Learning about Ukrainian traditions from an Iowan

June 28, 2013

The Iowa farmers on the Black Sea study tour found a compatriot while traveling in central Ukraine. Jeff Rechkemmer of Olewein has farmed in Ukraine about a decade and each year divides his time between Ukraine, northeast Iowa and Texas.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation sponsored tour is designed to help Iowans learn about this region, which is expected to be a big competitor for Iowa crop exports in the coming years. Rechkammer’s farm tour was a true highlight, where farmers learned about farming in Ukraine and a lot more.

There are many similarities between farming in Iowa and Ukraine. Rechkemmer, who operates the Ukrainian farm with investors from the Netherlands, says his most profitable crops are corn and soybeans, the same as Iowa. And the farm’s tractors are big green John Deere models, mostly made in Waterloo.

But there are differences. For example, his tractors run 24-hours a day. If rains force the driver to stop, he stays in the tractor to wait until conditions improve. If the driver doesn’t stay with the tractor, the expensive machine is not likely to be there in the morning. As the major farmer and employer in his small community, Rechkemmer also takes on many social tasks, refurbishing the water tower, grading roads and even making sure needed caskets are built.

And the Iowa visitors found out other differences in Ukraine, like a noon day feast with many toasts for special occasions, such as a visit from farmers half-a-world away. As a gracious host to his fellow Iowans, Rechkemmer had his cooks set up an almost unbelievable spread. The long table at the farm’s dining hall groaned with so many traditional foods that it was nearly impossible to fit it all. And the food kept coming, with the servers hauling out plate after plate all through dinner.

As the eating commenced, Rechkemmer explained Ukrainian toasts, which are traditionally done with vodka. There are many, many toasts throughout the meal, but some of the most common in Ukraine are to women, men and horses. And they tend to go in that order.

The visitors took it in stride, toasted their spouses, cooks and many other things. They thanked their Iowa-Ukrainian host, boarded a bus and headed to the next farm on the itinerary over the country’s notoriously rough roads. Learning all the way.

Keep up with my Ukraine adventures.
Written by Dirck Steimel. Dirck is the editor of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.

Weather delays are hard to fly away from

June 25, 2013

Iowa farmers’ lives are always governed by weather. That holds true even when the job at hand is trying to travel to learn about farms that are half-way around the world.

A group of Iowa farmers left June 22 on an education tour to the Black Sea region of central Europe. The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation sponsored tour is designed to help Iowans learn about this region, which is expected to be a big competitor for Iowa crop exports in the coming years,

As they gathered at the Des Moines airport, many said they were relieved to be taking a couple-week break from farming. The extremely rainy spring weather in Iowa, they said, had made farming very frustrating and stressful. Break might be just what the doctor ordered..

But it didn’t work out that way. The volatile Midwest weather still bit the group.

The first outbound leg of the trip, a short hop from Des Moines to Detroit, ran into trouble when a pop up thunderstorm hit the southeast Michigan. The plane had to make an unscheduled stop in Flint, Mich., which set off a series of cascading travel problems.

First the farmers missed their flight to Europe, forcing an unscheduled overnight stay in Detroit, and trip to Boston, also unscheduled. After a short layover in Paris (the scheduled stop was Amsterdam), the Iowa Farm Bureau crew was able to make it to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. And, although not every member had luggage, they went to work, learning about local farming by talking with people from the Ukrainian Ag Ministry and the U.S. Embassy. Because as every farmer knows, no matter what the weather throws as you, you have to keep going to get the job done.

Stay tuned as I continue to share updates from our travels abroad.

Crop insurance: a prudent tool to protect farmers’ investments

June 21, 2013

Hamilton County 6-1-13aLately I’ve been visiting with a lot of farmers who’ve been slogging through the mud to get their corn and soybean fields planted. Most people figure about a million acres in Iowa just won’t be planted this spring because it’s been way too wet.

The irony is that a few months ago many of those same fields desperately needed moisture after Iowa was scorched by the worst drought since in a half century.

How do farmers survive in such erratic weather conditions? With a lot of hard work, patience and, like all prudent business people everywhere, they invest in insurance. With costs of seed, fertilizer and other supplies growing like weeds, it only makes sense to pay the premiums and buy insurance to help protect against weather risks as they work to put food on our tables, just as business owners buy insurance to protect their investments.

Lately some critics have complained that farmers are making unfair profits on crop insurance. They say farmers are actually praying for drought or other crop problems, so they can collect the insurance payouts.

That’s not at all what I see.

Actually, most years the premiums Iowa farmers pay to purchase crop insurance far exceed what they ever get back in payouts. Even after the drought last year, the farmers I talked with received some of the first insurance payouts in their farming careers.

It was the same around the country. After premiums and deductibles, farmers paid about $17 billion for crop insurance and received just about the same back in payouts after a drought that rivaled the Dust Bowl years.

And the dollars from those insurance payments aren’t lining farmers’ pockets. Farmers use them to buy seed, feed and other farm supplies, along with groceries, clothes and all of the other goods every family needs. And that helped propel Iowa’s overall economy forward, even with the devastating drought.

The accusation that farmers are praying for crop problems is really absurd. This spring I watched farmers continue to try to plant corn, even as the calendar flipped to mid-June and crop experts warned it was really too late to expect a normal harvest. It would have been have easy for farmers to throw in the towel because they had already paid premiums to buy crop insurance. But they kept looking for clear skies, drier fields and an opportunity chance to plant.

Raising food and providing consumers with the widest array of food choices in history is a risky business in increasingly erratic weather. It only makes sense for farmers, and for consumers, to protect those crops with insurance.

  Written by Dirck Steimel. Dirck is the editor of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.



June 14, 2013

bbq-2aThere are some things we can agree on that we don’t like about summers in Iowa: mosquitos, humidity, road construction.  But all are quickly forgotten once we catch the waft of juicy meat sizzling on the grill or pork ribs slowly smoking in the Cookshack.

Neighbors who were previously only seen waving from their cars in winter magically appear in our backyard to debate the finer points of meat rub recipes and barbeque sauces.  “Do you make your own rub? Do you sear the meat first? What’s the internal temperature?”  Such conversations are done in the same serious tones of nuclear physicists measuring alpha particles.  These are the Mensa’s of Meat.

Mensa’s of Meat congregate and compete each year at the Iowa Farm Bureau Cookout Contest (www.iowafarmbureau.com) at the Iowa State Fair.  This year will be the 50th Cookout Contest and I’m sure competition will be stiff as county Farm Bureaus begin their contests.   It’s intense, but it’s just as fun to stand on the sidelines and watch; hundreds of State Fair-goers do that (and get free samples in the meantime).

I, and other women in my neighborhood, have surrendered the whole meat grilling/smoking endeavor to our husbands.   Some of these men, who admittedly can’t seem to do a single load of laundry without turning everything gray, are transformed into subject matter Experts on Everything, simply by standing at their backyard smoker/grills.  They gather to debate every culinary detail and nuance of spice rubs and sauces: “You’ve added one teaspoon of cayenne, right? I use two, and a touch of cumin.”  

It’s refreshing to surrender the evening meal to the Mensa’s of Meat.  No challenge is offered, no criticisms leveled.  None dare; although I heard one year, one spouse got tired of waiting for dinner to start, so she went on the patio, lifted the lid of the smoker and complained loudly.  She hasn’t been seen since.

But seriously, I don’t  interrupt the bliss, the adventure, or traditional domain of the Mensa’s of Meat gathering.  Any attempt to enter the backyard and I get waved away by my husband, who is gamely armed with a rather ominous-looking stainless steel seasoning injector.  Our two small dogs hover nearby, sniffing the air, respected ancestral members of the same carnivorous pack, bound by a mutual pursuit of the perfect steak.   

Tonight, we’re having smoked pork ribs.  Or, so I’m told.  Don’t ask me how they’re done, or when they’ll be done, but the men and dogs are gathering.  The way I look at it; what better tribute to Father’s Day than to patiently pay homage to the Mensa’s of Meat?

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

Iowa is number one, and then some

June 12, 2013

New-Corn-and-Farmstead1Living in a less-populated state in the middle of the country, we Iowans at times can feel sort of overlooked. We have no oceans or mountains; no great big cities; nothing even close to a major league sports franchise.

But in agriculture Iowa stands very, very tall, according to a new government report.  And being farm strong translates into billions of dollars flowing into the state’s economy and thousands of jobs across our state.

Indeed, the value of cash receipts generated by Iowa agriculture surpasses all of our neighboring states and is second only to California, which specializes in fruits and vegetables.

Iowa is the country’s top state at producing corn and soybeans, the country’s two most valuable field crops used in a range of products from livestock feed and fuel to crayons, candles and medicines. The rising value of corn and soybeans in the past few years has translated into billions of added dollars flowing into Iowa.

We also set the pace in the production of hogs and eggs, more than doubling the number two states in both categories.

But the state’s ag strength goes a lot deeper than that.

Take exports, for example. Iowa tops the country in export value of corn (close to $900 million in 2012), soybeans (more the $400 million in 2012) and in frozen and chilled pork (nearly $1 billion in 2012). Throw in pork products, like hams and shoulders, and pork exports easily exceed the billion-dollar mark.

All of those exports are pumping new dollars into Iowa’s economy and creating jobs in our small towns and cities.

There are also some surprises in the report, which show the depth and diversity of Iowa agriculture.

Despite the state’s muscle in corn and soybean production, Iowa ranks ninth in the number of organic farms. And Iowa animal agriculture is not just about raising pigs and cattle. Iowa ranks third in milking goat numbers and tenth in wool production.

Strong, diverse and producing products that consumers here and around the world want, that’s a lot for Iowa to be proud of.

  Written by Dirck Steimel. Dirck is the editor of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.


Iowa’s fluffy cows go viral on social media

June 10, 2013

TexasTornado1I like to check in on Twitter throughout the day to keep up on the latest news. Earlier this week, I kept noticing tweets about “Fluffy Cows,” using the hashtag #fluffycows. Attached to the tweets were photos of cattle with their hair fluffed up so they looked like big, huggable Teddy Bears.

It turns out, the fluffy cows went “viral” on social media. People all over the world were tweeting about how the fluffy cows were the cutest thing on the Internet since, well, fluffy cats.

After a little online sleuthing, I traced the fluffy cows back to Iowa. Lautner Farms based in Adel is home to the original fluffy cow that started the social media sensation. Owner Phil Lautner specializes in genetics for club calves, which 4-H kids raise to show at their county fairs.

I wanted to learn more about how the “fluffy cows” got their start. So I called up Lautner Farms, and they forwarded me to their advertising specialist, Stephanie Steck.

Steck said the “fluffy cows” trend wasn’t a pre-planned social media campaign. Actually, it caught everyone at Lautner Farms by surprise.

The original “fluffy cow” photo was of a cross-bred bull named “Texas Tornado” taken at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. “Those pictures of him were taken this winter, when it’s the coldest time of the year, so he was really hairy,” Steck said.

Lautner Farms recently launched a new website. Someone discovered the “fluffy cow” photo on the website and posted it on Reddit, a social media hub for popular news, photos and videos. Soon, the hashtag #fluffycows became a trending topic on Twitter.

Yet the name “fluffy cows” didn’t come from Lautner Farms. In fact, the animal in the photo is a bull. Farmers know that bulls are males, and cows are females.

“I think we would be a little bit more responsible if we were going to name it,” Steck said. “But for those who don’t know, it’s a good entryway into real conversation about show cattle and beef production in general. We are hoping to embrace that part of it.”

So why are the “cows” fluffy? Lautner Farms does a great job of explaining in a statement to answer the many media calls:

“Behind the now famous #fluffycow phenomenon is families who work together year-round to make these steer and heifer projects look their best for the chance to walk through the show ring.

“This requires the youth showman to wash, comb and blow dry their animals’ hair daily – sometimes twice a day. Before the show, these animals are treated to a day at the ‘salon,’ where they use hair sprays, oils and clippers to cut, style and fluff up the hair. This is all in an effort to earn the attention of a judge, who evaluates the animals – not just for presentation of hair, but for other merits like carcass quality (for market animals) or breeding traits (for heifers and bulls).”

Steck said Lautner Farms is using the “fluffy cows” trend to start a conversation with consumers about modern-day cattle farming and how cattle provide so much for our lifestyles, from beef steaks and steaks to beef byproducts like insulin for diabetics.

To follow the latest fluffy cow photos and news from Lautner Farms, visit http://www.twitter.com/@fluffycowzz.

Written by Teresa Bjork, senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.





A muddy mess of a planting season

June 6, 2013

For most Iowa farmers, the spring of 2013 has been one of the most frustrating and difficult planting seasons in memory. And, unless conditions shift in a hurry, the wet conditions this spring are likely to have reverberations for farmers and consumers for months and years to come.

The wet spring has mostly been a nuisance for those of us who live in town. Maybe, it’s a wet basement, or a stalled flower garden, or a lawnmower that breaks down because we have to fire it up every other day.

But for farmers, the rainiest spring in Iowa’s history has severely delayed planting of corn and soybeans fields. That, experts say, is almost certain to dampen harvest prospects this fall. And with crop stockpiles at extremely low levels already, a smaller harvest could lead to continued cost pressure for livestock farmers, food processors and others who rely on corn and soybeans. Consumers too may feel the pinch from higher prices for meat and other products at the supermarket.

Here is  the official USDA report, which shows how the wet fields have delayed Iowa’s planting progress this spring.

The recurrent rain storms have turned fields, which were bone-dry through the winter, into wet and muddy swamps. That’s forcing farmers to make some very tough decisions as the calendar flips forward to mid-June.

Some farmers are trying to determine whether to keep trying to plant corn. Yield expectations decline for corn fields planted after June 1 and fall off sharply as the month progresses. Iowa State University agronomists say that farmers who plant corn after June 7 can expect only 70 percent of the yield potential of those planted on time, and by June 15 potential drops to 50 percent.

Soybeans mature in a shorter amount of time and can be planted later. But soybeans generally don’t have the income potential of corn, and soybean fields planted in June also tend to suffer yield declines compared to those planted earlier.

Even farmers with their fields planted can’t rest easy this spring. The heavy rains have left shallow ponds in many fields and the standing water could drown the young plants and force farmers to replant. And the risk of crop diseases tend to rise during wet years like this one is shaping up to be, so fields will likely need more intensive care this growing season.

In the end, a year that farmers hoped would help them recover from last year’s severe drought is not starting out well at all.

Sure, farming is always risky and Iowa weather can often be erratic. But to go from drought one year to this, that’s almost unbelievable. As one northwest Iowa farmer said as he watched a normally placid creek on his place become a raging river: “Last summer, I saw the bottom of creek beds I’ve never seen before. It’s definitely turned around.”

Written by Dirck Steimel. Dirck is the editor of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.

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