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.


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.


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.


What the Pandemic Has Taught Us about Sourdough – Part 1

Many people have taken up hobbies this past year. Exercise, fiber arts, baking might be some of the top activities that have kept us occupied during the COVID quarantine over these past 12 or more months. Instagram is awash with millions of posts (successes and failures) of people who have tried their hand at sourdough. There are countless resources that help novices to experts try their hand at this artisanal craft. I have been playing around with sourdough for many years (before it was pandemic-cool), but the pandemic has allowed me to concentrate and experiment.

Making sourdough is easy. Water, flour, salt, natural yeasts and bacteria. Mix, knead, prove, shape, prove, and bake. Anyone CAN do it. But while this seems simple enough, there are reasons not everyone DOES bake sourdough. This simple process can go awry at any point and in a variety of ways. Even if it isn’t a complete failure, the results can be very underwhelming. So, while this post is not the ultimate guide, nor is it the final authority, we hope that you can learn from our year of experimenting and baking. Here are our lessons learned from a year of sourdough.

The Starter

The first place to start is the starter. Water plays an essential role and the salt is essential for flavoring the loaf. But our biggest lessons learned were in the flour and the yeast. I grew up with a 50+ year old starter that my family cared for. We didn’t often bake sourdough bread but every weekend we enjoyed a special treat of sourdough pancakes. Sourdough starter is nearly the perfect consistency for pancake batter! Add a little oil, egg, sugar, vanilla, and baking soda and you’ll have robust, flavorful pancakes in no time. But when I moved away from my parents, I had to make my own starter. I tried a couple of different times before I landed on one that worked. But I didn’t realize how ‘bad’ it was until I tasted a different starter – one from Alaska. So I dumped my old batch and started fresh with an Alaskan starter. So, four lessons learned.

First, what makes sourdough sourdough are the natural (found in the environment) yeasts and bacteria that metabolize the flour producing carbon dioxide and giving the bread its light, airy texture. Many commercial breads use quick acting yeasts that will give the bread its airy texture within just a couple of hours. Natural yeasts might take a little bit longer to metabolize the flour and form all of those lovely pockets of air. Additionally, natural yeasts work in concert with natural bacteria that give the bread its slightly sour flavor. But not all natural yeasts are created equally. First, it is important to note that yeasts (types of fungi) found in Florida are different than those found in Maine. Yeasts in Iowa are different from the one found in California or Alaska. They are all different. No matter what types of yeasts you start with your sourdough will likely collect yeasts from the air where you currently are and start to take on those characteristics and flavors. I mentioned that I started with a strain of Alaskan sourdough yeast. There is a reason that San Francisco sourdough or Alaskan sourdough is famous. Those yeasts and bacteria make amazing bread. And it is hard to recreate those same flavors in different areas because they start to acclimate to the local conditions. I feel like my sourdough still has a lot of the flavor, but I’m sure it would not compare to the real thing in Alaska because it has started to accumulate more of our Iowa yeasts and bacteria from the air.

While you can start a sourdough just from the natural yeasts and bacteria in the air, an easier way is to use the natural microorganisms that are on the wheat. Flour is simply milled or ground wheat. That wheat was grown in a field and there are millions of microorganisms that are on those wheat berries when they are harvested. Lesson two is that using whole wheat flour will allow you to start a culture simply using what microorganisms are naturally present. Those microorganisms will be accustomed to metabolizing that kind of flour. By adding a little water and providing a hospitable environment, you can quickly get those little microorganisms active and reproducing. It is important to note that all purpose flour or other refined flours won’t have as many microorganisms because the outer hull and bran of the wheat berries have been removed, also removing many of the microorganisms. It is also worth noting that bleached flour will have very few, if any microorganisms since that refinement process is meant to kill any that might be present. So, if you want to make a starter, best to start with whole wheat flour. You could even grind your own from whole wheat berries.

Start the starter. Every farmer knows that you need to create the optimum conditions for your animals to thrive. Yeast farming is no different! We simply need to make the optimum conditions for those microorganisms to thrive. The flours serves as the food for the microorganisms. All living things need water. So mix the flour with a little water and you get the perfect slurry for things to start happening. Keep it at room temperature and within a day or two you might start to see little bubbles form. Those bubbles are the carbon dioxide being released as the yeast and bacteria start to metabolize and eat the flour. But this process takes time. The first bubbles are from the quick acting microorganisms. Those aren’t the ones you want. Everyday you’ll need to discard a little of the mixture, add a little more flour, and a little more water. After that first bloom of activity, you might have a few days where it doesn’t look like anything is happening. But as the desirable yeasts and bacteria start to out compete the less desirable ones you should start to see renewed activity – more bubbles. Keep up the daily ritual of discarding some starter, adding a little more flour, and a little more water until you get a robust, active starter (roughly ten days).

Microorganisms will be accustomed to what they are fed regularly. If you want to change up the bread making and make rye sourdough, it isn’t as simple as replacing wheat flour with rye flour. Lesson three is that you have to give the microorganisms time to adjust. Start with your wheat starter, then add a little rye flour and water for several days in a row. The microorganisms should start to transition over or adopt new microorganisms that are better suited for rye flour. You can use this same strategy for a variety of different flours – with varying degrees of success. For best results, though feed your starter the same thing consistently.

Most recipes and directions for starters suggest using lots of flours and lots of water. But one thing the pandemic has taught us is that it is more about proportions than it is about quantity. Early on in the pandemic when flour on grocery store shelves was in short supply, but a lot of people wanted to start experimenting with sourdough the quarantiny starter was invented. This lesson can be applied to many things in baking. It is about proportions. Want a bigger loaf? Increase all ingredients by the same proportion. Want two or three loaves instead of one? Double or triple the recipe. Want a smaller loaf? Cut the recipe down – proportionally.

The Care

Sourdough starter is living and breathing. It consists of multiple alive and active organisms. So it needs to be treated accordingly. Think of it as a pet or livestock that needs to be cared for. It needs to be fed and watered regularly. If you keep your starter at room temperature, you’ll need to feed it everyday. Practice the same procedure of discarding half and then adding equal amounts of water and flour. Starter also needs to ‘breathe’ or release carbon dioxide, so keep it in a jar or container that is not airtight. A slight gap will allow for the carbon dioxide to escape. If you keep your starter in the fridge, the cooler temperature will slow down the respiration so you will only need to feed and water it once a week. If you neglect if for longer than that you may still be able to revive it. (I’ve accidentally let mine go as long as four weeks). But it is never as good, and takes time to rebuild those active microbes with several sequential feedings.

Remember that every time you get ready to bake with your starter, you are going to want to save some for next time. The idea is to grow the starter enough that you can use some for baking and save some to keep your cultures active and growing. Add your water and flour to the starter the night before and let it sit over night. The next day when you start your recipe the first step, the very first step, is always to reserve a a portion back in your storage vessel for the next bake. Also remember, we are working with yeast and bacteria. Once you have a desirable starter you don’t want to contaminate it with other strains of yeast or bacteria. Wash and sanitize all your containers and bowls in-between uses to try and prevent any microorganisms sneaking in.

For a continuation of the story and baking bread, be sure to check out Part 2 here: https://iowaagliteracy.wordpress.com/2021/03/24/what-the-pandemic-has-taught-us-about-sourdough-part-2/


Clover & Agriculture

Every year many people around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th. When thinking about St. Patrick’s Day, images of leprechauns, pots of gold, green, or Ireland might swarm your head. Did agriculture come to mind? One of the symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, the clover, is a valuable plant to farmers.

I’m not sure about you guys, but I spent a good chunk of my childhood outside intensely staring at the grass, searching for the lucky four-leaf clover. Sadly, after spending hours on the lookout, I never found one on my own.

Photo by Sudipta Mondal on Pexels.com

Clover or Shamrock?

It turns out I wasn’t even looking for a shamrock since a four-leaf clover is just a genetic mutation.

Shamrocks fall under the broad term of clover. Clover is the common name for the species in the Trifolium family, which translates to “having three leaves.” It’s kind of like how dogs, foxes, and wolves all fall under the canine family.

If you ask a botanist or the Irish what kind of Trifolium a shamrock is, most likely, you are going to get at least two different answers. Most botanists believe that the white clover is the same thing as a shamrock. In contrast, those staying true to the Irish tradition believe that the three leaves symbolize the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit as taught by St. Patrick.

So, how do farmers use it?

While many probably recognize clover growing in their lawns, some farmers will grow it in their fields as a cover crop. Cover crops are planted to reduce erosion between growing seasons and add organic matter to the soil. To learn more about cover crops, check out the blog post “Cover Cropping. Why Do They Do That?”

According to Practical Farmers of Iowa, it is one of the best possible cover crop options. They describe it as the “Cadillac of cover crops.” Clover has many, many benefits as a cover crop. As a legume, it helps contribute nitrogen to the soil, it reduces soil erosion, and it helps limit the number of weeds in the field. Clover also helps a lot with the soil’s moisture hold capacity and water retention, which is great for those dry summers like we had last year.

Photo by Zhanna Fort on Pexels.com

Clover and livestock

Not only do farmers use clover as cover crops, but some feed their livestock with it as well. Integrating clover in pastures through a process called overseeding has its benefits: increase of yield, improve animal performance, Nitrogen fixation and grazing season extension, to name a few. Adding clover to a pasture will help the soil, the livestock and other grasses, but it does come with a warning.

Farmers need to be careful because too much clover could cause bloating. An abundance of clover consumption may cause cattle or other livestock species to have a gas buildup and can be very dangerous if this leads to pressure on the internal organs.

There are ways to prevent this bloating. Farmers can mix the clover with other grass species in the pasture, wait to feed livestock clover until it is drier or rotate their grazing.

Despite these risks, few farmers cut out clover feeding entirely due to its significant protein and fiber amount.


Other than the shamrock around St. Patrick’s Day, another famous clover is the clover emblem of 4-H. 4-H is a youth development organization for 4th-12th graders where members can create projects in health, science, or agriculture fields. The four-leaf clover emblem representing the 4-H organization has an “H” on each leaf, meaning head, heart, hands and health.

As you are celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this year, don’t just think about all of the green you’re going to wear, but think about how much agriculture is tied into this holiday!


We’re not kidding around…goats are beneficial to agriculture

My oldest daughter loooves animals and is a wannabe farm girl but unfortunately for her, we live in a suburb. She has visions of having her own farm acreage when she’s older where she can have horses, rabbits, ducks, chickens…you name the farm animal and she wants it. This past summer to help her get her ‘animal fix’ she took horse riding lessons, but we also made multiple trips to a local agritourism farm operation. One of the draws for my girls was the baby goat cuddling. While enjoying the warm summer breeze surrounded by cute, cuddly, bleating baby goats, it got me thinking about the value of goats in agriculture and I wanted to learn more.

Did you know goats are one of the earliest animals to domesticated by humans? Neolithic farmers, during the New Stone Age, were the first to begin herding wild goats for the purpose of acquiring meat and milk, as well as using the animal parts for clothing, tools, and more. Today, goats live on every continent except Antarctica. Their adaptability makes them exceptionally suited to most climates.

Goats around the world

Goat farming involves the raising and breeding of domestic goats. They’re raised primarily because of their meat and milk, but also for their fiber and skins. Goats are very adaptable to their environment and can be raised alongside other farm animals who won’t eat lower quality grazing land vegetation. Grazing animals (like cattle and goats) can make use of land that isn’t suitable for cultivation or tillage.

While goat farming is a rising area of agriculture in the United States, they are not as prevalent here as in other countries. Goats are more common in developing countries because they are easier and cheaper to raise than cattle.

India is the top goat milk producing country producing more than five million metric tons annually (source 2017). Bangladesh is second followed by Sudan. In 2019, goat meat exports by country totaled US$251 billion. Australia is the largest goat meat exporter, followed by France, and Spain. Goat meat is an important source of protein for other parts of the world. Their high heat stress tolerance allows them to survive in more hostile locations. They require less land than cows, can eat lessor quality vegetation and still produce a higher quality product.

In 2020, there were 2.66 million head of goats in the U.S. compared to 77.5 million head of pigs and 94.4 million head of cattle. Demand for goat meat is rising though due to the increasing ethnic populations but more than half of the U.S. supply of goat meat is imported. You won’t likely see goat meat available in your local grocery store due to the low inventory.

Here in Iowa the goat industry is still growing. Common breeds being raised include dairy goat breeds like the Nubian or the La Mancha or meat goats like the Boer.

Goats used for anything from meat to environmental sustainability

Goats are raised primarily for the meat and milk. Goat cheese is one of the fastest growing segments within specialty cheese.

You might not know that goats also produce fiber like mohair and cashmere that is used in clothing. They can typically produce more than 5 lbs of mohair per goat at each shearing. Mohair is typically from the Angora goat and is known for its luster and sheen. Cashmere wool is from the cashmere or pashmina breed of goats and is known for its light weight, strength, and softness.

Source: Goats on the Go

Because of their small size and penchant for less desirable vegetation, goats are also starting to be used for clearing unwanted brush in a more environmentally sound way than using machinery or pesticides. Larger counties, cities, urban developments, and even private individuals are using goats to clear areas of land from unwanted or invasive plants such as Canada thistle and honeysuckle. Not only is this environmentally sound, it also allows native species to come back. Check out this video about an Iowa company, called Goats on the Go.

Even goat manure is virtually odorless and is beneficial to the environment and farm. Goat manure is a good source of nitrogen, phosphate, potash, and other minerals. Some countries are allowing goat manure to be sold commercially in the form of composted manure products.

All this talk of goats has me itching to get back out to the farm and cuddle some baby goats. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait awhile until kidding season is here in the Midwest.

Look out for future blog posts on type of goats, and more!


Additional Resources

Raising goats for Iowa’s ethnic markets
Iowa Dairy Goat Association
Modern Goat Production
Iowa Minutes – Goats on the Go
WorldAtlas – Goats