Unique Agriculture Commodities: Pearls

A few weeks ago, I was looking for inspiration for a #FridayFarmFact. I was trying to find something that was out of the ordinary and branched beyond the corn and soybean field. This led me to thinking about my time in Muscatine, Iowa. Muscatine used to be a hub for harvesting mussels from the Mississippi River to create pearl buttons. It was a whole town affair with pop-up button factories, and you can still find remains of the pearl button industry as you dig down into the soil. Though pearl buttons aren’t pearls (they are actually created out of the shells of mussels), it got me wondering, where do pearls come from, and are they truly as rare as people say they are?

What is a Pearl?

Pearls are biological gemstones that develop into a wide variety of colors (e.g., black, gray, silver, green, purple, blue, etc.). They form in freshwater and saltwater bivalve-mollusks such as oysters, clams, and mussels. These gemstones can develop naturally as an irritant enters the mollusk. In response to the irritant, the mollusk secretes enzymes and calcium byproducts to form a tissue known as nacre around the irritant that is resemblant to its inner shell, much like when we form a scar. Over the next 3-5 years the tissue continues to grow and deposits calcium carbonate in smooth layers creating what we know as a pearl. To simplify this, think of a pebble that might get into your shoe. Overtime, your body might develop a blister to help protect your foot from the pebble. Eventually, the skin of your foot would toughen up to prevent the pebble from hurting you. In the case of an oyster something as small as a piece of sand might be the irritant that gets in and causes the mollusk to start forming the nacre. Natural pearls are rare and finding a “perfect” pearl is even rarer. This rarity, and the demand for pearls, has sparked a market for the cultivated, or human induced, pearl.  

White and pink pearls
(photo courtesy of James St. John)

How are pearls cultivated?

As in most cultivation, pearl farmers do not reinvent the wheel; rather, they utilize and optimize what occurs when Mother Nature is left alone. Thus, the pearl forms in the same way that a natural pearl would, however, specialized tools and growing conditions are used in cultivation farms to develop the “perfect” pearl. Most pearl cultivation farms can be found in Japan, China, and Indonesia. These locations are ideal for cultivation because of the water quality, temperature, and nutrient availability. The cultivation of pearls can be broken down into six main steps (watch this VIDEO to see them in detail):

Step 1: Grow host oysters or mussels

Oyster or mussel sperm is placed in a tank with eggs (oyster or mussel) for fertilization and the development of a larvae. These tanks are carefully monitored for temperature, minerals, and acidity to make sure the mollusk will have the best conditions for growth. The late larval stage of the mollusk will cling onto the hanging mesh in the tanks. Feeding these mollusks 2-3 times a day allows them to reach the proper maturity to be transferred to open calm waters within a month. Here, the mollusks will grow until they are the proper size for seeding.

Life cycle of an oyster
(graphic courtesy of Wallace et al, 2008)

Step 2: Seeding

The first step of seeding is to create the seed, or nucleus bead. No, the seed won’t sprout a pearl, it’s not like a plant seed. In this process, a donor mollusk is cut open and a round nucleus bead is made from the shell. This little piece of shell (or seed) is surgically placed inside the mollusk with a piece of donor tissue (called a graft) and will serve as the irritant to start the pearl. This process takes steady hands and careful precision, so the mollusk isn’t harmed. The bead’s size will help determine the overall size of the pearl. I like to think of this process like priming a wall with paint, you prepare the wall so that the color in the end comes out the way you want it.  Same with seeding the mollusk.

Placing a seed and donor tissue into an oyster for pearl cultivation
(photo courtesy of Shawn Harguail)

Step 3: Rest and Recover

After seed surgery, the mollusks are placed in containers and back into calm open waters of the ocean or lake. As their wound heals, farm workers use technology to x-ray the mollusks to determine if the seed was accepted, and to determine the progression of the pearl. If the seeding was accepted, the mollusks are then hung either by a rope through their shells or laid in baskets for the remainder of the pearl making process.

Creation of the nucleus seed of an oyster (left) and pearl formation (right)
(illustration courtesy of C. Montagnani)

Step 4: Grow Pearl

As the pearl continues to grow, the mollusks are moved from cooler waters to warmer waters to ensure that the animal doesn’t die, and optimal pearl growth occurs. Throughout the growth process the mollusks are collected and cleaned to get rid of parasites that could damage the animals. This stage of pearl production can take anywhere from 10 months to 3 years depending on the size of pearl.

Hanging of mollusks for growing pearls in baskets (A) and on a line (B)
(photo courtesy of Simon-Colin et al, 2015)

Step 5: Harvest 

Mollusks are cut in half and the pearl is extracted from the meat. If it is an oyster, part of the meat may be conserved and sold as Ise-Shima, a delicacy in Japan. The pearls are washed and rinsed and sorted through to find the perfect pearls. It may take up to 10,000 pearls to find enough desired pearls to make a 16” necklace.

Harvesting of oysters
(photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank)

Step 6: Develop Product

Pearls require no polishing or shaping. After they are washed and sorted, they are exported to factories and shops where they are used to create a wide variety of jewelry such as rings, earrings, necklaces, and more.   

Example of a pearl necklace, a possible end product for cultivated pearls
(photo courtesy of HarshLight)

Pearls in the United States

Though most pearls are cultivated in Asia, we do have one freshwater pearl cultivation farm in the United States. Located in Camden, Tennessee, the Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm was started by John Latendresse (1925-2000). Latendresse utilized the Washboard mussel, an indigenous freshwater mussel in the Tennessee river, and culturing techniques from Japan to cultivate the pearls. Through years of research and trial and error, Latendresse and his family perfected cultivating techniques and developed new ones to create pearls of varying shapes such as coins and duck wings. They started a business for their pearls, American Pearl Company, to branch across markets and industry. At the farms peak it was worth roughly $50 million. Today the farm is owned by Bob Keast, and though it is still an operational farm, most of the farm’s income is acquired through agritourism.  You can visit the farm and stay in one of their cabins along the bay, go on boat tours, hunt for pearls, or view and purchase pearls in their onsite museum.

My Takeaways

Natural pearls are still a rare find, however, the need to search the ocean and riverbeds for mollusks bearing gems has declined (and is illegal in some areas). The farming and cultivation of pearls has tremendously changed the market and rarity of the once sought-after pearl. Through the advancement of technology and biological understanding we are now able to meet the demand for such a valuable commodity in a more sustainable way. And though pearls may not be as rare as they once were, a perfect high-quality pearl still is.


A Day in the Life of a Seed Dealer

If you have ever flown over, driven through, or maybe even bicycled across the Midwest, you might have noticed the acres upon acres of crops that are planted in precise ways. Those crops are made up of hundreds of thousands of rows and those rows are made up of millions of individual plants. Now stay with me for just a little bit longer. Those millions of plants start off as seeds, purchased by farmers from … a seed salesman.

To get a better idea of what a seed salesman does, I reached out to someone who helps us order our seed, Mark Pogee of Rob-See-Co, a hybrid corn and soybean seed company in the western Corn Belt states. Rob-See-Co is an independent company built on simplicity, relationships, and technology.

Mark, who attended Iowa State University, says, “My whole life has revolved around agriculture.”

Previously, Mark managed a cooperative for nearly 13 years, was a regional sales manager for another seven years, and most recently he works for Rob-See-Co. Each of these positions have given Mark the opportunity to do what he loves best, to be curious. Each part of Mark’s day involves seeing and doing new things. Each day he makes sales calls (10-15 per day), meets new people, and arranges the delivery of seed. Through his job he also sets up seed plots, builds customer relationships, and works to find farmer/dealers who could store the seed until the planting conditions are just right in the fall.

He likes all of those different aspects of his job and loves having an office that is based in his truck.  He covers a 20-county area, and his travels can add up to a lot of miles. In fact, Mark was on his way back from the Missouri border when he took a break to call me and go over some notes he had jotted down to help describe his job. When out on the road, Mark also gets to support local business by eating at a different restaurant daily. 

Mark works with farmers and knows they have long hours before light and even sometimes after dark. Not everyone has times for a sales call, but Mark is tenacious. He keeps trying, catching his customers at good times – and stepping away to try again if the time is not right.

Being a good salesman requires knowing a lot about the product you are selling. Corn seed is categorized by different hybrids and soybean seeds are categorized by different varieties. Depending on the type of soil you have, the weather conditions that spring, the type of crop you planted last year, and even how many long days you will have in your growing season determine which hybrid of corn or variety of soybean you might purchase. Farmers often plant different hybrids and varieties on different parts of the same field to match the conditions of the soil. There are a lot of variables to consider. The technology of seed development gives farmers many options to choose from and many options for seed dealers to offer. Check out Farming by Numbers for more information on seeds.

Why should a farmer work with a seed dealer? Every year, Iowa farmers plant over 30 million acres of crops. And while that is a huge number of acres, each farm is only on average 345 acres. Individual farmers can get a better deal working with seed companies and dealers who negotiate for large-scale purchases.

In Iowa, seed is planted in the spring, but the summer is still a busy time. Farmers and seed dealers together look at fields, check on the progress of the plants, and try to troubleshoot for the next year. After a windstorm or other weather event, a field may look ugly. But crops are amazing at coming back. In the worst case scenario, farmers will need to replant. Mark says if the farmer has to replant it is a heart-wrenching decision. It’s never a good situation because they will have lost all of that time and money and the yields will have been greatly diminished. The cost of replanting can be high. A bag of soybean seed averages $52 and will cover one acre. Corn is more expensive at $285 a bag, but each bag covers approximately 2½ acres. The cost of a bag of seed accounts for the delivery, trucking, fuel, human resource costs, and the research that helped develop each kernel of corn or soybean seed.

Fall is also a busy time for a seed salesman. A seed salesman will join a farmer in their “office” (combine while harvesting) and spend time taking out the fields. Riding along during the harvest helps Mark to get an idea of how well the specific variety of seed did. It also provides Mark an opportunity to visit with the farmer about what next year’s planting needs may be. Seed companies must anticipate a year in advance what the farmer will need. Mark’s most important job is helping the farmer with decisions about what to plant. Most of his farming solutions are the result of years of experience and knowledge of the farms – and farmers- whom he is working with. He provides tried and tested seed choices to help give the crops the best possible start.

“Every year, you start over, and everyone is a new customer,” says Mark. “You can’t just assume because someone purchased seed from you in the past that they will again.”

One of a farmer’s most important decisions is what to plant. Seed dealers, like Mark, can help the farmer with those decisions – if they come at a good time.


You’re attending the 2021 National Agriculture in the Classroom conference. Now what?

We are so excited that you’re coming to Des Moines for the 2021 National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference. We’ve been planning for a long time and can’t wait for you to experience our favorite state!

As a native Iowan myself, I wanted to help you get a feel for the locale. What restaurants will be close by the conference center? What are some major Iowa things to check out? If you’re bringing kids or meeting with family, what kinds of activities can you do together? What about some background on Iowa agriculture to prepare you for the traveling workshops? I’ve got you!

First, Iowa is solidly part of the Midwest. Temperatures during the conference will likely be 70 to 90 degrees F and humid. The conference will be in Des Moines, which is fairly centrally located in the state and at an interesting place geographically.

All of Iowa has been glaciated at one point or another. The north-central third of the state was glaciated very recently and remains the flattest part of the state with some of the best, richest, newest soil in the world. This glacier’s terminal moraine became the hill that our state capital was built on! So from the capital, if you drive north, south, east, or west, you can see different major geographic areas. More on our land formations here.

Because of Iowa’s rich soils, warm sun, and adequate rain, it has become a prime location for commodity row crops like corn and soybeans. Iowa is the top corn growing state and is either first or second for soybean production, sometimes trading with our pals to the east in Illinois. One of the major markets for these crops is feeding livestock, so Iowa also raises lots of pigs, laying hens, and beef cattle. Iowa is the top pork and egg producing state and is in the top ten in total cattle numbers. This lends itself well to a cycle where the livestock manure can then be used to fertilize the cropland that feeds the animals.

Some of these commodities you may see represented on the traveling workshops you have chosen. Other tours may show more specialty agriculture, from goats to grapes and schools to teaching farms. Iowa has a history of producing crops like apples and grapes, and has been growing the wine, beer, and spirits industries in recent years. In parts of the state where land is less flat, there are also more farms with grazing animals, like dairy cattle, goats, and sheep.

But do you want to get some recommendations on places to eat and things to do? Wait no more! Scroll down for the section headings you’re most interested in!


801 Chop House

For a fancy meal, consider 801 Chop House. This restaurant is housed in 801 Grand, an iconic building in the Des Moines skyline. This is just a 9-minute walk from the Hilton Des Moines Downtown, where conference goers are staying!

Fong’s Pizza

For a decidedly not fancy meal, go to Fong’s Pizza and get the crab rangoon pizza. It is amazing and weird and just an absolute experience. A real Des Moines metro oddity. Fong’s is a 10-minute walk from the conference hotel.

Spaghetti Works

You really can’t go wrong with Spaghetti Works. This is a great restaurant for a nice, sit-down meal with good Italian-American food. Just an 11-minute walk from the conference hotel!

Zombie Burger and Shake Lab

Zombie Burger is a local haunt that stays busy – for good reason. You can find some very ridiculous and delicious burgers (the Undead Elvis is my favorite) as well as milkshakes with cereal in them. Yeah.

Hessen Haus

As it might sound, Hessen Haus is a local German restaurant in a neat part of town close to the Iowa Cubs baseball stadium and the Science Center of Iowa. This one is about a 13 minute walk from the conference center.

El Bait Shop

El Bait Shop is a favorite casual dive bar also nearby Principal Park. They advertise the largest craft beer selection west of the Mississippi, and of course have food.

Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company

At the heart of the Court Avenue district is Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company. This restaurant has good food, good drinks, and is in a neat building in a cool neighborhood.

The Machine Shed

If you’re looking to drive, The Machine Shed is a great bet. This locale really leans into the Iowa agriculture motif with agricultural décor and even wait staff in overalls. Very good food and a nice little gift shop to boot!

Things to do nearby

World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

The World Food Prize, founded by native Iowan Norman Borlaug, is housed at the old Des Moines public library in downtown Des Moines. The building has been beautifully kept and includes excellent artwork and interactive educational displays. Check to see if a tour lines up with your schedule!

Des Moines Botanical Garden

Also downtown, we have a great way to learn about and see plants! Who doesn’t love that?

Iowa Hall of Pride

The Iowa Hall of Pride is housed very close to the conference center, and serves as a bit of a museum for how awesome Iowa is. Which is, of course, very true.

Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market

To get a good cross-section for local agriculture, you can check out the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market! The market opens on Court Ave on Saturday morning. So if you’re staying for the post-conference tour on Friday, you can pop by for breakfast before leaving town! It is said to be the second largest farmers market in the country (after Pike Place Market in Seattle, WA).

Any brewery or winery

This may seem broad, but local breweries, wineries, and even distilleries have become a large part in Des Moines Metro culture in recent years. Folks will often meet up at a local craft brewery to share a flight, eat some popcorn, and play trivia or giant Jenga. If you want to feel like a local, this is a great way to do it!

Family activities nearby

Science Center of Iowa

The Science Center of Iowa is within walking distance from the conference center and has lots of great ways to engage youth. This could also be a fun stop to get ideas for your classroom!

Living History Farms

Living History Farms is about a 15 minute drive from the conference center, but really ties the agriculture and education pieces together. On site, there are several model farms from different points in history. There’s also a gift shop, and The Machine Shed restaurant is just next door!

Road trip ideas

Iowa State University

Iowa State University in Ames has a top-rated agriculture college, several teaching farms, and a campus designed by the same person that designed Central Park in New York City. I am very much biased, but there’s a lot of good stuff to see and learn at ISU.

The Shrine at the Grotto of Redemption

The Grotto is a monument built by a Catholic priest over several decades using a variety of rocks and stones. This stop tops my list of interesting roadside attractions in the state – and I think there’s an ice cream shop close by!

A Silos and Smokestacks partner site

The Northeast quadrant of Iowa is a National Heritage Area called Silos and Smokestacks. There are numerous partner sites in this area of the state that help tell the story of Iowa agriculture and industry. They range from Norman Borlaug’s boyhood home to local museums.

The Field of Dreams field

If you’re planning to drive east, stop at Dyersville before you leave! The original ball field in the corn field in the Field of Dreams movie is just out of town. Though the home is a private residence and the movie was not shot inside, you can visit the field, play catch, and snap some pictures.

John Wayne’s Birthplace and Museum

If you’re planning to attend the conference post-tour, you will already be seeing this stop! John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa, which is not too far south of Des Moines. The home has been made into a museum, and they have just recently built a new museum to accompany the home! While down in Winterset, you can also find covered bridges from The Bridges of Madison County, wineries, a cidery, and more.

The Amanas

Originally a German communal society, the Amanas are now a tourist destination. There are several colonies, each with charm. In the Amanas, you can find wineries, breweries, bed and breakfasts, a leather shop, a woolen mill, a furniture store, several German restaurants, museums, and more. My top picks here are the Ackerman Winery (try the rhubarb wine), Millstream Brewery (you gotta get the black cherry soda), and the Woolen Mill.

No matter what you choose to do while you’re here, I hope you learn something and enjoy your time here as much as I do.


Why Do They Do That? Track Crop Progress

Around this time of year (April through June) it is common to hear or read news stories touting things like “86-percent of corn now planted, 67-percent of soybeans”. But what does that mean? Why does it matter? Who is behind these numbers?

In a state like Iowa, much of the economy is driven by agriculture. Very few people are directly involved in planting and raising crops. In Iowa there are approximately 85,300 farms. If every farm counts two people as farmers we can estimate there are 170,600 farmers in Iowa. Compare that to the state’s population of 3.155 million and we see that only a little more than 5% of Iowans are farmers. While this seems small, agriculture and agriculture related industries employ one in six Iowans or 17% of the workforce (400,000 jobs). Agriculture is responsible for adding $72.1 billion to the state’s economy, or 27 percent of the state’s total. We begin to see the ripple effect as this revenue and these jobs then help support other industries growing and continuing to thrive like manufacturing, finance, healthcare, education, and so much more. Agriculture has been called an engine for Iowa’s economy.

So, you could say a lot is riding on the success (or failure) of the corn and soybean crop. While it might seem like people in an urban setting are removed from the impacts of the farm, a failed crop (from droughts or floods or other factors) would have ripple effects that could lead to a downturn of the economy and we all would be impacted.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture that works with farmers to track planting of crops and the subsequent health of the crops and the quality of the harvest. One of the field offices is located in Iowa and works closely with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Iowa is broken in to nine districts. Each district is closely monitored and then data is compiled into a weekly report. The report details things like days suitable for fieldwork. If it is raining or if the soil is too muddy from rain, tractors and heavy equipment can’t be taken out into the field to plant or work the soil. Farmers have a limited window in which they can get seeds in the ground. Soil temperatures have to be at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit for seeds to germinate. So too early in the year and the seeds won’t start growing. Crops also need to have enough time to grow. So if they are planted too late in the year they won’t mature before the weather starts turning cold again. The optimal window for planting is April and May. That means that 26.5 million acres need to be planted in a 60 day time period. If it rains for 30 days, then that cuts the planting time in half. As many as one million acres need to be planted per day in Iowa to be successful.

NASS tracks how many acres of corn and soybeans have been planted. They also separately track how many acres have emerged and successfully germinated. Farmers are fraught with challenges. Maybe a farmer is lucky enough to get their planter out in the field and get seeds planted. But then if that is followed by two weeks without rain, the seeds may not germinate. Or if there is too much rain the seeds could get drowned out. So planting is important, but emergence is also important. The weekly NASS reports also track the quality of the crop (very poor to excellent). These data points are tracked from corn and soybeans, but also for hay, oats, and pasture.

Why does it matter?

A lot of farming is based on weather. That makes it a bit of a guessing game. The more information that can be collected, the less of a guessing game it is. One of the biggest reasons we want to track crop condition is to ensure we have an adequate food supply in the upcoming months. It has been a long time since the U.S. has faced any sort of food shortage, but in other parts of the world it can be a real and devastating problem. A drought and loss of one year of crops could lead to widespread famine and the fallout of that famine. Farmers in the U.S. and those who track the progress of those crops have developed a reliable system to hopefully prevent any sort of food shortage – even if severe weather were to hit.

The second reason we want data on crop conditions is to make the economy and market less volatile. Corn and soybean prices change year to year (and day to day) based on supply and demand. The prices are set based on what customers are willing to pay. If there is a high supply and low demand, the price might be very low. If there is a low supply and a high demand, the price might be very high. By knowing what the condition of the crop is early in the planting season there are some guesses, assumptions, and estimations that can be made about what the harvest will be like and what the supply will be like. We can’t always know what the demand will be, but if we know approximately what the supply will be that can help us reduce the volatility and fluctuations of the price.

The third reason that people want to know the condition of crops is to have more security in investments. Farmers and investors can buy and sell crops on the futures market. This means that a farmer might sell their 2021 crop in March before it is planted and long before it is harvested. A farmer would know what costs they would incur during the process. They could negotiate a futures contract that would ensure they cover their costs and make money from their crop. This mitigates risk. However, if the price of the cash market went up, they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of that. That’s where investors come in. They assume the risk and hope that the cash market price goes up. That would allow for them to make money. It is a bit of a game of chance. But with the right information, like the condition of the crop at various stages throughout the growing season, farmers and investors can make some good guesses and hopefully both come out ahead.

The fourth reason that we want to know the condition of crops is because of that ripple effect mentioned earlier. Consider John Deere and other implement dealers. It can take them months to build a new tractor start to finish. And they have to source all of the parts from various suppliers around the world. The whole process could in theory take a year or more if you consider taking the raw ingredient (mining iron ore) to steel (processing the ore into steel) to a finished tractor (shaping parts, assembly, etc.). A limited number of tractors can be built each year with limited workers, limited factories, and limited time. Now consider the farmer. They might only buy a new tractor if they have had a good growing season and were able to sell their crop for a significant profit. (New tractors might cost $500K or more.) Knowing that farmers will only buy tractors when the conditions are good, John Deere can watch the crop report and have a better idea of how many tractors they should build in a given year. The people and businesses that supply the parts for John Deere can have a better idea of how many widgets they should build in a given year. The people and businesses who supply the raw ingredients can have a better idea of how much iron ore or other raw material might be needed.

So, the crop report might only be a brief story on the evening news. But its importance to a stable food supply and economy cannot be understated. For this year (2021) as of May 24, things are looking pretty good. Planting of Iowa’s expected corn crop is nearly complete at 97%, two weeks ahead of the 5-year average. Corn emergence has reached 75%, five days ahead of normal. Seventy-eight percent of the crop is in good or excellent condition with only 1% in poor condition. Eighty-nine percent of the expected soybean crop has been planted, 15 days ahead of the 5-year average. Soybean emergence has hit 53%, nine days ahead. Topsoil soil moisture levels are at 82% adequate or surplus. Subsoil soil moisture is 60% adequate or surplus.

Stay tuned (or check back in) for the fall as the crop reports will continue to monitor the quality of the harvest. More challenges are in store there as farmers need to dry the grain in the field to the right moisture level, avoid fall rains that might get combines stuck in the field, and avoid mold, wind, or other issues that might damage the crop that they’ve toiled to grow.


Farmers Like to Try Growing New Crops

I recently ordered a drink at my local smoothie place and it had hemp seed protein powder in it. That made me curious about the agricultural crop of hemp. I was confused and thought others might misunderstand it as well. Here’s what I learned.

Isn’t it just marijuana?

No, hemp is most notably grown for use as a fiber crop. The long stalks have stringy interiors that can be processed into things like cloth and rope. Most natural fibers that we use for things like clothing come from cotton (a plant) or wool from sheep (an animal). Bamboo has become a popular alternative fiber crop. But cotton and bamboo can’t be grown in the Iowa climate. Sheep are raised in Iowa and while wool has a lot of advantages as a fiber, wool and sheep aren’t as popular as their plant alternatives. Corn and soybeans can also be used to make fibers and cloth, but they take more processing and therefore can be more expensive. Hemp can be grow in the Iowa climate and offers an interesting option for Iowa farmers to get into the fiber industry. But hemp offers a lot of other options too and can be raised as feed ingredient for livestock or for other purposes.

When you hear the word “hemp,” I know for many marijuana is the first thing that crosses your mind. Hemp and marijuana do come from the same cannabis genus. However, hemp has a Delta-9 THC of less than 0.3%, and marijuana has a THC level of more than 0.3%. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive compound in cannabis that creates euphoric effects when consumed. The 0.3% of THC in hemp is so low that it would take 2,500 lbs. of the commodity to equal the same amount of THC in one joint typically used recreationally. So there is no chance anyone will be able to use hemp as a recreational drug.

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

Is it legal?

In 2014, the Farm Bill passed, allowing pilot programs and research to start on the hemp commodity. This farm bill started the discussion on whether hemp farming would continue in the United States and if it was beneficial to everyone.

Four years later, the Hemp Act of 2018 passed. This act moved hemp, with a THC concentration of less than 0.3%, from a controlled substance category to an agricultural commodity. In addition to how hemp was categorized, the act also introduced that hemp producers could receive federal crop insurance. Each state would oversee its laws regarding the production of hemp.

Specifically, the Iowa law allows the production, processing and marketing of hemp products. It does not include using marijuana recreationally, smoking hemp and using or selling hemp for animals.

To farm hemp in Iowa, farmers must first obtain a hemp license. The licensing requires applicants to submit official fingerprints, pass a background check, and have no drug-related felony for the previous ten years. Once the farmer is adequately licensed, they must grow 40 acres or less of hemp and record all farmed hemp. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers a number of different resources for farmers interested in trying to grow this fiber crop.

Farming hemp is not for everyone. Seeds are germinated in a greenhouse and the seedlings have to be transplanted into fields – either by hand or with small scale equipment. Some farmers are refurbishing old machinery previously used to plant things like strawberries to plant the seedlings. Hemp allows for interested farmers to start small and scale up as they become familiar with the agronomics of unfamiliar crop.

Why farm hemp?

Washington Post

Food, building supplies, textiles and oils are just a few of the thousands of different uses from hemp. Hemp is a versatile commodity; the plant’s seeds, stalks, roots, leaves and plant can all be used in one way or another. I personally have tried hemp seed protein in my smoothies. It was a plant-based alternative to my typical whey protein that I purchased because it was cheaper. New products like this are now on the market because of the growing industry. With these new products coming on the market, hemp farming is a place for farmers to invest their money and a portion of their land.

This up-and-coming specialty crop can be grown as either a fiber, grain or for CBD. Out of these niches, CBD or cannabidiol has the most profit potential. CBD is a non-intoxicating phytochemical that has potential health benefits for things like pain, nausea, addiction, and depression. Farmers can usually profit around $1,000 per acre of corn. In contrast, hemp farmers can gain up to $40,000 per acre when their hemp is grown specifically for CBD.

Hemp can be grown in many different regions and climates, making it very easy to grow. However, hemp does prefer certain soils over others. Aerated and loose loam soil can best produce hemp. This kind of soil has mainly sand and silt with a little bit of clay and has enough room for oxygen to flow through the soil. Iowa offers ideal soils.

Hemp also has a short growing season. This fast-growing season means that farmers who live in cooler climates (like Iowa) can fit hemp into their season when they might not be able to with other crops. Farmers with warmer climates may have multiple harvests in one year.

Because hemp only became legal to grow in 2014 and 2018, everyone is still learning how to farm it. There are always opportunities and challenges in growing new crops and some Iowa farmers are embracing this new crop.


We Can’t ‘Goat’ Enough of these Animals: Dairy Goat Breeds

Long before goat yoga, goats singing Silent Night and Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, or goats in pajamas, goats were already a farm favorite throughout the world. Some of the oldest domesticated goats date back to around 10,000 years ago. Today, there are more than one billion goats worldwide.

In an earlier blog post, we discussed how goats became popular throughout history, the top producing countries, how goats are being used in sustainability efforts, and more. Today, we’re going to dive into some of the purposes for specific breeds of goats. Just like cattle, goats can be bred for specific reasons – dairy, meat, and fiber. Let’s look at dairy goats!

Dairy Goat Industry in Iowa

Photo by Mark Stebnicki from Pexels

Did you know Iowa is ranked third in the country in dairy goat production – only behind Wisconsin and California. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there are 214 licensed dairy goat herds and 32,000 milking does (female goats) in Iowa. Despite our size, Iowa’s dairy goats are still a relatively small market. You can usually find producers goat cheese, milk, yogurt and other products available at local farmers markets and in local grocery stores throughout Iowa.

Goat Milk Products

Cow’s milk is the preferred milk in the U.S. but for much of the world, goat milk is the primary milk source for humans. One of the reasons goats are preferred over cattle is the small size of the animal and the amount of land required to raise them.

Goat milk can be fresh, raw or pasteurized, condensed, or dried. It has many of the same nutritional attributes as cow’s milk. Many grocery stores and specialty shops offer gourmet cheese and ice creams made of goat milk, as well as personal products such as soaps and lotions.

Goat milk is typically whiter than whole cow milk. The same goes for butter and cheese, however they may be colored during processing. Goat milk has distinct characteristics when compared to cow’s milk. The fat globules are smaller than those in cow milk, and the curd is softer and smaller which may make digestion easier. For some who are allergic to cow’s milk, oftentimes they’re able to digest goat milk with no problems.

Goat Breeds

There are eight different recognized breeds of dairy goats. In general, the lactation period for dairy goats averages 284 days. In the time after they give birth and after the kid is weaned, the milk can be collected for human consumption.


Source: American Dairy Goat Association

The French-Alpine goat originated in the Alps. They were brought to the United States from France and were selected for uniformity, size, and production. The Alpine goat is known for being a hardier type. It’s an adaptable animal that thrives in any climate while also maintaining good health and excellent production. Alpines come in many different colors and color combinations. They may come in patterns ranging from pure white through shades of gray, brown, black, red, and other color combinations. Their hair is generally short. The does, or females, are typically at least 30 inches tall and weigh around 135 lbs. while bucks, or males, are usually 32 inches tall and weigh 170 lbs.


Source: American Dairy Goat Association

It’s believed that this breed descended from Spanish goats brought by early settlers to California. The breed was further developed in the United States and is known for its calm, loveable nature. It thrives in a variety of climates and conditions. The distinctive feature of the LaMancha is the very short ears. Does (females) are at least 28 inches tall and weigh 130 lbs. while the bucks (males) are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 160 lbs. Their hair is short, fine, and glossy. The LaMancha produces a high-quality milk with high butterfat and protein over a long period of time.

Nigerian Dwarf

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

The Nigerian Dwarf is a miniature goat of West African origin. Dwarf goats come in many different colors; however the main colors are black, chocolate, and gold. Their coat is soft, with short to medium hair. These are a loveable and gentle breed of goats, in fact, some are kept as pets and are used frequently as 4-H and FFA student projects. Nigerian Dwarf does are at least 17 inches tall and may be no taller than 22.5 inches. Bucks are at least 17 inches tall and no taller than 23.5 inches. The average weight is around 75 lbs. They are the only miniature dairy goat breed registered by the American Dairy Goat Association. Though small, this breed of goat produces a proportionate quantity of milk with high butterfat. 


Source: American Dairy Goat Association

This breed is also known for its high butterfat and protein content of its milk. The Nubian’s appearance is distinctive in its facial composition, known for its Roman nose. The ears also are pendulous and hang down. Their hair is short, fine, and glossy, and may be any color – solid or patterned. They tend to be a little more stubborn than other goat breeds and have a distinctive sound. The does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 135 lbs., while the bucks are at least 32 inches tall and weigh 170 lbs. Nubian’s originated in England as a cross between the Old English Milch Goat and the Zariby and Nubian bucks imported from India, Russia, and Egypt. Due to their Middle Eastern heritage, these goats can live in very hot climates and have a longer breeding season than other dairy goats.


Source: American Dairy Goat Association

Loosely translated, Oberhasli means ‘highlander.’ While still relatively rare in the U.S., this breed comes from the district of the Canton of Berne in Switzerland. Their color is described as bay, ranging from light to a deep red bay with black markings. The does may also be solid black. They have short, erect ears. The does are typically at least 28 inches tall and weigh 120 lbs. The bucks are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 150 lbs. They have a calm disposition.


Source: American Dairy Goat Association

This breed of goat is a favorite among commercial dairies due to its high milk production and calm temperament. They originated in the Saanen valley in the south of the Canton Berne, Switzerland. In the early 1900s, several hundred Saanens were imported into the U.S. from Switzerland. They are heavy producers of milk and usually yield 3-4 percent milk fat. The breed is better suited for cooler, shaded conditions and is sensitive to excessive sunlight. They are distinguished by solid white or light cream-colored hair. Their ears are erect. The does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 135 lbs. while the bucks are at least 32 inches tall and weigh 170 lbs. 


Source: American Dairy Goat Association

This is another breed that originated in Switzerland and come from the Saanen breed. They may be any color or combination of colors except for white or light cream. Their hair is short and their ears are erect. They are known for their high milk production and calm temperament. The does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 135 lbs. while the bucks are at least 32 inches tall and weigh 170 lbs. Since they are derived from the Saanen breed, they are very similar, however they are better able to withstand hotter climates and sunny conditions.


Source: American Dairy Goat Association

Toggenburgs were among the first purebred dairy goats to be imported into the U.S. and registered. They are a breed of goat named after the region in Switzerland where the breed originated, the Toggenburg Valley. They are known as being the oldest dairy goat breed. Toggenburgs are medium in size, moderate in production, and have relatively low butterfat content. Their hair color is solid, varying from light fawn to dark chocolate with white or cream markings. Some does may also be black with white or cream markings. The does are at least 26 inches tall and weigh 120 lbs. while the bucks are at least 28 inches tall and weigh 150 lbs.

No matter the breed, dairy goats are well known for their milk production. To see a comparison between the various breeds, the American Dairy Goat Association has created a breed averages chart you can review.

Interested in becoming a dairy goat farmer? The ADGA has some tips on how to get started.

That’s all we’ve ‘goat’ on dairy goats. Next up will be breeds of meat goats.



Cheese, Yogurt, Ice Cream – Iowa’s Dairy Goat Ranking

Iowa Dairy Goat Survey

Goat Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Fun Goat Facts

Agriculture 101: Cooperatives

Growing up, I remember my dad and other farmers talking about the local co-op. It was usually in reference to selling grain or buying fertilizer, pesticide, or other crop inputs. To me, a co-op was a place. A place where farmers purchased supplies or sold their crops. I thought it was similar to the local tractor dealership or any other physical place where farmers do business. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that a co-op was more than a business where farmers purchase supplies or sold crops. It was, in a way, their business.

So, what is a co-op and how do they benefit farmers?  Let’s dive into these and other questions and more.  

What is a co-op?

A cooperative, or co-op, is a user-owned and operated business that operates for the benefit of its users, rather than outside investors. All co-op owners, or members, have a need for the products and services offered. This all means that the users (the farmers) are usually also the owners. The motivation is utilitarian, not necessarily for financial gain. However, the business still needs to be sustainable so that means they still try to ensure a profit is made. That profit is then shared with the owners (the farmers). This can help farmers diversify their income and in turn help sustain their farm business.

What is a farm or agricultural co-op?

Agricultural co-ops help farmer-members market and process their crops and livestock. This means that they help market or sell the grain to an end user like Quaker Oats, General Mills, or any other company that might use it for human food, livestock feed, or an industrial purpose. Co-ops also help farmers secure needed supplies and services. This might mean that they run a store that carries things like fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, or other needed supplies. Some co-ops only provide products and services to farmers like agronomy consultation, technology services, or other services that will benefit the farm. Other co-ops (like Land O’Lakes for example) process and market food brands (like butter) we find at grocery stores.

Earnings of the cooperative business are returned to the farmer-members as dividend payments. The payment that each member receives is based on how much they used the co-op’s services (i.e.: amount of product purchased or sold through the co-op).

These are just a few of more than 3,000 U.S. agricultural cooperatives and their brands.

Are there cooperatives in other industries?

Absolutely. Cooperatives are common in almost all sectors of the economy, including the energy, grocery, housing, finance, and telecommunications industries. Some brands that you may be familiar with include Farmers Electric Co-op (energy), Iowa Food Co-op (grocery), Vintage Cooperatives (housing), Community Choice Credit Union (finance), and Farmers Mutual Co-op Telephone (telecommunications).

Are there different types of co-ops?

Yes. Cooperatives can be grouped into categories based on their primary business function or functions. Types of co-ops include:

  1. Marketing. In marketing cooperatives, members sell, or market, their products together.  This is the most common type of co-op in agriculture.  The co-op negotiates with processors for a better price for their members’ products.  Some marketing co-ops grade, process, merchandise, or distribute members’ products as well. Iowa meat processor, West Liberty Foods, is an example of a marketing cooperative. This farmer-owned co-op processes, markets, and distributes meat products to companies like Subway and Jimmy Johns.
  2. Supply cooperatives provide members with dependable supplies at competitive prices.  Farmers often join supply co-ops to purchase feed, seed, fertilizer, and other necessary farm inputs. By purchasing items in bulk, a co-op is often able to obtain materials at a lower cost than individuals. Bulk purchasing also ensures a consistent supply is available to producers. This is especially important to livestock farmers purchasing feed. 
  3. Consumer co-ops provide access to certain products for their members. Grocery stores that are structured as a co-op are the most common type of consumer co-op.  The most common example of a consumer cooperative is a grocery store that is structured as a co-op rather than an individual business.
  4. Service co-ops provide a specialized service to their members. Common types of service co-ops include finance, utility, insurance, housing, and healthcare. Electric co-ops, such as Prairie Energy Cooperative, provide electrical service to residents and businesses. Farm Credit Service of America, is a financial co-op that specializes in providing loans and other financial services to farmers and rural residents. 
  5. Worker co-ops are owned and self-managed by the people who work for the company. In the U.S. worker cooperatives tend to be primarily in the service and retail sectors.

If you’ve ever purchased Land O’ Lakes butter, you are supporting a farmer-owned cooperative that includes marketing, supply, and service functions. Originally named the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association, it was formed in 1921 by 320 dairy farmers as a way to effectively market and distribute its member’s milk across the country. Today, Land O’ Lakes, Inc is still a farmer-owned cooperative, but it includes four businesses with marketing, supply, and service functions. Land O’ Lakes is its food business that processes, markets, and distributes butter, cheese, milk, and other dairy products. Purina Mills is its feed company. WinField United provides seed, crop production products, and agronomy services. Its sustainability and technology business, Truterra, provides services for farmers and food companies to improve sustainability and profitability.

How do co-ops benefit farmers?

There are may ways farmers benefit from co-ops.  Some include:

  • Expanded market opportunities for grain and livestock;
  • Reliable access to and price of quality farm inputs including fertilizer, seed, fertilizer, fuel, and more;
  • Lower overall production cost;
  • Increased farm income;
  • Shared income and risk in the cooperative business.

Most of America’s two million farmers are member-owners in one or more of the almost 3,000 agricultural cooperatives here. That means these farmers are not only in charge of their individual farms, but also have a share in the ownership and a say in the operations of the larger cooperative business.


A Day in the Life of an Animal Nutritionist

If it moos, oinks, bleats, or clucks it probably lives on a farm. And these farm animals eat a variety of different things. So how does a farmer know what to feed each animal? How do they decided what amounts to feed them? Does an animal’s diet change throughout the animal’s life? Just like humans need different types of food, and in different amounts, so do animals.

To help answer these questions I contacted an animal nutritionist. He specializes in animal nutrition and is especially concerned with the dietary needs of livestock animals.

Role of an Animal Nutritionist

Stewart Galloway is a field nutritionist with Hubbard Feeds. He helps farmers, salespeople, and dealers understand and use the right products when feeding their livestock.

Animal nutritionists can help farmers in many ways, and have different career paths open to them. Some animal nutritionists work for a company that creates animal feed. Their work may include working with numbers, collecting and reviewing lots of research data, and developing nutrition profiles for various animals at different stages of their life. Other animal nutritionists may work as an independent consultant where they interact directly with the farmer customers. This type of role offers lots of flexibility and sometimes travel. Stewart visits livestock producers from Kansas to Pennsylvania. Over time, this industry has become 100% specialized which means there are not many general nutritionists.

Stewart says that working with farmers is the best part of his job because he gets to help them solve problems. There are a great number of details that go into creating the perfect recipe for livestock. He uses technology to help people meet four specific goals: increase profit, improve competitive advantage, decrease risk, and make their lives easier.

Day in the Life of an Animal Nutritionist

Each day, Stewart is problem solving for his farmer customers. Stewart says in his job, “you need to be a person who likes working with a variety of people.”

Some of his duties that he might perform each day include:

  • Formulating diets – Just like you use a recipe to make a food dish, it’s important to get the right ingredients, weights, and mix the right amounts for animal feed. Each animal has varied nutritional needs so an animal nutritionist reviews the food labels and measures the right amount of each ingredient for specific animal types. Food labels contain the amounts of calories, fat, protein, sugar, vitamins, and sugars.
  • Teaching in front of groups of farmers and completing dealer training.
  • Writing articles for various communications media such as extension publications, email, and print trade magazines.
  • Developing decision making tools spreadsheets and dashboards for producers.
  • Creating educational webinars that can be viewed by producers across the country.
  • Conducting meetings with farmers to set goals or check in on their farm animals’ progress, and making feed adjustments as needed.

He says it really helps to be proactive and evaluate any feeding plans a livestock owner has in place. “Animals have a perfect opportunity for good health and nutrition because they don’t have the bad eating habits that some humans do,” he said. One great thing about feeding livestock is animal nutritionists can determine scientifically what animals should eat and predict how they should grow. Stewart mentioned that the genetics in animals now are so good, “we can’t get enough nutrition into them to make them grow as fast as they are capable.”

One surprising thing I learned about Stewart’s job is that he spends little time with the animals. He works with a team of specialists who are actually in the barns. This is not just due to COVID, however. For many years the hog industry has been concerned with biosecurity, and not been able to allow many people to visit in and out of the barns. One of the best ways farmers can keep their animals healthy is by practicing good biosecurity procedures. For more information on biosecurity and its importance, view one of our past blog posts on the topic.

What Kind of Education is Needed?

While in school, Stewart decided he liked animals more than plants, so he went to Iowa State University for Agriculture Studies and gained a diverse agriculture background. After obtaining a master’s degree and a PhD, he went to work in the feed industry. While a master’s degree or Ph.D. is not an absolute requirement, it is more common for individuals in this career field to pursue graduate degrees. A graduate degree is usually required to work in research positions or to secure management or other upper-level roles. Many aspiring animal nutritionists pursue graduate veterinary degrees so they can care for animals in all aspects of their health and nutrition.

If you want more information on what different animals eat, check out this blog Fueling the Body. You will learn what different kinds of fuel people and farm animals need to be healthy and productive.


Farm Animal Reproduction 101

Spring is notably a time when farm animals have their babies. It’s an exciting, joyful, and sometimes stressful time. But not all livestock gestation (pregnancy) is the same. How do farm animals gestate and have their babies?


Cattle, like humans, have a gestation period of nine months (283 days). Different breeds of cattle have much different average sizes, but a new calf can weigh somewhere between 70-100 pounds. For beef cattle producers, cows will be made to cycle (go into heat) at the same time so that new calves will be born at roughly the same time. Producers generally choose to either calve in the spring or in the fall, depending on feed availability, climate, building accessibility, etc. For dairy producers, calves are born year-round to keep a certain amount of cows at their peak milking potential at all times.

Cattle are also like humans in that they usually only have one offspring at a time. In fact, it is preferred that cows only have one calf as that is much easier on the mother. There is also a phenomenon when twin male and female calves are born that the female is likely to be sterile. This calf is called a “freemartin”. So, while it may seem more efficient to want cows to have multiple calves, their bodies simply don’t handle it as well as other species, and can cause major problems and even death.


Pigs are very efficient at reproducing. Their gestation period is three months, three weeks, and three days, meaning they can have two litters per year. Sows (mama pigs) average around 7 piglets per litter, but can have a dozen or more. A new piglet will weigh only a couple of pounds.

Sometimes in large litters in many species, there can be siblings that are more aggressive or more weak than others. If sows have variation in litter size, some of those siblings can be moved around to other sows to get a better shot at equal nutrition. Farmers will keep records of each animal so they can track progress, health, and development.


Sheep have a slightly shorter gestation period at 142 – 152 days, or about five months. Lambs, similar to calves, are born in the spring. This is partly because they are one of the animal species whose estrous cycle is dependent on seasonal changes. For sheep, the most natural time to breed is late fall. However, this can vary breed to breed.

Sheep are also interesting in litter size. The first time a ewe (mama sheep) lambs, she will likely have only one offspring. For later pregnancies, she will likely have two or maybe even three. Sheep are unlike cattle in this way, and twins are really more preferred.


Chickens are different as they are not mammals and are instead birds. However, their reproduction cycle is commonly misunderstood. Chickens are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. Chickens will cycle to develop and lay an egg about once a day. They do this with or without a rooster present. The cycle can be impacted based on the amount of light (natural or artificial) present. This means that backyard, outdoor chickens will likely lay fewer eggs during the winter than they would in the summer because the natural length of daylight changes. For commercial production, laying hen barns will likely have artificial lights on for the same length of time everyday to keep the birds’ cycles more consistent year-round.

When a fertilized egg (which does require a rooster) is laid, the hen will incubate it for 21 days, at which point the egg will hatch as a fully developed chick. Though it is possible for an egg to hatch twin chicks, it is rare.


Goats are a lot like sheep in many ways. They are similar sizes, have similar gestation periods (about 150 days), and also tend to have twins. They, too, have estrous cycles impacted by day length, meaning they are more likely to cycle during the short days of the fall or winter and kid (give birth) in the spring. Times when they do not cycle is called anestrous. A new baby kid can weigh between 4 and 12 pounds, depending on the breed.


Donkeys have an interesting anomaly in gestation length. There’s a normal three-month window where the jenny (female donkey) could foal. Donkeys can gestate between 11 to 14 months. To me, a mom with more experience working with cattle and pigs, this seems highly inconvenient! Imagine being full-term for three months! But, that’s just how they are built.

Donkeys tend to have single births, but twins do happen on occasion. A donkey foal will weigh in between 19 and 30 pounds.


A mare (female horse) will have a gestation period of 11-12 months. Horses are similar to donkeys in many respects, but do mark some differences in twin occurrences (notably fewer than donkeys) and maternal instincts (less so than jennys). Horses, like cattle, are also not well-equipped for multiple births. According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, almost all twin pregnancies will result in the death of both foals.

Horses are also impacted by seasonal estrous cycles, but unlike sheep and goats, their breeding season will occur in late spring (April-May). If the different seasonal estrous cycles seem to not make sense, just think about when the offspring will be born. It’s common for an animal’s natural cycle to give birth in the spring, when temperatures are not so harsh on the young and there is grass and water available for the offspring. For horses, the mares can expect to give birth in March, April, or May to a foal that weighs about 40 pounds.

Why is there such a difference between species on gestation? The short answer is that different species are very different. The long answer may be that different animals have different uterine types that lend themselves better to multiple or singular births; different species have different estrous cycles that time their fertile windows and seasons differently; and there are differences in farms, climates, and facilities available on an individual farm level that impact reproduction management farm to farm.

Then what?

Before, during, and after birth, livestock species require lots of care. Pregnant and nursing mothers require adequate nutrition and monitoring to be sure things are progressing normally. During birthing times, farmers will monitor their livestock closely and only interfere if the mother needs help. If a mother is having trouble giving birth, this is called dystocia. Farmers pay attention to these occurrences and try to breed for animals that will not have trouble giving birth.

After the baby is on the ground, one of the first things they will need to do (in mammal species) is find their way to their mom for food. The first milk is called colostrum and includes very important nutrients and antibodies. Newborn animals lack strong immune systems, so this first milk is extremely important.

On the occasion that the mother doesn’t claim the young or doesn’t survive, the farmer will take care of the young by using store-bought colostrum or milk replacer, or by pairing the offspring to a different mother in the herd. Mothering ability is another trait that farmers will keep tabs on with the females in their herd.

Are there other species you have questions about? Let us know in the comments!


What the Pandemic Has Taught Us about Sourdough – Part 2

This post is part of a short series. See part 1 here: https://iowaagliteracy.wordpress.com/2021/03/24/what-the-pandemic-has-taught-us-about-sourdough-part-1/

Now it is time to make the bread!

The Mixing

One thing that most people familiar with bread will know about is kneading. A good loaf requires kneading to build up the gluten. Gluten is the protein of wheat flour that binds together and gives it its stretch. This stretch allows for the dough to hold in the carbon dioxide from the yeast and trap them in little bubbles. You need to knead the dough to build the gluten up. That might mean 10-15 minutes of kneading the dough. My forearms have been built up over this time. You are supposed to be able to do the ‘window pane‘ test with the dough to know it has been kneaded enough.

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Resting dough

My pandemic learning – and this has been a life saver – is autolyse. Letting the flour and water sit and just absorb and meld for about 30 minutes before kneading really seems to cut down the needed kneading time. In fact, whenever possible I almost exclusively practice the ‘no knead’ technique with the ‘stretch-and-fold‘ technique every 30 minutes for 2-3 hours. It might take longer, but it takes much less energy. Of course you can over knead and under knead. I’m not a fan of kneading. I’m a fan of autolyse and stretch-and-fold. I’ve yet to have any problems with the final product using those techniques.

The Shaping

This is the one step and lesson that I had – pre-pandemic – never practiced, but now has changed and defined the final product. Bakers typically shape any bread loaf. With sourdough the shaping helps the overall structure. By creating surface tension on the dough, you help trap more bubbles and air pockets. Creating this surface tension is achieved by rolling and stretching the doughball or boule.

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Dough in a baton.

The second important part of shaping is using a baton. A baton or wicker basket is lined with cloth and used for the second proving. Dusting with rice flour helps prevent the dough from sticking. The wicker basked allows for air flow. The dough will develop a little bit of a skin as it proves and that skin will help hold or direct the shape of the final loaf. I’ve found that a baton is most useful for long proves, overnight in the refrigerator. The refrigerator retards and slows the microorganism growth. You can easily make a loaf of bread in a day, but timing and spreading things out by using the refrigerator can yield different results. A baton isn’t essential. You can easily do the second prove in a bread pan or any other vessel that you choose. But a breathable baton will help create that ‘skin’ to help direct the final shape.

The Baking

With the first prove you are looking for the dough to double in size. This can take anywhere from two to more than eight hours depending on everything from temperature to the active nature of the microorganisms. I usually plan for about four hours. Then you knock out the air, shape it and allow for the second prove. Again you are looking for it to roughly double in size. This usually takes less time, maybe 30 minutes to four hours – again depending on a variety of factors. After this second prove, it is ready to bake. Enriched bread doughs (with butter, milk, and/or eggs) can bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40-50 minutes. But for the basic sourdough of just water and flour, you want a quick, high heat to start (roughly 20 minutes) and then a slightly reduced heat for the remainder of the time (roughly 20-25 minutes). The quick, high heat forces those air pockets in the bread to expand making the bread rise quickly and then the skin or crust forms, locking everything in place.

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Scoring the dough immediately before baking by drawing a sharp knife through the surface of the dough allows for the bread to expand as much as possible. Artisan bread makers have a lot of artistry in the scoring process. But don’t get overwhelmed. Focus on a few simple slashes. The quick, high, humid heat will help give the bread its ‘oven spring’ and complete the rising process. Scoring the dough with a couple of slashes allows for the bread that has taut skin to expand in specific places rather than tearing at random places.

High humidity environments help with that initial expansion of the bread. Some ovens have steam injection to increase humidity. For most of us who don’t have steam injection ovens you can recreate the effect by dumping a cup full of ice cubes on the oven floor as you put the bread in. This allows for incremental release of steam as the the ice melts and the water evaporates. This method does work. However, I’ve found the cast iron self-contained steam to be better. As you pre-heat the oven, place a cast iron pan with lid inside. When the oven is preheated, pull the pan out. Turn the shaped dough into the hot pan. Parchment paper is key to prevent sticking. Put the lid on the cast iron pan – dough inside – and place the whole thing in the oven. The steam from the bread stays in the pan and helps with the rise and expansion. After 20 minutes, remove the pan lid and let the bread finish baking at a slightly reduced heat (450 degrees F to start and then down to 425 degrees F).

Have Fun!

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I have enjoyed making loaves and loaves of bread with my sourdough starter and so much more. Sandwich bread, round loaves, doughnuts, pretzels, focaccia, challah, stollen, panetonne, pan de muerto, bagels, baps, kings cake, bao buns, pizza dough, baguettes, and English muffins.

I’ve also enjoyed using the discard for things like crackers, chocolate chip cookies, and my personal favorite: pancakes. My go-to family recipe for weekend pancakes (or waffles) is: 2 cups sourdough starter, 2 Tbsp. oil, 1 egg, 2 Tbsp. sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla, and 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda. My secret ingredient is a 1/4 tsp. of ground cardamom. Mix everything together and cook it on a griddle, in a pan, or on a waffle iron. It is a very forgiving and universal batter.

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Cheese Crock = Sourdough Starter Crock

One of my cherished memories of sourdough from childhood into adulthood is the container used to store the sourdough. My parents always used a vintage crock from the Kaukauna Klub Wisconsin Stoneware Cheese Crock Dairy Co. I had no idea it was a cheese crock growing up because we only ever kept sourdough starter in it. Then when I needed to make my own sourdough starter, I was lucky enough for find another cheese crock! The rubber ring was a perfect non-airtight seal for the breathable sourdough.

I have also had fun with my sourdough starter by giving it a name (and therefore a personality). My starter is named Marlon Brandough. “I’m the king around here, and you don’t forget it.” This is nothing new and many people have been very creative with their names.

The Recipe

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My basic recipe is simple and does get tweaked nearly every time I bake. If you want to try your hand at a loaf, I would suggest this recipe: Mix 1 cup fed and active sourdough starter with 1 cup lukewarm water. Mix in 2 cups bread flour and 2 teaspoons of salt. When the water is absorbed, knead with your hands for 2-3 minutes until it all comes together. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Stretch and fold the dough four times. Rest another 30 minutes. Stretch and fold. Rest. Stretch and fold. Rest. Stretch and fold. Let prove until doubled in size (approximately 4 hours). Knock all the air out and shape the dough and use a baton or bread pan. Let prove until nearly doubled in size (approximately 1 hour). Place the dough in the pan and bake at 450 degrees F for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 425 degrees F and bake another 25 minutes. The bread should be golden brown and have a hollow sound when tapped. Remove from the oven and let cool. Slice and enjoy!

Sourdough is not something to be scared of, but it does take some work. With these tips, hopefully you can create the perfect loaf for you and yours.