Do Farmers wear business suits?

August 30, 2010

I recently read a blog entry about local food. The author was breaking down the energy it takes to get food from the farm to the dinner table, and debunking some common beliefs about local food. Read it here. A short and very interesting read.

Don’t get me wrong. I love local food! I love the farmer’s market! I love CSAs (Community Supported Ag)! Locally grown produce and meat provide an excellent opportunity for those who don’t have a connection to food production. And they provide my family with fresh food when it’s in season. But… (you knew there was going to be a but) that doesn’t mean that modern/industrial farming is the “bad guy.” There is a place and a need in this world for all forms of agriculture.

Anyway… there was a person on this blog that commented that small local farmers wear blue jeans and worry about their crops, unlike “industrial” farmers in the Midwest who wear suits and worry about their balance sheet. Ok, I know many of you who read this blog are in the Midwest. And most of you have met a farmer. Was he or she wearing a suit?? Probably not.

So many terms get thrown around when it comes to food production. What do they even mean? I’m a farmer in the heartland of America, just 50 miles from Cedar Rapids, the “Food Capital of the World” and I’m not really even sure….

My crops and livestock are sold, for the most part, to food processing companies. Does that make me an “industrial” farmer? My hogs are kept indoors. Does that make me a “factory?” I use herbicides and have a professional accountant do my taxes. Does that mean I’m “corporate?”

All of the labor and management on my farm is done by family. Does that make me a “family” farmer? I sell beef directly to local customers. Does that make me a “local” farm? We use cover crops, no-till, and crop rotation. Does that mean we’re “sustainable?”

I have been known to do cattle chores and get covered in manure (although my husband is the champion at getting dirty, he can look at dirt and it will stick to him). Then the next day I will be dressed in a business suit to attend a Farm Bureau gathering. I’m so confused! Am I supposed to do only one of these activities?

Then there are the days that there isn’t enough time to transition from one role to the other and you end up walking into the bank with your filthy, holey jeans on. Or you extend your dirty greasy hand to family from the city who decided to stop by for a visit.

Then there’s the other way around. Such as when you’re on your way to church and spot 40 head of feeder calves plowing through the newly planted corn field. There isn’t enough time to go home and change into your chore clothes. Or, you go straight to the field after prenatal classes (because you know if you miss one your baby is gonna come out with three legs and hairy ears) because the weather is perfect for the first time in weeks for soybean harvest.

Yes. All of the above situations really happened to me.

I’m not rare. This is how agriculture in the Midwest is. The people you see on the cover of the Farm Bureau Spokesman in their business suits are the same people you will meet on the road with their tractors and manure spreaders. The same people you will see in the bleachers at their kid’s tee ball game.

People who think that “industrial” farming is a horrible, evil, greedy, destructive way of life are the reason I blog. The way they see modern farming just isn’t so.

Written by Liz Nieman

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Iowan’s Work on Two Continents Helps Feed the World Sustainably

May 10, 2010

First Lieutenant Scott Rottinghaus (left) farms with his parents, Keith (right) and Jane, and uncles in eastern Iowa.

You’ve heard the Chinese proverb: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Few take the axiom to heart like First Lieutenant Scott Rottinghaus and the Iowa National Guard’s 734th Agri-Business Development Team. This summer the unit will be deployed to Afghanistan, where they’ll work with local farmers to improve upon existing food growing practices.

“Everything we do in Afghanistan needs to be sustainable,” Scott told me after a recent day-long training session in Camp Dodge, just north of Des Moines. “[The Afghans] need to be able to continue any practices or techniques we implement after we leave.”

Rottinghaus (far left) and his comrades are undergoing extensive training to ensure they're ready to deal with the many issues they'll face in Afghanistan. In this photo, the Ag Development Team receives an explanation of chicken anatomy from Iowa State University Extension personnel.

His team will build on the progress currently being made by a unit from California, by working with local leaders to determine their needs and solutions that fit their culture and technological capabilities, focusing specifically on the economical use of water for irrigation, increasing wheat yields and reducing spoilage.

Improving wheat yields is particularly important. Right now many Afghan wheat farms are yielding 19 bushels per acre, compared to 60-100 bushels per acre in the U.S. “If we can teach the Afghans to more wisely use water for irrigation and get more production off their land, not only will they be able to feed themselves, but they could produce extra for export to help feed others around the world,” Scott said.

But he knows that expecting immediate self sufficiency out of developing countries is like handing a beginning fisherman a rod in the middle of a desert. Not all countries have the arable land, stability (within the government and the economy), capital, infrastructure, technology or widespread expertise necessary to release the land’s full productive potential and feed their growing populations sustainably.

Don’t tell Scott the world doesn’t need (or isn’t asking for) our help. Eight hundred million people in the world are hungry, and the UN estimates that farmers will need to increase food production 70 percent by 2050 to feed population growth. That’s why he keeps his day job: raising hogs and grows corn and soybean with his dad and uncles back in eastern Iowa.

“We can help countries like Afghanistan reach their potential, but there’s still going to be a need for U.S. farmers to help feed the world sustainably,” Scott said.

It’s a significant challenge for U.S. farmers, but don’t bet against them. Over the last 60 years, farmers in this country have boosted food production by 262 percent, and they’ve reduced erosion by more than 40 percent over the past 25. I’ve known Scott for 20-plus years, long before he began farming or became “Lieutenant Rottinghaus.” Like many of the farmers I know, he’s competitive and he’s got passion for the work he does.

“I get to work the land and grow food to feed the world, and I’m a solider for the greatest country in the world,” he said. “This mission gives me the opportunity to combine those jobs. It will be an amazing experience, and I expect to learn a lot.”

As for the rest of us, let’s pray for a safe and successful mission and salute soldiers and farmers like Scott, working to ensure we have enough “fish” and “fishermen” to feed our growing world.

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

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Sustainable Agriculture; Feeding and Protecting the World

April 21, 2010

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a lot of Iowans who make their living tending the soils are honoring the progress and the challenges time has brought to agriculture. Global population has more than doubled since the days when my Great Grandfather used a horse to plow the soil of our Poweshiek County farm. Back then, his only task was to feed his family and community. Each farmer grew enough food to feed eight people. Now, my sons are now the sixth generation Langs to turn soil on our farm.

But today, being ‘sustainable’ means each farmer has to feed about 155 people. Just as our ‘community’ of Brooklyn has grown, (1355, according to the last Census); so has the world. Farmers like me share the respnsibility to feed, fuel and provide fiber for a growing world of 6.5-billion; one that will increase by another 1-billion in the next decade.

While countries such as China and India grow in numbers and wealth, so too, does their demand for grain-fed meat. Those same populations are also seeking out the use of crops for biofuels such as ethanol, biobutanol and soy diesel to reduce demand for costly foreign-oil based fuels and fertilizers.

In 2010, farmers remain ‘sustainable’ if they protect their priceless (and ever diminishing) acres of available, fertile farmland. Clearly, the argument of being ‘sustainable’ isn’t size or even commodity-specific; it’s about being better at what you do, with the resources you have available. It’s about embracing technology, not railing against it.

Technology brings better seed genetics, better equipment to farmers and new careers for our children (studying seed genomes, creating renewable energy sources, biochemistry, livestock odor control and more). But, taking that science from the lab to the field takes an ability to adapt and diversify. Successful farmers are doing that, and that is why the shelves at your grocery store or local Farmer’s Market are full of choices that, through the hard work of farmers, we are happy to provide.

In 1945, long before the first Earth Day, corn farmers grew an average of 33 bushels per acre. Today, thanks to these advances, I grow nearly 200 bushels on the same acre of land my Grandfather did. Many farmers have achieved yields much higher, even up to a record of 440 bushels per acre. For the sake of hungry people; we need to do even better.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2010, it’s true that technology is blurring the borders of our hometowns and helping all farmers meet demand for constantly-evolving consumer food choices. But, we must continue to be responsible in meeting that goal; good farmers are protecting the soil and the water from over-use or erosion by either planting grassy buffer strips to protect waterways, planting terraces to reduce erosion and leaving crop stubble on the ground year-round to hold soil and nutrients in place, (no-till farming).

These efforts weren’t done in my Great-Grandfather’s day. But now, combining what we know with what we grow is making a difference.

Written by Craig Lang
Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President

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