Locally Grown

It’s January and I just bought some locally grown lettuce. The grocer specifically labeled it as locally grown with a fancy sign making it look like it was better lettuce than the other stuff. So I saved the world! I just bought local which is surely better….right?

Well, not necessarily. It may come as a surprise, but if you are buying or eating locally grown food, it may not be food grown in your community. There is no set determination for the definition of locally grown. Locally grown products may have been grown at a local farm just up the road, in the same county as your farmers market, or possibly even within the same state. However, in other cases, locally grown produce may have come from 250, 400, or even 1,000 miles away from the point of purchase.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defines locally grown as “being transported less than 400 miles within the state in which it is produced.” But retailers, states, farmer’s markets, and other organizations may use their own definition.

By the Food, Conservation and Energy Act definition,  if I was a farmer in Council Bluffs, Iowa (western side of the state) I could sell my produce in Bettendorf, Iowa (eastern side of the state) which is 310 miles away. Similarly, if I was a farmer in Hornbrook, California (extreme north) I could sell my produce in San Diego, California and call it local. But that is more than 800 miles distance to the south! Seattle, Washington which is two states away and north is closer to Hornbrook at only 480 miles away – but then my produce couldn’t be called local.

Specialization and Trade

There are a couple of theories behind local food. 1) It is better for our health, 2) it is better for the environment, and 3) it is better for the local economy. Let’s look at the environmental argument first.

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” – Steve Sexton.

This is called comparative advantage. Ignoring the concept and the advantage means it will require more inputs to grow the same amount of food. This means more land will be used. More chemicals will be used. More carbon emissions will be spewed out into the atmosphere. There are a number of different models floating around on the internet, but they suggest that if we were to transition to a purely local production system in agriculture it would take between 25 percent and 50 percent more land to produce the same amount of food we produce today.

The other environmental concern is carbon emissions from transportation of food. But estimates suggest that only 11 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. The bulk of carbon emissions in the food system – 83 percent – come from production. So while it would be nice to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation, we can make a bigger impact by improving technology on the farm and reduce emissions on the production side of the system.

Healthy Options

Local food is often associated with organically produced which is often associated with being the healthier option. But is it? This one is a bit more complicated to unravel. Local food is defined (yes, but earlier I said it wasn’t defined….stick with me here) by the distance it travels from where it was produced to where it was sold. By definition, that means it has nothing to do with the quality of the food or whether or not it is healthier.

What can have a larger impact on the health benefits of the food is what time of year it is grown and produced. For example, a tomato that is grown in the summer months with adequate rain and nutrients will likely develop more natural sugars, be packed with vitamins and minerals, and be very ‘healthy.’ By contrast, a hot-house tomato that is grown in the winter months with less daylight will not be as healthful. It won’t have had the same opportunity to develop those nutrients. BUT, the difference is small and really negligible. The most important part of a healthy diet is eating lots of variety of whole foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat meat. Drink milk. Worry less about where the food came from and more about portion size and diversity of diet.

Many local food producers are small-scale farmers and many of those raise produce organically. There is an assumption that organically grown produce is raised without chemicals, but this isn’t necessarily true. Organic growers can still use pesticides. So if your goal is to reduce exposure to chemicals then buying local isn’t a sure thing. And buying organic isn’t a sure thing.

IMG_2105.JPGConsider this: nearly all apples contain detectable levels of pesticides. But, the presence of a chemical doesn’t equate to the presence of a risk. Fewer than 0.1% of apples tested have pesticide residue levels higher than the governmental limit. Even though most apples tested have detectable chemical residue, most were far below the permissible level. So the benefits of eating the apple and getting good nutrients outweigh the risk of chemical exposure.

A Boon to the Local Economy

While the premise of buying locally produced food falls short on the environmental factors and the health factors, it shines when considering the local economy. Studies have shown that small farms are more likely to earn a positive net farm income by selling locally. Other studies indicate there are nearly 32 jobs created for every $1 million in revenue generated by farms who are directly marketing their produce. This is compared to only 10.5 jobs per $1 million with large farms.

In our modern society, the number of farmers continues to decrease. As farms get larger and more efficient, the number of people it takes to grow food declines. Currently, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. But, local food can help increase the number of farmers. Local food sales receipts are upwards of $4.8 billion. These direct-to-consumer sales are great, but the real answer might lie in connecting small and mid-sized farms to large-scale food buyers.

nfsn-social-link-share.pngLocal producers can also benefit through programs like Farm to School. This national program is used in more than 42,000 of the roughly 100,000 school districts across the country. The premise is to connect local producers to local school districts providing the ingredients they need to produce up to 30.5 million school lunches every day. This is a great way of helping source local produce. There is an educational element to it so kids can learn about where their food comes from. But the primary benefit is giving priority to local producers.

Local food can also come in the form of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. This can be a fun way of getting to know your local farmers. All goods are locally produced and usually seasonally grown. It can be fun to get a box of lettuce and carrots one month and a box of turnips the next month! Anyone know any good recipes for turnips?!!!?

Ultimately, food choices are hard. Locally produced food is a nice idea. But it doesn’t always make sense. It can be a factor when you consider what produce to buy, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. And don’t confuse local with organic or other gimmicky descriptors. Just eat a well-balanced diet. Not too much, not too little.


Why do they do that? – Self-steering Tractors

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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.


Why do they do that? – Terraces and Tile Lines

Much of Iowa seems flat, but as we’ve previously discussed there is actually a lot of variety to the Iowa landscape. In addition to this, many Iowa farmers dabble in terracing – creating terraces on the slope of a hill. But why do they do that?

Maybe you’ve never even noticed it, but look closely at Iowa fields – especially in the southern half of the state – and you will see terraces on many hillsides.

One thing that Iowa farmers struggle with is soil loss and erosion from water running across the field. When water after a rainstorm flows across the field it can pick up soil particles and carry those particles downstream. Loosing that soil off the field might make the field less fertile. The steeper the slope or grade of the land (like a hillside) the faster the water will move. The faster the water moves, the more soil it might pick up and carry away with it.

Avoca Terraces

Terraces placed on the slope protect the soil from erosion. Photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS, Iowa.

So farmers need to try and slow down the movement of water. Hence, terraces. Terraces are man-made earthen structures that intercept runoff on slopes. They change long slopes into a series of shorter slopes. At each level of the terrace, water has a chance to slow down and the soil has a chance to settle out which keeps it on the field. The result is that cleaner water leaves the field and not as much erosion occurs.

Farmers mound up soil on the hillside creating a somewhat level area with a short steep backslope down to the next level. The top, flat area can still be farmed with crops. The short steep backslopes are seeded with perennial grasses. The roots of these perennial grasses help hold the slope in place.

Sometimes terraces can also include a tile line and drain. In some cases and if there is considerable water build up, farmers can install a tile line and drain. This will allow the soil to settle out and the water to be siphoned off into an underground pipe. This allows the water to run through the pipe down the slope without collecting any soil. The water is discharged at the end of the pipe. This also reduces soil compaction and and enables good root development.

In Iowa, terraces are a fairly common practice. In fact hundreds of miles of terraces help cut soil loss. In one watershed management area terraces reduce soil loss by as much as 13 tons! New terraces might be installed in the fall of the year after growing crops have been harvested or in the spring of the year before crops are planted. In addition to reducing soil erosion, terraces can help retain moisture for growing crops and water conservation purposes. Terraces can even help create nesting habitat in the grassy back slopes that are largely untouched.


Exploring Careers in Agriculture

With graduation season coming around, it’s time for many young people to start thinking about what they want to study once they get to college. While there are many options to pick from, the agriculture industry holds quite a few. Agriculture can be an exciting industry with a wide variety of opportunities that will continue to be in high demand for years to come. Within it, you can find production, management, economics, pathology, and even engineering. Here are some interesting careers to take another look at.

Agricultural Salesperson

People in the agriculture industry require pretty specific goods — and people who know about them. A person in agricultural sales must be well-versed in the goods available, what people need, and also be business-minded.

Agriculture EconomistDave Miller 2x2 140108

Agriculture economists deal with the complex relationship between agriculture, the economy, set government structures, and reliance on natural resources. Job opportunities can range through many business areas.

Agricultural Engineer

Do you like to understand how things work? Do you like to be creative and solve problems? Working in an agricultural engineer position might be a good fit.


Agronomists are scientists who work with plants, soil, and the environment to help producers utilize the best technology to grow the most efficient crops, while caring for the land they use. Careers can range from conservation and crop consulting to genetics and research.

Animal Scientist

Being an animal scientist is a lot more than just raising animals — but it can be that, too! When you study animal science, you will learn skills that can prepare you for careers in management, nutrition, animal breeding, or even research, outreach, and extension jobs.


Botany, horticulture, and plant sciences are interesting and marketable ways to get involved with plant production, biotechnology, fruit production, or a wide variety of other careers. Check out this link for more information.

Dairy Scientist

Here in the Midwest, dairy is definitely important. Though dairy science may be lumped with animal science in some institutions, there are some key differences in the final product that are setting the two apart more and more.

Extension Specialist

Here in Iowa especially, Extension and Outreach has played and will continue to play a large part in how producers manage their businesses, farms, and ranches. Extension specialists field questions (sometimes quite literally) that local producers may have, and help disseminate information they think people could use.


Forestry and natural resources are great ways to get involved in nature. By studying in this field, you can become a traditional forester, or maybe you could become a conservation biologist or even a park ranger.

Soil Scientistcelia takachi

Have you ever wanted to know more about the stuff on the bottom of your shoes? By studying soil science, you can work with agronomists to help producers manage their resources sustainably and efficiently, or work with conservationist efforts to help producers take care of their soil in the best way possible.

Weed Scientist

Weed management is an interesting and challenging aspect of plant science and agronomy. Weed scientists work to help producers get a handle on their most problematic weed species in a safe and reliable way.
Though this definitely isn’t a comprehensive list of all possible agriculture careers, perhaps you learned of one or two that are worth looking into. As the field continues to grow and develop, new positions will crop up and new specialists will be needed. Maybe one of those specialists will be you.


Farming for Conservation

Day 5 of the Iowa Farm Bureau market study tour of South Africa started with a visit to a family farm on the highveld. They had 2,000 hectares of land and raised yellow maize (corn), soya (soybeans), Merino sheep, and cattle. This diverse operation also pressed their own soya for the oil. They produced cooking oil for local markets and also made their own oil cake to feed their animals. By pressing 20% of the oil out of the soybeans they can reduce the fat content and increase the protein content to 46% thereby concentrating the feed and making it more efficient for the animals. They press nearly 7,000 tons of soya a year.

They do not have the right equipment to minimize crop loss during harvest. Therefore many of the soybeans are lost on the ground. This could represent a significant loss to the operation. But they have capitalized on this by letting their sheep graze the soybean fields after harvest. The sheep clean up almost all of the lost beans. This added protein in their diet has had the fortuitous effect of increasing their rate of producing twin lambs by 11%!

The drought has not hit this area as hard and their yellow maize crop will be very good. Yellow maize will be sold as livestock feed whereas the white maize we have previously seen is preferred for human consumption.

We continued our drive northeast and along the way passed tulip farms and prickly pear cactus farms. Holland is a big export market for tulip bulbs.

Many Americans have heard of Cecil the lion and many had the reaction of being outraged. However, as Americans we don’t always understand the dynamics of game and hunting in South Africa. More and more, game is being looked at as a valuable resource that the people of South Africa need to manage. It is a complex web where on one hand large predators threaten livestock. On the other hand there is big money to be made in the private hunting business (by South African law all game is private property and owned by the landowner). From another point of view tourists to Africa want to see pristine wildlife in natural habitat conserved in perpetuity. In all three of these situations it is important to manage the number of animals and the carrying capacity of the land. Humans are involved and we can’t take a hands off approach. And all three of those scenarios are threatened by poaching and other illegal activities.

Consequently, game farming has become an important part of agriculture in South Africa. We visited Hannah Game Lodge that catered to tourists and provided up close views of wildlife. But in addition to that they have breeding programs that provide many species to other game reserves helping to ensure healthy populations of herds. On our short drive into the bush we saw oryx, waterbuck, greater kudu, nyala, sable antelope, Impala, Cape buffalo, giraffe, ostriches, and warthogs.

The lodge used to raise rhinos but after a poaching incident had to sell their stock. If selling rhino horn was legalized, the supply could easily eliminate the black market demand and poaching. Rhino horn grows approximately 2in / year and can be harvested sustainably without harming the animals. One kilo of rhino horn sells for approximately $500,000 on the Chinese black market. This severely threatens rhino populations because poachers kill the animals to remove the horns.

The key takeaway is that by commercializing hunting and raising game even more, it is possible to eliminate illegal harvest of animals and provide a needed revenue source for wildlife conservation.


Cover Cropping. Why Do They Do That?

In the spring, you might see some interesting looking plants popping up over last season’s crop remnants. What may seem like early growing weeds could actually be a way for farmers to promote soil and water health and reduce erosion in a system called cover cropping.

What is a cover crop?

Cover crops, also called “green manure”, are short-seasoned plants that grow quickly after the ground thaws in the spring . Farmers will plant these crops in the fall after harvest to help give the land extra cover when their main crop, generally corn or soybeans in Iowa, is not established in the late fall and early spring months.


What do cover crops do?

Though there are many types of plants used in cover cropping systems, they all serve some of the same purposes. They help hold the soil together to reduce erosion, they serve as a guard against runoff (promoting water quality downstream), suppress weed growth, use different nutrients than cash crops, and can help build healthier soils by increasing organic matter and reducing compaction.

Why do farmers plant cover crops?

Some of the biggest benefits of cover cropping are nutrient recycling and soil and water health. If a farmer plants cover crops, their soil health will increase, and their main crop can see a yield boost. Farmers also realize that taking care of their soil is important, because without it, none of their crops could grow.

How do farmers plant cover crops?

There are a variety of ways farmers can establish their cover crops. Many farmers will drill the seeds into the ground to avoid extra tillage of the soil, which can cause increased erosion. Other farmers will have small airplanes or helicopters do aerial seedings. Other farmers may plant using a broadcast system that scatters the seed, or precision planting with a corn or soybean planter.


What kinds of plants are used as cover crops?

In Iowa, cereal rye is a commonly used cover crop. However, other small grains such as oats or triticale are also used, and some legumes such as crimson clover and hairy vetch  are used. Some farmers may even plant turnips or radishes! Producers can mix and match different kinds of plants according to their strengths and weaknesses to help them meet many goals with their cover crop rotation.

What do farmers do with cover crops?

Cover crops are interesting in that their main purpose is just to grow. Though some farmers may use them to graze cattle or to get added value from the plant, others may terminate them by mowing over them or by using herbicides.

All in all, this system of planting a short-season crop to break up regular cycles and to provide extra benefits to the environment is becoming more and more popular in the state. Farmers have found many different ways to make the idea work in their fields and operations, and will likely continue to find innovative and interesting ways to meet the same goals. What do you think will come next in cover cropping?


A Year in the Making – Ag Across Iowa

We come to the close of 2015. It’s been an awesome year of growing, learning and reaching out for agriculture literacy… we seek to provide every student in Iowa an agricultural based learning experience. The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation had the privilege to walk alongside and observe Agriculture in the Classroom taking place all over the state of Iowa. There were just too many examples of how this is being done to share them all in this short blog. We wanted to highlight a sampling of the ingenuity and creativity of individuals that share our passion.

January~ IALF launched the first issue of Iowa Ag Today. The student reader helped students explore the connections between agriculture and themselves. You know that “Agriculture is Everywhere!” It’s the business, science and practices of growing and selling plants and animals to be used for food, fiber and fuel. Iowa Ag Today goes out to every school across Iowa reaching students and making learning about agriculture fun!

February~ Linn County Farm Bureau raised awareness about agriculture by doing Pizz-A-Thon throughout the year. Pizza-A-Thon is an easy to implement, multi-day curriculum that engages students in exciting team activities to create and market a pizza business. Students explore, experiment and discover – linking food to careers, farming, soil and conservation. It employs critical thinking skills and presentation skills.

March~ Two Parkersburg second grade classes attended a Dr. Seuss Birthday. The Ag in the Classroom coordinator read the book “Green Eggs and Ham”. Students received books on chicken facts & pig facts to learn more about the two animals that made the cat’s breakfast possible. Students also learned how farmers take good care of the animals. They discovered that corn and soybeans are the main components of the feed the animals eat. Students were treated to a snack of “green eggs” made with pretzels, almond bark, and green M&Ms. After a quiz on the pig facts, students received a pig eraser to help them remember this special visit.  Awesome ag party!

April~ North Central Ag in the Classroom conducts Ag Education weeks in an effort to maintain consistent contact with students in a seven county area.  They provide up to a full week of ag lessons. Lessons are fun, innovative and are offered for preschool through sixth grade. Lessons are taught about Iowa’s agriculture and its importance to Iowa economy and society. Students learn where there food comes from and that we grow corn and soybeans and those plants become other products we eat and use every day.

May~ Eagle Grove, Barnum, Humboldt, Bode, Gilmore City, LuVerne and Algone schools all attended the Davis Dairy Farm Day. The Davis family opens their farm to over 400 students for tours milking barns, many different farm animals, a magician, horse drawn wagon rides and yummy milk, cheese curds and sugar cookies. What a fun day!

June~ A very busy month of learning across the state of Iowa as five 2-day teacher training workshops were held. Fast-paced professional development gave teachers background knowledge, instructional strategies, lessons and hands-on activity ideas to prepare them to immediately incorporate agriculture into classroom lessons! Teacher presentations included: the Family & Consumer Science conference A Journey from Education to Career and at the Iowa Reading Conference Iowa Ag Today: Putting an Iowa Spin on Language Arts Learning.

July~ IALF offered Fun with Drones, Plants and Power a fun STEM Camp at UNI! Students were engaged throughout the four day camp. Students IMG_0963learned corn and soybean plant anatomy at a farm,  about harvest technology at an implement dealership, and how corn is transported and stored at a coop. They made germination seed necklaces, conducted ethanol experiments, and visited with corn growers at the farm and at the elevator. Four days of Ag Fun!

September~ Siouxland Ag in the Classroom taught students about how our food, fuel and fiber all comes from a farm by reading The Cow in Patrick O’Shanahan’s Kitchen and by working on source search lessons. Siouxland Ag in the Classroom also has a program called “Adopt-a-farmer”. Thirty classrooms across a five county region are paired with farmers. The farmers represent different aspects of agriculture including sheep, cattle, hogs and grain. Some classes went on field trips to their farmer’s operation or have plans to in the spring. Several farmers visited classrooms with examples of feedstuffs, cornstalks or soybean plants. In one instance the farmer brought a piglet for the students to see. Teachers and farmers work together to provide examples like how farmers use math on a daily basis.

October~ Jasper County Farm Bureau used Skype and an iPad to help students in Newton chat with a farmer about cover crops and Baxter Ag Day-2conservation. During the virtual fieldtrip, students were able to take a close-up look at cover crops planted near Prairie City and ask the farmer questions about what they saw. The teacher used IALF’s Iowa Ag Today to help her students learn more about conservation methods used by farmers. After the FarmChat students watched short video clips of moldboard plows and the vertical tillage tools of today. The students made “tillage brownies” to demonstrate how farming practices continue to change to protect the soil and for the class to enjoy!

November~ IALF held an Ag in the Classroom workshop for county contacts. There were 60 in attendance. It was a day filled with very positive examples of great things happening around the state. Attendees were thrilled to have the hands on learning to be able to share with their own communities. Great information, lessons plans and resources were shared and great connections were made.

~ Four classes of third grade students from Taft Elementary enjoyed a harvest tour on Nov. 3 at the Coleman farm west of Humboldt. Eighty-six students
visited the farm for a tour as part of their ‘Adopt-a-Farmer’ program. Participants were given several opportunities to learn about soybeans and corn. The students watched one of the farmers harvest corn with a combine and were able to pick their own ear of corn.

December~ IALF honored the 1st recipient of the Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award. John Seiser is a fifth and sixth grade teacher from 1797485_653063721425708_665726682248900771_nBlairsburg, Iowa. Seiser competed against other elementary, middle and high school teachers to earn the honor. Seiser regularly integrates agriculture into his classroom curriculum including science, math, social studies, reading and language. He involved the students in raising turkeys, creating compost, and exploring agriculture in Iowa history.

We are excited to see what plans are in the making for 2016. We hope that more individuals recognize the value and importance of agriculture literacy and join us in this journey of learning and sharing agriculture in Iowa. With that we say goodbye to 2015 and await new adventures in 2016.

– Sheri

Farming. Why do they do that?

As humans we have to consume food to survive. But why do we farm at all? Why can’t we just live off the land like our hunter/gatherer ancestors?

For thousands of years humans spent most of their lives searching for food – hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. Then around 11,000 years ago people began to settle down and gradually learned how to grow cereal crops (wheat, barley, oats, etc.) and root crops (potatoes, onions, etc.). People began to domesticate animals and raise them close to their settlements. hunter_gatherer_camp_near_Bletchingley__around_5000BC__WSmap_panel_

This domestication of plants and animals drastically changed the way humans lived their lives and gave rise to great cities and entire civilizations. Rice was one of the first crops domesticated. Sheep and goats were some of the first livestock to be domesticated. These animals have a calm disposition and a herd mentality making them ideal partners for humans. Later cattle were domesticated for labor purposes as well as meat and hides.

Cereal and root crops could be stored for months or even years and this provided a stable source of calories. The domestication of plants and animals allowed for more calories to be produced more efficiently. Fewer people were needed to produce food and could start to specialize. People not involved in food production could become involved other activities like art, music, government, trade, and craftsmanship. Trades developed and innovations in technology made leaps forward. Having cattle, sheep and other livestock close at hand also provided a number of by-products for these crafts and trades. Leather and wool were turned into clothing and much more.

This societal shift to agriculture provided huge benefits, but was not without costs. Living close to water sources with lots of humans and animals creating waste was not always sanitary. Wells and rivers were often sources of disease. Water had to be mixed with alcohol to kill bacteria and prevent illness (though germ theory hadn’t yet been discovered). Growing grains and root crops provided the necessary calories for humans to survive but the lack of variety in diet did create some health problems. Early agriculturists were known to be shorter in stature and have more health problems like lost teeth. (Fortunately modern agriculture and trade allows us rich diversity of food. Human health is arguably the best it has ever been with long life spans and diseases of old age rather than malnutrition.)

By approximately 2,000 years ago, much of the Earth’s population had become dependent on agriculture. Agriculture enabled people to produce surplus food. They could use this extra food when crops failed or trade it for other goods. Food surpluses allowed people to work at other tasks unrelated to farming.

Formerly nomadic people stayed near their fields and villages started sprouting up. These villages became linked through trade. New economies were so successful in some areas that cities grew and civilizations developed. The earliest civilizations were near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq and Iran and along the Nile River in Egypt.

For thousands of years, agriculture progressed slowly. One of the earliest agricultural tools was fire. Native Americans used fire to control the growth of berry-producing plants, which grew quickly after a wildfire. Farmers cultivated small plots of land by hand, using axes to clear away trees and digging sticks to break up and till the soil. Over time, improved farming tools of bone, stone, bronze, and iron were developed. New methods of storage evolved. People began stockpiling foods in jars and clay-lined pits for use in times of scarcity. They also began making clay pots and other vessels for carrying and cooking food.

Irrigation systems also evolved. Farmers could water fields based on the needs of the plants and not be dependent on the uncertainty of rain. Early farmers developed and improved varieties of plants. Seeds from the best producing plants from each year were saved and planted again the next season. Plants evolved alongside humans as humans selected for the most desirable traits. For example, the wheat that was most prized had large, plump heads and berries. The berries stayed on the head when harvesting so seeds weren’t lost before thrashing. The wheat plant was stronger than previous cereal grains. Its hulls were also easier to remove so the wheat could be made into bread.

Trade quickened the spread of these plant varieties and the spread of agriculture innovations and technology. New tools were developed. Techniques to preserve nutrients in the soil were spread to different cultures including leaving fields fallow and crop rotation.

31-plant-breeding-and-gm-technology-leaver-4-638Produce, food, spices that originated in one corner of the globe began to spread across the entire globe. Chickens and spices like pepper and nutmeg spread from Southeast Asia to Europe and beyond. Wheat and barley originating in the Middle East are now grown around the world. Maize (corn), squash, apples and turkeys that originated in the North America have become staples in many cultures. Potatoes and peppers that developed in South America are firmly now part of European and Asian cuisines alike. Coffee, tea, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, and tobacco are all examples of crops that originated in one small part of the globe but today are being consumed around the world.

World population has continued to increase more rapidly in the 20th century than at any other time in history. Global population is currently over 7 billion and it is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2045. Compare those numbers with the fact that world population was still under 2 billion in 1900. This increase in population requires more food to be produced with limited resources.

Innovation and science have been at the forefront of producing more food and agricultural products. Horse-drawn seed drills gave way to fully mechanized tractors which today can practically drive themselves with GPS guidance systems. Corn and other crops have been selected to produce more on fewer acres. Chickens grow faster thanks to better genetics and precise feed rations. Sheep have been selectively bred to produce higher quality meat and long, coarse wool. Advances in agriculture have made leaps and bounds to try and keep pace with the demand for a healthy, safe, and abundant food supply.

In the early 1900s, an average farmer in the U.S. produced enough food to feed a family of five. Many of today’s farmers can feed that family and 155 other people. This great leap came about because of scientific advances and new sources of power. Farmers now use machines in almost every stage of cultivation and livestock management. Electricity has been able to light farm buildings and power machinery like water pumps, milking machines, and feeding equipment.

Today’s farmers can also better protect their crops and livestock from pests and diseases to keep them healthy. Crop losses have declined dramatically. Fertilizers greatly increase the growth and production potential of crops and supplement the nutrients found in the soil.

Farming today is not the same trial and error system that it was. Scientists and researchers now use sophisticated techniques to make plants better. By modifying genes in some crops, scientists can select for traits that will improve yield and make farming better, easier, and more cost efficient and at the same time improve human health. Genes might make a plant more resistant to cold or might be more nutritious. Certain genes can help ward off insects or increase yield.

Agriculture and food production has been 10,000 years of trial and error. But today it is more refined than ever and that has led to a higher quality of life for you and me. So, why do we farm the way we do today? Because we’ve applied the best practices of the last 10,000 years. But there is always more that can be learned and we can always do more to help ensure that agriculture will be able to sustain us for another 10,000 years.


Feeding the Planet. Energy for Life.

ticketsWhen we think of Iowa agriculture we don’t often think about Iowa’s impact on the world stage. Iowa corn, soybeans, pork, eggs, and other products are shipped across the country and around the world. In fact, only three other countries in the world produce more corn that Iowa does. Iowa is second in the nation with gross farm cash receipts and that means that Iowa is a big player not only nationally, but internationally.

From May 1 to October 31, 2015, more than 140 countries will take part in the World Expo in Milan, Italy. More than 20 million people are expected to visit the Expo. The World’s Fair has always left a lasting architectural legacy (think Eiffel Tower, Seattle Space Needle, etc.). It has also long been a stalwart part of educating the public and this year will try to answer the question: “Is it possible to ensure sufficient, good, healthy and sustainable food for all mankind?”

We know Iowa is a major player in producing agriculture commodities. It is somewhat comforting to know that 145 other countries around the globe are considering many of the same issues we are.

  • flagsHow do we produce enough food for 7 billion people, a population that will grow to 9.6 billion by 2050?
  • How do we reduce food waste?
  • How do we improve access to food?
  • How can we ensure fair prices for food?
  • Can we redesign cities to ensure access to food?
  • How do we best promote healthy lifestyles?
  • How can we produce food in more efficient ways?
  • How do we reconnect production with consumption?grains
  • Can we understand the dynamic food production system and manage constantly changing relationships?

None of these are easy questions to answer. But, with a 145 countries around the world working on finding solutions I am energized by the possibility of group think. More than 200 conferences will be held during the expo relating to food policy and food science. They will address food safety, food waste, sustainable rural development and much more.

As I walked around the Expo in May, I saw exhibits that showcased a wide range of techniques for producing food. Other exhibits focused on the merits of small-scale farming, conventional farming, and genetic modification. The United States exhibit focused on technology and featured massive vertical gardens that doubled as ventilation for the building as the panels moved with the wind. Some countries focused on the issue of water scarcity and climate change. Other countries focused on top export commodities like rice, coffee, cocoa, cereals, fruits, or spices.

america2  vertical2

After spending a day at the World Expo I could only wonder… How will Iowa help lead agriculture production? And how will Iowa continue to be a leader in food and agriculture policy?


In Awe of Agriculture

DSC_6742Last week was an exciting week for the Iowa Ag Literacy Foundation and for Ag in the Classroom programs across the state. We partnered with county Farm Bureaus to offer four professional development workshops for teachers. During the two-day experience teachers visited farms, grain elevators, implement dealers, and agribusinesses to learn first-hand about modern agriculture and see the STEM connections in the field. They did hands-on science experiments, explored language arts teaching strategies using agriculture books, and began developing lessons to help connect their students with agriculture while teaching math, science, social studies, and language arts.

DSC_6940The teachers attending the workshops were diverse. The majority were elementary teachers, but a few secondary science, math, social studies, and agriculture teachers were in the mix too. As we did introductions on the first day, one common theme emerged. Nearly every teacher had a connection to agriculture. Many of them grew up on farms or are currently involved in a family farming operation. It was obvious that these teachers already understood the value of agriculture and wanted to share that message with their students.

DSC_6888Positioned in the back of each workshop room was a giant sticky board we call a Wonder Wall. Teachers were encouraged to post questions they have about agriculture, ideas for using what they learned in their classroom, and “Wow! Moments” that stuck them. A “Wow! Moment” could be a simple surprising fact mentioned during a tour or an eye-opening epiphany about agriculture and education.

After finishing the whirl-wind week of workshops, I sat at my desk Friday afternoon and read what teachers wrote on the Wonder Wall. The Wow! Moments were the most profound. Nearly all of them focused on a realization they had about agriculture that hit them during the workshops. A few themes emerged. Teachers were wowed by innovation, opportunity, reliance, and commitment.

Their Wow! Moments didn’t completely surprise me because after all, agriculture is pretty amazing. However, I didn’t expect so many big-picture realizations about agriculture to develop from this group. Remember, nearly all of the teachers participating in the workshops already had an interest in and knowledge of agriculture.

This opened my eyes to the fact that we often don’t see what is right in front of us. We know that agriculture is high-tech, expensive, and innovative. We know that the jobs in it are abundant and diverse. We know that farmers love what they do and are committed to protecting the animals, land, and resources that support them. But what we often forget is that we need to share these things that we know with others.
I’ve been thinking about their Wow! Moments for the last week and will leave you with a few that are representative of those shared by these inspired and dedicated teachers.

career wow“The lady at the dairy was amazing. You could tell she loved what she was doing and truly cares for the well-being of the cows.”

“I was blown-away with the technology I saw today. So cool that Agrivision can see some problems [with equipment] before the farmer can and be able to contact the farmer to let them know and keep them in the field.”

“It was really cool to see the inside of the big pig barn. I’ve always wanted to walk up to one and take a peek inside but have never had the opportunity. I was amazed with all farmers do to keep the pigs safe from disease/contamination.”

“I did not realize how many jobs we had for people right here in our local area. We need to expose our learners from an early age.”

“Agriculture provides so much more than food. I am amazed with the many products made with items grown on farms.”

Now it’s your turn. What “Wows” you about agriculture?

– Cindy