The death of the ‘follow-up question’

December 12, 2014

reporter questioning farmerWorking for a general farm organization, we get a lot of media requests from reporters around the state and country who are often under extreme deadline pressure.  Having been in broadcast news for 25 years, I understand what they need, and our team works hard to accommodate them.  But, I’m also seeing that the business has changed so much; I feel like I should hold a ‘wake’ for tools of the trade that are central to the profession I used to know; let’s bow our heads for the death of the Follow-Up Question.

The Follow-Up Question was central to the success of many journalism greats, including the late, great White House reporter, Helen Thomas (whom I interviewed many years ago).  Thomas told me that a great reporter is only as good as her questions and her curiosity to always learn more.  I took her advice to heart.

If the ‘Follow-Up Question’ is dead, then the curiosity to learn the whole story can’t be far behind.  I understand that today’s reporters are faced with new challenges, competing with social media ‘citizen journalists’ to be the first to break news. But, that’s even more of a reason to take a stand for the whole story.

We’ve all been guilty at one point, believing charismatic people in the spotlight, even if we’ve never met them.  It’s backfired for millions who believed Jenny McCarthy’s views on childhood vaccinations or Dr. Oz’s pitches for ‘instant weight loss’ supplements.  Consumers were ‘duped’ not only because they mistook popularity for credibility; reporters did, too.

In the last 10 years working at Iowa Farm Bureau, I know reporters aren’t shying away from asking farmers or us the tough questions, and that’s okay; farming innovation and practices have changed so much and so few folks farm these days, they need those questions answered. But, it seems some of our critics aren’t always held to the same standards.

I know Bill Stowe, the general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, has always had a way with a sound bite; I interviewed him dozens of times when he was head of Des Moines’ snow removal department.   But, even if reporters have grown as comfortable with him as the old armchair in their living room, it doesn’t mean their story is done.  Telling reporters, “Science proves weather, and other natural conditions do not create excessive nitrate concentrations,” should be an opportunity for a Follow-Up Question: ‘What science?’

Indeed, there is science which shows weather’s impact on water quality, and there are record amounts of conservation practices being added every year.  Des Moines Water Works’ own website has several graphs that show an overall decline in nitrates.  Curious, as are the quick-trigger-finger claims that the Nutrient Reduction Strategy isn’t working.  A Follow-Up Question to experts who actually work with farmers will tell you while progress is happening and needs to continue, reaching targets will take more than the 18 months the Nutrient Reduction Strategy has been in effect.

There are other stories that continue to be pushed onto the media and covered, without hesitation or even basic Follow-Up Questions, which could speak to the credibility or motives of those pointing the fingers at farmers.  There are many families out there, leading the way, trying new things, bringing the next generation back on the farm, keeping rural Iowa sustainable.  In the New Year, let’s resolve to all doing our part to get their story told.  I know that’s our motivation.  What’s yours?  Hey, now there’s a Follow-Up Question for you!

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Public Relations Manager.

Farm Bureau: It’s good for all of Iowa

December 9, 2014

We’ve just completed the 2014 annual meeting of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. It was the organization’s 96th annual meeting, if you are keeping count.

As always, there was a lot of important business accomplished at this year’s gathering. It was also a great time to catch up with old friends and make new ones.

I nearly lost my voice from visiting with friendly folks from all over the state. We talked about the 2014 harvest and a range of livestock issues.

But mostly we talked about families. We discussed kids in college and caring for older parents. I listened to grandparents beam about the joy of having grandkids toddling around the house. One member even announced he was looking for a young farmer to entice his daughter back home to Iowa from the East Coast.

The cozy, inclusive atmosphere at last week’s IFBF annual meeting was a stark contrast to how darkly the organization was portrayed in an opinion piece in the Dec. 1 Des Moines Register. The warmth and openness of the annual meeting really showed how little the writer, the head of a group called Citizens for a Healthy Iowa, knows about Farm Bureau and how far off base his article really was.

The writer ticked through the dusty litany of old complaints about Farm Bureau. He claimed that the organization supports only big farms, that its members don’t care about the environment, and that Farm Bureau tries to influence the political process.

The first claim about big farms couldn’t be further from the truth. More than 60 percent of Farm Bureau members operate less than 500 acres. And just check out this letter to the editor from aronia berry farmer Andrew Pittz about the support Farm Bureau has given his non-traditional farm.

The second charge is laughable. I can’t tell you the number of members that I have visited who continually work to stem soil erosion and improve water quality, and Farm Bureau is serious about helping them do that. In fact, the $9.5 million in state conservation cost-share funding Farm Bureau lobbied for in 2014 resulted in 2,382 Iowa farmers investing in $13 million of their own money in conservation, creating $22.5 million in practices to protect our soil and water. That’s just a recent example. (For more information, visit

grassroots organization, Iowa Farm Bureau

Members from Iowa’s 100 county Farm Bureaus meet in Des Moines annually to create Iowa Farm Bureau’s policies.

OK, the third charge is true. Through a grassroots approach, Farm Bureau does develop state and national policies to influence legislation that member families believe will be good for agriculture, the environment and our state. Lawmakers listen because they know Farm Bureau’s policies start with their constituents out in the country – the farmer members of Iowa’s 100 county Farm Bureaus. It’s what Farm Bureau has done for nearly a century.

I don’t know much about Citizens for a Healthy Iowa (the web site says they are a 501c4, but little else about who they are or what they’ve done for Iowa. Turns out, the IRS revoked their non-profit status because they failed to file.) But I can tell you from first-hand experience that Farm Bureau is a deep-rooted organization of 156,000 Iowa families working to build a better Iowa for themselves, their children and for generations to come. And it’s great to be a member. (Learn more at

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is Iowa Farm Bureau’s news services manager.

Exposing the Real Iowa Farm Bureau

December 2, 2014

Iowa Farm BureauIt was only a matter of time.

When you’ve been around since 1918 (with an active presence in all 99 Iowa counties), sooner or later people are going to talk about what you’ve been up to.

December 1-7 is Iowa Farm Bureau Week, and it’s time for me to spill our beans.

Sure, you’ve heard Farm Bureau characterized as a powerful lobbying organization (not a new claim).

But did you know that Iowa Farm Bureau represents farmers of all sizes and is making huge investments in Iowa’s rural communities, students, and health care?


Shocking, right?

We’re told large and small farms are as polar opposite as Red Sox and Yankees, so how can any organization claim to work on behalf of all farmers? And what do those farmers want with our communities and schools, anyway?

Working for Iowa Farmers
A group of farmers, along with other community leaders, formed county Farm Bureaus (and eventually the Iowa Farm Bureau) in the early 1900s, to better their farms and the state.

Today, the organization consists of 156,000-plus families (including farmers and non-farmers), but the end goal remains the same.

And that’s because Iowa Farm Bureau is a Federation – meaning county Farm Bureaus and their members steer the ship.

So when Iowa farmers (of all sizes and types) say they need help managing their financial risk or planning for their sons or daughters to farm in the future, the Iowa Farm Bureau hosts meetings in every corner of the state to help them make the decisions that work best for their personal situations.

When farmers support a science and technology-based plan to protect Iowa’s soil and improve water quality, Iowa Farm Bureau works to fund it.

And when farmers aspire to raise livestock in ways that better protect the environment and their neighbors, Iowa Farm Bureau helps spearhead an organization to help them do that.

Farm Bureau has been in every Iowa neighborhood (100 county Farm Bureaus in 99 counties) since the early 1900s, and, in many cases, the farm families in those neighborhoods have been there just as long. When you understand your neighbors’ needs, it’s possible to serve them in a personal and meaningful way, whether they’re aronia berry farmers in Missouri Valley, fruit and vegetable growers in Boone, or cattlemen in Essex.

Investing in Iowa’s Future

Quick, name another Iowa organization that awards nearly $500,000 in scholarships each year.

Still waiting…

Yes, everyone believes in supporting our youth, but it takes on new meaning when you put your money where your mouth is, with scholarships, grants for teachers, and sponsorships (like Iowa Farm Bureau’s sole title sponsorship of the Iowa High School Athletic Association and Girls High School Athletic Union).

Farm Bureau has also actively lobbied state lawmakers to get small, cash-strapped school districts the state funds they need to protect local property taxpayers and keep their doors open.

Yes, Farm Bureau is blessed with resources and is committed to Iowa. Coming from a small town, I’m glad about that; aren’t you?

Strengthening Iowa’s Rural Communities

According to a new economic study, agriculture helps employ one in five Iowans and accounts for 33 percent of Iowa’s economic output.

Iowa’s rural communities depend on agriculture and vice versa, which is why Iowa Farm Bureau launched Renew Rural Iowa in 2006. Through the program, Iowa Farm Bureau has helped more than 2,500 Iowa entrepreneurs successfully own and grow their rural businesses. In total, Iowa Farm Bureau has invested more than $80 million in rural Iowa over the past decade.

And while creating good jobs in rural Iowa is critical, it’s just as important to take care of your neighbors who’ve fallen on hard times, which is why Iowa Farm Bureau and the University of Iowa have teamed up (through the America Needs Farmers initiative) to donate $95,000 to Iowa’s food banks.

And that doesn’t include all of the work Iowa’s 100 county Farm Bureaus do on behalf of their local communities (the inspiration for Iowa Farm Bureau’s new “Share” program).

You get the idea. Farm Bureau has its fingerprints all over rural Iowa, in a good way!

Promoting Quality Healthcare for Iowans 

What do you need to keep your family healthy? Close proximity to healthy food and somewhere to exercise?

Of course.

How about access to a physician?

Those of us who live in or around a big city probably don’t give it a second thought, but 73 of Iowa’s 99 counties have a doctor shortage.

That’s why Iowa Farm Bureau has invested more than $200,000 in scholarships for medical residents who plan to practice in rural Iowa.

Whether it’s offering our members health insurance to meet their needs, supporting the Iowa farm families who grow wholesome food, or encouraging rural doctors to practice in rural Iowa, Iowa Farm Bureau has demonstrated a long haul commitment to the building blocks of a healthy Iowa.


There you have it! The “top secret” work of Iowa Farm Bureau, exposed for the world to see.

I feel so much better.

Don’t you?


By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.

For more information about Iowa Farm Bureau’s work for Iowans visit!

Some people think about turkey every day

November 25, 2014

turkeysWhen I think about Thanksgiving dinner, I picture turkey as the meal’s centerpiece. And while June is National Turkey Lover’s Month, most think of turkey right around Thanksgiving.

But turkey growers across Iowa and across the nation think about turkeys every day. That’s because these farmers are committed to growing healthy birds that go into the food chain. The whole turkeys we most associate with Thanksgiving aren’t grown in Iowa, according to Gretta Irwin, executive director of the Iowa Turkey Federation.

That turkey breast sandwich you order at Subway or the turkey tom sandwich at Jimmy Johns is another story. The deli meat on those sandwiches likely originated from an Iowa turkey farm. The turkeys Iowa farmers raise, mostly toms, go on to processing plants where they are processed into deli meat and sold through restaurants like Subway and Jimmy Johns. Turkey from Iowa farms is also found in Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches and turkey found in grocery stores under other labels.

To learn more about Iowa’s turkey farms, I took an “agventure” to Don and Pat Daufeldt’s turkey farm in West Liberty. The couple is just one of more than 130 turkey growers in the state. The Daufeldts explained to me the care that is given to their poults (baby turkeys) after they arrive on their farm weighing just 4 grams each. The couple, along with their son, Brad, grow the birds to approximately 40-43 pounds each before they are sent to West Liberty Foods to be processed.

turkey farmers

The Daufeldt family

Though the family uses technology to control the environment inside of their barns, technology doesn’t replace frequent visits inside of the barns. The 19,500 poults the family received from the hatchery a few weeks ago require extra care. As I entered the poult barn with our photographer, Gary, and the family, we were instructed to wear plastic liners over our shoes and then dip our lined feet in a solvent that sterilized our liners. This, they explained, is one of the measures they use to keep the poults healthy and keep any undiagnosed diseases out of the barns. The barn was noticeably warm, too warm to wear our coats and mittens, even on a chilly Iowa day.

The family explained that, like a baby, poults need to be kept warm. As the poults grow they are moved into different barns on the farm. The temperatures inside of the barns are regulated to a lower temperature as the turkeys grow; bigger birds create their own heat, they explained.poults, baby turkeys

We shed our plastic liners and made our way to the last of the three grower barns on the farm, the finishing barn. Here, turkeys are fed and watered until it’s time for them to be loaded onto trucks and sent to the processor. Whether in the poult barn, the intermediate barn or the finishing barn, the family explained that regular barn walk-throughs are an essential element of their daily chores.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the Daufeldt family for the opportunity to learn more about raising turkeys and the great care they take to raise safe and wholesome food. As I eat dinner for Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll think of the growers who raise turkeys that are sold as whole birds. But every day of the year, I’m thankful for all turkey growers and farmers who raise food for any meal.

Happy Thanksgiving!

By Bethany Baratta. Bethany is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Commodities Writer.

2 Important Things I Learned About Dietitians

November 21, 2014

I have never approached a grocery store dietitian for advice.

It doesn’t make much sense because I’m definitely interested in (although not always committed to) healthy eating. I understand they provide expert nutrition advice, surveys show they’re well trusted by Iowans, and they’re advertised in practically every Hy-Vee I visit.


Still, I’ve never bothered to schedule a meeting or subscribe for information.

I could attribute my lack of follow-through to a lot of things, but I think it starts with an unconscious assumption I’ve made that I already know (generally) what I’m going to hear.

That’s my first mistake, and I should know better.  

It’s the same passive resistance today’s farmers sometimes encounter when they try to help us understand why they’ve adopted genetically modified seeds, why they’re raising more animals today, why they raise those animals in modern barns, or why they choose to administer certain medication.

People seem to “know” that big farms and certain technology are bad, just as surely as they “know” that they only need to eat less to become more healthy.

A couple weeks ago, I had an opportunity to spend some time at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Iowa Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (an organization with 800-plus dietitian members).

What I learned about dietitians in a few short hours reminded me of the things I don’t know and nudged me to become a bit more active in seeking out information:


1) They really dig science and technology. 

GMOs, sustainability, nutrition informatics, and wellness smart phone apps.

How’s that for a geeky agenda? :)

And those were just the topics covered before lunch on day two of the meeting.

I walked away from the experience with a new app to explore (RD Alicia Vance Aguiar recommended Fooducate, a food scanner and diet tracker with “sound dietitian advice”), as well as some insights from Martina Newell-McGloughlin (Director of International Biotechnology at the University of California, Davis) about the proven safety and potential nutritional benefits of GMOs:

More importantly, I left with the impression that dietitians aren’t resting on what they already know.

They’re continually mastering their own areas of expertise, and they’re seeking out outside expertise on topics that they may be less familiar with (such as biotechnology).

The nutrition experts are still learning, so clearly there’s plenty for me to learn from them.


2) They’re practical.

If dietitians are conspiring to feed us nothing but spinach and broccoli, they didn’t let on.

In fact, I heard a lot of discussion about easy substitutes, small health and budget conscious changes, and simple snacks.

And while fruits and veggies were a common refrain, most seemed cool with organic and conventional produce and allowing people to make that choice on their own:

They’re also a friendly bunch (thanks Anne and Bridget for inviting me to the meeting), so there’s really no good excuse for me to hold out any longer…

It’s time for me to get off the sidelines and see what I can learn, and (whether it’s learning more about your nutrition or the farmers who provide your food) I hope you’ll do the same!

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.

Young Farmers Are Stepping Up

November 19, 2014
Young Iowa farmers Luke and Krista Tjelmeland

Luke and Krista Tjelmeland

The latest U.S. Census of Agriculture shows farmers are getting older. The 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture showed the average age of the principal operator on U.S. farms was 58.3 years old, up from 57.1 years old from the 2007 census.

It’s not a new trend. And it sometimes makes you wonder: who’s going to produce the food and fuel America and the world need in the future?

Behind the census numbers, though, are countless stories of young farmers who are eager to farm and are willing to take on the challenge.

Two of those young Iowa farmers are Randy Francois and Luke Tjelmeland.

Francois, a 24-year-old grain farmer in Buchanan County, had the unique opportunity to farm his own acres.

Young Iowa farmer Randy Francois

Randy Francois

Tjelmeland, 24, and his wife, Krista, recently welcomed neighbors and visitors to their farm to showcase their new pig barn in Story County.

Both Francois and Tjelmeland beamed with pride as they spoke of their involvement in farming at a young age. Both had worked alongside their parents and family to learn more about growing pigs and crops.

Though Tjelmeland and Francois faced their own share of challenges getting started, they looked at their challenges as learning opportunities.

Francois planned his first crop by learning about fertilizer, seeds, and the other management decisions that go along with growing corn.

Growing his own crops was different than helping his parents grow their corn and soybeans, he said. This time, he said, the decisions he made affected his corn crop and ultimately his bottom line. Francois said planting his own crop this year meant he had to understand the effects one decision had on his entire crop. Francois surrounded himself with knowledgeable people who helped him understand not only the financial side of the business, but also seed selection, fertilizer use, and grain storage and sales. While he couldn’t control the weather, he said he wanted to do everything he could to learn how to successfully grow his corn crop.

Tjelmeland, meanwhile, learned how to best determine a site for his pig barn. He and Krista worked with siting specialists and learned how some soil types are more suitable for a barn construction than others. Luke and Krista care about the environment, so they worked with additional specialists to ensure their barn was a safe distance from water sources. And they already have plans to add trees and bushes to the barn site. Luke and Krista communicated the plan for their pig barn to their neighbors and the county’s board of supervisors. They welcomed visitors onto their farm in the beginning stages to understand the placement of the barn. And when the barn was constructed, they welcomed guests to their barn before pigs arrived so they could explain the controls they put into place to protect the environment and their livestock.

There are plenty of people like Randy and Luke in Iowa and in the United States who are eager to be a part of the next generation in agriculture. And knowing those two, the future is in good hands.

By Bethany Baratta. Bethany is Iowa Farm Bureau’s commodities writer.

A tough lesson in not keeping up with customer demands

November 17, 2014

mother daughter grocery shoppingThe bankruptcy filing by the Des Moines-era the supermarket chain Dahl’s Foods last week provides an illustration of the pitfalls of falling behind in a fast-moving market. And it’s a cautionary lesson for people who contend that agriculture should avoid new technology and return to old farming ways.

Dahl’s fell on hard times, according to several business analysts, because it didn’t adjust to changing consumer trends. Other supermarkets chains and national retailers in Dahl’s territory continually innovated, expanded their offerings and found ways to become more efficient, but Dahl’s just didn’t keep up.

I saw that at my neighborhood Dahl’s. It’s a nice little store filled with friendly people. It gives you a nostalgic feel of a 1950s supermarket. But nostalgia aside, my local Dahl’s often doesn’t the range of products or services found at other markets, and often its prices aren’t competitive.

Some people today contend that American farmers should ditch technology, like biotech seeds or GPS-guided equipment.

They believe consumers, the environment and farmers would be better off if we returned to farming with the technology and farm structure of the 1950s, or even earlier.

It’s not true. Just like successful supermarket chains, farmers have evolved and adopted technology to respond to consumer demands.

American consumers are demanding more from agriculture than ever before. They want a range of food choices that would have been unfathomable in the 1950s. They want agriculture to reduce its environmental footprint. And they want all that at affordable prices.

American farmers have delivered on all of those demands, thanks in part, to their willingness and ability to adopt new technologies. Biotech seeds allow farmers to reduce pesticide applications and limit tillage to trim soil erosion. GPS and other technologies allow farmers to apply fertilizer and pesticides precisely, avoiding wetlands and other sensitive areas.

The result is American food supply that is unbelievably diverse, safe and more affordable than in any other industrialized country on the planet. And yes, for the segment of consumers who want to pay a little more for food raised using older farming techniques, farmers have shown they can do that too.

It’s all about keeping up with customer demand.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is Iowa Farm Bureau’s News Services Editor.


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