Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hot wheels, chilly morning, warming words

'Twas Christmas morning at our house. We make a special request to the Big Man to make a special drop off a few days early at our house. He graciously complies.

I heard the first footsteps making their way down the hallway towards the Christmas tree at five minutes past six o'clock. "He came. Santa came," were the whispers that followed. Precious.

I had programmed my coffee pot to begin brewing at fifteen minutes past six o'clock. The present opening proceeded at sixteen minutes past six o'clock.

Thank goodness we open presents from youngest to oldest, because Nell had already begun to unwrap her presents at this point. And although the present situation looks a bit skimpy, scroll down to see the over-sized and under-priced goodies Santa left behind in the garage. (Santa worked miracles with the prices he paid for these gently used wheels.)

I insisted we wait until exactly ten o'clock this morning to take the first test drive, because by then the temperature was 25 degrees. Perfect weather for cruising around the yard.

I realized boys must come from the womb knowing how to drive anything. Tucker expertly maneurved around the yard; Noah crashed into three bushes and completely demolished a plastic Sesame Street scooter parked by the shed.

The power wheels were chilling fun for the kids, but I was most eager to give Brent a special present. I tried something new this year and wrote him a poem. I printed it off at home, found an old mat, repainted an old frame, and wrapped it up.

The inspiration came two weeks ago as I was recovering from hip surgery. The kids were away at Grandma's house, leaving Brent here to help me get around. It's rare these days we have any time alone, and somewhere amidst my pain I found inspiration.

The gift was a semi-success. First, it got lost in the excitement over the kids' toys. Secondly, he thought I found the poem online and printed it off. After a third read, he thought it was perhaps insulting. By the fourth read, and lengthy explanation, I think he sensed the sincerity.

I'll let you decide for yourself...

Sometimes it's hard to see the man behind the daddy
Tangled up with our toddlers
Hidden in a game of you can't find me

Sometimes it's hard to see the husband for the father
Lost in a game of t-ball
Or up to his elbows in bath water

Sometimes it's hard to see the spouse for the provider
Buried in a job
Forgoing his own desire

But today I caught a glimpse of the man I've missed
His humor, sport, love, support

My eyes were lost to a place years ago
Where I took that first step as God whispered, let go

Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I don't do Bunco

I don't play Bunco.

Never been much of a game player, really. Unless, the game involved a ball, a court, and the chance to push around that girl from a few miles down the road whose blond, bouncy pony tail made me crazy. Then, I guess you could say, I was a bit of a game player.

Board games. Dice games. Gambling. Just not my sport.

And since the opportunities to lay a solid "box out" on a blond nemesis are slim post thirty, I choose to steer clear of the game playing scene.

Instead, I put in a few hours once a month on the local economic development board. A far reach from my preferred sport, but an investment of time that goes much further than a victory at the end of the night.

I just returned home from said meeting. Four women; counting an honorary high school board member. Eight men. Yours truly holds the gavel. Sometimes I think they - the old men - look right through me; and other times I consider rapping the gavel on their gray matter.

Tonight, the agenda covered a variety of topics, but none so compelling as a new wind farm development set to unfold in the northwest portions of the county.

At present, the largest wind farm in the state sits atop the northeastern townships of our county. The project discussed tonight, would become number two in the state.

The development of wind energy here - on the open Kansas prairie - didn't easily sweep across the Plains. It was welcomed by some. It remains unforgiven by others.

Someday, when the winds have settled, I will tell stories about the biggest wind farm development on the Kansas prairie. I was fresh out of college, and my first job gave me a front row seat for all that unfolded in this great story. Lasting impressions of how I have come to further understand the prairie, the rancher, farmer, Kansas, energy, government, private development, and the endless ways our lives, and livelihoods, are tumbled together.


For now, my role as a volunteer board member no longer affords me a front row seat. But I remain informed, engaged, and have the opportunity to impact decisions and actions for those in the front row.

That's a helluva lot more than a night out at Bunco will get ya.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

D is for Dairy Products

The kids are back in school. Well, maybe yours are. We have one last year to refrain from all the "busy-ness" that real school brings. A final cherished year with all three babies at home. That's how I'm choosing to see this "school year."

Any-hoo...if kids are back in school, that means kids are eating school lunches. And if kids are eating school lunches, that means they are probably drinking school milk. Well, you hope they are drinking milk anyway, right? Right.

And you hope they are learning new things. Addition, prepositions, boyfriend aquisition; among other things.

So now would be a good time for us, too, to pull up a chair, get a glass of cold, creamy milk, and learn some new things.

Like this, for instance - Two years ago the "urban" population on planet Earth surpassed the "rural" population. Not a big surprise for us in rural Kansas. We know our state's small population of 2.8 million is concentrated in just five of our 105 counties. (Thank you to my newest Kansas Farm Bureau magazine for this insight.)

And we also know this - milk comes from cows. Dairy cows to be specific. Usually the black and white kind, you know, the tall, leggy, large bosom-ed kind.

Which we means we most definitely know that Chick-Fil-A uses a dairy animal to encourage you to "eat more chicken." A confusing message. Enough said.

And we know that the Nickelodeon movie Barnyard portrays a male dairy cow with an udder. Cute movie. Another very confusing message.

So if the folks at Chick-Fil-A (food making people for dang's sake) and Nickelodeon can't get it right; we know we have some work to do with that growing urban segment.

Let's start with dairy products. Dairy products are derived from milk. And milk is produced by these momma cows.

(Side note...Dairy Farming Today has produced these great videos available on You Tube. My kiddos and I enjoyed watching and learning!)

Today, there are over 9.3 million producing dairy cows spread out over 67,000 dairy farms. That makes a national average of 138 cows per farm; sounds pretty good. But that's only half the truth. The dairy industry has seen huge consolidation in recent history - 15 years ago there were twice that many dairy farms in the United States.

While there is an educated, economics-based reason for this, I'll give you my own "mommy interpretation."

The kids and I visited the Meng Dairy Farm in Troy, KS this summer. (Many thanks for Fred and Norman for their hospitality! My camera batteries crashed when we got there. Of course.) The Meng brothers milk about 100 cows, twice a day, every day. Each milking takes about three hours start to finish. That's six hours per day spent just milking. Six hours. And we haven't accounted for everything else that goes into taking care of the cows, calves, and ensuring a feed supply for them. All that work to support two families. And I said support them; not elevate them to wealth.

I don't really care what economics has to say about dairy industry consolidation; spending six hours a day, every day of the year in a milk barn to work to support a family says enough.

You can see why dairy farm numbers are dwindling, while herd sizes and farm sizes are growing.

US dairy cows produce, on average, 20,576 pounds of milk per year. That doesn't mean much to me - I need a visual.

That's much better. A gallon of milk weighs about 8 pounds. (The milk industry technically says 8.6 lbs/gallon.) That would mean an average US dairy cow produces 6.5 gallons of milk each day. Impressive. To produce that much milk, a dairy cow will consume 100 pounds of feed and 50 gallons of water each day.

Want to know what's more impressive? At any given time, a dairy cow's udder can hold up to 50 pounds of milk. (This former lactater just doubled over in pain.)

Cows are milked in a special barn called a milking parlor. Cows enter individual stalls, have their udders cleaned and examined, and then are hooked up to a milking machine. Works just like a breast pump, ladies.

The milk goes directly from the machine into either a bulk tank or a large truck. On a small farm, such as Meng Dairy, the milk will be stored in a bulk tank until it is hauled away by a truck every 2-3 days to a processing plant. The milk is kept cool and is gently stirred to prevent the milk and the cream from separating. On larger, commercial scale dairies, the milk is pumped directly onto a large tanker truck with a cooling unit. Once full, the truck goes directly to a processing facility.

Farmers are paid for their milk based on every 100 pounds sold. The price is established in the commodity markets at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The current price for commodity milk is $15.95 per 100 pounds. Current retail milk prices are about $3.29 per gallon. That means a farmer's share of a gallon of milk is about $1.37. The remaining $1.92 goes to processing, transportation and retail.

At the processing facility, the milk is pasteurized and homogenized. Pasteurization means the milk is heated to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for not more than 15 seconds then cooled rapidly. This process removes any harmful pathogens present in the milk. Homogenization is the mechanical process of breaking up and evenly distributing fat throughout the milk. Without this important step, the cream would rise to the top.

Check out the label on the gallon of milk in your fridge. More than likely, it says "pasterized, homogenized and fortified." What's the fortified part all about?

Milk is fortified with Vitamins D and A. Why? Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. Since this vitamin is seldom present in any other foods, 98% of fluid milk contains this vitamin. Vitamin A is also added because during the process of removing the fat from the milk to make your preferred variety - 2%, 1%, or whole - this vitamin is stripped away. Read this for more information.

A mechanical separation process produces the different varieties of milk. And today, thanks to modern food production techniques, various mechanical processes also help produce some of our favorite dairy products - cheese, yogurt, butter, cream, and ice cream.

Organic is a favorite word in today's "foodie movement." Should you consider organic milk for your family? Certified organic milk refers specifically to the milk production techniques. The cows cannot be treated with antibiotics, cannot be administered BGH (bovine growth hormone), their feed must meet National Organic Standards for fertilizers and pesticides, and they must have access to pasture grazing. According to all research to date, organic and traditional milk have no differences in terms of quality, nutrition and safety. The biggest difference? Price. Up to double that of traditional milk. This article and this information can help you make up your own mind about organic milk.

And what about those hormones? About 25% of cows in the US are treated with BGH to stimulate milk production. The hormone occurs naturally in cows, and some dairy farmers administer BGH to their cows to boost production.

Let's remember what' most important here, mommies. Milk is a super food. A one cup serving of milk provides more than 10% of the daily recommended intake of calcium, Vitamin D, protein, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin and phosphorus. Kids age 2-8 should have two cups of milk each day; ages 9-18 should have three. And, kids who eat school lunch drink more milk than those who don't. You may also find it interesting that yogurt and cheese do not count toward the milk serving requirements for school lunch. And, chocolate or flavored milk is better than no milk at all. An eight-ounce serving of low-fat flavored milk contains an additional four teaspoons of sugar, compared six or seven teaspoons in an equivalent serving of juice or soda.

Here's hoping you and your kiddos are getting all the milk you need, and just a bit extra for some special "ice cream" moments like these...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer fun

What happens when you let the kiddos decide how to dress and what to play...

I am not singing because I really like that song. I'm simply helping Noah learn the words. (Wink, wink.)

If we can forget about dishes, laundry, and a messy house for a moment, and let the kids run wild with their imagination, such fun can happen.

Have a great summer day!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost in Translation

While saying our bedtime prayers a few evenings ago, Noah said she wanted to say prayers like we do in church, "Like the Mary one, Mama."

So the next night I suggested we begin with the Our Father. It's a part of every Mass, so I thought that would be a great place to get started.

"Repeat after me," I said. "Our Father,"

Noah, smiling sheepishly, "Our Father."

"Who art in heaven," I continued.

"Who aren't in heaven,"

Well, that's pretty close. I laughed out loud, paused to get my composure, and moved right along,

"Hallowed be thy name..."

Friday, May 7, 2010

C is for Corn

Making a trip to the grocery store today? Then the chance you'll come home with an item containing corn are quite good. In fact, a typical grocery store contains over 4,000 items, or nearly 75% of all its products, with corn in some processed form listed in the ingredients. Of course we're talking about corn flakes, but also beer, breads, paper products and even your cosmetics. And don't forget your meat - more than likely, that animal consumed corn at some point in its lifetime.

Before you head to your pantry to start reading labels, stay with me to learn a bit more about how that corn made its way into your pantry so prolifically.

I want to assume that you know corn is annual plant and that the kernels of corn we eat or process grow from the ears on said plant. However, after a strange encounter in college during a trip to a leadership conference, I no longer make such assumptions.

A number of years ago, I was sitting on a bus next to a seemingly bright young lady studying at MIT. She was some sort of a biological engineering major - studying news ways to use plants and biological products. By this time, my "state university major in agricultural economics" wasn't holding water. Then she asked me about what was growing in the fields outside our bus window. We were traversing Illinois, and now feeling like I actually had something to offer to the conversation, I quickly replied, "Corn." To which she replied, "Really? I thought corn grew on trees and came back every year."

My state university education just became priceless.

To set the record straight - corn is an annual plant that grows 7-10 feet tall and is supported by a strong root system. A tassel grows from the top of the stalk and contains hundreds of pollen producing flowers. This pollen must come in contact with the ears' silks - long threads connected to each kernel - in order to produce a kernel of corn.

Corn is planted annually in the springtime - usually mid to late April - and corn acres are concentrated in the Corn Belt. Think the "I" states - Iowa, Illinois, Indiana. Throw in Nebraska and Minnesota and you'll have the majority of US corn production. Kansas ranks 8th nationally, but our production is a mere quarter of what Iowa can produce.

Conventional corn production requires an application of Nitrogen and Phosphorous to the fields just before planting. Corn, by nature, requires a readily available supply of Nitrogen in the soil. Weeds can be managed with an application of a herbicide. As no-till farming gains popularity - a practice of making fewer trips over the fields to cultivate weeds by allowing plant material to remain on the ground thus reducing soil erosion, holding water, and preventing weed emergence - farmers are using fewer herbicides. Herbicide and pesticide use has also decreased thanks to the technologies of genetically modified seed hybrids. Specifically, Bt corn (corn borer eats this corn plant and dies) and Round-Up Ready Corn (can spray weeds with Round-Up without killing the corn) are leading the way in reducing chemical applications.

Organic corn production uses manure, nitrogen fixation through using legumes in the crop rotation, and other sources such as cottonseed meal, blood meal, fish meal and feather meal to supply nitrogen. Other fertilizer needs are supplied through lime or other rock minerals. Weeds and pests are managed through a more extensive crop rotation system, in addition to other approved methods. For example, pests can be managed by introducing other types of pests to feed on the problem pest or by "feeding" the pest a (natural) product that will kill it. Weeds can be controlled though cultivation - passing over the field with a implement designed to "rip" the weeds from ground without harming the corn plant.

Organic production comprised 21% of the 2008 crop and returned premiums to the producer 20-50% higher than conventional corn. These premiums also result in higher prices at the grocery store. Why? Organic production has inherently higher production costs - more extensive crop rotation systems cause farmers to skip a cash crop growing season, it takes more acres to produce the same amount of corn, it involves more passes over the field, more intensive labor, and a carefully monitored processing system so that organic corn is not contaminated with conventional corn.

As of November 2009, organic corn was selling for $6.00 per bushel, its conventional counterpart, $3.96. A box of corn flakes contains less than a nickel's worth of corn.

In 2008, total US corn production was about 12 billion bushels. Here's what happened once that corn left the farm gate:

  • 0.2% - Seed for next year's crop
  • 1.6% - Food - Americans eat 120 million bushels of processed corn. My hubby thinks corn tortilla chips are a staple in his diet.
  • 2% - Starch - for thickening foods and use in biodegradable plastics
  • 30% - Ethanol
  • 4% - Corn sweeteners, such as High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • 44.4% - Livestock feed
  • 14.6% - Exports
  • 1.5% - Ending stocks, providing supply in the event of a poor crop year
What about sweet corn? Well, my friend Tera, over at Food for Thought, did some excellent research on sweet corn. Check this out! And at this time, I need to give credit to the excellent work my father-in-law and his sweet corn raising pals do each year with their sweet corn. Thanks to them, my kids will no longer eat any other kind of corn except their sweet, homegrown variety.

Oh, and what about popcorn? It's primarily grown in the northern Missouri and southern Iowa portion of the Corn Belt. Popcorn is an excellent high-fiber snack for you and your kiddos (if you can skimp on the salt and butter), and I fully recommend using a popper like this. You'll never go back to the microwave variety.

Corn processing involves one of two methods: wet milling or dry milling. Wet milling soaks the corn and then separates the components to yield starch, sweeteners and fermentation products. Dry milling removed the germ and the fiber, and then uses the starch and the protein to yield grits, corn meal and corn flour.

And now for the "bigger picture."

Is US corn production subsidized by the federal government?

Yes. Why? Because food production is risky business (think volatile to the weather), food security is important to a modern society, and these policies help to guarantee a world market for US production. Other countries, especially those in the European Union, heavily subsidize their production. (The Common Agriculture Policy in the EU represents 43 percent of the EU budget compared to 0.63 percent of the US federal budget. That does not include nutrition funding, which makes up 75 percent of farm bill funding. Nutrition has a different budget line.) Until they agree to level the playing field, the US is forced to implement WTO (World Trade Organization) compliant policies such as direct payments, counter-cyclical payments, the ACRE program and crop insurance. (Thanks to my sister, Mary, a belt-way insider, for the stats!)

Is corn produced for ethanol taking food away from hungry people?

No. Remember, we only eat a small percentage of the field corn produced in the way of processed foods (corn meal, cereals, chips). The majority of US corn exports go to feed livestock in developed countries. Additionally, new demand for corn is being met with increased supply, and farmers are doing that on fewer acres. In the past ten years, corn acres grew by 22%, but total yield grew by 40%.

Is sugar healthier than High Fructose Corn Syrup?

HFCS has a bit of an image problem these days. Read this for more information, but in the mean time, remember what the commerical has to say, "HFCS, just like sugar, is fine in moderation and as part of a balanced diet and active lifestyle."

All in all, corn is a pretty amazing commodity. One you'll certainly think differently about the next time you pick up a box of corn flakes.

How's that for an "ear" full about corn? If you have more questions, let me know. I have many more kernels of information to share with you!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day Egg-stravaganza

Happy Earth Day! I know it may be hard to believe that a rural, conservative, meat-eating, Midwest mommy with agricultural roots is earth-conscious, but, we're trying to beat the stereotype around here. Thanks to two strong parental examples - my mom, a devoted recycler, and my dad, a conservation-minded agriculturalist - being earth friendly comes quite naturally.

I recycle everything my local recycling center will take. (I wash it, show the kids how to sort it into bins in the garage and then my husband lovingly hauls it to the center. Isn't he sweet?) We put all of our table scraps into a compost pile which we use to fill our flower pots in the springtime. I rewash plastic baggies (most of the time). And I recently gave up the Swiffer mopping pads in exchange for old towels cut to fit the mop.

Not trying to brag here; just want to make sure ya'all know that recycling and reusing are second nature to us "rural folks." It's simply doing the things our parents and grandparents have always done - live conservatively and be conscientious of your impact on Mother Nature.

Today, I took another step to "plant the seed" of this same lifestyle within my children. In honor of Earth Day, we started an herb garden from seed using recycled egg cartons and a re-used plastic flat from a greenhouse.

My mom - always one to suggest creative educational endeavors - thought we should create a worm farm for my kitchen. I opted for the herb garden. Worm farming was too much for even this farm girl.

The kids were helpful and enthusiastic about our endeavor today. They were messy, of course, but they were really excited about their project. Noah was even roaming about the yard afterwards signing a made-up song about Rosemary.

I hope you and your family found a special way to celebrate Earth Day, but more importantly, I hope you find ways to live your life each day cognizant about your impact on the Earth. Afterall, that's the way farmers, ranchers, and rural women spend every day.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

B is for Beef

Beef - it's more than just dinner around our house.

According to my mother, "cow" was my first word.

It was also the first word of my oldest daughter and son. (Surely not because we read hundreds of cow books and farm books.)

Some of my favorite childhood memories involve bucket calves and the sale barn.

My kids now love to feed the cows with grandpa every chance they get.

Tucker prays for the cows each night.

And prefers magazines about cows and beef production over standard children's books.

Their father relishes a ribeye in the same manner I devour brownies.

Cows - cattle - are part of my heritage; key to my family's livelihood.

They are our tradition - something I hope to pass along to my children.

And for the rest of America, beef is what's for dinner. Or more specifically, 53% of America's meat dollar goes to beef and 80% of individuals consume fresh beef an average of 1.6 times per week. (You could say we do slightly better than that around here.)

Yet there's a segment of America working hard to get beef off your dinner table. They are telling you beef (and almost all animal) production is inhumane, that cattle are pumped up on antibiotics and hormones, and that cows are the leading cause of greenhouse gases.

The Potted Goose is here to clarify a few things for you; shed light on the realities of US beef production; and help you to look forward to summer barbeques as a way to showcase your "average American tendency to prefer beef on the grill." (Will someone get me a margarita? I'm already excited!)

Let's begin with a baby calf. After all, it's springtime and these adorable little guys and gals are running and jumping across the Kansas prairies as we speak.

There are about 97 million of these cuties - mommies, daddies and cousins included - running around the US presently. The majority of them - 79% - are born on small, family farms whose cattle herd numbers 50 or less. Cattle and beef production is the largest segment of American agriculture and is concentrated in the Plains states. Even more interesting, there are about 6 million cattle and calves in the state of Kansas compared to 2.8 million people. There are almost three times as many beef animals in Kansas as there are people. (I knew I liked living here!)

Calves weigh between 60-100 pounds at birth and remain on the farm and on pastures with their mothers until weaning at 450-700 pounds. At this point, depending on the size of the calf, some may go to a backgrounder or stocker where they will continue to graze and put on weight. Others, will be sold at auction and moved to a feedlot. Cattle spend about four-six months at a feedlot, until they reach 1,200-1,400 pounds or reach 18-22 months of age.

During their short time in the feedlot, cattle are provided clean water and given rations balanced by a nutritionist. They are provided adequate room to move and exercise, and their health is monitored by a veterinarian.

The Beef Quality Assurance program is providing guidelines for proper management techniques at all levels of production. Over 90% of US cattle production is influenced by this program.

Once the cattle are "finished," they are transferred to a processing facility for harvest. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors are stationed in all federally inspected packing plants and oversee the implementation of safety, quality and animal welfare standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped to retail and foodservice establishments for consumers to purchase. My husband - a former member of a junior college meat's judging team (think prime or choice beef...somebody has to make that determination) - has had the pleasure of working inside one of these facilities. He would be happy to answer your more specific questions about the inner workings of a packing plant.

Processed beef is then sold to your retailer as "boxed beef." These are larger cuts of beef, such as the loin, which are then cut into steaks at your local grocer. Ground beef can be ground at the processing facility or at your local retailer.

And this is where you and I - Vice Presidents' for Groceries - come in to play. We make our meal plans for the week and head to the grocery store. Sloppy joe's on Tuesday, steaks on the grill for Friday. Ground beef and sirloin steaks have made the list. Let's say for the sake of this example, we made this trip in February. Then we would have paid $2.28 / lb for the ground beef and $5.42 for the steaks, for a total of $7.70 for our beef for the week. (Side note on ground beef. What does 80-20 mean? 80% meat, 20% fat. The higher the meat component, the more costly per pound, yet healthier for you.)

You may notice, as you walk away from the meat department, that chicken prices are on average lower than the beef prices. You ponder the cheaper chicken for a moment, and then realize the look on your husband's face when you produce chicken breasts instead of sirloin for Friday night's festivities. Ooohh...not good. Moving right along.

But, I'm trying to help make you a smarter shopper. So here are the facts behind the price differences in chicken and beef:

  • Beef prices averaged $3.89/lb in 2009, chicken $1.78
  • A slaughter ready steer weighs 1,200 lbs and takes 4-6 months to finish, a chicken 8 lbs and is finished after 6-7 weeks on feed
  • Cattle need 6 lbs of feed to gain 1 pound, chicken 2 lbs of feed per pound of gain
It simply costs more and takes longer to feed a steer from 600 pounds at weaning to 1,200 pounds at slaughter than it does to put 6 pounds of gain on to a chicken.

So what are you getting for your dollar? A nutrient rich, satisfying, pleasing food for your family. Beef is especially plentiful in iron, a nutrient necessary, and often found deficient, for children and pregnant women.

And finally, about all those folks trying to get beef off your dinner plate. Let's remember a few things. The entire US ag sector accounts for only 6% of US Greenhouse gas emissions. Antibiotics are used to treat infection, however, absolutely no meat can be sold in violation of FDA standards for residuals. And hormones - or growth promotants - increase an animal's ability to convert feed to pounds of gain, thereby reducing the amount of feed necessary to finish a beef animal. Hormones must also follow strict FDA standards.

But you have choices. Grass-fed, natural and organic beef products represent a growing market segment of beef production. Just remember - these production techniques have inherently higher costs and those costs will be passed on to you at the grocery store.

Whew, that's a lot of (bull) information. And there's so much more. I think we'll have to visit the letter B again. Or Chuck roast, Ground beef, Hamburger, Steak, Ribeyes...all this talk about applying beef to the letter of the alphabet makes me hungry. Fire up the grill, babe! It's dinner time!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A is for Apple

Mommy to 4 year old daughter: Do you know where apples come from?

4 year old daughter to mommy: The store.

And just like that, the ABC's of Agvocacy is underway. Seems my subjects are prime for information absorption about the sources of their food. And, I know the timing couldn't be better for all of us mommies - VP's for Groceries - to pay more attention to where our food comes from.

My background is that of a conventional agriculture and livestock production operation. And today, those systems are extremely scrutinized. I won't point fingers, but I will take action. While agriculture has made great strides in capacity for production over the past fifty years, we have failed to tell our story.

So this is my way of helping the message to get out. First, to help mommies make more informed choices. Secondly, to make sure my kids don't become part of the problem. (And thirdly, to give me something else to think about when the mess, the laundry and the whining make me want to eat everything chocolate in sight.)

Our project begins with apples. Appropriately. My roots are in Doniphan County, Kansas - the most northeastern county in the state. A county that was once rich in orchards, especially in the eastern half.

In fact growing up, my best friend's family was in the apple orchard business. I remember playing in endless rows of apple trees, climbing tree after tree, and looking awestruck at the thousands of apples stored in the warehouse.

That's me perched about halfway up the tree. And that's my little brother standing below me on the ground - stuck inside a gray sweatshirt. (He did manage to get out of that sweatshirt and make quite a successful life for himself.)

Today, the orchards are mostly gone. Soybeans and corn now occupy the land once home to the orchards. Why? A number of reasons. Many of the orchards were located in the flood plains of the Missouri River. Significant floods - and diseases carried in those flood waters - wiped out many of the orchards. The orchards in more northern states such as New York and Washington enjoyed a climate more suitable to apple production, and it eventually became cheaper to grow apples in those states and ship them to Kansas. And lastly, orchards are extremely labor intensive. Apple production requires a minimum of 100 hours of labor per acre per year, compared to 3 or less hours to produce wheat. Fruit growers simply couldn't bear the burden of labor any longer.

Apples are still grown in every state in the United States, yet grown commercially in 36 states. Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, California and Virginia are the top producers. Approximately 7,500 apple growers managed orchards covering 379,000 acres in 2005.

Apple orchards are time intensive. Trees take 2-4 years before they reach maturity and are able to produce fruit. Tree must be pruned in the winter, blossoms managed in the spring, pests managed and grass mowed in the summer, and apples finally harvested in the fall. Because apples bruise easily, they are usually harvested by hand.

Two thirds of conventional apple orchards use integrated pest management - balancing pesticide use with cultural, mechanical and biological means of controlling pests. Most pesticides are removed or are inactive long before they reach your table.

Organic production does not use pesticides or chemicals to control pests, however this production is even more labor intensive and requires numerous naturally occuring agents for pest control, thus resulting in higher retail prices. Practices such as using Borax to control pests and painting tree trunks with latex paint to prevent borer attacks are considered acceptable organic practices. Organic apple production accounted for 4% of total apple production in 2007.

As of last week, Red Delicious apples are selling for $1.21 / lb retail in the Midwest; their organic counterparts for $1.49 / lb.

Apple growers, and other fruit and nut producers, are not eligible for commodity support programs from the federal government. However marketing programs, crop insurance and disaster assistance, protection against pests and diseases, export promotion, research, and domestic food assistance (nutrition programs) do serve to enhance the domestic fruit market and production.

And so in my household three basic tenets have been established:

1. Apples grow on trees.
2. Apple farms are called orchards. (This is a challenging word for a 4 year old.)
3. Apples come in different colors and varieties.

And let's not forget, apples are a tasty and nutritious snack. Some say the Gala apple is great for kids because of it's mild, sweet flavor and thin skin.

Thanks for tuning in. Be looking for beef and bovine information coming before long!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Reinventing the Potted Goose

I made a new year's resolution to do a better job of keeping my blog site up do date. Now that three month's have passed, I guess I'll get started!

Seriously, though, I have been feeling a big unsatisfied with my blog. It seems like my stories are not much different that those already told by other, more dedicated mommy bloggers. You know, the stories about Noah washing the bathroom mirror with Febreeze; Nell reaching for yuckies in the toilet and Tucker wearing the same basketball shorts day in and day out.

So, I'm launching a new project next week. In an effort to satisfy my craving to write, a need to satiate my interest in educating mommies about where their food comes from, and to involve my kids in some sort of an educational pursuit, I'm devoting 26 posts to the ABC's of Agvocacy. Stay tuned for more.

But for now, here's a glimpse at our life over the last several weeks.

Remember how I said "I don't do princess." Well, Noah does. And she does it quite well. She paraded around in this gid-up for days - her new Easter shoes, the dress I wore to our rehearsal dinner, the vail from my bachellorette party and the tiara I wore as the Doniphan County Fair Princess. (No laughing. It was a really big deal - for about twenty minutes.)

The green rhetro chair makes this whole picture look rhetro. I actually took the photograph just a few days ago. The girls were doting their latest spring fashions, and I thought they were just as cute as bugs!

Ouch! Nell encountered her first significant boo-boo. She was trying to stand-up in the neighbor's drive way the way toddlers do - going to standing from a squating position. Her weight went too far forward and her head met the concrete before her hands.

And here's the boy - with his loot from the Easter Egg Hunt. Seems he has been left out in all this pretty girl business. No worries. He makes sure the family spends plenty of time building barns for the cows and playing basketball.

The crew following the Easter Egg Hunt. There was waaayyy too much excitement going on to pose for a picture.

"ECCO" ladies and I after we finished setting up for the Easter Egg Hunt just before hundreds of kids showed up to hunt goodies. These gals are a pleasure to work with - smart, capable, and fun to be with!

Oh yes, soccer. Noah's debut into the wide world of sports. Given her history of starring as the princess, cheerleader and damsel in distress, I was quite pleased with the level of execution at her inaugural game. Her little brother, however, thinks it just plain stinks that he has to endure two years of practice before he can enter the game.

For now, have a Happy and Blessed Easter!

And, come back next week for fun pictures and great information about the food you feed your family!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

They actually published it!

I am humbled by American Maggie's gesture to publish my article. And I'm pleased to have done "my small part" to tell agriculture's story to the bigger world.

On a lighter note, I'm giving thanks today for the sunshine and near 60 degree weather. And I'm giving thanks that I have almost made it through the long winter without needing medication. When we turned the clocks back last fall, I didn't think I could make it cooped up for months with three kids in this house. Isn't the promise of a new day divine??

Monday, March 1, 2010

Driving Trucks

(Wrote this piece hoping for publication on a national, conservative women's blog site. I'll let you know how that goes.)

Here in the
Midwest, we drive trucks. Everyone – well, almost everyone – drives a truck. And not because it’s a matter of style; rather, it’s a matter of necessity.

We haul hay bales and feed to the livestock. We pull trailers and implements. We haul fuel to the fields. We haul buckets and bags of seed and fencing supplies and tires and produce to the farmer’s market. Besides, how else would the high school football team get down Main Street for the Homecoming parade? And where would our dogs ride?

Our farmers drive them, of course. But so do our lawyers, teachers, politicians and bankers. Again, not for fashion, but function.

Out here, you see, we are part of a growing minority. We are – or are very closely connected to – the remaining 3% of our country’s population who are the food producers. We grow the wheat, corn and soybeans, and we raise the cattle, pigs and chickens that help to feed our nation.

But for the remaining 97% of our country, truck driving and wheat farming are becoming quite foreign. In fact, it has gone so far that it seems food producers and food consumers no longer speak the same language.

Even I fall into that guilty “consumer” column. My husband and I were just debating in the kitchen the other day about the difference in brown sugar and white sugar. I didn’t know where brown sugar came from. What I did know was that brown sugar is more popular among the “eat-healthy” advocates. But, even I didn’t know if brown sugar came from beets or cane, or how the sugar was refined and processed. (I have since done my homework.)

So it begs the question: If I, Kansas farm-girl, don’t know about the sources of food I use every day, how can those in more urban places, and those generations-removed from the farm, be expected to know and understand where their food comes from?

The gap is widening. The disconnect between producer and consumer, rural and urban is growing. And if we continue on the present course, our voice may be lost for good. Lost to an urban consumer whose food choices are en vogue, yet who lack a full understanding of how that food made the trek from farm to table and who may be unaware of how weather, world markets and politics played into the choices available to them at the grocery store.

What to do?

We can start by simply telling our story. The tools at our fingertips, literally at our fingertips, can put us in touch with that other 97% in nanoseconds. To a fault, we have been slower to adapt to the latest in Internet and social media technology. And beyond that, we’re still waiting for broadband service to reach every corner of my state. That’s not an excuse, just an admission of fact. But for those with access, the tools exist to make our story heard instantly.

But even telling the story can be a big leap for our truck-driving culture. People simply tend to be a bit more quiet in this middle section of the country, and furthermore, all those tied to the agricultural industry.

The best farmers and ranchers I know are humble, quiet, and devoted to the land and animals they serve. They tend to their soil while honoring the generations who have gone before them and preserving the land for future generations. Ranchers, livestock producers, dairymen and women, all care for their animals and see to their well being before taking care of themselves.

Yet, there is energy growing behind an anti-animal agriculture movement. And livestock producers have found themselves on the defensive, and a bit unprepared for the far-slinging tactics of a bigger, louder, angrier agenda. Energy continues to grow in the conventional agriculture versus organic agriculture debate. On the surface, organic production seems the gentle victor. But do consumers fully understand the production practices behind organic foods enough to justify paying premium prices?

So you should expect the volume to be turned up on the stories coming from the production sector. And you should expect to hear stories about men and women passionate about producing food; and stories of communities and families working so hard to preserve a rural culture; and of people who honor the land and respect the animals because it’s the right thing to do and because it also happens to make good business-sense. And you should listen. As the mother and chief-grocery-getter in my household, I intend to listen. I would prefer to hear about my food from its source; not from an exaggerated story spun in an urban office building.

Beyond growing soybeans and raising pigs, we also grow a lot of common sense in the Midwest. And be prepared, because just as soon as we figure out how to package it and sell it, we’re going to start hauling it to the cities in our pick-up trucks.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

We've almost made it!

It's three days away from Nell's first birthday. A day which I honestly believed would never come.

Somehow, in my mind, I could not get past the "trying to peacefully nurse a newborn with a three-year-old and a one-year-old running loose and wrecking havoc in the house" stage.

And, yet, here I am, almost one year later. Living. Breathing. And in my own opinion, rising just above surviving.

The baby tried (and liked) her first sample of whole milk today. My four-year-old is going to preschool and learning to write her letters. And my two-year-old is fully potty trained and can put on his own clothes.

I mean really, we must be a model family or something. (Wink, wink!)

So Friday will be a true celebration - for Nell and for her mommy. (And I think her Daddy may be feeling the same way, too.) Outwardly, of course, we'll celebrate with cake and candles and presents. But on the inside, I will be gushing with gratitude for the gift of life and the courage and strength to give all of myself to those young lives.