Friday, March 24, 2017

Plants, Genetics, Innovation, and Obstinate Horses

Gene editing advances and precision farming techniques are producing a bouquet of plant breeding innovations that give food producers options for keeping up with global food security needs. At times confusing and controversial, farming practices are changing rapidly, and these links will help you keep up with some of the most notable happenings.

#1 Plant Breeding and Genetics--A paper in the series on The Need for Agricultural Innovation to Sustainably Feed the World by 2050. An excerpt from the press release:

Many think it is time for another green revolution, one that utilizes technological innovation in smart, sustainable ways. Humans depend on plants for food, feed, fiber, and fuel--as well as less tangible aspects of life such as aesthetics and environmental stability. This paper is the first in a series that connects science and technology to agriculture, and it focuses on the critical importance of innovation in plant breeding to meet the challenge of providing food and nutritional security to humankind. The authors of this issue paper use science-based information and peer-review methods to establish the importance of plant breeding innovation, and they cover several key areas:
  • The science of plant breeding and genetics
  • The need for encouraging the next generation of scientists
  • The current role of government policy and regulations
  • The need for cooperation and collaboration at all levels, including the public-private nexus

#2 Variety Development Includes Genetic Approaches by Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. An excerpt from the article:

Dr. Folta mentions the non-browning Arctic Apple and points to an innovation pipeline in horticultural crops--including beta carotene-producing bananas, low acrylamide, non-browning potatoes, and blight resistance. He also says, “The future of horticultural crop genetics is breeding. There will continue to be new breakthroughs in development and sequencing. What changes in DNA are always associated with a certain trait? That’s genetic selection. There’s a revolution in genomic selection. It involves the surgical dissection of a genome. It’s the same as traditional breeding, but directing where changes take place.”
#3 Plant When the Oak Leaves Are the Size of Squirrels’ Ears. This blog looks back at the technology of planting during days gone by. An excerpt from the blog:

Dad has farmed through the Ag Tech Renaissance, a time when planters have moved from two-row to sixteen and twenty-four row. “We’ve had it relatively easy,” he said. “Your grandpa planted with horses. Half-mile rows on warm days got pretty tough. He had one horse that would revolt at the end of every round, lie down for a while, and finally get back up and start plodding along again.” 
Back then, they would stretch planter wire the length of the field, follow it along and “button” in a seed every forty inches, and at the end, they’d move the wires and start again. It could be dangerous as well as tedious. Apparently lighting strikes on the wires could kill a horse, mule, or man.

by dan gogerty (bottom pic from vachon,libraryofcongress)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Let Them Eat Dirt--Farm Kids and Good Germs

The famous five second rule has been studied and debated, but it usually comes down to what the food is, where it falls, and who it's for. A grape that goes walkabout for a bounce or two on my kitchen floor? I'll probably wipe it off and pop it in. A small square of watermelon that flies off my grandson's high chair tray onto the carpet? Trash it. 

But the authors of the latest research on kids and cleanliness have me once again thinking about proper germ etiquette. In their book, Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World, two respected doctors say that parents whip out the hand sanitizer too often—dirt and germs help microbiomes develop, and that makes for healthier kids. 

As they wrote, “At first we studied microbes that cause disease, and we feared them just like anyone else. But more recently we began taking notice of other microbes that live in and on us--our 'microbiota.' As we continue to study the microbiota of humans, it is becoming clear that our exposure to microbes is most important when we’re kids. At the same time, modern lifestyles have made childhood much cleaner than ever before in human history, and this is taking a huge toll on our microbiota--and our lifelong health."

I grew up on a farm, so I'm still trying to get hay chaff out of my hair and the smell of Bossy our milk cow off my hands. The following blog from a few years back explains my take on dirt and germs--click here to access the original posting that includes several more links about the hygiene hypothesis, including some scientific research.

Farm Germs Might Be the Best Medicine

Research suggests that farm kids have fewer allergies than city kids do—and the hygiene hypothesis might demonstrate why. According to some experts, we’re too clean nowadays. Our immune systems protect us by learning how to fight bacteria and other invaders. We need to “get down and dirty.” 

I’m a bit skeptical of this theory, but because of my upbringing, I want to believe it. Raised on a Midwest farm a long time ago—in a galaxy far, far away—my brothers and I were the perfect study group for the “unhygienic theory.”

About the time JFK was asking the country to ask not, we were exposing ourselves to just about any germ that had ever heard of central Iowa.  During summer—before we were old enough to do much farm work—mom would open the screen door after breakfast, letting us out and a few flies in. Dad and his brother ran the traditional corn, soybeans, pigs, and cattle farm, but in reality, it was a 400-acre magic kingdom for my brothers, cousins, and me.

The creeks, barns, pastures, and groves provided the types of playgrounds no modern designer could match. And even though we never thought of it, these places must have been crawling with enough germs to make a bacteriologist drool.

During a typical day, we might crawl through poison ivy, build dams in murky stream water, and run through clouds of ragweed pollen. Our kid quests would take us under rusty barbed wire fences, through tick infested groves, and across pastures laden with fresh cow pies hidden in the grass.  By lunchtime, one of the gang had been stung by a bee, stabbed by a fish hook, or hit in the back with a mud pie.

We didn’t call it locavore food back then, but the hearty noon meal gave us a few minutes to pick cockleburs out of our socks and flick a few garden peas at a brother when the folks weren’t looking. For their part, Mom and Dad would take a head count, tell us to be safe, and then release us hounds again after the 12:30 cartoon show was over.

We’d had the usual school vaccinations, and in those days, the folks might “cleanse us” with deworming medicine or take us in for a tetanus booster shot if we stepped on something nasty in the creek. By the time we returned to the house each summer day, Mom could shake the dust off our overalls, but we had spent the hours as host organisms in a rural petri dish, so I imagine a half billion or so germs stayed attached. 

After supper, we slid out into the yard where we played ball or set up miniature farms in the dirt.  The barn cats scratched around with us, and my brothers occasionally shared their tootsie roll pops with our dog, Smoky. By the time the mosquitoes let up and the lightning bugs started flashing low along the grass, we knew it was time to go in.

I don’t know if we farm kids ended up with fewer allergies and illness, but if having fun is a way to immunize yourself from disease, then we had a heavy dose of some powerful medicine. 

 by dan gogerty (drawing from Don Smith, photo from

Friday, March 10, 2017

Why Farming Is Like March Madness

March brings us spring, St. Patrick’s Day, and the craziest part of the basketball season—March Madness. Fans across the United States will get their fair share of wins and losses, upsets, heart-pounding moments, and excitement. Many elements make up a game of basketball in March Madness which reminds me of a lifestyle that has taught me a lot—farming. So to combine two of my favorite obsessions, here are eight ways March Madness relates to farming.

1. Unpredictable Brackets Are Like Unpredictable Markets
Mathematicians predict that you have a 1 in 9.2 quintillion chance of picking every outcome in the March Madness bracket—how about that for odds? But just as the bracket is unpredictable so are the markets for the agriculture industry. If farmers knew how the markets would play out then I guarantee you my dad would have fewer gray hairs on his head. Farmers take risks every day when it comes to the markets. It seems to change at least four times a day; 8 a.m. corn up 4, 11 a.m. corn down 5, 2 p.m. corn is back up by 4. Just as we speculate about who is going all the way in the tournament, farmers contemplate when to sell and when to hold off for the best outcome.

2. Predicting When the Lightning Will Strike
In most basketball games, teams get hot and cold, and in March Madness you never know when a team is going to bring the heat that makes the thunder roll and the lightning strike—I guess that’s why they call it March Madness. It’s no different for farmers—they are always watching the weather to see how it will affect their operation. But the weather can take an unexpected turn at any moment and leave farmers scrambling to make up for the sudden change in plans—just like a team that loses its momentum and then has to work to catch up to its opponent.

3. Peaking at the Right Moment
In any sport, a team wants to peak at the right time of the season, just as farmers want their crops or livestock to peak at the right time. A team’s momentum in the tournament is like that cornfield that fills out and ripens for harvest at the perfect time.

4. Knowing the Game Plan
Good basketball teams have a game plan that involves offensive and defensive strategies. Farmers work in the same manner with a game plan set in place for their operation. It usually begins before planting even starts—taking yield counts from previous years, selecting the right variety for a specific soil type, knowing what insurance to take for certain fields, and working to minimize soil erosion on all fields. They plan ahead to determine which fields to take out of production and put on the bench for a break. Just as coaches know who to play in certain situations, farmers know what to add and take out to ensure a profitable crop.

5. Referees for Basketball—Regulations for Farming
In any sports match we have referees to make calls—some we agree with and some that have the power to turn a whole game around. Regulations are the referees in the farming world—some protect and help the farmer, and some seem to work against a farmer’s best interest. Either way, farmers and basketball teams have to work with the calls made and make the most out of any situation.

6. Slam Dunks
There are moments in all games when the spirit and moral is low, but a flashy slam dunk is all a team needs to turn things around. Slam dunks come around every once in awhile in the farming world—it’s a moment when things just click together, something as simple as a storm passing on a field of fresh cut hay or a sick animal finally overcoming its illness. Slam dunks keep us going for the promise of a new day.

7. Fans
No matter where the tournament takes a team, they will have fans that bring spirit and encouragement to each game. In a way, farmers have their own set of fans they can fall back on when times get tough. Faith and family are two things a farmer can always lean on for support. No matter where a team or farmer goes, fans provide support and encouragement every step of the way.

8. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
The team is more than just the players alone; the coaching staff, managers, athletic trainers, bus drivers, and athletic directors come together to make the tournament a success. Farming is no different—family members, farm managers, farm hands, veterinarians, seed dealers, neighbors, and the community join to make the wheels go round. With all working together, no dream seems too big to accomplish.

In many ways the NCAA tournament relates to farming, but one key difference is that farming goes year-round. Food production does not take a time out. All these elements give a glimpse of what farmers go through 365 days a year. It’s a long journey—filled with trials, tears, excitement, and happiness—but it comes together in the end to make it all worthwhile. Exciting ball games; essential food production. Swish!

by Hannah Pagel (ISU junior and CAST admin. asst. intern)