Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Those who love Oreos may not be too interested in the fact that the Ohio wheat breeding program just got a grant for new harvesting equipment, but they should be -- it could lead to improvements in cookies and the other wheat products we enjoy.

Ohio is recognized around the world for growing high quality soft red winter wheat that is used for making products like crackers and cookies (including Oreos). The hard red wheat grown widely in the western U.S. is better suited for making breads.

“The big difference between a hard wheat and a soft wheat is that the hard wheat flour absorbs a lot of water and holds it and the soft wheat flour does not hold much water,” said Clay Sneller, who heads up Ohio State University’s wheat breeding program.

The resurgence in the interest in the dietary value of whole grain has added a new twist to the traditional uses of these two different types of wheat.

“Everyone should be eating whole grain because it is good for you, but we are having a bit of a problem making whole grain soft wheat products. If you’re making whole grain bread, you’re using hard wheat and you’re making a flour that absorbs and holds a lot of moisture. As you add the bran back into the flour to make it whole grain, you further increase the capacity of that flour to absorb water,” Sneller said. “When you’re making bread that is great, but when you’re making cookies or crackers, increasing that water holding capacity by adding the bran is actually bad for making products with the right shape, texture and size. Adding the bran for whole grain makes less desirable soft wheat products.”

While consumers are interested in eating more whole grain, no one is going to buy a misshapen Oreo with a funny texture. For this reason, Sneller is looking for a soft red winter wheat variety that does not hold as much water, which would allow it to be used for making whole grain cookies and crackers. In addition to this trait, the wheat variety would also need all of the necessary characteristics to be profitable for Ohio’s wheat farmers to produce. Finding such a variety is daunting, at best -- akin to locating a very small needle in a very large pile of straw.

This numbers game involves screening a myriad of wheat varieties, selecting some, growing them, and evaluating them for possession of the necessary traits. This process takes years of screening and testing, though it has been sped up in recent years with technology using molecular markers to narrow down the list of potential varieties to plant in test plots. From there, the new harvesting equipment will come into play. 

“The Oho Small Grains Marketing Program and the Ohio Seed Improvement Association have awarded us a grant to buy a combine for our research station up in northwest Ohio. With that combine, we can increase the lines of wheat that we can test. The combine we will be buying has an automatic weigh unit so one person can combine a plot and it measures how much grain, the moisture and test weight and puts that information in a computer and dumps the grain. One person can do well over 1,000 plots a day with this combine,” Sneller said. “When they’re done harvesting, the data is already colleted in the computer. Right now we have four people up there, and they can do about 600 plots a day. Now we can send one person and they can do 1,200 in a day, if not more. The benefit of this, of course, is that we can look at more lines of wheat, which gives us a better chance of finding new varieties and it will make us more competitive with getting grants.”

In short, the new combine increases the odds of finding the right wheat variety for making a healthier Oreo.

“If we can allow the industry to make these whole grain products better, cheaper and more acceptable to consumers, then the consumers will eat more whole grain, and that is good for them,” Sneller said. “So maybe someday they will be able to eat a whole grain Oreo that tastes just like the original Oreo and is good for them. I don’t think there is much we can do for the white icing inside, though.”


Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and lives in Baltimore, Ohio. For questions or comments, please contact him at mkcreese@yahoo.com. This column was brought to you by Ohio’s agricultural organizations.





Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The blazing fire indoors kept us warm, but it was cold outside. In fact, I think it was probably the coldest day we’ve ever been open for business at the family Christmas tree farm in Hancock County. The thermometer told us the temperature was well below zero, with a wind chill of around -30. It was in late December near the end of the sales season, just a few days before Christmas.

None of my brothers were too eager to spend much time cutting trees outside that day. When customers would arrive, we would take turns, each hoping for a customer who would make a hasty decision in the tree field so we could quickly return to the warmth of the barn. We were in the middle of an intense euchre game when the door opened with a swirl of snow and a bone-chilling breeze. In walked a family that was very well bundled up. It was my turn to help and I feared that they would want to spend a long time in the cold selecting their tree based on their heavy jackets. My brothers gave me taunting grins as I walked into the frozen gale and glanced back to see them reclining around the card table in the comfortable warmth of the fire. Fortunately for me, despite the heavy coats, the cold weather inspired a very quick tree selection and I was back in the barn soon.

The next customer to arrive was a weathered looking man wearing only a t-shirt and jeans. I’ll take this one, my younger brother quickly volunteered upon seeing the man’s apparel.

“Hi there. How can we help you?” my brother pleasantly said to the man. “We have a lot of nice trees pretty close to the barn here, or we have trees farther out in the field, but it is awfully cold out there.”

“I’ll be right back,” the man said.

The customer ran out to his truck and returned moments later zipping up a pair of coveralls that appeared to be crafted for hunting arctic seals on treks to the North Pole.

“Let’s go,” he said.

My brother’s eyes widened and it was our turn to do the taunting as he headed out into the cold. They returned almost an hour later with a tall tree from the farthest reaches of the farm and my brother had turned a shade of purple due to the cold. He was certainly glad to be back in the warmth of that cozy fire.

Warm fires and this chilly time of year have been associated for a very long time through the tradition of burning a Yule log, which has its roots in a Pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The cold weather and long nights in Scandinavia, and the promise of longer days ahead, were ample reason for a celebration around a roaring fire many centuries ago. In the Fourth Century, when Pope Julius I decided to celebrate the birth of Christ around the time of the winter solstice, the Yule log tradition became associated with Christmas.

The huge Christmas Yule log, sometimes pulled by a team of horses, was brought into a large hall or home on Christmas Eve as a centerpiece of the celebration throughout Europe in the following centuries. People would symbolically cast their faults and sins into the flame of the Yule log to start the New Year with a clean slate. And, the log was never completely burnt so a piece could be saved to start the Yule log fire the following year. Pieces from the log were also said to be a source of good luck throughout the year.

The Yule log tradition continued in 19th Century America where slaves did not have to work as long as the Yule log burned, so they would choose the biggest, greenest log they could find. In more modern times, generations of viewers, particularly in New York, have gathered around their television sets on Christmas morning to listen to holiday music and watch a filmed Yule log burning brightly on the screen. For centuries, the bright flames leaping from the Yule log have conveyed an important reminder for Christians around the world, bringing people together for celebration in the light of Christ amid the dark, cold winter surrounding them.

Stay warm and have a Merry Christmas.

Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and lives in Baltimore, Ohio. For questions or comments, please contact him at mkcreese@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

‘Tis the season. Christmas lights are up, along with heating bills, electricity bills and gasoline prices. Amid all the holiday merry-making, many Ohio residents with tight budgets are more than a little concerned with energy costs during this time of year. It is, however, a season of hope; and with regard to the future of renewable energy sources, Ohioans do have a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

Last year, Governor Ted Strickland signed Senate Bill 221 that gives Ohio the third most aggressive advanced energy portfolio standard in the nation and mandates that 25 percent of all electricity sold in Ohio come from advanced energy sources by 2025. This builds on a number of other good things Ohio has going for it with regard to renewable energy.

First, Ohio is home to a number of ethanol and biodiesel plants and the production of a bountiful amount of feedstock in the form of corn and soybeans. And along with the state’s strong agricultural sector, there are a number of important industrial components in Ohio to support the Christmas future, and present of renewable energy. Here are some recent highlights of Ohio’s vibrant renewable energy industry.

· On Nov. 30, Governor Ted Strickland announced that 25 Ohio projects will receive more than $13 million in grant awards to Ohio companies for renewable energy development. The grants will be used by public and private entities to install wind electric, solar electric and solar thermal technologies at businesses, schools, parks and other public locations throughout Ohio.

· Ohio is the No. 1 State for Renewable and Advanced Energy Manufacturing. Ohio brings in more new renewable energy facility projects than any other state. The Ohio Third Frontier has invested more than $150 million in energy technology development delivering assistance to Ohio manufacturing companies that sustain Ohio’s global competitive advantages for product development, company growth and attraction, job creation and wealth creation.

·Ohio ranks in the top five in the United States for clean energy, energy efficiency and environmentally friendly production jobs. 

·Ohio is home to a number of national leaders in the renewable energy industry including: First Solar in Perrysburg has the largest manufacturing plant of thin-film solar panels in the country. First Solar is capitalizing on Northwest Ohio’s history of expert glass manufacturing and knowledgeable workforce and is expanding its Ohio manufacturing operations to build a new facility to support increased development activities associated with its advanced thin-film solar module manufacturing technology

R.E. Burger plant in Shadyside, Belmont County is building one of the largest biomass facilities in the country. Units at the Burger plant are being re-powered to generate electricity primarily with biomass. This project, announced in early April, anticipates the plant will be capable of producing up to 312 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 190,000 homes, which makes it one of the largest biomass facilities in the country.

Minster Machine in Minster (Auglaize County) is diversifying its equipment manufacturing from the auto, medical and food industries to include energy-related parts manufacturing. The company began as a blacksmith in 1896 and recently the Minster Machine Company has been forging the giant cast-iron hubs that keep the blades attached to the center of a wind turbine.

And, many of Ohio’s best known manufacturers such as American Trim, Avon Bearings, Dovetail Solar and Wind, Lubrizol, Owens-Corning, Parker Hannifin, Sherwin Williams and Timken are now key suppliers to the nation’s advanced energy industry. The traditional manufacturing processes used by these companies transition easily to supply bearings, performance coatings, advanced plastics, composites and other energy-related components that will help create the future of clean energy.

· Ohio has the nation’s largest comprehensive public system for higher education and Ohio universities invest $2 billion annually in research and development. And Ohio’s “green collar” workers are trained in dedicated university and community college programs focused on advanced energy. 

· The Ohio School Facilities Commission is making more than $4 billion available to partner with local districts to build new schools, but those schools must achieve at least the silver level rating in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, called LEED. Ohio has more LEED registered schools than the next three highest states combined.

If the Fa-la-la-lectric bill has got you down and paying a high heating bill is not on your Christmas wish list, try not to let the energy woes of this year result in a blue Christmas. There is a lot of promise for many greener holidays ahead. 

 Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and lives in Baltimore, Ohio. For questions or comments, please contact him at mkcreese@yahoo.com