Friday, August 23, 2013

An Analog App on a Digital Farm

A well-respected ag Twitterer recently posted this statistic; seems high but it points out a trend:  In 2010, 10% of farmers had smartphones; in 2011, it was up to 48%; and in 2012, a whopping 94% of farmers were using smartphones. 

I guess we need an app to keep up with new ag apps--and then an app to clear our heads as the digital cloud gets thicker. Farmers and ag-related folks are taking to smartphones and apps in increasing numbers, and those of us with dumb phones slowly slide into App Envy—an anxiety complex that comes when you think everyone else is digitally tuned into the newest thing, while you’re still trying to remember your password to access voice mail messages on your archaic cell phone.

But no matter which digital wave you surf, apps and smartphones are transforming food production, as this Farm Bureau article explains. App topics range from soil testing data to seed analysis to voice-activated email. Many farmers now keep up with markets and the weather using apps. This site provides many good examples: 20 Best Mobile Apps for Agriculture; and for something different and funny, check out this parody list of farm apps.

If only these apps had been available when I was growing up on the farm.  On warm summer afternoons, my brothers, cousins, and I would roam the back pastures looking for trees to climb and spots in the creek where we could build dams. No smartphones for parents to call and remind us when to get home and do chores; no stream water quality app to scare us about the toxins in the water we played in; and the only “angry birds” were the red-winged black birds that attacked us whenever we came anywhere near their nests.

When we started taking on farm jobs, we didn’t have a GPS system to guide our tractors around the fields. We either learned driving skills or we tore out a few rows of young soybean plants while we cultivated. During breaks while baling hay, we didn’t have text messaging to keep us occupied, so we listened to embellished yarns or semi-rude jokes the farmer might come up with when he handed us ice water and homemade cookies. And during evening baseball games, we didn’t even have tweets to read, so we had no idea what our friends were eating at the drive-in or buying at the record shop. We actually had to concentrate on playing the game and interacting with our friends who were there with us in person.

The digital revolution is changing agriculture for the better, but I have a feeling somewhere there is a farmer who walks out of his house unarmed, with no smartphone in hand. He pets his ten-year old collie as he walks to the feedlot to check on the cattle. After getting a few buckets of grain for the new calves, he looks over the farm while standing in the shade of the oak tree that has anchored the place for 130 years. A summer breeze ripples through the tasseling corn, a red-tailed hawk hovers over the back grove looking for mice, and the newly baled hay stacked in the nearby shed still has that intoxicating alfalfa-clover aroma. I doubt if there is an app for that. (by dan gogerty; photo from

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Time Travel in the Prairie Grass

Update June 2017
Prairies provide fertile habitat for bees, butterflies, and various pollinators. This university welcomes visitors to the prairies—students “engage the space, see the integration of soil, and meet Mother Nature." 

Nature Deficit Disorder 
Some people have little connection to or experience with nature, and many spend more time with iPads than in parks. Journalist Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe this phenomenon.

Prairie Preservation
This Nebraska family decides to resist the temptation to plow their grasslands under, and they keep their prairie. 

A Spot Where Cellphones Don't Work and GPS is Dead

I can time travel on the family home place where my folks live and my brother farms. The analog zone is close--a half-mile hike from the house, through the back soybean field--but in reality, it’s more than 150 years away.

Since 1856 when my ancestors first broke sod on the open plains, the five-acre prairie at the back edge of the farm has remained untouched. It’s not the only virgin prairie in central Iowa, and it’s certainly not the largest. As a matter of fact, it’s rather nondescript—but that’s the attraction of it.

There’s beauty there, but you have to look for it--or maybe sense it. The coneflowers, asters, and other prairie flowers bloom intermittently throughout the summer, and if the rains have been plentiful, muskrats make dens and trails in the boggy middle part. The few scrub trees are surrounded by prairie “rip-gut" grass, and butterflies float from milkweeds to black-eyed Susans. Goldfinches and meadowlarks chirp, ants swarm on large mounds, and a field mouse scurries through the undergrowth.

The prairie’s true beauty rises slowly, like a mirage. Native Americans ride through grass that grows nearly horse high, while buffalo herds thunder in the distance; early settlers pulling Conestoga wagons branch off from the stagecoach trail that runs from Marshalltown to Fort Dodge, and on the horizon sod houses form silhouettes against the painted sunsets; prairie chickens and pheasants flee a raging fire that sweeps from the west and drives my ancestors back to Pennsylvania—but they return and start again.

From Great-great grandfather Bernard right down to Aunt Ruth who now owns the deed to that section of the farm, family members have decided to let the prairie live. Ruth’s late husband, my Uncle Pat, once said, “That prairie is valuable—it can teach us plenty. We know how to grow corn, but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” A bit of tile, a heavy-duty plow, and a chemical cocktail of some sort would turn it into a grain producer. For now, it remains a hidden island in a sea of corn and soybeans.

Cousin Dennis farms some of the bordering land, and he thinks the thick grass and established prairie life have resisted drift and invasion from the biotech crops and chemicals in adjacent fields. “Some university experts came from Iowa State once and identified 150 or more species in the five acres,” he said. I hope he’s right. Maybe the deep topsoil with its rich organic matter, numerous earthworms, and ancient microbial mysteries has a type of resistance to the changes around it.
I also hope it remains lost in time. I’d like to think cell phones don’t work there, Google Earth maps haven't recorded it, and no GPS system will help you find it. It’s a connection to the past, a link to ancestors, and a sign of respect for the land that has been so bountiful for us in the heart of America. by dan gogerty (photo from U.S.fishandwildlifeservices)

Note: For more information regarding prairies, check this video about Carl Kurtz, a prairie expert. It's also worth searching for his books, photos, and advice on the Internet.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Lab Burgers, Mangled Food Names, and Deep Fat Fried Addiction on a Stick

Breaking News--Butter Cow Vandalized; State of Emergency Declared in Iowa (Related State Fair food issue in Doc's third item below)

*** Doc Callahan, retired professor, part-time farmer, and full-time pontificator, receives countless inquiries about the food we eat, and after hours of deep thought, he provides the road apples of knowledge that help fertilize the mind. This week, Doc bites into lab burgers, quinoa, and deep fat fried addictions.

Dear Doc,
I saw reports about hamburgers that are made in laboratories. At $350,000 a patty, the price is a bit out of my range, but I’m wondering if this means cattle farming is on the way out. Can you help me figure out “where’s the beef”?
McBaffled in Memphis

Dear McBaffled,
I wouldn’t sell your shares in Beefworld quite yet. These stem cell patties are a long way from mass production. The sign outside the Dutch lab says “One Served” while I imagine McDonalds is up to “Trillions Served” by now. The topic brings up other interesting points, though. As you can see in this link, the scientist and the financial backer emphasize the need for lab meat to feed the world and to end the “negative aspects” of livestock production. At the same time, some experts claim meat production is more efficient and necessary than ever, as this short interview demonstrates. I suggest you read credible information and make your mind up about what to eat. I’ll throw real burgers on the barbie this summer, but if a lab burger ever floats by, I’ll try it—as long as it’s not called something like Soylent Burger.

Dear Doc,
Boy, do I feel dumb. I read a piece about the ten most commonly mispronounced food words, and I find that I’m mispronouncing six of them—I’ve never even heard of the other four. What happened to the good old days when I just had to know how to say “meat, potatoes, and gravy”?
Tongue-tied in Toledo

Dear Tongue-tied,
Don’t worry. Creative butchering of word pronunciations is second only to grammar malpractice in this country, so spit it out however you want. I read that same article, and I feel the same as you do. I thought quinoa was a Bolivian rodent. And gnocchi sounds like a character from a Disney cartoon about garden gnomes. But don’t let it stop you from trying new foods. Just remember, when you ask for a quesadilla, it does not rhyme with armadillo, and a gyro is not pronounced as if it’s a shortened version of gyrate. By the way, do you pour gravy on po-tay-toes or pa-tah-toes?

Dear Doc,
I moved from Iowa long ago, but every year at this time, I crave deep fried food on a stick. My nutritionist calls it the Iowa State Fair Syndrome. Any remedies?
Deep Fried in Florida

Dear Deep Fried,
The famous fair starts this week, and the latest culinary offerings include shrimp corndogs, smoothies on a stick, and bacon wrapped riblets on a stick. Years ago Iowa scientists concocted a secret ingredient to make fair food addictive. Why else would thousands battle heat, crowds, and cholesterol to munch on fried brownies on a stick? Instead of fighting the trend, I might join it. I have the usual zucchini-gone-wild crop in my garden this year, so I plan to open a stall at the fair. Deep fat fried zucchini on a stick might sell if I wrap bacon around it. Let’s face it—here in Iowa, deep fat fried styrofoam on a stick would sell if it had bacon around it.

by dan gogerty (photo from