Why Do They Do That? – Grafting

MFAF cover image.pngWe just dropped the sixth book in the series! My Family’s Apple Farm tells the story of Hayden, a 10-year-old who works with his family on an apple farm. The story targets third grade readers and provides non-fiction text for them to practice their language arts skills. The book is paired with two lesson plans that address food safety issues and the variety of specialty crops grown here in Iowa.

The book will give readers a good understanding of how apples are grown and how an orchard works. But there is a lot more science that goes into growing apples and fruit that we could ever put into one book. For example, grafting. What is it and how does it work? Why do farmers use grafting techniques?

Grafting is a horticultural technique. Tissues of different plants are joined together. The tissues fuse together and the two plants continue to grow as one. The resulting plant will have two completely different sets of DNA on its different parts! Farmers can’t combine just any two plants. The plants have to be similar enough that the rootstock won’t reject the scion that is being grafted to it. It is not too dissimilar to blood transfusions in humans. You want to make sure to use the right type of blood. A person with O- blood should only get O- blood if they need a transfusion. Plants that are commonly grafted are different varieties of apples or different varieties of grapes.

Grafting is done for a number of reasons. One reason is that some varieties of fruit have better roots and some have better fruits. Grafting allows farmers to combine the two and have the best rootstock AND the best fruit. It is a way of combining two plants into one…but it isn’t a GMO. Examples abound in the wine industry. Many of the famous wine grapes from France and elsewhere in Europe did not fair well when brought to America. Local pests and pathogens made for an inhospitable environment for the European grapes. There were local varieties of grapes available to early American settlers but they couldn’t compare to the European grapes for flavor and quality.

Enter grafting. By grafting European grapes to the American rootstocks, wine growers got the flavor of the grapes they were looking for and the hardiness of the American rootstocks.


Splice graft from: NC State Extension

This same concept can be applied to other plants – specifically fruit trees like apples, pears, cherries, and others. There are several types of grafting techniques that farmers can use. These include bark graft, side-veneer graft, splice graft, whip and tongue graft, saddle graft, bridge graft, and inarch graft.

As the art and science of grafting becomes more precise, budding has emerged. Budding is a grafting technique that uses a single bud from a desired scion. Budding techniques include t-budding and chip budding.

Scions are usually collected in the fall of the year after the plant has dropped all of its leaves and gone dormant. The scions are saved over winter and then grafted onto the desired rootstock in early spring. The plant is actively growing and will be more likely to accept the graft. However, there is a longer window of viability for budding. It can be done at any time the plant is growing throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. If the graft is successful, the bud will likely stay dormant until the next growing season.

Apples can be grafted with apples. Grapes can be grafted with grapes. What else can be grafted? As mentioned before, the rootstock and the scion have to be similar. But, they don’t have to be identical. Plants that are in the same family are usually similar enough that they can be grafted together. For example, apples are in the pomoideae family. They can be paired with other pomes like pears, crabapples, and quince. Citrus like navel oranges, Valencia oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes, and grapefruit can be paired together. Stone fruit – or fruit in the prunus family – can be paired together; like cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots. So you could have one tree with apples and pears growing on it, but you probably won’t be able to have a tree with apples and lemons growing on it.

Grafting can be a fun science experiment to try at home. You can purchase different root stocks and different trees to harvest scions from your local nursery. Think of it a bit like an operation a doctor might do. You need to have the right tools and keep everything clean to prevent disease. You need to have a plan and have everything laid out and ready to go. You need to make clean, precise cuts. Then afterwards, you need to wrap the site of the operation up so that the tree has the best chance to heal. Experimenting can be a lot of fun to see what kind of tree and what kind of fruit you are able to grow. For a tutorial and how to video on how to graft a fruit tree, check this out.

Apple production in Iowa has a long history with the Red Delicious first being developed by Jesse Hiatt. Red Delicious apples may be one of the most famous cultivars of apples. This cultivar was produced by Jesse Hiatt (on accident) in Madison County, Iowa in the 1800s. Hiatt was originally from Pennsylvania but moved to Madison County in 1856 to be near his brother. Hiatt had developed an orchard including Bellflower and Winesap trees, and had developed two other cultivars; the Hiatt Sweet and Hiatt Black. The first Red Delicious tree began growing in between two rows of apple trees (believed to be the Bellflower and Winesap trees). Ten years after it began growing, it produced its first fruit. Hiatt loved the taste of the apple so much, he marketed it under the name Hawkeye. The name was later changed by the nursery that acquired marketing rights to it.

Apple and fruit production has come a long way since the 1880s. Grafting can help unravel the mysteries of biology in fruit trees and help us understand how plants grow. So get grafting! And share your stories of success (or failure) with us in the comments below!


Yellow, Orange and Red – No Matter the Color They’re Chalk Full of Nutrition

Recently, I saw a friend who has chickens in her backyard post on Facebook that she had to use a store-bought egg in cooking alongside her backyard-raised chicken eggs. She posted a picture of the eggs and asked if we could spot which one was store bought. As you can imagine, several people started posting their opinions about which one was store bought and why they thought her backyard chicken eggs were healthier than the store-bought ones. Conversations like this one are happening all the time around the world online and in person, and it can be tricky to distinguish facts versus opinions.

Google ‘egg yolk color’ and you’ll get thousands of responses. Many of the articles have common themes. If it’s this color, the egg comes from a healthy chicken and if it’s that color it’s not from a healthy chicken. Did you know the color of the egg yolk really has to do with the kind of feed the chicken receives and doesn’t relate to its nutritional value?

What’s in an egg?
First, it’s important to understand what makes up an egg. An egg is a nutrient dense food with no added hormones. It’s among the highest quality protein source you can get and is a crucial ingredient in many recipes. But, what makes up an egg?

eggcrosssection-source exploratorium dot edu

Image source: Science of Cooking, Exploratorium.Edu

An egg is made up of many different parts:

  • Shell
  • Inner and Outer Membranes
  • Air Cell
  • Albumen
  • Chalazae
  • Vitelline Membrane
  • Yolk

The shell is made up of calcium carbonate and makes up approximately 9 percent of an egg’s weight. An egg’s yolk makes up about 34 percent of the egg’s liquid weight. The albumen, or egg white, is a thick, clear liquid that surrounds the yolk. It accounts most of the egg’s liquid weight and contains more than half of the egg’s protein. Source: American Egg Board.

What determines an egg’s yolk color?
While you may think the color of an egg’s yolk indicates the quality, taste or nutritional value of the egg that assumption is incorrect. The yolk’s color is actually determined by the hen’s diet – or more specifically the carotenoid intake.

Carotenoids are plant pigments responsible for giving egg yolks their yellow, orange or red color. Carotenoids are only available to animals through their diet. According to the Incredible Egg, if a hen eats plenty of yellow-orange plant pigments called xanthophylls, the xanthophylls will be deposited in the egg yolk. Hen feed can be enriched with carotenoids, which can lead to a darker yolk. For example, hens fed lighter color feeds such as wheat or barley will produce eggs with lighter color yolks. Conversely, if a hen’s feed consists of green plants such as corn and alfalfa they’ll produce darker color yolks.

Farmers carefully balance the feed to include all the hen’s needs such as calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus for egg shells. It’s important to note that artificial color additives are not permitted in egg production.

Egg yolk color varies around the world
Your desired egg yolk color may be dependent on what part of the world you reside. According to the Modern Farmer, egg yolks are typically pale in African countries due to the white corn that’s fed to hens. White corn is lower in carotenoids, so the egg yolks are a paler color. This has no impact on the hen’s health or the egg’s nutritional value. In the United Kingdom, northern regions prefer pale yellow egg yolks while the southern regions prefer golden-yellow yolks. In the Mediterranean, the egg yolks are typically a bright orange-red color.

Eggs pack a healthy punch
No matter the shell or yolk color, eggs pack a nutritious punch with several key nutrients that contribute to good health. They’re a convenient source of high-quality protein and contain 13 essential vitamins and minerals we need to keep our bodies as healthy as possible – all for only 70 calories (one large egg).

Does all this egg talk have your mouth watering? Head over to the Iowa Egg Council for some delicious egg recipes you can cook up at home.

Want to learn more about eggs?
Visit one of our past blog posts Ag 101: Eggs where you’ll learn about the difference between white and brown eggs, where eggs are produced and the difference between free range, cage free and organic eggs, among other facts.

Want to teach your classroom about eggs?
We have several free books and educational kits about chickens available in our Lending Library as well as free lesson plans. Visit the Resources page of our website and search for eggs under Lending Library and Lesson Plans.


Eggs in Schools, Egg Reader
The American Egg Board
Egg Nutrition Center – Egg Nutrition Basics
Eggs in Schools – Eggs 101, A Video Project
Eggs – What Color Variations are Normal
Does Egg Yolk Impact Nutrition Quality?
Help! My Egg Yolks are Freakishly White

Soil – it’s not just dirt!

Harris dirt 2

Pedology – this is a crucial field of science when it comes to growing plants on the land, but what does it actually mean? A popular guess would be that the root ‘ped’ is derived from the Latin word for foot, such as pedestrian, biped, or pedestal. On the other hand, the ‘science of feet’ makes absolutely no sense when talking about agriculture! According to the dictionary, pedology is soil science. In this case, ‘ped’ comes from the Greek (not Latin) pedon meaning ground or earth. To expand upon that a bit, pedology is the study of soil’s physical properties, chemical properties, texture, contributions to an ecosystem, and how it moves. It’s impossible to photo 12imagine a society where there was no soil, no ground, no basis for life. I hope that after reading this blog you give a little more thought to what it is we walk and live on every day.

Physical properties

Did you know the ideal soil for farming is only composed of about 50% solids? This percent can be further broken down into about 5% organic matter, with the remaining 45% being mineral content. But now this begs the question – what is the other 50% of soil made of? The remaining space is split equally between available water, unavailable water, and pore space. Simply put, pore space is the tiny pockets of air that microorganisms live in and plant roots use for gas exchange. Available water is soil water that is held a pressure that is easily taken up by plant roots. Using common sense this means that unavailable water is held at too high of a pressure for plant roots to take up, basically stuck to the soil particles and probably won’t move anytime soon.chart (1)


Chemical properties

Believe it or not, soil has chemistry too! Lots of farmers complete soil tests on their land, which will measure many varying characteristics within the soil. To start off with, soil pH is very important when considering nutrient uptake availability! Even if a nutrient is abundant within the upper portion of a soil profile, a plant cannot use it unless the soil’s pH is ideal for that specific element. The most common way of raising the pH of soil is by adding agricultural lime, also known as calcium carbonate. Another important quality of soil is its cation exchange capacity, also called CEC. Although it may sound complicated, CEC refers to the ability of the soil to hold and exchange positive charges. Some common cations are calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and hydrogen. Farmers and researchers alike are able to calculate their soil’s CEC, which then translates to how many nutrients the soil can hold at a given time.


Soil is composed of three main types of particles: sand, silt, and clay. Each differs from the next in terms of shape, size, and chemical properties.

  • Sand is the largest particle with a size from 0.05 mm – 2.0 mm. Fields with high quantities of sand have good aeration but poor water holding capacity.
  • Silt is unique with it being smaller than sand but larger than clay. Its size ranges from 0.002 mm – 0.05 mm, and it comes with a high available water holding capacity.
  • The final size is clay, which is 0.002 mm or smaller. This is obviously the smallest soil particle, has a high water holding capacity, and exhibits very poor aeration.

When defining a soil texture, a loam is a mixture of all three textures and is ideal for growing crops in the Midwest!

soil triangle

This is a texture triangle, useful when determining your soil’s texture! Photo from FAO


Role in the ecosystem

Soil is found everywhere around the world, from agricultural fields, to big cities, to forests, and everything in-between! Generally speaking, the ground in metropolitan areas will be very compacted and likely not supporting any biota beneath the surface. In contrast, once outside of urban areas the biota dependent upon the soil vastly changes. Some soil microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, nematodes, algae, and many more! Did you know that a fungi called mycorrhiza has a symbiotic relationship with plant roots?

Where will it go next?

You might think it’s uncommon to hear about soil moving, but it has two main mechanisms for relocating to other regions. Erosion can be caused by wind and water, both having potentially detrimental effects on the soil. Water erosion occurs in three steps: 1) sheet erosion, 2) rill erosion, and 3) gully erosion. Sheet erosion is the film of soil moving from the impact of a rain drop or in a film of water. This is the most difficult to spot and occurs over almost all bare soil during a rain storm. Rill erosion occurs once small channels are formed from the movement of water. If the situation becomes too dire, then gullies will form. This is when the big channels are too deep for field equipment to cross. Wind erosion also occurs in three main steps. The first step is called saltation, and this occurs when fine sand particles are bouncing across a landscape. If the wind picks up, the following step is when particles are becoming suspended in the air. The final step of wind erosion is called creep, which is the rolling and sliding of particles that are too big for the air column.

So the next time you’re out driving along a road, walking through a park, or tending to your garden, I hope you’re thinking about more than solely what’s on the top of the soil!



P.S. Yes I am a new name to these blogs, and I’m here to stay for a while! I recently started as the new intern with Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation and I’m thrilled for what this year has in store. So a little bit about me – I’m currently a student at Iowa State University double majoring in Agronomy and Agriculture Communications. I love growing plants of all types, and that might show a little in future blogs! I look forward to creating some more intriguing and informative posts that you all can enjoy!

Footballs, Lipstick and other Surprising Uses of Beef By-Products

football-2.jpgIt’s Super Bowl week, and all the talk about football got me thinking about one of the biggest misconceptions in sports and agriculture – that footballs are made from pig skin!  While the term “pigskin” is synonymous with football, they are not made from pig skin.  All collegiate and pro footballs are actually from cattle hide.

In the early days of the sport, footballs were commonly made from a pig by-product; but not the skin.  Footballs were originally made from inflated animal bladders, often the bladders of pigs.  The resulting ball had an oval-shape without the pointed-tips of today’s footballs. While the process of cleaning and inflating probably wasn’t pleasant, bladders were less expensive and easier to come by than leather.  In later years the bladders were covered in animal hide, but pig skin was not commonly used.    

For as long as animals have been used as food for humans, the non-meat parts have been saved and used too. Indigenous people used bones for tools, hide for clothing, and even tendons for bow strings.  Little went to waste.

The same is true today.  On average, 64% of a heifer or steer is used for meat, but 99% of the animal is used.  Cattle by-products provide many things that we use every day. These “leftovers” are used in the manufacturing process for thousands of food, industrial, household, and medical products. 

You probably knew that leather goods are made from cattle hide, but here are some lesser-known uses of beef by-products.    

Jell-O, marshmallows, and gummy bears. Gelatin, which gives these products their structure, is made from skin, bones, and other connective tissue.    


Margarine & shortening. Beef fat, or edible beef tallow, is used in small amounts in the production of some margarine and shortening products. 

Lipstick, soap and cosmetics include inedible tallow.  This refined fat is also used to make many industrial oils and lubricants.    

Pharmaceuticals and medial supplies.  There are more than 100 individual drugs that contain beef by-products. Some help alleviate minor aliments like an upset stomach or hay fever.  Others, like blood thinners and insulin are truly life-saving. It takes the pancreases from 26 cattle to provide enough insulin to keep one diabetic person alive for a year.  Tissue from cattle can also be used to make heart valves and surgical sutures. 

These are just a few of the many uses of beef by-products. You will find hundreds of more around around your house, at home-improvement stores, and in hospitals and drug stores.     

– Cindy

Farming By Numbers

Soybeans harvested by students

“So, what number soybeans are these?” asks a fourth-grade student in a class I presented to this fall. I had come to his school to teach about agriculture. More specifically, I came to teach about the life cycle of a soybean plant. I gathered mature soybean plants from fields and delivered them to local classrooms to be “harvested”. Students then planted the harvested soybeans in a mini green house with grow lamps to help the beans sprout quickly. During my second classroom visit they examined the new spouts and labeled each plant part.

After being stumped by a nine-year-old, I paused for a moment. He was putting my agricultural knowledge to the test. I was hesitant to tell him that I didn’t know, but mostly I was impressed. This young man knew there were different soybeans with different numbers. Fewer and fewer students are growing up on the farm. But, this student reminded me that there are still a few tried and true farmers in most of the classrooms I visit.

“I am not sure.” I told him, “but I can sure find out.”

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was that if you don’t know the answer, make sure you keep asking until you do. Go find out. So that is what I did. I went to my husband, a third-generation farmer, and asked him. He went to his seed dealer and asked him “What number soybeans did we put on the homeplace?” Our seed dealer was able to tell us because of an identification system used by seed companies. Types of seed are labeled with numbers that identify the characteristics of the seed that is to be planted. That way if a farmer is satisfied with the performance of the seed they could choose to replant that same seed next year.  An example of a seed number could look like this:

“Refer to bag tag for specific trait information”


• X would indicate the brand or company that produced the seed
• The first two numbers could indicate the maturity of the seed, that is, how long it takes to plant to be ready for harvest
• The next two numbers would be for more specific identification
• And lastly, the letters on the end could indicate what types of traits that seed possesses

Soil map of farm in Harrison County
Test plot

Seed numbers provide more information about what a farmer is planting. Farmers have a lot of choices when it comes time to plant. Because not every field is the same, specific seed choices allow farmers to pinpoint exactly what they want grown on the field and where. Say you are headed to the grocery store for a warm winter meal. As you enter the soup aisle the cans don’t all just say “soup”. You know what kind of soup you are getting by reading the label. You identify what type you are looking for and choose one that fits your requirements. Clam chowder might be a good choice, but not if you are hungry for tomato.

With the limited amount of space that farmers can grow food for ourselves and our animals, it is important that we do the best we can with the space that we do have. The cost of raising a crop is substantial. It is very important for farmers to make the best use of every soybean seed and every kernel of seed corn that comes out of a bag – all 80,000 of them in the case of seed corn. Farmers map out each specific area, utilizing every acre to its maximum potential.

As a kid, I used to love the paint-by-number artwork. Each section had a corresponding color and if you got the numbers right… success! In some ways, successful farming can be “by the numbers” too. Farmers work with agronomists to test the soil in different areas of their farms. By using the results of these soil maps and by working closely with their seed dealers, a farmer can put the corresponding seed number in the appropriate soil types…success!

As I continue to visit classrooms in the area, students are using their young minds to expand my own knowledge. They ask questions and want to know more. No matter how prepared I think that I am for a classroom presentation, there is always an unexpected question (or two or three).
“Why do these soybean pods have little hairs on them?”
“How come your grow lamp has red and blue lights?”
“Can we eat the soybeans?”

Teaching for Loess Hills Agriculture in the Classroom is a job that will never get boring. If students continue to have questions about agriculture, then I will continue to answer them or seek out someone who is familiar with farming by numbers.


I Got a Magazine, Now What? How to Use IALF Publications

The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has multiple publications available for teachers to use in their classrooms. One set of publications are the Iowa Ag Today magazines, with a set of six available at a fourth-grade reading level, and a set of two (so far) at a seventh-grade reading level. Another set of publications are the My Family’s Farm books written at a third-grade reading level. These materials are high quality, aligned to standards, and come at little to no cost to the teachers. In this blog, I’ll walk you through some suggestions for how to use these publications in a classroom. I hope you’ll find some good ideas!

Iowa Ag Today

The Iowa Ag Today publications are a great series of fourth grade and middle school non-fiction readers. The fourth-grade series contains six cross-curricular magazines, and the middle school series contains a social studies magazine and has a brand new science magazine in the works. We also recently translated the first three fourth-grade readers to Spanish, and have those available for Spanish teachers and ELL teachers, as well. When a new magazine comes out, it is directly mailed to each fourth-grade teacher, seventh-grade teacher, or ELL teacher to which it corresponds. But what should these teachers do with them when they arrive?

Issue 1

Issue 1 of the fourth grade Iowa Ag Today covers what agriculture is, and how it impacts all of us.

Check out the teacher guide

With each pack of 25 readers, there is a teacher guide that includes discussion questions, vocabulary and definitions, a worksheet, extension ideas, and a pre/post-test. This handy guide, complete with standards alignment, is a great starting point to help you integrate the readers into your classes.

Many of these things can be structured differently depending on your students and the goals of your class. Maybe it would work better for your students to start off with vocabulary words and discussion questions so they are prepared for the reading. Maybe it would work better for your students if those things were brought up as they are reading about them.

Use them for group reading

Help students with the skill of reading aloud by reading articles together as a class or in pairs or small groups. Refer to the discussion questions and vocabulary definitions in the teacher guide to help deepen comprehension with each article.

Analyze extra features

Iowa Ag Todays are full of pictures, charts, graphs, maps, discussion questions, and more. Guide your students through each of these features and help them learn to interpret them.

Issue 6 centerfold

This centerfold is a great example of the types of graphics in Iowa Ag Today magazines. Lots of time can be spent analyzing this map!

Use K/W/L charts for certain topics

Iowa Ag Todays cover lots of different topics. Choose an idea or article you’d like your students to learn more about and create K/W/L charts either individually or as a class. If not all of their questions are answered, the students could continue their learning with research projects!

Mark ‘em up!

One of the great parts about magazines is that they can be written on. Though you can keep these readers from year to year, you can also have your students use pens or fine-point markers to note parts of speech, questions they have, main ideas, or other in-text features!

Many teachers do what’s called “thinking tracks.” With this method, you can have different symbols for different reactions, like questions, predictions, connections, new learning, and main ideas. These symbols can be shapes, letters, squiggles, or even marks with different colored pens!

Think cross-curricular

Each fourth-grade Iowa Ag Today is aligned with standards across curricula, including Iowa Core English Language Arts, science standards, and social studies standards. These magazines could fit into any (or all!) of these class periods, to help students learn about science and social studies while learning how to interpret non-fiction text.

Go with the flow

You may have the opportunity to let some exploration happen organically! After reading articles and answering discussion questions, see what types of things your students find interesting. Maybe they want to learn more about drones or manure used as fertilizer. This can be an opportunity to search out videos, extra information, or allow your students to make presentations and reports.

Remember, IALF has many resources available to you. If your students get interested in a certain topic, check to see if there is a lesson plan covering it on our website. Check our YouTube channel to see if we’ve linked a video about it in a playlist. Search our blog for further background knowledge on the topic. And if you are still stuck, send us an email for more ideas!

My Family’s Farm

My Family’s Farm is a series of books written at a third-grade level about young Iowans’ home farm operations. These books include modern pictures and examples, a vocabulary and definitions section, and have two standards-aligned lesson plans that correspond to them. At this time, there are My Family’s Farm books about a beef, corn, soybean, wind, and pig farm. In the future, this series will also include books on an apple farm and an egg farm!

When a new book is published in this series, one copy of the book is sent to each third-grade teacher in the state of Iowa. How should these teachers use these books?

My Family's Corn Farm

Read aloud

Without requesting any extra materials, a teacher could read this book aloud to their class. There are also digital versions of all these books on the IALF website (www.iowaagliteracy.org/publications) that teachers can project so all students can see the pictures clearly. This can also be a good way to show students the photos of what a modern farm looks like.

Group reading

These books are free to request to use for educational purposes! This means you teachers can request a classroom set and allow each of your students to use a copy in class. This opens up other opportunities, like pair reading and large group reading.

Vocabulary and spelling

The end of these books includes a section with vocabulary and definitions. These words can be used in lessons of their own, and could even be used in spelling tests! These words could be taught before reading the book aloud to prepare students, or students could use context clues and this guide to learn more as the words arise in the story.


Students use the TIP Method with blocks and dry erase markers

TIP method

The TIP (Term, Information, Picture) Method is a fun way to help students learn new words and explain them. Using this method, you can have students pick a vocabulary word, define it in their own words, and draw a picture of what it is or what it means.

Sort vocabulary words

What parts of speech are these words? How many syllables do they have? Can we alphabetize them? Print large cards with each vocabulary word to allow students to sort them in many different ways!

Use the companion lessons

Each book has two companion lessons aligned to standards. These lessons are aligned with science, social studies, math, and/or English language arts standards. Examples include a lesson using beef examples in math (math, My Family’s Beef Farm), sequencing the life cycle of a soybean plant (science, My Family’s Soybean Farm), and deciphering main ideas and strengthening reading comprehension (English language arts, My Family’s Corn Farm).

As with all lessons from IALF, all content knowledge needed to teach the lesson, extra worksheets, vocabulary definitions, and sources are included in the lesson plans.


What not to do

Just a send-home item

When getting a free publication, it can be tempting to just send it home with students without using it in class. Though teachers can get these publications for little to no cost, they were created with great care to be useful resources for your classroom. If you do wish to send these publications home with students to let their parents read them, we encourage you to use them in class first. This way, the student can explain what they learned about in class to their parents!

Toss them

Those of you who have used these publications know they are not just junk mail. They are not sent to teachers like sample Christmas cards hoping to get you to purchase extras from us. They are sent to teachers to help them discover our resources and to help them teach the things they’re already teaching! If you know of a teacher who may be getting these publications, ask them to keep an eye out and to not toss them in the recycling bin along with book order forms and other junk mail.


I’m sold! How do I get more?

All of IALF’s publications are available to view online at www.iowaagliteracy.org/publications. At this time, you can order all six issues of the fourth grade Iowa Ag Todays online for $0.50 (to help cover shipping) per pack of 25. Each pack of 25 includes a teacher guide with an attached worksheet and pre/post-test. To request copies of the middle school or Spanish Iowa Ag Todays or My Family’s Farm books, you may email info@iowaagliteracy.org. These materials are currently cost-free, given they will be used in an educational setting. When requesting materials, please clarify the use and give an address you would like them sent to.

We hope you and your students enjoy these publications and get lots of use from them!

Happy reading!


Locally Grown

It’s January and I just bought some locally grown lettuce. The grocer specifically labeled it as locally grown with a fancy sign making it look like it was better lettuce than the other stuff. So I saved the world! I just bought local which is surely better….right?

Well, not necessarily. It may come as a surprise, but if you are buying or eating locally grown food, it may not be food grown in your community. There is no set determination for the definition of locally grown. Locally grown products may have been grown at a local farm just up the road, in the same county as your farmers market, or possibly even within the same state. However, in other cases, locally grown produce may have come from 250, 400, or even 1,000 miles away from the point of purchase.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defines locally grown as “being transported less than 400 miles within the state in which it is produced.” But retailers, states, farmer’s markets, and other organizations may use their own definition.

By the Food, Conservation and Energy Act definition,  if I was a farmer in Council Bluffs, Iowa (western side of the state) I could sell my produce in Bettendorf, Iowa (eastern side of the state) which is 310 miles away. Similarly, if I was a farmer in Hornbrook, California (extreme north) I could sell my produce in San Diego, California and call it local. But that is more than 800 miles distance to the south! Seattle, Washington which is two states away and north is closer to Hornbrook at only 480 miles away – but then my produce couldn’t be called local.

Specialization and Trade

There are a couple of theories behind local food. 1) It is better for our health, 2) it is better for the environment, and 3) it is better for the local economy. Let’s look at the environmental argument first.

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” – Steve Sexton.

This is called comparative advantage. Ignoring the concept and the advantage means it will require more inputs to grow the same amount of food. This means more land will be used. More chemicals will be used. More carbon emissions will be spewed out into the atmosphere. There are a number of different models floating around on the internet, but they suggest that if we were to transition to a purely local production system in agriculture it would take between 25 percent and 50 percent more land to produce the same amount of food we produce today.

The other environmental concern is carbon emissions from transportation of food. But estimates suggest that only 11 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. The bulk of carbon emissions in the food system – 83 percent – come from production. So while it would be nice to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation, we can make a bigger impact by improving technology on the farm and reduce emissions on the production side of the system.

Healthy Options

Local food is often associated with organically produced which is often associated with being the healthier option. But is it? This one is a bit more complicated to unravel. Local food is defined (yes, but earlier I said it wasn’t defined….stick with me here) by the distance it travels from where it was produced to where it was sold. By definition, that means it has nothing to do with the quality of the food or whether or not it is healthier.

What can have a larger impact on the health benefits of the food is what time of year it is grown and produced. For example, a tomato that is grown in the summer months with adequate rain and nutrients will likely develop more natural sugars, be packed with vitamins and minerals, and be very ‘healthy.’ By contrast, a hot-house tomato that is grown in the winter months with less daylight will not be as healthful. It won’t have had the same opportunity to develop those nutrients. BUT, the difference is small and really negligible. The most important part of a healthy diet is eating lots of variety of whole foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat meat. Drink milk. Worry less about where the food came from and more about portion size and diversity of diet.

Many local food producers are small-scale farmers and many of those raise produce organically. There is an assumption that organically grown produce is raised without chemicals, but this isn’t necessarily true. Organic growers can still use pesticides. So if your goal is to reduce exposure to chemicals then buying local isn’t a sure thing. And buying organic isn’t a sure thing.

IMG_2105.JPGConsider this: nearly all apples contain detectable levels of pesticides. But, the presence of a chemical doesn’t equate to the presence of a risk. Fewer than 0.1% of apples tested have pesticide residue levels higher than the governmental limit. Even though most apples tested have detectable chemical residue, most were far below the permissible level. So the benefits of eating the apple and getting good nutrients outweigh the risk of chemical exposure.

A Boon to the Local Economy

While the premise of buying locally produced food falls short on the environmental factors and the health factors, it shines when considering the local economy. Studies have shown that small farms are more likely to earn a positive net farm income by selling locally. Other studies indicate there are nearly 32 jobs created for every $1 million in revenue generated by farms who are directly marketing their produce. This is compared to only 10.5 jobs per $1 million with large farms.

In our modern society, the number of farmers continues to decrease. As farms get larger and more efficient, the number of people it takes to grow food declines. Currently, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. But, local food can help increase the number of farmers. Local food sales receipts are upwards of $4.8 billion. These direct-to-consumer sales are great, but the real answer might lie in connecting small and mid-sized farms to large-scale food buyers.

nfsn-social-link-share.pngLocal producers can also benefit through programs like Farm to School. This national program is used in more than 42,000 of the roughly 100,000 school districts across the country. The premise is to connect local producers to local school districts providing the ingredients they need to produce up to 30.5 million school lunches every day. This is a great way of helping source local produce. There is an educational element to it so kids can learn about where their food comes from. But the primary benefit is giving priority to local producers.

Local food can also come in the form of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. This can be a fun way of getting to know your local farmers. All goods are locally produced and usually seasonally grown. It can be fun to get a box of lettuce and carrots one month and a box of turnips the next month! Anyone know any good recipes for turnips?!!!?

Ultimately, food choices are hard. Locally produced food is a nice idea. But it doesn’t always make sense. It can be a factor when you consider what produce to buy, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. And don’t confuse local with organic or other gimmicky descriptors. Just eat a well-balanced diet. Not too much, not too little.