Tag Archives: Oregon

Vandana Shiva: Fearmongering in Oregon

I’m excited to share today’s guest post by a buddy of mine, Jayson Merkley. Merkley is a Fellow with the Cornell Alliance for Science and the campaign co-founder of Vegan GMO and happens to live in Salem, Oregon, just down the road from me. The other day he alerted me that Dr. Vandana Shiva, a well-known international anti-GMO activist, is scheduled to speak at Willamette University today in Salem. I encouraged him to submit an opinion piece to the Salem paper – the Statesman Journal – and he submitted the below letter but was, for unexplained reasons, denied. I think it’s really unfortunate that Willamette University is giving Dr. Shiva a platform to spread her misinformation when she’s well-known in the science community for lacking the credibility she claims on subjects. So I decided to share Merkley’s letter here – please share it widely. Additionally, if you’re in the Oregon area, there will be a protest outside the University tonight during Dr. Shiva’s scheduled talk hosted by the Portland MAMyths. Feel free to join them.   – Sara

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jaysonAs a conscientious eater and agricultural advocate I’m extremely disappointed to see the University’s Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences hosting Vandana Shiva as part of their Dempsey Lecture series. Don’t get me wrong; I am a strong supporter of Willamette soliciting diverse voices to represent various perspectives as part of the series, but Dr. Shiva lacks the credibility to add to a productive conversation, and her blatant anti-science stance should not be promoted by a science department. As an ethical vegan I’m quite sympathetic to ethical issues in food production, which makes it all the more frustrating to see legitimate concerns for developing world farmers obfuscated by misleading claims about innovative ag technology.

Dr. Shiva is an Indian philosopher with a long track record of distorting the truth—especially around modern agriculture. Driven by her opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crops, Vandana has gone so far as to say in a 2011 speech that fertilizer is a “weapon of mass destruction.” This opposition to a basic input for plant growth leads one to question her most basic knowledge of agriculture, and speaks volumes to her ability to sensationalize the conversation.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated statement from her, but rather a reflection of the dramatization she uses to attack a variety of modern agricultural techniques. When it comes to GE crops, Dr. Shiva employs a wide range of claims to make her point, all of which can be debunked with a simple Google search.

One staple of her presentations is an attempt to link GE crops to many modern maladies including autism, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Using the logical fallacy that correlation equals causation, she refers to graphs that show these diseases growing at a similar rate to the consumption of GE crops. Not only is there is absolutely no proof that any disease is related to GE crops, but thousands of studies have disproven that claim and corroborated the safety of GE food over the past two decades.  Trillions of meals containing GE food have been consumed during that time without a single documented case of negative effects. A similar graph could show the incidences of these diseases correlating very well with the growth of organic food sales, but no one would credibly make the argument that organic food causes autism.

In fact, every major world science organization has concluded that biotech foods are as safe for human and animal consumption as their non-GE counterparts including the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Council for Science, the French Food Agency, and the British Medical Association.

Dr. Shiva’s activism on agricultural issues has crossed the line of civility in many areas, but perhaps none as much as when she blames the tragedy of farmer suicides in India on GE cotton. Farmer suicides in India have been a major problem for decades, well before the advent of GE crops. Studies have shown that a lack of affordable credit and virtually no crop insurance programs are the likely cause—not GE cotton. And while suicide is a problem in India, the rate for Indian farmers is actually less than that of the general population. Falsely using these tragedies to oppose GE crops is unconscionable, and the fact that Dr. Shiva continues to use this as an argument, despite the evidence to the contrary, is just another example of her lack of credibility and her attempt to inappropriately blame a technology for a very real problem in order to scare people away from a useful agricultural tool.

Why is this opposition so dangerous? Because millions of real lives in the developing world are being affected by Dr. Shiva’s activism. Perhaps the most damning example is her continued opposition to Golden Rice. It is estimated that this genetically engineered variety of rice, donated royalty-free to farmers, could help provide vitamin A to the more than 190 million children under age five who suffer from vitamin A deficiency which can lead to blindness and eventually death. A 2014 study concluded that the absence of Golden Rice over the last decade has caused the loss of over 1,424,680 life years in India alone. This is the real tragedy in India, yet Dr. Shiva continues to vociferously oppose Golden Rice simply because it’s a result of brilliant genetic engineering and would be a clear demonstration of the positive benefits of GMOs.

We can all agree that the future of our worldwide agricultural systems involves a complex conversation and to find a solution will require every tool we have and many we don’t. By the end of the 21st century, it is estimated that we will need to feed an additional 3 billion people, requiring farmers to grow more food in the next seventy-five years than has been produced in all of human history. Unfortunately, Dr. Shiva has proven time and time again that she is more concerned with standing in the way of progress toward that goal than she is about actually finding solutions to feed the world.

Willamette University must have higher standards than this, and I can only assume when they discover the background on who they’ve invited, they will agree Vandana Shiva does not meet those standards. Speakers who are known for mis-representing the facts to impressionable minds should not be given the platform of credibility provided by a lecture series at a well-respected University. The rhetoric she uses is simply unacceptable. I urge the University to cancel the event, and be more thoughtful about who it invites in the future. Additionally I’d like to urge the Willamette University student body and my fellow citizens of Salem to take a stand on behalf of Indian farmers; let’s do what we can to give them access to more tools, not less.

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The Faces Impacted by a Minimum Wage Increase

I  try not to get super political on this blog, because I think there are plenty of things to talk about without getting into partisan issues, and I like to see groups leave their party affiliations at the door when they come to the table to talk. But, that being said, I’m  having a hard time keeping quiet on the minimum wage discussion. Maybe it’s because I’ve made friends with a lot of farmers since moving to Oregon or maybe it’s because I’m becoming the kind of person who realizes that I’ll never make a real impact unless I follow and participate in local politics. Either way, I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m a Democrat, and I do not support the proposed minimum wage increase currently being debated in the Oregon House of Representatives. It’s not because I don’t want people to earn more money, I do. It’s not because I don’t care about those full-time workers who can’t make ends meet, I do. I’ve watched the public hearings in the Senate and in the House and I’ve heard the emotional stories on both sides. What it comes down to for me is this: I think pushing this kind of a bill through a short, 35-day session designed to handle budget issues and using the threat of a ballot measure as a weak excuse for urgency leads to sloppy and irresponsible legislation.

Let me take a step back. For those of you who are normally like me and don’t follow the Oregon legislature, I’ll explain. The Oregon legislature used to meet every other year for a six-month session during which they debated and passed bills. During the recession, the legislature had to call a number of special sessions to deal with budget crises, so through a ballot measure it was decided on the off years the legislature would meet for a short session (35 days) to address budget-related issues and make other small tweaks. We’re currently in the middle of the third of those short sessions, and it’s turned into a free-for-all. They’re debating things from increasing the minimum wage to a cap-and-trade bill to a ban on sky lanterns (what do any of those have to do with the budget?). Part of it has to do with the fact that proponents of raising the minimum wage have threatened to put up a ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and legislators are using that as an excuse to hurry a “less bad” bill. The bigger reason, I think, is that Democrats currently have a super majority in the House and the Senate and they’re taking advantage of that to push forward with their issues. The ballot measure threat is just an excuse. The proposed SB 1532 would increase the state’s minimum wage over the next six years in a tiered approach taking us from the current wage of $9.25 to $14.75 an hour in Portland with other urban counties at $13.50 and rural counties at $12.50.

Here’s the thing. There’s just not enough time in a 35 day session for legislators to fully vet this kind of a bill. Let’s not pass bad legislation with enormous impact with the paltry excuse that we’re afraid of a worse ballot measure. I’m not even convinced the ballot measure would pass. Importantly, the Oregonian, the Eugene Register-Guard and the Statesman-Journal all agree with me in thinking this is too much too fast and a little premature. When three of the state’s major papers come out against it, maybe it’s worth pausing to think about.

So here’s what I can do. Since I failed at a January Farming in Focus post because I was preoccupied with my new job, I can show you the faces and tell you the stories of some of those who will be directly impacted by a hike in Oregon’s minimum wage. These are the people who have convinced me that this is a bad idea. These are the people who I’ve seen explain in legislative hearings that this bill will hurt the very people it proposes to help, that it will cause them to cut jobs and rely on mechanization for their crops, and that it may well put them at a discrete disadvantage against neighboring states and in the end, put them out of business. I hope they can convince you, too.FullSizeRender (2)

Robin Froerer’s family grows and sells fresh asparagus in Nyssa, Oregon. She’s spent 20 years building her fresh pack asparagus business. “This increase will force me to remove the crop,” she said.  “I simply cannot pay the increase to minimum and stay price competitive.” In the image above she’s on a WinCo Foods Warehouse Visit – her business sells asparagus to WinCo which calls themselves the “Low Cost Leader.” (It’s true – that’s why I shop there myself.) Since Froerer doesn’t have the ability to raise the price of asparagus to make up for the increase in labor costs, she’s unable to compete with asparagus growers in other states who don’t have such a high minimum wage. “When it comes times to buy asparagus, WinCo will buy from those with the cheaper prices, not from Oregon farmers, and we will be out of business,” she said.  “How much would you pay for a pound of asparagus?”

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Marie Bowers (second from left) is a 5th generation grass seed farmer in Linn and Lane Counties. Her family also farms wheat and meadowfoam – I profiled her farm’s wheat harvest in July. Bowers has calculated that the proposed bill would increase her farm’s employee cost by $13 per acre. At current market conditions she estimates they would need to increase their yields to produce at least 177,000 more pounds of annual ryegrass. If farmers knew how to dramatically increase their yield, they’d already be doing it, but yield is dictated by many uncontrolled factors like weather. It’s not something they can just crank up this year to absorb increased employee costs. During harvest they hire about seven local students to drive combines, balers and tractors. “For over half a century my family’s farm has hired local youth to work harvest,” she said. “Watching these kids grow as humans and workers is always a very rewarding privilege, particularly when they say ‘Thank you’ 20 years later for teaching them to work.” Bowers believes the current minimum wage proposals will eliminate this opportunity for local kids because many like her will no longer be able to afford to hire them. If they’re going to pay that much, they’ll seek more experienced labors and would turn to automation.”The thought of taking away a kid’s chance to learn work and gain work ethic breaks my heart for them and their future,” she said. For many of these kids, the lessons learned on the farm inspire them to go on to earn their living as a farmer.

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Robby Scharf’s family has owned and operated a farm in Polk County for more than 100 years. His family’s farm grows grapes, hazelnuts, grass, wheat, clover, radish, field corn and canola. Robby works on the family farm and his mom Anna says he wants them to hire his high school friends. “With an increase in minimum wage,” she said,  “We will automate and those summer jobs for his friends will go away.” Scharf asserts that if this bill passes in addition to adjusting the crops they grow to ones that require less labor,  they’ll install a robotic palletizer that would eliminate two to three workers and they would use their mechanical grape harvester instead of hiring more than 40 pickers a day during grape harvest. In addition to the loss of jobs, for the consumer, mechanization can have real market implications. In the case of grapes, at least one wine maker I interviewed preferred the quality of hand-picked grapes to mechanically harvested grapes.

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Karl Dettwyler (left) grows blueberries, hazelnuts, grass, grains and vegetable crops in the Willamette Valley.  Blueberries are one crop particularly sensitive to an increase in the minimum wage because in order get the quality needed for the fresh market, the berries must be picked by hand.  For the consumer, a transition to mechanization would mean fewer fresh blueberries and more frozen blueberries. Strawberry growers might be worse off, though, because there is no way to harvest strawberries mechanically. Those growers are completely at the mercy of labor costs.

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Brenda Frketich is a third generation farmer from St. Paul. I profiled her farm last May. Her family grows grass seed, hazelnuts, wheat, clover, vegetables and vegetable seed. They employ anywhere from four to 10 employees throughout the year. “There is no giant pot of money sitting around on our farm just waiting to be dipped into to pay for this pay increase,” she said.  “For many businesses I believe and fear that the increase in pay for entry level employees will take away from current employees, even those in the middle level of employment. The money will inevitably come from reduced hiring tactics, decreased benefits for current employees, and even cuts in bonus pay or yearly wage increases.” Frketich believes an increase in the minimum wage will hurt small Oregon businesses, and most of all the farmers who grow our food.

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Shelly Boshart Davis is a third-generation farmer whose family grows grass seed, wheat and hazelnuts in the Willamette Valley and operates a grass straw baling, trucking and export business. “The increase would impact how many youth we hire every summer, and that is a devastating thought,” Davis said. “We take pride in teaching the next generation about hard work, and the value of a dollar. It will also increase our cost of doing business, and could make us uncompetitive with the global marketplace.” Davis, like me, believes the wage increase is happening too fast in a short session and hasn’t had fiscal impacts properly analyzed. She contests the wage increase is too high and doesn’t account for the unique needs of industries such as agriculture and food processing, among others. Lastly, she asserts separating the state into three tiers based on county lines is not economically or geographically sound. “Farms cross county lines, economies are significantly different in different areas of a county” she said. “For example, Linn County where I live has a larger urban area – Albany – but has much of the county in rural and timber land. Benton County has Corvallis, but also a large rural area. You could say the same for Lane County, Polk County, Marion County, Yamhill County, and others.” Below is Davis with her dad (left) and her grandfather on his last combine ride before he passed away. These three generations of Oregon farmers are asking legislators not to impose mandates that they’re concerned threaten the chances they’ll be able to pass on their legacy of farming.

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These are the faces impacted by SB 1532. It’s likely the House will vote on the bill today. If you live in Oregon, I’d urge you to contact your legislator and let them know how you feel.

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On Captive Audiences and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

By Jen

Ah, the halcyon days of elementary school. Cheery greetings at drop-off and pick-up, daily opportunities for parent involvement in the classrooms, chatty, colorful newsletters keeping you up to date about your child’s day, countless social interactions with other school families, and reliably uncontroversial, predictable lesson plans.

By contrast, the journey through secondary school is marked by reduced contact with parents and a shift in focus to the main stakeholder: the student. I quickly became aware of this when my firstborn entered middle school. Suddenly he had six teachers instead of one. He had friends I’d never met. He had homework in subjects I hadn’t given much thought to in 30-odd years (hello, Algebra!), as well as exposure to new perspectives, ideas, curricular materials, and, importantly, an expanded role in his own education.

Although it took a bit of adjusting on my part, I have learned to embrace my diminished role in the day to day school experience, largely because taking ownership of their academic affairs has been a key component of my kids becoming more self-reliant and developing independent critical thinking skills. We converse daily about school, but the onus is on them to be their own advocates whenever possible. If they have a question about an assignment or a grade, they’re fully capable of contacting the teacher directly and resolving the issue.

Now some years into the secondary school routine, both kids are comfortable with their current levels of independence and corresponding accountability. I’m enormously proud of both of them for taking initiative to solve problems when needed, and being truly engaged, committed students. All that said, my comfort in sending them into the wilds of public education unaccompanied is rooted in the trust of the quality of the education they’re receiving. For the most part, this trust is warranted, but there have been rare missteps.

Both of the recent incidents I’m about to relate centered around topics that were completely appropriate fodder for the teen classroom. But the materials chosen to introduce them were so outrageously biased and inaccurate, I felt like I had to intervene. The larger issue that these episodes bring into focus is that there is a significant different between preaching critical thinking and practicing it. ‘Critical Thinking’ is a phrase that many of our secondary school teachers use in describing their classroom dynamics, but, as these incidents show, building critical thinking opportunities into the learning process does not always occur.

The general formula is as follows:

1. Kid comes home and voices concerns about the accuracy of a ‘documentary’ presented in class
2. We do some research together and quickly realize that said ‘documentary’ is indeed rubbish.
3. With the consent of the kid, I formulate a polite email to teacher, endorsing discussion of the topic, but questioning the choice of material and inquiring about future plans to give students a more balanced picture.
4. Teacher replies with generally unsatisfying promise of balanced discussion and critical thinking.
5. I counter that a great opportunity for critical thinking has been presented in the form of discussing the validity of the material in question.
6. The unit wraps up quickly with notable scarcity of critical thinking and is never revisited.

In the first instance, without preamble or context, a middle school Social Studies teacher showed the class the HBO Vice episode entitled “Savior Seeds”, a decidedly biased take on the use of GE traits in agriculture. I’ve never watched VICE, though I’ve heard good things and it’s apparently won some awards, but considering that one of the executive producers is Bill Maher, inaccurate reporting of science-based issues isn’t exactly surprising.

After viewing the GE portion of the program and discussing the content with my kid (step 2) I proceeded to step 3: first contact. The response contained much bloviating about critical thinking and letting kids do their own research. I opined that, while that was a stellar idea in principle, biased introductory materials were detrimental to this process.

The next day, my kid came home with a lengthy printout of websites through which to ‘do his own research’. The printout was from the resource page of ‘The Future of Food’ website, which contains a long list of links to anti-GMO organizations. Sigh. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Johann_Peter_Hasenclever_-_Die_Dorfschule (1)On the final day of the ‘research’ phase, the kids were instructed to go to the Monsanto website during class and look things up for themselves. Finally, while no ‘debate’ was held, students were encouraged to share whatever they wanted about their research. According to my kid, most of the class was either neutral or slightly in favor of GE technology, and it was clear from the teacher’s response that this was not her desired outcome. I couldn’t help but wonder how much the direction of the unit had changed due to my intervention. And it was hard not to think that whatever critical thinking had occurred in the class was in spite of, rather than because of, the way in which the material had been presented.
The second incident occurred a few months later, in a high school Health class. This time, the questionable material came in the form of a film called “Forks over Knives”, which presents an argument for a plant-based diet being superior to all others. On the face of it, that’s not a controversial claim at all. Consuming less animal fat and more fresh fruits & vegetables is one component of the standard recommendations for reducing disease  risks across the board.

The problem, described in some detail here and here, is that ‘Forks over Knives’ grossly overstates the benefits of their particular plant-based diet based on some notoriously shoddy research. This, combined with the scary implications that all other diets are a fast-track to pain and death, concerned me mightily. Adolescents already have a whole lot of risk factors for disordered eating, so adding these unsubstantiated claims to their pile of things to worry about—again, with no context or balance given, seems like a terrible approach to ‘Health’.

Again, steps 1-6 proceeded. Again, the classroom outcome was underwhelming. No other materials were presented, and there was no discussion of the merits or shortcomings of the film. The teacher announced at the conclusion of the unit that some parts of the film were accurate and some were not, but didn’t give examples of either. Again, a golden opportunity for actual critical thinking was squandered.

Again, I wondered what the outcome would have been had I not raised concerns about the source material.

Part of the underlying issue here is the relative ease in finding misinformation vs. accurate material. The internet is full of outrageous lies, many of them packaged in attractive, professional-looking, plausible formats. Science-based information, by contrast, doesn’t always rise to the top of a Google search. It can be hard to find in the first place, and often inscrutable when located. No wonder the pretty lies can travel so much farther—even as far as our K-12 classrooms.

This makes me wonder how many times this sort of thing plays out in various classrooms everywhere, and how many—or how few–times parents like me speak up. Recognition that a classroom full of kids is the very definition of ‘a captive audience’ is one key reason why action is so unambiguously warranted when a teacher’s religious views influence their curriculum. But there’s no recourse when broader unscientific views are taught as objective truth. Teaching kids how to think critically would go a long way toward minimizing the impact of such sub-par source materials, but in our experience thus far there have been disappointingly few opportunities to develop these skills in any practical sense.

One big positive in all this is the awareness that my kids clearly have excellent BS detectors. One could argue that, since they clearly know not to believe everything they hears without verification, there’s no need for me to intervene. But it’s not just them I’m thinking about. All the promises of critical thinking as a tenet of modern instruction aside, most secondary students still view classroom materials as objectively true and accurate. When inaccurate information enters the classroom, it’s the kids who haven’t been cultivated to think for themselves whom I worry about.

You might disagree with my choice to voice these concerns on the grounds that it doesn’t respect academic freedom and/or disrespects the efforts of already overworked public school teachers. I absolutely do not mean to malign teachers in general, or even these particular teachers. I know how hard they work. I know how challenging the job is. I know how much both my kids have benefitted from the efforts and dedication of their teachers over the years, and I know that much of that benefit has come from the individual passions and personal interests that these teachers have brought into their classrooms. I know that teaching kids how to think is much, much harder in every possible way than telling them what to think.

All that said, I don’t regret my decision to challenge their choices in how these materials were presented. It may not make any difference to the way they teach these topics in the future, but it might. I hope it will, and I think it was worth it to try.

I’m under no illusion that this is the end of classroom controversies for our family. Already I see that ‘Alternative Medicine’ is on the syllabus for one child’s class later this school year, so stay tuned for how that plays out!

Meanwhile, maybe there’s a lesson here in the importance of staying engaged with your child’s education, even as they grow more self-sufficient and autonomous. These experiences are adding to the critical thinking toolkit my kids are currently assembling for themselves. My efforts to foster this are an investment in their futures, just like their extensive orthodontic interventions, or the college plans we’ve been paying into since they were babies. Learning how to sort out good facts from bad will pay dividends, no matter what academic, professional, or personal pursuits lie ahead.

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New Year, New Job, New Voices

Remember over a year ago when I wrote about how difficult it is for stay-at-home moms to return to the work force? Not because you might want to continue to stay home (please kill me now) but because it’s very hard to overcome the stigma associated with women who voluntarily leave their careers to raise kids? And how I was feeling shocked by the very real possibility of not being able to get a job I thought was worth my time and experience? Well, scratch all that. I got a job.

No big deal, it only took me two years. Given the fact that Portland is a city full of highly educated hipsters all willing work for pennies just to live in Portland, I’m kind of impressed that I managed to get a job at all. I’m patting myself on the back about that.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how I should write this post, and there are two points I want to make. The first one is easier; it’s the advice I’d give to other stay-at-home moms who want to return to work at some point. Here it is: make certain you’re looking for a career in something you genuinely care about, and keep your toe in the water even if you have to do it for free or even pay out of pocket. Don’t pursue a career in something just because that’s what you did before. If you didn’t like it then, you’re not going to like it any better now. Pick something you feel passionately enough about that you might be willing to do it in your spare time. Because you probably should be doing it in your spare time. There were definitely times my husband said, “What? You’re going to pay your own money to go to a professional conference?” or “Why are you getting up at 6 am on a Saturday to take pictures of a Christmas tree harvest … for free?” or “That’s not worth your time, you’re hardly making any money on that job.” I felt strongly enough about advocating these issues that I kept doing it anyway; so find something you feel that strongly about and make yourself valuable in that industry by continuing to do it in some capacity. Even if that means re-training. Do some soul searching and if you have to go back to night school for a few years, do it.

The next point flows naturally out of the above, but is a little trickier. In the end, I’m a journalist, and I’m guided by those ethics classes I took in journalism school (even though I get the feeling many journalists can’t seem to be bothered with that). I feel compelled to be transparent about any potential conflicts of interest. I don’t want you, readers, to feel like now I’m getting paid to have an opinion and so somehow that lowers my trustworthiness. At the same time, I’m not willing to give up my anonymity for all the very real reasons I’ve written about before. So, I’m not going to tell you where I work. But here’s what I will tell you – I got hired into my job because of my passion, knowledge, and voice of reason on many of the issues I have discussed on this blog. I’m not getting paid to have my opinions, I’m getting paid because I already had those opinions. That’s an important distinction. This blog has always been and continues to be based on my own well-researched opinions. Nonetheless, I’ll promise you that I will not write posts on topics that directly conflict me or would have an immediate impact in my field.

Now, on to some more exciting news: I’m adding three new writers to It’s MomSense! I’m really looking forward to diversifying the number of voices on this blog – we’re coming up on two years since I started this and bringing in more opinions will help transform this blog into something even more valuable. It’s also necessary. There are just not enough hours in the day for me to work a full-time job, exercise, spend time with my family, sleep AND create regular compelling content for this blog. Enter the new writers.

I’ve asked them each to introduce themselves to you below, but all four of us have a few things in common: we’re all moms, we all live in Oregon, and we’re all passionate about evidence-based thought. You’ve also already met all three of them: Jen wrote a guest post on sunscreen last summer, I profiled Tiffany’s farm last fall, and although she’s unnamed in my post, Sarah was part of the March Against Myths campaign I blogged about last May.

Joining me on the new It’s MomSense team:

——– Jen ——–

JenI’m a scientist and mother based in Eugene, Oregon.  My husband and I moved to Eugene for me to attend graduate school at the U of O and loved it here so much we never left.  I had both my kids in grad school, and graduated with my PhD in Biology in 2003.  After completing a postdoctoral fellowship, I was invited to stay on as a non-tenure track research associate. My work focuses mainly the molecular biology of Usher syndrome, a hereditary form of deaf-blindness.  You can read some of my blog posts on this topic on the Usher Syndrome Coalition blog, where I’ve been a contributor for the past eight years.

My children, now teenagers, have taught me a lot about who I am as a parent, an educator, and a person, and some of my contributions here will be about what I’ve learned on that journey so far.  I am the product of a parenting style in which all that I did–every action, accomplishment, and misstep–was evaluated solely by how it reflected on the parent. My own parenting approach is pretty much 180 degrees from that.  My kids are their own people, increasingly accountable to and responsible for themselves as they grow. To facilitate them being the best versions of themselves, I have tried to create the structure and security for them to explore their interests and obligations in the way that feels best to them.  I usually let them figure things out for themselves rather than providing the answers. I encourage them to question the information that comes to them from all sources and form their own opinions.

Living an evidence-based, grounded life in Eugene, Ore. has its challenges, given that the culture here tends to skew more toward fairies than facts. The community vibe as a whole is often in stark contrast to my work and home life, but it definitely makes for some interesting conversations!  I strongly believe that effectively communicating science—and debunking pseudoscience—requires respect and genuine acknowledgement of different points of view.  No matter how clear cut the facts are, science can only speak for itself if people are willing to listen.

You can follow me on Twitter @ClutchScience, and soon on Facebook, as soon as I get around to activating my professional page.

——– Tiffany ——–

TiffanyFarming in real life; that’s what my family does. Not what the media says, not what the latest issue of Natural News says, and certainly not how that meme that your BFF shared from the Food Babe says. We farm in the real world. The everyday, not-so-exciting, get-your-hands-dirty, sweat-in-your-eyes real world of farming.

Keith and I are 4th generation family farmers working alongside his parents in the Willamette Valley, right next to the state capital of Salem. Our farm focuses on seed crops like wheat, grass seed, barley, oats, turnip seed, and field peas. In the last few years we started to plant hazelnuts (It’s MomSense blog post) and that has added a lot of excitement to our lives.

I work off the farm right now in the corporate world as an assistant for agricultural appraisers in a small but growing company. Balancing being a working mom after being a SAHM has been an adjustment for the whole family. I am sure that there are many of you that could relate and maybe even give me a few tips!

We have two funny/smart/awesome/infuriating/charming daughters from my previous marriage who are initiating us into parenting the teen years. Go US! Also we have a scattering of pets that seem to show up in my social media channels often because, well, pets are fun.

I grew up “in town” so when I married Keith, I was not only marrying him but this way of life. Culture shock is the best way to describe it.  Several years later, I am still adjusting but I’d like to think I am getting the hang of it.

If you want to know more about me or our farm, you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter. I also started a Facebook page recently, where I will be focusing on farming posts. A couple of years ago I did a spot for KATU Channel 2 for the Celebrate Agriculture campaign. Check out the video!

——– Sarah ——–

sarahI’m a twenty-something vegan mom of a rambunctious three- year-old boy and full-time student working toward a B.S. in Biology at Portland State University. When not busy with school and child-rearing, I enjoy spending my time communicating and advocating for science and biotech as well as completing the occasional craft project and eating copious amounts of soy ice cream.

As a young vegan growing up in Portland, I once fell prey to many myths associated with health and nutrition. I believed that organic food was safer and more sustainable than conventionally-farmed foods, that it was important to avoid “toxins” and processed foods and that genetically-modified crops were a science fiction horror story waiting to happen. Although I considered myself a skeptic and science enthusiast, I subscribed to these views because of how pervasive they were and continue to be. Becoming a mother further compounded these beliefs, as I was surrounded by misinformation from both the internet and well-intentioned friends and family members who had me believing that unmedicated birth, long-term breastfeeding, “clean” eating and attachment parenting were the only ways to ensure that my child would have a healthy and happy upbringing.

Once I realized that many of the views I held were not supported by empirical evidence, I immediately felt compelled to learn more and to educate others. I now understand that genetic engineering is not only as safe as traditional breeding methods but that it also holds many advantages for the environment, for global economy and for human and animal welfare. My current focus is educating other vegans about crop biotech, as I believe vegans especially should acknowledge and embrace the benefits this technology has for animals and the environment. In May 2015 I helped co-organize the Portland chapter of the international March Against Myths movement and have since become involved in pro-science activism both online and in person.

As a mom, I want my son to live in a society that values education, rationality and human progress. When parents decline to vaccinate their children, citizens vote against water fluoridation and misguided activists fight to oppose new breeding technologies I believe that human health suffers and progress is hindered.

————-

That’s the new team. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what this next year brings and how this blog will grow and change. Thanks for coming along with us for the ride.

 

 

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December Farming in Focus: Christmas Trees

This month’s Farming in Focus is an obvious one, and I’m publishing this story today with the hopes that you’ll read it while you’re winding down from your Christmas morning extravaganza. Kids are playing with new toys and you’re sitting there drinking your coffee next to your Christmas tree. I thought I’d take this prime opportunity to talk about where those Christmas trees come from and the work that goes into getting them from the farm to your festive family room.

Oregon grows more Christmas trees than any other state in the United States: in 2013 Oregon harvested 6.4 million Christmas trees, almost double the second runner up, North Carolina. In fact, in 2013 greenhouse and nursery crops, which includes Christmas trees, was Oregon’s most valuable commodity. This should really come as no surprise to those of us who live in Oregon, where the Douglas fir is a native species and is almost ubiquitous. So it was an easy decision to talk with Christmas tree grower Joel Rohde in Amity, Oregon about how he grows Christmas trees.

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Rohde, a second generation farmer, does more than just grow Christmas trees. He also owns a small grocery store/coffee house and has a straw export business. In fact, Rohde was quick to tell me that he’s getting out of the Christmas tree business because it’s just not lucrative enough and the export hay business makes more money. He keeps the grocery store simply because he likes being part of the community. “Half the high school is in  here in the afternoons. You can’t be in it to make money, but it’s a good community thing.” Rohde primarily bought the store (in partnership with another owner) so the local kids working there could keep their jobs. His wife mostly runs it now.
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Rohde got into the Christmas tree business in 2001 when it was booming and trees were selling for $3.50 to $4.00 per foot wholesale. He started planting trees, but so did everyone else. By about 2007 there was too much supply and the market tanked. Prices dropped to $1.00 per foot. It’s rebounding a bit now, back to about $2.50 per foot, but he’s down to his last 20 acres of Noble firs now (which is still a lot of trees – he told me he grows 1,752 trees on an acre.) He used to grow Noble fir, Grand fir and Douglas fir on about 100 acres. When he decided to scale back, the Douglas and Grands went first because they grow faster (it takes about seven years for a Douglas fir to grow six feet versus nine years for a Noble.) He’s just waiting for the last of the Nobles to reach the right height and he’ll be done in about two more harvests.

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Rohde told me growing Christmas trees is very heavy on labor and he doesn’t love the physical work. He starts planting seedlings from nurseries in April and after three years he starts basal pruning (cutting limbs from the bottom up so they can eventually get the chain saw in to cut it down.) Shearing alone costs about $.30 per tree. He also has to manage for weeds between the rows so the weeds don’t compete for resources and get in the way of shearing. In the summer he sprays for insects and fungus. He fights aphids that turn the inner part of the tree black and cause the needles to fall off, and fights needle necrosis which could be caused by a fungus and causes needles to turn brown. Sometimes he can sell trees with needle necrosis as flocked (sprayed white) Christmas trees. After the fourth year he starts to shear the trees into the classic Christmas tree inverted “V” shape. Ninety percent of trees sold are between six and seven feet, so for a Noble fir that’s about nine years worth of management before harvest.

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Rohde also told me he does a lot of tip pruning and leader work. Sometimes the leader (that characteristic tip you put your star on) will die off and he’ll have to train a new leader with a stick like he’s doing in the image above.

xmas trees-12In July and August the trees get tagged by color based on height. Then in November they start harvesting. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Rohdes has 12 to 15 high school guys working eight hours a day. I had a heck of a time even catching up to this guy and his chainsaw. He and another guy moved so fast through the rows that I had to run to keep up. They had those trees down in a blink of an eye. It was awe inspiring.

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Following the two guys with chainsaws was a group picking up the trees and hauling them to the edge of the field. Rohdes told me his favorite part about growing Christmas trees is working with the high school and college kids. He spends a lot of time coaching and counseling the kids. “This job defines a kid, physically,”  he told me. “After two to three weeks you’ll have the desire to go back to school and get good grades.”
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The rest of the process would seem familiar to anyone who’s been to a U-cut Christmas tree farm, only on steroids. Another crew picks up the trees from the edge of the field and first puts them on a machine that shakes them to remove loose needles …

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… then the trees are run through a netting device …

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… and piled up by size.

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Then the crew hauls the shaking/baling machine up the hill to the next pile of cut trees. One difficulty in the whole process, as you can see in these pictures, is trying to keep the trees out of the mud (who wants to buy a Christmas tree caked in mud?) Anyone who’s ever lived in Oregon in November and December can understand what a difficult task that can be, especially when you’re driving a heavy baling machine and trucks up a down a hilly terrain (where Christmas trees grow best) in the rain.

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Afterwards the trees are piled on to a truck and taken down the  hill.

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Eventually the trees are taken to McKenzie Farms, a Christmas tree yard that ships the trees world-wide. Upwards of 90 percent of Christmas trees grown in the Pacific Northwest are shipped outside the region, with California being the largest market. Rohdes told me his trees have also been shipped to Hawaii and Mexico.

And, obviously, the final destination is your family room where many of us are sitting today, enjoying our festive tree with our families on Christmas day. Remember today, as we sit by the fire and enjoy the fresh Christmas tree smell and all the memories that come with this day, that there’s a farmer out there who put up to nine years of hard work into your tree. He’s thanking you for enjoying his hard work and we’re thanking him for making our Christmas that much more enjoyable.

Merry Christmas.

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The Science of Mom: Read This Book (or Give it for Christmas)

When I was pregnant with June, the only book I read was What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I took the childbirth classes recommended by the hospital, and I can’t even remember, but I think I took a breastfeeding class. That was it. I’m not even sure I made a birth plan, or if I did, it was very basic. I didn’t read any books about what to do when the baby actually arrived –I was completely focused on the pregnancy and getting all the right baby gear.

It did not go as planned. I went into labor one day shy of full term, and when I got to the hospital we discovered June was breech and I’d have to have an emergency cesarean. I was shocked. I’d only skimmed the chapter on cesarean in the book and I only half paid attention to that part in class. But then everything happened really quickly, they delivered June via cesarean and it turned out fine. June was perfectly healthy even though she was technically premature.

first weekI will never forget the complete and utter feeling of astonishment when we were moved from the delivery room into the post-partum room and the nurses started to leave. Both my husband and I looked at them, no doubt with utter shock in our eyes, and said, “Wait, you’re going to leave us alone with her??”

Two years later I had spent more hours alone with a baby than I ever thought possible (most of them in the middle of the night.) I had more realistic expectations for July’s birth and by then I knew all the gear I really needed was diapers and boobs. Again, it did not go as planned. I went into labor even earlier this time, just shy of 36 weeks, it went slower than before, I ended up with an epidural, I freaked out my OB by having a vision-altering migraine while pushing and July was delivered very quickly with forceps to avoid further complications. I was encouraged to have an MRI and think hard before having any more children. He was perfect, but I needed pain killers for a long time.

The point of these stories is that childbirth rarely goes as planned and it is only just the beginning of the confusion.  When you’re pregnant, being pregnant is all-consuming – what should you eat, how do you get prepared, how should you exercise? Then when you’ve had a child, what to do with that child is all-consuming – where should she sleep, what do you feed him, do you really need that vitamin K shot?

Here’s my unsolicited advice to new moms: don’t just read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In fact the pregnancy part, as all-consuming as it feels at the time, isn’t the most confusing part because at that point it’s still your body (IMO). Once your pregnancy becomes a tiny little human separate from you but for whom you’re completely in charge the decisions are even more complicated.  Spend your time reading information that will help you make those decisions.  And under no circumstances should you rely on Google and mommy forums to help you make those decisions, because there is nothing more judgmental than a mommy forum. You will not get good, evidenced-based advice there. They’re not terrible and can offer a support group if you find the right one, but in my experience, moms are the biggest critics of other moms and you’ll get pressure to do things a certain way, often with total disregard for science.

A few months ago I was asked to read and review a book called The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year by Alice Callahan. Alice is a blogger with whom I am familiar because she lives just down the road in Eugene.  Now, my kids are much older than one year and to be honest, I don’t normally review books. But I’ve gotten a lot of support from fellow bloggers in this space, so I felt like I should at least give it a read and if I didn’t think it was useful, I wouldn’t review it. Alice is a new(ish) mom who has a PhD in nutritional biology and spent two years investigating fetal physiology as a postdoctoral scholar, so she’s clearly qualified to write on the subject.

Her book is fantastic. If all you do is stand in Barnes and Noble and read one chapter, read the chapter about vaccines. It should be required reading for all new parents. Alice writes in a soft and non-judgmental way, in a way I’d have a hard time doing. It’s not pushy,  just informative. I’m not even going to have any more kids and I was reading out loud to my husband at night about the science behind when to cut the umbilical cord, simply because I found her presentation of the subject so compelling. In her book, Alice has applied her scientific scrutiny of the literature on subjects ranging from the benefits (or lack-thereof) of breastfeeding, to the cultural framework behind co-sleeping, to what your baby’s first foods should be. She calms fears and provides parents with real facts. She doesn’t make the decisions for you, but she makes it a lot easier to make sound decisions.

So if you know someone who’s having a baby soon and you’re not sure what to get them for Christmas, get them this book. In fact, even if you already got them something, do them a favor and get them this book, too.  I wish I had read it when I was pregnant with June, because it would have kicked off my whole parenting experience on the right foot – an evidence-based foot. Thankfully, I’ve gotten there on my own, but for new parents Alice’s book provides the tools to potentially save them from falling into the black hole of pseudoscience and misinformation that runs wild in parenting communities. You should read this book, even if you’re like me and don’t plan to have more kids, because it’s interesting and well written.

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November Farming in Focus: Squash

For this month’s Farming in Focus, I wanted to do something Thanksgiving-y. The obvious choice was to try to hunt down a turkey grower and find out what I could learn about how that tasty bird gets from the farm to our Thanksgiving table. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a turkey grower and none of the Oregon farmers I reached out to knows a turkey grower. Turns out, there aren’t very many turkeys grown in Oregon anymore. So, I went with another Thanksgiving staple: squash. I drove down to Aurora, Oregon on a very cold and rainy November day to chat about decorative pumpkins and edible squash.
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Dylan Wells and his family own Autumn Harvest Inc., the largest mini pumpkin and gourd grower in Oregon. Dylan’s father originally got into agriculture at the age of 20 when he started growing tree seedlings for Christmas tree production and reforestation efforts. Eventually he switched to nursery production and grew grafted ornamentals until 2009 when the housing industry crashed and took the landscape market with it. Thankfully, in the meantime Dylan and his brother Darren had created a mini-pumpkin business initially as a way to earn enough money to go to Disneyland and later to Hawaii to see their dad inducted into the Oregon Association of Nurseries. When their roadside mini-pumpkin business inherited the Safeway decorative pumpkin contract from a neighbor, they went from growing three acres to fifteen acres and eventually when the nursery business crashed in 2009, the boys’ pumpkin business was big enough to support the family.

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Today Wells runs the business with his wife, mother, and father. On about 200 acres, he grows 18 to 20 varieties of pumpkins, 25 varieties of winter squash, seven to eight varieties of gourds, and a few acres of dill weed, pickling cucumbers, and Indian corn. About seven years ago he got into edible squash which currently makes up about twenty-five percent of his business. His most popular product is the mini white pumpkin (primarily for weddings and decorations) and his top sellers in winter squash are butternut and acorn (also called danish squash.) When I asked Wells what his favorite squash is he confessed, “I don’t really care for squash.” I seriously laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair.

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While we were chatting about how Wells gets his product to market, a distributor pulled up to collect just one lonely box of red kuri squash for a local restaurant. Unlike some crops like peas, squash and pumpkin growers don’t get contracts ahead of time from the cannery. So instead of agreeing on a price ahead of time and growing a specified number of acres, Wells says he operates on the “plant and pray” approach. Starting in about January he starts placing seed orders for what he’ll plant in May. He has to guess what consumers and distributors will want based on what they bought last year. Wells sells directly to consumers in their online store (which they are actively trying to grow as it makes them the most money), and also sells wholesale and to distributors. Wells supplies pumpkins and squash to Fred Meyer, Safeway and WinCo, so next time you pick up a squash at one of those stores, it might have come from Autumn Harvest!

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When I visited all the fruit had already been harvested out of the field so I didn’t get any field shots, but I did get to see the crew cleaning and packing butternut squash. Pumpkins and squash are harvested by hand with clippers starting August 15th and are brought into be washed. Here they first go through a floating, sanitizing soak to get most of the debris off.

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Next they are scrubbed and rinsed by hand and run down a line of these spinning brushes.  Wells told me at the height of packing he employs about 50 people, and on average they’re making about $13 per hour. His foreman makes closer to $20 per hour and he has some employees that have been working for him for years who make more than the first-timers. Forty percent of Wells’ cost is in labor, and if the minimum wage increases as it’s looking like it will, Wells told me he’ll be put out of business because he just can’t afford it. The minimum wage discussion  has him already looking into investing more in real estate and considering getting out of farming all together.

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Then the squash roll down the line under big fans. Moisture and heat lead to rotting squash, so getting them dry is very important. If these were decorative pumpkins, it’d be at this point that they might be sprayed with food-grade wax to make them look shiny (similar to what is done for apples.)

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Next the squash are sorted by size. In the case of butternut, squash that is very small or very large often end up being sold as pre-peeled and sliced. In fact, Wells told me he grows some varieties specifically for the pre-cut market (like the massive butternut he’s holding in the first image.)

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When the squash are being sorted in the last step, some go into the dump bin. Wells told me about 25 percent of his product gets kicked out as “coals.” Sometimes they get tossed aside because of size, sometimes because of scarring, rotting or broken pieces. The stores won’t take scarred squash because customers won’t buy them. Wells told me spaghetti squash are particularly susceptible to scarring as their skins are very thin and when the wind blows the vines scrape across the surface of the squash and damage it. While weeds are Wells’ biggest pest, the cucumber beetle and brown marmorated stink bug are also very serious pests. The bugs take bites out of the squash and lead to scarring and rot. Wells has an arrangement with some pig and cattle ranchers who come collect the “coals”  – he essentially gives away 25 percent of his crop as livestock feed. Often he gets a free pig out of the deal, though. He can’t compost the unwanted squash because the seeds stick around and volunteer squash pop up in the wrong places. I’ve experienced this in my own backyard garden; this year I had a rogue spaghetti squash volunteer in my tomato garden out of my compost. Considering that it vines and produces fruit heavy enough to pull down my tomato cage and leaves the size of dinner plants, I can understand why Wells doesn’t want unwanted squash in the wrong field.

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Wells told me when the squash are harvested they’re selecting for color and hardness. As I mentioned, planting starts in May and harvest begins August 1st and goes through November 1st, but there’s a lot that goes into making sure that red kuri squash looks just right. Squash are thirsty plants and require irrigation throughout the summer – they will abort squash production to conserve resources if it’s too hot or they don’t get enough water which happened a lot this summer when it was really hot and dry. They also produce male and female flowers, meaning they need a pollinator to create fruit. Wells rents about 150 to 200 hives for the bloom. Weeds are a problem too; Wells said if you don’t manage it right the pig weed will get four feet tall. Much of the weed management has to happen before the vines get too big because after the plants are established the only real option is hand hoeing.

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I was blown away by the sheer number of bins of squash. They were everywhere: sitting inside the warehouse, sitting outside in the rain, under non-climate-controlled structures. Wells told me they plan to have it all sold by the beginning of December because once it starts to freeze the squash deteriorate and they have very little climate-controlled storage. After that they clean up, the extra squash goes to livestock feed, they maintain and repair vehicles and equipment and start ordering seeds to get there by April 15 so they can start working the ground and planting in between rain showers in May.

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Wells also grows Indian corn which dries out in this structure under fans for almost a year. The corn above will be sold next fall. One of the reasons Wells grows Indian corn is because it offers crop rotation outside the cucurbita family which includes squash, pumpkin and cucumbers (so pretty much everything else Wells grows.) Squash is susceptible to mosaic virus which leaves the leaves spotted and can stunt growth and ruin a crop. Incidentally, there is one variety of GMO yellow crookneck squash that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to the mosaic virus because there aren’t good treatments for mosaic virus. The only thing to do is rotate your crops to prevent the virus from showing up. Wells trades land with other local farmers every three years, which is about how long he can grow squash on the same field before the virus shows up.

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I asked Wells if he gets a lot of pressure to go organic because of the niche market he’s in. He told me he does, and he’d love to put 50 or so acres to organic production because he could triple his asking price. The only thing holding him back is the crop rotation issue I mentioned. Wells trades land with grass seed farmers for crop rotation and in order to go organic, he’d have to get them to agree to also be organic for a season as well. So far he hasn’t been successful at convincing anyone to do it.

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Right before I left Wells told me he had to show me one more cool thing: Hot Skwash. Daria Knowles, an artist out of Portland, salvages unusable squash stems and corn husks to create velvet pumpkins and corn adorned with Swarovski crystals that sell in Neiman Marcus from $30 to over $100. So next fall, in addition to decorating your table with real mini-pumpkins, you can also decorate with couture squash art!

As always, I hope you learned something cool about squash production today. Leave a comment if you did!

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October Farming in Focus: Wine – Another Favorite Thing

A few months ago I did a Farming in Focus on hops, so I felt it was only fair to also pay homage to an equally worthy beverage, especially since I live in a region of the country very well known for its production of Pinot Noir. While I really enjoy the craft brew culture Portland provides, I do drink my fair share of wine and find wine production intriguing. In our early married years my husband and I dabbled in home beer brewing, but wine always seemed a little too scary to take on, so I was really interested to visit with Dave Coelho at Coelho Winery in Amity when they were processing Pinot Noir grapes last month.

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Dave Coelho is a first generation grape grower who moved to the Willamette Valley 25 years ago from California with his wife and four kids. While he’s the first in his family to start a winery, Coelho’s family has history  in agriculture. His father was a dairy farmer, and before he moved to Oregon, Coelho farmed tomatoes, sugar beets, corn, alfalfa and dried beans in the San Joaquin Valley, about 60 miles east of San Francisco. When I asked him what he liked better, he told me he likes making wine better because he gets to interact with the end user. He currently farms 40 acres of grapes with his wife and sons David and Samuel. They primarily grow Pinot Noir but they also grow some Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. His son experiments with Riesling and botrytized wines, a method of allowing a fungus to infect the grapes to a point before making them into a desert wine.

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Aside from growing their own grapes and creating estate wines (which I learned means wine made from grapes grown by the winemaker), Coelho also incorporates his Portuguese heritage by making a number of Portuguese-style wines with grapes he drives to California in a refrigerated truck to buy. The winery also provides warehouse storage and custom grape crushing for other winemakers. The day I visited they were making a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which is a blend of Pinot Noir grapes from several vineyards, including Pinot Noir grapes from Scharf Farms nearby. I tagged along with Jason Scharf back to his vineyard after he delivered grapes to Coelho to take the above picture because Coelho had already harvested all the grapes off the vine. Pinot Noir grapes can be very fickle, they like a cool climate with well-drained soil making the Willamette Valley a superb region for growing them. They’re also prone to rot because the grapes are so tightly clustered and their preferred cool, wet growing conditions are ideal for bacterial growth. Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is considered some of the best in the Americas.

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Scharf told me that grapes can be harvested by hand, or by machine, but Pinot Noir is difficult to harvest. That might be because of their tightly clustered pine cone shape – the name Pinot Noir actually comes from the french words for “pine” and “black.” A machine can do the harvesting work of 40 men, but the grapes have to be processed right away, unlike when they’re hand picked, which is what Coelho prefers and uses for his wines. Either way, the first step in the process is to crush the grapes through this machine that separates the grapes from the stems.

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See that ladder there? Yeah, I climbed that ladder to take the previous photograph. Then I actually got up on a cherry picker to take this picture, which is saying a lot because I’m kind of squeamish about heights. But, it was worth it because you can see a really good overview of the crushing process, from the dumping of the grapes all the way through to the leftover stems. The crusher removes the stems but it also releases juices and leaves the juice in contact with the skins where it travels out through that white tube at the bottom.

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We have Concord grapes growing in our backyard, so I know just how difficult it is to separate the grapes from the stems by hand. You can’t really make good wine from Concord grapes, but if I could, I’d seriously consider taking my grapes to Coelho to use that efficient crusher! Just look at all those stems! Coelho told me they compost the stems and skins (called pumice) and spread it back on the fields as fertilizer.

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The main reason I got up on the cherry picker was to look in this vat. After the grapes are crushed they’re funneled into this vat where they add wine making yeast. The vat can hold 20 tons of juice, which translates to 3,000 gallons of wine!

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Next the juice is chilled or “cold soaked” for several days if time allows to get the color out of the skins and add complexity and flavor to the wine. This is particularly  important for Pinot Noir because the grapes are thin skinned and don’t provide a lot of color to the wine. A cold soak does increase the risk of spoilage and spontaneous fermentation, so to avoid that, Coelho adds sulfur to prevent unwanted microbial activity. Cold soaking also provides an opportunity to get a good base reading on the sugar content of the juice. After that the juice is heated to ferment.

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During the fermentation process the skins float to the top and eventually the wine is drained off and the skins are gently pressed over two and a half hours to release all remaining juice which is added back to the wine.

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After the yeast has converted all the sugar to alcohol, the wine is aged in barrels for 11 months before it is bottled. Then it lives in a bottle for six to eight months before being sold. In his first year, Coelho produced about 4-500 cases of wine. Now in his 11th vintage (which I learned means he’s been making wine for 11 years) he produces about 20,000 cases of wine.

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Of course I couldn’t leave without sampling! Obviously. 🙂 I asked Coelho why he likes Pinot Noir and he said it’s because it’s versatile and pairs well with so many meals. He views wine as a food, and drinks it to compliment other flavors in the meal. I sheepishly admitted to him that I don’t actually like Pinot Noir (shhh, don’t tell anyone) because I think it tastes kind of thin. I like the fuller-bodied reds and red blends. So I am happy to report that I found a wine that I really enjoyed in his tasting room – the traditional Portuguese red wine blend. I ran out of time at the end of my visit because I had to dash back to get my kids off the bus, but next time my husband and I are in Amity I’m planning to stop by and get a bottle. I learned a lot about wine production, and I hope you did, too. Leave a comment if you learned something new!

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September Farming in Focus: Hazelnuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August Farming in Focus: One of my Favorite Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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