Thursday, November 21, 2013

Food Dialogues--the Good, Bad, and Ugly

I attended the November 19 Food Dialogues session in Ames, Iowa--a few thoughts: 

The Good:  USFRA and two Iowa corn groups set up a lively, thought-provoking panel discussion, and the six participants (along with moderator John Bachman) spoke clearly and intelligently. I heard points of view that have me thinking about perspectives and objectives. They all seem passionate about agriculture and quite assured that they are doing the right things.

The Bad:  Several key ag issues are still in the gray zone for me. They discussed biotech, GMO labeling, CAFOs, and other important controversies. I’ve looked into these topics—research, news articles, farmer conversations, blogs—and the panelist's personal comments added to my ag-bipolarism.

The Ugly:  Me—I don’t want to be a “21st Century Schizoid Ag Man,” but with so much information (digital, analog, slanted, credible, visual, in-print, online, in-person), it’s sometimes hard to know what to think.

Conclusion:  Painful or not, it is good to discuss issues, and even if modern communication has its warts, we need to focus on common goals. At times, the panelists had divergent views and methods, but they all want plentiful, safe food for consumers.

The 90-minute session is available online, and you can form your own opinions. I’ll end with a sample quote I scribbled down from each panelist.

Larry Cleverly, well-known organic farmer, said, “Consumers have a right to know. Labeling is a no-brainer.” (He worries about the lack of long-term GMO research and the tight control of big ag corporations.)

Wayne Humphreys, a crop and livestock farmer, said, “All statistics are wrong—but useful.”  (He pointed out that his biotech corn had higher yields, and he seems to think labeling is a negative and numbers can be misused.)

Dave Murphy, Director of Food Democracy Now, said, “Democracy is for sale, and labeling efforts are battling big corporate money.” (He is concerned about CAFOs and biotech; he thinks organic can feed the world.)

Katie Olthoff, turkey farmer and blogger, says, “Big farms are just as good as small farms. We need to use many solutions.”  (She is not in favor of GMO labels—or other labels she thinks are misleading such as “factory farms” and the negative connotations aimed at “Big Ag.”)

Wayne Parrott, ag professor at the Univ. of Georgia, said, “Science is not an either/or proposition. We need quantity and quality.” (He believes research shows that biotech has had no ill effects.)

John Schillinger, crop researcher, says, “Science is important, but nutritional gains can come from non-GMO innovation.” (He thinks non-GMOs can feed the world.)

Conclusion #2:  Ethanol, antibiotics, hog stall use—the tough issues are out there, and we need to deal with them. Forums like the Food Dialogues can help when they include panelists such as these. So—do I leave knowing how I would vote on a GMO labeling issue? Nope. It would depend on how it’s written and implemented. And I think that is something all sides of the issue could work on and maybe agree on. Ag is filled with some great divides, but communication, empathy, and common sense might help us bridge them.

dan gogerty (pic from

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Lost Art of Cultivating: Weeds, Horse Flatulence, and Mick Jagger

Dad started farming before Harry Truman placed that little “the buck stops here” sign on his oval office desk, but he doesn’t let age stop him from helping with the fall harvest ritual. He hauls loaded wagons of corn, and as he says, “Being a tractor jockey is a piece of cake nowadays, with cabs and heaters. We used to wear lined coveralls and woolen underwear when we drove in November winds.”

Farming is still hard work, and Dad’s not the type to whine about how much tougher they had it in the “bad old, good old days.” But he knows his agricultural wikihistory, and according to him, grain farming has changed drastically. “Take the war on weeds, for instance,” he says. “Modern corn producers shoot for season-long weed control. After a post-emergence herbicide application, they want their next trip to the field to be with the combine.”

He’s happy that weed control is largely a no-hands affair now, but he still admires the techniques the old-timers used BC (Before Chemicals). “It’s a lost art, but cultivation was a daily routine. Many farmers made three passes through their cornfields, the first one when the corn was just emerging. If they covered up young shoots with their two-row cultivators, they had a stick so they could reach down from tractor seats to uncover the corn.”

Dad especially admires the farmers who could plant check rows and therefore cultivate “criss-crossed” as well as regular style. “My neighbor Ambrose was an artist. His planting was so geometrically perfect it was difficult to see which way the field was planted. Most farmers took pride in clean fields, and they were particular about the rows closest to the ends, the ones that windshield gawkers could see as they slowly drove the country roads.”

“Cultivating with horses was the biggest challenge,” Dad says. “But it had a special silent quality with the creak of the harness interrupted by songs of meadow larks and blackbirds following to eat insects and worms. Sitting behind a team of Belgians placed the operator in the wake of slobber, horse hair, and flatulence.”

Dad notes that some farmers fell asleep only to be awakened when the horses stopped at the fence. “An old neighbor told me about him and his father cultivating at night so the horses wouldn’t have to work in the heat of the day. However, a few hours of moonlight shining on a sea of rippling corn leaves caused his dad to become seasick, so they headed for the barn.”

My cultivating days were in the '60s, and although I did my best, nobody would have called me an “artist.” On a few occasions I lost focus and had to spend time on my hands and knees replanting four rows of corn I’d ripped up for several yards. Luckily I never committed the ultimate act of cultivating degradation by ripping out a fence row or driving off into a ditch. I guess I stayed awake by singing along with the AM radio that was bolted to the fender of the tractor. All those hours listening--and I still don’t know why Jumpin’ Jack Flash was a gas, gas, gas.

A final field cultivation image sticks with me. After graduating from high school, I worked through the summer for a nearby farmer, and his fields were losing the war against cockleburs, foxtail, and pigweed.  During one afternoon, the cultivator plugged up constantly, and about the tenth time I jumped off the tractor to clear the shovels, I released frustration by yelling some choice “expletives deleted.” Sure enough, when I looked up from my toil, I saw the farmer’s kindly old mother standing nearby in the end rows. She had brought out a jar of lemonade for me. Even Eddie Haskell couldn’t have charmed his way out of that one.

My cultivation days ended when I drove off to college, but as Dad says, “It remains a viable practice for organic farmers. Some say it speeds corn growth and aerates the soil. Old timers maintain there’s nothing more satisfying than the sight of fresh dirt around rows of green corn turned by the Fourth of July.”

I’ll just have to trust him on that. Cultivation for me was anything but a “gas, gas, gas.”

by dan gogerty (horse photo from; combine photo from ars)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pigs That Fly, Drink Beer, and Dig Toys

May 2016:  This recent article emphasizes the focus in Europe for a "pigs at play" philosophy. Since 2003, European regulations have required that pigs need to have access to distraction materials.

October 2014:  I couldn't resist this headline: Wild Pig Guzzles 18 Beers and Starts Fight with a Cow in Australia. Pigs just have that "ugly but cool" attitude about them.

May 2014:  Flying Pigs
Tourists are flocking to watch pigs fly in China, after a farmer taught his livestock to dive. Chinese pig farmer Huang Demin decided to install a diving board to keep his animals happy in the hope that it would make them taste better. Now the trend has caught on and the attraction is being offered at parks and farms across the country to entertain visitors.

What To Buy the Pig That Has Everything

It's time to get serious about what type of toys to buy for your pigs. I remember years ago when I grew up on a farm, I’d often stop pitching manure or hauling buckets of corn so I could think of the right gift for the hogs that were rooting in the straw I’d just tossed into their pen. I know I didn’t want our pigs to be in a funk during the giving season.

A German company has concocted a set of plastic balls on springs that simulate rooting, and they say it might cut down on tail biting. So far, the product comes only in yellow, a color they claim “the pigs will easily distinguish, as it is not a color that shows up on a farm regularly. In addition, red is not a color pigs can see well.” No wonder my carefully wrapped Valentine’s gifts never got much response.

A soccer ball is fine until one of them kicks it out of the pen, and with their prominent snouts, headers are tough. Also, according to this report, “if a ball rolls into manure, the pigs will no longer play with it.” Pigs might stand in manure and root their noses in it, but they have their standards.

Being a technical guy (I’m switching from a dumb phone to a smart phone this month), I figure it could be the year for a digital item. Dutch researchers have created a computer game both pigs and humans can play. It’s called Pig Chase, and as this video demonstrates, your pigs can handle it even without opposable thumbs. The inventors “have attempted to find out whether this could meet the animals’ desire to play--and to see if different types of relationships with humans could possibly be established.” That’s good. The only porcine relationship I remember from my youth was when we’d round up a bunch of escaped pigs and force them back into their pens. A relationship that doesn’t involve squealing and swearing might be refreshing.

When it comes to digital, I imagine most hogs would prefer the Candy Crush app—one that pays dividends in real candy. By the way, don’t give pigs bubble gum no matter how much they beg. They get completely out of sorts when the bubbles pop all over their snouts, even if the pink color goes with their basic skin tone.
Several online sites give suggestions regarding toys for pot-bellied pigs. The majority of items seem to contain some type of sweet treat—which I guess explains the pot-bellies. I’ve never been to a hog operation full of pot-bellied pigs, but I suggest slipping them a few low-sugar items. An exercise book might not go far wrong either.

Pig farming is way back in my past, so I don’t have to worry about all this. I do, however, have grandchildren to consider, and now that I think of it, some of the same principles apply. They’re very young, so I’ll skip the bubble gum and Candy Crush apps. And if I buy them a tiny soccer ball, I’ll be sure to keep it away from the diaper bin.

by dan gogerty (flying pig pic from, pigs & ball photo from and pot-bellied pig photo from

Monday, November 4, 2013

Something Smells Rotten in Portland—Cow Cologne, Anyone?

I’m open to new livestock production techniques, but cologne for cows may not quite fit my ideal feedlot routine yet. According to the Modern Farmer website, a company in Portland, Maine, offers a cow-friendly cologne--one that makes the farmer smell better--and the product is "subtle, soothing, and sexy." Yes, I did check to see if I was reading the Onion site, but no—this cow fragrance thing seems real. I haven’t milked a cow since I was a kid, but I’m starting to think I had things backwards back then. 

The news release says cows can pick up a scent six miles away. They get bummed out and produce less willingly if they smell disagreeable odors—like a thirteen-year-old kid. 

OK. I’m impressed with their olfactory abilities, but in my milking days, I thought the cow’s odor was the factor. I could have my head propped against Bossy’s side, intent on squeezing that morning milk into the pale, and like something out of an old Batman TV show—Flick! Slap! Pow! The tip of her tail, edged with mud and manure, landed on my shoulder and head so I could enjoy her fragrance for the rest of the session.

And believe me. The words “subtle” and “sexy” never came to mind on cold winter mornings in the unheated barn. Yes, I wanted Bossy in a “soothing” state, but that was usually done by keeping some hay in the stanchion and not pulling wrong on her udder.

So if modern dairy farmers think it works to slap on some cologne, that’s great. As Lisa Brodar, the creator of the product,says, “I actually found a list of scents that are beneficial and aromatherapeutic to livestock--cows specifically.” But back in my Bossy-milking days, I was the one getting on a yellow school bus, and I was the awkward kid trying to chat with a classmate or get someone to dance with at the sock hop. I needed a cologne that would take the Bossy smell off my hands, not a cologne that would make Bossy happy to see me each morning.   

by dan gogerty (picture from