Friday, March 28, 2014

Is It Local? Satire, Parody, and Common Sense

Doc Callahan—retired professor, part-time farmer, and full-time front-porch pontificator—occasionally sends us a letter expressing his views about the latest barnyard banter. In this edition, he focuses on a contentious debate regarding animal welfare and the livestock industry.
I grew up on a farm, but we didn't use sow stalls or chicken cages when I was a kid--our animals were so free range we used to pin name tags on them so they'd be returned after they escaped. We weren't great at building fences, and we only had enough chickens to provide us with morning eggs and fresh fryers for special events.

So I've tried to follow the current issues about animal welfare. I've read magazine articles, online editorials, and even watched one of those afternoon shows that had a segment about eating "local and organic." OK, I thought, it's good for everyone to share opinions and work on logical, science-based solutions. 

I like the Temple Grandin philosophy--she seems to understand things from the animal viewpoint, but she is realistic about economics and food. She's practical, not radical. As she said, "The Internet magnifies the voices of radicals on either side of an issue." 

The Net is filled with propaganda from all sides (and also with some excellent, fair-minded videos), but three recent humorous videos got me thinking about the way folks slant issues:

1. This clip from a Portlandia episode satirizes the foodies who want to know everything possible about their meal at a restaurant. They find out the chicken's name was Colin, and they wonder if he "had fun when he was raised, and if he played happily with other chickens."

2. This clip is a parody of a satire. It sets the same scene but aims its barbs at the confinement industry. Its humor is darker, and it uses more inflammatory terms like "factory farms." 

3. The third clip is a short ad that spins off the "is it local" idea to sell its brand name. The pig in the restaurant is not going to order the "garlic pork special" no matter how humanely the hog was raised.

It was easier when I was a kid, but we did have some "is it local" situations. We slaughtered chickens in the yard, steamed off their feathers, and ate them at home--that's local. 

And even though we sent most of our feeder pigs off to the packing house, we did get to know three of them personally. Dad spotted three baby pigs that were weak and getting bullied, so he built a small pen in the back yard, and we three boys took care of them. Brother Tom probably remembers their names. I liked the cute little things, but when they grew older, they didn't have a Charlotte the spider to save them. They may have been "some pigs," but they turned into "some bacon" and "some pork chops."

Farmers I've known have worked hard to be humane with their livestock, and I hope the whole food industry keeps working on these important issues. But I doubt if I'll ever go into a restaurant and ask for a background check on the farmers who raised an animal. It's only fair, because nowadays I eat a lot of vegetables and tofu--and I don't ask the server if the tomatoes squealed when they were picked from the vine or if the tofu was processed by a soybean zen master who studied in Japan. 

dan gogerty (photo from usda/ars)   

Friday, March 21, 2014

Borlaug's Legacy Lives On

Norman Borlaug brought millions of people together during his lifetime--but that was usually around field plots, research stations, and dinner tables. On March 25, his legacy will gather a diverse group of experts, dignitaries, and celebrities for the unveiling of a statue of Borlaug that will be placed in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.

Bill and Melinda Gates, John Kerry, and Dan Gable will join politicians from both sides of the aisle to honor the crop scientist credited with saving a billion people from starvation. The date falls on what would have been Borlaug's 100th birthday, and the occasion comes due to a bipartisan effort in the Iowa Legislature.

Dr. Borlaug is one of only five people in history to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. He also contributed to the world of agriculture by inspiring the World Food Prize in 1986. Through his research and his dedication to feeding the world, he changed the course of agriculture. Click here for a short video about Borlaug's influence.
Borlaug with CAST from the Early Years
Dr. Borlaug was born in Iowa, and he maintained many connections with his home state--including a long relationship with the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. His remarks on behalf of CAST at the initial CAST-Industry meeting in 1973 later appeared as CAST's first published paper, and articles on Borlaug's life and work have appeared in several CAST publications.

By all accounts Borlaug remained humble and grounded, but he continued to receive accolades, including CAST's first "Distinguished Achievement Award in Food and Agricultural Science" as part of CAST's tenth anniversary. In 2005, CAST presented the Charles A. Black Award to Dr. Borlaug for his outstanding achievements as a scientist, educator, and communicator (photo at right).

Dr. Borlaug's final contribution to CAST was the preface to CAST Issue Paper 45, Agricultural Productivity Strategies for the Future: Addressing U.S. and Global Challenges. CAST continues to honor Dr. Borlaug, and the organization strives to live up to his comments about CAST:  "We need to pool our scientific knowledge as well as our cultural knowledge. I think that membership in CAST is a long step forward toward achieving that. I have watched with delight the vacuum that has been filled by CAST in presenting soundly based scientific publications covering a vast array of subjects that relate to agriculture and animal industry." 

by dan gogerty (photos from and CAST)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Raccoons, Rabies, and Old Yeller

A Florida news release caught my attention with the line, “Authorities today warned the public to watch for animals acting in ‘an unusual or suspicious manner’ after a woman was attacked by a rabid raccoon.”

With their built-in masks and curious nature, raccoons often look impishly “suspicious,” but the rabies angle is nothing to laugh about. Apparently, from 2007 through 2012, more than 1,500 Floridians reported being bitten or scratched by a raccoon. As I detailed in a previous blog, Trying My Best to Live and Let Live, I’ve battled raccoons in sweet corn fields and at the perimeter of my goldfish pond, but I’ve not been bitten by a raccoon.

While growing up on a Midwest farm I was scratched by cats, slobbered on by dogs, pecked by red-winged blackbirds, and attacked by angry sows, but the only bite I remember was from a ground squirrel—the little critter latched onto my finger and wouldn’t let go until blood was flying from both of us. I was eleven, and when Dad came in from the field for lunch, he started with his usual suspicions about wild animals. “Wonder if it was diseased. We might have to take it to the lab for a rabies test.” 

My brothers chipped in about then. “Yeah, like Old Yeller. You’ll start droolin’ and then go crazy, and they’ll tie you to a tree or something.”

In those days, my friend Merle lived four miles down the road, and a recent scuffle with a stray dog had him in for rabies shots. “One shot a day, for ten days, with a needle this long.” He placed his hands far enough apart to indicate that the needle would have to go clear through his body. I got the picture—it hurt. Some jabs in the back, some in the stomach. I’m sure the technique has improved, but Merle received tough treatment. I think they ended up catching the dog, and it sacrificed some brain tissue for the rabies test at the Animal Disease Lab. Bit of irony for both Merle and the dog—it didn’t have rabies.

Some years before the ground squirrel latched onto me, Dad dealt with another rabid intruder—a skunk was doing circles on the lane one hot summer day. Dad drove the pickup a short way down the lane, stood in the bed of the truck, and, with rifle in hand, did his best Atticus Finch imitation. Like the lawyer from Macomb, Dad never bragged about shooting, and he didn’t hunt much by the time we kids were around. But he didn’t hesitate to put down a rabid animal, and the skunk was a hazard for us kids, the dogs, and our livestock.

In the end, we decided the ground squirrel wasn’t diseased, so I didn’t get the needles from hell. I’ve felt a bit rabid a few times during the subsequent decades, but I can’t blame that on the squirrel.

I’ve continued to visit the farm when I can, and I don’t worry about critter attacks because Dad and my brothers are skilled at taking out raccoons with distemper or other sick-looking critters. For that reason, I’ve always made a point of not looking ill when I visit the farm—no pus-filled eyes or frothing at the mouth, and I avoid going in circles when I walk down the lane on hot summer days.  by dan gogerty (pic from

Monday, March 17, 2014

What's in a Name? Free Range, Natural, Hormones, and Antibiotics

March 25 Update: Defining "sustainable beef"-- Does it mean organic? Locally sourced? Grass-fed? This group is trying to define the term, and the draft is open for public comment.

The USDA labeling division has the tough task of making sure labels on packaged meat and poultry are "accurate and not misleading." As you will read at this link, Dr. Richard Raymond, a former USDA undersecretary for food safety, has questions and concerns about the process.  

Shakespeare knew that the “pen is mightier than the sword” (Bulwer-Lytton), and he understood that words could cause conflict and confusion. Many of his plays hinge on predictions, inflammatory statements, mistaken meanings, and other word misadventures. In agricultural circles, word wars surface in many ways, and the labeling issue is a prime example.

The pink slime episode also confirmed that in several ways, as this rewrite of an earlier blog examines.

Would Finely Textured Beef by Any Other Name Taste the Same?
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare

When several large supermarket chains banned any beef containing lean finely textured meat trimmings, the pink slime issue became even more “textured.” 
One side, led by Jamie Oliver and ABC Nightly News investigations, indicated that the meat by-product is possibly dangerous, probably treated by a suspect ammonia process, and definitely in need of being labeled whenever it is sold. They say a subtle meat industry practice has forced pseudo beef onto the consumer.

The other side, backed by numerous companies and scientists, claimed the product is safe and approved. They say a slur campaign results in wasted products, higher costs, and the abandonment of a perfectly useful food. Some companies are beginning to process finely textured beef again.

Maybe one thing all sides would agree on is that the “pink slime” term was a master stroke in connotative maneuvering. The pejorative phrase had been around for months, but it caught fire in the media bonfire and led to many consumers calling for slime-free (non-textured) meat.

The meat industry was caught off guard. If they could have come up with a Madison Avenue term for the product early on, the outcry may have been muted. A tough task though, considering the long name they had to work with: Lean Finely Textured Beef. The acronym sounds more like a school club: LFTB. Adding the word “trimmings” allows for an alliteration like “textured trimmings,” or using truncated words could make something like Fine Tex Beef, but that sounds like a Lone Star State production.

Maybe the industry should have changed the term completely like other food products have done. Not many would order Slimehead from the fish menu, but its replacement name, Orange Roughy, has worked out fine. Fatty Goose Liver is not in demand, but some French food lovers go for the controversial foie gras. And no need to elaborate about the term Rocky Mountain Oysters.

So, a new name. How about something like “pink protein” or “the other pink meat”? If the color is the problem, then they could try “lean trim protein.” That has a healthy sound to it, although it might be too wordy for the Twitter world. 

Names aside, the important factors for agricultural products are health, nutrition, and economics. In the New Digital World, communication about these factors is key. Food producers and consumers need to communicate, and the media can be the means or it can be the message--clear or distorted.  When it comes to our food supply, honest, thoughtful messages on all sides would be the best items on the menu. As Shakespeare wrote, “This above all; to thine own self be true.”

by dan gogerty (photos from ars/usda and

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Water Witching, Science, and Voodoo in Bib Overalls

Update News Article Link--December 2015:

During a California drought 100 years ago, the city of San Diego hired a rainmaker—and the rains fell hard. Coincidence, science, or complete flimflam?  

July 2015:  Amid epic drought, California farmers turn to water witches. Rejected by scientists, dowsing is an ancient tradition that’s dying hard in the Central Valley’s parched fields.

Witching in Bib Overalls: 

So—water witching (dowsing) is in the news, and my knee-jerk reaction was to notice that the buzz is centered in California, a land known for fads and fringe. Or maybe the drought has them desperate. 

But then I read that wine company executives and respected farmers are hiring witchers (diviners), and some are paying $500 a session. I’d want the witcher to find a reservoir of Guinness Stout for that price, but I understand what the Big Dry has been doing to the Golden State. The lack of water is no joke—but does that mean we need to grab our divining rods? 

And just when I’m getting smug about “voodoo followers,” I’m reminded that a fair few in my home area of central Iowa have the water divining faith. “They might be using copper or wooden divining rods nowadays,” Dad tells me, “but I’ve seen locals use willow branches or even wire coat hangers. Many rural folks think of it as a proven practice.”

Most scientists scoff at the method—they’re just lucky, they say, or they often witch where water is bound to be present. Dad has no time for palm readers or Ouija boards, but he’s not quick to discount water divining. “Experts in the old days held a forked willow branch in both hands, and the single part of the stick would turn as they crossed over water. One old timer told me the force of the pull could be enough to rip the bark off the branch.”

A family friend from days past apparently had the knack. Wearing bib overalls and clenching a short cigar in his teeth, Milo could find tile lines, water pipes, or promising locations for farm wells. He’d concentrate on the task like a man on a mission. “Well now,” he’d mutter, “let’s see. It’s leading me this way.”

Years ago, Dad and some of the other editors at John Deere’s Furrow Magazine had Milo do a test run. They knew of a buried water tank in a field, and Milo “witched” his way until he found it. Not necessarily hard scientific proof, but it gets you wondering.

When it comes to modern-day water witching, I suppose digital imaging and water sniffing drones will win out. But for my money, I’d take guys like Milo. The drones might find water, but at the end of the day, they couldn’t tell a good story or share a cold beer with you. 

by dan gogerty (photo from