Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Happy National FFA Week!

This is the image of the National FFA Organization in 2011. A modern, forward thinking youth organization.

This may be the stereotype etched in your memory.

Gangly, awkward teenagers running around in less-than fashionable corduroy jackets.

And at times, in small towns across the country, there were lots of gangly, awkward teenagers running around town in corduroy jackets.

You may have even wondered, "What's up with all those kids and aren't they hot in those jackets?"

In case you didn't already know, it's National FFA Week.  A week dedicated to celebrating all those kids and their corduroy jackets.  And a few other things.

I could use this space to help you understand all the wonderful things about the National FFA Organization.  (That's the name, now, by the way.  They stopped calling if the Future Farmers of America twenty-three years ago.)  Instead, I want to take this space to shed some light on the state of the agricultural education in my small town.

One year ago, ag education took a major hit in funding and support from the local administration and local school board.  The program was cut back to half-time.  Half the usual number of classes and a half-time teacher - who also was responsible for running the concession stand at dozens of home football games and coaching wrestling and track.  This was the best the school district could put forth.

Today, things have changed.  The school district has advertised to hire a full-time agriculture education instructor and re-instate the program to it full-time status.  Much applause!

The timing couldn't be better - for a number of reasons:

- 25 ag education graduates from Kansas State University are seeking employment.  Currently, there are two openings across the entire state.  The opportunity to hire a young, eager, top-of-the-class teacher is literally knocking on the door.

- Current, local FFA membership is up.  Involvement is down.  That says we have lots of interested students - but a teacher without the time to get the students involved in valuable ag ed programs.

- 3% of Americans are food producers.  But 20% of Americans have jobs tied to agribusiness.  Take a quick drive around town and that's easy to see.  Agriculture education benefits not just the future farmers, but the future Kan-Equip or John Deere employee, the future banker and the future machinist at Great Plains manufacturing.  An investment in ag education is, simplistically, an investment in your future work force and the future patrons of your school district.

- 100% of Americans are food consumers.  And the majority of those are generations removed from the farm and lack a basic understanding how food is produced in this country and around the globe.  We need food literacy - we need people to understand how their food arrives at the local grocery store.  Furthermore, we need 100% more food in the next 50 years to feed the growing world population.  If you want your children to have job security, encourage them to learn about agricultural careers through the local ag education classes.

- Agriculture education has the solid support of this ranching, farming, and manufacturing community.  Cutting back ag education here, can be likened to cutting back basketball in Milan, Indiana.  (Don't take that wrong - I played and loved basketball in my small town high school.  But making the all-county basketball team didn't help me get through college or instill within me the understanding and passion for an industry that feeds the world.)

For me, National FFA Week is a chance to remember all the wonderful ways my involvement helped me prepare for a lifetime of service to the agricultural industry.  And, it's an opportunity to speak out to ensure the same opportunities are presented to the next generation of agriculturalists.

Happy National FFA Week, folks!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I was country, when country wasn't cool

On a recent shopping trip, with my super-hip, fashion merchandising sister, Molly, I bought my first pair of leggings.  Well, I owned some when I was twelve, but this was my first pair of leggings for my adult body.  My sister provided plenty of encouragement to jump on board this fashionable leggings bandwagon.

And after several dress rehearsals around the house and plenty of reassurance from my husband (Are you sure I can leave the house in these?), I hit the town in my fashionable get-up.  A few friends - whether truly being nice or just playing nice - even offered compliments.  I've since worn them three times.  I'm feeling pretty hip.

Because fashion isn't usually my thing.  My favorite outfits revolve around jeans, solid-colored tops, and boots or tennis shoes.  Maybe some cute jewelry here and there; but really, I am Sarah Plain and Tall. 

And not just when it comes to clothes.  My mantra for living has always been anything but hip and fashionable.  My preferences for simple clothes, rustic decor and a homemade, do-it-yourself-, middle of Kansas, conservative way of life never earned the adjectives of hip, modern, en vogue, forward, or contemporary.

Until yesterday.

The March 2011 issue of Country Living Magazine landed in my mailbox.  I flip to the editor's message on page 8 to find this: "Rural Is the New Urbane."  Followed up with phrases like: unexpected epicenter of cool: America's heartland.

...the most sophisticated restaurant in my Manhattan (New York) neighborhood is a comfort-food joint called Red Rooster.

Page 81 boldly features a quote from Loretta Lynn - the queen of all things country, "I have grown a vegetable garden my whole life - heck that was the only way we'd all eat.  I remember folks thought that was so country!  Now it's in style."  (Ditto.)

This issue of the magazine devotes much of it's content to ways country decor, food, and lifestyles have penetrated urban places.

I thought I was feeling hip with a pair of leggings in my wardrobe, but now, I have been elevated to a new level of fashionable I never thought possible.

The center of the magazine features "25 people, projects and products redefining rustic."  Here, I'm offering my own spin - a new-look at all things we, rustic, down-home, middle-of-the-country, do-it-yourself'er mommies have been doing since we hit the Kansas prairie running:

1. Repurposing.  The barn wood and old barn hooks holding towels in my bathroom, the farm house window and old screen door decorating my living room, and the vintage tub collecting shoes at the back door are now fashionable looks.

2.  Gardening.  Remember when your mother made you pull weeds in the vegetable garden?  Now that's called organic gardening and it's very cool.

3.  Canning and preserving fruits and vegetables.  Remember the hot summers days your spent helping your mother can those green beans and tomatoes?  That's also very cool.

4. Made from scratch anything.  I learned to make yeast breads and pie crusts from my mother, grandmother and 4-H cooking leader.  I teach my own children each time we bake.  Today, you can take a class in Brooklyn, New York to learn how to make your own pie crusts.

5. Foods like yeast rolls, pot roast, and homemade ice cream are called comfort foods and they are fashionable at urban restaurants.  Out here, we call it supper.

6. Knitting, crocheting, quilting, crafting, sewing, and all those summertime projects we toiled over to enter in the county fair - they're cool, too.

7. Rustic clothing like denim and plaid, and leather boots that we wear for function; for warmth and safety in the elements.  Again, fashionable.

8.  Haycations: a weekend get-away to a farm where urban and suburban families take part in the farm chores, tend to gardens and livestock, and help prepare their own meals.  Just another day in paradise, folks.

It's hard not to be cynical when something like this magazine drops in your mailbox.  And it's especially hard not to be cynical when all of a sudden, the life you and I have known forever is now hip and subject to the criticisms of the majority, the urban and suburban consumers.  Think of the louder, more visible voices out there jumping on our rural, rustic bandwagon and now telling us that the way we've been producing food and fiber isn't good enough anymore.

The sudden, emerging fashion appeal of agriculture and rural life is good and bad.

If you're serious about getting back to your rural roots - then come on back to Kansas.  We could use a few more warm, able, hard-working bodies in our communities and rural schools.

But if you're just riding this wave of fashion until the next big thing comes along - then lend some respect to those who earned the right to be rustic because of the life they choose to live.

I will relish my few moments of "high-fashion-legging-wearing-mommy," but I certainly won't start telling you how to dress.  I'll leave that to my sister, Molly.  She's fully earned her fashion credibility.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nell Ann, Our Sweet Charmer

Dear Nell Ann,

Happy 2nd birthday! A few weeks ago, you emerged from my bedroom carrying the Book of Baby Names. Two thoughts came to mind: One, how many other books and trinkets have you removed from my shelf? Two, what is the meaning of your name? I don't ever recall looking that up before we chose your given name.

I decided to find out right then and there; because I didn't want to see how much of a mess you made in my bedroom. I flipped to Nell and found this:

Nell: (English), sweet charmer

Well, of course! You couldn't be more appropriately named had God himself whispered a name in my ear. At two years of age, sweet and charming aptly describe your budding personality. You give the best hugs and kisses; and share them without discrimination. And the way you tilt your head to the side and smile that sheepish little smile when you've just done something you shouldn't, could only be described as charming.

Your second birthday was so much fun for you - and for all of us. We loved sharing your day with you; and sought to honor you and love you the best ways we know how.

It was a mild February day - the 12 inch snow was beginning to melt, so you built a snowman with Noah, Tucker and Daddy.

And then you got "cooooold."

So, we came inside for lunch and a nap. And then we cleaned you up and put on your birthday dress. You chose the boots - you may be an emerging fashionista. Your Aunts Mary and Molly will be so pleased.

We encouraged you to say "cheese," for your pictures. You preferred to say "cheddar cheese" and then scrunch up your entire face. Adorable.

You sang along as we sang "Happy Birthday." And blew the candles out mid-way through the song. No worries; we re-lit and you blew 'em out again for a grand finale. You loved the cupcakes with purple sprinkles even though I flopped two batches of Great Grandma Geiger's Homemade Cooked Buttercream frosting. I hope I get it right by the time you're three (or eleven).

Presents were humble; but a success. You loved getting your own place mat with your name on it and big girl princess undies. I'll make that up to you one day...

When the news came - 2 years and 9 months ago - that we were expecting a third baby so soon, I was distraught.  Not because I didn't want to welcome another baby into our lives, but I was scared that I would be able to love and care for each and everyone of my babies adequately.

To this day, I'd be foolish to say that some days go without challenge.  But I look at these pictures and see a happy, healthy, loved and oh-so-loveable little girl.  God knew what He was doing when He put you into our lives.

I love you, Baby Nell,


Thursday, February 10, 2011

10 free dietary guidelines, and a dash of the potted goose

The USDA and HHS (United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services) released the 2010 Dietary Guidlines for Americans earlier this week.  They're the folks who make sure the food pyramid is posted in every school cafeteria across the country, among other things.

Every five years, they revise their recommendations, and those new recommendations were released to the general public this week.  You probably haven't heard because headlines from Egypt and the Midwest blizzard blanketed the news.  Or maybe it's because the entire report was, umm, uninspiring.  Uninteresting.  Unable to tell me something I (and you) didn't already know.

Let's begin with the "selected messages for consumers."  Reading this is like listening to my mom tell me to eat my vegetables.  Except I'm 31.  And I now know that for myself. 

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less
  • Avoid oversized portions
  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals - and choose the foods with lower numbers
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks
This is truly what was printed and posted for you and I to read.   When Michelle Obama, and Secretaries Vilsack and Sebelius hit the road this month to promote the new guidelines, these will be their talking points.  And the crowds will roll their eyes - all teenager like - reach for their cell phones and catch up on facebook until the speech is over.

There is a little more meat, err, in the form of fish, to the story.  If you read the entire report, (I'd highly recommend the executive summary if your toddlers don't often allow you the freedom to read for hours uninterrupted) you'll quickly see the driving forces behind these new recommendations are poor diet and physical inactivity.  Haven't I said that before?
Still, if you're not into reading government documents, I've taken the liberty of breaking down some key recommendations into tips that make sense for mommies, my beloved Vice President's of Grocery Shopping:

1. Eat less salt.  A great place to start is canned soups.  Cream of "whatever" can be a handy-dandy meal-time helper, but it's loaded with sodium.  Look for brands labeled "reduced sodium" or "healthy choice."  And, beware of store brands.  I have often found that store brands - while cheaper - are higher in sodium content.

2.  Butter is good, but butter is bad for you.  And so is lard.  Making stir fry, roasted potatoes or sautéed chicken breasts?  Try olive oil or soybean (vegetable) oil.  Save your butter for the really good stuff, like chocolate chip cookies.  The stuff you eat in moderation.   Moderation.  Moderation.  Moderation.  I just don't think the report used this word enough.  Now I feel better.

3.  Reduce cholesterol.  I love my cured pork products (bacon, sausage, ham) as much as any red-blooded American.  And I love my cured pork products with a side of eggs.  But I respect them.  That means sausage and eggs are made for breakfast in moderation.  One egg per day is a good thing.  (Eased me through the first trimester with baby #3.)  Again, what's the take home point?  Cholesterol - whether from eggs, dairy, poultry, pork or beef - should be consumed in moderation with your fruits, veggies and grains.

4.  Avoid over-processed foods.  Thirty some years ago, my mom knew that Hamburger Helper was bad stuff.  She was way ahead of her time.  If your food comes from the middle aisles of the grocery store, or if it comes in a box and you just have to "warm it up," it's probably over-processed and un-healthy.  Read the ingredients, ladies.  If the label sounds like things you have in your pantry, it's good.  If it sounds more like a chemical formula, it's bad.

5.  Make half your grains whole.  Whole grains that is.  Whole grain bread is pricey.  My thrifty husband introduced me to bread store outlets.  We can usually get three loaves of whole wheat bread for $4.00.  Check it out.  And, start adding whole wheat flour to your baked goods.  I use half whole wheat flour / half all purpose flour in nearly every bread, muffin, pancake, waffle, or cookie recipe I make.  (With the exception of snickerdoodles and sugar cookies - they don't take well to whole wheat flour.)  And I almost always reduce the sugar called for by 25%.  I promise, you'll never miss it.

6.  Fill up on fruits and veggies.  There was a day in our house when I could serve steamed broccoli and brussel sprouts and my kids wouldn't flinch.  They loved the stuff.  But somewhere around age 4, Noah decided she didn't like much of anything besides cereal, bread, pasta, and applesauce.  So, I tried deceiving them by hiding vegetable purees in recipes.  And that still works some of the time, but it can be pricey to hide vegetables and serve them as a side dish.  So, when I have vegetable leftovers, I sneak them into whatever we're having.  Today, I had a leftover 1/4 cup of canned pumpkin (from a yummy pumpkin muffin snack) that I dumped into turkey and rice soup.  No one noticed.  I don't quit offering a variety of fruits and vegetables - there's one of each at every meal.  My theory is that eventually they'll come back around.  (Shh!  Monday morning we'll be having pink heart shaped pancakes for Valentine's Day.  The pink comes from pureed beets.  Don't tell!  The kids love them!)
7.  Choose lean protein.  Instead of barbecued meatloaf, go for grilled lean ground beef burgers with barbecue sauce on the side.  Add some variety with plant based protein from beans.  Not to mention, this can stretch your protein dollar given the rising costs of animal based proteins presently.  I made a large batch of vegetable beef soup the other day.  But instead of using two pounds of ground beef, I used only one pound and added a can of (rinsed) lima beans. Beans are a great source of cheap (that's for you, Mr. Potted Goose) protein.
8.  Switch to 1% or low-fat milk.  Growing up, we always drank 2%.  In college, I weaned myself down to skim milk.  I gradually stepped down to 1% and then to skim.  It was an easy transition, and I still love to drink milk.  I buy 1% now - that keeps everyone in the family happy.  As for cream cheese and sour cream, I stick with the good stuff.  Again, these are foods used in moderation, so I don't mind using "full fat."  (Oh, and Mr. Potted Goose can sniff out low-fat sour cream from a mile away.) 

9.  Eat more seafood.  I can respect this recommendation on its nutritional merit, but this one is hard to put into practice.  I live in the middle of Kansas, thirty-five miles from a major grocer who carries fresh fish, and thousands of miles from the actual supply of said fish.  Mr. Potted Goose fishes in the summer and we do consume his catch - deep fried.  Of course.  Mostly, I have a hard time understanding this recommendation (especially for pregnant women) because it suggests you eat more seafood but also take an iron supplement.  Why not eat lean beef - which has an excellent source of iron - and forego the supplement?  But what do I know?  I'm not a nutritionist.  (I'm working on a new post, F is for Fish...guess I do have a few things to learn.)

10.  Exercise.  Eighty years ago, our ancestors didn't need to exercise.  They were up at dawn milking the cow, tending to the garden, and caring for the livestock.  They ate sausage, cooked with lard and drank whole milk.  And they burned off every extra calorie.  Unfortunately, driving the mini-van to the grocery store isn't yielding the same results for me.  Ergo, I exercise.  Even more so now thanks to my $18,000 new hip.  (Another post, another time.)  And so do my kids.  We take walks, we get outside as much as possible, we play at the parks around town.  And we all feel better because of it.  Well, I do.  You can ask my three year old about our walks and he'll just tell you about all the puddles he stomped in along the way.  Furthermore, the Potted Goose household is "Wii-tarded."  I'm firmly holding my ground on video games - even the get up and move kind.  There's simply no replacement for actually getting outside and running around.

There you have it, folks.  That's my spin on the latest food buzz.  Whatever your thoughts, you get what you paid for here.  Otherwise, you can read the government's report.  It only cost us $587,000.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

E is for Eggs

Welcome back to Agvocacy - Mommy Style.  It's time for the letter E.  While eggs are the obvious food of topic, this commodity has been through a lot in the past six months.   

Remember the salmonella outbreak from two large Iowa egg farms last August?  Contaminated feed was fed to the chickens which in turn caused the chickens to pass along the bacteria in the eggs they produced.  This strain of salmonella did not make the chickens sick, however, the bacteria made its way to the chickens' ovaries and ultimately contaminated the contents of the shell eggs.

Thousands were made sick.  Millions, maybe billions, any-ways, a lot of eggs were destroyed.  Thankfully, that mess has since been cleaned up.  However, its effects are lingering in the form of a new wide-reaching Food Safety bill signed into law by President Obama in January.  The bill awaits funding from the new Congress, and that funding could be in jeopardy as that decision is in the hands of a new majority.  We will all sit on the edge of our seats watching C-Span waiting to find out.  Or not.  But, you should be forewarned, the costs of implementing more extensive food safety plans are oftentimes passed on to you and I, consumers, in the form of higher egg prices.  Just tellin' it like it is, folks.

Now, let's get back to the basics.

The scope of the egg industry is big.  Billions big.  The kind of numbers that really make you think; or cause your brain to shut down entirely.  There are about 283 million laying hens in the US.  Those hens laid an average of 74.9 eggs per day per 100 layers in 2010.  More clearly: US layers produce about 250 eggs per year.  And per capita consumption of eggs in the US was 246.6 for 2010.  That means, if want to raise your own eggs, you need one laying hen for each member of your family. 

Eggs are produced in every state, however 50% of production is concentrated in just five states (in ranking order): Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, California.  Iowa alone has over 50 million layers.  That's why the scope of the egg recall was such big news.

Most commercial egg producers prefer the White Leghorn breed.  These chickens are great egg layers and efficient converters of feed.  And because they have white feathers, they produce white eggs.  Consumers in New England, however, prefer brown eggs.  These are produced by breeds such as the New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock.  Get it?  Are there nutritional differences in white shells and brown shells.  Nope.  Nill.  It's simply determined by the color of the hen, and ultimately a consumer preference.

And most commercial egg producers prefer a cage system.  Before you go believing the hype about the devastating life of chickens in cages, you should understand the history behind the cage system (loved these videos and so did my kiddos).  Less than 100 years ago, eggs came from backyard farms.  Families raised their own chickens and sold the rest at local markets.  As America became increasingly urban and suburban, egg production shifted to commercial sized operations.  Layers were kept outside and had a coop for laying.  Uncontrollable factors such as weather, predators, parasites, and the hen's tendency to establish a pecking order resulted in annual mortality rates of 40%.  Egg producers began to look for a better way.

Ohio State University first began experimenting with housing systems in the 1920's.  While this eliminated some uncontrollable factors such as weather and predators, producers still saw mortality rates as high as 18%.

Then in the 1940's, Texas A&M University introduced what we know today as the cage system.  Birds were kept in small groups in wire cages.  Modernizations such as machinery and automation allowed bird waste to fall away from the hens and the eggs, eggs to automatically roll on belts to a central processing location where the eggs were washed and processed mechanically, and feed to be equally distributed to all hens.  Egg production jumped from 150 eggs per year to 250 eggs per year because the birds were cleaner, healthier and had equal access to feed.  Mortality rates fell to 5%.

Of course, this system has its flaws.  Birds do not have access to the outdoors and do spend their lives in cages.  But when it's done right - and not the unfortunate mess we saw in Iowa - hens lead a healthy, productive life.

If it's cage-free eggs you prefer, then that's your capitalistic freedom to choose.  (Truth be told, I can't wait to move to the country and start my own little chicken farm.  Not because I necessarily believe chickens must be free from cages, but more because I like the nostalgic idea of chickens wandering around the yard.  And, I want my kids to see the eggs as an investment in their college education.)  These eggs, like other specialty eggs such as organic, vegetarian, nutrient enhanced or pasteurized, have higher production costs and these costs are reflected in the retail prices you will have to pay.  The Potted Goose household buys conventional eggs, but if you're a local farmer with a dozen or so extra farm-fresh eggs laying around, I could take them off your hands. 

Want to know the most surprising thing I learned about eggs?  Where the price of eggs is established.  Out here in these rural parts, it's often you hear on the radio things such as, "Beef prices rallied today."  Or, "wheat prices topped expectations today."  (Of course, when the market is good that's what they say.)  But, you never hear a thing about the price of eggs.  At least I don't.  And my agriculture extension agent husband just confirmed that from his comfy spot in the living room.

Wholesale egg prices are "discovered" here, at the Egg Clearinhouse, Inc.  Offers to buy and sell are monitored through ECI, much in the same way the Kansas City Board of Trade or the Chicago Mercantile Exchange handle other commodities. 

Current egg retail prices are running around $1.79/dozen.  Extension agent hubby braved the blizzard and picked up two dozen at our local grocery store for $0.99/dozen.  I've told you about his thriftiness.

Eggs have been in and out of food fashion.  Currently - they're trending in.  New research has shown that misconceptions linking cholesterol in eggs to heart disease are unfounded.  Even the American Heart Association is on board.  And, the benefits of egg consumption currently being touted include weight management - protein sources keep you fuller longer.  Eggs also contain 13 essential nutrients, one of which being choline.  A nutrient important for pregnancy as it contributes to fetal brain development and helps prevent birth defects.  (I ate dozens of eggs when I was pregnant with #3 - seemed to be the only thing that tasted good and stayed down.  And she is one smart cookie.  I'm not necessarily making any connections here, and I'm certainly not boasting, but the almost-two-year old has it going on.)

When we're simply talking protein value,  one egg equals one ounce of lean meat, fish or poultry.  Or, one egg offers 6.29 grams of protein in 70 calories.  A three ounce serving of lean ground beef offers 21.4 grams of protein in 173 calories.  How does that impact your food budget?  Given current retail prices, one egg costs $0.149; three ounces of lean ground beef runs $0.654.  Eggs are a great buy for your protein dollar.

Now, how did all of this translate to teaching the kids about where their food comes from?  Last summer, while visiting the dairy farm and while my camera batteries died, we also explored the small egg farm the dairymen are operating.  And we took home a dozen eggs.  Eggs come from chickens.  'Nuf said.

Yet on a snowy day in February, we drove the point home.  The kids colored a picture of a White Leghorn hen I found online.  We practiced cutting and gluing by cutting out an egg and a yolk and gluing them down to the picture.

Noah said she liked the Dominique breed over the White Leghorn and colored hers accordingly.  That's how she rolls.

Is that a pretty, new oven in the background?  Oh my!

The next day, we had hard-boiled eggs for lunch.  A favorite for all of them.  I released my "need to be in control of messy things" tendency and let them peel their own eggs.  New textures - so fun for almost two-year-olds.

And of course, they ate them.  All neat, polite, manners like.

And just for fun, and to get the wiggles out on a snowy day, we made a capital "E."

And we attempted a little "e."  Attempted.

Helping your children to understand where their food comes from doesn't have to be complicated.  But it is undeniably important.  And I emphatically insist that your egg education lesson begin right now.  Because eggs are on sale at the grocery store.  Hurry!

Epilogue:  Want to know what Mike Rowe (aka Dirty Jobs guy) has to say about egg farms?  Check this out. 

Still want to know more?  Read this.