Think before you toss. Simple steps to prevent food waste

March 25, 2015

Over the winter, my husband was looking for a project to fight his cabin fever and decided to defrost our iced-over freezer. When he emptied out the freezer, we discovered more than three dozen bags of frozen vegetables hidden in the ice that I had obviously overbought.

Not only was it a reminder that I need to eat more vegetables, it also got me thinking about ways to reduce food waste at home.

Food waste is a growing problem not just in homes, but all along the food-production chain. About 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in a landfill, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That’s about $165 billion worth of food that never gets eaten in the United States, a nation where 17.2 million households were food insecure in 2010.

Here in Iowa, food has become the number one most prevalent disposed material in the state’s municipal landfills, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s 2011 statewide waste characterization study.

About 13.3 percent of all landfilled waste is food. Even more startling, food waste in Iowa landfills has increased 62 percent in the last 13 years, the DNR reports.

“It’s a problem, and it’s a growing problem for multiple reasons,” says Joe Bolick, communications and public relations manager for the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

For one, many people don’t realize that the food we throw away doesn’t decompose quickly in a landfill, Bolick explains.

Take, for example, a banana peel. If you throw a banana peel in your backyard, the peel will decompose within a few weeks. But landfills are designed to minimize any exposure to the air to prevent contaminants leaching into the environment, Bolick says.

“So if you throw a banana peel in a landfill, 20 years later, there are probably at least some remnants of the banana peel there,” he says.

And when the landfilled banana peel does decompose, it breaks down slowly, releasing methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps in 20 to 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, Bolick says.

In addition to environmental concerns, food waste is costly. Families are, in essence, throwing money away whenever they toss purchased food in the trash, says Jennifer Jordan, recycling coordinator for the City of Iowa City.

A typical American throws away 20 pounds of food each month, which is worth about $28 to $43 per person, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“If you are spending a couple hundred dollars a month on groceries, and you are throwing away a quarter of it, you just wasted $50 a month. That’s hundreds of dollars a year,” Jordan says.

There are many strategies that Iowans can practice at home to reduce food waste. First, take a closer look at what you are purchasing at the grocery store and try to avoid overbuying.

If you do have leftovers, place them in the front of the fridge, where they are visible.

“We hand out small signs for your fridge at various (educational) events that literally say, ‘Eat me first,’” Jordan says. “It sounds really simple, because it is that simple.”

And as many gardeners already know, backyard composting is also an easy solution for keeping food waste out of landfills.

“It can be as simple as going out and buying a compost bin that turns itself, or a pitchfork and a pile,” Bolick says.

The Iowa Waste Reduction Center offers a residential composting toolkit online (

The City of Iowa City also offers tips and strategies for reducing food waste at home on its website (

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau’s senior features writer.

Collaboration over litigation: Funds would be better spent on successful conservation projects, not lawyers

March 18, 2015
Linn County farmers, community leaders, city officials, planners, water treatment officials, and elected representatives gathered last summer to discuss efforts to improve water quality.

Linn County farmers, community leaders, city officials, planners, water treatment officials, and elected representatives gathered last summer to discuss efforts to improve water quality.

I have the utmost respect for our legal system and all who serve it. My wife is a court reporter, and my brother-in-law and a few of my close friends are also attorneys. The judicial system plays an integral role in our society, however, when it comes to Iowa’s water quality challenges, the path to continued improvement will not be found in the courtroom; improvement lies in collaboration.

I’m not the only one concerned about Des Moines Water Works’ (DMWW) litigious approach targeting three counties in northwest Iowa. Shortly after news broke that the DMWW trustees voted to file their lawsuit in federal court, my phone lit up with text messages and phone calls from concerned stakeholders.

“I’m really concerned that this lawsuit will halt the conservation momentum we have going,” a Black Hawk County farmer and County Soil and Water District Commissioner said to me in a text message.

“Installing conservation practices are a costly investment, but paying for a lengthy legal battle is pretty expensive, too,” a Dallas County farmer told me. “I would guess this lawsuit really reduces the number of guys putting in new conservation because they fear they will be paying for a lawyer instead. It’s a shame; this lawsuit won’t do a darned thing to improve water quality.”

My 22 month-old daughter often thinks ‘it’s her way or no way,’ and is prone to an occasional tantrum, but my wife and I always work to teach her new things and expose her to the unfamiliar. I see a striking resemblance in the handling of this issue by DMWW leadership. It’s their way (lawsuit) or no way.

I was troubled to read that DMWW leaders responded, “Thanks, but no,” when invited to a northwest Iowa farm to see firsthand what local farmers are doing to improve water quality. It’s concerning that DMWW leaders would rather stay in Des Moines to concoct a lawsuit instead of meeting with key stakeholders to learn something about agriculture and successful conservation practices, especially when a collaborative water quality improvement effort has proven successful in Iowa’s second-largest city.

Water quality is a complex issue that requires thoughtful, meaningful solutions, such as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. I am confident there is a table that can accommodate stakeholder representatives focused on improving Iowa’s water quality; we have seen it all across the state. Unfortunately, the chair for DMWW sits empty at these collaborative meetings as they prepare for a legal battle that will delay positive conservation efforts and negatively impact water quality – the very issue they claim to be focused on improving. It pains me to think how much effective conservation work could be done in Iowa with the funds needed to fight this legal battle. I think most common-sense Iowans would rather see stakeholder collaboration that leads to continued improvement rather than endless litigation.

By Andrew Wheeler. Andrew is Iowa Farm Bureau’s public relations coordinator. 



Sorry robins. The new first sign of spring is cover crops

March 17, 2015

cover cropsThe weather was so wonderful this past weekend, I decided to take a mini road trip to Cedar Rapids to check out the Grant Wood exhibit at the art museum and do a little exploring.

This time of year, the scenery in Iowa has that snow-just-melted look, mostly flattened patches of brown grass and muddy puddles, nothing like the rolling green hills of Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” painting at the museum.

But to my surprise, I did see a few flashes of green in fields along Highway 30. These fields were planted last fall with cover crops, which green up as soon as the snow melts in the spring, even before our lawns wake up from winter dormancy.

These cold-tolerant grasses and legumes help hold soil in place during the winter, while also helping improve soil quality and adding nutrients back to the soil to boost crop yield.

Cover crops also scavenge nitrogen that is naturally in Iowa’s rich soils. That helps keep the nitrogen from ending up in surface water.

A growing number of Iowa farmers are planting cover crops for the conservation benefits, so Iowans should expect to see more fields of green around St. Patrick’s Day for years to come.

No offense to the robin, but there’s now a new sign of spring in Iowa. It’s a field of green cover crops sprouting up from the fields, a positive sign for good things to come.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau’s senior features writer.

They said it. 8 experts who say Iowa’s water quality is heading in the right direction

March 11, 2015

It’s hard to know who to believe regarding Iowa’s water quality, and a recently filed lawsuit only clouds the conversation.

What’s clear is that many state and federal officials believe Iowans’ collaborative efforts to protect water quality are making progress, and local, everyday experts in the fields are working quietly to make it happen:

EPA Region 7 Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division Director Karen Flournoy

EPA Region 7 Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division Director Karen Flournoy

Karen Flournoy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 7 Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division Director

“EPA wants to see states take a leadership role [in protecting water quality]… Iowa was one of the first states in the [Mississippi] Basin to get a completed strategy.

“I know that some of the other states have used [science from Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy] in developing their strategies and, likewise, Iowa has used information from other states.

“[EPA] has been very supportive of the Iowa strategy; we continue to be very supportive of it. I think they’ve made great strides in implementation. All of the states have more work to do.

“While the states have developed these strategies, EPA and certainly all of the other stakeholders recognize that much [water quality] work has been done for many, many years…[these strategies] are building on efforts that have already been in place.

“I was just up at the Iowa Water Conference, and there were a lot of really outstanding presentations from individuals in watersheds about best management practices that are being put on the land by [farmers], by communities throughout Iowa, including various infrastructure projects to manage storm water, so just a tremendous amount of work going on there. I would just encourage everybody to learn from each other and see which practices work, whether it’s a community or a [farmer] in order to improve water quality.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary

“We do know from our assessments that nitrates and phosphorus are indeed being reduced by voluntary conservation…The condition of the water didn’t happen last year or the year before. It has evolved over a long time. There is no quick fix here. It’s going to take a concerted and committed effort, but we are moving in the right direction.”


Iowa DNR Director Chuck Gipp

Chuck Gipp, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director

“Iowa is leading the way in using voluntary, science-based practices for nonpoint sources and innovative proactive approaches from point sources to improve water quality.”

“I’m absolutely encouraged about the progress in the nutrient reduction strategy and I think that everyone else in the state should be.”

“We constantly hear this humdrum about poor water quality in Iowa, but we used to have three segments of streams where trout would reproduce and now we are at more than 50.”


Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey

Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture

“Right now, the interest in adopting conservation measures is crazy strong, and we are seeing unprecedented investment…Certainly we’ve got a long road ahead of us and a lot of work to do, but we are really seeing a lot of progress and momentum all over the state.”

Dean Lemke, oversaw Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship’s environmental programs for 41 years

“Without a doubt, Iowa water quality is much better today than when I started and I’m really optimistic about the future…There has been a huge shift in the awareness and commitment to environmental sustainability among farmers, agricultural groups and ag suppliers. I have never seen the level of focus and energy that we are seeing today and that makes me very optimistic.”

John Glenn, farmer, Rathbun Land and Water Alliance CEO

“In 10 years, we’ve done what we thought would take 15 [to improve water quality in Rathbun Lake in south central Iowa]. We find that the buy-in from these 600 landowners and farmers couldn’t be any better. They all care about what they’re sending down to our treatment plant.”

Steve Herschner, Cedar Rapids Utilities Director

“The city [of Cedar Rapids] has always been interested in partnership…We found a very unique set of partners for this [water quality improvement] project….A wide variety of folks are interested in us being successful and helping the Cedar River be successful.”

Jeff Pape

Jeff Pape

Jeff Pape, farmer, Hewitt Creek Watershed Improvement Association

“Some of the quantification we’ve done to know that this project is working, that volunteering does work, is we do sample our stream up here monthly. Plus, any time we get over a half inch of rainfall, we have somebody come in and sample it, so we keep track of what our watershed is doing.”

“We’ve got a gentleman who’s lived on this stream his whole life. He said, you can quantify [the water quality progress] by your results on paper, but another way to quantify it is he has not seen the eagles in his area for years fishing during the winter out of this stream. They’ve been back. They’ve been back now just about three or four years, and he sees a lot more wildlife coming to that stream. That is [additional] quantification for me, telling me that our stream is better than it was.”

It may be easier to pick out the voice that’s louder, the one that calls for confrontation or a scapegoat.

Instead, we need to listen closely. Listen to the voices of those who are leading and joining teams and are focused on real solutions.

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

Before Going “All In” on New Dietary Guidelines, Remember the Egg

February 25, 2015

eggsI started my morning today by eating a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, and now I don’t have to feel guilty about it.

The new U.S. Dietary Guidelines released last week lifted the limits on dietary cholesterol. So I can enjoy an egg for breakfast – yolk and all – and know that I’m making a healthy choice.

Growing up, my family went “all in” with the low-fat craze of the ‘90s. We never had butter in our fridge, only “light” margarine. I ate giant bagels for breakfast because they were low-fat – never mind all the calories.

Now it turns out that a little fat isn’t bad. Yet the advisory committee that wrote the 2015 Dietary Guidelines didn’t entirely give up its restrictive ways. The committee still calls for limiting saturated fat and, unfortunately, reducing red meat consumption.

Their outdated recommendation overlooks the fact that beef and pork are excellent sources of protein and often-lacking nutrients in our diets, such as iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and B6, niacin and thiamin.

Plus, the beef and pork cuts you can find at the grocery store today are much leaner than they were in the 1970s, when the government first called for limiting fat in our diet.

Today, U.S. farmers are raising leaner animals to provide consumers with healthy, nutritious protein for themselves and their families.

The American Heart Association recently gave its “Heart-Check” mark to 96 percent lean ground beef. This is in addition to eight other beef cuts that meet the American Heart Association’s requirements for heart-healthy foods.

So why is there so much conflicting information about healthy eating? Surprisingly, even the experts admit that nutrition science isn’t concrete.

Last year, I was invited to attend a class taught by Stephanie Clark, a professor of food science and nutrition at Iowa State University (ISU), discussing common misconceptions about dairy foods.

Clark explained that most nutrition science is based on observational studies. Researchers ask their test subjects what they are eating, sometimes over the course of several years, and then they try to determine a cause and effect based on those answers.

The problem is not many of us remember what we ate for lunch yesterday, let alone one week or one year ago, Clark said.

And the research may not measure for other lifestyle factors, such as how active we are during the day.

That’s why nutritional science is always changing and what is recommended today may be scrapped when the next U.S. Dietary Guidelines are released in five years.

Yet most nutritional experts agree that healthy eating is about balance.

Dietitians recommend following the government’s current “MyPlate” guidelines: Fill one-half your plate with fruits and vegetables; one-quarter of your plate with lean meat and protein; and one-quarter of your plate with a grain, preferably whole grain; plus include a serving of low-fat milk or dairy.

In addition, the DASH eating plan was recently rated one of the top diets for 2015.

The science-based DASH plan includes lean meats, low-fat dairy, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and even a few sweets in moderation.

Healthy eating comes down to our choices. It’s about choosing the side salad instead of the fries, a glass of water instead of the fancy coffee drink, or a low-fat yogurt instead of a candy bar or chips for a snack.

And it’s good to know that the dietary recommendations, once again, realize that an egg for breakfast is a healthy choice.

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

Young farmers talk conservation

February 9, 2015
Iowa farmers

Alicia Schmitt discusses conservation practices she and husband Greg have brought to their family’s farm.

More than 500 young Iowans, the largest attendance on record, gathered in Des Moines recently for the 2015 Young Farmer Conference, organized by Iowa Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Advisory Committee.

With the meeting just a few miles away from Water Works Park, a lot of the conversation in the hallways centered on the Des Moines Water Works’ threat to sue three Iowa counties upstream for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River.

In reality, it’s young farmers who will be impacted the most by the lawsuit, as the baby boomers retire and the millennials accept the future challenge of producing safe, healthy food while protecting the environment.

And as young farmers will tell you, they’re already taking steps to conserve the land, water and wildlife across the state.

Young farmers today are more educated than ever before. They’ve come back to the farm ready to apply their college degrees in engineering, agronomy and environmental studies.

They’re comfortable with ever-changing technology and readily embrace it to continuously improve their farms. And frankly, young farmers don’t want to do things the way their parents’ have always done things on the farm.

But I’ll let the young farmers tell you themselves what they’re doing to protect water quality. At the conference, I talked to several young farmers and asked them to explain what conservation practices they’ve adopted on their farms. Here’s what they said:

James and Megan Holz, both 28, cattle farmers from Greene County. The Holtzes live in the Raccoon River Watershed, but so far, their home county isn’t named in the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.

The Holtzes have adopted strip-till (or minimal tillage) practices, and they planted several acres of cover crops last fall to help protect fields from soil erosion in the winter. James also sells cover crop seed as a side business. In addition, they planted grass buffer strips around waterways to control storm water runoff.

“I know what we do, we do it well,” Megan said. “The day (the lawsuit) came out, we stayed up and talked for hours because that’s our future. We are very concerned about protecting the environment and always looking for ways we can improve. It’s this kind of stuff that keeps us up at night, just thinking about how an unknown outside influence could change our entire future. It’s scary.”

Greg and Alicia Schmitt, both 26, hog farmers from Floyd County. The Schmitts custom-feed hogs, and they help Alicia’s dad with planting and harvest. Greg, who studied agronomy at Iowa State University, helped his father-in-law transition to strip-till practices last year.

“Greg helped my dad understand what new practices would work best on his farm,” said Alicia, who also blogs about her life on the farm at “Fit and Farm” ( “He has more time to try new things because we are helping him.”

Ryan England, 23, a crop and cattle farmer who currently lives in Dallas County and works in seed sales. “My boss and I, we’ve done a lot of work on application timing for nitrogen (fertilizer),” England said. “We took a Snapper lawn mower, and we built it so it can drive down the (crop) rows. We do small-scale plot tests. We can do more side-by-side studies.” Through the comparisons, they are helping local farmers determine the best time to more precisely apply nitrogen, so the crops can fully use it. “Maybe (the farmers) have always done it this way, but why is that? We’re in a data world, and collecting that data and recording it is a great tool to take advantage of,” England said.

Ben Pullen, 33, a sheep farmer from Clay County. Pullen lives on a Century Farm, and he has left some of his farm untouched from cultivation.

“I like to have nature. I like to have the wildlife. I think the farm is connected with nature and wildlife. It’s the joy of being out here,” Pullen said. “I seriously think that when we make decisions about our farm, we do think about what impact it is going to have 50 years down the road, 100 years down the road.”

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau’s senior features writer.

When it’s cold, farmers head outside to care for livestock

February 2, 2015

Iowa cattle farmer in the winterIowa’s brisk winter temperatures and snow means all I want to do is snuggle up in a warm blanket by our fireplace and sip hot chocolate. But sub-zero temperatures like those we’ve experienced this winter remind me of times I spent growing up on my parent’s pig farm in northeast Iowa.

When I was a kid living with my parents, we raised pigs outdoors year-round in addition to raising pigs in confinement barns. The outdoor lot was split into seven longer pens. On the north side of the paved pen, there was shelter and bedding so pigs kept warm in corn stalk bedding and out of the wind during cold weather. Nearby, they had access to feed. On the south side of the longer pens, each pen of pigs had access to waterers for drinking.

Having waterers outdoors in the winter meant several extra checks to make sure water wasn’t frozen inside. I don’t even like to go out and shovel our driveway now, but I remember Dad bundling up several times to check on the waterers and thaw them out if necessary so the pigs wouldn’t go thirsty.

Doing chores in those winter months seemed endless to me as a kid. One storm that I’ll never forget brought an abundance of snow and ice, making footing treacherous for humans and pigs. We needed to sort pigs for market and had to use our sorting panels to brace ourselves on the ice. Pigs were quick on four hooves, quicker than the four of us of trying to safely escort them out of their pens and into a larger holding area meant for only the pigs heading to the market.

It was a long, cold day. But it’s memories like these that remind me of the farmers who battle the snow, ice, and other elements to care for their livestock.

As one farmer reminded me recently, pigs and other livestock don’t care if it’s a holiday or an especially cold day, they need feed and water and care. And as I talk to livestock farmers and ask how they’re dealing with the cold weather, they don’t complain about the cold or having to go outside to do chores. Instead, they’re worried about water freezing, snow piling up in outdoor lots, and providing the best care for their animals.

It’s because of these men and women who care for their livestock that I’m able to snuggle on the couch in my warm blanket and sip hot chocolate without second guessing the safety of the dish I plan for the next meal.

Bethany Baratta is the commodities writer for Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.


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