Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The fall weather in the 60- and 70-degree range is so refreshing after the miserable sweltering summer when 90-degree temperatures dominated. That hot summer weather was terrible to endure for us humans, but at least we can escape to air conditioning. The crops of Ohio agriculture were not as fortunate.

Ohio’s crops sweltered in the heat, but fared pretty well in most cases due to the regular rainfall that blessed most of the state. The hot weather also pushed Ohio’s crops, in many cases, to a record setting early harvest.

Ohio’s apple crop suffered some from the heat, but 2010 was generally a good year for apples.

“This has been a fantastic year for apple production. The quality, volume and everything have been just right,” said Ralph Hugus, owner of Hugus Fruit Farm in Fairfield County. “The summer heat was a plus and a minus. The heat and sun made for sweeter apples with better flavor, but we did have a few apples that were sun burnt. They basically cooked on the tree. That was not a big enough percentage to make any difference, though. We had the rains when we needed them all along. Dry conditions are not generally that serious of an issue with apples. Apple trees in general will tolerate dry weather better than other crops.”

The hot weather did create some challenges for marketing Hugus apples, however.

“We had an early spring and a warm summer, so we’re running a good two weeks ahead,” Hugus said. “We’ve always told customers to call us at a specific time to get specific varieties. This year they’ve been calling two weeks late because we’re two weeks early with harvest.”

The hot weather pushed the pumpkin crop along too. Dave Renick, owner of Renick’s Family Market in Pickaway County, said his pumpkins matured quickly with the heat, but got planted a little late this spring. As a result, he has a nice crop ready for customers this fall from his market along U.S. Highway 23 near Ashville. The key for pumpkins in hot weather is careful management of moisture levels with irrigation to keep the plants in good shape, he said.

Possibly the most dramatic early harvest of 2010 is for the corn and soybean crops that brought the combines out weeks early this fall. The Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service (OASS) reported on Oct. 18 that corn harvest was 64 percent complete. At the same time last year, Ohio’s farmers had harvested only 8 percent of the corn statewide. The soybean harvest in Ohio was 80 percent complete by mid-October compared to 33 percent harvested last year at the same time, according to OASS.

Jeff Roehm, an Ohio Corn Growers Association member from Highland County in southern Ohio, is even further along in harvest on his farm. He, like many other corn and soybean farmers around Ohio, was nearly finished harvesting by mid-October.

“We’re getting close to the end of harvest. We finished beans last Thursday and we’ll finish corn by the end of the week,” he said. “We’re at least two weeks ahead, maybe more than that. We like to finish beans by Halloween and corn by Thanksgiving. We’re well ahead of that.”

Yields of both crops have also been fairly strong thanks to rains throughout the season in many parts of the state that helped to counteract the extreme heat. OASS reports average yields of 167 bushels per acre for corn. The 2010 average soybean yield for Ohio is forecast at 48 bushels per acre.

Because most of the state’s winter wheat crop is planted in fields after the soybeans have been harvested, planting of the winter wheat crop is also running well ahead of schedule. Winter wheat planted in Ohio is now at 83 percent complete, up from 43 percent at the same time last year.

With such an early harvest, and pleasant fall weather, Ohioans better get outside now to take a drive, go for a country stroll or visit a farm market to enjoy the beautiful leaves, the bountiful harvest and the irresistible appeal of autumn on Ohio’s farms. Winter is coming soon.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I am fortunate to get to drive around the beautiful state of Ohio on a regular basis for my job. On occasion, I will pick a series of back roads instead of the highway to enjoy some of Ohio’s more hidden treasures.

This is especially true when autumn unfurls its tapestry of brilliant leaves beneath blue skies. Even when pressed for time, it is hard to resist the chance to take a few extra minutes to enjoy autumn’s beauty from a back road. Sometimes how you get there is as important as the final destination.

More than ever before, it seems, people are interested in taking a similar scenic route with their food. With a society further removed from the farm than at any other point in human history, people want to know more about how food gets to their plate. The food itself is important, but more people are putting more emphasis on how it was produced. The dramatic expansion of labeled differentiation for commodity food products such as meat, milk, vegetables and eggs is a clear indicator of this trend.

“We’ve seen the labels in the meat industry just go crazy in the last 10 to 15 years and I see no reason why we would see a change in that trend,” said Sam Roberts, assistant vice president of corporate marketing for United Producers, Inc. “Before that, the meat case at the grocery was all pretty much the same. Here it is. Buy it.”

More than 20 years ago, a group of Ohio cattle producers started one of the country’s first and most successful meat labeling programs – Certified Angus Beef. The program was based on the beef products that met a set of standards to ensure a high quality product.

“Now everybody is trying to look for some way to distinguish themselves,” Roberts said.

As a result, there are now enough labels out there to make any consumer’s head spin trying to keep them all straight. Each label has a different set of standards, requirements and specifications ranging from very strict and rigorous to virtually none at all. What do they all mean?

To find the best label in the grocery to fit their needs, consumers need to start by deciding what exactly they want.

“Consumers need to decide what it is they want from their food, because they can probably find it out there,” Roberts said. “Read the label and do some research to find out exactly what the labels are claiming. Read the fine print.”

For the most part, the details behind food labeling concern the manner in which the animal or crop was raised, which is important to a growing segment of the population. Labels including “organic,” “cage-free,” “locally-produced,” “antibiotic-free,” and “hormone-free” have specific requirements for how the food was produced, but it is important to note that they have no scientific difference in the final food product, according to the USDA.

“There will be a lot of people who argue based on science on both sides of the issue whether these are better for you or not,” Roberts said. “There are organizations out there that would use emotion rather than science-based facts to influence consumer decisions. There is no science out there that proves that most of these products are any better for you, but it is the consumers’ prerogative to buy them. People assume products like all-natural beef that has not been treated with antibiotics is better for them and the animal. This may be the case, but it also may not be the case. There have been a lot of misconceptions out there.”

In terms of the quality and nutritive value when it gets to your dinner plate, a steak is a steak and a pepper is a pepper. Most of the time, the label is only about how it got there.

Some people will always want the easiest, cheapest and fastest food available, which is fine, and the industry will continue to provide it for them. Labels are for those that are more interested in taking a little more time and expense to go the scenic route.