Unique Agriculture Commodities: Plot Harvester

Last week I was driving in Ames near Iowa State University. As I drove by the outskirts of the campus, there were pieces of land broken into small sections. Each section had a crop growing, some were covered with nets, others had small signs in front of them, while some had been roped off from the other sections. These sections of land are known as “test plots.” As a scientist myself, these plots are always fascinating as they give you a glimpse into the future technology of agriculture.  

Every year scientists, agriculturalists, and researchers are working to develop new technology to improve yields. These improvements are necessary to reduce agricultural impacts on the environment, and to keep up with the world’s growing needs of food, fiber, and fuel. But, before new seed, fungicide, pesticide, and herbicide varieties become commercial products farmers can purchase (check out our blog A Day in the Life of a Seed Dealer), they must be tested and verified. Test plots can be found all around the world as researchers investigate the effectiveness of a new product (e.g., seed variety, fungicide, pesticide, herbicide, etc.), or if a product can work in a new location. Each research question is specific, but every researcher has a goal of collecting data. The type of data collected is based on the research question. For example, if a research team is investigating a new seed variety, they might collect data on drought tolerance, wind resistance, pest and fungal resistance, and yield. While a research team that investigates a fungicide might gather data on yield, moisture, infection rate, and seed weight. Gathering this data is critical to the success of future technology that can be available to growers, because if the product doesn’t do well, it will not be approved for distribution. 

Collecting Data

Some of the data researchers gather can be done using simple tools like a ruler, scale, or image chart. Other data may need to be collected using complex tools that can measure fat (lipid) amounts or moisture levels within a single sample. Though data can be collected at any time during the growing season, many researchers collect at harvest, and test plot harvest requires specialized machines. Research scientists want to eliminate as much human error as possible. One way they can do this is by using customized equipment that is tailored to their specific research needs. Engineers, mechanics, and technicians work with a team to develop machinery to be used in these plots to gather data and to maneuver in a smaller area. 

Harvesting a Test Plot

In the fall, crops are harvested using a combine. This machine helps to remove the seed (e.g., corn, soybean, etc.) from the plant material to then be sold to make other products like corn syrup or feed for livestock. The combine is a menagerie of simple tools. For example, when harvesting corn the combine will cut the stalk, remove the ear, husk the ear, and shell the corn off the cob. Depending on what is being harvested the head (or front) of the combine can be changed to fit the crop harvest needs. Commercial, or large scale, combines today can harvest up to 32 rows (~42 feet) at a time.  

Commercial combine

Just like a commercial combine, plot harvesters include the same basic parts. When harvesting corn they will cut the stalk, remove the ear, husk the ear, and shell the corn off the cob. Their heads can be interchanged to fit the crop that is being harvested. Unlike a conventional combine, plot harvesters are much smaller. Test plots are broken into small pieces of land rather than large acres in one field. This requires a smaller combine that harvests on average four rows at a time. When harvesting a test plot, they are gathering samples and data along the way. To do this, plot harvesters have more tools than a commercial combine. The tools increase efficiency while also reducing human error (a big positive for research!). Many of them will have built-in moisture readers, seed scales, seed samplers, external seats for a sample bagger, and automatic bagging systems to collect and package seed samples. Once harvested, the test plot seeds are sent back to the lab for detailed analysis to help the research team with their investigation. 

Plot Machines in Iowa

A thresher, a harvest machine, that separates seed from the plant.

There are several companies that engineer and design agricultural machinery to be used in test plots, and you don’t have to travel too far in Iowa to find one. ALMACO is in the heart of the Midwest, and the current town I live in, Nevada, Iowa. The first time I drove by ALMACO I was perplexed not only by how to say their name (it’s “al-may-co” if you’re wondering) but by the machines I saw.  

As you peak through the large garage door that faces 2nd Street, you’ll see an iconic blue, and in the summer, what looks like a miniature combine. The combine structure is narrow, and the heads are small and vary based on the crop to be harvested. ALMACO’s harvesting equipment has been engineered to be used in fields of wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and more. One of their most recent harvesters, the R2 Twin-Plot Rotary Harvester, has a dual head and chamber allowing it to harvest two plots at the same time. From within the cab researchers (sometimes a graduate student or intern) can monitor yield, moisture, and the equipment can even be engineered to take samples of the seed automatically. These technological advancements can reduce harvest time and increase time researchers spend in the lab gathering more data and analyzing that data. 

ALMACO planter

In the spring you might catch a glimpse of an ALMACO planter with large magazine cartridges filled with seed. The planter utilizes some basic technology that would be in a commercial planter, but also includes specific technology based on the research team’s needs. For example, if the team is investigating seed varieties, the equipment might have variable rate planting depth and specific chambers for each seed type (like the magazine cartridges). Or, if the research team wants to test fertilizer it might have separate tanks that contain each variety. Researchers and technicians can then program the planter to know what seed or fertilizer should be planted at any given spot in the test field. These technological changes increase efficiency and safety for researchers, reduce the risk of contamination, and reduce human error (again, a big plus for research!).  

Each of these machines have been designed, engineered, and manufactured to aid in the advancement of agriculture technology. With the equipment being custom built, researchers and manufacturers (like ALMACO) have the flexibility to tailor equipment to researcher questions and needs. Together they work to reduce agricultural impacts on the environment, and to keep up with the world’s growing needs of food, fiber, and fuel. 

My Takeaways

  • Seeds, fungicide, pesticide, and herbicides all need to be tested before entering the commercial market. 
  • Research teams are always innovating new technology to improve food, fuel, and fiber, while also being sustainable. 
  • Test plots require specific harvest and planting machines. 
  • ALMACO designs, engineers, and manufactures custom equipment based on the needs of the research group. 
  • There are many career opportunities within the development side of agriculture.  

~Cathryn

Want to Learn More

Education Resources

**I wanted to take a moment to thank ALMACO for providing images and videos for this blog.  

A Day in the Life of a Tire Repair Technician

Ever since the invention of the wheel, humankind has been going places. People need to haul things from point a to point b and they try to do so as efficiently as possible, so they use wheels. 

However, one of the major issues of wheels was and is, wear and tear. While the constant rotation around a central axle was excellent for carrying heavy things or moving quickly, it meant that the wheel would slowly wear away over time. They wouldn’t wear away evenly either. A chip, a rock or simple uneven wear would make the wheel no longer round causing the expensive task of replacing something that wasn’t quite broken. What was needed was an expendable layer that would absorb damage, wear away and then be easily replaced at a much more affordable cost than a brand-new wheel. That is what a tire does.

Agriculture is an industry that includes a lot of transportation, and a lot of hours on the road. This adds up to A LOT of  tires. So, farmers need reliable tire repair technicians. Our tire repair technician goes by the name, “Paco” and he owns and operates Paco’s Tire in Underwood, Iowa. Also known as Jeff Andersen, Paco has a motto, “if it rolls we fix it”. He told me about his most unusual tire repair, a stroller tire.

“Paco” of Paco’s Tires

The tire shop is open from 8-5 Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings. People bring in all types of tires for repair and Paco sends service trucks out to the country if a fix is needed in a field. When I asked Paco what the most difficult part of his job was, he told me ordering new tires and coordinating the delivery of those tires. When people want their vehicles serviced, they want to be sure those vehicles are up and running again as soon as possible. Paco and his customers have to wait when delivery trucks run late, certain tires are unavailable, or companies are short staffed and can’t hire enough people to load tires.

Coordinating schedules isn’t the only problem when running a tire repair shop. This can be a dangerous job if a tire wall is weak, and the psi (pounds per square inch) causes an explosion. Paco uses a tire inflation cage when making repairs. One of the main reasons he uses a tire inflation cage is because most large truck tires are made out of different components that can fly out of the tire at high speeds. If a person is standing too close to an unprotected tire during inflation, he or she risks experiencing devastating injuries such as head injuries, cuts, and lacerations – which could be fatal. Paco trains his employees to watch and listen and be ready to protect themselves in case of a blowout.

On the job training is something a new technician can expect to receive once hired by Paco. He looks for people who have experience around tires and then spends two or three days having them watch how he works. The next days are spent working tires while a trained technician watches, taking up to two weeks before the new hire is ready to work on their own. Paco employs three technicians, a bookkeeper, and works on tires himself. He strives to be honest with his customers and deliver a high-quality product and reliable service. He has been working with tires since 1989.

Tire technicians repair and install tires on cars, trucks, and heavy vehicles. They mostly work for vehicle repair shops, tire stores, and dealerships. The duties of a tire technician include installing, balancing, and repairing tires for passenger cars and commercial vehicles. They may also be required to perform roadside assistance.

A successful technician needs to have good communication skills and be able to perform physically demanding tasks. Ultimately, an outstanding tire technician can work quickly and efficiently, while maintaining high industry standards.

As a tire repair technician and a small business owner, Paco is always working to set boundaries between home and work life, but here are some other Tire Technician Responsibilities:

  • Talking to the customer about any issues they are experiencing.
  • Inspecting and assessing tire tread levels, wear patterns, valve quality, and overall health.
  • Recommending appropriate repair treatment or replacement of tires.
  • Repairing punctures and replacing faulty valves.
  • Installing new tires.
  • Balancing tires and completing wheel alignment procedures.
  • Studding tires for snow use.
  • Retreading tires for tractors and other off-road vehicles.
  • Conducting inventory and maintaining equipment.
  • Conducting road-side repairs.

Tire Technician Requirements:

  • High school diploma or GED.
  • Good communication skills.
  • Proven work experience as a tire technician.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Extensive knowledge of tire patterns and material composition.
  • Ability to lift heavy objects.
  • Ability to work in a crouched or standing position for extended periods.

There are as many different types of tires on a farm as there are pieces of equipment. We have tires for tractors, sprayers, wagons, trailers, combines, semi-trucks and pickups, just to name a few.

Six foot tires on the boom sprayer.

Keeping the farmer rolling is a huge priority for agriculture. So to Paco, and to all of the other tire repair technicians, we thank you!

-Melanie

Specialty Agriculture in Iowa: Alpaca Farming

Alpaca at R & K’s Alpaca Farm in Sigourney, Iowa

Did you know alpacas make great lawnmowers? Unlike other animals that graze, alpacas only chew to the midway point of the grass blades rather than eating the whole plant. This allows the grass to be trimmed rather than the whole plant being uprooted.

Alpacas are native to the high elevations of South America where temperatures can be very low. This allows the alpacas to withstand brutal Iowa winters. In Iowa, there are only 2,558 alpacas registered in the Alpaca Owners Association INC. Their diets are composed of grain and grass, which allows them to be low maintenance. Alpacas are also known for screeching when in danger or pain. This screeching noise is how they get the attention of other alpacas for assistance.

Breeding

Group of Alpacas at R & K’s Alpaca Farm in Sigourney, Iowa

When alpacas have reached the age between one year and 18 months, they have matured enough to be bred. The male alpacas are kept in separate pens from the females as they can cause problems to females that are not mature yet. During the breeding process, the male is introduced to the female roughly every two weeks. Once the female has conceived, she will sometimes spit at the male along with running from him. When this occurs there is a 95% chance that the female has conceived. The female alpaca’s gestation period (how long they are pregnant) is around one year long! Alpacas are known for giving birth between 7:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. because of their inability to protect their baby, which are called cria, from predators. This time period of daylight allows the mother to get the cria cleaned, nursing, and into shelter before sunset. These crias typically weigh between 12 and 20 pounds when they are born. The mother and cria hum and cluck with each other the communicate and connect. After the female alpaca has given birth, she is receptive to being bred within two to six weeks later which starts this process over again.

Shearing

Fiber being processed at R & K’s Alpaca Boutique in Sigourney, Iowa

Alpacas are sheared once a year, with this process being comparable to a person getting a haircut. Here in Iowa, alpacas are typically sheared during the late spring. This shearing process is relieving to the alpaca as the fiber that an alpaca produces can restrict the animal from cooling off, especially during the summer heat. The alpacas are laid on their side to be sheared with the switching of sides to reach the whole animal. Shearing tends to be a quick process, which relates to less stress on the animal. Most alpacas produce anywhere between 5 and 10 pounds of fiber each year. After the shearing is complete, the fiber that is collected is then processed. The fiber can be processed into many different items including socks, blankets, stuffed animals, dryer balls, etc.

Fun Facts

  • Alpacas are known for relieving themselves (pooping) in the same spot.
  • Their feces is commonly used for fertilizing plants indoors because their feces does not have an odor.
  • Chickens can be a good asset to the alpacas because they eat parasites and bugs that bother the alpacas.
  • Alpacas are her animals so they should be bought in pairs. They have little to no defense without another and they do not like to be alone. It has been said they can die of loneliness.
  • There are only two breeds of alpacas, but many colors.
  • Alpacas were first introduced in the United States in 1984.

Resources

~ Lauren

Conservation Efforts: Farmers go to great lengths to care for the land

Some parts of Iowa have been getting a lot of rain lately. With below average rainfall totals in April and May across the state, this rain was welcomed by farmers. Rain is essential for plants to grow, but too much rain can be a problem. Or, rain at the wrong time can be a problem. Rain in the spring can sometimes delay planting.

With heavy rainfall, water can carry soil away through water erosion. Wind too can be a problem for farmers. Strong winds, like a recent dust storm that went through Iowa, can lift soil off a field and carry it away. This is called wind erosion. Soil is a valuable resource that farmers want to keep on their fields.

A lot of water on a field can also wash nutrients in the soil, like nitrogen, into the watershed. Too much nitrogen in water can be harmful to humans and other animals. For plants, nitrogen is important because it keeps them healthy, so farmers typically want to keep nitrogen on the fields. Nitrogen can come from the air, fertilizer, or from animal waste like manure.

Farmers love the land and are conservationists by nature. Typically, land is passed down through generations with each generation taking responsibility for that land when it’s their turn. They want to do the best they can to ensure the land stays fertile and profitable for future generations. Farmers are constantly researching and looking for new ways to balance the various farming techniques to obtain the best yield and what’s best for their land (good land conservation). Here are a few ways farmers work to preserve their land’s resources.

Cover Crops

Cover crops coming up in a harvested corn field

Farmers can plant cover crops in the fall after harvest. The growing plant roots help hold the soil in place during winter and early spring. Wind and water erosion can be greatly reduced. Cover crops can also absorb extra nutrients in the soil (like nitrogen). This prevents them from running into watersheds. Cover crops can increase soil health, water retention, and even yield.

No-Till Farming

Soybeans in no-till field

Many farmers till their fields to loosen soil and make it better for seeds to start growing. Loose soil is more at risk to wind and water erosion. Some farmers choose to plant their fields using no-till farming methods. No-till is when seeds are planted without plowing. The organic matter from previous year’s crop helps hold the soil in place. No-till helps preserve the microorganisms that live in the soil. Microorganisms are things like bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects that live in the soil – they help keep soil healthy.

Buffer Zones

Drainage Ditch Near a Northern Iowa Field

Sections of plants between fields and streams, creeks, lakes, and wetlands are called buffer zones or buffer strips. These areas slow and filter water runoff and help stop soil from washing off the fields. They are also vital in providing wildlife habitat and help rainwater absorb into the ground.

Terraces

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

Installing terraces is one type of soil conservation practiced by farmers in certain terrains. Terraces are earthen, manmade structures that help reduce erosion. They are used on hillsides and steep areas of a field to transform long slopes into a series of shorter slopes. They hold back and slow down water on a field. Terraces also help reduce sediment pollution of lakes and streams. Grassed frontslopes and backslopes of some terraces also provide cover for wildlife.

Bioreactors

Helping land drain water can improve crop yield. Farmers use tile systems to drain the land. These systems also move nitrate-nitrogen, which can cause some issues. A bioreactor is an underground trench of woodchips at the end of a tile line. Water from the tile flows through the woodchips before entering a stream or river. Microorganisms live in the woodchips. These microorganisms ‘breathe’ the nitrate-nitrogen from the water. Then they release the nitrogen into the air, making it harmless.

Careers in conservation

Did you know there are scientists that specialize in soil and soil conservation? Celia Takachi’s career as a soil scientist has taken her all around the world. She was born in Brazil and studied in Japan. Farmers need to know how much fertilizer to add to their fields. She tests soil and helps farmers get a good yield. She says “We all need food and soil is the key.” Learn more about careers in soil.

For more information about watersheds, soil, and more read our Iowa Ag Today issue 3.

Want to bring soil topics into your classroom?

Here are several lesson plans that will help students understand soil conservation.

What are some ways you can bring soil and water conservation practices to your own yard or property?

~Melissa

Unique Agriculture Commodities: Asparagus

As the days become longer and warmer, they often bring back spring memories for me. When I was in middle school, I would ride around the Iowa countryside with my mom. These trips would be filled with impeccable musical voices and long talks about the world around us. But one specific ride stands out to me. The ride where my mom pulled the car over to the side of the road. Reached in the back seat of the car, grabbed a plastic bag, and told me to get out. As alarming as all this may sound, my mom, with her keen eyesight, spotted a patch of one of Iowa’s finest vegetables, asparagus. And my mom was always prepared to harvest something worthy of adding to dinner.

Wild Asparagus (Photo credit: Virginia State Parks)

Asparagus is easiest to locate in the “wild” after it has gone to seed in late summer. Its tall seedy leaves wave a flag to next year’s harvest area for those that know how to look for it. But not everyone is ready for a quick romp in the ditch to gather a tasty treat, and luckily, you can find asparagus in many supermarkets year-round and farmers markets during the spring season.

Why Asparagus?

I think the better question may be, “why not asparagus”? This vegetable is versatile and can be eaten raw, broiled, grilled, microwaved, or my favorite, roasted. When cooked, asparagus’ flavor transforms into a nutty-slightly bitter that hits the back of your tongue begging for another bite. Rich with vitamins like C, E, and K this high fiber vegetable has been linked to reducing blood pressure and to improving gut health.

If its flavors weren’t enough, asparagus is a perennial crop that can be grown from seed, or a root cutting known as a “crown”. Once established (2-3 years after planting), the plant grows each year without having to be replanted and can live up to 15 years. The longevity of the crop provides food security for gatherers, and an early season crop for farmers and gardeners to harvest.

Asparagus farming in Iowa…

Planting asparagus crowns in a furrow (photo credit: The Garden of Eating)

Establishing a bed of asparagus takes time and planning. Cultivated varieties lack some of the competitive genetic features that wild asparagus has, making it a plant that needs to be maintained to reduce competition, like weeds. The plant will live up to 15 years (or longer) and farmers and gardeners want to make sure it’s in a place that will get at least 6 hours of sunlight and has soil that drains well. Once the location is determined a furrow, or shallow trench, is dug and crowns are placed along the bottom of the furrow and covered with soil. Crown starters come in male or female, and most large operations grow male asparagus because they produce larger stalks.

Harvesting asparagus

Most of Iowa’s asparagus farms have established beds (some cover up to 8 acres of land!), and since the plant is perennial, the farmer gets to skip the planting season that is experienced by corn and soybean farmers. And what do they do instead of plant? They wait for the glorious warm spring days to see the little heads of asparagus popping up and jump right into harvest.

Harvesting asparagus is short lived in Iowa and only occurs for two months starting in April when the temperatures increase into the 50 and 60s and ending in May. When the spears reach 6-8 inches, it’s time to harvest. And though a farmer may have acres of the vegetable, this crop is harvested by hand. Bending over and either cutting or snapping the spears, each spear is taken from the field, washed, and then prepared for bundling and selling. Julie Vanderpool reflected on the 2022 harvest in an interview with Bob Bjorn (Iowa Farm Bureau), and though the crop came up late, her 8 acres of asparagus will still yield around 10,000 pounds, that’s 180 pounds per day to be harvested!

Late season asparagus farm that has gone to seed (photo credit: Paul Sableman)

Though the asparagus plant can produce multiple spears in a season, asparagus farmers let the plant go to “seed” after 1-2 cuttings. This is an important part of asparagus cultivation because it allows the plant to photosynthesize (learn more HERE). Otherwise, the plant wouldn’t have a body structure to capture sunlight because we harvest the stem. As the plant goes to seed the stem begins to bush out with branches and modified leaves, and sometimes berries if it’s a female plant. This bushy stage of asparagus allows the plant to gather sunlight and create sugars for food. These sugars are then stored in the plant’s roots for overwintering, and to prepare for the arrival of Iowa’s spring weather.

Try it at Home

One of my favorite ways to have asparagus is roasted in the oven or on a grill. Normally, I toss the asparagus with a little olive oil and then sprinkle with salt, but, when I’m truly feeling fancy I indulge in a recipe I saw on Iowa Ingredients.

  • Ingredients
    • 1 bunch of asparagus
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped roughly
    • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped roughly
    • 1/4 cup pecorino cheese (or parmesan)
    • Salt and pepper to taste
    • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • Directions
    • Heat a grill pan to high heat. In a large bowl add asparagus and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss so the asparagus is coated in oil. Place the asparagus on the grill pan and heat on one side until slightly charred. Rotate and cook on the other side. Remove from heat. Place asparagus on a serving plate. Add parsley, dill, and cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Season with some salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy!

My Takeaways

  • When asparagus goes to seed the long frills are considered leaves and are modified stems
  • Asparagus is only harvested for two months in the spring in Iowa
  • Cultivated asparagus plants are mostly male and don’t develop berries
  • Asparagus has a life span of 15-20 years

~Cathryn

Want to learn more about asparagus? Check out these great sources!

Foraging for Wild Asparagus: Hunting and Cooking – DNR News Releases (iowadnr.gov)

Consider a Springtime Favorite: Asparagus | News (iastate.edu)

Growing Asparagus | Iowa Ingredient – YouTube

Planting Asparagus Crowns – Investing In a Tasty Future | The Garden of Eating

A Day in the Life of an Agricultural Engineer

My son can fix anything. He’s always been able to look at a mechanical problem and find the solution. Using tools and supplies like hammers, nails, wrenches, and as he’s gotten older, sheet metal and welders, he has always been able to take an item, and rework it to fix a problem or improve a tool. He gets that ability from his grandfather.

Running the skid loader for dad.

My father-in-law is a farmer and his skill at “manufacturing” items is one he passed down to the next generation. And the next. While Roger has never attended a trade school, my husband’s father is an agricultural engineer.

When equipment breaks down in the field mechanic shops aren’t close by. A farmer could be miles from the road even! So, the tools a farmer has on hand (sometimes not more than a little duct tape and baling wire) might have to be what it takes to get you going again. I can’t count the number of times Roger has walked up to a problem, like  a broken axel or bent tongue metal (connecting piece) on a harrow, and worked out a solution in in a matter of minutes. One time, we were moving a corn head trailer (for the combine) and got a flat tire. The trailer was too low to the ground to get the spare trailer tire installed. Before you could scratch your head he was grabbing a spade to dig out a hole while I braced the spare tire in place. It was fast work, just like an Indy pit crew.

Problem solving and designing can be an agriculture career. Agricultural Engineering is the area of engineering concerned with the design, construction and improvement of farming equipment and machinery. Agricultural engineers can work in hydroponic, aeroponic and traditional farming, forestry and natural resource management, or food production and processing. Agricultural engineering jobs can include designing or improving power supply and irrigation systems as well as harvesting and production machinery. They also work with pollution and fertilization issues and the processing and storage of agricultural products.

Tyler Marion is a product engineer at Hog Slat, Inc. He designs ventilation and cooling systems for pig barns. Maintaining comfortable temperatures is very important in pig production. Tyler designs new or improves existing products. This helps pork producers take better care of their animals. He works with others to evaluate products, create designs, and find partners to help create end products.

Tyler attended North Carolina State University, where he learned about many types of engineering. He studied mechanical engineering and electrical engineering through the lens of agriculture. He says this program allowed him to gain an understanding of many concepts. This prepared him to be an agricultural engineer.

Tyler says the best part of his job, “is seeing a project go from inception to completion.” In many engineering roles, individuals only work on part of a project and pass it on to someone else.

“Our industry offers a unique opportunity to see it start to finish,” he said.

Tyler Marion

For students thinking about being an engineer, Tyler has some advice. “First, an interest in learning more about math will help a lot. Math is important in engineering.”

“Pay attention to detail,” he added, saying that problems come up when details are missed. “If you make it a habit…to pay attention to detail, it will help later.”

Agricultural engineering responsibilities include:

  • Designing climate control systems for outdoor and indoor farming and livestock needs
  • Designing equipment, processes, systems and facilities to improve the production, harvest and storage of agricultural products
  • Testing and assessing equipment and products for quality, safety and compliance to health and environmental regulations
  • Overseeing the development and operation of agricultural facilities

Agricultural engineering jobs include:

  • Agricultural consultant
  • Soil scientist
  • Farm manager
  • Plant breeder/geneticist
  • Rural practice surveyor

So, if you like to work with your hands and fix things by solving problems, and you want to work in agriculture you might want to consider becoming an agricultural engineer, and make a career helping farmers.

-Melanie

Avian Influenza and Ag in the Classroom

Springtime is a busy time of year for teachers and Agriculture in the Classroom coordinators to lead programs on embryology and chick hatching. With the current strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) impacting poultry, what should we know? IALF staff met with Elycia Ahl, the Poultry Health and Education Manager with Iowa Poultry, to learn more.

1. Disease is spreading from wild birds to domestic birds

At the current time, it is looking like the bulk of disease spread is coming from wild birds interacting with domestic birds while migrating. This interaction should be mitigated as much as possible with home or school flocks to keep those birds safe, not only this year but every year during wild bird migration.

2. Disease is not spread from hen to egg

If a hen has HPAI, the fertilized egg she has laid will not inherit that in utero. This makes purchasing fertilized eggs (like many do for school programs) one of the safest ways to get birds currently.

3. Basic biosecurity practices should be followed

Should any students have a farm or flock at home, the simple step of washing hands before handling new chicks can help deter disease spread from home to school. As the chicks hatched in classrooms are in a very secure environment, they pose almost no risk of spreading disease to other birds. If any students do have flocks at home, a conversation about not wearing barn shoes to school may also be appropriate to provide more protection for the class’s chicks.

4. There is no treatment or cure for avian influenza in poultry

Preventative measures to keep sick birds away from healthy birds are the most important thing we can do, as there is no current treatment for affected birds. If birds start becoming symptomatic, contact a local veterinarian or the state veterinarian right away. However, please note that this strain does not transfer to humans.

5. Quarantine chicks before introducing to a new flock

If classroom chicks will be moved to a flock at someone’s home, keep them in a separate location as a precautionary quarantine measure.

6. Chick hatching programs are safe!

The bottom line is: chick hatching programs are safe. These birds are hatched in controlled environments that pose very little risk to birds on students’ farms. Basic biosecurity practices on farms, such as washing hands and wearing specific shoes only in your barns, can help reduce risk even further.

Chicks hatched for a school program

Though HPAI is a serious disease and can be quite scary, chick hatching programs are among the safer activities with poultry at the moment. The disease cannot be spread to humans and the chicks should remain at a very low risk of contracting HPAI from an outside source. For more information, check out the following resources:

-Chrissy

Career Corner: Bill Belzer

Bill Belzer standing in front of the Corteva Agriscience Progress Center

Not only can you find Bill Belzer connecting with his team all around the globe, but you can also find him spending time farming with his family. Bill was born and raised in Albia, Iowa where his family owns and operates an equipment business and farm operation. Growing up, Bill was involved in 4-H and FFA and later became a District and State FFA Officer. Bill’s passion for farming and agriculture led him to Iowa State University where he graduated with a degree in Agriculture Education.

After graduating from Iowa State University, Bill taught high school agricultural science for a year before transitioning into the agriculture business space. Across his career, he held various positions in production, research and marketing for companies including Stine and his current employer, Corteva Agriscience. Bill has also worked in the international space for Corteva where he was a Registration and Regulatory Affairs Manager for Latin America. During his time in this role, Bill was responsible for employees in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.

Photo Courtesy of University of Illinois Urbana Champaign Research Park

Bill is presently the Global Stewardship Director of Corteva Agriscience. His team has responsibilities in the areas of crop protection, seed, and seed applied treatments. Bill declares that “stewardship is the responsible use of a product from inception to use and ultimately to its discontinuation.” Bill and his team work diligently in the regulatory compliance space, create  product use guides, aid in the area of insect resistance management, container recycling, proper use of pesticides, and the appropriate disposal of unused products. While no day looks the same for Bill, his days tend to start early and end late due to global hours. He enjoys meeting with his team in one-on-one to, as Bill states, “help them by clearing the brush off of the road so they can do what they do best.” Bill enjoys the creativity, teamwork, and practicality that his team and this position offer him. “At the end of the day, helping customers be successful is what we are dedicated to doing,” expressed Bill.

agfound-logo-top
Photo Courtesy of the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture

One of the greatest accomplishments that Bill stated is helping bring a customer mindset to his work at Corteva.  Additionally, he is also proud of helping advance agricultural literacy through his service on the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture board. Belzer served on the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture board as Corteva’s representative for the last 6 years. During his time on the board he had the opportunity to assist with the development of agricultural education apps, the reorganization of materials used for agriculture literacy, and the creation of new programs to extend agriculture literacy tools in order to reach more students. Belzer also stated that he enjoys serving farmers in his work by “approaching things from the farmer mindset in driving practical solutions.” Bill and his team have the opportunity to utilize this mindset when working on projects that will simplify complicated and complex items.

Bill notes that the future of agricultural innovations are key to feed a growing population and to help growers overcome their ongoing challenges with pests and disease. It is also important to note the importance of good scientific policy globally to approve these product innovations and create understanding of the public about their value and overall safety. Belzer remarked that “these decisions [by regulators and the public] will either create opportunities to feed our growing world population or to potentially face issues related to [food] scarcity.” Agriculture has advanced remarkably in the aspect of yields, technology, and innovations. As declared by Corteva, “We bring our global presence, deep knowledge and diverse resources so that farms can flourish, moving our world forward.” 

Want to learn about more agriculture careers? Check out these lesson plans and blogs:

– Lauren

Iowans Who Made a Difference: George Washington Carver

Is there a person who influenced or made a difference in your life? How about the lives of Iowans or people throughout the world? Iowa is home to many people who have had or continue to have a strong influence on the world. This new blog series will cover some of those Iowans and what impact they’ve had in our state and around the world.

George Washington Carver

He’s been called the Plant Doctor, Black Leonardo, the Father of Chemurgy, and the Peanut Man. George Washington Carver had many names bestowed upon him during his lifetime but for a brief time he was also an Iowan.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia: Photo taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1906

Although not born in Iowa, George Washington Carver’s name is regularly brought up when discussing famous Iowans. He’s most well known for his advancements in agriculture conservation, but he was more than just a scientist. He was also an artist, a musician, an educator, a humanitarian, and a leader.

His early years

Carver was born into slavery near Diamond, Missouri in the final months of the Civil War. His enslaved father was killed in an accident before he was born. His mother, a sibling, and Carver were kidnapped by Confederate raiders while he was still a baby. Moses and Susan Carver, the family who owned his mother, tried to track them down. George was found and returned but they were unable to locate his mother. George was freed and raised by Moses and Susan Carver. They were the first couple in his life to recognize and nurture his abilities and talents, and encourage his interest in plants. At an early age he was drawn to nature. He was frail as a child, so he was not required to help with heavy farm chores. Instead, he spent his days helping with household chores, tending the garden with Susan as well as exploring nature.

His formal education didn’t begin until much later due to segregation in schools. He had to walk eight miles to attend school and sometimes stayed in Mariah and Andrew Watkins’s house, a local Black family who lived nearby the school. He eventually moved in with them and worked for his room and board so he could go to school. They were like parents to him. They encouraged him to believe in himself and help others in the Black community once he received his education. He moved a few more times in search of more fulfilling educational experiences. He worked menial jobs to save enough money to attend college. He was accepted by Highland College in Kansas but was turned away upon arrival due to his race. His path eventually led him to Simpson College in Iowa to study art. He was driven to learn as much about everything as he could. His art teacher was impressed by his plant knowledge and encouraged him to pursue a degree in horticulture. He transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Sciences in 1894. The university asked him to stay on as a faculty member while he earned his Master of Science, which he finished in 1896. He was the first African American to earn an advanced degree in this field.

His life’s purpose

After earning his masters, he was offered a position by Booker T. Washington, a respected educator at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala. While there, he decided his purpose in life – he wanted to help former slave populations become self-sufficient through farming.

“Whenever the soil is rich, the people flourish, physically, and economically. Whenever the soil is wasted, the people are wasted. A poor soil produces only a poor people.” ~George Washington Carver.

Through his education at Iowa State University and his time at the Tuskegee Institute, he became well known for emerging agricultural theories like soil conservation and crop rotation. He brought these concepts to southern Black farmer populations through simple brochures and later a traveling wagon called the Jesup Agricultural Wagon. It was a mobile classroom that allowed him to teach farmers and sharecroppers how to grow crops and practice conservation efforts that were practical and beneficial. Even today, the concept of the Jesup Wagon is in use with organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture. Look at any mobile education unit and its early use points back to the Jesup Wagon.

Agricultural impact

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Carver can be credited for our modern system of crop rotation. He encouraged farmers to rotate their crops to conserve nutrients in the soil, planting soil-enriching crops like peanuts one year and soil-depleting crops like cotton the next year. He also encouraged farmers pay closer attention to their soil composition and submit samples of their soil and water for analysis. Through his work in the laboratory, he also develop plant hybrids and researched plant diseases. Carver also studied livestock care and food preservation techniques. When farmers didn’t have an end-use for all of the peanuts, he worked on developing uses for those peanuts. In the end, he developed more than 300 uses for the peanut plant and 100 uses for the sweet potato and soybeans in his Tuskegee lab. Uses included things like beverages and medicines to paints. Henry Ford, a well-known automobile maker, called him the ‘world’s greatest living scientist.’ Ford asked him to collaborate in the development of alternative fuels with soybeans. He also perfected a process for extracting rubber from the milk of the goldenrod plant. Despite all of his inventions, he never patented most of his discoveries – only three. When asked why he said, “If I did it would take so much time, I would get nothing else done. But mainly I don’t want my discoveries to benefit specific favored persons.”

Throughout all his efforts he was focused on enhancing the economic and agricultural productivity of southern Black farmers, but these efforts benefited all farmers. Today, farmers all over the world continue to follow his sustainable farming practice of rotating crops to benefit soil conservation as well as many other practices he developed.

It’s service that measures success

George Washington Carver is the embodiment of that quote – “It’s service that measures success.” Throughout his life, the common thread is service to humanity. Instead of fortune and fame, he found honor in being of service to humanity.

“All mankind are the beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things which he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt shared upon Carver’s death in 1943.

Millions of lives were saved thanks to Iowans like George Washington Carver. To continue your education about him, search his name on our website for lesson plans or check out a few of our favorite books. 

  • A Picture Book of George Washington Carver by David A. Adler
  • A Pocketful of Goobers: A Story About George Washington Carver by Barbara Mitchell
  • A Weed is a Flower: The Life of George Washington Carver by Aliki
  • George Washington Carver by Tonya Bolden

Additional resources

~Melissa

Unique Agriculture Commodities: Crickets

This is the fourth blog in my series, Unique Agriculture Commodities. I wanted to take some time to share my reasoning behind this blog topic. Iowa is a state where agriculture is the backbone of the economy. And, when we think of agriculture in Iowa, we often picture our top commodities: corn, soybeans, eggs, and pork. But Iowa’s agriculture extends beyond these and encompasses many specialty crops and unique livestock. My goal with this blog series is to highlight agriculture that extends beyond the “norm” and enter the unique. To shine light on the specialty crops and livestock that are grown and raised in Iowa and around the world. And to shine light on commodities we may not have thought about.

This week let’s explore something with a high protein content and a versatility that allows it to be used in baked goods, salads, and even fresh off a grill. You might find them creepy, perhaps even crawly, but insects are a key source of protein in many countries. And you can find crickets being farmed in the Midwest, and yes, even here in Iowa.

Why Insects?

In the United States, and especially in the Midwest, the thought of eating an insect may seem repulsive or “weird”. However, more than one quarter of the world’s human population includes eating insects. Over 2 billion people indulge in over 2,000 varieties of edible insects! There are five main species of insects that are eaten: Hemiptera (cicadas and water bugs), Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts), Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps), Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and Coleoptera (beetles, weevils, and worms).  So, a lot of different people eat insects. But, why?

Just like a steak or pork chop can provide flavor, so can insects! The flavor profile of insects ranges from citrus (i.e. ants) to pop-corn (i.e. crickets). This versatility makes them a great addition to any dish. By the year 2050 the world population is estimated to reach 9 billion. Currently the world does not produce enough protein to sustain this change in population. Farming insects and the continuation with current meat production could be one way to help with this. Insects are high in protein and provide other essential minerals and micronutrients humans need to function. Current research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that people that consumed insects had healthier gut-bacteria growth and reduced intestinal inflammation than those that did not.

BeefCrickets
Protein21%20%
Iron0.002%0.005%
Unsaturated Fat6%3%
Calcium0.005%0.1%
This table compares cricket and beef nutrient percentage pound for pound. Both steak and crickets are packed with valuable protein, iron, fat, and micronutrients.

Consuming insects can also lead to positive economic impacts. With an increase of insect farms there will be more insects to sell, thus, creating a market that can sustain income all year around for many farmers that otherwise could not raise livestock. This can lead to more choices for consumers in many areas that lack access to protein and open potential global markets.

Insect Farming in Iowa

Currently there are five crickets (the number is growing) that are raised and gathered for consumption, but here in Iowa the commonly raised cricket is Acheta Domesticus, or the Common House cricket. Yes, that cricket you see for sale in pet stores or bait shops. Unlike other crickets, this cricket lacks that “pop” when biting into it and provides more of a salty-meaty flavor making it a delicious snack or addition to any salad.

Shelby Smith’s Cricket Castle

Shelby Smith (Ames, IA), owner of Gym-N-Eats Crickets, has been a cricket farmer since 2018 when her dad encouraged her to look beyond their family’s corn and soybean fields and explore a niche market. After doing some intensive research, she purchased her first 10,000 crickets and hopped into a journey of raising livestock. Smith says that “every cricket operation is different,” but raising insects as livestock is similar to raising other livestock. Just as other livestock, crickets need shelter, food, water, and heat to survive. Unlike other livestock, crickets are ectothermic, meaning they are cold-blooded and rely on the environment to heat and cool their bodies. Since Iowa’s weather is often changing, and we have months of temperatures below 30 degrees and other months with high humidity, crickets must be raised inside where the environment is controlled (just like pigs and chickens!). Raising livestock in buildings also creates a biosecurity net (keeping viruses, pests, and disease out). Though crickets aren’t as affected by disease as poultry and pigs, pests (like mice, spiders, and mites), mold, and fungus can be a problem. If any of these get into a cricket building it can cause a farmer to lose their whole orchestra (a group of crickets). To make sure their livestock has the best living and reproductive conditions, cricket farmers take special care to control the internal environments of the barn and to provide clean habitat (crickets can become cannibalistic and require places to hide).

With crickets being little (1/2 inch – 3/4 inch) a farmer can raise crickets with a smaller land footprint. Rather than building out, cricket farms can build up and utilize vertical space by stacking cricket pens (often tote-bins which can hold ~7,000 crickets). With less space to heat and cool the energy input to maintain barn temperatures is reduced. But, with more livestock, comes more mouths to feed. Crickets are omnivorous, they eat both meat and vegetation. This type of diet is met in many operations by utilizing a ground feed meal. A regulated meal is ideal for the farmer because it allows them to strategically plan growth cycles, mating times, and build consumer confidence. But remember when I said that crickets are ectotherms? Being an ectotherm means that crickets don’t spend energy trying to maintain a body temperature, which means they require less food per pound than warm-blooded livestock. So, there may be more mouths to feed, but there is still a reduction on feed cost. Which leads me to another but, and yes, this one is from a butt. With more livestock there is also an increase of waste. Cricket farmers need to dispose of the feces created by the livestock. To do this many cricket farmers will sell the feces or use it themselves as fertilizer for soil (just like beef, pork, and chicken producers!).

Try Them At Home

Raising the crickets is only one part of the story. Crickets need to be processed before we dive into their rich flavors. Processing crickets includes harvest, washing, cooking. Crickets can be served-up in different forms and flavors of powder, nutrient bars, and whole-roasted. Gym-N-Eat Crickets offers a number of items that you can purchase from their website, or you can find them at some local farmers markets.

Or maybe you want to wrap your mandibles around a new take on a classic recipe.

Cricket Crispy Treats (by Shelby Smith)

  • Ingredients:
    • 12 tbs of unsalted butter
    • 2 10oz bags of mini marshmallows
    • 1 tsp vanilla extract
    • ½ tsp salt
    • ½ cup cricket powder
    • 4 ½ cups of crispy rice cereal
    • 4 cups of choco crispy rice cereal
  • Directions:
    • Line a 9×13 pan with aluminum foil. Butter the aluminum foil and set aside.
    • Melt butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Once melted turn heat off and add salt and ¼ tsp of vanilla, mix.
    • Add 1 and half packet of marshmallows to butter mix. Cook and stir until all marshmallows are creamy and melted.
    • Add cricket powder and stir. Remove from heat.
    • Add cereal and mix until evenly coated. Stir in the rest of the marshmallows.
    • Dump mixture into buttered pan and press the mixture in until it is evenly spread.
    • Let cool, then cut and enjoy.

My Takeaways

  • There are many different types of insects that are eaten.
  • Insects are a source of protein.
  • Iowa mostly raises Common House crickets.
  • Raising crickets has some similarities to raising other types of livestock.
  • Crickets are delicious!

~Cathryn

Want to learn more about edible insects? Check out these great sources!