Hole-y Cow!

In the spring of 2015, I took a science communication course that gave me the opportunity to explore and create a really fun final project. This piece talks about my adventure with a fistulated, or cannulated, steer.

Popular TV shows have highlighted it, our grandparents may talk about it, and I got to see it; a cow with a hole in its stomach.

Dr. Jim Russell, professor in animal science at Iowa State University, offered to take me to the Beef Nutrition Farm where the steers of interest are housed. He handed me a white lab coat, two rubber gloves, and one large plastic glove that fit up over my shoulder. I balanced the equipment with my own; a notebook, a pen and my camera, ready to be surprised.

Cattle are ruminant animals, meaning that they have a more complex stomach than humans with four total compartments. Overall, being a ruminant makes it easier to get energy from plant materials. Due to microbial and fermentation activity within the rumen compartment, cattle can gain weight on the plant material that humans eat to lose weight.

Technically speaking, these steers are fistulated, meaning they have a rubber grommet called a cannula and a plug in their side, just in front of their hip bone. These thick, rubber grommets are put in place to give scientists and students the chance to see the digestive system in a live animal and to aid in many kinds of research. With Russell, the research has to do primarily with digestibility of potential feed materials.

“Having the capability to get that rumen fluid helps us run samples,” Russell said, adding that with modern lab equipment, this fluid can assist in running up to 80 samples of feed at one time, which would take years to do otherwise.

Russell said the process of inserting a cannula is relatively simple. A local anesthetic is used so the animal won’t feel pain, an incision is cut, and essentially the wall of the rumen becomes healed to the animal’s skin. Then, the cannula is put in place, and the animal can live comfortably for their entire natural life.

“As long as you do it properly and get that good, tight seal, they can stick around forever and there are a number of uses for them,” Russell said. “It’s really quite amazing.”

How the stomach works and the microbes within it are entire fields of study, and they benefit greatly from having live animals to observe and study.

At Iowa State, there are four such animals. One of which I had the chance to meet.

The farm looked about how you would expect a small cattle farm to look; there was a long drive way, with wooden fences lining it. Towards the end of the lane, there were metal Morton buildings, machine sheds, and a small silo. In the pen nearest the road, there were four fully grown black steers, all fistulated. As we walked towards them, they walked up to the fence with inquisitive eyes, mooing and poking their big, wet noses towards my camera.

“They get to be pretty good old boys,” Russell commented.


Jim Dahlquist, the farm manager, helped us escort one of the “boys” to a chute so we could examine his fistula.

His ear tag said 351, but Dahlquist said the graduate students have other names for them. Dr. Stephanie Hansen, assistant professor in animal science at Iowa State, has also worked with these animals in her research, and recalled some of their names.

“Gary, Sheldon, Henry… I always forget the other one,” she said. “They’ll come up to the fence and lick your hand.”

351 was mostly motivated by thick patches of green grass, which halted his movement periodically on his saunter to the chute. As he got settled, I could get a closer look at the cannula. It was a thick, translucent and rubber with a hole big enough for a hand to fit inside. The plug in the center fit tightly into the cannula. The plug keeps the opening sealed for a majority of the time to minimize the impact of external factors on the rumen. Russell removed the plug, and steam wafted out of the opening; not unlike the steam that comes off of a football player when they take off their pads on a brisk fall evening.


As Russell removed some of the half-digested material, I was taken aback by how unremarkable it was. It didn’t seem the slightest bit unnatural. There was soggy, brownish golden bits of hay, grass and grain, stuck together with a brown liquid, some of which sloshed out of the opening when he moved. The mixture had a smell, but not necessarily a bad one. It smelled something like silage, a fermented plant material feedstuff, mixed with old gym shoes. Or maybe stinky feet and old dirty dishes.

After I observed the opening, I pulled on the long, plastic, over-the-shoulder glove. I fit my hand through the cannula and felt around inside. It was warm and soggy, but mostly it just felt big. Russell noted that in some studies, they empty the rumen and examine the contents. When they do that, it can fill a 30 gallon tub.

The cannula was situated in the upper part of the rumen, in what Russell called the gas bubble. This is where I initially reached my hand into. Just below the opening was the fiber mat; the soggy, half-fermented feed material layer. On the bottom of the rumen sat the liquid.

“Of course, they’re always being mixed,” Russell noted.

These layers can have a lot to do with research. For instance, Dr. Hansen recently studied sulfur toxicity and the harmful gases that can be created in the stomach of cattle based on different feed sources. It was found that distiller’s grains, a byproduct from ethanol production and a cheap feed source, can build up hydrogen sulfide in cattle’s stomachs, so when they eructate or burp, they breathe in this unfriendly gas.

This study played an important role for cattle producers, as it found that with adding different levels of forages to the cheap distiller’s grains, they can manage sulfur toxicity and not put their livestock in harm’s way.

“Obviously, we want to keep animals alive and safe,” Hansen said.

As a part of this study, the plug in the cannula was fit with a second, smaller cap that could fit a probe to measure gases. That way, taking gas samples didn’t require the whole cannula to be opened, just the smaller cap was removed to fit the probe. The study also used larger data collectors that sat in the bottom of the rumen and measured temperature and pH of the mixture.

Dr. Russell’s work with the fistulated steers worked a little differently. Though he’s been working with animals like these since 1972 while he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, his research now is mostly focused on feed quality and digestibility. Using liquid samples from the animals, he can quickly test many feed materials in his lab.

351 didn’t seem to mind the attention. After he was let out of the yellow, metal chute, he was rewarded with some time to munch on the thick, green grass. The humans were rewarded with a growing knowledge of ruminant digestive systems, and, of course, the company of Gary, Sheldon, Henry and… the other one.

Beef Nutrition Farm



Is it a Notch, Tag or Tattoo?

Why are tags in the ears of farm animals and why do some have more than one type of marking? I’ve wondered about different types of animal identification and the purpose, so I decided to do a little checking of my own to help understand the process and the reason. Here’s to learning about those identifiers!

Animal identification is a process by which animals are being identified as an individual, or as part of a group. It is done for a variety of reasons, like tracking individual animals, verification of ownership, and tracking for a herd, just to name a few. Farmers keep data like animal weight, vaccinations, and any health concerns. Identification of animals by marking the animal in some fashion dates to ancient Egyptians as a ritual to protect animals from harm. By the middle ages it was a common practice to use a process of burning a mark into the hide of an animal to identify for ownership. This practice made Cowbell-2its way to America and was refined by using a branding iron with a unique brand to prove ownership. This process made “rounding up” cattle for a drive to market easier and also deterred cattle rustlers from stealing cattle with branded markings. There is also the cow bell with the first bells appearing more than 5000 years ago. These bells were made of pottery and were used to track the cattle, goats and sheep. Pottery bells were replaced with metal bells and appeared around 1000 BC.

Markers are done differently for different animals. Markings need to be distinguishable and yet individual to the animal breed and owner. The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) uses three components: farm or premises identification, animal identification, and animal tracking. This program works across the country for tracking and in the event of disease expedites a process for quarantine.

 Pigs are marked in a variety of ways. Ear markings such as notching or tattooing are used as permanent identifiers. Ear tags can be used, but are not the best option for pigs penned together, as they can be thM7MRDN5Apulled off and lost. Tags are more often used to re-number pigs that have already been marked. Ear notching is the most practical as it is visible from a distance and remains notched for the life of the pig. It is the choice of the farmer to decide which option of identification works best. Piglets are notched before reaching 25 pounds. The right ear notches signify the litter number and the left ear signifies the individual pig number. Ear tattooing is mainly used in Landrace breeds and large white stud herds.

Cattle are also marked in a variety of ways. Nearly all are marked with an individual ID and another percentage of farms mark for the herd. Cattle can be marked with plastic ear tags, making thPQ3PT8RUsure that tags are legible at a distance and remain readable. Tags will have the following information on it: whether calf is a boy or girl, date of birth, number born on farm, mom, and dad. Metal self-locking tags are another durable option. Tattooing is used in a series of dots. Tattooing is done similarly to the way it is done for humans. It is a method to permanently identify the cattle. Tattooing is inside the ear so the animal must be restrained to read the tattoo.

Most breeds of race horses are required to have lip tattoos. The tattoo is on the upper lip and is to horse tattooidentify the link between horse and owner. Some individual owners choose to freeze mark their horse by a process of permanently tattooing a letter and number into the coat of the horse with a cold iron.

Sheep have identifying markers such as ear tags but also use tattoos, ear notching, or neck chains. Tattoos in right ears mark for owner information and the left ear signifies the year of birth.

Identification is not only used to track ownership, but to also track for research and for biosecurity control. Farmers want to keep the animals safe and healthy and this system allows for easy detection of animals that may have health concerns. Just like humans have proper identification (social security numbers, driver’s licenses, etc.); the farmer needs the proper records and a way to identify his farm family.


Everything and the Oink!

Iowa is famous for raising corn, soybeans, eggs (chickens), and…pigs! The state is one of the top swine producers in the country raising more than 20 million pigs at any one time. Each year, Iowa markets more than 49 million pigs according to the 2012 USDA census. Sales.pngTotal cash receipts in 2013 exceeded $7.5 billion. So it is kind of a big deal. And who doesn’t love bacon?

Pigs, also called hogs or swine, were among the first animals to be domesticated. This may have happened as early as 7000 B.C. Most of the pigs in the United States are produced in Midwestern states like Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Nebraska. That is because of the availability of food like corn and soybeans for the pigs to eat. North Carolina also is a huge swine producing state.

Real quick…here are some basic terms that you might hear when discussing pigs.
Barrow – a neutered male pig
Boar – a mature male pig that can reproduce
Farrow – to give birth to a litter of piglets
Finished – ready for market (approximately 275 lbs.)
Gilt – a young female pig, usually under 12 months of age
Litter – a group of piglets born at the same time by the same sow
Piglet – a young pig
Sow – a female pig that has given birth to a litter
Wean – to remove a piglet from it mother’s milk and give it solid food to eat

One hog consumes approximately 9 to 10 bushels of corn (~560 pounds) and 1 to 2 bushels (~100 pounds) of soybeans from birth to market. As the pig grows, all of that corn and soybean feed helps keep the animal happy and healthy turning into lean muscle. The primary goal is a lean animal for human consumption, but manure is an important by-product, too! Approximately 10 finishing pigs can provide enough manure to provide nutrients for one acre of cropland!

Pigs are known as monogastrics, which means they have only one stomach, just like humans. Young piglets will drink their mother’s milk until they are 16-22 days old. Once they are weaned from their mother, they are fed a diet primarily made up of ground corn and soybeans. The corn is a carbohydrate and supplies the nutrients needed for heat and energy. Soybean meal provides them the protein they need to build muscle. Vitamins and minerals are also included in their feed ration. An animal nutritionist will work closely with the pig farmer to create a balanced diet for the pigs to grow strong and healthy. Check out our lesson plan on pig feed rations here.

Scientists are working hard to figure out how to ensure pigs stay healthy with their diet. They also work to figure out how to increase feed efficiency. One project that the USDA is overseeing is probiotics for pigs. Humans might eat yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles or other foods that have live cultures of bacteria. Some of these bacteria are good for your digestive system and help keep you healthy. Pigs are the same in that they need a healthy digestive system. So one USDA research project is probiotics for pigs. A healthy digestive system increases the feed efficiency and allows pigs to turn more of the corn and soybeans they eat into lean muscle.

9e13fb11bddac4d626e6a4f6987bc810.jpgThere are many different breeds of pigs. The Yorkshire is one of the most common, although many farmers raise cross-bred animals to achieve high quality in their final product. Yorkshire pigs are white with erect ears. They are known for their muscle, with a high proportion of lean meat and low back fat.

2.jpgDurocs (the red ones with the drooping ears) are the second most popular breed. The are valued for their product quality, carcass yield, fast growth, and lean-gain efficiency. They also have very prolific females that have a long lifespan.

berkshire.pngBerkshire are usually black in color and have very fast and efficient growth. They are efficient in reproducing. They are known for their meat flavor.

Other popular breeds include the Spotted, the Landrace, the Poland China, the Hampshire, the Chester White, and the Tamworth. Each is has positive characteristics depending on what you are trying to achieve. The Landrace are really long animals and might provide an extra cut or two of the loin. The Tamworth is known for outstanding flavor in bacon.

Pork is the meat that comes from a hog. People eat many different pork products such as bacon, sausage, pork chops, and ham. Even pepperoni (like on pizza) is a pork product! Pepperoni is the most popular pizza topping in the United States. A 265-pound market hog will provide approximately 160 pounds of pork in various cuts.

In addition to meat, pigs also provide humans with other products including valves for human hearts, suede for shoes and clothing, and gelatin for food. Pig by-products also help make water filters, insulation, rubber, antifreeze, plastics, floor waxes, chalk, adhesives, crayons, fertilizer, glue, brushes, buttons, and more.

Iowa has more than 6,200 hog operations. These operations employ more than 40,000 Iowans in the day-to-day care of hogs. But there are loads of other jobs that part of the swine industry as well. Truckers, veterinarians, scientists, processors, genetic specialists, and meat cutters are just a few of the many careers in the swine industry. So the pig industry in Iowa is kind of a big deal.


**Some content re-purposed from Kansas Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.

It’s Time To Rock!

May has sprung and you know what that means? It’s rhubarb and asparagus season, moral mushroom hunting has commenced, farmers are finishing planting in the field, and now picking up rock is underway. Wait… rocks? Now some of you may be familiar with this concept and others may not be so much. But let me tell you, I am a seasoned rock picker who has had their fair share rock picking. I swear if I had a quarter for every rock I picked up I could pay off my college education already. I have spent the past 9 spring seasons picking up rocks for local farmers in the area after planting season is through. Why do we do this you may ask, well follow along and learn more about what ROCKING is all about!IMG_0149

Years ago, glaciers cut through the land and created the topography and landforms we now see today. What is a glacier? Glaciers are masses of flowing ice and today, they only cover about 10 percent of the Earth’s surface. These landforms we see created a map for scientists to observe and learn about the glaciers that came through the area. Looking at these landforms we can tell the direction a glacier flowed and how far it advanced across the land.

Now glaciers not only carved out the landforms we see today, but they also left behind deposits of rock. According to IPTV, four different glaciers came through Iowa leaving behind four different deposits of rock. Each year new rocks come to the surface, some the size of massive boulders and others the size of a baseball. Frost heaves are one of reasons rocks surface each year, to learn more on why rocks come to the surface check out this link.

Now you may be wondering why we have to “pick up” these rocks—well to insure a smooth harvesting season this is where rock picking comes into play. You see, farming is a unique process—there are a lot of inputs that are put into growing a crop including special machinery to plant and harvest the crops grown. The machinery to do the job is a valuable asset to a farmer’s operation and a rock the size of a baseball could cause a lot of damage and stop harvest until the machine is repaired. In this situation, time and money is lost which are two factors that play the biggest role in a farming operation, which is why removing rock from the field is an important task.

IMG_1375Like I said earlier, I am a seasoned rock picker. I have worked the past 9 years picking up rock for my dad and local farmers. It really is not a hard job to figure out, but it can be tedious work. That is why it is important to assemble a crew that is hardworking but can make the job fun. Picking up rock is all centered around the weather—if it’s too wet we won’t be able to drive through the field. For many summers, I worked for a lady named Bev, and depending on when the weather hit I would get a text message saying if “Rocking” was a go or not. If we were set to go, I would then get sent a location of a particular farm that we would be rocking at the next morning. Half the time the biggest struggle with rock picking was finding the right field. It’s not like it was a set address I could type in my GPS. Bev would send a name of that the field like, the Berry Farm located 2 miles East of Highway 93 and North on gravel 3 miles, if you hit the fork in the road you’ve gone too far. One thing for sure is that I was able to master gravel road travel and specific places up in Northeast Iowa fairly well.

We usually would arrive around 7 am and rock until 12 or 2. Some times we would start rocking at 5:30 am to beat the heat. We usually had 3 or 4 rigs going at once. That made for some great ground coverage as we made passes through a field. When I say rig that consists of one Ranger or Kubota to two people in each and each rig would be in charge of looking for rocks 10 rows out on each side of the Ranger. Bev would also pack necessary snacks to keep our energy up like rice crispy bars, Little Debbie cakes, water, and Gatorade. I would usually bring some of my mom’s banana bread to share and that was usually gone by our first break.IMG_1379

There are alternatives to picking up rock by hand that farmers can use. There are attachments that farmers can add on to machinery to manually pick up rocks. If a farmer is going to do this then he has to rock pick before planting begins. Once planting is complete and the crop emerges picking rock by hand is the best way to go about removing the rocks. To see rock picking attachments used by farmers and how they work check out this link for more information.

Being out on the open field, rock picking not only taught me a strong work ethic but also helped me learn more about what is going on in the world and contributed to my education. Conversation is key in these situations and sometimes we had to get creative with our conversation, otherwise it would make for a long day out in the open field. We talked everything from politics, to future plans, to the markets, to Laffy Taffy jokes, to summer plans, to current weather conditions, to favorite music concerts, to just about any thing and everything. I even learned how to identify primary noxious weeds in the field and how to remove them–I was just gaining life skills one rock at a time. The conversation and the people are the ones that made rocking fun and some of the best summer memories.

Picking up rock may seem like a small job, but it can prevent some pretty big issues for farmers in the future. So the next time you hear of someone picking up rock now you’ll know what its for and how those rocks got there. So my question for you is, “Are you ready to ROCK?”IMG_1377


Why do they do that? – Self-steering Tractors

inside cropped

I recently called my dad while he was running the tractor and field cultivator, preparing the field to plant corn. I quickly offered to call another time, but he insisted that he could talk for a minute because he was “hands-free.”  He wasn’t just referring to using a blue-tooth head-set, either.  He was driving the tractor hands-free, too!

His tractor is equipped with an automated guidance system. The system uses a GPS receiver mounted on the tractor and a computer equipped with special software in the tractor cab to control the tractor’s steering system and guide the tractor through the field.  Automated guidance systems are one part of precision agriculture, which has brought many changes in farming in recent years.

So why do farmers use auto-guidance systems, aka self-steering tractors?  Steering a tractor seems easy, especially since tractors are already equipped with all the amenities I appreciate in my car.  Most have heating and air-conditioning, tilt-steering, tinted windows, a nice stereo system, and comfortable seats.  Some models are even available with cruise control, heated seats, and leather upholstery.  Seems pretty nice, right?

While reducing driver fatigue is one perk of automated guidance systems, there are many other benefits that make this technology a valuable investment to farmers.


Cost Savings.  Before guidance systems, farmers sometimes overlapped rows when planting or applying fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide.  Auto guidance systems precisely guide the equipment so there is little to no overlap.  When the planter does cross over an area that was already planted, some  will automatically shut off rows of the planter so no seed is released.

Less overlap means fewer trips across  the field, which reduces fuel and labor costs too.

Overlapping rows-by 3-4 inches does not seem like a big deal, but it adds up to a significant waste of resources over hundreds of acres.  In this 2012 study, a tractor and planter equipped with auto-steering and automatic row shut-off technology increased profit by $111/acre in corn and $65/acre in soybeans.  According to the USDA, farmers often recoup the costs of a guidance system in just two to three years.

Better for the Environment.  Using less fuel and fertilizer is not only good for the bank account, but it’s good for the environment too. Reducing overlap and applying fertilizer more precisely, reduces environmental pollution and improves water quality by reducing nutrient runoff.

 newhollandReduced Soil Compaction. Driving heavy equipment across the field compacts the soil, which can make it more difficult for seedlings to emerge and restricts water, nutrient, and air movement in the soil. This reduces crop yield and can lead to increased runoff and soil erosion.   Auto-guidance systems can enable farmers to drive in exactly the same paths when cultivating, planting, spraying, and harvesting.  The soil is still compacted in these paths, but it reduces the overall compaction of the field.

Improved crop yield.  Using auto-guidance technology can increase yield in several ways.  By covering more acres in less time, farmers can finish planting earlier in the season which has been shown to increase yield in corn.  Reducing overlap improves yield, too.  Overlapping when planting results in crowded plants that that compete for water and nutrients and do not grow well.  Over-applying fertilizer due to overlap can stunt plant growth and decrease yield, too.

 anhydrousImproved efficiency & safety.  Driving a tractor can be exhausting and stressful.  In addition to steering, the driver is listening to the engine, watching the gauges, keeping an eye on the implement behind them, and scanning the field for rocks, west spots, and other obstacles.  When you’re tired or stressed, mistakes happen.  Mistakes while operating farm equipment can be dangerous and costly.

Auto-guidance systems take the work of steering away and enable farmers to focus on the tractor, implement, and field.  Less multitasking decreases stress and driver fatigue, which improves efficiency and safety.

Auto-guidance systems also enable farmers to better operate equipment when visibility is low because of dust, fog, or sun glare.  Nighttime operation is much more feasible, too.

Technology in agriculture has advanced dramatically since I was a kid riding with my dad in the tractor.  It’s exciting to think about the technology farmers will use  20-30 years from now.


Top 10 Reasons to Take IALF Professional Development

Every summer, the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation works with local communities to put together teacher professional development workshops throughout the state. These two-day workshops consist of one tour day in which participants visit local farms and agribusinesses. The second day, participants connect the principles from the first day to lesson plans and activities that tie to Iowa Core standards.

That’s all well and good, but why should you consider taking one of these courses? Let’s break it down.

1. Renewal Credit

These courses are run through AEA PD Online and meet the necessary standards to renew your teaching license. Each course can be taken as one license renewal credit, or one graduate level credit through Drake, Morningside, or Viterbo.

If you don’t need teaching license renewal credit, the course can be taken without credit!

2. It’s Affordable

If you want to take a course for free, you can! The only costs associated are those to get credit. For teaching license renewal credit, courses cost $35. For graduate level credit, courses cost between $55 and $75 total. This includes transportation to tour sites, and lunches!

3. Tours

If you have to take a course, do you really want to sit in a classroom all day and be lectured at, or do you want to go see interesting things in your area? With one full day of tours, you get the chance to not only learn more details about agriculture and agribusinesses in your area, but you can also learn how to connect it to class material that really relates to your students.

In 2017, some tours are being planned for dairy farms, ethanol refineries, an alpaca farm, implement dealerships, wind farms, and so many others!

4. Real World Connections

The amazing thing about agriculture is that it relates to every core subject area. Inevitably, students ask why the things they’re learning about are important. With agriculture, you can tell them why, and point to careers that use those skills.

For example, did you know that a monoslope barn can create a breeze to keep livestock comfortable all year long? This can connect to science and engineering classes!

5. Applicable Assignments

There are assignments involved in the workshops, but they’re directly related to your job as a teacher. By writing two lesson plans to use in your own classroom, and reviewing other teachers’ lesson plans online, you will leave ready for the coming school year!

6. Hands-on Lessons

The second day of the workshop takes place largely in the classroom setting, where teachers learn more about applying agriculture to the core subject areas through activities. Teachers can walk through a variety of lessons that IALF has created that tie to science, social studies, math, and language arts.

Below is pictured a lesson where students work with blocks labeled with vocabulary words from the book, My Family’s Beef Farm. They build sentences and complete other tasks, like sort by syllables, parts of speech, or their familiarity with the word.

7. It’s Local

By working with contacts in local communities, IALF is able to reach teachers across the state, instead of in one centralized location. This also helps relate material back to the students who live in these areas. This summer, IALF will be offering eight different workshops in Clarinda, Eddyville, Moville, Donnellson, LaPorte City, Spencer, Peosta, and Sioux City.

8. Gain Resources

IALF has a host of resources available to teachers, students, and volunteers. By attending one of these workshops, you can learn more about the resources available, and how to use them in your classroom or community. Some resources include lesson plans, publications, and grant programs.

9. Insight From Industry Professionals

The best way to learn about an industry is to talk to the professionals that work in it. Whether you hear from these people during tours, FarmChat® programs, or presentations, you can learn more about the specifics of agriculture and about the careers your students may go into someday.

10. Insight From Your Peers

Throughout the workshop, you will be interacting with other teachers, volunteers, and community members that share similar goals with you. Together, you can discuss topics and brainstorm new and exciting ways to educate your students.

IALF’s professional development workshops really focus on integrating real-world agriculture into the core subjects that students need to learn about. Whether students learn about air movement from cattle barns, measurement from pigs’ feed, or germination from soybeans, there is something for every student — and every teacher — in agriculture.

Anyone is eligible to attend these workshops. If you have an interest in teaching youth in your community about agriculture (or science, social studies, and language arts), these workshops will especially benefit you. For a full listing of our summer workshops and to register, visit this link.

We hope to see you this summer!


P.S. Check out a video about last year’s workshops here!

Book Club: Understanding Our Modern Food System

I aspire to be an avid reader. I like everything from autobiographies and spy novels to science fiction and fantasy. But lately I find myself reading a lot of historical nonfiction. I seem to gravitate to big thinking authors like Mark Kurlansky, Bill Bryson, and Andrew Lawler. These and other authors have helped shape my understanding of our modern food system. But more importantly, they have helped give me ideas of how we can continue to improve on our modern food system. So here are my top recommendations to (begin to) understand 10,000 years of agriculture.

ggs.jpgUnderstanding the Origins of Agriculture

Read: Guns, Germs, and Steel – by Jared Diamond

Diamond sets the stage for an immense conversation. He hypothesized that the arc of human history was dramatically shifted by geographic, environmental, biological, and other factors, resulting in the worldwide dominance of the leading industrial powers during the past 500 years. The book won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize and quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

The book covers a lot of topics, but with regards to our modern food system we can start to understand that the spread of humans followed the spread of agriculture. Agriculture crops have typically only been spread around the globe at similar latitudes as where they were first domesticated. Wheat, barley, oats, sheep, and goats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Europe’s proximity to the Fertile Crescent and similar climate allowed those crops and livestock to be easily adapted. As farmers produced more food, human populations exploded. This set the stage for Europeans to cross the Atlantic and explore the world. It was then these same staple crops that were introduced in North America to help feed and fuel the growing populations that would become the United States.

The United States had a similar climate to Europe in that crops and livestock were easily adapted. The United State’s geography was also more horizontal than vertical. Crops and livestock could spread across the same latitudes easily and did not have to adapt to the colder climates of the north (Canada) or the hotter climates of the south (Mexico and Central America). The geography of the globe helped (for good or evil) predetermine some of the winners and losers in food production and later uneven economic development around the world.

edible.jpgUnderstand Food as a Tool that Shaped our Culture

Read: An Edible History of Humanity – by Tom Standage

Food is more than just sustenance. Food has been a kind of technology, changing the course of human progress by helping to build empires, promote industrialization, and decide the outcomes of wars. Standage weaves an epic timeline that encompasses kings and queens and how food helped craft our empires. Food was the driver for many technological inventions. For modern examples we look at the refrigerator or microwave but historically we look at the wheat mill or even something as simple as the fork.

Once civilizations were founded on the back of agriculture, complex societies emerged. Food storage systems evolved and food distribution systems were put into place. This allowed farmers to specialize and then trade. But whoever controlled the food controlled the wealth and power, so history has shown countless struggles. Food has even been used as a weapon. For example, the scorched earth policy as Russians retreated from the Napoleonic invasion left no food available for the invading army. The invasion ultimately failed. Food is a powerful weapon.

Much of the technology in the 20th century has revolved around the food system. The farm labor force has shrunk to all time lows with less that 2% of Americans actually involved in food production. Large scale machinery like combine harvesters have allowed labor to be minimized. The converse of that has been the increase in energy consumption. Farm work is more mechanized, but it requires a lot of energy. In addition to this, biotechnology and plant genetics have led to higher and higher yields. Technologies like the Haber Bosch process have allowed for increased yields from better nutrients.

kitchen.jpgUnderstand Our Relationship with Food

Read: Kitchen Literacy – by Ann Vileisis

Our modern relationship with food is defined by our not being involved in food production, but being intimately connected to to food. After all, we still eat three times a day. Vileisis‘ book tells of how we became disconnected from the sources of our food. Many of the issues discussed today are the same issues that were talked about a century ago.

People want to feel good about where their food comes from so they often allow a picture on the side of the packaging to dictate their knowledge of what the food is and how it was produced. Largely, our image of food and our understanding of food is created by marketers who use words like all natural, organic, cage-free, etc. to makes us feel good about our purchases. But few people understand what those terms mean and fewer people still understand how the food was produced.

The book inspires hope in becoming more connected to food. It isn’t really practical for all Americans to become wheat farmers so that we can harvest wheat, mill our own flour, and then bake our own bread. But we can all become closer to food by understanding how it was produced. We can visit farms and farmers markets. We can cook more. We have our own backyard gardens. By maintaining this connection to the land we can have a say in what our food system should look like in years to come.

What books have you read on agriculture or the food system? Leave us a comment with what book or books we should read next!