Tag Archives: Global Food Supply

Review: Arctic Apples (nonbrowning GMO apples)

Yup, that's a picture of my son eating a GMO apple. (That's his nail polish, not mine.)

Yup, that’s a picture of my son eating a GMO apple. (That’s his nail polish, not mine.)

Last fall I had this brilliant idea that I should profile an Arctic Apple grower for my Farming in Focus series. I think people would be interested to see the new GMO apples growing on real trees and being harvested by real farmers – it would make for fresh, accurate GMO imagery to combat the ludicrous syringe stuck in a tomato image that seems to show up in every article about GMOs. I got super pumped about my idea and shot off an email to Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), the creators of the Arctic Apple. I got an email back right away from Joel Brooks, OSF’s Marketing Communications Specialist, saying that it was a great idea but unfortunately since the apples were only just approved this year, the first commercial orchards aren’t mature enough to produce fruit yet. Brooks did offer, though, that they have a limited supply of apples this year off their test trials (where filming is not allowed) and would I like a sample to try?  Of course I would, yes, please!!

A few months later a box of eight Arctic Golden Apples arrived on my front door and I don’t think my kids quite understood why I was so excited about a box of apples. For a while I just looked at them in awe and was a bit paralyzed about how to make the most of these eight apples. So I posted about it on Facebook and got some good ideas and a lot of general excitement from readers!

fb arctic apple post

I was tempted to put them all into a delicious GMO apple pie, but that wouldn’t show off the true benefits of the Arctic Apple. I wanted to demonstrate and test the traits that set these apples apart from traditional Golden Delicious apples. Using RNAi (RNA interference, one of the hottest new applications of biotechnology for which Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize) scientists at OSF have essentially “turned down” the browning effect in apples. You know when you slice up an apple for your toddler and they proceed to eat three bites and then let the remainder sit on the plate for an hour and ultimately refuse to eat it because it’s brown and “icky?” Not the case with Arctic Apples. This minor tweak using the apple’s own genes is revolutionary for a number of reasons: 1. it will significantly cut down on food waste (around 40 percent of apples are currently wasted due to un-appetizing but fully aesthetic browning) and 2. greater convenience will hopefully encourage more consumers to eat fresh fruit.

My kids love apples, and now that they’re both school-aged, I’m faced with packing them a healthy lunch and snack every weekday. In the winter especially, it’s tricky to find fresh fruit to send with them to school. I want to send apples because they have a long cold-storage shelf life, but the options are to send the whole thing and know that a good portion of it will end up in the trash (plus with loose teeth it’s hard to take a bite out of a whole apple), slice it up and risk them not eating it at all because it gets brown, soak the slices in lemon juice which my kids routinely reject, buy pre-packaged slices that are expensive and that my kids also think taste weird, or send apple sauce that has admittedly less fiber and is messy. What if you had apples you could slice up on Sunday that would stay fresh in the fridge all week and you could dole out a few slices a day in lunches? Convenient, frugal, waste-free and good for you! Sign me up.

Arctic Golden on the left, conventional Golden on the right (with sticker.)

Arctic Golden on the left, conventional Golden on the right (with sticker.)

Testing the Apples

I did a few tests to demonstrate and test the non-browning trait. First I went to the store and bought a bunch of conventional Golden Delicious apples. Because in order to truly do a side-by-side comparison on taste and appearance, you have to compare apples to … well… apples. First I sliced both apples and put them in their respective bowls to observe. I took care to

Slicing the first Arctic Apple.

Slicing the first Arctic Apple.

slice the Arctic Golden first so as not to contaminate it with PPO (polyphenol oxidase, the enzyme that causes browning and which there is less of in Arctic Apples) from the conventional apple.

I started this experiment at 12:15. It was hard keeping my kids’ hands (and mine) out of the bowls, so we left the house and came back to observe the appearance at 5:15.

Freshly sliced, Arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

Freshly sliced, Arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

After five hours, arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

After five hours, arctic on the left, conventional on the right.

As you can see, there are considerably fewer slices in the second picture because … children. But you can also clearly see the Arctic Golden is visibly less brown. I’ll be honest, though, I wasn’t super wowed. Not because the Arctic Golden browned, it didn’t really, but because the conventional Golden didn’t brown as much as I thought it would and it’s not as striking as I’d hoped. I emailed Brooks at OSF to see what was up with that. I hypothesized that maybe the reason they chose the Golden variety as the first variety was because they inherently don’t brown as much? He told me that’s not the case. “The thing is, the speed and overall amount of browning can vary quite a bit,” Brooks said,  “Not just by variety, but even among apples of the same variety for a number of potential reasons. Even the exact same apple would brown at different speeds in areas with different temperature, humidity, sunlight, etc. Golden Delicious isn’t one of the faster browning varieties (though it certainly can be dramatic, as shown in our timelapse), but it is one of the quickest to show bruising, especially because of its yellow skin.” He recommended I give the Arctic and conventional apples a good smack on the counter and see which fares better, but unfortunately by the time I got around to emailing him, we’d already eaten all the apples. So, something to test next time! He also told me that the reason they chose Goldens to start with is because, “it’s a great tasting variety with supply-chain issues that the nonbrowning trait can help address.” Because the light skin bruises so easily, it’s a harder apple to get from farm to market without damage.

Not cheap. That's $3 for less than a pound. Granted, you're not paying for the core, but you can get un-sliced apples for less than a dollar a pound!

Not cheap. That’s $3 for less than a pound. Granted, you’re not paying for the core, but you can get un-sliced apples for less than a dollar a pound!

My next experiment was what I call the lunch box taste test experiment. I went to the store and bought some pre-sliced, commercially available apples with citric acid to prevent browning. I put a few in a labeled ziplock bag in a lunch box with a cooler pack. I also sliced up a conventional Golden apple and soaked the slices in a bowl of cold water with lemon juice before putting the drained slices in a ziplock bag in the lunch box. Last, I sliced up an Arctic Golden and put those slices in a third ziplock in the lunch box. Then we loaded up the car and took the lunch box with us on a hike.

Arctic slices, conventional slices soaked in lemon juice water, and store-bought slices (with citric acid to prevent browning.)

Arctic slices, conventional slices soaked in lemon juice water, and store-bought slices (with citric acid to prevent browning.)

After the hike we pulled out the apples for a snack. I had both my parents and both my kids do a blind taste test of the three options, and then asked them to do the same for me (closed my eyes, they gave me three slices one by one and I reported which one tasted the best.) All five of us unanimously chose the Arctic Golden slices as having the best taste. I could taste the lemon apples (yuck, no wonder my kids won’t eat those) and the store-bought ones hardly tasted like apples anymore. But the Arctic Goldens tasted super fresh and crispy and weren’t brown. Conclusion: send Arctic slices in the lunch box. Which is what I did with many of

Sending Arctic Apples in my kids' lunch box!

Sending Arctic Apples in my kids’ lunch box!

the remaining apples.  We also just straight up ate a few of them plain because they were really tasty and I wanted to evaluate the apple in its pure form. When I got down to just three apples, I went ahead and made that GMO apple pie (mixed with some conventional apples as well.) It was delicious, but as I’m not much of a pastry chef, I didn’t take a picture of it because my crust didn’t turn out picture-worthy. 🙂

GMOs 2.0

More than anything else, the GMO apples mark an important and necessary advance in the biotechnology arena from products with farmer benefits that non-farmer consumers may not really understand to products with beneficial traits specifically designed for consumers. Not only do the apples appeal to kids, but they also appeal to adults who care about reducing food waste. I asked Brooks what role OSF (and maker of the non-browning Innate potato, Simplot) play in the biotechnology conversation. “We see these [products] as signs of a positive shift for biotech crops and public perceptions,” Brooks said.  “It’s much easier for consumers to appreciate a new technology when they can witness the benefits firsthand. Products like Arctic apples and Innate potatoes do just that, while also offering value throughout the rest of the supply-chain. And, we feel that our commitment to transparency and open communications is also symbolic of a trend towards improving communications between agricultural innovators/producers and the general public.”

Arctic Golden slices destined for a GMO apple pie.

Arctic Golden slices destined for a GMO apple pie.

If you take it even one step further, think about the potential of this technology for future products. I know it takes a long time (like 10 years) for a new biotechnology product to get to the market, but I can hardly contain my excitement about the potential of a nonbrowning avocado. I have no reason to believe that OSF is working on that, but it seems like such an obvious application of the technology, so I had to ask. As expected, Brooks wouldn’t say, but he did say this, “We do have other biotech-enhanced crops in the works besides nonbrowning apples, including those with consumer-oriented traits (such as other nonbrowning fruits) and also some with agronomic benefits. We are playing some of those cards somewhat close to the chest until we have more to share, though!” I’m keeping my hopes up.

I can’t wait until I can try more apples, but others have already done some cool experiments. This New York Times article shows a cool test of Arctic Apples in a smoothie (the smoothie doesn’t turn brown in the fridge!) and what happens when you bash the apples around in a backpack all day (they don’t bruise) and this guy tested how applesauce looks using conventional versus Arctic apples.

In the meantime, the first roll-out of the Arctic Apple seems to be going well. “Our first true test markets will be in fall 2016,” Brooks said, “But the reception we received in response to samples we provided at tradeshows or mailed out was phenomenal! Lots of positive blog posts and social media messages, plus a few strong articles in mainstream media.” OSF recently applied for US approval of their next nonbrowning variety, Arctic Fuji, and they’ll also be seeking approval in Canada. The next variety in the pipeline is Arctic Gala, with plenty of other Arctic varieties on the horizon.

Stay tuned for my next review as I’ve just received a bag of Innate potatoes!!

 

 

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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.

Hazelnuts-6

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.

Hazelnuts-1

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.

Hazelnuts-2

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.

Hazelnuts-10

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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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!

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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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Farming in Focus: June Blueberries

I have been up to my ears in blueberries lately. We have four well-established bushes in our yard that keep my family (and some friends) well stocked in blueberries for almost the entire summer. And, since Oregon produces nearly 40 million pounds of blueberries each  year, making our state the second largest producer of blueberries (after Michigan), I thought it was fitting to visit a real blueberry farm to see how it’s done on a MUCH larger scale than my backyard. So, a few weeks ago I drove down to Albany and visited Berries Northwest for June’s Farming in Focus. (I put off this post a few weeks in favor of the two-part sunscreen guest blogs.) I hope you enjoy and are inspired to go make a blueberry pie.

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Anne Krahmer is a 6th generation farmer and a 3rd generation blueberry farmer. Krahmer’s family grows blueberries on over 500 acres, 350 of which are in Albany, OR and the remainder are in Claskanie and St. Paul. Krahmer’s father started the operation in the 1990s and Krahmer grew up on the farm. She was hand picking berries at five years old and started on the berry picking machines at nine. Krahmer joined the business in 2009 after working in farm and ranch appraising in Salem for seven years. “I like this better,” she said. “It’s never the same and you never know what’s coming.” This year has been a difficult one because of the weather. I expected Krahmer’s operation to be booming because of the heat wave we’ve been having but she said it’s actually the opposite of that. The heat impacts the quality of the fruit; a lot of the bushes have been over-fruiting, meaning when it gets hot the plants puts lots of resources into making fruit, but then they don’t all ripen or the size of the fruit varies tremendously.

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About half of Krahmer’s production is picked by hand for the fresh market. Hand picking is the best way to guarantee the finest fruit, which is what is needed and expected for the fresh market, but with that comes the complications associated with managing migrant workers. Krahmer doesn’t know on any given day how many workers she’ll have show up to pick in the fields. “On Monday we had 50 people show up, the next day we had 38. By Wednesday it had dropped to 16. Thursday we were back up to 48, then 58 on Friday.” A lot of that is dictated by what else is in season – for example, when strawberries and blueberries are ripe at the same time, workers will abandon picking blueberries  in favor of strawberries. Strawberries pay more because those farmers don’t have the option of harvesting by machine, but blueberry farmers do. As the season wears on, grapes ripen in California and workers move on to that market. Krahmer said sometimes the workers’ cell phones will start ringing and they’ll walk off the field right in the middle of picking and head to another farm where they’re paying more that day. She said she tried a weekly attendance bonus, but it didn’t work because it ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

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Hand pickers are paid by how much they pick at $0.35 per pound. Most are making about $100 to $150 in a four- to six-hour work day. The average worker picks about 40 to 50 pounds an hour, but the top pickers can pick as much as 80 to 100 pounds per hour.  Let’s compare that to my family of four that can pick about five pounds in an hour. Granted, about half of what my kids pick goes into their mouths, but still. That is seriously fast. I asked Krahmer for tips and she told me wearing the bucket right on your waist and cupping your hands leads to more efficient picking.

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Almost all of Krahmer’s hand crew are migrant workers from Mexico, and very few of them speak English. The berry industry is facing a labor shortage that Krahmer says is changing the fresh market. A lot of that has to do with labor immigration politics. “These workers want to work here for eight months and then go home and see their families,” Kraher said. “Lots of these workers have families back home, but the border makes it hard to get back home.” Krahmer said part of the labor shortage is also because of an increase in the Mexican economy. If they can find jobs at home, there is no incentive to come to the US to harvest fruit.

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I asked Krahmer why they don’t employ more non-migrant workers; for example, I only saw one white person picking by hand in the field. “We hired 15 white workers this year,” Krahmer said. “She [the one I met] is the only one still here. People think picking blueberries is easy, but when they discover it’s hard work they don’t want to do it.” If a picker doesn’t pick enough to make minimum wage, Krahmer is required to pay them minimum wage anyway. Krahmer said if the minimum wage goes to $15 as a lot of people hope, she won’t be able to afford a hand crew and she probably would have a hard time even getting a crew. “Who would pick blueberries in the sun all day for $15 an hour when you could work in an air conditioned building and make the same?” Krahmer said. “Consumers want more and more fresh fruit and organic options, but they don’t always understand what that means in terms of increased labor.” She said if the minimum wage goes to $15 an hour, she’ll only be able to do about 30 percent or less fresh market instead of the 50 percent she does now. That has an impact on her bottom line as well as reduced availability because she makes about $1.85 per pound for the fresh market compared to $0.75 per pound for the frozen market.

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Krahmer’s operation uses a digital system to help workers keep track of how much they pick. Each worker wears a name tag with a bar code on it. After they dump their buckets on to the trays, the supervisor scans their barcode before weighing the berries. The system keeps a running total of how many pounds that worker picks each day and the worker gets a printout with their name, date and total pounds picked so far that day. Krahmer said the system is very good, but occasionally there are problems that she must sort out during the day. For example, once a worker checks in to one weigh station, they must continue to weigh at that station all day. If they go to another station, the system encounters problems.

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All of Krahmer’s fresh blueberries go to Driscoll’s, which has a reputation for safe fruit and high quality. In order to sell to Driscoll’s, Krahmer’s operation must be Global G.A.P. certified, the highest certification available. That certification covers all stages of production, from pre-harvest activities such as soil management and plant protection product application to post-harvest produce handling, packing and storing. For example, all the buckets must be washed daily with a chlorine and water solution, and the buckets must sit on what’s called a “baby tray” in the field to keep them off the ground. After the berries are picked, they travel in a refrigerated semi truck that Krahmer leases to travel to Watsonville, CA where Driscoll’s is based. There they’re washed and sorted.

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Krahmer gets an update from her field manager each day on the quality of the berries being picked. This is important because if there is too much red (not ripe enough) or the berries are too soft (overripe or too hot), Driscoll’s will reject the entire shipment. They’re also looking for damage from birds (shown on the left) or from pests and disease (shown on the right). Krahmer uses electronic bird squawkers to keep the birds away, and while she says they work very well, they’re not perfect. Krahmer also has to spray insecticide to prevent damage from the Spotted Wing Drosophila, a fruit fly that arrive in Oregon in 2009 and lays its eggs in the berries. Processors test the fruit for presence of SWD by soaking the berries in a salt water bath that causes the larvae to crawl out of the berries. Once SWD is detected in a grower’s berries, they’re essentially trash. Not even the juice market will take them.  In the spring, Krahmer sprays fungicide to prevent fungus that deforms the fruit. She says they’re very careful about what they spray because in April she hires between two and six bee hives per acre to pollinate the crop.  They also have instigated a new native pollinator project through Oregon State University on their farm this year that hopes to attract native bees. “We really watch what we spray,” Krahmer said. “We don’t want to kill the bees.” While it might seem like the vast majority of the work gets done during harvest, there is work year-round on Krahmer’s farm. After the harvest, they promote growth of the plants and starting in November they hand prune every single plant. That generally takes until February or March because at 1,200 plants per acre and over 500 acres, that’s a lot of pruning. They also do what they can to try to time harvest as early and as late as possible because that’s when the market is most lucrative. They do this by tenting some of the fields and selecting different varieties that ripen at different times.

blueberry harvest-10One of the coolest things I wanted to see on Krahmer’s farm was the mechanical harvest of blueberries. Unfortunately, all I got to see was the machine sitting in the field because by the time I got there they were finished picking. The crew started at 5 a.m. when the berries were cool and by the time I got there at 10 a.m. they were done. Krahmer told me as it gets hotter, they’re going to have to go to night shifts. I’m still hoping to get some images of mechanical harvest in the next few weeks, and if I do, I’ll be sure to post an update here (maybe even with a video!) so you can see it for yourself. Stay tuned!

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Farming in Focus: May – Green beans and more

I know, I know. I’m late on this post again. Think of it this way – my Farming in Focus post will just surprise you – you never know when it will show up! I have a really good reason for holding this post for almost a week, though. I was waiting for the pea harvest! The peas in my garden were getting pretty close to picking in May a few weeks ago, so I emailed a farmer friend who I know grows peas and said, “Hey, when do you guys harvest peas? I’d like to profile you for my May Farming in Focus!” Unfortunately, they weren’t harvesting peas, but they were getting ready to plan green beans, so I jumped at the opportunity to photograph some green beans going into the ground. I was all ahead of schedule with this post until I got an email just a few days before the end of the month that said, “We’re getting ready to harvest peas now!” So I decided to hold it to include some pea harvest photos (because… obviously that’s worth waiting for.) But then it rained, and rained, and rained some more. So we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Which is a good lesson about farming – you can’t control the weather. I took the pea harvest photos just yesterday. Hope you enjoy.

This month I visited Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul, OR and met up with third generation farmer, Brenda Frketich.

Frketich-5Frketich and her family grow nine crops on a total of 1,000 acres. About 300 of those acres make up the home farm where Frketich’s parents live. Right down the road Frketich lives on 55 acres with her husband, Matt, and son, Hoot. Those nine crops include hazelnuts, ryegrass seed, tall fescue grass seed, green beans, peas, wheat, radish seeds, cabbage seeds and crimson clover seeds.

Frketich-7Until recently, Kirsch Family Farms only grew two crops: grass seed and hazelnuts. For years they did what a lot of farmers do – they regularly traded fields with neighboring farmers in order to rotate crops on the same land to preserve soil quality. But, as Frketich said, “Every farmer has their own way of farming,” and in order to maintain consistency in practice, they decided to learn how to grow their own rotation crops. Over recent years they’ve picked up seven additional crops that allow a rotation model they control. Frketich told me it’s definitely harder this way, and some of the rotation crops are riskier to grow, but it’s still better to not have all your eggs in one basket.

Frketich-6Frketich told me her favorite crop continues to be hazelnuts, even though for a long time her family wasn’t planting additional hazelnut trees because eastern filbert blight made it really difficult to grow them profitably. Eastern filbert blight is caused by a fungus that creates cankers and die back on branches and requires multiple fungicide applications to control. That changed when Oregon State University recently released a blight-resistant hazelnut tree. Now, as Frketich is doing,  many Oregon hazelnut growers are planting new orchards once again.

Frketich-8As I drove to meet Frketich, I kept seeing fields of crimson clover dotted with tiny seedlings, and I could not figure out what was going on. It turns out that in the first few years while the hazelnut trees are getting established, farmers can grow crops in the rows between the trees. This makes total sense – the trees are not big enough yet to form a canopy and block the sunlight to the ground, but they must be planted far enough apart to accommodate their future growth leaving a bunch of open ground. That seemed so clever to me until Frketich told me that it’s actually more of a constant trade-off. Sometimes you want to spray to control weeds in the crimson clover but you’re limited in what you can apply and the timing of that application because it might damage the hazelnut trees, and vise versa. For these trees in the picture above, this will be the last year they grow side-by-side with any other crops.

Frketich-2There are only three crops Frketich grows to actually eat, and green beans are one of them (peas and hazelnuts are the other two).  This year they are planting about 52 acres of green beans, split into two different plantings – one in May and one in June. Frketich told me this is basically to split the risk; the weather in Oregon is iffy this time of year and splitting the planting dates helps alleviate some of the risk associated with lack of control over the weather. They know the risk all too well. This year one of their pea fields got too much rain after planting and rotted in the ground. Fortunately, they were able to rent the land to a pumpkin grower, but that’s not always the case, and it’s a huge investment of time, labor and input cost to have that field not produce a crop. Before the green bean seeds even go into the ground, Frketich told me they’ve already been over this ground about 15 times. That includes passes to work the soil, and incorporate fertilizer, pre-emergent herbicides and moisture. I asked Frketich why they didn’t use a no-till approach with green beans and she told me no-till only works for some crops. Crops like green beans and cabbage need loose soil to establish a root structure, whereas crops like wheat don’t, but they do use a no-till approach when possible.

Frketich-1This is what a green bean seed looks like before it goes into the ground. Why is it pink? It  has a seed treatment on it that helps protect the seed as it germinates and emerges. The planter creates a furrow in the ground and drops ten seeds per foot and then covers the furrow back up as it passes by. The green beans will emerge in about seven days.

Frketich-11While green beans are getting planted on one part of the farm, Frketich’s husband Matt is applying a fungicide to their grass seed fields on another part of the farm to treat for rust. You can see why it’s called rust – it looks just like metal rusting on the blade of grass. The fungus restricts nutrients that the plant needs to develop seeds, which is exactly the kind of thing a grass seed farmer doesn’t want. Kirsch Family Farms grows turf grass seed (as opposed to forage grass seed for animals). Most of the seed they grow ends up in residential use and golf courses.

Frketich-10I had never been on a sprayer before, so I was pretty excited when Matt agreed to let me climb up on the truck and go for a few passes with him. I was particularly impressed with the technology the truck uses to apply the fungicide. The GPS guided sprayer is so precise that it knows exactly where it’s already been, so even if you drive over the same area you’ve already sprayed, the “auto boom” feature will turn the sprayer off so you can’t over-spray. So I said to Matt, “You mean you could just drive around willy nilly all over the field and it would turn on and off as necessary so you’d never apply twice in the same spot?!” “Well, yes, you could do that,” he said. His tone told me that was probably the stupidest idea he’d ever heard, but I thought it sounded pretty fun. The truck also has auto-steer which means he doesn’t even need to touch the steering wheel on fields that are more or less rectangular.

Frketich-3I grow cabbage in my own garden, and most people know what a cabbage plant looks like, but I’ve never seen cabbage flower and go to seed. If you’re growing the crop to eat the cabbage, you don’t want it to bolt (produce a flowering stem) because it impacts the flavor of the cabbage. But when you’re specifically growing the plant for the seeds, that’s exactly what you want. Frketich told me they even split the cabbage heads to induce bolting.

Frketich-4Another thing I didn’t know is that cabbage seed production requires a pollinator. Sitting on the corner of this field of cabbage were about 40 bee hives that Frketich rents for the duration of the bloom on their 26 acres of cabbage. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the bees need the pollen and nectar to produce honey for the beekeeper, and Frketich needs the bees to pollinate the cabbage flowers so they get a good seed crop.

Frketich-14This is a pea harvester! Kirsch Family Farms has a contract with Norpac Foods, so all of the peas they grow end up in bags of Flav-R-Pac frozen peas.  Norpac determines the variety of peas Frketich plants as well as the planting date so they can properly stagger all the harvesting contracts they have. When it’s time to harvest, Norpac sends out its team of harvesters  operating on a 24-hour schedule. The workers put in 12-hour shifts from 7:00 to 7:00. In fact, the harvesters arrived on Frketich’s fields at 3:00 a.m. so by the time I got there Friday morning at 10:00, they had already moved on to the neighbor’s field. But, no matter, we just drove over to the neighbor’s farm to watch these bad boys harvest at one acre of peas per hour! The team operates four harvesters for a combined rate of four acres per hour.

Frketich-15That’s right, I climbed up on a moving pea harvester to get this shot! I could actually hear the pea pods crunching as I stood up there. Inside the harvester is a giant drum that spins and throws the pea pods against a screen to break open the pods and filter out the peas, leaving all the pods and plant material behind. I couldn’t help but marvel at the efficiency of this beast – imagine having to pick and shell all those peas by  hand.

Frketich-13When the harvester is full of peas, it off-loads them into this “dump chief.” Then…

Frketich-16… the peas are dumped into a truck to be carried off to the cannery for cleaning and packing. That’s a lot of peas.

Frketich-12In the end, all that’s left behind on the field are the empty pea pods and plant material. Frketich has a nice trade set up with a cattle farmer – he comes and rakes up the leftover plant material and carries it off to feed his cattle. He gets the feed, and it cleans up the field for Frketich. She says she’s talked to other farmers who have tried not cleaning up the field, but the vines take so long to break down that you end up fighting them for a long time after the peas are gone.

I hope you learned something, because I sure did. And I had a blast climbing up on farm equipment! If you want to learn more about the trials and tribulations of Kirsch Family Farms – check out Frketich’s blog Nuttygrass.

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Confessions of a Former Monsanto Employee

In March, National Geographic published an issue called “The War On Science,” and of all the cities in the entire United States, can you guess which city was called out in the very first paragraph of that article for its anti-science tendencies? Oh yes: it was Portland.  The article went on to say, “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge … faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts… And there’s so much talk about the trend these days … that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme.”

Nowhere is this culture more alive than in the city where I live. We’re one of only a few major American cities that don’t fluoridate our water, despite the scientific and medical consensus that it is a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone. We also just narrowly avoided being one of the first states in America to label GMOs; the vote literally came down to less than half a percentage point – I’m almost certain it will return to the ballot and possibly pass next time. There’s a county in Oregon that has banned the growth of GMOs, and there’s another county currently trying to do the same on a ballot measure next week, even though the state has passed legislation to prohibit county-by-county bans. To get around that, Benton County is trying to give legal rights to plants.

Yes, I  used to work for Monsanto.While all this is going on, I’m sitting here shaking my head. And sometimes, shaking in my boots. Why? Because when I’m at the bus stop talking to another neighborhood parent and they say to me, “What did you used to do before you became a stay-at-home mom?” I get this sinking feeling in my stomach. Do I tell them that I used to work for the very company that created GMOs? A company that many Oregonians consider representative of all that is evil and wrong with our world? Sometimes I just say, “Oh, I used to be in public relations” or “Oh, I’m a photographer.” Neither of those are un-true.  But sometimes I just say it: “I used to work for Monsanto.” Every single time I’ve done that it stops people in their tracks. I mentioned it to my dental hygienist the other day, and she literally pulled her tool out of my mouth and looked at me, “Oh…. oh. Really?!” Yes, really.

And the thing is, in all honesty, I’m freaking proud of it. I loved working there – I got to go to work every day and do something I feel passionately about. I got to help people better understand a technology that I think holds immense promise to change our world for the better. The people I worked with were awesome, and the company was great – I got amazing benefits and reduced summer hours! Sometimes I still kick myself for ever leaving. If Monsanto had an office in Portland, I’d be knocking down their door trying to get a job.

But I don’t talk about that here. There’s a very real reason I don’t share my last name on this blog – I know Monsanto employees who have been threatened in climates similar to Portland. I don’t wear my Monsanto jacket here (even though it’s a really nice jacket.) And I certainly have never shown up at a March Against Monsanto.

Except maybe that’s changing. Why? Because there’s a new grass-roots movement that’s standing up to March Against Monsanto and making an effort to help people better understand GMOs. Next Saturday, for the first time, there will be a group of pro-GMO people (YES! Pro-GMO people in Portland!) standing up for logo w proper coilscience. They’ll be standing right next to a horde of protesters carrying posters with sculls and crossbones, blaming GMOs for every health problem under the sun, and accusing Monsanto of controlling the food supply and killing bees, butterflies, and everything in between.  The pro-GMO group will be holding signs that say, “I heart GMOs” and “Ask me about GMOs.” They’ll be handing out leaflets that talk about all the amazing things GMOs have actually done:  like resurrecting the American chestnut tree from the brink of extinction, saving the Hawaiian papaya, and reducing carbon emissions associated with agriculture equivalent to removing almost 12 million cars from the road for one year. They’ll be approachable. They’ll be honest. And they’ll be accurate. They’ll be everything that March Against Monsanto isn’t.  They’ll March Against Myths About Modification. (That’s their name, MAMyths.)

Now that is the kind of movement I can get on board with. And it couldn’t come at a more necessary time. I really believe that in my lifetime, we’ll be facing problems that have the potential to make or break our species. I could give you a bunch of statistics here, but the bottom line is that we have too many people for this planet to support. We’ll Fork and knifeneed to make some drastic changes if we want to stay on this planet at all. There are lots of ideas about how we’re going to make that happen, but one thing is for sure: we already have a technology that has the potential to help address many of those problems. Is it the magic bullet? No. Can biotechnology feed every starving person in Africa? No. But it can help. If only we’ll let it.

How can we convince people that GMOs are not evil? How can we convince people that the story is not about Monsanto, or chemicals, or patents? The story is about the next generation of GMOs and their potential to help. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • rice with beta-carotene that could help the 124 million children in the world who are chronically deficient in vitamin A, a deficiency that accounts for about one-quarter of the total global burden of disease from malnutrition
  • insect-resistant eggplant that would allow farmers in Bangladesh to spray less pesticide where pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem
  • cassava (a staple for millions of people in developing countries) with increased protein, beta-carotene and other nutrients
  • crops that are self-fertilizing that would allow farmers in developing countries who don’t have fertilizer to grow more productive crops
  • crops that can photosynthesize better and produce 50 percent more food per acre
  • drought-resistant crops that can produce more with less water

Some of those are ten or more years away from development, but some of them, like Golden Rice and  Bt eggplant, already exist but are being blocked somewhat in part to hysteria fueled by activists like March Against Monsanto.

That brings me back to next Saturday in Portland. This is where we can help. This is right here, right now. For a long time, academics and scientists have been doing what I call the “soft sell.” They’ve been rather quietly and calmly explaining the science, the safety, and the benefits of GMOs and hoping that eventually it catches on. And maybe for some, it is working. But it’s not working fast enough. We are badly losing the information war on GMOs. Perhaps now is the time to be a little more forceful, and that’s exactly what MAMyths is doing. They’re standing up proudly and loudly to say, “I support GMOs and I want to tell you why.”

Of course, that’s a little scary. Especially in a city like Portland where people might get a little riled up over that. But the good news is they have the facts on their side.  And, even better, they’re real people who aren’t backed by industry. They’re people just like me: with children whose health we care about, who have a very serious vested interest in the sustainability of our food supply.

Maybe you should go. You could always go get a beer or some dried GMO papaya afterward. Or, if you don’t want to go, I understand. But you can at least join the movement online and use your voice to support science.

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Q&A with Simplot Scientist Nicole Nichol

It’s been more than 20 years since genetically modified crops (or GMOs) were first introduced in 1994 with the Flavr Savr tomato. In those 20 years a lot has changed – for one, the Flavr Savr didn’t stay on the market (it was discontinued after three years) and now we have eight more commercially available GMO crops. It’s been nine years since the most recent GMOs (sugarbeets and alfalfa) were introduced in 2006. I like to think of the existing GM crops as the first generation of GMOs – a generation that focused on benefits for the producer by protecting against pests. One of the reasons I so strongly support GMOs is not because of what they’ve done so far (although it has been impressive) but because the technology has  incredible possibility to revolutionize both our impact on the environment and the nutritional profile of our food. We are quite literally on the brink of a second generation of GMOs that have the potential to reduce waste, use our dwindling resources more efficiently, and make our food better for us. Of course, the only sticking point is that we have to convince people to stop demonizing the technology so we can actually realize the possibility of what lies ahead.

Which brings me to the Innate Potato. No pressure, or anything, but I seriously hope the two newest GMO crops (the Innate™ Potato and the Arctic® Apple) can change the way people think about GMOs. Why do I hope that? Because these two biotech crops are directly and intentionally aimed at benefits for the consumer. And, best of all, they were not created by Monsanto.

Thaner family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

Nichol family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

So, today’s post is a Q&A with Nicole Nichol about the non-browning/low-acrylamide Innate Potato which has recently received USDA and FDA clearance. Nichol is a Biotech Regulatory Compliance Specialist at Simplot Plant Sciences. She helps to make sure Simplot follows all the regulations when working with biotech crops.  Before that she was a Transformation Associate Scientist in Plant Sciences for three-and-a-half years, where she used Agrobacterium to mediate the genetic engineering of plants.  Nichol grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado that was pretty devoid of agriculture due to the altitude.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and a master’s degree in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology from Michigan State University  where she studied GM potatoes for drought tolerance.  She now lives in Meridian, Idaho with her husband and three kids ages 6, 3, and 14 months.

Warning: this post is pretty sciency. When you ask a scientist questions about their science, expect to get very sciency answers. That said, it’s incredibly interesting stuff. Read on.

It’s MomSense: What are the benefits of Innate potatoes?

Nichol:  Innate potatoes in general have the benefit of being biotech potatoes that only use potato genes to alter the desired traits. In a sense we are doing precise breeding.  You could achieve the same traits using conventional breeding but it might take decades, if not longer, to get the same quality of potatoes.  Our first generation of Innate potatoes have two traits: non-browning/reduced black spot as a result of downregulating the PPO enzyme and reduced acrylamide as a result of reduced levels of the amino acid asparagine.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about acrylamide – what is it?

Nichol: Acrylamide is a naturally-occurring chemical compound found in many foods and beverages. In our diet acrylamide is formed during the Maillard reaction which involves heat, reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and the amino acid asparagine.  Acrylamide forms in coffee, prunes, potato chips, breakfast cereals and many other foods.  We have basically been consuming acrylamide since we discovered cooking with fire.  The more toasted or burnt your toast or fries are, the more acrylamide it is going to contain.

It’s MomSense: How much is present in a serving of french fries?

Nichol: From 39 samples of fries from Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. the mean level of acrylamide was 537 µg/kg (WHO, 2002). Or to try and put it in more familiar terms 0.000537 grams per 35.3 oz.  A large fry from a quick-serve restaurant is 5.9 oz.

It’s MomSense: How much will the Innate potatoes reduce acrylamide levels?

Nichol: Innate potatoes will reduce acrylamide levels by 50-70 percent over the conventional variety (depending on the variety of Innate potato and method of cooking).

It’s MomSense: What does the science actually say about acrylamide and cancer in humans?

Nichol: The toxic effects of acrylamide in food have been described as negligible in the literature (WHO, 2002 and Lineback et al., 2012). Neurotoxicity has been observed in rodent studies using a chronic drinking water method.  The WHO Consultation concluded that the NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) to be 0.5 mg/kg/day for humans.  The estimated average chronic human dietary intake of acrylamide is 1 µg/kg body weight/day, meaning the average person would have to eat 500 times more acrylamide than they typically do in a day.

In laboratory studies, acrylamide has been shown to be carcinogenic. Using somatic and germ cells in Petri plates, acrylamide can induce changes to DNA.  In studies using acrylamide treated rats they did have a slightly higher incidence of tumors.  After looking at all the data available, the WHO in 2002 declared acrylamide to be a Group 2A classification—probably carcinogenic in humans.  The classification falls in line with other carcinogens that are formed in food as a result of cooking.  The WHO also recognizes that further studies are needed to have a better understanding of the carcinogenic potential of acrylamide.  Their recommendation is to follow general healthy eating habits that moderate fried and fatty foods.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about the non-browning aspect – is there anything actually harmful about eating a browned potato, or is it purely aesthetics? How much does this reduce the browning?

Nichol: There is nothing harmful or unhealthy about eating a browned potato. Although this may appear to be purely for aesthetics, this does have an impact on consumers, processors and growers. It is estimated that 1.4 billion pounds of fresh Russet potatoes (the ones you buy in the grocery store) are wasted each year in the U.S. because of the browning and bruising.  If all Russet potatoes were converted to Innate potatoes, the U.S. would save 400 million pounds of waste in the retail and food service channels and a significant portion – perhaps upwards of 1 billion of the estimated 3 billion pounds discarded by consumers according to the Journal of Consumer Affairs.   Along with the less waste this would also save $90 million in producer costs, 60 million pounds of CO2 emissions and 6.7 billion gallons of water.  In our Innate Russet lines there is a 35-44 percent reduction in bruising compared to conventional Russets.

Innate vs conventional potato

Innate potato (left) and a conventional potato (right), 30 minutes after being peeled.

It’s MomSense: Back in the 90s, Monsanto and others were working on a GM potato that got abandoned largely because McDonalds and the fast-food industry said they wouldn’t source GM potatoes. In light of the recent Innate deregulation, McDonalds again affirmed it wouldn’t be sourcing this new GM potato, either. Seeing as Simplot is a large supplier of McDonalds potatoes, that must have come as no surprise. Why do you think the market is ready now and wasn’t in the 90s? How does McDonalds’ decision impact Simplot?

Nichol: I don’t know if the market is that different now than it was in the 90’s, I think our traits and how we are handling the market introduction is what is going to be the difference for GM potato this time around. Our traits touch the consumer, the processors and the growers.  For our market introduction, we are being very limited in who and where the crop is grown so that Innate potatoes will not be in potato market categories that are commonly exported.  Currently we only have deregulation in the U.S. and until deregulation is complete in other countries we will have a strong stewardship program intended to keep the potatoes away from the process and dehydrated markets.  In addition, we have a very limited amount of Innate potatoes at this time and it will be a few years before we would have enough seed inventory to supply quick serve restaurants.

It’s MomSense: What makes this product different from other GM products? I’ve read this is a cisgenic product, why is this an advantage?

Nichol: To date, this is the first commercial GM product that has sourced the genes for the traits from the plant’s same gene pool. The term cisgenics has been used to describe genes from within the same gene pool of the target species.  Transgenics generally refers to genes sourced from species outside of the targets specie’s gene pool.  Another way to think of it is that a cisgenic plant could be achieved through conventional breeding, where a transgenic plant can only be achieved using biotechnology methods.  We also do not use antibiotic marker genes in the development of our commercial Innate lines and the marker genes are typically used to develop other GM crops.  Antibiotic markers are safe, we however wanted to stay all within the potato genome for our products.  In some ways this made it a little harder for us to produce our Innate potatoes but we think it will help in consumer acceptance.   We have decided to call our technology “Innate™” to focus on technology that doesn’t involve foreign genes.

It’s MomSense: Where do the genes come from? Would it have been easier to do with transgenics?

Nichol: The genes come from Solanum tuberosum (the common cultivated potato) Ranger Russet variety and Solanum verrucosum a closely related species. Our traits are achieved by turning down the gene expression and this is actually best achieved by either using cisgenic approaches or synthetic DNA sequences.  It would have been less work to include an antibiotic resistance marker gene and this would have been a transgene.

It’s MomSense: This would be the very first GM product with a direct consumer benefit, and it feels like this product was intentionally aimed at consumers (has a healthy angle because it reduces carcinogens, and has an environmental angle because it reduces food waste, all using genes from within the potato family.) Do you believe this product will change the way consumers view GMOs? Was that part of the goal all along?

Nichol: It was part of the vision from the beginning to have a biotech product that has direct benefits for the consumer. If we end up changing consumers’ views of GM products, to being more positive overall, I think that will be an ancillary benefit.  My personal opinion is that 10-20 years from now fruit and vegetables with the non-browning trait will be just as common as seedless produce is today.  (And just to be clear those seedless varieties were not produced with biotech methods.) There is already the Arctic Apple, and just imagine avocados, bananas, pineapples, etc. that won’t turn brown!

It’s MomSense: I understand this product uses RNAi. Many folks get that confused with Terminator technology that is widely demonized by the anti-GMO crowd. Can you explain what RNAi is, how it’s used in this product, and how it’s different than Terminator?

Nichol: RNAi, or RNA interference, is a way to downregulate gene expression. Terminator technology refers to the overall way to keep pollen or seeds of genetically modified plants sterile.  Cells from bacteria to humans use gene downregulation all the time to ‘police’ what is going on in the cell, it does not mean it will lead to sterility.  The confusing part is that you could use RNAi to achieve the Terminator effect.  It’s like saying birds lay eggs, but not all eggs are from birds.  Initially the anti-GMO crowd came out very negatively against Terminator technology.  However, there has been a renewed interest in this technology by the same crowd that was once against it.  This is because there are difficulties in maintaining pure organic (a.k.a. GM free) seed stocks.

If you want to learn more about RNAi I recommend the tutorial from the PBS NOVA series.  It has a good ‘non-science’ analogy: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/rnai-explained.html.

RNAi evolved as a defense mechanism against viruses and that is why it is present in bacterial, plant and animal cells.  Normally in a cell double stranded DNA is the template to make single stranded RNA.  Single stranded RNA is the template to make proteins, and proteins are the all-important building blocks to life.  RNAi comes in, and like a defensive player in sports, it will double up the coverage making the single stranded RNA partially double stranded.  This defensive RNAi is very specific and will only double up on the single stranded RNA if the templates match.  Once the match is found that whole piece of single, and partially double, stranded RNA is chopped up like yesterday’s newspaper in a shredder.  The result is whatever gene (DNA) made that RNA will not be made into the protein and so the gene is considered downregulated or silenced.  In our Innate potatoes we use this RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the PPO enzyme that causes the browning and another RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the amino acid asparagine.  If you are reading this and have some basic biochemistry knowledge you may be wondering how we can “silence” an amino acid, because amino acids make proteins and are definitely necessary.  This is possible because the amount of RNAi can vary.  So to bring back a sports analogy if you have three defensive players (RNAi) and five offensive players (regular single stranded RNA) the three defensive players will only be able to partially cover their opponents.  Thus we only get partial gene downregulation.  And just like in sports, sometimes the defense can still steal the ball and score when they are outnumbered; we can still have less acrylamide with there still being some asparagine out there in the cells.  We have also used a tuber specific promoter so that this gene downregulation only occurs in the tuber (the part of the potato plant we all know and love) and not in the leaves or roots or other parts of the plant.

The other unique point about potatoes is that they are a vegetatively propagated crop, they are not grown from botanical seed.  This means that when you grow a potato plant you use a tuber, or at least a piece of a tuber that has an eye.  That eye will sprout, as you have probably seen happen in your pantry, and those sprouts will grow into a plant.  This process can go on and on, year after year, and never requires pollination to get a new plant.  This means that the risk of gene flow from our Innate potatoes to conventional potatoes is not a concern.  So although RNAi and Terminator technology are not related, there is no purpose to using Terminator technology in biotech potato production.

It’s MomSense: Why didn’t Simplot decide to stack this technology with farmer benefits like disease or pesticide resistance?

Nichol: As I mentioned above, the Innate potatoes do have a farmer/grower benefit in that the grower is able to capture more value in their harvested crop with less of the potatoes going to waste due to black spots and browning. As for also including a trait like disease or herbicide resistance, the disease resistance is actually in the pipeline.  We have a potato gene from Solanum venturii (another close relative to the cultivated potato) that confers resistance to potato late blight.  Potato late blight is the disease that caused the Irish potato famine and it is still a big problem in potato production today.  It is a fungi like organism (an oomycete to be exact) and growers have to spend lots of money and time spraying fungicides to keep the late blight at bay.  This trait has been stacked on to our first traits and will be available in our second release of Innate potatoes.  We hope to have deregulation from the USDA for our second version of Innate potatoes by the end of 2015.  We are also working on introducing more genes for late blight resistance to have more global, long term resistance along with resistance to PVY, a virus that results in yield loss and is carried by aphids.

It’s MomSense: The Center for Food Safety and other critics claim RNAi is “untested” and inadequately regulated. Of course, they say this about all biotechnology, so I don’t think it holds much water, but the one point they make is interesting – that somehow this application of RNAi impacts the potato’s ability to fend off pests. Is there any truth to that? Has that been thoroughly tested?

Nichol: PPO has been shown in some literature to be induced when a pest is feeding on the plant and thus is thought to provide some resistance to the pest. However, there was little research on potato plants so we investigated this issue extensively while working on the development of these potatoes.  We found that because we are only downregulating Ppo5 (one of several PPO genes) in the tubers and not in the leaves this reduces the risk of increased loss due to pests. Also there are several genes that code for different variations of PPO and we only silenced one of them.  After growing and storing potatoes across the U.S. for several years there were no significant differences in pest or disease issues in our Innate potatoes compared to the conventional varieties.  RNAi is a very specific mechanism within the cell.  Only the specific double-stranded RNA will be degraded for that specific gene.  The potato DNA that we inserted is very specific to target Ppo5 and Asn1 (asparagine gene) and our studies have not found any “off-target” gene downregulation.

It’s MomSense: Will we ever see the Innate potato in the supermarket or is it exclusively going for commercial use?

Nichol: We hope to have Innate potatoes available in grocery stores as both whole potatoes in the bag like you are used to buying and as washed, peeled, and cut raw potatoes in packaging in the refrigerated produce aisle. Again we will initially not have a large supply to have it in all grocery stores for the next year or two, but we definitely want to get these directly to consumers so they can recognize the value in a reduced bruising, non-browning potato.

It’s MomSense: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Nichol: I briefly mentioned our second version of Innate potatoes that will include the late blight resistance and we have also included downregulation of Invertase. Similar to the PPO and asparagine downregulation, the Invertase downregulation is achieved through RNAi and this will only be in the tuber.  Invertase is involved in converting sucrose to glucose and fructose (those reducing sugars previously mentioned).  With less reducing sugars there will be even less acrylamide formation than in our first version of Innate.  Up to 90 percent less acrylamide than conventional potatoes.  Another benefit to less reducing sugars is that you can store potatoes in a colder storage for longer.  Traditionally certain varieties of potatoes are stored between 46-50°F, for about 4-5 months.  There are other potato varieties that cannot be stored.  Our Innate potatoes with downregulated Invertase can be stored at colder temperatures for possibly a longer time period; even converting varieties that could not be stored into a variety that can be stored.  This is important for potatoes that will be processed into fries or chips.

innate friesconventional friesInnate Burbank (top) and conventional Burbank (bottom), second generation with reduced Invertase.  The dark brown color in the conventional Burbank fries are a result of higher reducing sugars content.

Lastly, I would just like to emphasize that there is no evidence that any commercially available GM crop possess any more risk than traditional crops in terms of health for humans, animals and the environment. As I mother I have no problem feeding Bt sweet corn to my kids and I can’t wait to feed them Innate potatoes from this year’s harvest!

References

Lineback, D. R., Coughlin, J. R., & Stadler, R. H. (2012). Acrylamide in foods: a review of the science and future considerations. Annual review of food science and technology, 3, 15-35.

World Health Organization. Food Safety Programme. (2002). Health Implications of Acrylamide in Food: Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Consultation, WHO Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland, 25-27 June 2002. Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.

Thornton, M. (2003). The rise and fall of NewLeaf potatoes. Biotechnology: Science and Society at a Crossroad. National Agricultural Biotechnology, Council Boyce Thompson Institute, Ithaca, New York, 235-243.

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Farming In Focus: April – Dairy

This is my second Farming in Focus post as part of a new project where I visit at least one farm each month and do kind of a day-in-the-life of a farmer through photo essay. This month I focused on dairies – I visited three, in fact. I had an ulterior motive, though, because I’m simultaneously working on a story about milk labels (more on that later) so I wanted to sample a few different approaches to milk-production, if you will. I visited one dairy in Oregon and two dairies in Washington as part of a trip I took to Spokane for the AgChat Pacific Northwest Regional Agvocacy conference.  This is also why I’m a few days late with this post – I have too much on my plate!

First I visited Cloud Cap Farms, an organic dairy in Boring, Oregon. (It’s really not all that boring, though, it was really interesting.)CloudCap Farm-1Melissa Collman is a fourth generation dairy farmer. Her family’s  dairy has been in business since 1924 and chose to go organic in 2004 as a way to financially stabilize their business. Organic dairies get paid a contracted price for their milk, where most conventional dairies get paid a fluctuating price based on current market value. Part of being organic means they are unable to treat their cows with antibiotics. One way that they reduce the need for antibiotics is to “hutch” raise their calves (each calf in it’s own hutch with an outdoor paddock) instead of “mob” raise them (all together). This way if one calf gets sick, they don’t all get sick. After about 60-90 days, they are moved to a group environment. If a cow does get sick, they try to use alternatives to antibiotics, but in the event that a cow gets something like pneumonia that can only be treated with antibiotics, they either treat with antibiotics and sell the cow to a conventional dairy or, very rarely, euthanize the cow.

CloudCap Farm-2One difference Collman has noticed since they went organic is that they feed their cows less than they used to, and as a result the calves are smaller and require less assistance in birth and the cows have fewer Displaced Abomasum (DA) or twisted stomachs. As a downside to not feeding the cows so much, they produce less milk. Part of that difference is because the components of the feed is different – for example, they can’t feed cottonseed or beet pulp because they can’t source it organically, and even if they could it would be cost-prohibitive. They currently feed their cows a forage-based feed with about ten percent grain, whereas when they were conventional they feed them about 25 percent grain. While the contracted price they get for their milk stays the same, they do suffer fluctuations in feed costs.  “It’s been a rough few years for us, I’m not going to lie,” Collman said. “The cost of feed is going up and not going down – the drought in California is hurting farmers. I really feel for my conventional counterparts who don’t get that contracted milk price.”

CloudCap Farm-3Something that really surprised me as I was walking around all three dairies is the amount that cows poop. Seriously, non-stop pooping. They poop where they lay, eat, sleep. They poop when they get up, they poop while they’re laying down. It sounded like someone continually dumping bags of oranges on the ground (and I’m not even going to talk about the pee-faucet those cows turn on.) So, what to do with all that poop? Most dairies have a lagoon to which they move all the manure. On Collman’s dairy, they flush manure water down these chutes and out into the lagoon. They separate the “solids” into a compost that they use to fertilize their alfalfa fields and re-circulate the manure water to wash out the barn. Stinky, but efficient.

CloudCap Farm-4One requirement for organic dairies is the cows must be on pasture, but Collman’s dairy was pasture-based before they went organic, so that made it a little easier for them. “I still thought we were amazing farmers as conventional farmers,” said Collman. She noted that she doesn’t believe organic is just a marketing ploy, that they truly believe in what they do and this production method is a good fit for  her family. “But what’s best practice on our farm isn’t necessarily best practice on another farm,” she said.

 

Next I visited Stauffer Dairy, about an  hour north of Spokane, Washington.

Stauffer farm-1

Brandon and his wife Krista milk about 150 cows on their first-generation dairy they started in 2009. They also have three young kids who were dashing about the whole time I was there, climbing on fences, hanging on Krista and trying to coerce me into coming to see their baby chicks. They seemed immensely happy to be there and to show me their way of life. Part of that way of life is to rake out and level the stalls twice a day, as Brandon is doing here. All the stalls get new pine shavings weekly. The heifers were moved from outside to be checked by their veterinarian before being moved to summer pasture and in this photo are in a corner of the freestall barn that isn’t normally used for milk cows. Krista also pointed out that some of the stalls need to be repaired. “Cow size stalls  and young heifers do not mix well. As you can see they made a mess and it is a work out to clean up after them.” Summer pasturing provides a welcome break for that particular chore.

Stauffer farm-2

While the cows were in the parlor being milked, Brandon was cleaning out the barn. (I like to think of him as a manure management engineer.)He drove this tractor equipped with what looked to me like a reverse-snow plow and shoveled those massive amounts of manure I mentioned before into their lagoon. Unlike Collman, their dairy is not set up to flush the manure into the lagoon, so they must push it out manually. Yes, those wheels are covered in cow manure and yes,  he’s smiling about it. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job. Props to him, though, he didn’t bat an eye. The tractor scrapes all the manure to a slot that then transfers it to the lagoon. All the Stuaffers’ manure is used as fertilizer for feed that is grown for their farm as well as a neighboring dairy farm.

Stauffer farm-3

After filling up with feed, Brandon feeds the heifers in a transition pin (a heifer is a young female cow that has not yet had a calf.) The heifers stay in this transition pen for a short period after they are weaned off milk to be monitored for health, and checked by the veterinarian to make sure all is well. Then they are vaccinated for bangs (Brucellosis, a reproductive disease) and moved to pasture.  Stauffer farm-4The Stauffers purchase all of their feed – they feed a combination of alfalfa hay and silage, mixed with grass, barley and corn. Hay is dried forage like grass or alfalfa where silage is fermented forage.  I mentioned to Krista that Cloud Cap Farms has experienced fewer assisted births and DAs since they went organic. I asked her if they felt like conventional dairies suffered more in that regard than organic dairies. She told me, “Each farm is different. On our farm, we rarely have a DA, maybe once a year. As far as pulling calves, it is not common practice on our farm.”stauffer-6The Stauffers have 25 calves on whole milk right now. The feed changes as they get older, but one thing that remains constant is that they are feed alfalfa hay and/or silage as well as barley for their grain.

 

The last farm I visited was Douglas Falls Creamery and Barton Hay in Colville, Washington.

Barton farm-1Angie Barton and her husband, Dennis, own Douglas Falls Creamery, a certified raw milk micro-dairy on 470 acres two hours north of Spokane. They can only farm 80 of those acres (the rest are mountainous) but they lease an additional 100 acres  for a total of 180 acres to grow alfalfa, alfalfa/grass hay and barley or oat hay for the local goat, horse and family cow market. Barton is an animal expert with 40 years of experience  – she started working with goats when she was five years old. On their farm they have horses, Jersey cows, Icelandic and Friesian sheep, Alpine goats, one donkey, one pony, one llama, guinea pigs, two pot-bellied pigs, Blue Slate turkeys, laying hens, banty chickens, ring-necked doves, Japanese quail, emus (seen in this image), geese, Muscovy ducks, guinea fowl, pigeons and two dogs. They also have Barton’s four children and her niece living with them on their farm.

Barton farm-2I’ll freely admit that I’m not a morning person (and my husband will back me up on this) but I got up at 5:30 a.m. to take pictures of Barton’s twin daughters, Ellie (seen here) and Claire doing the morning chores. I said to Claire, “You do this every single morning?” and she said, “Yes. And every evening.” I said, “How do you go on vacation?” and she said, “We haven’t gone on vacation all together since we got cows.” Twice a day from March through November Ellie hand milks six to eight goats. And it was 30 degrees out there!

Barton farm-3 Barton got certified to sell raw milk in September of 2012 and they sell approximately 75 gallons a month at $4 per half gallon, the rest they mix with grain to feed the chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and about five butcher hogs per year. In order to sell raw milk, you must have a small herd – Claire milks between three and five cows twice a day. They fully recognize the risk associated with raw milk and Barton told me they only do it for the taste, she doesn’t believe there is a nutritional advantage. “Jerseys have higher butterfat which we skim off mostly, but the milk is sweeter,” she said. “I’m not sure if it is because of the Jersey breed or not being heated or what we feed them, but I always say it’s like a fresh peach off the tree compared to canned peaches. I continue to tell my customers that pasteurized milk is the safest and that we don’t drink it for any other reason than the taste and that we know we can do a safe job, but there is always that risk.”

Barton farm-4

Barton says selling the milk provides them with enough to pay the costs of feed and a little extra, but they also have a hay business and Dennis has a seasonal full-time job. Dennis grew up on a dairy farm and has been in the haying business all his life. She says between all that, it’s enough to get by. “Although we don’t make our living entirely by farming, it just seems to be what we were meant to do and I can’t imagine living and raising a family any other way. I am so thankful that we have this opportunity.”

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Farming In Focus: March – Out Like A Lamb

This kicks off the very first post of my Farming In Focus project! My plan is to visit a different farm each month and do a sort of “day-in-the-life” of a farmer through photography. There are a number of reasons I’m doing this project  – primarily it’s to shine a light on what real life farming is like. I was recently at a training seminar put on by the Center for Food Integrity, and one nugget they shared that amazed me was that “most consumers are seven generations removed from agriculture.” That explains a lot about why consumers are sometimes confused about how their food is produced. How can we expect consumers to see through ridiculous marketing claims when in truth, they really don’t have any idea if chickens are raised using hormones or not? (If you read my series on egg labels, you already know that answer: all poultry is produced without hormones.)  So this project hopes to help, in some small way, bridge that gap.

Another reason I’m doing this project is because while I do have quite a bit of knowledge about the workings of agriculture, I haven’t spent that much time on a farm. In fact, I’ve never farmed a day in my whole life.  I visited a number of farms while working for Monsanto, but that consisted of mostly row crops. Here in Oregon, I have the benefit of being surrounded by great agricultural diversity, and this is my plan to get out there and learn more about what goes on in my own state. Hopefully  sharing what I learn with you will help us all learn a little more about agriculture.

Lastly, while I like to think of myself as an amazing writer (I’ll pause here for your applause), my degree is actually in photojournalism. Shocker, I know. I love doing documentary photography, and this will give me a chance to do it more.

I decided to focus on sheep for March, primarily because a friend of mine  posted on Facebook that she was shearing her sheep this month in preparation for lambing season.  Unfortunately, my friend lives eight hours away, so I started searching for someone closer! I ended up visiting two different sheep farms, one smallish and one more medium to large sized. Plus, it worked so well with the adage that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb!

The first farm I visited was SuDan Farm outside of Canby.

SuDan farm-1

Susie and Dan Wilson raise about 1300 grass-fed lambs per year, which Susie says is on the small end compared to some farms. They also raise about 30 pastured turkeys, 100 pastured chicken, pastured eggs, and produce many wool products which they direct-market. “We’re not organically certified,” Susie said.  “When people ask if we are I say no because we want to keep food affordable. If we had to get organically certified we’d make no money and we’d have to double or triple the price. When people ask that, though, they don’t care so much about that as they do animal welfare. If my animal needs a medication to help them, they’re going to get it.”

SuDan Farm-2

While Dan grew up in a farming family, Susie is a nurse practitioner by training but has always wanted to be a farmer. She started knitting when she was five and has been spinning since the 80’s. She started her own small-flock shearing business because she figured if she was going to be a sheep farmer she needed to know how to shear. She met Dan and has been farming with him for 15 years. She knows wool well and sells all her own fiber online and at  local farmers’ markets.

SuDan Farm-3

SuDan Farm had about 40 lambs when I visited this month. They keep about 40-50 each year for their own breeding stock, and the rest are sold either as breeding stock or sold for meat. SuDan Farm supplies wholesale lamb to 30-40 restaurants, including many well-known local restaurants like those at Timberline Lodge and OHSU. They also provide lamb to local food carts, wineries and caterers.

SuDan Farm-4

Susie has one lamb that she’s nursing along away from the mother until it’s big enough to re-join the rest on the pasture. Most ewes have single or twin lambs. When triplets are born, Susie takes one of the triplets away because ewes are not well-suited to raise triplets and often will abandon one. This way, all the triplet lambs survive.

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The day I visited was pretty much pouring rain. Aside from giving me (and a few other visitors) a tour, Susie was posting fleece on Facebook and sowing seeds in her greenhouse for their own vegetable garden.

SuDan Farm-6

Dan told me if it hadn’t been as wet as it was the day I visited he would have  been rototilling. As it was, he was repairing a trailer that they use to haul anything from compost to lambs.

SuDan Farm-7At 74, Dan told me he’s working pretty much every day. When they’re not delivering meat to restaurants they’re working the Portland Farmers Market every Saturday year-round at Portland State University and the Milwaukie Farmers Market every Sunday, May through October. The rest of the time, he’s working on the farm.  He told me a vacation day is when he doesn’t do anything in the hours between feeding the animals in the morning and feeding them at night.

 

The next farm I visited was Crescent Lake Farms on Sauvie Island.

Trupp farm-1

The first thing Lynn Trupp does each morning is fire off a shotgun shot to scare off the thousands of geese who are eating the pasture meant for the sheep.  I was trying to get a picture of him firing off the gun, but even though I was expecting it, the shot made me jump so much I missed my chance. Instead I looked off to the field and literally saw the horizon lifting up with geese. Lynn said in addition to eating the grass, the geese also eat the first crop of alfalfa. He later showed me his neighbors wheat field that had should have been twice as tall had the geese not eaten it down to the ground a few weeks ago.  They’ve tried everything to keep the geese away, but nothing works very well. “Sometimes I scare them off for the day, but sometimes they just move over a bit or come right back.”

Trupp Farm-2

Lynn’s wife Mary is the fourth generation on this farm, and Lynn himself grew up a sheep rancher near Eugene.  In addition to roughly 750 sheep, they also have a couple hundred cattle, as well as some chickens, emus, rabbits and any number of other projects their daughter, a veterinary technician, keeps for fun. This year they have 300 mother ewes, each giving birth to one to three lambs. The rams are kept elsewhere. After scaring off the geese, Lynn gets to work feeding the animals.

Trupp Farm-3

Unlike SuDan Farm, Lynn and his wife don’t direct market any of their lamb, all of it goes to a slaughter house. He said in the past they’ve tried to sell it themselves but he got tired of folks trying to haggle him on the price and trying to slaughter the lambs on his property. All the wool they shear goes to Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland.

Trupp Farm-4

Just like Susie, Lynn takes away the triplets from the mother ewes to make sure they all survive. He had about a dozen triplets he was feeding a milk replacement similar to formula. Some of the lambs needed to be bottle fed, while some of them could drink their own milk. As soon as they’re big enough, they’ll join the other lambs in the communal pen.

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In addition to it being the end of lambing season, it’s also calving season. Lynn usually leaves all the calves with the cows, but this one needed special help – it’s never been able to stand up. Lynn thinks perhaps it got stepped on during the birthing process and has a broken back. “I’m probably wasting my time,” Lynn said,  “but you never know.  I’ll make a harness and get her up and moving around. Sometimes these things heal themselves.” If not, the calf will have to be euthanized.

Trupp Farm-6

After feeding the triplet lambs milk, he feeds the older lambs spent brewers grain that he gets for free from a local brewery. Well, not exactly for free – he has to pick up the six to seven tons every week, which isn’t a trivial cost in transportation. He considers it well worth it, though, as it makes a great feed product for the lambs.

Trupp Farm-7

The heaviest part of lambing season is over – there are only about 45 pregnant ewes left that will mostly produce only a single lamb each because the majority of them are first-time mothers; they were only born a year ago themselves. Lynn feeds them  alfalfa that he grows himself. I asked him if the pregnant ewes eat the most, but he told me they don’t eat nearly as much as the nursing mother ewes.

Trupp Farm-8

While I was following Lynn around, he discovered a brand-new pair of lambs born less than two hours before I got there; they were still wet. After the lambs are born, Lynn moves them and the mother into what’s called a jug pen to make sure everyone is doing well and nursing. Ideally, they stay in the jug pen for two to three days, but Lynn said when they’re in the thickest part of lambing season, sometimes they only get to stay in the jug pen for a few hours before they’re moved out to make room for a newer set. Lynn has about 40 jug pens that need fresh food and water two or three times per day. The gestation period for a sheep is five months. A ewe’s milk is very high in fat and lambs gain almost a pound a day.

Trupp farm-9

Three hundred mother ewes means at least three hundred, maybe six hundred lambs. Each one of them must be given vaccines, and have their tails docked. The males also must be castrated. Lynn does all the work himself, sometimes with the help of his daughter as seen here. He can do it alone if need be with the aid of a special harness.  Starting in April they treat the lambs to get rid of worms every thirty days and run the whole flock through a foot bath to prevent foot rot about every three weeks.

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Every day Lynn drives the perimeter of his pasture on an ATV to both deliver food for his guard dogs and to check for lambs that have been killed by coyotes.  That white bucket contained more dog food than I have ever seen given to a dog, but as soon as we drove through that fence, a huge white dog came running from about half a mile away. I love dogs, but he did not look friendly. “If he’s friendly, he won’t be good at his job,” Lynn said.  Lynn’s dogs spend their life on the pasture guarding the sheep from coyotes, which explains why they need so much food. Lynn’s family owns 230 acres for those dogs to patrol. Trupp farm-11Thankfully, we didn’t find any dead lambs that day, and Lynn said so far this has been a pretty good year – he’s only lost a few lambs to coyotes. A few years ago, he lost about 70 lambs to coyotes.  In our drive around the perimeter, we saw places where the coyotes were digging under the fence and evading Lynn’s traps. I asked Lynn if he was concerned about the recent wolf sighting on Mt. Hood, and he said, “Yes, I’m very concerned. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be here.”  After driving out on the pasture, Lynn took me in  his truck to check on the cattle that he keeps on rental pasture in the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area owned by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lynn drives out to check on the cattle at least once or twice a day to look for cows that are having trouble calving and also just to have a presence since the area is open to the public. In the past, Lynn said he’s had trouble with people slaughtering his cows, so the more he’s present, the less likely it is that will happen. “If I’m honest with you,” he said, “there’s always something that I should be doing. I don’t always get to it all, but there’s always something that needs to be done.”

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