Farming Beyond the Fences

October 22, 2014

Corn harvest IowaAs combines churn across Iowa’s farm fields, Iowans remember they live in a globally-recognized ‘farm state,’ because they see the machines working in the fields, or they get stuck behind the slow rigs while driving home.  But, long before the corn was tall and the beans turned yellow, more and more farmers were out there planting the seeds of knowledge with those who may never grow food for a living.

Farmers know that these days people have questions for that guy in the green combine; what does it take to raise a beef cow? What do you feed your pigs?  What are those green, grassy “stair steps” doing in the middle of your cornfield? The good news is, today more than ever, farming is about people willing to share.   Year-round, farmers do incredible things for their community, but since humility is the cornerstone of farm character, you may not hear them bragging about their good deeds, no matter how big or how small.  So, I will!

For example, did you know that in Jefferson County, every time the Fairfield Area Soccer Association soccer team makes a goal, they make a farmer smile? The Jefferson County Farm Bureau farmers sponsor the team; heck, one even coaches the kids!  When you ask why, they simply shrug, adjust their farm caps, and say it’s just something they’ve always done.

Encouraging leadership, small town pride and community spirit comes naturally to farmers; they compare yields with their neighbors, brag up new conservation practices they put in (way more than last year), or talk about new equipment or new seed varieties that require less fertilizer or pesticide to grow, no matter what the weather.

Farmers see that pride in a job well-done brings benefits well-beyond the farm gate.  That’s why the Jefferson County Farm Bureau even sponsors a ‘Bragging Rights’ traveling trophy between Sigourney and Pekin, and the school that gets the most combined ‘wins’ for boys and girls teams, of all sports, gets to display it prominently.  (I’m told this year it’s with the Pekin Panthers from Packwood).  Farmers are also teaching Sunday School, sitting on school boards and helping folks in need; Lee County Farm Bureau donated 500 one-pound packages of hamburger to their local food pantry, not because someone asked them to, but because they heard there’s always a critical shortage of protein options at their food bank.

It’s easy to learn about farming from farmers, but to do so, you need to do more than just drive by a cornfield; you need to visit one.  Whether it’s that farm tour and hayrack ride going on in Keokuk next week for 200 elementary kids, or taking time to ask a hog farmer about their animals, the men and women who grow food for your family table will always make time to share their story.   I hope you take time to listen, long after the combines stop rolling across Iowa’s countryside.

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


Fighting hunger close to home

October 20, 2014
Packaging food, 2014 Iowa Hunger Summit

Volunteers package food at the 2014 Iowa Hunger Summit

A few weeks ago, I was invited on a media tour of the new Hawkeye Harvest Food Bank in downtown Mason City. The visit ended up as one of the most memorable experiences in my lifetime. No exaggeration.

Long-time volunteer Ozzie Ohl of Mason City walked me through the food bank’s much larger, more modern warehouse space. He asked me to “shop” the food bank just like one of the families who seek food assistance.

I received a number based on the number of members in my family (in this case, three), and then I grabbed a shopping cart, just like in a grocery store.

But unlike my typical food shopping trip, my choices were limited. I could only pick six cans of vegetables – peas, carrots and potatoes (not my favorite vegetables, for sure); six cans of fruit or juice – apricots and grapefruit juice, again not my first choice; three cans of tomatoes; three cans of soup; two boxes of cereal; three boxes of pasta; two jars of peanut butter; and one “extra,” such as toilet paper or laundry detergent.

Needless to say, my cart wasn’t full in the end. And there wasn’t any meat, eggs or milk available at the time.

Hawkeye Harvest has served more than two times the number of people in 2014 than it provided emergency food to in 2010, Ohl told me. Although the economy is slowly crawling out of recession, many Iowa families are still struggling, especially with the rising food prices.

“We haven’t recovered yet. It hasn’t caught up with us here. Wages haven’t kept pace with food inflation,” Ohl said.

At the 2014 Iowa Hunger Summit in Des Moines last week, more than 600 community leaders, volunteers and students gathered together to learn more about hunger-relief efforts in Iowa and how they can help feed those in need. The annual summit is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau and FBL Financial.

Approximately 389,000 Iowans are struggling with food insecurity in 2013, or about 12.7 percent of the state’s population, according to Feeding America, a national food-relief organization.

About 31 percent of food bank users in Iowa are children under the age of 18, according to Feeding America’s 2014 “Hunger in America” food bank survey.

“It could be your classmates; it could be your co-workers; it could be your friend that becomes food insecure,” said Cory Berkenes, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank Association. “You don’t know what is going to happen in life. You could lose a job; you could have a fire; it could be a disaster or it could be an injury that keeps you out of work.”

Iowa food banks are getting creative to help local families struggling with food insecurity.

In 2010, the Northeast Iowa Food Bank started a mobile food pantry project, delivering food once a week to three or four of the rural communities outside the food bank’s Waterloo/Cedar Falls headquarters area.

In addition, Iowa farmers have joined the hunger fight. The Midwest Dairy Association has helped launch the nationwide Great American Milk Drive, inviting Iowans to make a donation online to deliver milk to local food banks. (At Hawkeye Harvest, the only milk I saw on the shelves was powdered milk.)

The America Needs Farmers (ANF) campaign, launched by the Iowa Farm Bureau and the University of Iowa Athletics, also has donated more than $70,000 since the initiative began in 2011.

Indeed, Iowans are stepping up to help their neighbors in need, as I saw at Hawkeye Harvest in Mason City.

About 22,900 volunteers work a total of 77,500 hours per week on hunger-fighting efforts in Iowa, according to Feeding America’s survey.

“Each week, there are people in Iowa working on hunger programs,” Berkenes said. “It takes businesses; it takes non-profits; it takes churches; it takes community groups. It takes everybody.”

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Senior Features Writer.


Embracing innovation so everyone has a seat at the dinner table.

October 17, 2014
Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug’s innovative work in agriculture has saved one billion people from hunger.

Very few issues today have the power to unite so many diverse individuals as the fight to combat world hunger.  In an intense election season with many important issues being hotly debated, it was a breath of fresh air to witness the unity and shared values of the 600 individuals who attended the Iowa Hunger Summit during the World Food Prize.  When the facts about hunger are laid out, it’s easy to see why this issue has the ability to unite so many people with wide-ranging backgrounds and differing political views.

Consider this: according to a recent National Geographic, one in eight people in this world goes to bed hungry every night; that’s 805 million undernourished people in this world, and many of those who are starving are children.  Even locally, here in Iowa, new figures show 1 in 8 Iowans don’t have the money or the ability access healthy, safe meals every day.

For the past two years, I have been fortunate to work alongside many great Iowa farmers who contribute to Iowa’s status as the nation’s leader in the production of so many commodities.  ‘Feeding a growing global population,’ can sound cliché, but a major theme of this year’s World Food Prize addressed how we can feed a world population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, when so many Iowans and others around the world are already going to bed hungry each night.

After hearing experts representing all aspects of food production, speakers from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), media, and various charities address the growing hunger crisis, the overwhelming response to fighting hunger is innovation and doing more with less.  It sounds simple, but what does that actually mean here in Iowa?

Today, innovative modern livestock barns allow farmers to take better care of their animals though technology that controls the barn’s climate, utilizing automated equipment that administers the right amount of food and water, and strict biosecurity practices that help keep the animals healthy and safe, so the food you and I feed our families is the highest quality and safest in the world.

Here in Iowa, where corn, beans and hogs are king, the farmers looking for ways to fill a niche market and produce more with less are easily overshadowed.  I recently had the privilege of meeting some young men who decided livestock barns didn’t necessarily have to house only hogs, cattle and poultry as we have come to expect.  Though innovation and thinking outside the box, we now see fish and shrimp raised indoors, year-round, in Iowa.  Iowa aquaculture has caught the attention of many and may be one of the fastest growing segments of Iowa agriculture in the coming years.

Another young farmer I have had the privilege of working with defines innovation and is truly a trailblazer in Iowa agriculture.  Andrew Pittz is a sixth-generation Iowa farmer whose family grows the traditional Iowa commodities, corn and beans, but he had a different vision.  Pittz was the first to grow aronia berries in Iowa.  Aronia berries are considered a ‘superfood,’ a highly nutritious fruit extremely rich in antioxidants.  Much like the farmers leading the way in Iowa aquaculture, Pittz’s innovative move to aronia berry production is just another example of how Iowa farmers are thinking outside the box to produce more food locally to feed a growing global population.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, an Iowa farmer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, would be proud of the innovation embraced by Iowa farmers.  As a man who spent his life dedicated to improving crop genetics and increased food production, Dr. Borlaug is credited with saving more lives than any other person who has ever lived.  Thanks to the groundwork laid by Dr. Borlaug’s life’s work in genetic engineering, we have witnessed incredible advancements in biotechnology, leading Iowa farmers to produce more food while using fewer resources, despite threats from climate and pests.

I walked away from the Huger Summit somber realizing how many people in my community are hungry, but at the same time, I left with pride and optimism, knowing thousands of Iowa farmers are working hard in the fields, right now, in an effort to harvest a record crop that will go to feed as many people as possible.

I’m grateful that an event like the Iowa Hunger Summit can bring so much diversity to the table for a common, shared goal, and I’m proud to work with the Iowa farmers who are on the front lines embracing innovation to combat the challenge of hunger, which we can all agree is one of the most important issues facing us in the next few decades.

By Andrew Wheeler. Andrew is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Public Relations Coordinator.


Farming Unites the World

October 16, 2014
World Food Prize

Laurie with her daughter (left) and Ms. Ma Caiqing, a teacher from Hebei Province, China

It feels like Iowa is the center of the universe when it comes to farming — not just this week, World Food Prize week (http://www.worldfoodprize.org/), when thousands of farming experts, scientists, agribusinesses, journalists and global hunger-fighters converge on Des Moines to honor farming achievements.  No, Iowa has always been seen as the birthplace for agriculture innovation, crucial to feeding a 2050 projected population of nine billion.

Although we talked about a lot of things including parenting, education, health and diet, Iowa’s farming reputation was also the topic of conversation this past weekend as my family hosted a teacher from Hebei Province, China.  Ms. Ma Caiqing is here with a small group of exceptional high school students, taking part in the Borlaug World Food Prize Global Youth Institute.

Ms. Ma says that among the educated in China, Iowa farmers are role models for excellence and economic sustainability.  Our ‘can do’ attitude, combined with innovation, brings countless food choices to us all.  Our decades of knowledge and expertise brings Chinese scientists, geneticists and farming leaders here, because they want to know how to bring more food choices to their people.  The work going on in China is being detailed in a series of inspired articles in the Des Moines Register, articles which Ms. Ma is bringing back to her Hebei Province classroom.  She wants to show them how media celebrates their progress in crop and livestock farming!  But, I couldn’t help but see the irony; while these Des Moines urban reporters literally went thousands of miles out of their way to praise Chinese farming innovation, they often seem tongue-tied to praise the Iowa farmers who birthed these agriculture innovations.

“Traditionally in China, farmers raised a few pigs in their lots or barns, feeding them food waste and vegetation. Because of concerns about disease and inefficiency, the government has increasingly pushed confinement operations,” writes Lynn Hicks, a longtime Des Moines Register business editor.  I absolutely believe the Shang Hai Farm he visited, with their 20,000 pigs and “virtuous cycle” of manure-fertilized crops, grown for feed, is a successful model of farming innovation worthy of praise; my point is, so are many similar Iowa modern hog barns—has Hicks visited them recently?

Our new Chinese friend was shocked to learn that modern farms are sometimes met with suspicion: construction sites vandalized, threats are anonymously left on farmers’ voicemails, family farmers who want their sons and daughters to return to the farm are shouted down at county meetings by protestors who have been bussed in from other communities.  On our editorial pages, unsubstantiated insults are hurled because innovation is unfamiliar; science is scary and big is bad.  Suddenly, raising “a few pigs in their lots or barns, feeding them food waste and vegetation” is the better solution?  It seems to be what some are demanding.

How can we hold up the tools of farming innovation, yet scorn the men and women right here who developed them?  How can we applaud farmers overseas for progress, yet slap Iowa farmers who also embrace it?  Environmentally-responsible barns, sustainable use of organic manure to fertilize crops, working with the community to site new barns and paying attention to how they look, and how they smell, is also a part of livestock farming.  There’s a group of experts who work to help farmers do the right thing (http://www.supportfarmers.com/).

Are the memories of our great-grandparents’ food lines, cold porridge and insufficient protein long forgotten?   Sure, we remember the dirt-under-the-fingernails work ethic of farmers and the beauty of farmland, but have we forgotten the hunger that prompted our nation to ask them for more.  As the late writer and poet Ellen Glasgow would say, “A tragic irony of life is that we so often achieve success or financial independence after the chief reason for which we sought it has passed away.” 

Innovations were sought because farmers needed to feed more people, bring more choices, more affordable choices to all.  Now that they’ve done more, we want them to do less?

“I am but one member of a vast team made up of many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers – mostly small and humble – who for many years have been fighting a quiet, oftentimes losing war on the food production front,” wrote Iowa farmer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Norman Borlaug. 

In the end, it’s not just about what we grow or how much we grow, but how we conduct ourselves, the choices we make, the role models we choose.  I found out this week we have a lot in common with Chinese innovators and educators.  There can be advances yet in agriculture, in both countries.  That story has yet to be told.

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Public Relations Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau.                                                          


Why we choose to raise GMOs

October 15, 2014

Why we choose to  raise GMOsI will admit that I have stayed away from publicly addressing this topic because I feel like there are a lot of people that cannot have a civil discussion on it, but after having a friendly and open conversation about it the other weekend with the #FranklinCoHarvest blogger tour participants I’ve decided to open up a bit myself and share why we choose to raise GMO crops on our farm.  After having this group of bloggers out to our farm, I saw that there is some unfamiliarity with GMOs and that is what I hope to cover.

First off, let’s describe what is a GMO.  A GMO (genetically modified organism) is an organism where the genetic material, aka DNA, has been changed from what occurs naturally.  Farmers and gardeners have been modifying plants for years by creating hybrids by selecting specific traits that they are looking for in a plant – such as manually pollinating two tomato plants together to create one tomato plant that produced both large and meaty tomatoes, or with apples – combining a sweet apple with a good baking apple, or by merging two corn plants so the corn has a strong stalk so it’ll be more durable in weather and that creates a large ear of corn.  Biotechnology, that is used to do this in GMOs, is a more technologically advanced method of selecting traits.  As a farmer, GMOs benefit my corn and soybean productivity and efficiency.

How do GMOs benefit corn and soybean productivity and efficiency?  First, GMO corn and soybean plants commonly have traits that help combat disease or insects, which helps us to use a minimal amount of pesticides (used to kill insects, similar to how you might use a mosquito repellent or a fly spray in the summer time) on our crops.  Besides using less pesticides, GMOs are a more efficient plant that uses less land and water, due to traits in the plant that help with drought or root growth.  One of the largest benefits of GMOs is that they are herbicide-tolerant (aka weed killer resistant) crops that allow us to control weeds better, which ultimately allows our crops to grow better and thrive.  And in the end, GMOs have higher yields because the traits they have been bred for have helped eliminate all of these yield-hampering issues.

Are GMOs safe to eat?  GMOs aren’t only safe for you to eat, but a lot of times they are the more affordable food choice.  Many regulatory agencies and organizations such as the US Food & Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and the USDA have all studied GMOs and have found that they are safe to eat and have no negative health effects.  In fact, the average amount of time that the FDA and the EPA study each new GMO is 14 years to make sure it has no health risks before it gets to go to the marketplace.  If you are interested in seeing what some of these, and many more agencies and organization from around the world, have to say about GMOs check out this graph.

Did you know, that GMOs make up approximately 70-80% of the foods we eat?  Many common food and beverage ingredients, such as corn, soybeans and sugar beets, are commonly GMOs.  So if you look at the food label on the next food you eat, you most commonly will find at least one of these three ingredients listed.

Val Plagge farms in Franklin County, Iowa where she raise “corn, (soy)beans, pigs and kids”.  She currently has a 31 Days from a Tractor Seat blog series on here personal blog during the month of October.


3 Reasons It’s Okay to Love Organic Food and GMOs

October 13, 2014

sweet cornIt’s World Food Prize week, so you’ll probably hear some passionate (perhaps fiery) dialogue out of Des Moines on the “right” way to feed the 9 billion people who will be living on this planet in 2050.

Embrace the (constructive) dialogue, but take a deep breath if you find yourself being led to dismiss the merits of organic food or food that comes from genetically modified seeds (GMOs).

Here’s why.

1. Both are safe and nutritious

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires “certified organic” crops to be grown without most fertilizers or pesticides and other synthetic substances. And “certified organic” crops may not be GMOs.

GMOs are grown from seeds that scientists have infused with desired genes from another plant or organism – genes that help the plant resist weeds, diseases, insects, drought, etc.

And if the idea of changing the genetic makeup of plants used for food stirs your curiosity, know that you’re not alone. The global scientific community has been studying GMOs for years, and here’s what they’ve found:

“Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences to human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

  • The America Medical Association

“To date more than 98 million acres of genetically modified crops have been grown worldwide. No evidence of human health problems associated with ingestion of these crops or resulting food products have been identified.”

  • The National Academy of Sciences

“No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

  • World Health Organization

In fact, genetic engineering can actually be used to make some food more nutritious than its organic counterpart.

For example, Plenish®  high oleic soybean oil has zero grams of trans fat and lower saturated fat than traditional soybean oil, making it a healthier option. And “golden rice,” a genetically modified crop that is still under review, allows the plant to produce vitamin A, a nutrient that affects (among other things) vision and is severely lacking for millions of people in Asia and Africa.

2. Both can help reduce pesticide use

I won’t floor you by telling you that a primary goal of organic production is to cut down on the use of synthetic pesticides, but (given the bad press GMOs receive from opponents of the technology), it may surprise you to learn that GMOs work toward the same objective.

Long story short – if you have a seed that resists pests, you don’t need to use as much pesticide.

“Years ago, we used planters with seeds in one box and insecticide in another,” says Iowa farmer Paul Vaassen. “I’m happy that old planter sits idle on my farm now, because our GMO seeds help us defeat pests like rootworm and corn borer.”

It’s an environmental benefit that’s even winning over former anti-GMO activists, like Mark Lynas.

“As an environmentalist, I would like to see a reduction in agrochemicals,” says Lynas. “If you improve the genetics in crops, you don’t need to use insecticides and other crop protection chemicals. That, to me, is the way forward for somebody who is concerned about protection of the environment.”

3. Both can satisfy your tastes

Have you ever heard someone say his/her food used to taste better, before GMOs? I have.

I’m never quite sure how to respond because it’s difficult to have a dialogue with someone about how their food tastes to them (much less rely on them to accurately remember how it tasted years ago).

It’s important to note there are only currently eight GMO crops commercially available: corn (field corn and sweet corn), soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, and squash.

So if you’re eating something other than food from one of those GMO crops, you’ll have to look for a different culprit.

Personally, I can’t tell the difference, and I haven’t come across a reliable study or taste test that’s led me to believe there’s any difference.

For me, fresh food generally tastes better than food that’s been sitting around awhile. One of the nice things about traditional plant breeding and genetic modification (close cousins) is that they can help extend the freshness of produce (think apples that don’t brown or brown more slowly).

So eat organic, or eat GMOs. Either way, don’t let the decision cause you heartburn and don’t let others make you feel bad about your choice.

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


The Story Behind Your Bacon is Just as Good!

October 10, 2014
Bruce and Jenny Wessling

Iowa pig farmers Bruce and Jenny Wessling

October is Pork Month, a great excuse to add a couple strips of bacon to your tailgate burger (as if you needed one). But Pork Month is about more than the product that ends up on your plate, or bun, especially for Iowa’s farm families.

Raising pigs and growing corn and soybeans is a way of life for Bruce and Jenny Wessling in Grand Junction. Along with producing quality pork and grain comes great responsibility to protect the environment.

“We’re living the way of life we believe in,” Jenny says.

The family has been recognized with both a state and a national award recognizing their efforts to protect their land and water resources.

“It’s an honor to get awarded the awards, but we’re raising our children here and so we want to do things right and help keep the environment in good shape for our future generations,” Bruce explains.

Maintaining soil and water quality is a high priority for the Wessling family. They use terraces and grass waterways and have established buffer strips along creeks to reduce soil erosion and runoff from their crop acres. These practices, along with the tree buffer, also provide a home to wildlife.

The family worked with professionals to learn about how trees and shrubs could positively impact their farm site. Four rows of trees on the north side of their pig buildings are not only beautiful, but they also help reduce odor on the farm and provide additional habitat.

The Wessling family is just one of thousands of families in the state working to improve the land and water for the next generation. For more information about the Wessling family farm, go to http://video.pork.org/video/2014-environmental-stewards-wessling-ag.

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


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