Flush out the truth

May 26, 2009

Conservation LakeTwitter gives its users 140 characters to tell a story, and You Tube videos are only effective if they’re 45 seconds or shorter, according to the company’s Creative Innovationist. Why? Today’s news seekers demand quick-hitting answers. We want to know that there’s a clear-cut problem and a simple solution, as long as the solution doesn’t inconvenience us. Tell us who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and don’t hassle us with too many details.

But as famed journalist William Feather once said, “beware of the man who won’t be bothered by details.” Understanding the particulars is crucial when it comes to complex issues like water quality protection. That doesn’t stop animal and environmental activists from blaming almost all of Iowa’s water quality issues on modern agriculture. But blaming water pollution on farming oversimplifies the issue. And, because only three percent of Iowa’s population farms, activists know they won’t upset the average Joe by claiming that only farmers are to blame.

Protecting our water isn’t accomplished by a snappy one-liner or sound bite, and focusing on one industry while ignoring the rest won’t get the job done either. In fact, the number of reported municipal releases over the past two years is nearly 15 times greater than the number of manure releases that have had an impact on surface water according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources data (http://www.iowadnr.gov/). There have been at least 361 municipal discharges of 87.6 million total gallons since January 2007, and that figure doesn’t even include the sewage discharges resulting from excess rainfall, an “act of God” or the nearly 700 unsewered communities across Iowa. Yuck!

Municipal discharges aren’t the only urban threats to our water. There are storm water runoff pollution threats in every watershed in Iowa and across the country. Just ask the EPA (http://www.epa.gov/weatherchannel/stormwater.html). Excessively applied fertilizer on lawns and golf courses often ends up washing away, and impervious surfaces – including roads and parking lots – carry everything from motor oil and pet waste to cigarette butts into our streams.

Can agriculture play a part in improving Iowa’s water quality? Absolutely, and farmers today have invested in protective buffer strips that filter sediment. Iowa leads the nation in acres devoted to buffer strips. Iowa farmers have also enrolled over 80,000 acres of former cropland in the Wetland Reserve Program, ranking eighth in the nation. Wetlands protect towns and cities against storm surges and buffer coastal areas from erosion. And the Conservation Technology Information Center (http://www.ctic.purdue.edu/) recently announced that Iowa farmers used soil-saving conservation tillage on more than a million additional acres – an 8.5 percent increase – in 2007 (the most recent data available).

Responsible farmers understand that improving our state’s water quality requires an unwavering commitment. They continue to add conservation structures and repair those damaged by last year’s flooding. Those efforts will be better coordinated by the establishment of a Water Resources Coordinating Council, established by the Iowa State Legislature to coordinate water quality issues. “Iowa has the structure in place to devise the plan and set priorities,” says Iowa Farm Bureau environmental advisor Rick Robinson. “The sooner they get a game plan together, the sooner we make progress.” That will require a collective effort and some attention to detail.

Written by Zach Bader
Zach is a Communications Specialist for Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Discovering Iowa

May 22, 2009

Scenic Dairy FarmTwo-thousand-450 miles—that’s how far I traveled in the last 10 days. I could’ve driven to San Francisco or Miami (with miles to spare) or for that matter, gone three-quarters of the way to Anchorage.  But, no; I wanted to see Iowa from the road.  To be more specific—I wanted to see northern Iowa.

Northern Iowa—home to rolling hills so green this time of year that the intensity of color almost makes you wince; northern Iowa–home to vast woods, wildlife, winding rivers, terraced farm fields, friendly waves from farmers in tractors, hearty meals (for under $5!) and homemade rhubarb pie so good one bite will melt away memories of rush hour traffic and stacked-up Inboxes.  I was traveling through a dozen towns in northern Iowa to meet with farmers, newspaper and radio reporters; but I was also making a mental note to take a fresh look at the state I’ve called home for decades. 

I liked what I saw.  And, if you’ve spent most of your time in the ‘burbs’ of Iowa—you’d find plenty to like, too.   

So, stop listening to crabby nay-sayers who roll their eyes and crow that rural Iowa is dead.  Stop believing people who say “there’s nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to see” in Iowa.  And most-importantly, start questioning folks who say all of rural Iowa stinks because of livestock.  I saw livestock of every kind in every county (even goats and lamas!).  Contrary to what some may write; on the days of this Iowa Road Trip; the air smelled of mowed grass, lilacs, dusty roads and the faraway sweet scent of fired-up barbeque grills.

Folks opposed or concerned about modern livestock farms too often pen articles without ever setting a foot, much less a tire, in rural Iowa.  I counted 47 livestock confinement farms and I know there were many more.  There were dozens of open-feedlot livestock farms, too.  But even with the windows down—I could smell the open feedlots but not the confinement barns.  I know it was just two days out of 10.  And, having grown up on a livestock farm (open feedlot) there’s no doubt about it; once the manure is moved it can smell. 

I want to tell folks about the good things of rural Iowa and livestock, because I’ve seen how negative thoughts and criticisms are passed from one person to another—simply because it’s easier to re-tell, than discover the answer for oneself.  I think it’s safe to say that modern farms, if they’re managed responsibly, don’t smell the majority of time.  But don’t take my word for it: 

(Check this out: http://www.4cleanair.org/Documents/IowaAFOstudy.pdf )

The reality is; since we have more people than ever to feed in this world and economic times are tough; we need modern livestock production.

So before you turn up your nose (literally) at livestock farmers or rural Iowa, I hope you take the time to actually drive the countryside and soak up the beauty of the season.  You’ve got a long weekend to take it all in—and I guarantee you can have a great time for a lot less by staying in any one of the hundreds of B&B’s across rural Iowa.  Most of all, I hope you give rural Iowans a chance to show their hospitality.   Check out local cafes—the kinds that have local farmers, businessmen, moms and retirees lining the counters, happy to chat about anything-ranging from the weather to parenting to Dancing With the Stars–expect them to fuss over you until you order a slice of their homemade pie, (I’d recommend the rhubarb.)

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

A toast to Iowa’s dairy donation

May 20, 2009

The Midwest Dairy Association, with support from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, donated $65,000 in dairy products to Iowa's six food banks. Dairy farmers Joe Lyon of Tama County, left, and  Jason Brockshus of Osceola County helped with the presentation.

The Midwest Dairy Association, with support from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, donated $65,000 in dairy products to Iowa's six food banks. Dairy farmers Joe Lyon of Tama County, left, and Jason Brockshus of Osceola County helped with the presentation.

As a reporter, I never know what I’ll get at a press conference. It might be a news-worthy event or just a stunt to milk some free publicity. Recently, I covered a dairy announcement that definitely deserved front-page billing.

While plummeting milk prices and skyrocketing feed costs are keeping many of Iowa’s dairy farmers awake with worry at night, Joe Lyon has a different perspective.

“Milking gets me up in the morning and helps me get to sleep at night,” said Lyon who operates a herd of 300 Jersey cows in Tama County with his family. His idea to help families in need spurred the Midwest Dairy Association to donate $65,000 to Iowa food banks.

“The dairy business has been good to us,” said Lyon standing next to a display of jugs of milk, cartons of yogurt and nearly a ton of cheese. “It’s a little tough going now, but it’s the same for other industries.”

Tough going means that dairy farmers are losing money every month because it costs more to feed their cows than what they make selling the milk. It means that many of them are opting to cull their cows, which is to sell them to become hamburgers instead of milkshake-makers.

Many dairy farmers are reaching the breaking point and may simply decide that they’ve reached the end of the road. This spring, former Iowa State University Extension dairy specialist Robert Tigner said Iowa will most likely lose some smaller dairy operations.

Tough going is an understatement. Hanging on for dear life might be more accurate.

But, instead of looking for a handout, like many big businesses have done, Lyon would rather help out.

“I got to thinking about how we can help others,” he said. “I hope it will inspire others, because dairy farmers really care about their fellow man.”

The $65,000 donation will help Iowa’s six food banks offer dairy products and health information to those in need for the next 12 months. Carrie Miller, with the Des Moines-area food bank, which serves 42 counties and 285 partner agencies, said it’s a challenge to keep dairy products on hand and the donation would definitely serve that critical need.

Food bank products are distributed at missions, soup kitchens and through other organizations that help people who are in need of food.

“This is amazing and it’s heartwarming to see dairy farmers be so generous now, when people are in need more than ever,” said Miller.

In all honesty, Lyon could probably qualify as someone in need. But he doesn’t see it that way.

He’s hardworking, humble and extremely proud of his family’s profession.

“My family is proud to raise a wholesome, nutritious product,” said Lyon simply. “And we all need help sometimes in our lives.”

Written by Heather Lilienthal
Heather is an Ag Commodities Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Good news for ag grads and kids in cow suits

May 18, 2009

I was a cow. No, I’m not on medication, and I haven’t called Jenny Craig. I’m referring to my summer as an intern for the Waterloo Bucks, a college baseball team in eastern Iowa.

Unlike the players they watch on TV, baseball interns don’t live charmed lives. In fact, the most glamorous part about interning for a baseball team is helping out with on-field promotions in between innings, like Waterloo’s cow-tipping contest. Yeah, cow-tipping. An intern dressed as a cow runs out to centerfield and rings a cowbell. Blind-folded contestants ramble toward the intern, and the first one to topple him wins. Again, that was the highlight of the job.

But even if the best part of your day is like waiting to be sacked by a 300 pound lineman – without a quarterback’s hazard pay – you still feel lucky to have a paying job when you’re 19. Adults and students looking for work in today’s tight job markets would agree. Fortunately, the job forecast isn’t so dire in Iowa, especially for students graduating with degrees in agriculture. Just ask Mike Gaul, director of career services at Iowa State University, who recently stated that students with degrees in agriculture and life sciences are still in pretty good shape.

Last month the Des Moines Register reported that Iowa’s unemployment rate climbed to 5.2% in March (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20090418/BUSINESS/904180336/-1/LIFE04). That’s not great news, but 5.2% is better than the 8.5% national unemployment rate, and only four states fare better than Iowa. Plus, some analysts believe that the state’s economic decline is ending and that the farm sector, which has helped keep Iowa out of a deeper recession, will be instrumental in its recovery.

That is a good sign for Iowa families. It should also be encouraging for high school students who need cash to make their car payments and college students who dress up as cows to pay their tuition.

Approximately one of every six Iowans is employed by agriculture or ag-related manufacturing. Cow mascots probably aren’t included in that figure, but baseball teams can only pay their staff if their patrons are spending money at the ballpark. In other words, the Bucks need patrons from ag-based companies like John Deere, Waterloo’s largest employer. The same goes for other Iowa businesses selling their goods and services.

No one’s asking you to hug a farmer, although hugging is better than tackling. Just realize that they play a vital role in your community and our economy, even if you don’t see them every day.

Written by Zach Bader

Zach is a Communications Specialist for Iowa Farm Bureau.

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A learning experience for all

May 15, 2009

More than anything, I didn’t want to be “that mom” to my daughter’s fifth-grade teacher. You see, I was very concerned about a writing assignment with a slightly anti-animal agriculture slant.

The class had read a book called “The Night Before Thanksgiving,” a seemingly-innocent tale about a group of school children who visit a turkey farm. They discover what Farmer Mack Nugget, whose illustrations become dark and shadowy, has in mind for their feathered friends, so they rescue the birds and they all celebrate a “living” Thanksgiving.

The assignment was to write a persuasive letter to the farmer from the turkey’s point of view, pretty much begging him to spare its life.

I watched my daughter set her wheels in motion. She’s a great writer with a wonderful imagination and she quickly developed an email campaign that would be sent to the farmer’s in-box.
As a mom, I was thrilled to see her initiative at the creative writing assignment.

As a livestock writer, I was worrying about a classroom of kids that could be developing a biased perspective of agriculture. The book didn’t offer an accurate portrayal of how a farmer really runs his farm, how he offers his livestock access to shelter, food and medical attention; much like he or she does for his or her own family members. Modern livestock facilities that employ strict biosecurity measures help control the spread of possible disease and even protect animals from diseases carried by birds.

Today’s farmers know exactly how much food an animal needs to grow, how much room they need to safely deliver their young and how to identify possible health conditions. Animal agriculture is so much more than reducing it to a sinister drawing of a sneering farmer holding an ax. To live in a state that is the top producer of products such as pork, eggs and corn, kids need to be learning about agriculture.

So, even though I didn’t want to be “that mom,” who tells the teacher what I think she should be doing in her classroom; I knew that I couldn’t be “that ag writer” who didn’t speak up for agriculture and try to get some accurate information into the classroom.

So I wrote my own persuasive letter to my daughter’s teacher. I explained my perspective as an agriculture-related employee and the wife of a former farmer.

It really turned into a learning experience for everyone involved. The teacher was happy to host an area farmer in the classroom, allowing the kids to learn about a livestock operation and ask questions.
I worked with Cindy Hall, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s Ag in the Classroom coordinator for Dallas and Polk counties. She worked with the teacher and arranged the visit.

The kids’ questions were amazing, ranging from wondering how much it cost to feed and raise a herd of cattle, to why chemicals are used on fields, to why animal identification with ear tags is so important.
But they never questioned the ultimate reason for farming: to feed a hungry world. When the farmer said he worked as hard as he did to help raise an animal to become a tasty steak, no one batted an eye.
Well, maybe my daughter rolled her eyes at her mom a bit when I attended the classroom session and took notes and photos. But I was proud to be both a caring mom and a responsible farm writer.
That I could live with.

How do you handle situations like that? Do you speak up or stay silent? Has your child learned about agriculture at school, beyond the apple orchard visit? All it takes is a phone call…or even a persuasive letter (or email) to bring a farmer’s story to the classroom.

Written by Heather Lilienthal
Heather is an Ag Commodities Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

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May 13, 2009

Changing the perspective of the camera changes the perspective of the image

Changing the perspective of the camera changes the perspective of the image

As a photographer for 15 years one of the most important tools I use is perspective. I always have to be mindful of how an image is made and often I will change my perspective several times, looking to see if an image could be improved from a different vantage point.

But perspective shouldn’t just be used in photography. I believe that using common sense means looking at all of the perspectives. One illustration came to mind recently while reading a book called “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson. It describes Chicago in the late 19th Century as a dirty and polluted city. The book describes in vivid detail the grotesque living conditions. Air was black during the winter months from all of the coal stoves used for heating homes, rotting horse carcasses were simply left on the side of the street until spring and drinking water was polluted with lead and other contaminates from tainted wells and corroding pipes. Much of that pollution along with raw sewage, it turns out, was carried away from the city via the Chicago River into Lake Michigan where it was said the stain could be seen stretching for miles.

Reading those descriptions made me examine my perspective on the variety of messages that we receive on a daily basis about environmental pollution today. We hear everyday about global warming, endangered waters lists and acid rain. Do I believe that we need to take care of our environment and be mindful of ways to conserve for the future? You bet. But perspective tells me that things were much worse 100 years ago when our economy, lifestyles and education dictated that pollution in the emerging cities would just be a way of life.

As I’ve taken photos I’ve traveled though many of the cities and towns of Iowa and have been to hundreds of farms across the state. I’m proud of the fact that farmers are proactive in protecting and improving the state’s clean air, water and soil. Iowans lead the country in land stewardship, with the most conservation buffer strips, that prevent soil erosion and protect water quality. We’re also leaders in the development and production of clean fuels like ethanol and bio-diesel. Add wind energy add bio mass fueled energy to that list and you can start to gain a perspective on where we are today compared to a century ago. I also have no doubt that environmental stewardship techniques developed in the 20th century will only be refined to be more efficient as we make our way through the 21st century.

We need to keep all this in mind when we watch the nightly news and hear a barrage of messages about the environment. Sometimes it’s good to change your perspective by looking back at the past to realize how far we’ve come in improving the environment. It’s difficult to see that we are truly better off today if you are just focused on the static.

Written by Joe Murphy
Joe is a photgrapher for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Crowbars, Flu & Scary Things

May 11, 2009

It was four-feet long, rusted, with a vicious-looking hook on one end; yep—it was a crowbar. My husband found it in our backyard, resting up against the fence like it had been there for years—belonged there. But we knew better.

Someone left it there in a big hurry. And (I ask) what business does a stranger have in a person’s backyard with a crowbar? I’m sure you can answer that yourself. Combine that with the fact that about a week later, West Des Moines police put out a warning about a series of break-ins and assaults—and, well, you can see why I was thinking it was somehow safer back when I lived in the country. Or was it?

Columnist Lenore Skenazy’s book, “Free-Range Kids” claims, among other things, that we don’t necessarily live in more dangerous times; it’s that we read about the dangers lurking, criminals prowling, predators preying around every corner more often. 

Having been in the news business for 25 years, I know that fear sells. Scare ‘em, get ‘em to watch, read, listen; convince them that if they don’t watch for your latest updates, they put themselves at risk. A kind of ongoing fear obsession ensues until they end up like my late grandmother (God rest her soul) who in Clarion, Iowa was so afraid of crime that she locked herself out of her own house at least 30 times. Did I mention she did that while she was standing on the front porch? She was not alone. 

Iowans love to be scared because ultimately, we live in a very safe place. That’s why a chance of a snowstorm in Iowa in the winter (um, imagine that?) gets top billing—and has people rushing to the grocery store to ‘stock up’ (heaven forbid they run out of luncheon meat and can’t make it to the corner handimart!). 

Using fear to sell a story is also why a story about a new flu strain gets ‘round the clock coverage’ and breathless updates from scientists who claim, although it is mild, it has reached pandemic stage and claimed (as of this publication) three lives in the U.S. Even though they say it is getting milder and could ‘ease in future weeks’, the newcasters flash a smile and say, with hurried emphasis-“but it could make a resurgence this fall”. Yes, Influenza-A gets headline coverage, but what’s even sadder is that perennial coverage of the regular flu that claims 36,000 lives a year ranks gets a ‘ho-hum, same ole’, same ole’ yawn from the media. (“The regular flu? What’s scary about that?”) Meanwhile, the facts that could actually ease fears, get little ‘play’ in the media, (check this out )

So then, I get back to this idea that today’s ‘Free Range’ children should be allowed to ride their bikes, walk to school in their own neighborhood and fear-mongering parents should loosen the reigns a bit. Skenazy says, “The crime rate today is equal to what it was in the 70’s. If you were a child in the ’70s or the ’80s and were allowed to go visit your friend down the block, or ride your bike to the library, or play in the park without your parents accompanying you, your children are no less safe than you were. But it feels so completely different, and we’re told that it’s completely different, and frankly, when I tell people that it’s the same, nobody believes me. We’re living in really safe times, and it’s hard to believe,” says Skenazy.

My 12-year-old daughter was the one who threw my own safety paranoia in my face. Even after I (calmly and without alarm) updated her on the importance of washing her hands and the crowbar incident last week, she said—with some eye-rolling, that ‘geesh Mom, don’t you think I know that? There are other things to be scared of, like my geography test this Friday on Canada.’ While that doesn’t address the crowbar issue, I guess I have to admit; a geography test is certainly bound to have a greater, ‘real-world impact’ on our kids than the journalist-induced fear frenzy of Influenza A.

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

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