Friday, March 27, 2015

Country Roads—John Denver Nostalgia in the Dust and Mud

John Denver sang longingly of the country roads that took him home, but those of us who have driven unpaved routes all our lives know the reality—rural roads have their warts. Conditions have improved since the early days of the famous Lincoln Highway (right), but they still pose challenges.

I drive off pavement on a weekly basis to visit my parents on the family farm in rural Iowa, but I’m not the dust-and-mud jockey I was as a teen driving the old Chevy to school, sports, or the drive-in. Now I just complain when a few miles of gravel means I take my Honda to the car wash when I get back to town.

Dad is the real road warrior. Except for a four-year stint in college, he has lived along the same country roads for 87 years. And like most local sages, he has his methods for coping with gravel and mud.

Dad’s Rules of the Road

1. Speed bumps come naturally on country roads. Chuck holes, frost boils, and rain-softened shoulders are hazards. Washboarding can make some sections seem like bad amusement park rides. Forget about cruise control; think about slowing down.

2. Ice, snow, and rain affect gravel roads longer. Let farmers with monster pickup trucks blast through snow drifts, and leave the unmaintained dirt roads to the adventurous. (Note: my high school classmate, Don, regularly attacked lonely dirt roads after snow or rain storms. He used his dad’s ’64 International Harvester pickup for personal off-road rallies.)

3. A trail of dust from oncoming vehicles might hang over the road producing near-zero visibility. Headlights help, and a trail of dust in the distance does alert you to traffic. But at times, you’ll be in a sepia-colored fog.

4. At unmarked country intersections, the vehicle on the right has the right-of-way. But don’t bet the farm that the other guy will stop. Tall corn hides approaching cars on blind corners. As they say, you could drive through and be right—dead right.

5. Be aware of local driving habits. Some folks drive down the middle of the road, and a few are still “windshield farmers.” They gawk to the sides checking out neighbors’ crops. Others might not use turning signals—they reckon, “No need for ‘em. Everybody around here knows where I’ll turn.”

6. Big farm equipment scares most visiting drivers—flashing lights, slow-moving vehicles, and machines that look like something out of Star Wars. Some farmers drive huge road-hogging combines “just a mile or so to the next field.” It’s best to stay patient or take an alternate route. If you’re following a “honey wagon,” stay back a ways. Enjoy the manure fragrance and watch for splatter or chunks. No need to take home souvenirs on your tires.

7. Darkness adds another dimension to country driving. Wandering livestock, raccoons, and skunks can be dangerous and smelly hazards. Deer seem to wait in ditches and bound out when you approach. (Note: during one week, my sister and her husband each hit deer with different vehicles. They were OK. The deer and vehicles weren’t.)

During my teen years, I paid the price for ignoring some of Dad’s edicts. A car looks mighty sad when it’s cowering in the ditch along a lonely back road. But I still appreciate the serenity and beauty that often comes with a drive in the country. For most rural folks, John Denver was right: “Take me home, country roads.”

by dan gogerty (top pic from and other pic from &

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Glyphosate Controversy and Bean Walkers

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, ranks the herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” 

This resulted in fierce rebuttals from the agricultural science community

These recent articles also address the issue:

An international committee of cancer experts shocked the agribusiness world when it announced that two widely used pesticides are "probably carcinogenic to humans." The International Agency for Research on Cancer published a brief explanation of its conclusions in The Lancet and plans to issue a book-length version later this year. 

Monsanto called on the World Health Organization to withdraw a claim that the most widely used weed killer in the world could cause cancer, with the seed giant accusing the agency of unnecessarily scaring consumers and farmers who use their products.

With the introduction of biotech soybeans, Round Up, and other production methods, things changed rapidly in the Midwest during the past two decades. Now with herbicide-resistant weeds, precision agriculture, and general discussions about growing practices, changes are in the air again. Consumer demand, trade negotiations, environmental concerns, and so-called superweeds might lead to more big changes.

The first paradigm shift occurred when the bean walking crews took off their gloves, hats, and muddy shoes. Ironically--with the invasion of "zombie" weeds--the walkers may need to pull those shoes on again.  

Life Before Biotech: Heat, Mud, and Plants from the Little Shop of Horrors

Genetically modified plants? Roundup ready soybeans? I’ll leave the debate to others, but it’s a fact: The soybeans grown in my home state of Iowa are more than 90% GMO, and that’s not likely to change soon. For the past decade or more, fields have looked like English gardens, with precision rows and soft breezes rippling along the tops of weedless soybean plants. In one respect, it’s a shame. In the pre-GMO days, soybean fields had personality.

The classy ones were neat and orderly, with maybe a few weeds along the fence rows and waterways. The owners kept their cultivators sharpened, and they pounced when weeds showed above the bean rows, especially if drivers could see them from the road.

The casual soybean fields were mixed but salvageable. Wayward stalks of corn would shoot up, cocklebur patches hovered low and menacing, and sections of off-green buttonweeds tried to hide among the soybeans. Farmers usually battled these weeds, with varying results.

Some fields were fashion disasters. Clumps of volunteer corn dotted the rows, burrs and buttonweeds took over sections of the field, and iron weeds looked like sapling trees. Occasionally, thistle patches would get so out of control, somebody would just have to post an “Enter at your own risk” sign.

In the 1960s, soybean fields made for good talking points. By June it was obvious which would need to be “walked”—weeded by stoop laborers…or teenagers…or us. Farmers would hire youngsters to go row-by-row to pull weeds. My siblings, cousins, and I started walking beans on the home place about as soon as we were potty-trained, but Dad let us hire out to neighbors by the time we were 12 or so. Child labor laws were flexible then, and the 50 cents an hour wage that first year didn’t bring the IRS down on us.

We’d often start early to beat the heat; dew-drenched, with mud sticking to our Keds’ sneakers, we’d trudge along, pulling most weeds, chopping some, and basically wrestling with the ones that seemed more like Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors. Heat, thirst, and blow flies were irritating, but mud clod fights with a cousin eight rows over could be dangerous. It was satisfying to see the field get “clean and tidy” several rows at a time, but we were really after pocket money to buy a top-40 vinyl record or admission to the roller skating rink a farm family had set up in a nearby converted hog barn.

I’m not blaming the GMO crowd, but soybean fields became soul-less—bland and beautiful, like some type of cloned fields of dreams. As I said, I’ll let others debate the ethics of genetically modifying plants, but I do know that you should be careful of what you wish for. Today’s soybean fields are what we worked so hard to get back when we were doing hand-to-hand combat with cockleburs, thistles, and “stink weeds.” Roundup weeded us bean walkers out too. 

by dan gogerty (bottom pic from

Monday, March 9, 2015

Diets and USDA Guidelines--Leave It to Beaver

The USDA's 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted its report in February 2015. As with most menus, this will appeal to "tastes" in various ways:  

The Leave It to Beaver Diet

When I see a Cabbage Soup Diet hailed as a way to “shed holiday pounds” or “lose weight quickly before an important event,” I get a sudden involuntary cramp. Nothing wrong with cabbage, and I imagine the diet has its good points, but I’m not sure I’d want to be around somebody who eats cabbage for seven days in a row.

Nutrition is important, so I’m not belittling the need for eating plans. However, I think back fondly to the days before I even heard the word “diet.”  Because I grew up on a farm in the 60s, the daily menu was set. We had meat, potatoes, and vegetables twice a day, and the morning started with cereal or the bacon and eggs standard. A few pancakes might show up at times, and we often had fish on Fridays, but you get the picture. The Leave It to Beaver diet.
That meant Mom did most of the work, and farm fare was pretty standard. She did try a chop suey meal once in the 60s, but the family reviews were somewhere between confusion and revolt. Three pre-teen boys in overalls weren’t yet ready for such a cultural awakening—even if the meal had no more to do with Asia than the Chinese checkers game in our closet.

I can’t remember hearing much about diets even in my college years. In Iowa City, I lived with three friends, and our attempt to cook alternating meals for each other broke down after a few weeks—about the time the sink became permanently clogged with spaghetti, banana peels, and pop-top rings.

I did hear of one diet plan during those years. Perry had a Dodge station wagon filled with boxes of instant mac and cheese and cases of RC Cola. He was the first techie I ever met—at a time when the only computer on campus was a mainframe about the size of Rhode Island. His profession has since become popular, but I still haven’t seen his exclusive mac and cheese diet touted anywhere. And you're out of luck if you want an RC Cola.

During the past few decades, a new diet plan pops up about as often as a new fast food outlet opens. The list includes diets such as the Atkins, South Beach, Mediterranean, grapefruit, vegan, low-carb, high protein, and Jenny Craig.  Some are more appealing than others. The Blood Type Diet just doesn’t work for me—sounds too vampirish. However the Okinawan Diet comes from the part of the world with the highest life expectancy. Maybe it’s the tofu and goya. The Kangatarian Diet has a certain bounce to it—vegetarian plus kangaroo meat. The Cookie Diet sounds most sinful, while the Hallelujah Diet most inspirational.

I guess it’s obvious that I’m not a diet guy, but I did hear an interview recently from a proponent of low sugar intake. Dr. Robert Lustig has a book—Fat Chance—and he has supporters and detractors. I imagine sugar and candy companies don’t send him birthday cards. He basically advocates exercise and a diet low in sugar, low in salt, high in fiber, and high in unprocessed food. “Eat brown and green food,” he says. “Eat food that doesn’t even need a label.”

So that brings me back to the farm. In many ways, we followed Dr. Lustig’s plan. We didn’t call it exercise—it was just plain fun until we were older, and it became chores and work—but we ate food off the land, much of it natural and unlabeled--plenty of it brown and green. Oh sure, we had a salt shaker back then, and Mom’s chocolate chip cookies had some sugar in them, but our energy was high, and maybe the best thing is: we Eddie Haskells never even thought about what we ate. It was the Thoughtless Diet.  And there was not even a thought of including cabbage soup on the menu.

by dan gogerty (cartoon from  (picture from