City Kids Join 4-H, too!

  • Four more times likely to give back to their communities.
  • Twice as likely to be civically active.
  • Twice as likely to participate in science, technology or math activities outside of school.
  • Two times more likely (grade 10) and nearly three times more likely (grade 12) to take part in science programs compared to girls in other out-of-school time activities.
  • Twice as likely to make healthier choices (in all aspects of their life).

(Source: Tufts University Positive Youth Development Survey, 2002)

These were not known statistics to us when we signed our daughters up for 4-H. In researching this article though, it makes me want to encourage them to participate in 4-H for as long as they are eligible.

Many years spent in 4-H
I participated in 4-H activities growing up. We lived on an acreage on the edge of town where we raised registered paint horses. We showed those horses in the Iowa Paint Horse Association around the state, so it was natural to me to show my horses in 4-H. Since we lived on an acreage, I also was able to raise rabbits and show them at the fair. I also participated in 4-H projects at that time such as cooking and needlework.

Living in the urban areas, I didn’t think my daughters would be able to have many of the same experiences I had growing up such as 4-H. That is until we ran into a 4-H booth at a local family event. While there, my daughters had a chance to learn some easy coding and program a robot to navigate its way around a path. As my husband worked with the girls, I chatted with the 4-H leader to talk more about how my city girls might be able to get involved in 4-H. I was amazed to learn how the 4-H activity had grown since I was in it and the many opportunities my daughters would have if they became members.

What exactly is 4-H?
4-H is an organization that “engages youth to reach their fullest potential and empowers4h photo them to lead for a lifetime.” The organization’s programs focus on STEM and agriculture, healthy living, and civic engagement. Through hands-on learning, kids build not only confidence, creativity, and curiosity but also life skills such as leadership and resiliency to help them grow. They can focus on one project area or many. Project areas include mechanics, animal science, food and nutrition, photography, robotics, clothing design among many others.

There are two main sections for 4-H programs: 1) Clover Kids for those children in kindergarten through third grade, and 2) Youth 4-H programs for children in grades 4 through 12. The 4-H chapters meet once a month. They conduct business, learn through various activities, tour local businesses, do community service projects and have the members give presentations about different topics.

Think 4-H is just for children? 4-H needs many volunteers to help lead its programs. State and county 4-H staff members partner with adult volunteers who serve as club leaders, event volunteers, and project area leaders. These leaders can have a lasting impact on 4-H members.

More than 30,000 students in Iowa grades K-12 participated in 4-H in 2017-2018. Nationally, 4-H is the largest youth organization with more than six million young people. Surprisingly, about 1.8 million of 4-H’s six million participants live in urban communities.

Fun learning opportunities through 4-H
Our daughters are in the Clover Kids part of 4-H. Since they’re younger children, Clover Kids programs focus on:

  • Investigating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
  • Exploring literacy through fun and engaging ways to read and write
  • Learning the importance of being healthy and physically active
  • Practicing communication skills and learning to work as a team
  • Playing fun, cooperative games and making friends
  • Participating in developmentally appropriate opportunities at county fairs

In just the short two years our girls have participated, they’ve participated in or learned about the following areas:

  • Communication and presentation skills – Through roll call where they share their name and something about themselves (related to the month’s topic), as well as give presentations on various topics.
  • Habitats – Components of habitats, participated in a walk outside to see different habitats, read a habitat book, made a bird feeder.
  • Safety rules – Basics of staying safe and some safety rules, including making a first aid kit.
  • Character – Learning what it means to build character.
  • Careers – Learning different careers such as an engineer.
  • Importance of community involvement and serving others – Made Valentines for residents of a retirement center, packed backpacks for Kaden’s Kloset, made a kindness box, decorated Christmas cards for residents of a retirement center.
  • Parts and functions of plants – Learning about different parts and functions of plants, make creations out of toothpicks and vegetables/fruit.
  • Health – Good nutrition and exercise choices including MyPlate.
  • How to be a good citizen.
  • What does edible mean? Make edible art.
  • Understand how air helps things move or hold up objects, make parachutes, airplanes
  • Explore the theatre and play theatre games.
  • Toured a local library and Hy-Vee drugstore.
  • Attended special events such as connecting with older adults and communications day. 

Hailey schnauzerEach meeting, members have an opportunity to give a prepared speech they had been working on. Our oldest daughter researched and prepared a speech about Miniature Schnauzers including where they originated from, how to care for them, common illnesses, personalities and tidbits about our dog, Max. 

For her 4-H County Fair project, our oldest daughter focused on growing a garden. This included learning about different plants, selecting the plants that would grow well in our area, preparing the garden bed, maintaining the garden (weeding, watering, etc.). She also conducted a photography project in conjunction with the garden project. Our youngest daughter focused her 4-H project on how to make cinnamon toast. This included identifying ingredients and their farm source and making the toast. Both girls prepared storyboards to explain the process to the judge. They each prepared talking points to go over with the judge as well as practiced those presentations.

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Attending the local fair provided the girls with a chance to present their project to a judge, talk to other 4-H members about their projects and see and learn about those project areas. In addition to learning about new areas such as STEM and agriculture, our daughters have gained life skills in how to research a topic and how to communicate with others.

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Growing up in a rural community, raising animals and then working in agriculture, I have a love for the industry. I’m glad my city girls have a chance to learn about and participate in agriculture, as well as gain useful skills they can use the rest of their lives. Now I need to figure out how I can talk my husband into getting some show rabbits to raise in our urban home…

~Melissa

More information
4-H’ers participate in five million science projects annually, 2.5 million healthy living projects annually and 2.5 million citizenship projects annually.
4-H in the City? You Bet!
4-H Growing in Urban Communities
Iowa 4-H Clover Kids
More Iowa Youth Are Joining 4-H Clubs and Programs
Tufts University – The Positive Development of Youth

An Introduction to Herbicides

 

herbicides.1

Are you fearful, intrigued, confused, or simply curious about herbicides? If so, you’re in the right place! Let’s dig a little deeper into the science of how herbicides function.

To start off with, what is a herbicide? A herbicide is a chemical that can manage and control unwanted plant vegetation. The most common types of herbicides are synthetic, but there are also organic options. These chemicals are typically used to effectively eliminate weeds in order to maximize the growth of more desirable plants. Herbicides can be utilized anywhere from your favorite golf course to a neighbor’s garden, and everywhere in-between! It’s important to understand the different ways these chemicals are applied as well as how they physiologically effect plants.

Categories of Herbicides

The two largest categories of herbicides are selective and non-selective. Non-selective herbicides are designed to harm just about any plant species that comes into contact with it. Selective herbicides are formulated to target specific plants and leave others unaffected.

Herbicides can be further classified by their method of application. Some are formulated to be absorbed through leaf and green material, and are spread in a foliar application. These are commonly called “post-emergent herbicides“. Others can be applied to the soil as a preventative measure. These are commonly called “pre-emergent herbicides“. The timing of application is also crucial, since different chemicals work the best when applied before, during, or after a crop has been planted.

waterhemp seeds

One tall waterhemp weed that’s allowed to seed can produce 440,000 seeds or more.

Now that we know how herbicides are used, it’s good to understand that they aren’t the sole solution in the war against weeds. Herbicides are only one of the tools found in the producer’s weed-fighting toolbox. Other methods of weed control include cultural, biological, and mechanical tactics.  It’s recommended that farmers utilize an Integrated Weed Management plan to best control weed population. If the same type of herbicide is used in fields repeatedly, agriculturists face the fear of weeds developing a resistance to the chemical. A herbicide resistant plant develops through slight mutations in the plant’s seed, which occurs due to the large quantity of seed produced by a single weed. It seems to be a never-ending fight of producers against weed’s continuous adaptability.

Modes of Action

Mode of Action (1)

Herbicides can be further arranged with the various methods of how they target the anatomy of plants. Mode of action states the effect on the plant, and site of action specifies where the herbicide targets the process. Most herbicides are designed to interfere with an enzyme used to carry out an essential function to plant life (photosynthesis, amino acid production, lipid production, etc.).

Roundup is a common herbicide that belongs to group 9. This means it targets the enzyme  referred to as EPSP Synthase. This messes up the shikimate pathway, which would normally help produce molecules such as amino acids. This completely ruins the plant’s physiology, leading to its soon demise. If the chemical was formulated correctly, the plant will exhibit yellow and deformed leaves before necrosis, or plant tissue death.

Another common herbicide is 2,4-D which belongs to group 4 and is a growth regulator. All growth regulators effect the levels of auxin within plants, which is a hormone that facilitates plant growth. When applied correctly, the effected plant will exhibit twisting, abnormal growth, and structural deformity before necrosis.

I could go on for pages describing in detail why each group is unique, but this PDF is a useful and condensed resource. Long story short, it’s important for producers to choose a treatment plan that implements various modes of action to further prevent weeds from becoming resistant.

Real-life Application

Genetic modification has allowed producers to use a wider range of herbicides on their crops, the most recent scenario being dicamba. Dicamba is a group 4 growth regulator that targets broadleaf plants. This chemical used to be more common in residential areas (such as golf courses) than in row crop fields. It’s been around in the US since the 1960’s, and up until 2016 farmers only used it to eliminate broadleaf weeds before the growing season began. Dicamba is seen as one of the more dangerous herbicides due to its ability to volatilize and move post-application. This is why it’s now classified as a restricted use pesticide, which means there are increased rules and regulations surrounding application methods and timing. With the commercialization of dicamba-tolerant soybeans, these farmers are now able to use dicamba on their beans (which are broadleaves) without damaging them. When producers utilize biotechnology such as dicamba-tolerant soybeans and Roundup Ready corn, they are given another tool to fight the persistent army of weeds.

soda can

Photo from cheetsheet.com

The last thought I’d like to leave you with regards the rate of application of herbicides. Let’s talk a bit more about the herbicide commonly referred to as Roundup. Roundup (also known as Touchdown) contains glyphosate as the active ingredient. All applicators must follow the product label to properly calculate application rates. When using Roundup it’s recommended to use 32 fluid ounces per acre, up until the weed is one foot tall. Putting that into a bit of perspective – one aluminum can of soda holds 12 fluid ounces, so this rate calls for less than 3 cans. Now spread that out over an acre, which is approximately one football field. Additionally rates and various chemicals mixed together vary upon the species and maturity of weeds in the field. Simply put, these chemical applications are highly technical, tightly regulated, and extensively researched before ever reaching a field.

-Rosie

Agriculture 101: Specialty Crops

Iowa is well known for corn, soybean, and livestock production. Iowa is consistently the top producing state of corn, eggs, and pork, and the first or second ranked state in soybeans.  (Our neighbor to the east, Illinois, also produces a lot of soybeans.)  Iowa is also usually in the top 10 for the amount of turkeys, cattle, oats, alfalfa hay, milk goats, sheep and lambs raised here.

Although most of Iowa’s farm land is used for row crops and livestock, what is grown here is much more diverse than meets the eye. Specialty crops are big in Iowa, too!

Specialty crops are defined in law as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.”  So, a specialty crop is defined by what it is, not by how commonly it is grown in an area.  Crops considered specialty crops in Iowa are the same as those considered specialty crops in California or Florida.

California’s moderate climate, long growing season, and fertile soil enables farmers to grow over 200 crops, many of them year round.  Iowa’s short growing season and extreme high and low temperatures makes limits the number and amount of fruits, vegetables, nuts and horticultural crops grown here.

Even though our weather provides a challenge, Iowa’s specialty crop industry is strong and growing.   Here’s just a brief look at a few specialty crops grown here.

  • IMG_1189Christmas Trees.  Most fresh Christmas trees are sold within two weeks after Thanksgiving, but growing them takes 6-12 years and requires year-round work to maintain.  A typical Christmas Tree Farm in Iowa is 3 to 8 acres in size. Most farms sell trees by the “choose and harvest” method, where a customer comes to the farm to cut their own tree. According to the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association, there are approximately 100 choose and harvest tree farms in the state.  Real Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states. The top selling Christmas trees in Iowa are Scotch Pine and White Pine.
  • high tunnel greenhouseVegetables.  There are many small farms in Iowa that thrive by selling in-season vegetables at their farm-front, road-side stands, and farmer’s markets. Others sell directly to restaurants or wholesale to grocery stores.  Some Iowa farmers extend the vegetable growing season by planting in high tunnel greenhouses. Almost any vegetable can be grown in Iowa, but the vegetable crop sold in greatest volume here is sweet corn. However, less than 1% of the corn grown in Iowa is sweet corn. Most of the corn grown in Iowa is field corn, used for livestock feed, processed food, and ethanol.
  • Apples.  Iowa was once a top apple producing state, but the Armistice Day Blizzard in November 1940 killed or severely injured many trees and reduced the state’s apple production by 85%.  Because of the risk of another severe freeze, many farmers chose not to replant and converted these acres to growing corn or hay.  Although Iowa is still not a top apple producing state now, there are many orchards across the state. Most are you-pick farms, but sell to grocery stores or directly to processors, like Iowa Choice Harvest that cleans, slices, flash-freezes, and bags apples for sale in grocery stores.
  • 20190805_142858Grapes.  Iowa’s grape and wine industry has grown immensely in the last 10 years. There are more than 300 vineyards in the state, with 100 that make their own wine. Like other specialty crops, Iowa’s weather limits the quantity and diversity of great varieties that can be grown here. However, the increased interest in growing grapes in Iowa and other upper Midwestern states has led to more research on grape cultivars that with withstand severe winters and mature in short growing seasons.  According to the Iowa Wine Growers Association, more than 40 different types of grapes are currently grown in the state.

Traditional farm bill commodity programs that support grain, oilseed, cotton, and milk production do not serve specialty crop producers, who provide the country with fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts. The United States Department of Agriculture provides funding to support the production of specialty crops through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.  The program began in 2004 and is designed to “enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops.”  In other words, it provides funds to encourage farms to grow specialty crops.  This in turn, helps to support economic development in rural communities and increase consumer access to fruits and vegetables.

-Cindy

 

 

 

How’s the Air Up There?

Driving along Interstate 80 brings many sights to see. Rolling fields, quaint wooden barns, and the occasional herd of cattle might be what you expect across the beautiful Iowa landscape. But have you ever looked up and wondered “what in the world are those tall wind mills for?” Would you believe you are seeing a massive network of energy producing wind turbines?

blog photo of wind turbine

Wind turbine in an Iowa field. Oats have been seeded along the a gravel pathway.

Interspersed along the everyday and ordinary are highly technologically advanced devices used to capture the speed of wind and turn it into electricity. Yes, they are actually wind turbines and not wind mills. Wind mills do mechanical work like pumping water, whereas wind turbines use the motion from the wind to generate electricity.
It is well known that Iowa is famous for its corn and soybean production (ranked #1 for corn and #2 for soybeans). Corn produces a renewable fuel called ethanol and soybeans can be used to make a renewable fuel called biodiesel. The wind turbines use another renewable resource (wind) to produce energy (electricity).

How do they work? Take a look at the three main parts of the turbine, the blades, the shaft, and the generator.

parts of wind turbine

Diagram of the parts of a wind turbine.

• The long parts of the wind turbine that you see spinning is called the blade and transfers the wind’s energy to the rotor. There are usually three blades, but some turbines might have more or less than three.

The shaft is the horizontal part inside the wind turbine that transfers the mechanical energy into rotational energy. Each blade connects to the shaft.

• The rotational energy of the shaft turns magnets in a generator around a coil of wires. The generator uses the difference in the electrical charge (positive charge in the magnets moving the negatively charged electrons in the wires) to produce a change in voltage, electrical pressure, and that current is driven through power lines for consumers to use.
Wind turbines are tall with one of the newest models standing at 650 feet.

ground view looking up

The newest models of wind turbines stand at 650 feet, taller that Seattle’s Space Needle!

That is taller than Seattle’s Space Needle! This height allows the turbine to catch the faster and less turbulent wind. The wind needs to move at least seven miles per hours for the blades to turn. When the wind flows across the blade, the air pressure on one side of the blade decreases. The difference in air pressure across the two sides of the blade creates both lift and drag. The force of the lift is stronger than the drag and this causes the rotor to spin. This is the same physics that give airplanes lift and allow them to fly! So how many wind turbines are there in Iowa? According to the U.S. Wind Turbine Database, there are more than 4,500 in Iowa. Turbines need to be spaced out from each other to catch the most wind. The distances in this case are expressed in rotor diameters. The general rule-of-thumb for wind farm spacing is that turbines are about seven rotor diameters away from each other. So an 80-meter (262-foot) rotor would need to be 560 meters – more than a third of a mile – from adjacent turbines. The amount of land that is needed for the turbine would include the tower pad, the power substation, and a new access road to the wind turbine or approximately 1.5 acres.

view of turbine with lane leading up to it

The wind turbine stands at the end of an access road.

Where are they located? All over! Using the viewer feature from the U.S. Geological Survey, you can scroll over the entire country to see where turbines are located. Information provided for each turbine includes, an identification number, the wind project name, what year the turbine went online, the turbine model number, as well as latitude and longitude of each site.

To make sure there is enough room in between wind turbines, wide open Iowa farm ground is a popular location to install them. Iowa also has pretty steady wind speeds (above the seven miles per hour required). Farmers can supplement their income by leasing their land to energy companies while still raising a crop. But because of the 1.5 acres required, it does take some farm ground out of production. Farmers have to decide if they will be able to make more money growing a crop or leasing the ground. Farmers can also work together to create a cooperative and own their wind turbines. With this option they sell the power back to the electrical companies and put the electricity into the grid.

wind farm in distance

Wind farm showing multiple wind turbines, miles apart.

How much energy do Iowa’s wind turbines produce? Iowa generated more than 34% of its electricity used through wind turbines. That is the second highest share for any state. That’s a lot of wind power!
Whether you are talking about corn, soybeans, or wind, our state is full of renewable resources!

-Melanie

Soil and Water Conservation Practices – What are They Doing?

Agricultural run-off has been a big talking point in recent years. Many people know bits and pieces of the conversation, but the scope of the issue can be a bit complicated. There are many factors and smaller issues that need attention. So, what is the deal with run-off?

As you may know, Iowa is under national pressure to reduce the amount of nutrients washing off of our land and into the rivers, and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico. The main issue at the Gulf is hypoxia, which basically means there are too many of specific kinds of nutrients, which promotes algae growth, which in turn chokes out other organisms like fish. Clearly this is not ideal.

The main nutrient that gets the press is nitrogen. Nitrates in the water has been one of the bigger issues people talk about. The main concerns are removing nitrates from drinking water (primarily because of the blue baby syndrome that was a larger problem in the 1950s), issues of environmental stability, and even cost of wasted nutrients on the farm associated with nutrient loss from the field.

The other nutrient we are now paying attention to is phosphorus. This one isn’t quite as popular to talk about in the public space, but it impacts aquatic ecosystems similarly to nitrogen. They both support the growth of algae, sometimes to the point of using up all of the oxygen in the water and killing off native fish.

Nitrogen and phosphorus (along with potassium) are two of the three main macronutrients that plants need to grow. Nitrogen tends to be the nutrient that is applied most to Iowa farm fields, because of how important it is to crop growth. These are naturally occurring elements in the soil and play a vital role in life on Earth.

However, we’ve come to this issue. Aquatic ecosystems are being negatively impacted by these nutrients. Farmers pay to apply these nutrients to their crops and don’t want to lose their investment. How can we reduce those nutrient loads in our waterways and keep nutrients and soil where they belong?

The good news is those questions are being asked, and many programs are underway. The more difficult news is that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer either for fields or for the nutrients themselves.

Let’s back up a little bit and talk about how these nutrients interact with the soil and water. Soil particles are made up of sheets of molecules that when bonded together create an overall negative charge. This works out pretty well because most nutrients have a positive charge in their plant-available form. This means that most nutrients bond with the soil and stay available to the plants living in that soil. Phosphorus is one of these nutrients.

But then we get to nitrogen. It sometimes is in a form with a positive charge (NH4+), but it doesn’t really like to stay like that forever. It gets broken down or may volatilize into a different form. It could be lost into the atmosphere, or it could become NO3-, which is nitrate. When nitrogen changes into its nitrate form, it is no longer attracted to the negatively charged soil and ends up leaching its way through the soil profile along with ground water.

Since nitrogen moves with ground water, the primary way it gets around is through tile lines. Field tile is commonly used in Iowa to help keep excess water from the field. If soil is too waterlogged, the crops may struggle. Thus, Iowa farmers have been tiling their fields for decades to give the water a quick and easy way to escape the field.

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Iowa Learning Farms display highlighting differences between nitrogen and phosphorus loss from a field and how tile lines play a part.

Both of these nutrients cost money to apply. They are important for crop growth. The soil that can hold them is also valuable. Farmers don’t want them to leave their field partially because they don’t want to lose that value, and also because of the negative impacts too much of them can have on other ecosystems. But because these two things come into the waterways in different ways – phosphorus comes into the water with soil that has eroded, and nitrogen through the water itself – they have to be managed in different ways.

So what are some ideas?

There are some practices that can be built or installed to help modify the landscape or the way the elements interact with it. These can cost real money, but in some cases, government programs or even corporate incentive programs can help fund their start up. These can be largely grouped as permanent structures

One cool new idea is saturated buffers. This system uses both buffer strips and tile lines. Buffer strips are areas of natural plants parallel to ditches and waterways left fallow to help filter runoff. Conventional tile systems are installed 3-4 feet deep to catch and take extra water from the field and into a near ditch or waterway. The outlets of these tile lines have conventionally been placed directly into a ditch or waterway uninhibited. However, the idea with a saturated buffer is that if you place the tile line parallel to the ditch or waterway, the soil and plant growth in the buffer strip will filter the soil particles and nutrients in the water before it reaches the waterway. The Agricultural Research Service claims this system filters an average of 42% of the nitrate load from the water.

The saturated buffer idea is similar to the idea of bioreactors. Bioreactors also help filter nutrients from tile line outlets, but with artificially created biological processes. Essentially a pit is filled with organic, carbon-rich materials, like woodchips, where microscopic life can flourish. These microorganisms help break down and filter nitrates from the water introduced to the system. This is a slightly older technology than saturated buffers, but is costlier to implement and will need redone roughly every 15 years.

Buffer strips and bioreactors are considered “edge of field” practices. This means that they don’t need to take up area in a field, but instead use the less productive or less safe land to farm near a water boundary. Though it still may be a hard sell to pull that land out of production, it is argued that those areas likely aren’t making the farmer much money, and proper water management may help make other areas better. Since these practices help filter ground water before it reaches the stream, they are some promising pieces in removing excess nitrates.

Terraces are another way farmers can make changes to the land to slow water runoff. You may have seen pictures of farms in other parts of the world where terraces are cut like stairsteps into a large hill so that the crops can be grown on flat land. Here in Iowa, we use a different kind of terrace that essentially builds up a smaller hill on a broad hill to slow water running off the slope. When the water runoff is slowed, soil particles and nutrients can have more time to settle out in the grassed front and back-slopes of the terrace. For more info on terraces, check out our previous blog post here, Clean Water Iowa, or the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Avoca Terraces

Terraces placed on the slope protect the soil from erosion in Avoca, Iowa.

Grassed drainageways or grassed waterways are a common sight to see around the hills of Iowa. These are natural waterways that farmers leave in native grasses to slow water flow, intercept soil runoff (to decrease P loss), and hopefully the plant life will also absorb excess nutrients in the water (to decrease N loss). If not left in a grassed waterway, these areas of the field would be susceptible to rill and gully erosion.

There are also cropping practices that can impact soil and water conservation. These can be opted into or out of any given season.

Another very cool idea is cover crops. We’ve written previous blogs about cover crops, but in a nutshell, cover crops are plants grown in a farmer’s field during the off-season (fall to spring) to keep the soil covered and protected during a time it would usually be left bare. Cover crops protect the soil surface from wind and rain, the roots help improve soil structure, they add organic material that makes soil healthier, hold nutrients near the soil surface, help suppress weed growth, and do lots of other cool things. Because cover crops help use nutrients and protect the soil, they can help with both nitrogen and phosphorus loss.

IMG_0934

Soybeans sprouting through a terminated rye cover crop on a strip-tilled farm near Algona, IA.

Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers broke the land using moldboard plows year after year. Eventually we realized that even though tillage can help prevent soil compaction and help with weed control, it has a negative impact on soil structure and makes soil more susceptible to erosion. Because of this, some farmers swung the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum and went no-till. This means they never till the soil on their fields. Instead, they are more dependent on herbicide weed control, and use crop rotations and cover crops to help mitigate soil compaction. When the soil is not tilled, the structure becomes stronger, and previous years’ crop roots and stems help protect the soil. This helps prevent soil from washing off the field, thus preventing phosphorus loss.

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This is a field that has been strip-tilled. Strip tillage is a form of conservation tillage where only part of the field is tilled.

If we think of no-till and moldboard plowing as the two far swings of the pendulum in terms of tillage, likely the middle of the road or slightly more toward no-till would be conservation tillage. This is the idea that a field can benefit from tillage for compaction or weed control issues, but can also benefit from increased soil structure and added organic material from less tillage. These practices vary greatly, but likely include less of the topsoil being broken up.

Contour farming is a way to plant a field so that the rows follow around the hills. This means that when the water runs down the hill, it would run perpendicular into the rows instead of parallel between the rows. This should slow the flow of water, giving soil time to settle out of the water before it continues down the hill.

There are many options available for farmers and landowners in the area of soil and water conservation. More research is being done every day for the best and newest ways to decrease risk, decrease cost, and maximize benefit. Because of the nature of these practices (particularly permanent structures and cover crops) is that it costs real money up front to earn intrinsic value later (i.e.: will not earn them a paycheck), it can be difficult to implement new things. However, farmers recognize the good that these things do, and are interested in new cost-share and grant opportunities that can help them do better with what they have.

What do you think the next big idea will be? Maybe you’ll be right!

-Chrissy

Ethics in Agriculture

cow eating grass.JPGRight and wrong. Good and bad. Choices.

Food is essential for our survival as human beings. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that society needs to provide its people with the means to obtain food. In our modern society, farmers are responsible for ensuring that enough food is produced to feed all humans. This leads to the enhanced well-being of citizens and that by eliminating hunger and malnutrition we improve human health. But the production of food to feed people cannot be the only consideration. Natural resources and the natural world should also be valued and a balance should be struck. These somewhat opposing forces (agriculture for the betterment of humans and protection of the natural world) necessitate the making of choices.

Farmers make choices everyday about how to produce that food. Government workers make choices everyday about regulating food production. Researchers make choices about the science they conduct to advance agriculture. Industrial workers, lawmakers, technology developers, consumers, and protesters all make choices.

2.jpgChoice Impact Outcomes

It is these choices that determine the ethics of agriculture. Are the choices good or bad? Are they right or wrong? Not every choice has a purely positive outcome. Some choices have negative consequences. But to determine if choice is good or bad sometimes we need to decide if the positives of the choice outweigh the potential negative impacts of the choice. These ethics can be documented through legal codes, religion, literature, and other hallmarks of our recorded history. Ethics are values generally agreed upon by the collective whole. But because we are humans and each view the world a little differently that agreement or consensus isn’t solidified. Ethics can change as society changes.

Fewer People Produce Their Own Food

As early as 16th Century Europe, farming started to transition from ‘a way of life’ to a profitable business. Since then farmers have continued to specialize as a profession. For most of human history, all people of the society had to be involved in raising and producing food. But today, fewer than 2% of the U.S. population is involved in production agriculture. Farmers raise and produce food to feed the other 98% and our global market of trade and exchange has allowed farmers to specialize and raise only one or two crops or livestock species. The trade-off is that this system has led to mono-cultured crops and intensive livestock production systems.

Agriculture and farming was also held in high regard as an underpin of democracy with hard-working, solid citizens. Farming can be viewed as a noble human endeavor – to feed the people of Earth. At the end of World War 2, there was a tremendous need to increase food production. Agriculture and the role of farmers has been to supply abundant, safe, and nutritious food that is affordable to the consumer. New technologies and governmental policies allowed this to happen and today farmers produce enough calories to feed every person on earth. But it isn’t necessarily the right kind of food,.and logistical problems of food distribution keep nutritious food supplies from areas that need them. At the current rate of human population growth it is assumed there will be at least 9 billion (2 million more) humans to feed by the year 2050. Farmers still largely view their role as one to produce more food.

field corn 2.JPGSustainability Provides Ethical Guidance

In modern agriculture we can use the idea of sustainability to help determine if a choice is ethical. Sustainability has three parts – economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability.

  1. Economic sustainability – If the farm will be profitable and the farmer will stay in business, it will lead to economic sustainability.
  2. Social sustainability – If the choice is good for individual humans and the community, it will lead to social sustainability.
  3. Environmental sustainability – If the production method doesn’t degrade the natural environment (soil, water, air, and plant and animal communities), then it will lead to environmental sustainability.

Finding a Balance

Ethical conversations teeter on this balance. And different groups of people might prioritize one leg of sustainability over the other. For example, people passionate about nature, wildlife, and wild habitats might say those require top consideration. But if a farmer can’t use the natural resources like soil and water to produce their crops and raise their livestock, then they will not be economically or socially sustainable. As another example, vegans and vegetarians might protest the killing of livestock for human food consumption. But throughout history, humans have been omnivores and eat meat and animal products as a part of their diet along with plants. The meat provides essential amino acids, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that all contribute toward a healthy diet. Without meat as a part of the human diet, humans may not be as healthy and therefore the system wouldn’t be as socially sustainable.

In ethical conversations there are many considerations to weigh and balance. The conversations can include farm structure, animal welfare, food safety, environmental impacts, international trade, food security, biotechnology, research, and more. Where we land on these conversations and choices help determine governmental policies, food safety regulations, research and technology regulation, and other guiding rules and laws.

For example, biotechnology has incredible potential to advance agricultural production. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? Prudent regulation can help mitigate the risks but still allow for the advances.

Raising crops in monoculture has an incredibly high level of efficiency and productivity, but can lead to soil degredation and increased disease pressure. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? New practices like no-till farming and cover crops can reduce the negative effects of soil erosion and improve soil micro-organisms, but can cost more money to implement.

Raising animals indoors can significantly improve the efficiency of the production system. Can the positive results outweigh the negative aspects of confined quarters? Health monitoring, access to fresh food and water, and manure management keep livestock healthy with a high level of care and welfare.

These are just a few examples of the pros and cons in agriculture and why the choices made are thought to be ethical.

Farmers and others in agricultural industry make choices every day. No situation is perfect and farmers can continue to improve their practices. And ethics of farming may evolve and shift and change, but I would submit that they make these choices with the best of intentions and the hope that they are making the right, good, and ethical choice.

-Will

Why Do They Do That? Seed Treatments

 

Purple, green, orange, yellow, red? No, these aren’t colors of M&Ms. These are some of the colors you’ll see on agriculture crop seeds that have been treated with the latest technologies to fight diseases and pests. Treating seed is nothing new. Farmers have been using different types of seed treatments dating clear back to 60 A.D. In this blog post, you’ll learn more about how farmers use them today and why.

So, just what is seed treatment?
Seed treating is the act of applying a product to a seed prior to planting. When seeds go into the ground, there are many diseases and pests just waiting to take advantage of those young seeds and seedlings for their own benefit. Farmers want to protect their investment so treating seed is one way to help prevent crop loss.

There are a variety of treatments, but the main categories include fungicides, insecticides, and antimicrobial products.

  • Fungicides are chemical compounds or organisms used to kill fungi or their spores. Typically, two or three fungicides are used at a time.
  • Insecticides are substances used to kill insects. In any given field, many different insects want to feed on the seed. Insecticides help protect against both the actual insect as well as their eggs or larvae.
  • Antimicrobial is an agent that kills microorganisms or stops their growth. These biological treatments can also help plants in other ways such as producing their own nitrogen or helping to extend root systems.

Why do farmers use seed treatments?
Every year, between 20 to 40 percent of yield is lost due to pathogens, insects and weeds, according to Bayer Crop Science. Maybe this is why treating seed has been around for centuries. Farmers throughout history have been trying to find ways to protect their crops from damage. The earliest reported use of a seed treatment dates back to 60 A.D. when wine and crushed cypress leaves were used to protect seed from storage insects, according to the American Seed Trade Association.

Besides farm equipment, the purchase of seeds is one of the most expensive products a farmer must purchase. And it’s an annual purchase. Farmers and companies that Treated-Seed-in-planter-300x169 - croplifejpgsupport those farmers continually want to find ways to protect the value of the seed as economically and environmentally responsible as possible. Seed treatments are one way farmers can protect the seed’s value. Seed treatments can also be a more environmentally friendly way of using pesticides and insecticides. Smaller amounts of these chemicals can be used to benefit the seed when comparing seed treatments to spraying. 

Benefits of seed treatments

  • Seed treatments protect seeds and seedlings against early-season insect pests and diseases.
  • Results in stronger, healthier plants, and higher crop yields.
  • Allows for more accuracy and efficiency in crop production inputs.
  • Reduces the environmental impact of the production process by decreasing the number of spray applications needed on any given field. In short, using treated seed allows for less spraying during the growing season. This helps lessen the exposure to pollinators and other wildlife.
  • By applying color with the treated seed, farmers can tell immediately what type of seed and chemical solution is on the seed in the case of accidental spills.

Seed treatment safety

GMOMarket_2018

Source: GMO Answers

Agriculture is one of the most heavily regulated industries. It can take a decade or more for a new trait to go from an idea to a seed in the field. New products – both seed and chemical applications alike – go through years of research and testing. Once products are ready for market, agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) evaluate the product for safety purposes.

Treated seeds are no different. Farmers are required to follow safe handling procedures to protect the food industry, wildlife, and the environment. Here are just a few of the procedures farmers must follow to protect the environment.

  • Know which treatments seeds have received to ensure proper handling.
  • Wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling treated seed.
  • Clean up spills immediately.
  • Avoid generating dust when handling treated seed.
  • Properly dispose of leftover treated seed.

Ultimately, farmers want to give their seeds the best possible chance to mature to a healthy plant ready to harvest. They deeply care for the land, which has likely been in their family for generations and want to see that land continue to produce crops not only for their family but also the world. Seed treatments are one of the tools in their toolbox to help them to just that.

-Melissa

Additional Sources