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!