Misplaced blame

March 31, 2011

This spring we’re seeing and hearing a lot about rising prices in the supermarket. And just like a few years ago, ethanol is taking a lot of heat over it. Food aid groups, global food companies and consumer activists have all taken their turns beating up on biofuels, accusing them of being behind food price increases.

On the surface, the argument almost seems plausible. If some corn is used to make fuel, there must be less of it for food. But, for many reasons, this argument is way off base. Here are a few facts to keep in mind next time you hear someone bashing biofuels on the news or at a backyard barbeque.

First, contrary to what you might have heard, ethanol production actually uses only a tiny percentage of the world’s grain supply. And virtually none of it is grain that people actually eat, like rice and wheat. Instead ethanol is primarily made from feed corn, the kind we mostly grow here in Iowa to feed hogs, chickens and cattle. The sweet corn we eat off the cob or from a can has never been used for ethanol.

A little bit of the country’s feed corn is ground up to make corn flakes and other foods. But ethanol isn’t behind any price hikes there, either. Only about 5 percent of the price you pay for a box of corn flakes is actually the cost of the grain. Most of what you pay for in a box of cereal goes for other things, like manufacturing, packaging, marketing and transportation.

Another fact often overlooked is that corn ends up as livestock feed even after it’s been used to make ethanol. More and more farmers use a co-product of the ethanol process, called dried distillers grains, to feed livestock.

But perhaps the biggest mistake of the “blame ethanol crowd” is underestimating the production capabilities of American farmers. Yes, ethanol has increased the demand for corn, but farmers have more than responded. These days corn harvests of 12 billion bushels or more are typical in the United States. That size of a corn harvest would have been astonishing only a decade ago, when crops of 8 billion bushels or so were the norm. The bottom line: Farmers have been able to grow plenty of corn for both food and fuel. And by increasing efficiency and adopting new technology, farmers have been able to grow all of that additional corn on only a few more acres while reducing their environmental footprint.

So what’s behind the rise in food prices? No matter what you might hear, oil prices remain the biggest factor. Food companies, just like you and me, are paying more for the petroleum they use to process and deliver their products. The companies, which want to protect their profits, are passing those costs onto consumers, just as they did the last time gas prices spiked.

Instead of being part of the problem, biofuels really are part of the solution to volatile petroleum –and food— prices. By producing more of our fuel at home, the United States can finally start to kick its addiction to foreign oil. That can lead to more stable and affordable fuel, and food. And this first generation of corn-based production is paving the way for making fuel out of other things, like corn stalks, municipal waste and algae. With more home-grown fuels in our tanks, we’ll have leverage to tell the oil sheiks and dictators to “shove it” when they try to hold Americans over a barrel at the gas pump or at the supermarket.

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the news services manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Thunderstorms, Small Dogs & the “Smell” Of Fear

March 25, 2011

It started with sirens, warning the approach of a severe storm. We weren’t surprised when winds bent and shook the last winter-weary leaves off the trees. We weren’t surprised when our dog continued to snooze on the sofa while marble-sized hail pelted the roof, but it was surprising how fast the portly canine maneuvered under the coffee table, with the first crack of thunder.

“Everyone has something that sets them off” my Grandma Ella used to say. Surprising new research on asthma finds that thunderstorms can be the trigger that “sets off” an asthma attack for some patients.

According to researchers at Nassau University Medical Center and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, thunderstorms are just one of the surprising triggers for asthma. Researchers say it may be the stress of thunderstorms or the high levels of pollen released into the air during a storm which triggers an attack in some asthma patients.

But, it doesn’t stop there; laughter, crying or extreme emotional states can also prompt an asthma attack by changing breathing patterns and restricting air flow. So can cigarette smoke, aspirin, food additives, acid reflux, or even alcohol. But, noticeably absent from the ‘trigger list’, was the proximity to a modern hog barn. That ‘set me off,’ considering the ‘stink’ made by the Washington, DC-based Environmental Integrity Project, (EIP) in their recent report on alleged air quality impacts of livestock farms.

EIP says a Purdue University study proves modern livestock farming has made some rural areas dirtier than America’s most polluted cities. EIP claims emissions from modern hog barns have negative health risks for all who work in them or come in contact with them, ranging from respiratory problems, eye irritations, neurological damage, you name it. Since livestock farming is such a cornerstone to Iowa’s economy, such a story could rumble across the state faster than an approaching thundercloud.

But, I’m no researcher, so, I asked Dr Hongwei Xin, Director of the Egg Industry Center and Professor of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering and Animal Science department at Iowa State University, to take a look at the EIP report. In layman’s terms, Dr Xin says the report has ‘enough holes to drive a truck through’. But in scientific terms, Xin says a “critical flaw with the report is that they are trying to mistakenly apply the study results to human health, by mixing the exhaust/barn concentration levels with the ambient air quality (health) standards. They should know that the general public does not live, thus breathe air, next to the exhaust fans or even within certain vicinity of the production facilities. Also, workers taking care of the animals routinely protect themselves by wearing dust and gas masks,” says Xin.

Having grown up on a livestock farm and been inside more than 30 others (so far), I know that, ‘yes’, waste from animals stink just like….you would expect. But, scientists who work intensely with air emission data from all types of livestock say smell alone doesn’t equal negative health effects from well-managed livestock farms. Teaching Iowans to cower in fear from the smell of livestock farms makes as much sense as teaching a dog to head for the underside of a coffee table at the first clap of thunder.

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

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Ag knowledge

March 23, 2011

As Iowans, we drive past corn and soybean fields, hog barns and cattle pastures every day on our way to work, school or town.

Because we live in the heart of farm country, we may think we have a pretty good understanding of how agriculture works, especially compared to East Coast urbanites.

But in reality, how much do we truly know about farming? Is our knowledge based on past experiences of growing up on a farm, or maybe visiting a farm or two? Do we understand how and why today’s farmers use modern technology to raise crops and livestock for a growing world population while using fewer resources?

That was clear to me a few weeks ago when I visited West Hancock Elementary in the rural town of Britt to catch up with the North Iowa Ag in the Classroom team. They were teaching first graders about the many uses for Iowa-grown corn.

Brenda Adams, one of the Ag in the Classroom coordinators, said she recently gave a presentation to young students explaining how corn is turned into ethanol to fuel cars. Adams noted that one of the byproducts of ethanol production is dried distillers grains, or DDGS, which are fed to cattle and hogs so nothing goes to waste.

After class, a teacher told Adams that she never knew there was such a thing as DDGs – and she lives on a working farm.

The teacher isn’t alone. Even though I grew up on a farm and have worked at Farm Bureau for many years, there’s still so much I don’t know about farming today. Agriculture is so dynamic today, it’s really hard to keep up.

I hate to admit how old I was before I learned that field corn is food for livestock, not people. When I was a little girl, my dad told me that the corn he delivered to the elevator would end up as corn flakes. I thought my dad was the smartest person in the world, so of course I believed him.

Now I know he was partly right – corn flakes are just one example of the thousands of food, feed, medical and industrial uses for the field corn grown in Iowa.

Every once and while, we all hear or read comments that make us question what we know about agriculture. Unfortunately, some people think that because they live near a farm, or eat corn flakes every day, it makes them an expert in agriculture. So they spread misinformation to their friends or on the Internet.

But just because we eat food doesn’t mean we’re farming experts, just like driving a car doesn’t make us qualified auto mechanics. Yes, we may question if we really need to replace the transmission fluid in the car, but we usually trust the mechanic to know what’s best.

Similarly, when we have questions about agriculture, it makes sense to turn to the experts: the farmers, Extension specialists, veterinarians, agronomists and agribusiness professionals who work on farms every day.

I have found that most farmers and ag specialists are thrilled to talk to folks about what they do for a living. They are proud of their role in feeding your family and people around the world.

You can also get an “ag education” from the comfort of your home by visiting the food and farming websites listed below. Who knows? You may discover something you never knew about agriculture.

On the Web: Best Food Facts (www.bestfoodfacts.org) – Terrific, interactive website where consumers can ask nutrition and ag experts about the foods they eat and how the food is raised. The website is updated frequently, so check back often for new questions and expert answers.

On Facebook: Real Farmwives of America (http://www.facebook.com/TheRealFarmwivesofAmerica) – So much better than those reality TV housewives, this group of farm women from across the country share daily Facebook updates on their families, friendships, farms and homes. I especially love all their wonderful recipe ideas!

On Twitter: Follow Iowa farmer Mike Ver Steeg (@foodprovider) to get a tractor-ride view of spring planting. Ver Steeg has more than 3,000 Twitter followers, and he welcomes conversation with each and every one.

On blogs: Get a glimpse of what it’s like to live and work on an Iowa farm by following two of my favorite bloggers, Liz at “Life as an Iowa Farm Wife” (http://iafarmwife.com/) and Sara at “Sara’s House HD” (http://sarashousehd.blogspot.com/).

Written by Teresa Bjork
Teresa is a features Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Ag aspirations and big dreams (guest blogger)

March 21, 2011

I have a small piece of paper hanging next to my desk at work. It bears the U.S. Department of Agriculture emblem and 5 simple words, “Never Let Your Dreams Falter.” I look at it and think back to what it took to get me here today, just a semester away from college graduation.

It was mid-December, near the end of my first semester at Iowa State University (ISU). Just a few days prior, I had responded to a posting on the college job board and there I was, walking to my interview. Google Maps told me it was just a measly seven-minute drive; a walkable distance, I thought – especially for someone unfamiliar with the CyRide bus system.

After covering two hills, five blocks and nearly the entire ISU campus, I began to think I was set up. It took me nearly one hour to cover that 3.1 miles in the dead of winter, but I made it and even got the job. On that first day at the Council for Agricultural Science & Technology (CAST), I hung up this small symbol that reminds me still today to focus on the road ahead and never let my dreams falter.

My advice for students is to stay informed. You can’t “talk the talk” or “walk the walk” if you’re out of the loop. I encourage students to embrace social media and utilize their Facebook and/or Twitter to follow industry-wide news, and gain a voice by engaging in these thought-provoking discussions.

As agriculturalists, it is critical that we are able to see both sides of an issue and can distinguish fact from fiction. Knowing where to find credible information is key. Take the opportunity to join a professional organization, network with industry leaders, and find unique internships. These sorts of experiences will help catapult you to the career you had always dreamed of.

About the blogger:
I am Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, currently a senior at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Business and International Agriculture and a minor in Agronomy. I was born and raised on a small family farm in Alburnett, an Eastern Iowa town of just 600 people. Following graduation I would like to continue my education, pursuing a degree in agricultural law. My ultimate career goal is to work with agricultural policy development, and possibly hold public office.

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Iowa not Idaho

March 17, 2011
Potato Farmer

John Kittleson stands in the sorting room of his family's historic potato farm near St. Ansgar, IA.

Tradition runs deep for the Kittleson Brothers farm in St. Ansgar, Iowa. John and Charles are the second generation to grow and sell potatoes and onions from their farm situated along the banks of the Cedar River.

In the late twenties at the beginning of the Great Depression two Kittleson brothers, Carl and Julius, started farming land close to Fertile, Iowa that had recently been drained from a lake. The soil rich in nutrients and made up primarily of peat turned out to be extremely fertile for growing potatoes and onions here in Iowa.

Potato Farmer Historic Photo

John Kittelson holds an old photograph of his father and uncle looking over some of the potatoes they grew and sold in the seventies.

“My father told me that in the twenties the government drained a lake and gave or sold the land at a cheap price to area farmers,” John said. “Over the years as farmers left the area my dad and uncle kept buying the land.”

Today as the peat slowly gives way to sand bars the two brothers continue to grow great tasting varieties of potatoes and onions. They operate a store on their century farm where people can stop buy from September to May and buy bags of fresh potatoes and onions that are locally grown.

A quick tour through the historic barn is also very interesting too. Much of the technology used to grow and clean the potatoes hasn’t changed over the years according to John. People can also find their potatoes in grocery stores across northern Iowa.

Here’s some great potato recipes you can enjoy after you visit the Kittleson Brothers farm: http://www.healthypotato.com/

Written by Joe Murphy
Joe is a photographer and writer for Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Caring and Calving

March 8, 2011

Half-way through a three month calving process Jonathan Hart makes his way out to a pasture next to his rural Centerville home. Battling a cold and fighting exhaustion from many sleepless nights, Hart moves with a determination as he rolls out hay bails for his cows and checks the health of newborn calves. Hart and many other farmers across the Midwest are deep into the annual ritual of spring calving and this year, at least for Hart, the weather has cooperated. The above video is a glimpse at the care and dedication farmers provide during the busy calving season.

Newborn Calf

Jonathan Hart holds one his newborn calves.

Written by Joe Murphy
Joe is a photographer and writer for Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Proud sponsor of Iowa high school athletics

March 3, 2011

From the moment every girl laces up her shoes and steps onto the hardwood court of her hometown school there is one goal in mind, to win a championship at the Iowa Girls High School State Basketball Tournament in Des Moines. That goal along with team work, dedication, hard work and determination is what Iowa Farm Bureau embraces as the corporate sponsor of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) and the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA).

If you take a walk through the halls of any high school in the state of Iowa you’ll find a display of trophies, plaques, photos and other memorabilia noting the accomplishments of its students. Among those mementos, you’re very likely to find a team plaque, banner or a championship ball – baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball, or football — with the Iowa Farm Bureau logo.

Farm Bureau knows that strong, vibrant schools are the cornerstone of many of our communities, that’s why we’ve partnered with the IGHSAU and the IHSAA. We believe that our kids are Iowa’s most important resource; after all they’re our future. That’s why Iowa Farm Bureau is proud to support them through grants, awards and scholarships that recognize their athletic and academic achievements.

Enjoy this video that celebrates the sights and sounds that makes the girls basketball tournament along with the boys wrestling and basketball tournaments cornerstones in our youth’s lives.

Written by Joe Murphy
Joe is a photographer and writer for Iowa Farm Bureau.

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