Ending the Over-Scheduled Schedule

Last night I made a declaration to my kids: we’re cutting back on activities. At the end of this week, soccer and swimming sessions will be over and I am looking forward to it coming to a close.  I don’t know about everyone else, but I am not allowing my kids’ schedules to supersede our lives. Somehow we’ve slipped into a situation I swore up and down I would never be in: there are only two days out of seven each week that don’t have an activity holding down a recurring block of time on the calendar.  And now they’re asking me to sign them up for basketball and rock climbing and gymnastics. And can we please squeeze in a playdate between when the bus drops us off and before we have to be at swimming? I’ll just eat dinner in the car.

No.

And the reason is not because I’m mean. I want my kids to participate in fun activities that they enjoy. I see the value in team sports; they’re both very athletic and I want to encourage that.   I want them to have friends and play and do all the regular things kids do. But over the last two months, I’ve noticed the side effects of that kind of schedule. We only have a few hours with them each day and a full day of school maxes them out. Adding anything else to it just leads to bad tempers and grumpiness.

I thought when both my kids were in all day school I’d be more patient because I’d only have a few hours with them. I’d be totally available to listen to their stories about school and help with homework and we’d have a nice relaxing dinner and play a game. And I am available, but they aren’t. They’re emotionally and physically exhausted and my patience runs thin because they unload all the feelings their little bodies are churning up on me.

When did we become this society that feels like our kids need to have every moment of their lives scheduled? When are they supposed to just relax and process all the stuff going on? I was talking to a speech pathologist recently who told me she sees high schoolers who are passing out on the sports field. Their parents thinkSoccerMom-1 they have a health problem, but it turns out they’re just wound so tight they literally can’t breath and they collapse. She has to teach them how to relax. She told me she was seeing a five-year-old for speech therapy and his parents couldn’t figure out a way to fit his therapy into his soccer schedule so they dropped therapy because there just wasn’t time. When the pathologist suggested maybe they cut out some of his other activities (like soccer) they baulked and said he had to continue soccer so he could get a soccer scholarship to this private elementary school.

I see the stressed-out, frazzled parents all the time, so I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. When I didn’t sign my daughter up for soccer like every other kindergartner (because she has no interest in soccer) one of the moms said to me with a concerned look, “But aren’t you afraid she’ll get behind?” No. I’m just really not concerned she’ll get behind at soccer. Parents contact me to take their family pictures but when we go to schedule it, there isn’t a free weekend on the calendar for two months because of soccer tournaments and double-header baseball games and dance recitals.

It doesn’t have to be like that. You can just say no. No, we don’t need to be doing something every minute of every day. It’s ok to just do nothing after school. Whether or not you enroll your six-year-old in baseball is not going to make or break his future as a baseball player, or, likely, have any impact on his future at all.  Half the time it seems like the kids like the idea of soccer more than they actually like playing it. Parents end up having to force them to get out on the field and even then they just kick the dirt. I understand sometimes kids say they want to do something and then after they go to one practice they say they don’t want to anymore, but maybe just don’t sign them up next time. Maybe just play soccer with them at the park sometimes.

So I’m saying no, at least for the time being. We can play basketball in our own backyard. We can go on family hikes for exercise. Want to learn something new? Great, I can teach you piano and Daddy can help you identify trees. We can go rock climbing together on a Saturday; you don’t have to be part of an after-school rock climbing club. I know the kids will still bicker with each other, but I want to re-align our priorities to put extra-curricular stuff way down on the list. I’m going to do my best to resist the pressure to enroll them in everything under the sun just because it exists and everyone else is doing it. At least, that’s my plan. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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September Farming in Focus: Hazelnuts

I’m sure by now you’ve come to expect that I’m going to be late on my Farming in Focus post. This is a new level of late for me – I’m almost a month late posting this! There are reasons (excuses) that may or may not be any good, but I’m going to go with them anyway. The primary driver in this being late is that we had to wait for the nuts to fall off the tree, which is a pretty good reason, right? This harvest was supposed to take place at the end of September, but it got pushed out to middle of October. Because I had it slated for September, I’m still calling it September! This  month I visited a good friend whose husband grows hazelnuts, among other things, in Rickreall, Oregon.

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Keith Marx (left) is a 4th generation farmer who came back to the farm six years ago after leaving a career in engineering. He now farms roughly 1,000 acres with is his father, Merle (right). The original family farm was much larger, but when Merle’s father died the acreage was divided amicably between Merle and his siblings.

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In addition to hazelnuts, Marx grows grass seed, wheat, turnip seed, canola, vetch, and rotates in other crops as it makes sense. Some of these crops are irrigated using the irrigation pond (above) which is filled from rainwater and rainwater runoff.  The pond was built in the 80s and fills itself completely every year. Much of what Marx grows depends on what kind of contracts he can get for the season, but as hazelnut trees can produce for up to 80 years, that crop is a bit of a long-term commitment and therefore doesn’t necessitate a contract.

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Marx’s family is only recently getting back into growing Hazelnuts, as are many Oregon growers. A fungal disease called Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB), evident in the above image by the dead limbs on a neighboring hazelnut orchard, destroyed roughly 1,600 acres of Oregon hazelnut trees during the 1990s. Farmers can attempt to manage EFB by a number of methods, but there is no single solution to cure the trees. Fortunately, ongoing breeding efforts at Oregon State University have resulted in the introduction of new blight resistant varieties. Oregon growers have since planted roughly 4,000 acres of these new varieties, many of which are now beginning to produce nuts.

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Marx has roughly 140 acres of hazelnut trees, all of which are blight resistant varieties. Only about 40 acres are currently producing nuts, as it takes four years for the trees to produce nuts. These baby trees above are in their first year, and it’ll be another three before Marx can start to see the fruits of his labor.

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Until I moved to Oregon, all I knew about hazelnuts is that they’re in Nutella. Now I know that hazelnuts (also called filberts) are the Oregon state nut and that 99 percent of US-grown hazelnuts are grown in Oregon. Turkey produces about 80 percent of the world’s hazelnut market, followed by Europe which produces about 13 percent, and the US (almost exclusively from Oregon) which produces about seven percent. Interestingly (at least to me) hazelnuts are actually harvested off the ground. Growers wait until hazelnuts fall off the tree and then essentially drive through the orchard and sweep them up.

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As you can imagine, hazelnut growers spend a lot of time managing the floor of the orchard, because when the nuts fall to the ground and get swept into tidy rows, anything that’s on the ground gets swept with them. This is a relatively new crop for Marx, and he’s learning as he goes. This year’s harvest was hindered a little by weeds on the orchard floor, and he plans to spend more time managing those weeds in the future.

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After all the nuts are swept into a row, the harvester comes through and collects the nuts and debris. The harvester tumbles and shakes the nuts to separate them from the husks and debris.

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Then the nuts are unloaded into bins to be sent to be processed. There they are washed and disinfected, dehusked and dried to about ten percent moisture. At that point they are sent to packaging or to long term storage. Last year, most of Marx’s hazelnuts went to the local confection market, ending up in things like chocolate covered hazelnuts. About 60 percent of Oregon’s hazelnuts are exported in their shells, primarily to China.

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As this is only Marx’s second harvest of hazelnuts, they’re still working out the kinks. I got to experience some real-life farming when I visited: a broken harvester. Marx, like most farmers, spends a lot of time fixing machinery. I’m sure it helps that he’s also an engineer. I stood around and munched on raw hazelnuts while we waited. I didn’t have to crawl under the harvester with a screwdriver, so I think I got the good end of the deal. 
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Last year hazelnut prices jumped after a frost seriously damaged nearly one quarter to one half of Turkey’s crop. As a result, domestic consumers are demanding higher quality nuts, and it’s projected that this year prices will remain high.

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Before the nuts have even fallen off the tree, the hazelnut tree is already preparing for the next season. Green catkins (as seen above) create pollen that pollinates tiny red flowers in the middle of winter. Then the tree stays dormant until June when the nuts begin to form. After harvest, Marx will feed the trees with fertilizer and apply lime to the soil. Because hazelnut trees are actually a bush, not a tree, they send out new shoots from the ground called suckers in an attempt to become a bush once again. Marx will spend quite a bit of time pruning those suckers so they don’t trap falling nuts and sap the resources the tree could be using to produce nuts. Marx says the biggest pest he’s faced are squirrels that steal the nuts off the ground before he can harvest them. “There are hundreds of nuts literally squirreled away over there,” he told me, pointing to the edge of the field. If he waits to harvest until all the nuts fall from the tree, a good portion of it will be lost to squirrels.

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I got to do some real day-in-the-life of a farmer stuff while I visited, too, like going to fetch coffee for the hard working farmers. Turns out farmers do actually go to the local coffee shop where they know you by name and you get to hear all the dish on the locals. I even got a free cookie with my coffee. Tiffany, Marx’s wife, who works as an appraisal services coordinator at Contour Valuation Services, was nice enough to help me out by giving me a great tour and providing me much of the factual information for this post, and she even bought my coffee! 🙂 You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter as to see cool farm photos and facts. Did you learn something fun about hazelnuts today? Leave a comment if you did. See you next time!

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Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 2 of 2

Yesterday I talked about why the organic label isn’t an indication of “rightness” when it comes to farming practices. As I mentioned, in order to provide some specific examples of how conventional farmers are also using some of the same practices that many believe define organic production, I surveyed a group of conventional growers. I asked seven questions and got responses from 11 conventional farmers from across the US. Verbatim answers are below (not all, because some had similar answers.) Caveat: this is in no way meant to be a study, I understand it’s a small, volunteer-based sample, but I hope it helps some people understand that organic production is not the only way to farm sustainably.

conv farm QA (1 of 3)Before we get into those examples, though, let’s talk a little about one thing that will come up in their answers: tillage. Tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground) is one way that farmers prepare the soil for crops. It does a number of things, one of which is to mechanically destroy weeds – and killing weeds is important because they steal resources (like water and nutrients) from crops and reduce efficiency. There are many benefits to tilling like incorporating nutrients into the soil, but there are also disadvantages such as release of carbon into the atmosphere and increased erosion.  No-till and reduced-till agriculture has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, and maintains soil structure.  Conventional farmers use herbicides to kill weeds instead of tilling, which is something that organic farmers can’t do. (To be clear, tilling does not eliminate the need for herbicides, many farmers who till still use herbicides.) One of the farmers I reached out to said, “On a national level, the switch to no-till is huge in terms of environmental benefits. Carbon is stored in the ground and not released into the atmosphere, and secondly, erosion is drastically reduced. These two things alone makes conventional farming (with the use of no-till) superior environmentally to organic – at least on a large scale, as it is very difficult to farm organically without relying on cultivation for weed management.”

Ok, the Q&A. It’s long, but worth the read.

Question #1: Do you use cover crops? (Note for readers: Things that are grown when a farmer is not growing a crop to sell. Advantages: reduced soil erosion, weed suppression, soil amendment.)

  • Yes, we use cereal rye, hairy vetch, or tillage radish for cover crops
  • We have done both cover and not. We prefer cover crops out of convenience. Who wants their seeds blown away with all of your top soil?
  • We have just planted oats as a cover crop. We harvested peas in the field this year and are planning on putting in radishes in the spring. By planting the oats, we capture any remaining nutrients, which will be held by the oat crop. When we spray out the oats in the spring those nutrients will then be released back into the soil and will be available to the radish crop. Furthermore, having a crop growing keeps the soil “alive.” There is another whole layer of life in the soil in form of various microbes, and they are kept healthy by having a growing crop at all times.
  • We use cover crops and use soil samples to see what the soil and crop needs
  • No. There are not many/any economically viable cover crop options in our area. We do “rest” ground by putting it through a three year alfalfa rotation.
  • Sometimes. Everything we do is about conserving moisture – cover crops use moisture. It takes six inches of water to get wheat to a point it will help as a cover crop.

Question #2: Do you use crop rotation? (Note for readers: this is the opposite of a mono-crop – not growing the same thing on the same field year after year. Advantages: keeping pests and disease in check, reduced need for synthetic fertilizer, soil health)

  • conv farm QA (2 of 3)Yes, we rotate crops. We’re in a ten year battle over raising canola because we’re looking for crop rotations that are good fits
  • Don’t most people? Grow too much of the same thing, and it is like watching inbreeding!
  • Oh yes. We grow ten different crops. We rotate according to market demands, crop history, weed history, soil needs. Our soils are in excellent condition.
  • Yes, we rotate our corn and soybeans every year, and we no-till.
  • Yes, intensively. Typically winter wheat, corn, safflower or sunflowers, malt barley. If needed we’ll then go to summer fallow or back to wheat. Also this would be when we’d put ground in alfalfa and leave it for a few years.

Question #3: Do you use Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? (Note for readers: the strategy behind IPM is to try to control pests before they become a problem using things like beneficial insect populations and judicious use of pesticides.)

  • On our farm we hardly use insecticides because of crop rotation and the use of GMO crops.
  • We keep beneficial insect habitats in place
  • Yes, we use a variety of chemicals from different groups to avoid resistance issues, including organic options if that is the best fit, soil tillage or lack thereof (no-till). Several oat varieties we grow naturally suppress nematode activity, and we pay attention to protecting/enhancing beneficial insect populations.
  • To an extent. Not very formally, but we have a crop consultant who advises us, and we never blindly spray, just because we are told. We often weigh the cost/benefit of spraying. We don’t release natural predators, but we do consider carefully if it is worth spraying.
  • I have used IPM for decades. That is one thing that drives me up a wall about internet farmers. They come up these ideas that farmers have done for decades

Question #4: How do you limit pesticide use?

  • conv farm QA (3 of 3)First off, pesticides are expensive, so we don’t want to use any more than we have to from a financial perspective. Furthermore, when we chose which crop to grow, we take into account the history of the field, and if we can predict a weed or insect problem, we may chose not to grow that crop, or to grow it in a different location. Also, by planting wheat later in the year, we can avoid aphids. We may choose to plant a variety that we know has better disease resistance thereby potentially eliminating a fungicide spray.
  • We never use more then we should on herbicides, it’s not beneficial to the crop, soil, environment, and it’s expensive! When we spray we always choose a day with little wind and cooler weather. We are always mindful of where it may drift.
  • We grow non-organic oats and alfalfa, which get sprayed with nothing. Our Roundup ready corn and soy get sprayed as minimally as possible.
  • We raise GMO crops, scout fields, apply as needed – for insecticide when the count per plant reaches a specific threshold, and for herbicides we use the maximum rate (really cuts down on the need for additional applications which in the end is less pesticide) and time it so that other methods (canopy of rows) controls weeds.
  • Scout fields – especially when looking for pests to see if they meet at economic threshold for applying pesticides
  • GMOs
  • We use bt corn and cotton. When we don’t have to spray for worms we don’t kill off beneficial insects and then we don’t have to spray for secondary pests such as spider mites.

Question #5: Do you reuse by-products or take advantage of other farms’ by-products?

  • We run cattle too, so after we combine our grass seed, we bale straw for winter feed/bedding, and also bale wheat straw for bedding. Once straw is gone and fields start to re-grow, we use them as summer pasture. Also, a silly example – we got five goats to eat brush. When we bale alfalfa, I pick up the alfalfa the rake missed into a garbage can and take one to the goats every night until the alfalfa gets too big to drive on.
  • We try to keep our straw on the farm and just chop the straw finely. In the end of the hot summer it shades the soil, keeping it a little cooler and helps retain a little moisture and protects the plants and soil a little from the intense late summer heat. As it breaks down it adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
  • I graze all of my grain crops. Reduces tillage.
  • Examples from farms I’ve visited for my Farming in Focus series:
    • by products (1 of 1)Lynn Trupp (March – sheep farmer) uses spent brewers’ grain that he gets for free from a local brewery.
    • Brenda Frketich (April – nine different crops) has an arrangement with a nearby cattle farmer where he cleans up her field by baling leftover plant material from the pea harvest and feeds it to his cows.
    • Marie Bowers Stagg (July – wheat) bales up leftover wheat stubble and sends it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms.
    • Ben Coleman (August – hops) composts leftover plant material and spreads it back on the fields.

Question #6: If you use irrigation, are there ways you’ve made it more efficient? (And other thoughts on water)

  • We adopt new technologies and are constantly looking for ways to conserve water. We’ve gone from flood irrigation to sprinklers to sprinklers heads in bubble modes. Those sprinklers are 97 percent efficient. This year I am installing drip irrigation. Very expensive but it is almost 100 percent efficient.
  • We have done drip, sprinkler, and flood. We now have 100 acres on the underground drip that uses the same amount of water that used to only flood about 40 acres. Using the low drops on the sprinkler has been an excellent upgrade for our 160 acres of alfalfa. As far as water efficiency, the drip is better than the pivot sprinkler and a bizillion times better than flood.
  • water (1 of 1)We have linears with low flow, drop tubes if possible rather than hard hose big guns as they are much more efficient (Sara’s note for the reader: “linears” are big spraying metal arms held between two wheels that slowly rolls across a field and waters from above. “Big guns” are stationary single pivots that water in a circle like you might do in your lawn.) We also have a field in wheat that has a few gently, rolling hills in it and must be worked before planting green beans, so in that field we are leaving all the wheat residue. When we work the soil in the spring, that wheat residue will provide a nice amount of mulch around the surface, which will help prevent the water from running down the hills.
  • We use drip irrigation. We manage storm water through installing roof run off management, critical area stabilization, a heavy use area, woodland management, and structures for water control, including a sediment control pond that has been in use for over 60 years. We use stream fencing to exclude livestock from accessing local streams. Our detailed Nutrient Management Plan is evaluated and updated every three years to address the nitrogen and phosphorous loading into local groundwater that feeds into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. We continue to remain vigilant and do our best to monitor and improve the watershed and soil health of our property.

Question #7: How do you preserve soil quality?

  • We soil test before making fertilizer blends.
  • We currently hold the award for farmers of the year in soil and water conservation for our region in Iowa and enroll in as many conservation stewardship programs as possible to preserve soil quality and minimize pesticide use. By lowering boom height on sprayers, having wider buffer zones from waterways, using no-till methods and cover crops, keeping beneficial insect habitats in place, etc. we are pretty proud of our farm practices.
  • Over the last 30 years our conventional farm has been inducted into our state Ag Hall of Fame and been awarded our county Soil Conservation Farm of the year (twice!) and Small Business of the Year, partially for our work in improving our farm to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
  • We use a variety of methods for soil quality – soil testing, amendments, micronutrient application, minimum and no-till when applicable.
  • This is huge to us. Our farm was not in great shape when we bought it, and we have put so much into improving the soil. The biggest issue to us was low pH, so we have put on lots of lime and our pH levels are now perfect for what we grow. This is important as nutrients in the soil are more available to the plant when you have the right pH. Furthermore, we switched to mostly no-till. This turned out to have huge, unexpected benefits to the soil. Increased earth worm activity, increased organic matter which improves water holding capacity and makes the soil more “mellow.”
  • We do conventional tillage but our equipment leaves a lot of plant material on the surface to control erosion (54 mph winds yesterday and the soil wasn’t blowing), we use field tile to control surface runoff, we have buffer strips along waterways. We also don’t remove plant matter (corn and soybean stalks) but till it in.
  • We are exclusively no-till and have been for 15 years. We keep water ways and highly erodible land in grass. We soil test and apply nutrients accordingly. We also use a stripper header for our cereal grains which leaves 99 percent of the crop residue in the field.
  • No-til when possible which greatly reduces soil erosion. We soil tests every year and put on compost and manure.

That’s all for the Q&A – I hope you learned a few cool things. I’ll leave you with a final thought on sustainable farming from one of the farmers who responded, “Personally, I’m in favor of taking the very best out of all management systems and combining them to suit your own farm. We can do best for our farms and soils if we adapt our management based on our own situation, and not get tied into a set of inflexible rules. I have nothing against organic agriculture. In a lot of ways, organic farmers have done a better job of nourishing and protecting their soil than conventional farmers, but I think conventional farmers are catching up. We can always learn to do better, and that is one of the things that is really exciting about being a farmer.”

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Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 1 of 2

I just finished reading the book Tomorrow’s Table. It’s co-written by an intriguing married couple: he’s an organic farmer and she’s a plant genetic scientist.  I had really high hopes for a book that argues in support of combining organic agriculture and biotechnology.  If this book could reach the organic consumer, we might be headed to the middle ground necessary to feed our growing population.

It took me four months to finish it and it’s less than 200 pages. I finally got tired of it looking at me from the bedside table, and I reached the renewal limit at the library so I forced myself to finish it.

I should be fair. There are excellent points made in this book, especially for people who are solidly in the organic, GMO-hating camp or even those who are only leaning that way and working to form a fact-based opinion. The book does a good job of softly addressing and alleviating concerns associated with GMOs and clearly outlining the benefits and necessity of biotechnology for solving problems unsolvable by other methods. The take-home message is a truly important one – biotechnology has a place in organic agriculture, the two are not and should not be mutually exclusive. Getting over the ideological hurdle that divides GMOs and organic is a monumental task, and these authors offer a uniquely personal perspective on how we can bridge that gap.

IMG_20140705_122648136But back to why I didn’t like it: I really wanted to be open-minded and like Raoul, the organic farmer who wrote only two chapters. But in the end, I just couldn’t stomach his I’m-better-because-I’m-organic attitude. One page into his first chapter I read this, “The goal of conventional farming is high yields and inexpensive food. The goal of organic farming is health: health of the soil, the crop, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer.”

And that’s only just the beginning. He makes conventional farmers out to be pesticide-wielding, mono-cropping old-timers who only care about the bottom dollar and just haven’t gotten the memo about caring for the “soil, the crop, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer.” In contrast, he makes organic farmers out to be agricultural martyrs – hard working, salt-of the earth big thinkers who are doing it the “right” chemical-free way, even if it doesn’t make a lot of money, yields less and means sometimes you get worms in your corn.  I was so pissed off when I read that chapter that I literally got out of bed and booted the computer back up so I could write down my idea for this post.

Are conventional farmers doing it wrong? Are organic farmers the only ones using crop rotation and cover crops? Are they the only ones who have heard about beneficial insects and are the only ones thinking about soil quality? Are they the only ones with concerns about water quality and pesticide run-off? Are they the only ones thinking about the consumers who eat the food and the families that live and work on the farm?

No, of course not. To suggest that organic farmers care about the health of the soil, the crop, the environment, and the consumer and conventional farmers don’t is at best disingenuous at worst just flat out lying.

The very common insinuation that they are, in fact, doing it wrong is the reason conventional farmers get pissed off about organic agriculture. It’s the reason almost every conventional farmer I’ve ever met does an eye roll when they read organic marketing. I’m not even a farmer, but I’m tired of implications that conventional farmers don’t care, don’t know, are old-fashioned, and are ignorant because if they weren’t those things, they’d farm organically.  Don’t fall for that nonsense because it’s just not true.

Frketich_preview-1I put out a few messages on Facebook asking conventional farmers to tell me what I already know: conventional farmers do farm sustainably, in the true sense of the word – in a way that can be sustained long-term.  I wanted examples I could share that would help people see that conventional farmers are doing it right, and constantly working to do it better.  I asked seven questions, and tomorrow I’ll post verbatim answers I got from farmers who responded, but here’s the bottom line: many conventional farmers do the same things organic farmers do in terms of caring for the soil, environment, crop and consumer. They use cover crops, crop rotation and beneficial insect populations when it makes sense on their farm. Every single farmer who responded to my questions had detailed ways that they reduce pesticide use and preserve soil and water quality. Are there some farmers who probably aren’t doing it right? Maybe, but that goes for organic farmers, too. People are people, and a label, be it organic, local, or natural is not going to help you distinguish the right from the wrong.

I’ll be back tomorrow with specific questions and answers about conventional farming practices, but for now I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the farmers who responded to my questions, “We’re in farming because it’s in our blood. It’s what our families have been doing for generations, and it’s why we CARE. We care about the land, because it’s as important as family, it’s part of who we are. We care about the environment because it’s what makes up the land. We care about the animals because they allow us to make our living and we are grateful for them. We care about the crops we raise because we care about the consumers that buy them. We care.”

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Cyber Threats and Why I Remain Anonymous

Last February I started a petition in Oregon supporting a bill that would have eliminated the non-medical vaccine exemption. I’m pretty proud to say the petition gathered almost 2,000 signatures. Unfortunately the bill was dropped (look for mention of me in that story) because the senators were unprepared for the onslaught from the anti-vax community. While I’m disappointed in the result, it was a strong learning experience for me. The reporter who covered the bill for the Salem-based paper wanted to interview me on why I started the petition, but as you all know, I don’t disclose my last name on this blog and the paper has a policy against anonymous sources. This was the one time that I really wavered on maintaining my anonymity. I was extremely tempted to let her use my last name and give her a great quote on why I feel so strongly about this issue. But, in the end, I’m glad I didn’t.  bleach screen shot closeupThat’s an actual comment from the petition page. Probably that crazy person won’t show up at my house and try to do any real harm. It’s one thing to write nasty things from your computer and it’s an entirely different thing to truly make an effort to hurt someone, but that doesn’t make that sort of thing easy to read. Thankfully, this is the only real example of a cyber threat that’s been directed at me. But I’m just small potatoes compared to some of my blogging/social media buddies. farmers daughter usa

That’s from my friend Amanda at The Farmer’s Daughter USA.

Mommy PhD - I hate youThat’s from my friend Mommy, PhDbomb monsantoThat’s from my friend Robert at Rationality Unleashed. There’s the example where an anti-GMO activist tried to take my friend Sarah’s nursing license away (at Nurse Loves Farmer). There’s also this example of someone who hates my friend Joni (Hawaii Farmers Daughter) so much that she bought her domain name and started a blog dedicated to why Joni is wrong on that domain. And then this:

combined MAMyths threatThat is from my friend Kavin Senapathy who received this threat for starting the March Against Myths movement. It’s really this last one for me that drives home why, even when I’m tempted to drop the anonymity part, I haven’t. Because it only takes one crazy person who wants to bomb Monsanto or stomp on your head or pour bleach down your kids’ throats. Yes, it’s unlikely those people would actually follow through, and maybe they’re just trolls trying to scare you for fun, but what if they aren’t? What if just one of those unbalanced, angry people decided to do a little digging and find out where my kids go to school? It’s unnerving.

When I decided to start this blog, my husband was initially against it. He’s a very practical, safe, and private person. He doesn’t do Facebook and even way before I started blogging he was always slightly uncomfortable when I would share stuff about our family on Facebook. So when I proposed that I start carving my controversial opinions out there in internet stone with our family’s name attached to it, he was very uneasy. It’s not just because I say things that a lot of people disagree with. I also used to work for Monsatan – the very “evil company” that the guy in the screen shot above wants to see bombed.  My husband stipulated that if I, a former Monsanto employee living in a city full of liberal minded hippies, was going to start blogging about things that get people all riled up, I was going to do it without using my last name. I agreed.

And so did my parents. After I started the blog, a long-time family friend of ours (who I’ll call Mary) told my mom I should be extremely careful. Mary should know –  at the time she and her husband (who I’ll call John) lived in Hawaii and John, who used to work with my dad at Monsanto, was kind of a head honcho at Monsanto Hawaii. I know this family well – I grew up with their kids, we used to have holiday dinners together, vacation together, the whole thing. I used to eat lunch with John and my dad in the Monsanto cafeteria on occasion when I worked there. Mary and John have been on the receiving end of more cyber threats and IN REAL LIFE threats than anyone I know. Does anyone know John's address

There’s someone asking for John’s address. time for bullets yetThat’s from a comment thread about John.

I could post more examples, but you get the idea. John was actually verbally assaulted in person while he was shopping for Christmas presents at Best Buy one time, which just goes to show that enough online anger does, in fact, sometimes translate to real, in-person threats. He’s not alone, either, there are plenty of other Monsanto employees who have been threatened as well. John and Mary have since left Hawaii, not necessarily as a result of the threats, but it certainly made the decision to leave easier.

And then there’s public scientist and recent media frenzy Kevin Folta who is being so disgustingly bullied by anti-GMO activists that someone created a craigslist ad using his own mother’s name to shame him. I don’t personally know Folta or I would have asked him for a few examples of violent threats that have recently been made to him, his family, and his laboratory. Folta is just the most visible example, but there are more than 40 scientists whose reputations anti-GMO activists are trying to smear by making it look like they get paid to do research, including Washington State University associate professor of nutrition Michelle McGuire who did a study debunking the claim that glyphosate (Roundup) shows up in breastmilk.

Then there was also the time that Mike Adams, who runs Natural News, called biotech supporters modern day Nazis, suggested that anti-GMO activists should consider murdering scientists and journalists, and then provided a hit list of scientists, journalists and news organizations to target.

While some of these stories are more extreme than others, these are not isolated events – the examples I’ve given here are not unique. This is the world we live in. Cyber bullying is not something that is limited to school-aged children, it happens all the time to adults, me included. I see it daily in online forums. Sometimes it’s as benign as simple name calling, other times it’s truly threatening, but it happens. A lot.

farmers wifeeThat’s from Krista, The Farmer’s Wifee, a dairy farmer and creator of Ask The Farmers.

I know I’m not Kevin Folta or a head honcho at Monsanto, or even a very influential blogger. But online conversations can quickly go from “I hate you” to “what’s your address” and “is it time for bullets yet” and “I’ll be watching you.” For a mother of two young kids, that’s kind of scary. I’m just not willing to make my family a target, even if the chances are extremely low that anything would even really  happen. I don’t even want my kids to see me get threatened, in person or online. I’m already taking a risk just by being outspoken about controversial issues, creating a blog, and becoming well known in online circles for my opinions. Not using my last name makes it just a tad harder for someone to  do something nasty, and that makes me feel a little more secure.

Anonymity is not always an easy position to take, though. Recently I participated in a #Moms4GMOs letter and was contacted by a journalist writing a story about the letter. He was challenging me on why I didn’t include my last name, implying that because I wanted to remain anonymous there might be something devious or underhanded about my participation. Anonymity limits me on how far I can take my advocacy, and there may come a time when it just isn’t practical to continue to be anonymous. But until then, this is why I do it. Not because I’m hiding something, or because I don’t want someone to find out that I’m getting paid to shill for Big Ag. I’m not shilling, I’m just a little scared of crazy people.

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August Farming in Focus: One of my Favorite Things

This farm visit was by far the best smelling visit I have ever done. Mmmmmm… hops: smells like beer. I’ll talk about agriculture just about anywhere, but (no offense to the dairies and the sheep farms I visited) hands down, talking about beer in a hop house takes the cake. The only thing that would have made this visit better is if I could have been drinking a beer during it! But, then my pictures probably wouldn’t be so great. One of the things I just love about the Pacific Northwest is the beer and the culture surrounding beer. I love learning about beer, I love drinking beer, I love trying new beers,  I love visiting breweries – in fact, I consider it a personal challenge to visit every brewery in Portland, and eventually Oregon. My husband and I are well on our way to making that vision a reality. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it, right? 🙂 The hoppy flavor of the beer here took some getting used to, and I still have a tough time with an extremely hoppy PNW IPA, but practice makes perfect, my friend, and I never give up.

Technically I took these photos the first week of September, but I’m still counting them for August. This month I visited Ben Coleman in St. Paul, Oregon to see the hop harvest and to talk about how the craft brew industry has changed how Coleman’s farm grows hops.

hops-8Ben Coleman is a 3rd generation hop grower who farms with his two cousins, father and uncle in St. Paul. The Coleman family has a long history as hop growers in the Willamette Valley – Coleman’s grandfather built the oldest block hop house still in use in the state of Oregon in the 40s when they still formed the bricks by hand – as you can see by the handprints in the image above. His family also manages eight of the 30 hop picking machines in Oregon, so as far as hop growers go, Coleman’s family is one of the bigger growers in Oregon (although Washington has much bigger growers) – his family grows about 1,000 acres of hops. The Yakima Valley of Washington far and away grows the most hops in the nation, but the climate and soil in the Willamette Valley are just right for hops – and Oregon comes in a distant second for hops production. Idaho follows Oregon in a very close third place.

hops-9Coleman’s family grows more than just hops. All told they grow about 13 crops including grass seed, green beans, table beets, corn, alfalfa, wheat, pumpkins, radish seed, cauliflower, hazelnuts, garlic seed and kale seed. Though, when I asked him what he calls himself, Coleman said he definitely identifies as a hop grower even though in acreage they grow more grass seed than hops. Coleman told me this summer’s drought has been really good for the hops – they like it dry and hot. And with the recent surge in craft brewing, his family is steadily growing their hop acreage. This is the first year in six or seven that they’ve had enough yield to necessitate harvesting hops 20 hours a day. I’ll be honest, before I moved to Oregon I had never seen hops growing – I had no idea they grow on an 18 foot trellis. Another interesting tidbit: hops are closely related to cannabis – both are in the Cannabaceae family. Unlike cannabis which has multiple uses, hops are only used for making lovely, lovely beer.

hops-10In March and April stringing begins – a specially trained crew ties strings made of hand woven coconut fiber made in Indonesia from the ground to the wire cable running between the 18 foot poles. The crews can do a one-handed tie that allows them to string between five and ten acres per day. The hop bines (that’s not a typo – hops are a bine that climb without the use of tendrils, distinguishing it from a vine) grab tightly to the coconut fiber, making it an ideal choice for a trellis. Another alternative is thick paper rolled into a rope, and in Europe growers use metal twine. About three to four weeks after stringing, the plants must be trained up the trellis by hand. The crew passes through twice and prunes to ensure the bines all grow to the same height.

hop harvestWhether it’s coconut fiber or metal twine, it all comes down at harvest time. Figuring out when it’s time to harvest is a very precise science: the hops are regularly sampled as harvest time nears and dried in a food dehydrator to test for the proper amount of lupulin oil – what provides the distinct flavor and aroma to beer.  Coleman’s family has retrofitted old combines to be specialty hop harvesters. First, what they call the “mosquito” comes through and cuts the bines (and the strings) at the base of the plant near the ground. Then the second harvester pushes a truck in front of it and cuts the bines at the top, where they fall into the truck. A crew follows behind picking up any bines that have fallen or were missed.

hops-1From there, the trucks drive to the hop house where the part they’re after, the hop flower, is separated from the bine and dried. First the bines are strung up on a belt that moves them inside the house. Another interesting tidbit: in this image you can see birds flying around above the truck – swallows take advantage of the bugs that are roused into the air during the harvest process – they were all over the fields and dipping and diving above the truck.

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The bines travel into the hop house where they take an intense (and loud) beating to get the hops off the bine. They travel through a number of conveyor belts, turbines, and shakers to separate the flower from the leaves and bines. The leftover leaves and bines are composted and later spread onto the fields.
hops-3When all that’s left is the hop flowers, the next (very important) step is drying them.  The hops are spread at a precise depth in a kiln heated from below at 135-140 degrees. It takes about eight hours for the hops to go from about 75 to 80 percent moisture to the target nine to ten percent moisture. One of these square kilns holds between 12 and 20 bales of hops, depending on the variety. For perspective, one acre of hops produces between five to 12 bales of hops. One bale is equivalent to about 400,000 12 ounce bottles of beer. If you drank one of those bottles each day, it would take you over 1,000 years to drink one bale of hops!
hops-4As I mentioned, the key part of the hop flower that brewers are interested in is the yellow waxy substance inside the hop flower called lupulin – not only does this give beer it’s distinctive aroma and flavor, it also contains antibiotic properties which limit bacterial growth allowing the yeast to ferment. Different hop varieties contain different amounts of lupulin. Coleman is holding cascade hops, which his family grows for Anheuser Busch. Coleman grows 16 varieties of hops, some of which he directly sell to both Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors, but many of which he sells to Indie Hops which supplies Oregon-grown hops exclusively to craft brewers. Coleman told me that the craft beer industry has drastically changed the way they grow hops. “The whole craft brew thing is really exciting, but we went from growing four to five varieties of hops really well to growing 16 different varieties. Sometimes we make a mistake now.” Not only that but the craft brews, particularly that hoppy IPA I mentioned, uses about ten times as much hops as high-volume domestic beers.

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The craft brew industry has also changed hop production by way of traceability. Craft brewers have placed an emphasis on using local hops, which requires that Coleman do a really good job of labeling his bales with both what kind of hops they are and where they were grown. Coleman foresees that it won’t be long until he’s labeling with specific field-by-field information. Coleman said he spends a lot of his time making sure that labeling process goes just right. Keeping those 16 varieties straight is important because different hops have different uses – some are bittering hops, some are aroma hops – and they’re used at different times during the brewing process. hops-6

Craft brewing has also changed hop production from a food safety perspective. It used to be that hops were added to the boiling part of the beer making process, which essentially pasteurized the hop, but craft brewers also do what’s called dry hopping where they add the hops after the boil, usually in the secondary fermenter,  to get that super hoppy aroma characteristic of an IPA. Adding the hops after the boil means the hops are not pasteurized, so brewers are demanding a much cleaner process of hop production on Coleman’s end to help reduce the risk of infection. Don’t freak out about your IPA, though – like I said, lupulin has antibiotic properties, which is one of the historical reasons hops were added to beer in the first place, so the risk is inherently low.  hops-7Another risk associated with hops is the risk of spontaneous combustion. Not for you, beer drinker, but for the grower and the transporter. Earlier I talked about the target moisture range of nine to ten percent, and part of that is because that prevents the bales of hops from catching on fire. Coleman told me that hop houses and warehouses have burned down in the past because of that, and his cousin just barely saved their own storage warehouse from that same fate. Walking through the warehouse, his cousin smelled something amiss and started feeling the bales until he found a few that were hot to the touch. They pulled them out of the warehouse into the field and sure enough when they slit it with a knife the whole thing went up in flames. The moral of this story is to get a good moisture reading on your hops, like Coleman is doing here. Also, Coleman is paid by the pound, so he wants to make sure that the moisture level is at that top end of the target range – the more moisture they have, the more they weigh, and the more he gets paid. From  here the hops are delivered directly to cold storage and are tested for moisture and leaf and stem content. Smell is of utmost importance, so brewers get a special sample cut out of the bales and sent to them just so they can smell and verify before they put it in their beer.

That’s pretty much everything I learned about hop production. I hope you learned something, too! Now, I need a beer. Cheers.

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Gwyneth Schmyneth

Wouldn’t it be cool if I were a celebrity? Like, say for example, that I got rich and famous for some beautiful landscape photographs that I took, or for some song I wrote on the piano, or for some movie I acted in. Let’s say I got so famous that millions of complete strangers knew my name and cared about what clothes I wear and where I go on vacation. You’d see my face on magazines in the checkout aisle at the grocery store and you’d stop to read about whom I am dating or what clothes my kids wore on their glamorous beach vacation. I’m not sure I’d actually like that, because then I wouldn’t be just a regular person anymore, but at least I’d have super powers. I’d have the power to sway how you feel on controversial topics that I have no expertise on simply because I am famous. That would be pretty awesome.

But, unfortunately, I’m not famous. I don’t have millions of dollars. I don’t fly in a personal jet, I don’t own any private islands, I don’t hire someone to take care of my kids while I’m out posing for the paparazzi in my expensive, designer clothes.  So I guess my opinion is not as convincing and not as important because I’m just a regular, not-famous mom.

At least, that’s the impression that I get when I read in the news that Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a news conference in Washington D.C. to try to influence how Congress votes on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act that would create a uniform, science-based labeling standard and prevent costly state-by-state GMO labeling laws. Somehow her opinion on GMO labeling is very important because she’s not just famous, but she’s also a mom.  And as a famous mom, she’s going to stand up there and represent all of us poor, not-famous moms who are too busy taking our kids to soccer practice and microwaving pre-packaged frozen dinners to understand about GMOs. We need that warning label on our packages of Oreos because otherwise there’s just no way to know if it’s bad for our kids.

moms4gmosOnly, that’s bullshit.  I don’t need Gwyneth Paltrow to represent me. And I have absolutely no idea why anyone would give a flying you-know-what about what Gwyneth Paltrow thinks about GMOs. She did not become famous by being an expert in biotechnology, or food, or nutrition – she’s just a good actress. She is not any more of an expert on GMOs than some random mom at the supermarket, so why does anyone think her opinion matters? What she thinks doesn’t matter any more than what Jenny McCarthy thinks caused her son’s autism or how Neil Young feels about Monsanto or how Sarah Palin feels about climate change.  The only people who should be influencing how you feel about science are scientists.

What do the scientists think about GMOs? That’s who’s important. Those are the real celebrities we should be listening to. Like the scientists at the FDA. Or the ones at the American Medical Association, those at the National Academy of Science, and the ones at the European Commission.  They think GMOs are safe and are the same as non-GMO foods. They think putting a label on foods that contain ingredients derived from GMO crops doesn’t provide consumers with any useful nutritional information any more than putting a label on foods grown with irrigation would provide useful nutritional information. I think those scientists are convincing because they understand the thousands of studies that have been done on GMOs, including the same studies that anti-GMO groups who score celebrity representation claim demonstrate GMOs are unsafe or damaging to the environment, and they’re still not changing their minds. Not because it’s a conspiracy, but because those studies aren’t convincing. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t have any information that the FDA doesn’t have. For me, at least, I’m going to listen to the people who are truly experts at determining what’s safe and what’s not instead of actresses and song writers. Unless, of course, I’m looking for advice on acting or writing songs.

This is exactly why I recently participated in a campaign to support the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act and challenge celebrity moms who are trying to represent all moms.  A bunch of us “regular” moms got together and wrote an open letter to the celebrity moms demonstrating that we do, in fact, accept the scientific consensus on GMOs and don’t feel that GMOs need a stigmatizing mandatory warning label. Most of those “regular moms” aren’t just offering their run-of-the-mill opinion on the subject, either. Most of them (like Julie Borloug, granddaughter of Nobel Peace prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution Dr. Norman Borlaug) actually are subject matter experts – scientists, science communicators and farmers.  If you’re going to listen to how moms feel about GMO labels, you should listen to these moms.

But here’s the thing – you don’t have to listen to any moms to decide how you feel about mandatory GMO labels, particularly celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow who are not a reliable sources for science-related issues.  Inform yourself – read evidence-based information, talk to a farmer, or talk to a real expert on GMOs.  Then, if you agree with us non-celebrity moms on GMOs, join us: sign this letter and pledge to judge GMO food with facts, not fear.

 

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Saturday Scenery: Summer Summary

I haven’t done a Saturday Scenery post in a while, so I thought it was time to do a super-sized version. I haven’t had much time to write this summer, and below you’ll see why. Some of these I took with my phone camera, so they’re not amazing. Others I actually took with my professional camera (I hope you can tell the difference 🙂 ) Get prepared to see a lot of the back of my kids’ heads – it’s really a special art form of mine… School starts on Monday, so this is our last weekend of summer. I thought you might enjoy seeing how much we enjoyed our summer. I hope you enjoyed yours as well!

The painted hills at John Day Fossil Beds

The painted hills at John Day Fossil Beds

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Taking a walk to the playground in Leavenworth, WA.

Finding a live sand dollar on the beach.

Finding a live sand dollar on the beach.

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Getting ready to scale the dunes at Oregon Dunes National Recreation area – the largest expanse of coastal dunes in North America.

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Icicle Gorge, WA.

Catching crawfish in the John Day River.

Catching crawfish in the John Day River.

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Camping at Fort Stevens State Park.

Throwing rocks in the Wenatchee River.

Throwing rocks in the Wenatchee River.

Playing in the sand at Heceta Lighthouse beach.

Playing in the sand at Heceta Lighthouse beach.

Riding bikes through the forest.

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Flying kites on the beach.

Mt. Hood from Lost Lake Campground.

Mt. Hood from Lost Lake Campground.

Playing in the ocean.

Playing in the ocean.

Hiking, hiking, and more hiking.

Hiking, hiking, and more hiking.

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From the Rancher’s Mouth: Beef Cattle and the Environment

Confession: my husband, kids and I hardly ever eat beef. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I bought beef at the store. Not that I don’t like beef – I occasionally enjoy a good hamburger at a restaurant and when we visit my parents I often request steak because my dad cooks a good steak.  Part of the reason we don’t eat much beef is because we only eat meat about 50 percent of the time. My husband used to be a vegetarian because he believes with our growing population it’s more efficient to eat a plant-based diet instead of using resources to raise animals for us to eat. Since having kids, he’s relaxed his approach because getting protein into kids is hard enough without the added difficulty of doing it without meat. As a compromise, when I plan the weekly menu, half of it is vegetarian. When we do eat meat, we don’t usually choose beef because cows are fairly resource-intense to raise (and, frankly, it’s often more expensive than chicken.)

At least, that’s what we think. In complete fairness, I’ve not spent a lot of time looking at the data, so when a cattle rancher with a degree in Environmental Studies agreed to share her perspective on the environmental impact of raising beef cattle, I was really excited. The below guest post by Cassidy  is a bit of an introduction into the environmental conversation around raising beef. Admittedly, this is one perspective on the conversation, and I plan to come back to this issue again in the future. But it’s an important perspective from a very intelligent, well-researched source, and I learned a lot about cattle ranching that I never knew. I hope you learn something new, too. (All pictures courtesy of Cassidy.)

Cassidy lives and works with her husband and six-month-old son on a cattle ranch in east central Colorado, where they raise registered Angus, Red Angus, Hereford and Charolais cattle. She has a B.A. in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When they’re not messing with cows, horses or dogs or playing with their roly-poly kiddo, she likes to cook, read, do DIY projects, and cover as many surfaces as possible in plaid and/or glitter. 

–By Cassidy —

I’ve started and almost finished this post many times, but haven’t ever been happy with the result. I struggled with how to format it in a way that wasn’t too wordy while also being direct and informative and as unbiased as possible. The best I could come up with is a broad FAQ of sorts, because I get asked the same questions over and over. This is a very brief overview of a very complicated topic.

Just a disclaimer, I am going to be talking about beef ranching only. I’m also not going to be discussing feedlots—that’s a separate (though very much related) issue.

As a cattle rancher, how do you feel about the argument that people need to eat less beef?
I think people need to eat less (and waste less!) period, beef included. A quarter-pounder contains more than enough calories for a meal; do you really need to supersize it and add more of everything? And how much of that 16-oz steak are you going to eat, and how much are you going to throw away? This country as a whole struggles with consumerism and health, so cutting back across the board—not just in beef—seems to be a good idea to me.

But beef is the least feed-efficient animal, and they take up so many resources!

Flour the baby calf.

Flour the baby calf.

Again, true. Of the four main meat animals (fish, chicken, pigs, cattle), beef is the least feed-efficient animal; that is, it takes more pounds of feed to make one pound of meat (Johnston 2012). Cattle are larger than fish, chicken and pigs and thus take up more room and require more input just to maintain themselves. However, 85 percent of the land where cattle are raised is unsuitable for farming (Explore Beef 2009), so cows are a way to make that land work for us from a food production perspective, while maintaining natural beauty and wide-open spaces.

Another cool thing about wide-open spaces, besides the natural environment for wildlife and just seeing nature do its thing? Carbon sequestration! Grasslands, like forests, are carbon sinks, and some research shows that grasslands produce more in an environment higher in carbon dioxide (North Carolina State University 2001). Grasses require disturbance—grazing—to remain healthy, so well-managed grazing actually helps the environment; I talk more about this in the next section.

Isn’t livestock ranching bad for the environment? Ranchers only care about the bottom line, not the land.
Livestock ranching as it relates to climate change and land use is a big deal. A study by the FAO shows the impact livestock have on the environmental health of our planet (FAO 2006). As a rancher who holds a degree in Environmental Studies from CU Boulder, I get it, I really do. But no, well-managed ranching is not bad for the environment (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2008, Explore Beef 2009). The key here is the management, and the American ranching industry has made huge leaps and bounds in the past several decades as far as management is concerned. On government lands, for instance, land health is monitored closely. In years of environmental duress or when the rangeland in question is not up to standard, the number of animals allowed on the permit may be decreased, or a rest period may be implemented (Wiles 2014).

However, it’s hard to get a real read on the nation’s rangeland health as a whole. This article explains it much better than I can.

Ranching and the environment are very closely related—they have to be! Yes, ranchers care about the bottom line. They have to; a ranch is a business. But, ranchers are also stewards of the land, and the health of the environment is often the same as the health of the bottom line. How? Well, ranchers make a large portion of their income (if not all their income) selling cattle. Good grass makes for healthy cattle that produce better milk and raise bigger calves. Since cattle that will be eaten (feeder cattle) are bought and sold by the pound, this is important. Good grass also makes for big, strong, healthy bulls and replacement heifers (yearling heifers chosen to stay in the herd to replace old or culled cattle), which will increase their value to a prospective buyer. Poor grazing management is economically counterproductive, since bad management means less or poorer quality grass which translates to less weight gained or value added.

The environment, of course, includes the water, too. The area where land and a river or stream meets is called a riparian area. Managing this area is, in my opinion, one of the weaker links, but it’s also one of the areas where improvements are being pushed the hardest. Riparian areas are hard to manage, because they’re where cows like to be. It’s cool, there’s water, and the grass is tasty, so it’s not easy to convince the girls that they don’t need to hang out by the creek all the time.

Fenced off pond.

Fenced off pond.

We manage this by giving cows other water sources, and use windmill- and solar-powered water pumps to pump water into tanks fitted with overflow floats or ground tanks so they don’t overflow and get muddy. We also fence off particularly sensitive or boggy areas—sometimes just as much for the cows’ benefit, because cows can get bogged down and stuck and will die if you don’t get to them in time, and it can be pretty dangerous and exhausting work to pull a stuck cow out of a bog. We also use salt and mineral strategically to lure cows away from creeks to water tanks that are easier to manage. When all else fails, the cowboys will ride the creek every day, and push the cows away.

If ranching were all about the bottom line, no one would do it. It’s not a job; it’s truly a lifestyle that you have to enjoy to keep at it. The hours are long and the work is hard, and it’s definitely not as romantic as it seems. My husband and I have never held hands riding off into the sunset on our horses, but we have held (gloved) hands in the pickup checking calves all night long during a blizzard.

I’ve read that cows produce a lot of methane, which is a major greenhouse gas.
Also true! Cows are ruminants and enteric fermentation (methane production) is a natural by-product of their digestive processes, enteric fermentation from beef cattle accounts for about 19 percent of annual US methane emissions (United States Environmental Protection Agency, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions 2009). That’s a big number, but it bears mentioning that while methane is the more potent greenhouse gas, it only accounts for ten percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The beef industry is working on making animals more efficient in how they process feed—more moderate-framed, high feed-efficiency cattle that don’t require as much input. Our primary goal in choosing herd sires and replacement heifers for our ranch is frame size and efficiency. Our ranch is part of a larger group of ranches, and we provide the bulls to all the other ranches. Choosing moderate-framed bulls with high feed efficiency makes a big impact across all of the ranches, since there are over 16,000 cows. This means that there are 16,000 cows annually that are going to produce a more moderate-framed calf, thus producing less methane and using fewer resources. It also means that we are choosing replacement heifers from a more moderately-sized group of calves. The end goal is to have a very moderately-sized, highly efficient herd that is effective from both an economic and environmental standpoint: smaller, more efficient cattle use fewer resources and produce less methane.

Summer grass meadow.

Summer grass meadow.

One thing to mention here though is that I often hear that grass-fed beef is the better option both health-wise and environmentally. Keep in mind that cattle that are finished on grass rather than grain not only produce more methane because grass is harder to digest (Jones 2014), but because grass-finished cattle live anywhere from 6-16 months longer (Brady 2014) because it takes them longer to reach slaughter weight. This means that they consume more grass, water and space, too.

Isn’t it unfair that one person can own so much land and not allow it to be available for public use?
The ranch that my husband and I work for is about 50 miles away from a large city, with lots of smaller towns in between, and the owner buys up land as it comes up for sale so that it doesn’t get sold to developers. This means that the ranch is not even close to being contiguous, but I think it’s pretty neat because he’s working so hard to make sure that there’s some open spaces left for our children to see.

I know that there are people who have negative opinions about private land ownership, because that land isn’t open to the public for use. While I understand that argument, I think that the end result is more important, and if private citizens have to buy land to save it from being turned into 40-acre lots for homes and subdivisions, then so be it.

What’s more environmentally friendly: 80,000 acres of open land with a herd of cattle grazing, and a handful of houses and barns, or 40-acres with a house and a barn and a shop and a cement driveway with a horse “pasture” that’s eaten down to dirt and weeds? The latter might seem extreme, but it’s what I drive past every single day on my way to the office at headquarters, and it breaks my heart to see so little respect for the environment by the same people who condemn us, their neighbors, for raising cattle.

Winter pasture.

Winter pasture.

Just a tip: if you want to hike, or ride your horse, or just see a ranch, write a letter or email to the manager (I would say call, but lots of ranches are sans reliable phone service!) and ask for access or a tour. They may say no, of course, as is their right, but it’s a better course of action than trespassing, which is not only illegal but will guarantee the denial of future access.

Sources:

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. (2008, April). Grazing Management Adjustments for Healthy Rangelands. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from ESRD: http://esrd.alberta.ca/lands-forests/grazing-range-management/documents/GrazingManagementHealthyRangelands-2008.pdf

Brady, J. (2014). Why Grass Finished Is Important. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from Brady’s Idaho Beef: http://www.bradysbeef.com/grass-finished-beef.html

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. (October 2009). Enteric Fermentation Mitigation. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from Center for Climate and Energy Solutions: http://www.c2es.org/docUploads/Enteric-Fermentation-09-09.pdf

Explore Beef. (2009, April). Cattle Ranching and Environmental Stewardship. Retrieved July 15, 2015, from Explore Beef: http://www.explorebeef.org/environment.aspx

FAO. (2006, November 29). Livestock a major threat to environment. Retrieved June 15, 2015, from FAO Newsroom: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/News/2006/1000448/index.html

Johnston, G. (2012, 2 2). Why is beef losing ground to chicken? Retrieved June 15, 2015, from Agriculture.com: http://www.agriculture.com/livestock/cattle/why-is-beef-losing-ground-to-chicken_276-ar21983

Jones, M. (2014, February). Ways to Reduce Methane Production in Cattle. Retrieved July 26, 2015, from UNL Beef: http://beef.unl.edu/reduce-methane-production-cattle

North American Meat Institute. (2011, March). The United States Meat Industry at a Glance. Retrieved July 7, 2015, from North American Meat Institute: https://www.meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=d/sp/i/47465/pid/47465

North Carolina State University. (2001, January 15). Scientists Find That Grasslands Can Act as Carbon Sinks. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/01/010111073831.htm

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). Overview of Greenhouse Gases. Retrieved 8 2015, July, from EPA.gov: http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases.html

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Methane Emissions. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from EPA.gov: http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html

USDA. (1996, August). Rangeland Health. Retrieved July 18, 2015, from Natural Resources Conservation Service Maryland: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/md/home/?cid=nrcs143_014218

Wiles, T. (2014, November 12). A new map shows rangeland health West-wide. Retrieved July 18, 2015, from High Country News: https://www.hcn.org/articles/BLM-rangeland-health-grazing-cattle-environment

 

 

 

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Farming in Focus: July Wheat Harvest and a bonus at the end

I’m slow this summer, so forgive me. I know we’re half-way through August and I’m just posting my July Farming in Focus. That’s life. I’m just happy I’m getting to this at all with two kids running around my legs all summer!!

At the end of last month I visited my friend Marie Bowers Stagg’s farm just north of Eugene to see how they harvest wheat. Then, earlier this week I got to tag along with her husband Tristan as he delivered almost 60,000 pounds of wheat to the grain elevator in Portland. Read on to see my adventures – and as a reward, if you make it to the end you’ll get to see how blueberries are harvested by machine! I finally caught back up with last month’s blueberry farmer in Albany and got to climb aboard a mechanical blueberry harvester!

Bashaw land and seed-4Bowers Stagg (who blogs at Oregon Green) is a fifth generation grass seed farmer on her family’s nearly 100-year old farm in the Willamette Valley. Her family primarily grows annual rye grass seed on a few thousand acres, but they also grow about 500 acres of wheat, 200 acres of meadowfoam, and this year grew about 50 acres of forage peas for cover crop. As is the case for all farmers, one of the most challenging aspects of farming is dealing with the unknown of the weather. This spring and summer in Oregon have been extremely hot and dry, so much so that it’s the first year Bowers Stagg has had to carry around a water tank in the bed of her truck everywhere she goes in case something catches on fire. Dry wheat is highly flammable and Bowers Stagg told me merely a spark from hitting a rock in the field with the combine can catch the wheat stubble on fire, something that happened in July on their farm. When I was visiting, Bowers Stagg had to stop to spray water on a compost pile consisting of leftover combine remains that ignited itself.

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One of Bowers Stagg’s primary concerns this year is fire hazard, but the heat and dry weather have also impacted their (and almost all farmers she knows) yield. This year their wheat yields are down about 30-50 percent. The last field they harvested yielded about half of what it did the previous two years.  Not only that, but because it was such a dry spring, the amount of protein in the wheat is higher than it usually is, which may sound like a good thing but it’s not. Eastern Oregon is expected to grow high-protein wheat because it’s always dry there, but western Oregon is expected to grow low-protein wheat because we get more rain. These two balance each other and the final product has just the right amount of protein. Except this year we didn’t get that rain and as a result, when Bowers Stagg’s husband Tristan delivers the wheat to the grain elevator, they get docked for having too much protein.

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One of the ways Bowers Stagg’s farm can off-set losing money on that low yield and high-protein wheat is to store it until the price of wheat goes up later in the year when demand is down. Pictured here is about 15 truck loads of wheat, or about 15,200 bushels that they’ll be saving and selling later in the year. Bowers Stagg grows soft winter wheat, which is primarily used in flatbread, crackers and wheat noodles (like Yakisoba) as it’s not the right consistency for bread. Most bread that we’re familiar with is made from hard red wheat.

Bashaw land and seed-5I have to say, this was what I was looking forward to the most during my visit to Bowers Stagg’s farm: riding in a combine! I was super excited about it, but after taking a few turns in this thing, I can honestly say I have very little interest in doing this full-time. This might be one of the most boring jobs I can think of. This is 15-year-old AJ’s first summer working for Bowers Stagg, and he seems to like it, but I honestly cannot imagine driving a combine around for 14 hours a day. Yes, that’s right, 14 hours a day of sitting in that cab moving at the speed of molasses!! Important and necessary, yes, but not exactly thrilling. I understand why they hire teenagers to run the combine, but I was a little shocked to discover that a 15-year-old is allowed to work 14 hours a day. Bowers Stagg told me agricultural employment allows for exceptions enabling them to employ minors. They cannot work more than 14 hours a day or more than 72 hours per week. Because this is AJ’s first summer, he’s making minimum wage, but next summer if he comes back he’ll get a raise. He says he’s saving his money up to buy a truck he has his eye on. That’s certainly more dedication than I had at 15, I’m not sure I did anything for 14 hours a day except drive my parents crazy.

Bashaw land and seed-7As the combine fills up with harvested wheat, one of AJ’s co-workers drives this wagon up next to the combine and AJ off-loads about 12,000 pounds of wheat and keeps on driving. AJ will finish early today because harvest is almost over. One of the benefits of a hot, dry spring and summer is that the wheat harvest is early this year. Bowers Stagg told me this is the first time that she can ever remember being done with harvest so early.

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While the focus of my visit was wheat, as I mentioned, Bowers Stagg primarily grows grass seed. They were already finished harvesting grass seed when I visited – they finished that the second to last week in July even though they aren’t normally done until August 1st. As a result, Bowers Stagg said this is the first time in her life that she’ll be able to take a vacation in August. She said her dad is planning to go camping in August just so he can say he did it. Her family primarily grows  forage type grass seed – seed used in pastures to feed livestock. One of the reasons they grow so much grass seed is because the soil where they live isn’t suited for much else. It’s mostly clay and doesn’t drain well enough to grow other crops. Bowers Stagg said they’re always looking for other crops to rotate in, but there aren’t many options.

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One way farmers improve their soil quality, at least enough to grow crops like wheat, corn, and mint in climates that are overly wet in the winter and dry in the summer like where Bowers Stagg lives, is through something called tiling. Basically, they dig these huge trenches in the field and run perforated tubing underground. This helps water drain off the surface and out the tubes into ditches and streams. Seems brilliant, right? So why doesn’t Bowers Stagg do this on all her land so she can have more crop rotation options? “Well, as my mom says,” Bower-Stagg told me, “you’re pretty much buying your land again.” The cost of tiling is so high, it’s almost like you’ve paid twice for your land. Then, even if the soil is good enough to grow corn or mint, you’d need to install irrigation as well, which is also costly. One complication of lack of rotation crops is that pest control can be very difficult. If you keep the same crop on the field year after year, it gets difficult to get rid of the bugs and weeds who damage or compete with that crop. Bowers Stagg said they used to be able to burn their fields every few years to get rid of slugs and other pests, but that has since been banned. Now instead of burning the wheat stubble, they bale it up and send it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms. And, they end up using more pesticide to get rid of pests.

Bashaw land and seed-14After the wheat is harvested, it’s delivered to the grain elevator on the Willamette River in downtown Portland. The wheat is dumped from trucks into a pit in the ground and then literally elevated up to those tunnels in the sky of this picture. From there, the wheat is poured into ships on the river where it travels mostly to Asia. Tristan told me that 74 percent of agriculture in Oregon is exported, including the majority of their wheat where it is made into Asian noodles.

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Tristan has only been a farmer since he married Marie. He’s actually a paramedic and still does that part time. He says he likes farming better because while the hours aren’t great, he gets to work with really nice people, unlike his job as a paramedic where he often works with “unsavory” people (his words, not mine.) This is Tristan’s sixth load of wheat he’s delivered to the elevator this year. Thankfully when I got to tag along harvest was almost done and it was only a 20 minute process. Last time he delivered wheat he had to wait almost three hours in line behind other trucks. First Tristan uncovers the tarps from the top of the truck and then drives the truck onto a scale that weighs the truck full of wheat. It’s at this point that the wheat is also probed to determine protein and moisture content.

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Next Tristan opens the back of the truck and the wheat comes pouring out into the pit below. Tristan takes care to remove his sunglasses and and anything else important that he’s wearing because if it falls off, it’s gone.

Bashaw land and seed-12It takes less than five minutes for 60,000 pounds of wheat to pour out of two trailers. The wheat falls out so fast that there is a risk that the sides of the trailer might implode if it falls out too fast. It wouldn’t even be possible with the tarps on top.

Bashaw land and seed-15I noticed a bunch of geese hanging around the elevator and after Tristan is finished he tells me why. They eat the leftover grains on the ground. Before getting back into the truck, Tristan empties his pockets out onto the ground that got filled up with wheat when he opened the back of the truck and the wheat fell out all over him. And that’s the end of my wheat story!

But wait, there’s more!

mechanical harvest update-1

This is what it looks like to drive a blueberry harvesting machine! Don’t worry, it moves slowly.

blueberry harvester-1The harvester is driven over the rows of blueberries and as the bushes pass through the arms of the machine, the berries are shaken off the bush and caught in trays.

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Then they travel up above onto a conveyor belt where they are caught in containers.

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Then they are dumped into bigger totes and offloaded by a fork lift onto a refrigerated semi truck and taken to be processed into frozen blueberries. Watch the video below to see the whole process.

 

 

 

 

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