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Their outdated recommendation overlooks the fact that beef and pork are excellent sources of protein and often-lacking nutrients in our diets, such as iron, zinc, vitamins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” (http://www.fitandfarm.com). “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.


With plans for a lawsuit, Des Moines Water Works is an outlier

January 21, 2015

riverThe Des Moines Water Works, which recently launched plans to sue three northwest Iowa counties over quality of water in the Raccoon River, is very much an outlier on water quality issues here in Iowa.

Officials at the Des Moines area water supplier, and particularly its CEO Bill Stowe, have repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to cooperate with farmers to improve water quality. They underscored that attitude by slamming Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties with plans for lawsuits.

Des Moines Water Works officials dismiss farmers’ efforts at improving water quality and sniff at the millions of dollars farmers are investing on cover crops, buffer strips and other practices to improve water quality for Des Moines and the rest of the state. Stowe also calls Iowa’s voluntary water quality initiative a failure, even though it’s been in place less than two years and is considered one of the most ambitious in the country.

Meanwhile, most in Iowa are rolling up their sleeves to find ways to work together with farmers and to improve Iowa’s water.

That group includes many other Iowa municipal water systems, state and federal lawmakers, Iowa officials, the Environmental Protection Agency and the top ag official in the land, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.

Many Iowa communities are working with farmers to find ways to reduce nutrient loss and improve water quality for all Iowans, and it’s working.

Cedar Rapids is an excellent example. Iowa’s second largest city is working with farmers to improve its watershed and reduce nutrient losses from fields, and last week received millions of dollars in federal and state funds to help move its cooperative project along. Cedar Rapids leaders and others will work with farmers to enhance the adoption of conservation practices on 13,400 acres, including planting of cover crops, nutrient management, bioreactors, saturated buffers, wetland creation, and wetland easements.

And federal agriculture and environmental officials are right on board, offering expertise and cost-share funds to build water quality momentum.

Evidence shows that the cooperative efforts are working. More than 10,000 water samples collected by the Iowa Soybean Association show that nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, a primary source of water for the Des Moines Water Works, have trended lower the past 15 years despite an increase in corn acres, In addition, a 2012 peer review, published study found no statistically significant increasing trend in nitrogen concentrations in the Raccoon for the period of 1992-2008. It found that rainfall and temperature contribute more to a seasonal variation (or temporary spikes) in nitrate concentrations in the Raccoon that anything else.

Improving water quality is an ongoing process and Iowa farmers are continually seeking new and improved ways to keep up the momentum. Once again, there have been full houses at winter workshops which offer growers information on cover crops and other conservation tools.

Vilsack, speaking to Iowa Farm Bureau members and at other forums, praised farmers’ progress on water quality and soil conservation and urged more cooperation. “It’s important for us all to continue to find ways to help farmers do what they have been doing historically: investing in soil and water quality.”

He urged farmers and others to hammer home to the public the progress farmers are making on water quality.

Vilsack, a Democrat and Iowa’s former governor, also expressed dismay that Des Moines Water Works decided to litigate, instead of cooperate, with farmers and others working to improve water quality. Offers to work together, Vilsack related, have been made and rejected by the utility.

“If there has been an offer in the past on cooperating to improve water that has been rejected by certain people running a certain operation in Des Moines; that should be pointed out too,” Vilsack said.

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

To find out more about what Iowa farmers are doing to improve water quality, go to www.conservationcountsIowa.com


4 things Iowans should know about protecting water

January 19, 2015

Iowa water qualityWe’ve seen this scenario before. A discouraged player points a finger at teammates, demands a trade, criticizes fans or calls for a new coach.

And while we, as fans, can certainly relate to the player’s frustration, we can’t see how giving up or creating division on the team will bring the team any closer to its goal.

Some are more about themselves. We’re witnessing the same destructive behavior on our Iowa team as the Des Moines Water Works threatens to sue three northwest Iowa counties for their alleged contributions to recent seasonal, weather-induced nitrate spikes in river water.

The tactic is equivalent to calling for your team’s coach to be fired after a couple games. It’s a blatant refusal to work together and participate in the solution.

It’s also very frustrating for farmers, businesses and communities, and government officials, who have embraced Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science and technology-based plan to improve Iowa’s water that was first funded by the Iowa Legislature in 2013.

Rather than jump onboard – along with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Des Moines Water Works has taken a stand that the strategy will never work because it relies on Iowans taking ownership of the problem (as opposed to being told what to do by new regulations).

We need more (not fewer) Iowans working together for a solutions to our water quality challenges. If you’re on the fence about joining or supporting the team that’s working together to improve Iowa’s water and soil quality, here are four things you should know:

1. Improvements are happening right now.

When Des Moines Water Works suggests that Iowa isn’t making progress, it’s ignoring what’s been going on in this state for decades.

According to data on the Des Moines Water Works website, the Raccoon River (which supplies drinking water to Des Moines) shows a statistically significant downward trend in nitrates since 2006 (as far back as their public data goes). Others – including the Iowa DNR – have confirmed steady to declining nitrate trends in Iowa, including the Raccoon River, since the mid to late-1990s.

Iowa State University reported in 2007 that seven major conservation practices used on Iowa farms have removed 28 percent of the nitrates, 38 percent of the nitrogen and 58 percent of the phosphorus that would otherwise be present in surface water.

Farmers have also reduced erosion by roughly 28 percent over the past few decades and have restored nearly 361,830 acres of wetlands (equivalent to 273,633 football fields).

The number of trout streams in the state that support reproduction are up eight fold from only five in the 1980s to more than 40 today, according to DNR.

2. Enthusiasm is skyrocketing.

Frankly, the results I just listed don’t even account for the awe-inspiring growth in enthusiasm for, and resources dedicated to, conservation since the start of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a year and half ago.

In 2014, Iowa farmers invested at least $13 million of their own money and leveraged $9.5 million in state soil and water conservation cost-share funding for more than $22 million in conservation structures and practices to improve water quality. The $22 million figure is a recent (and likely an all-time) record.

Farmers are investing those resources in terraces, cover crops, grassed waterways and more. In fact, according to one survey, roughly one-quarter of Iowa farms are utilizing cover crops (a practice that reduces runoff) today. That’s tremendous growth in a practice that was used sparingly a few years ago!

Governor Branstad’s budget includes $14.25 million for conservation cost share and the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in fiscal year 2016 (up from $11.15 million in fiscal year 2015), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just announced it is awarding two Iowa conservation initiatives a total of $5.5 million in 2015. In contrast to Des Moines Water Works, the Cedar Rapids water utility received $2 million this week for the Middle Cedar Partnership Project. Its working with local conservation partners, farmers and landowners to install best management practices such as cover crops, nutrient management, wetlands and saturated buffers to help improve water quality and soil health in the Cedar River Watershed.

Iowa’s water quality challenges won’t disappear overnight, but the prescription for long-term success starts with the investments we’re making right now.

3. The team is committed, growing

The team working to implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is growing.

Even EPA supports the strategy (let’s just say it; EPA and farmers don’t always see eye-to-eye) and has called Iowa a leading state in addressing water quality.

DNR and IDALS echo EPA’s enthusiasm, noting that 11 other Mississippi River basin states are using Iowa’s strategy as a model for their own water quality efforts.

It works because it’s inclusive – encouraging participation from farmers, businesses, private groups, cities, and other local government entities (such as soil and water conservation districts) – and because…

4. It’s based on science and technology.

If weather, soil types and topography had no impact on water quality, the answer to our problem would be simpler.

But our lakes, streams and rivers don’t exist in a vacuum.

Local variables contribute to local water quality, which in turn contributes to someone else’s water quality downstream.

You can ignore these facts and require more than 88,000 farmers to do the same thing, or you can explore a variety of solutions that are tailored to local communities and landscapes.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy does the latter. That’s why you see farmers planting cover crops, building terraces, planting grassed waterways and other grassy buffers, using technology to apply a precise amount of fertilizer, varying the number, timing and amount of fertilizer applications, and more.

If that sounds complicated, just remember that when it comes to a complex issue like water quality, it’s never just about one “player” or “play”. We need a whole team and a full playbook to get the job done.

By Rick Robinson. Rick is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Environmental Policy Advisor.


Dietitian: Start with small changes to your diet

January 7, 2015

My PlateAfter a month of holiday eating and indulging, it’s no surprise that “losing weight” is the most common New Year’s resolution for Americans in 2015.

We’ve all been tempted to follow a diet plan that looks simple when you read it online – cutting out all sugar and “white” carbs, drinking green smoothies, not eating after 7 p.m.

Then we discover how impossible it is to turn down a piece of birthday cake, or to wake up before dawn to chug liquefied kale and stir a pot of steel-cut oats.

But don’t give up on your healthy-eating goals just because you couldn’t stick to a trendy diet. Eating healthier shouldn’t be difficult or restrictive, says Rachael Wall, a nutrition and health specialist for Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach in eastern Iowa.

Instead, making small changes is the key to success, whether you’re trying to lose weight or adopt a healthier lifestyle, Wall explains.

“A lot of people don’t know where to get started. We are bombarded with information, and it’s hard to sort through what’s fact and what’s fiction,” Wall says. “So I encourage people to start small. You don’t have to overhaul your entire diet to be healthy.”

For a healthy-eating strategy that you can stick with, think about the positive, or what you can add to your diet, Wall says.

Adding more fruits and vegetables is a good place to start. Wall encourages Iowans to follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines.

MyPlate recommends filling one-half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one-quarter with lean protein and one-quarter with whole grains, plus a low-fat dairy serving. (Visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov for more information and recipe ideas.)

“Because fruits and vegetables are higher in fiber and concentrated source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are beneficial for us, we may not be as hungry for the potato chips and ice cream or whatever it may be. It’s not that we can’t eat those things, but in moderation,” Wall says.

Healthy eating also doesn’t have to break your budget. Wall recommends checking out the “Spend Smart Eat Smart” website by ISU Extension and Outreach to find simple, inexpensive and healthy recipes.

ISU Extension staff tests all the recipes on the website to make sure the meals are easy to prepare. Wall says one of her favorite new recipes on the site is butternut squash enchiladas, a tasty dish to add more veggies on your dinner plate.

And while a few so-called diet gurus promote “organic” foods as healthier, research has shown that organic foods aren’t any more nutritious or safer than foods raised conventionally, Wall notes.

“It’s really a personal preference option,” Wall says. “If someone wants to choose organic and spend a little more, that’s their personal preference. But from a food safety and nutritional standpoint, one isn’t superior over another.”

Dr. Ruth MacDonald, chair and professor of Iowa State University’s Food Science and Human Nutrition department, also explains the differences between organic and conventional foods on the Best Food Facts website.

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


Iowa Agriculture’s Greatest Hits of 2014

December 30, 2014

agriculture economic impact, IowaPrediction: January 1, 2015 will look a lot like December 31, 2014.

Isn’t that great news?!

While some may want to wipe the slate clean this New Year, the foundation we’ve built here in Iowa, supported by agriculture’s long-standing contributions to our economy and our communities, isn’t something to throw away with our old calendars.

That’s not to say Iowa has “arrived,” economically, environmentally, or otherwise. Nor is it meant to be cold water for anyone who’s hoping to make constructive changes. It’s an acknowledgment that we are who we are, and (fortunately) that’s something we can embrace!

Here’s a short list of Iowa agriculture’s greatest hits of 2014. Let’s hope some things stay the same in 2015:

1 in 5 Iowans work because of agriculture

According to the 2014 Iowa Ag Economic Contribution Study, one in five Iowans go to work because of agriculture (up from one in six in 2007), and ag-related industry is responsible for 33 percent of Iowa’s economic output (up from 27 percent in 2007). Livestock farming, alone, is responsible for $31.6 billion in Iowa’s economy and 122,764 jobs.

Even if agriculture isn’t your thing, the diverse opportunities created by agriculture will almost certainly intersect with and/or facilitate a field that touches you, whether it’s science, precision technology, manufacturing or anything related to food and renewable energy, just to name a few.

Record enrollment of and demand for ag students

It’s no secret that Iowa’s farm population and rural communities are aging. But you may not realize that Iowa’s students are taking a renewed interest in agriculture.

For the third consecutive year, Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences set an enrollment record. And nearly half (49 percent) of the undergraduate students in the college are women, up nine percent from 2004. As a result of its booming enrollment in a high demand field, the college’s career day attracted a record number of businesses and organizations this year.

In the past, I’ve spoken with peers who believe Iowa needs to downplay its “stale” farm image when marketing itself to young workers and their families. To the contrary; it appears the state has an opportunity to invite more young Iowans to participate in the rapidly-developing opportunities that modern farming and agriculture offer.

Growing enthusiasm for conservation

Farmers understand the urgent need to protect our soil and water quality. And while they have been working to protect the environment for years, Iowa’s new Nutrient Reduction Strategy (a science and technology-based plan to conserve the state’s soil and protect its water quality) has challenged them to take their efforts to a new level.

Farmers responded loud and clear in 2014.

Iowa farmers used at least $13 million of their own money and leveraged $9.5 million in state soil and water conservation cost-share funding to implement more than $22 million in conservation structures and practices in 2014. The $22 million figure is a recent (and likely an all-time) record.

State and federal officials (including the EPA) agree that Iowa’s water quality initiative is off to a great start and that we’ll need more of the same gusto to keep the ball rolling in 2015.

Renewable Energy Use Grows

Iowa has led the nation in biofuel production for years, reducing America’s need for imported oil and saving drivers money at the tank.

Earlier this year, we also learned that Iowa receives about 27 percent of its energy from wind, more than any other state.

Like Iowa’s ethanol industry, the state’s wind-generating capacity didn’t pop up out of nowhere. Yes, it began with a vision, but unwavering resolve in the countryside has helped get the job done.

In fact, that same dogged determination helps explain the other hits on this list as well. So, while you’re busy thinking up new resolutions for the New Year, resolve to continue doing and supporting the things that make Iowa great.

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


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