Sparking Iowa’s rural economy

February 24, 2016

Milkhouse CreameryWe focus a lot on our Farm Fresh blog about all the work that Iowa farmers do to fill our plates and conserve the water and land.

What we probably don’t discuss enough is how Iowa farmers, and Farm Bureau members, give back to their communities and benefit the rural economy each and every day.

County Farm Bureau boards volunteer at local community events and donate to help support hospitals, schools and fire and emergency crews in rural Iowa towns.

In turn, farmers also depend on Main Street businesses, such as when they need to make a quick run to the hardware store for parts, to swing by the grocery store for a gallon of milk or to gather at the local café to grumble about the weather and politics.

Plus, many farmers, their spouses or family members rely on off-farm jobs at rural companies and businesses to earn a steady income in the ever-volatile farm economy.

Iowa Farm Bureau’s Renew Rural Iowa program recognizes the importance of supporting rural entrepreneurs who help create jobs and make small Iowa towns vibrant, future-thinking places to call home.

Recently, Renew Rural Iowa presented Milkhouse Candle Co. in Osage with its Rural Entrepreneur Leader Award. Owners Eric and Janet Sparrow took a chance and decided to grow their Midwest-grown soy candle company by purchasing and renovating a shuttered soy wax candle manufacturing facility in New Hampton. In doing so, the company now employs more than 30 people – that’s 30 jobs that would have never materialized without the Sparrows’ vision.

Hoover’s Hatchery, a family-owned business located in nearby Rudd, was a finalist in the Dream Big Grow Here contest, sponsored in part by Renew Rural Iowa.

The Halsted family has grown their hatchery business by launching a website to sell and mail chickens to urban backyard farmers across the country. Because of the shift to online sales, Hoover’s Hatchery has doubled its workforce to 75 employees, with plans to continue expansions.

Renew Rural Iowa supports new and existing businesses through education, mentoring and financial resources. Throughout the year, Renew Rural Iowa hosts workshops for rural entrepreneurs. At a recent workshop, I met attendees who were launching Main Street retail shops, renewable energy companies and farms to supply locally grown meat and produce to grocery stores, to name a few.

Renew Rural Iowa program hit a milestone in 2015, with a total economic impact surpassing $125 million for our state’s rural communities, and it is looking to add to that this year. Learn more about the Renew Rural Iowa program, including upcoming workshops for rural entrepreneurs, at

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

Collaborating to keep animals healthy, antibiotics effective

February 22, 2016

Gio1 Shortly after my husband and I moved into our home, our dog, Giovanni, began scratching his face and biting his paws. He didn’t show these signs before we moved, so my husband and I were concerned. We took Giovanni to our veterinarian, Dr. Munger, who then performed several tests to determine the root causes of his problem. An allergy test showed that he was allergic to nearly everything: dirt, pollen, grass—everything found outside, basically.

While we couldn’t put our pup in a giant bubble to protect him, we were able to control his symptoms with medication.

Since then, Giovanni has developed other problems which require visits to our veterinarian. We keep in close contact with our vet to keep our dog healthy.

I saw that same kind of collaboration when I interviewed farmers and veterinarians for stories relating to changes in rules for administering antibiotics to farm animals.

Antibiotics are a key tool for livestock farmers. With proper veterinary oversight they use antibiotics to help keep herds healthy, so they can produce wholesome meat and milk for consumers. The livestock industry has been moving to take steps to ensure limited and judicious use of all antibiotics, not just those that are important for human medicine. And new guidance documents mean that livestock farmers will work even closer with their veterinarians to ensure judicious and proper use of antibiotics. You can a special report on antibiotic stewardship in livestock farming here.

At the same time, consumers have long been protected from antibiotic residues ending up in meat. U.S. farmers must follow a strict withdrawal period before they can send an animal treated with antibiotics to market, notes Peter Davies, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. If a cut of meat tests positive for antibiotic residues above a level deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is not allowed into the food supply, Davies said. Although research has never established a direct link between the use of medically important antibiotics used in raising food animals and antibiotic resistance, farmers and veterinarians are listening to consumers and are cautious in how they use antibiotics to treat livestock, Davies said.

Just as the farmer and veterinarian work to maintain proper antibiotic use in the care of their livestock, my husband and I work with our vet in the best interest of our dog.

Antibiotics--blog1Like veterinarians who work with livestock farmers, we have open communication with our veterinarian. We talk about ways we can help our dog at home, and then visit Dr. Munger if the problems persist or require her consultation.

When Giovanni later developed itchy skin, we called our veterinarian to determine if there was something we could do to make him feel better. Like a farmer, we wanted to manage his health in the best way before adding an antibiotic or medication to his daily routine. Our veterinarian suggested we strap on boots to Giovanni’s paws before he went outside. Then he wouldn’t be exposed to the dirt that was causing an allergic reaction. When the problem didn’t clear up after a few days, we took Giovanni to the veterinarian, where she provided a wellness exam and prescribed a medication to clear up his sores.

She called within a few days to make sure the medication was helping to treat his sores.

Since then, we’ve found that Giovanni has a reaction to chicken protein. He can’t have the food or treats that contain chicken. Dr. Munger helped us research foods that would work for his allergy, and he’s been doing great ever since.

I’m grateful that our veterinarian takes the time to not only educate us on best management practices in our home to treat our dog, but also uses her knowledge of available medications to make the best treatment decisions for Giovanni.

It’s because of the care Dr. Munger provides that Giovanni is a healthy, happy pup (and no longer has to wear boots outside).

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

A day in the life of an Iowa farm dog

February 18, 2016

Every dog has a job to do. Laurie Johns explores the unique role Iowa’s farm dogs play in her new “Between the Lines” column. Check it out!


Caring for animals at the Iowa Beef Expo

February 17, 2016

Earlier this week, photographer Gary Fandel and I ventured out to the Iowa State Fairgrounds for the Iowa Beef Expo. The expo celebrates the best in cattle genetics throughout the state, and welcomes participants from outside of Iowa as well.

From the miniature Herefords and the Charolais to the red Angus and the shorthorns, the event showcases various breeds of cattle raised in Iowa. It takes a great amount of work to care for cattle year-round, and these farmers are focused on not only cattle care and comfort, but also passing along the traits that make their individual breeds unique.

Here is a sample of what we saw at the Iowa Beef Expo.

Iowa Beef Expo

The event runs through February 21. For more information, go to Have questions about farm animal care? Visit

By Bethany Baratta. Bethany is the Commodities Writer for Iowa Farm Bureau.

GMO – Should we really “just label it”?

February 15, 2016

food labels“Just label it.” It’s the mantra of GMO opponents seeking mandatory labels on food products containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Strangely, the message is also gaining favor with some weary GMO supporters, like Mark Lynas – a former activist who used to destroy GMO crops.

“The reason I changed my mind [to support GMOs] is because the science is so clear on the GMO issue, in terms of the safety and the number of studies that have been conducted,” said Lynas at the American Farm Bureau Annual Convention earlier this year.

Clear, indeed.

The World Health Organization; the American Medical Association; the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – all of these scientific entities (and many more) vouch for the safety of GMOs. In fact, FDA has stated “the agency is not aware of any valid scientific information showing the foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class of food, differ from other foods in any meaningful way.”

So why label GMOs, when there’s no credible opposition to their safety or valid scientific proof that they differ from other food in any meaningful way?

“Mandatory labeling is a political compromise because there’s no scientific justification for it, but when enough people consider this to be an issue, I think you have to move,” said Lynas. He also reasoned that a mandatory label will diffuse activists and allow everyday Americans to feel less anxiety about GMOs once they see how ubiquitous they are.

While I admire Lynas’ courage to publicly admit he was wrong on GMOs and understand his pragmatic/psychological reasoning, I disagree with his conclusion for three key reasons:

1. A GMO label (which FDA asserts won’t tell us anything “meaningful” about our food), won’t help clear up rampant confusion.
2. Mandatory GMO labeling will cost us.
3. The fate of GMO technology matters.

Let’s take them one by one:

1. A GMO label won’t clear up confusion.

According to the Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index® (a Harris Poll survey of the factors driving Iowa grocery shoppers’ food purchases), 43 percent of Iowa grocery shoppers believe a “non-GMO” label on food indicates that it is safer.

In the same survey, when asked to name the source they trust most for information about GMOs, the highest percentage of shoppers ranked FDA number one. Remember them? They said that a “non-GMO” label is (essentially) meaningless.

Who do Iowa grocery shoppers ranked second, in terms of sources they trust for GMO information? Farmers! Farmers believe so firmly in the safety and benefits of GMOs (I’ll get into those in a minute), that 93 percent of Iowa’s corn acres and 95 percent of its soybean acres are GMO.

If Iowans are struggling to connect the facts on GMOs – when their trusted sources unanimously support GMOs – it is unlikely that a simple, “meaningless” GMO label will clear things up. If anything, I suspect the label will trigger a snap reaction, encouraging shoppers to avoid something they’re unfamiliar with.

Which wouldn’t necessarily matter (farmers are happy to grow the food that meets consumers’ preferences), if it didn’t have real consequences…

2. Mandatory GMO labeling will cost us.

Discouraging farmers from growing GMOs would mean forgoing (costing ourselves) the benefits of those crops (see #3), but the cost of mandatory GMO labeling is something we’d likely see on price tags as well. According to a study by a Cornell University professor, mandatory GMO labeling in New York would cost a family of four an additional $500 per year.

3. The fate of GMO technology matters.

Before we stigmatize technology that helps farmers use less pesticide; allows food to be produced with better nutritional value, texture and flavor; helps feed more people around the world; produces better crop yields (to make more efficient use of land); produces food with a longer shelf life; and more – don’t you think we should try explaining the benefits of GMO technology to America at least one more time – with feeling?!

I think most people would look at GMOs (and the “need” for a label) differently. In fact, the Food and Farm Index found that most Iowa grocery shoppers are influenced to purchase GMO food when they learn how GMOs can help farmers use less pesticide and help produce food with better nutritional value. But good luck getting all of that important information on a simple, mandatory label.

Yes, life will go on without GMOs (at least for most people in this country).

So if you’re apathetic (farmers will continue growing food even without GMOs), pragmatic (GMO opponents won’t stop stirring up the public until we give them some kind of mandatory label), or find yourself wanting a mandatory label (just because you’d like to know), there’s one important question to ask yourself before we waive the white flag.

Would you trade something meaningful for something experts deem meaningless?

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

Sparking students’ interest in sciences through agriculture

February 4, 2016

 ffa3Back during my college days, when I was taking freshman classes in huge lecture halls at Iowa State University (ISU), I studied biology before I switched majors to journalism.

Admittedly, looking back, it wasn’t my smartest life decision. But I remember sitting in lab classes, sorting ugly fruit flies to determine which had the genetic trait for red eyes versus white eyes, thinking I didn’t want to work in a lab for the rest of my life. Plus, I wanted to live close to family after graduation, and I couldn’t imagine finding a job with a biology degree in Iowa.

Fast-forward to a year ago, when I met an ISU food science graduate who completed a research project on the different characteristics of cold-hardy wine grape varieties.

Even though she didn’t grow up on a farm or plan on a career in agriculture, she now works in a lab at the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at ISU, testing the quality of grape and wine samples sent in from wineries across the state.

If someone had told my 19-year-old self that working in a lab might mean testing wines all day, helping build the reputation of Iowa’s wineries as some of the best in the country, then I wouldn’t have switched my major to a career that’s being taken over by blogs and tweets.

ffa2Now science, technology and agriculture are the fastest growing careers in Iowa. A few weeks back, a pre-caucus New York Times story  even highlighted how Iowa companies like Kemin Industries can’t find enough skilled workers in science and technology to fill their needs.

Recognizing the career opportunities close to home, Iowa schools are focused on introducing science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – curriculum in classrooms as soon as students enter kindergarten.

But that doesn’t mean kids are doing boring lab experiments growing tiny fruit flies in test tubes anymore. Instead, many teachers are using agriculture to spark their students’ interest in STEM careers.

John Seiser, a fifth- and sixth-grade science and math teacher at Northeast Hamilton Community Schools, recently received the Iowa Excellence in Teaching Agriculture Award from the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation and supported through a grant from the CHS Foundation.

In Seiser’s classroom, students are raising turkeys, starting heirloom pepper seeds  and growing a school garden to learn about science and math.

“I’m a very hands-on teacher, and I think kids learn best by being hands-on,” Seiser said. “It’s very important that the kids learn where their food is coming from. We probably spend half of our time incorporating agriculture while studying science. You can incorporate agriculture in so many ways.”

Plus, his young students are discovering the many ag-related career opportunities available here in Iowa, even if they don’t live or work on a farm.

ffa1“We always talk about possible careers in agriculture for them. They can grow their own produce and sell it at a farmers market or become an agronomist or work at a bank as an ag loan officer. If you’re a kid and you’re from Iowa, you’re tied to agriculture,” he said.

And keeping more young families in the state makes Iowa a better place to live for all us, generating income for rural areas and creating more cultural opportunities – like a summer evening relaxing at an Iowa winery, enjoying a glass of award-winning wine made possible, in part, by a scientist.

To learn more about the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation, check out or follow along as Iowa students learn about ag in the classroom on Facebook at

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.






Democracy on full display in Iowa

February 2, 2016

Malcom-caucus-night1Democracy was on full display this week in Iowa’s small towns and big cities, in school gyms, churches and many other sites around the states as citizens gathered for the Iowa Caucuses. They came out on the chilly Monday night with a snowstorm threatening. They gathered to respectively listen to presentations and discuss attributes of all the candidates. Then, after careful consideration, each caucus goer marked down or stated his or her preference of who should be president of the United States.

The Iowa Farm Bureau’s photographer, Gary Fandel, looked in on a group of Iowans who caucused in a meeting room of the Heartland Co-op office in Malcolm. About 50 Republicans gathered at the Poweshiek County elevator, cast their votes and Melissa Doty kept the tally on an old-fashioned chalkboard.

Melissa-Doty-of-Malcom1In all, a record number of Iowans turned out for the caucuses on Feb. 1. The latest reports show the Republicans counted more than 180,000 caucus participants across the state, easily topping previous high mark of 121,503. Democrats also turned out in big numbers, but they were not expected to top 2008’s record of 240,000.

Electing a president in America is a long process there are bound to be many twists and turns before the final voting in November. But there’s really no better place to start the process than right at the grassroots: the Iowa Caucuses.


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