and scoop shovels were waiting. I’m also glad there is no YouTube evidence of me accidentally cultivating a corn row rather than the weeds and no Vine loop of me squirting the cat with warm milk when it should be going into the bucket.
     I’m glad the Petersons are giving viewers an inside look at farming. The videos help me relive those wonderful days on the farm, and at this age, my memory edits out the sight of a grain bin that needs cleaning, the crunching sound of boots on feedlot ice in the early morn, and the smell of a hog house on a humid 95% day.

Dear Doc,
     Some British scientists have set a new date for the end of the world. We apparently have another two billion years. Ag experts are already crying about the crisis of feeding 9 billion people by the year 2050. How will we cope with even more mouths to feed beyond that?
Handwringing in Hattiesburg

Dear Handwringer,
     I’ve always been a big fan of long-term planning, but at my age I don’t even buy green bananas anymore. I’m trying to smell the roses or carp the diem or whatever. But you’re right about the alarm bells—every day someone seems to have suddenly become aware that we could have many hungry people in this world if we’re not careful. Let’s face it—hunger, starvation, and malnutrition are already here. 
     I’m glad folks are working on how to feed a hungry world, but I’m a bit leery about some of the motives behind the methods. I try to figure out who’s really trying to solve world hunger and who’s trying to make a buck out of the situation. I’m hopeful that a combination of conservation practices, biotech, the cutting of waste, efficient storage, effective transportation, and common sense farming methods will prevail. This takes intelligent, creative leadership in all sectors of the agricultural community. I’m not confident that I’ll be here in 2050 to see what’s on my plate, but I’m an optimist about our abilities to solve problems.
 (dan gogerty; photo from