Monday, February 29, 2016

Pollinators, Tribal Elders, and a Heritage Farm

I like to connect agriculture and artwork together. My painting to the lower right is inspired by my family’s heritage farm. My family has built and put up multiple birdhouses to provide habitat for different species in the prairie grass we are restoring.(Hannah Pagel--Iowa State Univ. Sophomore and Admin. Assistant for CAST)

Tribal Elders and the Way of the Land

Do you have a place that you would call your heaven on Earth? A place where you can go to reconnect—where your family’s history is deeply rooted in the soil? My place is a heritage farm, one that has been in the family for more than 150 years. The Cook Farm dates all the way back to the 1840s when my ancestors came over from Bavaria, Germany. They acquired the land through the Homestead Act of 1848. This act stated that an individual could obtain a tract of land consisting of 40 acres and own the land after two years of living and working off of that specific piece of land. My Great-Great-Great Grandfather Henry Cook did just that in 1848, and throughout his years he acquired more land until those 40 acres expanded to 200 acres.

Just as time progresses, so does the landscape and the people who live on it. The farm is now on to the sixth generation of decendents of Henry Cook. Throughout each generation, improvements were made such as going from a sod house to a log cabin to a beautiful farmhouse (still in use today).

Just as decisions about the buildings were made, so were decisions on how the land was to be used. The decisions of the farm are made by what my family calls “the Tribal Elders.” My grandmother and her three brothers grew up on this land, worked the land, and are connected to the land in diverse and personal ways. They oversee the farm and make the executive decisions. Their most recent decision coincides with a new conservation program—known as the Pollinator Habitat CRP program.

A Habitat for All

The Pollinator Habitat program is known for recreating lost habitat for pollinators such as honeybees, butterflies, birds, moths, and many other species. The population of these pollinators is decreasing and some, such as the
monarch butterfly, are close to being on the endangered species list. Pollinators are essential for crop production, and honeybees alone enable the production of more than 90 commercially grown crops in America. The program is designed to boost yields, capture carbon, protect soil productivity, create wildlife habitat, and improve water quality by intercepting sediment and nutrients.

Just as my family’s heritage farm has been around for more than 150 years, the Tribal Elders want the same for the pollinators. Over the years the Tribal Elders have put up multiple birdhouses in the prairie grass (as seen in the painting at top) to help regain habitat for different species. 

The Cook Farm is not just a habitat for my family and friends to enjoy (photo above shows family preparing for rafting and swimming). It also is a habitat for all species. Just as my grandmother--Jeanine Matt--would say, “We need to preserve and protect the land because there is no more of it. We need to cherish it now and for our future generations.” 

It is the heaven on Earth for us all and will continue to be for many years to come. If there is something I have learned from the Tribal Elders, it is to respect the land we live on, treat everyone as family, and never forget where your roots came from.

By: Hannah Pagel

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Too Many Cooks in the Advocacy Kitchen?

Kelsey Faivre was raised on a farm in northern Illinois, where she learned to love agriculture. She is a senior studying agriculture communications at Iowa State University in Ames, and she is an administrative assistant at CAST. This editorial was first published on the Feedstuffs Foodlinks blog.

A friend of mine mentioned that an agriculture professional came to speak with one of her on-campus organizations a while ago, bringing the message that every person involved in agriculture should be actively blogging and participating in social media “agvocacy” efforts. That’s a pretty common message in agriculture circles today.

Despite hearing this message, my friend still hasn’t started up a blog. Her reasoning? “I’m not that good of a writer. I like plants, not writing, and I don’t have the time it takes to find accurate scientific information to back up my ideas. I don’t want to muddy the waters for people by contributing to an effort in a way that creates more confusion than good.”

That got me thinking. There’s no question that there is a need to educate consumers on the ways of modern agriculture. But I wonder if relative quality of advocacy messages may have an impact on consumer response and therefore the success of efforts to increase overall agriculture literacy.

It seems like everywhere you turn, agriculturalists are being encouraged to tell their stories, to be “agvocates.” In my opinion, it’s time to think a little harder about the ways we champion agriculture.

How can we advocate while recognizing our limitations of expertise?

Each individual in the agriculture industry has a different perspective and a different story to tell. But nobody is an expert on every topic! It seems like sometimes we are quick to jump to the defense of our fellow farmers, even if we don’t know all the facts about their segment of the industry. This creates confusion.

A good example of this is when some agvocates try to defend gestation stalls but confuse them with farrowing crates. This creates more of a problem, requiring experts to step in and try to provide clarification. In the resulting confusion, both the misinformed agvocates and the swine experts risk losing credibility and the industry seems like it can’t agree on a message.

Are we leaving room for more than one right answer?

The agriculture industry is not homogenous. People down the road from each other growing the same crops may make completely different management decisions for equally legitimate reasons. That’s something to celebrate and share. Advocating for a single production method while simultaneously discrediting those who use others creates confusion and resentment within the industry.

Is advocating badly more damaging than no advocacy at all?

I’m not sure there’s a right answer to this question. On one hand, there are a lot of cooks in the “agvocacy” kitchen. On the other, each of us has a different agriculture story and a different perspective, and there should be room for those in the conversation about food and farming. 

Agvocacy efforts are fantastic and necessary. But are there times when inaccurate information, lack of scientific grasp, and/or difficulty communicating clearly makes for poor execution. Is it possible that it’s to the detriment of the industry? Certainly something worth pondering I would say.

(cartoon from