Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Everyone has seen the facts and figures that provide insights into trends and workings of our daily lives. But one can’t help but wonder about the actual reality of these “facts” that are tossed about as if they were reality. How real are these averages of statistical guesses of a simulated reality of what is actually happening?

While statistics and averages can be very useful tools for many applications, there is danger in relying on them as reality, especially when they are used for making important, business-altering regulatory decisions. All too often (unfortunately by necessity), agricultural related public policy is based upon statistics and not what actually taking place on farms. With complex issues such as indirect land use change, increasing regulatory efforts in watersheds and the ongoing debate about energy and biofuels, it often seems there is little factual information to help make sound policy decisions.

The challenge, of course, is the lack of real-time, relevant data. To address this, farmers are taking it upon themselves, through the United Soybean Board, to self-report what is happening on their farms.

A cooperative effort of six state soybean organizations, including the Ohio Soybean Council (OSC), has led to the Strategies Targeting American Agricultural Resources and Sustainability (STAARS) initiative, which is being led by the Iowa Soybean Association.

The project involves around 600 farmers in the six states of South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio who are reporting every cropping aspect of four fields on their farms over the course of three years. The crop rotation for the fields needs to include soybeans in at least one of the years of the program.

“We are providing real time, relevant data from farms that can be used for illustrating how much energy it takes to produce a crop and for on-farm planning as well as by others during public policy debates,” said Martha Zwonitzer, technical assistance manager for the Iowa Soybean Association who oversees STAARS. “We need a repository of data to answer the questions that come our way related to what is happening on the farm. It is a soybean-based project, but we are interested in the whole cropping system. We are looking at four fields on each farm.”

The program accounts for every input to and output from the fields.

“We have gathered year one data, which would be the 2010 cropping year. It is being entered into our management software right now, which is a pretty intensive process. We have about 121 cropping attributes starting from the date that they harvested in 2009,” Zwonitzer said. “Anything they did after they pulled the combine out of the field is counted toward the next year’s crop attribute data. We look at everything from tillage to hybrids and seed treatments, planting date, nutrients and harvest.”

Nutrient source, rate, timing and placement are some of the more important aspects of the data collection, particularly for issues involving water quality. Nutrient application, particularly application of commercial fertilizers, is the most energy intensive piece of row crop production.

“We are interested in capturing both direct and indirect energy, so we not only look at what energy it takes to run a tractor back and forth across the field, but also how much energy it takes to produce a pound of urea or anhydrous that is being applied on the field,” she said.

In each state, it was important to get a representative sample of all of the types of agriculture.

“In Ohio, we have some really large-scale farmers — farming several thousand acres —

to smaller-scale farmers farming 10- or 20-acre fields,” Zwonitzer said. “We are capturing a nice picture of what is going on in the state. It has been really interesting to see the differences in production across the state and the resource concerns people are dealing with. What is holding true for the western part of the state is not true in the southeastern or the northeastern part of the state. Ohio is definitely the state in the study with the most diversity.”

With so much mystery surrounding modern farming for those not directly involved in agriculture, the participating farmers hope that sharing the details of what is done on their farms will lead to commonsense public policy and a well-informed agricultural debate based on reality, not statistical best guesses.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The gifts are wonderful, the snow is beautiful, the family traditions are fantastic, but as I get older, one of my favorite aspects of the holiday season has become the delicious food.

I have set my sights on the delicious Christmas meals that will be prepared in the coming week. This year, we plan to feature lamb in at least a couple of holiday meals. We raise Horned Dorset sheep and enjoy eating lamb throughout the year, but it can be especially good for those looking for something a little different around the holidays.

As evidenced by countless posts from food bloggers and segments in cooking shows on television, the demand for lamb is exploding as chefs rediscover this delicious and versatile meat. Ohio is the leading producer of lamb east of the Mississippi but still does not produce enough to meet the spiking demand.

Amy Forrest has seen firsthand the growing popularity of lamb in her Champaign County-based In Good Taste Catering Company. Forrest raises many of the ingredients for her food on her own small farm including organic vegetables and produce, brown eggs, pork, and beef. Forrest had never done much with lamb until she entered and won the first Ohio Lamb Jam cooking contest this summer.

“We didn’t do a lot of cooking with lamb, but since the Lamb Jam, we feel a little more comfortable about providing it on the menu,” Forrest said. “We have always offered a lamb appetizer, and now we’re doing a loin chop as an entrée. I was surprised how many people have wanted to try it.”

The featured entrée on Forrest’s menu is the same recipe that beat out other top chefs in central Ohio vying for the top spot in the competition.

“It is a very simple oil-based marinade with lots of fresh herbs for the pan seared loin chop,” she said. “We add fresh thyme and ginger with an apple or peach chutney that goes with it.”

Along with her success in the contest last summer, Forrest has also been encouraged to offer more lamb due to the related buzz in food industry circles.

“There are some really great ideas for lamb online,” she said. “Our whole philosophy with food is to let it speak for itself. We want to have good enough quality farm products that they can speak for themselves. Lamb is kind of entering into its prime. It is getting more exposure and there are more people willing to try it. When they try it, they discover that if it is prepared correctly, that it is really good. There are so many easy recipes that are easy to use.”

Forrest’s winning recipe is:

4 medium peaches (about 1 pound), peeled, pitted and chopped

One 2–3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut in 4 even pieces

1 large shallot, chopped fine

3 tsp granulated sugar

1 large sprig fresh thyme

1 large sprig fresh rosemary

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

¾ cup flour

4 lamb loin chops

Combine peaches, ginger, shallot, sugar, thyme sprig, rosemary sprig, pinch of salt, pinch of pepper, and 1 tablespoon water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the peaches have broken down and juices are released, about 20 minutes. Remove thyme and rosemary sprigs and ginger pieces. Cover and set aside. Combine flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and a quarter teaspoon of pepper in wide, shallow dish and stir to combine. Season the lamb chops on both sides, then dredge chops in flour mixture, shake off excess and transfer to plate. Heat oil in large (12-inch) skillet over medium heat, add chops in single layer and cook, turning once until golden brown on all sides and cooked to 145 degrees, for medium rare to medium. Mash the peach chutney with a potato masher until slightly chunky. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer lamb chops to platter and top with chutney.

This season, we will be using some new delicious lamb recipes in the Reese house, because I have found that holidays are always happier when they include a delicious meal. Happy dining and holidays to all of you.

For more great lamb recipes visit http://ohiosheep.org/ and click on “recipes.” For more recipes from Forrest, visit ingoodtastecateringco.com.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It was three days until Christmas. And, though I had no gift for her yet, my wife had dropped less-than-subtle hints that she wanted a new pair of boots for Christmas.

I have always steered clear of clothing purchases for several reasons. First, I never have any idea what my wife likes. In fact, if I pick the ugliest thing in the store, that is typically what she likes best (it is usually also the most expensive thing in the store). In addition, I never know what size she wears and I hate going to stores.

I was prepared last year, because I asked my sister about my wife’s foot size and I was told it was 7. So, I went to a store just down the street from my office. I walked in and quickly identified ugliest pair of boots. It was the last pair, so they must have been very popular. I cringed as I turned over the price tag, but this pair of boots got even better --“CLEARANCE SALE $29.99.” I was out of the store in no time flat.

I had even impressed myself this time. Ugly boots (hideous in fact) that looked really expensive. My wife would love it and would have no idea what a bargain I had gotten.

I could hardly contain my excitement Christmas morning when my wife opened her gift. She opened the box and her eyes got wide.


This was not the exuberant response I was expecting.

My wife did like the style, but apparently her foot had grown substantially in the last couple of weeks because she informed me that she wore a size 9, not a 7. In addition, this was a Girl’s Size 7, not a Woman’s Size 7 (I was unaware there was a difference). And, to top it all off, this was a pair of slippers, not boots.

To make up for my multi-pronged ineptitude regarding ladies footwear, I promised I would go shopping with my wife to find a pair of boots that she liked and that fit. This resulted in an unending afternoon in multiple lady shoe stores, a price tag more than three times my original purchase and a trip back to the original store to return the wrong size, wrong category, wrong kind of footwear purchase I had made.

With this experience fresh I my mind from last year, I have vowed to resume my tradition of not buying my wife anything she can wear this year.

It is a time of year that oozes tradition – gifts, carols, charity, goodwill, and, at the center of it all, stands the beautiful Christmas tree representing the birth of a very special baby boy more than 2,000 years ago. The Christmas tree tradition has been around for 500 years and still cherished by families today. In northeast Ohio, many of those families go to the spectacular Pine Tree Barn in the rolling countryside of Wayne County.

“I enjoy being able to see those trees growing in the spring and summer and then getting them to a family that is really excited about it. I really enjoy growing the trees, but also the chance to meet the customers and make it a better Christmas for them,” said Roger Dush, owner of the Pine Tree Barn. “We have found that when you start doing things to make the lives of others richer, it makes your own life richer.”

The Pine Tree Barn also features a restaurant and an expansive gift shop that is open all year with a focus on designer furniture. Christmas trees have been growing on the farm since Dush’s father started planting them in 1952. Now the farm sells around 7,000 trees annually, mostly Frasier and Canaan Fir.

“We want our customers to experience nature in a family setting. We encourage people to come out, ride the wagons, cut a tree together, watch it be baled, loaded on the car and take it home. That is a nice experience for people,” Dush said. “All farmers are competing against artificial trees and we need to give the customers a reason to get a real tree. There is really no tradition to a plastic tree.”

Dush is right. You can’t pack up 500 years of tradition into a box and put it in the attic at the end of the season. Like a pair of girls’ slippers for a lady that wants boots, a plastic tree is simply not the real thing.

To find a Christmas tree farm in your area, visit ohiochristmastree.com.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

It is such an idealistic dream that Charles Schwab even has a commercial with an animated retiring guy lamenting advice about starting a winery in his golden years. While it is a dream of many to do just that, the retiring guy in the commercial does have a point – starting a winery is serious work.

“It is a lot more work than anyone imagines. It is such a romantic idea to start a winery and then reality sets in,” said Jeff Hicks, who helps manage Gervasi Vineyard in Canton. “Be sure to research it as much as possible.”

Hicks speaks from first-hand experience. His father-in-law was retired for two months before he decided to buy some property and start Gervasi Vineyards. The dream has become a spectacular reality, but the business of making wine is more challenging than most people probably imagine.

Though Gervasi is still a young winery, winemaker Andy Codispoti and vineyard manager Sandy Prentice have extensive experience to seamlessly transition from vineyard to vino. The process started with the monumental task of selecting the grape varieties to produce. Type, taste, tolerance to climate and soil type, disease and pest resistance, and numerous other factors went into the decision.

“We have six different varieties growing,” Prentice said. “We’ve chosen varieties that are more disease resistant to require less care.”

There can be drastic differences in the taste of the grapes and performance of the vine based upon climate and soil types.

“Some of the world’s best wines come from the shaliest, poorest looking soil that you can imagine on the side of a hill. Better soil is not necessarily good for wine production grapes,” Prentice said. “The typical Ohio field soil is better than it needs to be for grapes.”

Excessive fruit can reduce the quality of the grapes and the too-rich soils make for potentially over productive plants.

“Grapes, generally speaking, are weeds. They grow like crazy. And since we’re not producing for volume, we’re always assessing plant health to decide how heavily we want the plant to produce,” Prentice said. “There is pruning almost every month from March through mid-September.”

While Prentice is calling the shots in the vineyard, he relies heavily on input from Codispoti to implement the management practices necessary to produce the grapes necessary for the wine.

“We’re interested in a fruit that has a lot of light and air exposure,” Codispoti said. “Air flowing through the vines helps prevent disease and sunlight promotes ripening -- those are key factors in what you’re going to get at the end of the summer when you come to harvest. We work together and discuss things like how much of the canopy we need to remove to expose the grapes to airflow and sunlight.”

As the fruit progresses, the management intensifies.

“When we think that we’re about a month from harvest, I’ll takes samples from the vineyard and bring them in to check the sugar development of the grapes,” Codispoti said. “The closer we get to harvest the more closely we’ll check the sugar. Then, based on the flavor and sugar analysis, we decide that it is time to pick based on what the weather is doing. As we get near harvest, we will check the sugar, acid and pH of the juice also. We are looking to strike a balance between those things and the flavor development of the grape.”

Disease management is critical in the production of quality grapes.

“Disease needs to be avoided because the mold and rot of diseased fruit will affect the flavor profile that you get from the good fruit,” Codispoti said.

The spray program starts early in the spring and continues almost until harvest on a 10- to 14-day spray interval to keep ahead of fungal problems. Pests, including yellow jackets, deer, birds and other insects can also be a challenge. Just a couple of Multicolored Asians Lady Beetles harvested with the grapes can have a dramatic impact on the flavor and quality of the wine.

“In wine making, you have the science part of it and people think making wine is just like making a recipe from a cookbook. There are a lot of subjective decisions that come into play, even before you start the vinification process,” Codispoti said. “You also have to adjust from any shortcomings that you may encounter. Sometimes it isn’t all just chemistry. The chemistry may say that fruit is ripe, but when we taste it we find that is needs a few more days of sunshine.”

With the two men working in concert, Gervasi has been selling wines as quickly as they can be made, but nothing in the world of wine happens all that quickly, Codispoti said. “People ask how much time it takes to make wine and my answer is always, ‘A lot more than you think.’”

So while retiring to start a winery may sound like a great idea, for many, it may be a better idea to just visit one.

For more great Ohio wineries near you, visit tasteohiowines.com.

Monday, September 26, 2011

In today’s political landscape there are tight budgets, increasing demands and fiscal shortcomings at every level of government. But instead of thoughtful compromise, it still seems that in far too many cases, there are an awful lot of gridlocked black and white extremes and not much gray somewhere in the middle. That is not the case, however, in the current farm bill debate as farmers from Ohio are leading a charge of compromise.

With so many variables (most notably the weather) that farmers can’t control, there is a legitimate need for a federal farm safety net in the farm bill. Without the assurance of something to fall back upon, farmers would be severely hindered in their ability to produce the crops that society needs. The question is, though, with the spending challenges and tight budgets at all levels of government, and the record income levels for agriculture, how much of a safety net is really necessary to keep farmers in business and consumers well fed?

Farmers in Ohio have been working on an answer to this complex and politically loaded question.

“We believe inefficient spending should be eliminated from all sectors of the Federal Government,” said Anthony Bush, a Morrow County farmer and vice president of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association (OCWGA). Before we ask other sectors of government spending to examine their programs, we felt that we should examine our own and offer up policy that fits with our beliefs.”

This sentiment led the Ohio organization to take the idea to the national level, which has resulted in a farmer-driven policy recommendation in the farm bill debate that saves taxpayer dollars.

Working in concert with the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the Ohio farmers consulted some of the nation’s top agricultural economists, including Ohio State University’s Carl Zulauf, to improve upon the ACRE program that was a safety net option in the previous farm bill. The result is the Agriculture Disaster Assistance Program (ADAP), which simplifies the current program, eliminates overlapping coverage with personal crop insurance and replaces the current Direct Payment program. Early estimates suggest that the changes could save $15 billion over 10 years, while preserving the vital components required for an effective farm safety net.

The OCWGA has pushed to get ADAP developed in time to be a viable part of the farm bill debate in the U.S. Congress.

“There was a sense of urgency to get our proposal out in front of the Super Committee that includes Ohio’s own Senator Rob Portman. The Ag Committees have been given a mid-October deadline to submit recommendations for consideration,” Bush said. “We realize that the scoring process by the Congressional Budget office takes time, but is critical to what ultimately becomes law.”

It is also important to note that, while the farm bill is politically associated with production agriculture, the vast majority of the cost and programs in the bill are focused on getting proper nutrition to consumers.

The political realities of any farm bill are that it is really a nutrition bill,” Bush said. “These provisions have been put into the farm bill over the years to help garner urban support as our population gets further removed from the farm. The actual ‘farm’ part of the farm bill is less than one half of one percent of the federal budget.”

The bottom line is that this nation cannot continue to sustain such debt levels and it must reign in spending. And, while reducing the spending on one half of one percent of the federal budget will not solve the problem, the philosophy being demonstrated by the farmer members of the OCWGA sets a unique and important precedent in today’s political battles where neither side is willing to give any ground.

“Everyone had the same goal in mind that we needed to send a message to our members of Congress that we wanted to be part of the solution not the problem,” Bush said. “We can no longer just kick the can down the road. Currently, about 40 cents of every dollar our government spends is borrowed. The ADAP program that NCGA has proposed is not a lucrative program; it is a true safety net that would be there when producers need it most.”

Sometimes, in a black and white world, it is nice to see a refreshing shade of gray.

For more from Bush about the details of ADAP, visit http://ocj.com/crops/ohioans-are-playing-a-major-role-in-the-farm-bill-debate/.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

This summer Kile “Andy” Hayden was in a terrible car accident with his younger brothers, Jeffery and Michael. Andy was killed and his younger brothers were seriously injured. Prior to the tragedy, they were on their way to care for their 4-H hogs in preparation for the upcoming Scioto County Fair.

Andy was a promising young man who was well known in the hog barn at the county fair for helping out whenever he could and taking the time to help younger 4-Hers with their projects.

“It was the same day as the county skillathon at the fairgrounds. There were a couple hundred people there and word got around pretty quickly,” said Jo Williams, the Scioto County 4-H educator. “People were already talking about how they could help the family that day.”

While dealing with the devastating loss of one son, Carl and Susie Hayden were also facing the stress and medical expenses with two other sons in the hospital as they battled their serious injuries. It was suggested that Andy’s 4-H pig be auctioned to raise money for the family.

“The Senior Fair Board approved of auctioning off pig at the end of the livestock sale to raise money for the Hayden family’s medical bills,” she said. “Another 4-Her stepped up to show the pigs for the boys who could not due to their injuries. And, even though Jeffrey and Michael couldn’t show their pigs, they were still there and even stayed overnight at the fair one night. It was a really neat thing to see everyone come together and support the family.”

Even before the sale at the fair, fellow 4-Hers took up a collection in the barn and coordinated efforts with local businesses to raise money for the family. No one was quite sure what to expect when the sale finally arrived.

“The starting bid for the Hayden hog was $10,000 that had been raised before the sale even started,” Williams said. “Then we had 172 kids who donated a portion of their livestock sales to raise another $3,360 – that was just from the kids out of their checks.”

Whether they had been planning to bid or not, local businesses began collectively adding to the total at the emotional event on Aug. 13. Rather than bidding against each other, bidders just upped the total amount by what they wanted to contribute. Part way through the auction of the pig, the total got another boost.

“A little boy brought in a baseball hat filled with crumpled bills he’d collected and gave it to the auctioneer,” she said. “There were 73 local businesses or groups listed as buyers, but there are more cash donations that are not listed.”

In total, the final bid for the hog was a whopping $34,370, which will go a long way to help the struggling family. The family plans to start a memorial swine herdsman award program for 4-H to help the community remember Andy.

“The family handled it remarkably well. It was very emotional for them and for everyone watching. It was sad, but it was neat to see the support for the family through 4-H,” Williams said. “We teach a lot of lessons that we hope help kids learn to be good citizens who give back to their community. This really shows that they are learning it. More than half of the kids showing livestock donated some money.”

Susie Haden said the family was overwhelmed and amazed at the community’s response in terms of the funds raised and in the kind comments about Andy. Williams said the amount of money that was donated may have been a surprise, but the generosity and community outreach was not.

“We have counties that are struggling with budgets and funding for 4- H and Extension, but examples like this give you hope to see the good things that can come from it,” she said. “We are really lucky to have great support for 4-H from the community and the commissioners. They understand that 4-H is a family program, it is not just the kid taking the project most of the time. It is something they do together as a family. There is also a larger 4-H family, and a situation like this shows how lucky we are and how much we have to be proud of. These kids are learning life lessons that are larger than learning how to feed a pig.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

We celebrated our son’s second birthday the other day and I went out to the garage freezer to get some ice cream. I found gooshy boxes of ice cream, partially thawed meats and one huge mess of the resulting horrifying liquid rapidly fanning out across the concrete floor.

Who was to blame? I had, as far as I had known, been the last to get something from the freezer and I must have not completely shut the door. It must have been my fault, and, based upon the less-than-pleased response my wife had regarding the situation, she seemed to agree with that conclusion. Further investigation, however, yielded some different results. I asked my three-year-old daughter if she had been in the freezer recently and her response was, “I tried to get the ice cream out but I couldn’t reach it.” Hmmmmmm…

When something goes wrong, people are usually looking for someone to blame. Such is the case with water quality, particularly in the notorious Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed in western Ohio. The result has, unfortunately, led to finger pointing at agriculture in the watershed.

“We’re 3 miles from the lake and we live on a major state highway, so people watch us pretty closely,” said Lou Brown, who runs Brownhaven Dairy with his brother Alan. “The town people are very upset about farmers polluting their lake and they will tell you about it.”

But rather than trying to dodge the blame (whether it is right or wrong), Brown and other farmers are taking extensive measures to eliminate the potential for water pollution from their farms. In fact, rather than avoiding all of the unwanted attention directed at animal agriculture in the area, Brown welcomes the scrutiny as a chance to shine.

“I want people to come and see and learn about what we are doing here,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to be good stewards of the land.”

Brown’s parents purchased the farm in 1959, which now includes 230 acres of corn and alfalfa for feeding the 210-cow dairy. The Browns have a long history of cooperating with neighbors, the community and government conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Every acre of the land the Browns manage has been carefully assessed to determine the best land use to maximize production while minimizing environmental impact.

One example of this philosophy is the wetland that was installed on the farm through CRP four years ago. The commonsense measure turned a losing proposition in terms of production into a win for the surrounding farm fields and the environment. Instead of paying the same high inputs for their less productive ground, the wetland diverts excess water from their fields at planting time and eliminates some of the crop damage from the wildlife.

In addition, they installed 34 acres of 200-foot wide buffer strips along all the roads and ditches from which they are permitted to make hay. They also installed 2 acres of quail habitat in the lower-yielding land along the woods to prevent any crop inputs from leaving the field through surface water. Other than nitrogen applied at corn planting, all of the nutrients on the farm come from manure applications.

Brown closely adheres to the tight manure application regulations and plants cover crops on the farm that further reduce runoff and nutrient loss, improve water infiltration and benefit the soil. Other efforts for water quality management on the farm include the four tile stops on the four large tiles that leave the property.

“We can completely shut off the drainage tiles leaving this farm,” Brown said. “We shut them off every time we apply manure and after the crop is planted so we can conserve moisture and boost our yields. And you can visually inspect easily to make sure your manure is not going anywhere.”

The truth about the problems in the Watershed is that the situation is extremely complex and the actual blame is tough to determine accurately. As a major land use, agriculture is certainly one component of the problem, but not the only one. And, with more farmers like Brown taking measures to address the situation, improvements will occur.

“This part of Auglaize County has been really gung ho about adopting all of these practices,” Brown said. “We are not the only ones doing all of these things out here and it has to be making a difference in the lake.”

If things do not improve, maybe there needs to be further investigation in the blame game of Grand Lake St. Marys.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Growing up with sheep, my wife developed an early affinity for the Guys and Gals Sheep Lead competition where the contestant dresses up in wool (often on very warm summer days) during the county fair, leads the sheep around the ring and models the garments. In my estimation, this is nothing short of bizarre.

To make matters worse, this has been a particular source of controversy in our marriage due to the fact that the spectacular action of the not-to-be-missed combine demolition derby at the county fair typically coincides with the event.

This all changed, however, with my daughter's third birthday last year, making her eligible for the Guys and Gals Lead. Since then I have found that any time you combine 3-year-olds, livestock and wool apparel, there is potential for great adventure. Last year, in Campbell's first sheep lead experience at the Fairfield County Fair (during the not-to-be-missed combine derby), things were going very well until the sheep behind Campbell got loose and ran into the backside of her sheep. In response to the unexpected sheep nose from behind, Campbell's sheep bolted, leaving two sheep running loose in a show ring filled with 3-year-old girls in fine wool clothing.

Sawdust flew and the crowed "ooohed" and "ahhhed" at the several diving attempts to capture the sheep clad in glitter spray and ribbons carefully coordinated with their leaders’ wool outfits. As our sheep rounded the corner, I took my turn diving (camera in hand) to catch the rampant ewe, only to get a fistful of wool and a face full of sawdust. The crowd responded with a raucous, "Whooooaa!"

From there our sheep took off down the side of the ring, capsizing a 4-year-old contestant waiting in the wings, coating her outfit in a sheen of sawdust and sheep pellets. Another fine gentleman jumped out to slow the charging ewe only to get the business end of a Horned Dorset right in his business. He crumpled, doubled-over in agony as the crowd let out another mortified (but very entertained) gasp.

By this time, the first ewe had been detained, but ours was rounding the corner to incite another swath of destruction though the lineup of little girls cowering against the back wall of the arena, shielded by panicked mothers scrambling to prevent even the slightest rumple in their contestants' carefully pressed outfits. Just then my father-in-law leapt from the throng of screaming pre-teens with a heroic halter snag, preventing our sheep from wiping out the majority of the 8-year-old girls class. The crowd responded with a roar. He handed off the sheep to my daughter, who expertly maintained control for the remainder of the class and ended up winning. For the first time in history, the sheep lead excitement in the show barn rivaled that of the roaring combine derby outside.

Campbell competed in the Ohio State Fair Guys and Gals Sheep Lead and, as is often the case for the event, the temperatures were sweltering, but Campbell successfully held onto her sheep and did a fantastic job. While I still am not convinced that wearing a wool coat on a 90-degree day is a good idea for a 3-year-old holding onto a sheep, I am one proud papa who has found a new not-to-be-missed event.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Many parts of Ohio are dry and the corn crop is showing it. You can tell corn is experiencing moisture stress when its leaves are rolled up.

"Leaf rolling is indeed a response of the corn plant to insufficient plant moisture," said Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension corn specialist. "As plant moisture content declines, the corn plant often protects itself from excessive plant moisture loss by rolling its leaves. The rolled leaf offers less exposed surface area, so moisture loss is reduced. The act of leaf rolling is a sort of defensive posture by the corn plant."

The drier and more stressed the corn is, the earlier in the day it rolls up. And, going into the heat wave of late July, some farmers could watch their corn rolling over breakfast due to extended dry conditions following one of the wettest spring planting seasons in history.

“The corn is rolled tight. It looks like the leaves are reaching up and praying for rain,” said Roger Zeedyk, who farms in Defiance County in northwest Ohio. “Things were really moving along for a while, but now the corn is starting to slip.”

Zeedyk got most of his corn crop planted from June 2 to June 8, which is around a month later than normal, following the wet spring. The excess ample moisture in the ground got the corn crop off to fast start, but the late calendar date increased the need for ideal temperatures and steady moisture through the remainder of the growing season. Unfortunately, though farmers have put forth their best efforts, the weather has not been very cooperative.

Once the corn was in the ground on Zeedyk’s farm, it got three-tenths of an inch of rain on June 10 and another three tenths on June 16. By July 19, the corn had only gotten an additional four-tenths of an inch of rain. The clay ground was cracked and the leaves on the corn were curled tight going into the week in late July when blistering heat baked the dry corn that was well behind in terms of development. The heat increased evaporation of moisture and added to the stress on the crop.

“That last four tenths we got really perked things up for a few days, but we’ve got to be losing some yield now,” he said.

Despite the challenges, the June planted corn was still green and uniform in height, but even the healthiest corn on the farm was clearly stressed based on the tightly rolled leaves for much of the day on July 19. And Zeedyk is not alone. Mary farmers in the state, and the country, got a late start and now have crops suffering from severe moisture and heat stress as the corn crop approaches pollination, the most crucial time for determining the eventual yields of the crop.

“The pollination period, the flowering stage in corn, is the most critical period in the development of a corn plant from the standpoint of grain yield determination,” said Peter Thomison, Ohio State University Extension corn specialist. “Stress conditions such as drought have the greatest impact on yield potential during the reproductive stage.”

This stage is preceded by the emergence of the tassels at the top of the corn plants that will shed the pollen required to fill out the ear of corn. With the corn in tassel in many fields around Ohio and the U.S., the crop is beginning to pollinate, which requires moisture to be successful.

According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, the area being impacted by this dry weather is expanding. Parts of eastern Iowa, northern parts of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and a large part of Pennsylvania are now considered "abnormally dry," which is a precursor to a full-blown drought. Rainfall totals have been well less than 50% of normal in many areas of the U.S., including parts of Ohio.

So, as hot dry conditions continue in many parts of Ohio, you may start to see more corn leaves rolling up. And, with a tight global supply and increasing demand for corn and other crops, it would be in the best interests of all of us to say a prayer for rain as well, because too much corn is on a roll, and that is not a good thing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I am guessing that it is quite a sight for anyone driving by to see me with a camera, my two children fidgeting around in front of me and my wife making funny faces at them behind me in an attempt to get them to smile at the edge of a rural wheat field. But, it seems to be an annual tradition now for the Reese family.

My wife loves the look of mature wheat and generally wants to get photos of our children in the aesthetically pleasing amber waves of grain. So, a couple of weeks ago, just before harvest, my family was perched next to a country road at the fringe of my uncle’s wheat field in northwest Ohio. Though my 22-month-old-son was less than cooperative in the wheat field photo shoot, my daughter did very well and I got some pretty nice pictures.

Along with serving as a great background for photos, soft red winter wheat is a valuable crop in Ohio, a state known for the production of high quality wheat for flour. Wheat also provides valuable cover for the fields in the winter months after being planted in the fall and the stalks of the plants provide straw for livestock bedding and other uses. And, including wheat in a crop rotation with corn and soybeans can boost yields, reduce disease and insect problems and provide a late-summer window for field work after harvest. In addition, many farmers can plant a soybean crop immediately following the late June harvest of wheat, particularly in southern Ohio.

While wheat does have many benefits, farmers are currently facing some of the unfortunate challenges associated with the crop. As always, Ohio’s wheat crop was a harbinger of spring as it greened up in great shape, but the soggy weather in April and May took its toll.

“I love raising wheat, but it is exposed to the weather for eight months and there is a lot of potential for it to be a flop,” said Dan Wagner, who farms in Hardin and Hancock Counties. “Wheat looked great coming into May, but then we started seeing the tile lines and I knew it was too wet. The water killed it in the low areas and in other places there was a head, but there was nothing in it.”

Along with reducing yields, the wet conditions also favored the development of fungal diseases (including head scab) that reduced the quality in some fields, though not as much as was initially expected by some. Last year there was quite a bit of poor quality wheat in Ohio and there were serious concerns about quality going into harvest this year.

“A lot of guys were very pessimistic this year looking out in the fields afraid that they were not going to have the yield or the quality they were hoping for. It seems like a lot of the quality we’re getting in is considerably better than last year,” said Jeff Reese, grain originator for Blanchard Valley Farmers Cooperative. “We don’t see nearly the shrunken kernels we had last year or the head scab. With head scab, last year we saw 5, 6 or 7 % damage and this year it seems to be less than 2% or 3%.”

Statewide, early surveys were showing that wheat quality was better than last year as well. Ohio State Extension specialist and plant pathologist Pierce Paul estimated average scab incidence was anywhere from 8% to 10% across the state, with less affected fields as low as 1% of heads impacted, and more severe cases ranging as high as 45 of 100 heads showing symptoms of scab. He said it is difficult to generalize for the state as a whole due to the wide range from least to most affected.

"The rains created moist, humid conditions," Paul said. "Any time we have moist, humid conditions, we'll have diseases."

Unfortunately, the lackluster 2011 wheat crop is only among the first economic losses resulting from the unbelievably wet spring we had this year. In general, yields and quality were down, but the wheat crop, while not great, was by no means a disaster either. For my purposes, in fact, it was picture perfect.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The sizzle of the fire, the rich aroma of the cooking meat and the delicious results of summer grilling hold an irresistible appeal for me. Steak is great, pork chops are divine and chicken is delicious, but lamb cooked to perfection on the grill can top them all.

Now, I am a bit biased with regard to my affinity for lamb. I married the Ohio Lamb and Wool Queen whom I met on the job 12 years ago (being an agricultural journalist does have it perks) and we do work extensively with my in-laws’ flock of registered Horned Dorset sheep. We show our sheep at the Ohio State Fair and my daughter is already smitten with having sheep in our barn. As a result, I am pretty much required to enjoy lamb. In fact, this actually may have been in the small print of my marriage vows.

But, marital obligation or not, I have really grown to enjoy cooking and eating lamb in the last few years, and I am not alone. It seems that both on and off the grill, lamb is hot these days. From the television chefs to the culinary homemaker, lamb is experiencing a resurgence in popularity for a number of reasons. First, it is delicious when prepared properly.

“A lamb chop is pretty doggone good,” said Rick Reynolds, manager of the United Producers, Inc. livestock auction in Mt. Vernon. “I think there are l consumers out there that are being re-introduced to lamb. People are hearing about how good lamb is on television and how to prepare the different cuts. When they hear about it, they want to try it. More people are fixing it once a week or once a month to add a little variety to what they are eating.”

The trend of more general consumers seeking out popular lamb cuts including leg of lamb, lamb chops, rib chops and others have helped to bolster demand to levels that it has not had for years. In addition, growing ethnic populations in Ohio and the eastern U.S. are creating a strong market for lamb in the state.

“Instead of just Jewish and Greek markets, we’re seeing more people coming into this region from Somalia and the Middle East,” Reynolds said. “There is a growing market for lamb because of that as well.”

As evidence of lamb’s current popularity, the recent Ohio Lamb Chef’s Day held on a farm in Westerville had a fantastic turn out of lamb chefs interested in learning about recipes and insights from experts despite the miserable rainy conditions. The event featured delicious Ohio wines paired with and used in lamb recipes including: Lamb Tartare, Lamb Terrine, Lamb Ragout, Lamb Roast and cured lamb bacon.

Great lamb recipes are available at www.americanlamb.com and a quick Internet search brings up scores more from Food Network notables and others. In addition, the American Lamb Board is hosting popular Lamb Jam Tour in major cities across the country this summer that features top chefs and delicious lamb recipes. Ohio will be hosting its version of the Lamb Jam at the Ohio State Fair this summer on Aug. 5 for fairgoers to sample great lamb and learn recipes from some of Ohio’s premier chefs.

In addition to the great taste and culinary diversity they offer, sheep, of course, provide natural wool and a number of environmental benefits. Sheep efficiently convert grass (something we cannot eat) to meat (something that we can eat) with minimal disruption of the natural ecosystem. Sheep also make valuable use of hilly, erosion-prone land that cannot be used for anything else productive while fertilizing the soil. They are also easier on fences, compatible with grazing other types of livestock and are fairly easy to work with due to their smaller size.

But when it comes to the dinner table, the bottom line is that lamb chops (and other cuts) are pretty doggone good and worth trying on the grill this summer, and I am not just saying that because I married the Ohio Lamb and Wool Queen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It is no secret that Ohio’s economy has been struggling in recent years and the wet weather this spring will not help the situation. Unfortunately, the spring weather was so bad that Ohio’s agriculture (and economy) could be paying a hefty price for months to come.

In March, April, and May, Ohio received half of its normal annual precipitation. In May, rainfall totals exceeded 180% of normal for the month. The wet May followed the wettest April since Ohio has been keeping records. Ohio got 215% of normal rainfall for April. In addition, March had 150% of the normal rainfall and February got 205% of the normal precipitation, according to the National Weather Service.

James Ramey, the director of the Ohio Field Office for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, said the numbers regarding the corn planting progress were a clear reflection of the wet spring. By late May, there was little corn in the ground.

“In the history of the Ohio progress report, corn planting has never been this far behind. Our records go back to about 1960,” Ramey said. “Back in 1960, of course, the cultural practices were lot different than they are now and corn planting was typically a lot later than it is now. We are even behind those dates.”

As rains continued through late May, Mother Nature appeared to have Ohio’s farmers on the ropes, though it just took some sunshine and warm weather to show how much fight was left in waterlogged Ohio agriculture. Just days after rain clouds darkened hopes of a successful planting season planters were rolling, dust was flying and Ohio planted a corn crop.

But even after a great week of progress, as of Sunday June 5 only 58% of Ohio’s corn crop was planted, which was 39% behind last year and 41% behind the five-year average. At 26% planted, soybean planting was 51% behind last year and 62% behind the five-year average.

The delayed planting, especially for corn, sets up the potential for substantial yield decreases. By the end of May, corn yield losses can be as high as 2 bushels per acre per day of delayed planting. So, as a result of the late planting season, Ohio farmers stand to lose nearly $1 billion in income, according to Barry Ward, production business management leader with Ohio State University Extension. Ohio’s corn crop could lose $720 million and soybeans could lose $260 million in gross income at the farm gate.

However, Ward says his estimates are just ballpark figures based on certain assumptions made at "a snapshot in time" for only corn and soybeans. He expects that the losses could be much higher for agriculture as a whole.

"It's a very incomplete picture," Ward said. "There are certainly other losses being experienced in the agricultural sector, including substantial losses in fruit and vegetable production, and in the greenhouse and bedding plant industry. Quantity and quality losses in winter wheat might be expected due to disease. And, pasture and hay are also suffering losses in both quantity and quality. Poorer feed means less feed efficiency, and that will translate into losses in livestock, as well."

In addition, the estimate does not include multiplier effects in the economy.

"Less income means that farmers have fewer dollars to spend on inputs and capital expenses, such as equipment and buildings," Ward said. "But it also means less disposable income to make purchases that would have helped spur the local economy -- they might hold off on buying a car or making other purchases."

The summer weather could further increase the huge financial losses as hot, dry conditions in July and August could reduce yield potential for corn and soybeans.

"The weather from now until harvest will determine the impact on yield and on income," Ward said.

Other factors that could change the outlook include how many farmers decide to take prevented planting crop insurance, and how many corn growers switch to soybeans. Ward also points out that this initial estimate "is a very conservative number."

We will unfortunately be feeling the effects of delayed planting for a while, but only time and the summer weather will reveal the full economic price tag of the soggy spring of 2011.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

During the summer grilling season when meats aplenty and fire are united for top-notch seasonal dining, a favorite in the Reese house is slow-cooked pork tenderloin on the grill. While otherwise God-fearing law-abiding folks, the Reese family’s grilling techniques for pork tenderloin, though, have long been a dark secret due to our blatant disregard of federal government recommendations.

Three burners are required on the grill. The outside two burners are left on low and the middle is turned off, with the pork raised up slightly off the grill surface above the middle burner. The low temperature and slow cooking allow for apple wood smoke to penetrate the meat rubbed with ample seasonings.

The key, of course, is not over cooking the meat so it remains moist and tender. After about 45 minutes or so, the pork needs to be checked fairly regularly with a thermometer so it can be promptly removed from the grill when it is just under 145 degrees. It then must be quickly wrapped in foil, and left to sit for up to an hour to let it finish cooking. The resulting delicious, tender, moist meat, complete with a pink smoke ring, never fails to dazzle diners with its apple-smoked flavor. Mmmmm…delicious.

Now, if you know anything about cooking pork, that 145 degrees has long been lower than proper according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards that have recommended cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. With that in mind, Reese grillers (my father developed the technique and I claim to have perfected it) have been grilling on the fringe, thwarting the system with technically undercooked, though delicious, pork – a dark secret indeed.

But, we are pork-temperature-deviants no longer thanks to a welcome change from the USDA. The federal agency recently announced that pork can be consumed safely when cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a three-minute rest time. The new recommended temperature is a significant 15 degrees less than what was previously recommended and typically will yield a finished product that is pinker in color.

“Our consumer research has consistently shown that Americans have a tendency to overcook common cuts of pork, resulting in a less-than-optimal eating experience,” said Dianne Bettin, a pork producer from Truman, Minn., and chair of the Checkoff’s Domestic Marketing Committee. “The new guidelines will help consumers enjoy pork at its most flavorful, juicy – and safe – temperature.”

The revised recommendation applies to pork whole-muscle cuts, such as loin, chops and roasts. Ground pork, like all ground meat, should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Regardless of cut or cooking method, both the USDA and National Pork Board recommend using a digital cooking thermometer to ensure an accurate final temperature.

This new recommendation stems from a 2007 Pork Checkoff-funded research project conducted by Ohio State University to measure consumer eating preferences. As part of that project, university researchers tested how various end-cooking temperatures affected eating preferences. But the researchers needed to know if temperatures below 160 degrees would be safe if that turned out to be consumers’ preference.

From there, a Pork Checkoff funded study with Exponent Inc., an engineering and scientific consulting firm, to evaluate any food-safety implications of cooking temperatures within a range of 145-160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Additional Checkoff-funded research conducted by Texas A&M supports the fact that meat temperature continues to rise after being removed from the heat. With this in mind, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service agreed that the cooking temperature for pork could be lowered.

“It’s great news that home cooks can now feel confident to enjoy medium-rare pork, like they do with other meats,” said Guy Fieri, a chef, restaurateur and host of several food-focused television programs. “Pork cooked to this temperature will be juicy and tender. The foodservice industry has been following this pork cooking standard for nearly 10 years.”

And now the foodservice industry (and the Reeses) can finally enjoy delicious, guilt-free pork cooked to 145 degrees, in perfect accord with the recommendations of the land.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dawn Combs wanted a quaint farmstead in the middle of 100 acres of herb gardens, grazing livestock and buzzing bees. Carson Combs wanted to rehab an old home in Italian Village in the heart of Columbus. Their marital compromise landed them just outside of Marysville on a 3.5-acre farm with a population density somewhere in the middle of either extreme. It seems an odd location for a farm

“It all started with a lie. I told him, ‘I just want to try bees for a hobby,’” Dawn said.

It did not take long for those first few bees to develop into a small business. Dawn started selling her honey at a local farmers market and began making lip balm, skin cream and other products. The honey is harvested only once a year to maximize flavor and benefit to those with allergies. Carson handles most of the honey duties around his full-time job as a city planner in nearby Dublin.

Along with bees, Dawn has always loved working with herbs for their flavor, health benefits and medicinal properties. It was only natural, then, for her to blend herbs and honey, resulting in honey infused with lavender, rose petals, lemon/ginger/garlic, peppermint and other herbs.

About 40 types of herbs are harvested for commercial uses, and dozens more varieties are grown for display for tours and workshops held at the farm. Dawn works hard to educate her customers on how to use herbs on their own and make the most of her farmstead compromise.

“We’re trying to educate family herbalists with the knowledge and the herbs that they need,” Dawn said. “I do a lot of speaking engagements and workshops through the year to educate people about the herbs we use. And when people come here to our home just outside of Marysville on 3.5 acres, they are not intimidated. This is something they can relate to and see themselves doing.”

For the production of her plants, Dawn adheres to the principles of biodynamics that combine old herbal knowledge, folklore and science. Her methods are designed to get the most out of agricultural production while eliminating commercial fertilizers and pesticides to more closely work in concert with nature.

“If your soil is healthy, your plant is healthy, and healthy plants are less susceptible to pests and diseases,” Dawn said. “We do things a lot differently than the farmers around here, so people are always watching us to see what we’re doing.”

Dawn also practices companion planting techniques to control pests and weeds. For example, garlic attracts the aphids that plague roses, so planting the two beside each other keeps aphids off of the roses. The properties of nettles allow nearby tomatoes to stave off spoilage for a longer duration. Spearmint deters mice and mites, so that herb is planted in abundance around the beehives for healthy, pest-free colonies. Comfrey is planted around many crops because it falls over and makes an effective, natural mulch.

All of the farm’s herbs are harvested at their peak of phytochemical potency for maximum flavor and health benefit. The proper harvest time depends on the particular herb and the part of the plant that is being used. For roots, the best harvest time is in spring right before the plant emerges from the ground or in the fall just after it goes into dormancy. For the leaves of a plant, it is best to harvest just prior to flowering. The flowers should be picked just as they are opening.

“We are going for very high quality, and the work is meticulous,” she said.

Once the herbs are harvested, they are immediately incorporated into the various products from the farm. Their more than a dozen herb-infused honeys are loved from coast-to-coast, as the growing notoriety of the farm’s products has landed the couple in San Francisco to hand out samples and on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Dawn also handcrafts skin creams, tinctures, bug repellant cream, first aid items and an extremely popular poison ivy relief kit.

And, while the Combs agreed to meet in the middle and live somewhere between city and rural, the quality of the products from the resulting Mockingbird Meadows Honey and Herb Farm is no compromise.

For more about the farm, visit www.mockingbirdmeadows.com.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My daughter has always been energetic and I was excited when we had the chance to harness some of that energy for something constructive when she started playing soccer at three years old. What I have since discovered in her (and her teammates’) exploits on the field of play is somewhat less than constructive, though certainly entertaining.

Last fall and this spring, her team took to the fields in epic battles of post-toddler soccer struggles. More often than not, multiple players from each team are sidelined due to crying, distractions or potty breaks. And, most generally, if the players stay on the field and reasonably engaged in the game, it is a great victory worthy of celebration with a post-game ice cream cone (a favorite for both daddy and daughter).

Needless to say, this spring has been less than ideal for little kid soccer leagues due to the steady deluge of rain, brisk winds and cool temperatures. There have been more games and practices canceled than actually held due to the unbelievably terrible weather last month. At least we still got ice cream after the practices.

While youth soccer has certainly suffered due to the soggy spring weather, there are other implications that have more significant consequences. Farmers too have been kept on the sidelines this spring as the persistent rains have left fields too wet to plant crops.

As of May 2, 1 percent of the state’s corn crop had been planted compared to 60 percent in 2010 and 32 percent for the five-year average, according to the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service. Everything else, from peaches to oats, is well behind schedule as well and 93 percent of the state’s topsoil has surplus moisture. Many parts of the state set, or nearly set, all time April rainfall records and some areas may have set single month rainfall records for any month.

Roger Zeedyk, who farms in Defiance County in northwest Ohio, has only been able to sit and watch, with the rest of the farmers in the state, as his fields grow weeds and gather puddles beneath the steady rains.

“To be honest, I quit checking the rain gauge. It really doesn’t matter because there is another rain coming behind it the next day it seems,” Zeedyk said. “I’m not concerned yet. In ‘98 our best crops were planted between the 10th and the 17th of May and that was the best year we ever had. Every year is different.”

Along with the wet weather, the cool conditions have delayed everything this spring.

“By looking at the trees around here, you’d think it was the first of April instead of almost the first of May,” Zeedyk said. “I had one neighbor who drilled several fields of soybeans 10 days ago. Otherwise, nobody has done anything. Fortunately we have a lot of tiled ground. I think that when it quits raining and if it is warm and windy (those days are coming) we could be in the fields in five or six days easy enough. We probably won’t have a spring. We’ll go right to summer. We’ll wake up and it will be 75 or 80 degrees and we’ll go right into planting corn. There won’t be any in between.”

But until things do warm up and dry out, farmers have little choice but to sit and wait during the calendar dates that are typically ideal for planting.

“We’ve been washing tractors and hauling a lot of corn for July delivery. We’re doing odd jobs — and they are starting to get a little bit odd now,” Zeedyk said. “We’re looking for some things to do now while we wait.”

There still is ample opportunity to get crops planted in a timely manner, but it is already nearing the end of the optimal window for planting corn by mid-May, and many farmers have yet to plant one acre. As we progress through May, the planting situation will become critical if the rain does not let up. And with already tight global food supplies, the world is depending on U.S. farmers to successfully plant and harvest a bountiful crop in 2011.

I am depending on the planting season too. I need those crops, to feed the cows to produce the milk to make the delicious ice cream cones for after soccer practice. The fall season is just around the corner.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My daughter just watched Charolette’s Web the other day, which is one of her favorite movies.
In case you have not seen the movie from a couple of years ago, it is a beautifully done film that successfully portrays the idyllic image of a traditional, old-fashioned family farm. This imagery adds unbelievable appeal to the film and the classic children’s story. You just can’t help yearning for the simple, picturesque, perfect world portrayed on that small farm with a quaint red barn holding a few sheep, a couple of horses, a cow, geese and one famous pig. Oh yeah, and the animals talk, too.
As much as we want to believe there was such a perfect place, that idyllic farm was not really that idyllic. This film (and so many other traditional farm portrayals) neglects the harsh realities of life on a farm of yesteryear when food safety, environmental stewardship and food quality were vastly inferior to what we have today. It was not that the fine folks who farmed back then did not care about these things or work hard to improve them, they just did not know any better. Farmers know better now.
One example is in the quality of pork products that reach consumers in the grocery store. Bacon, pork chops, pork tenderloin and ham are all superior products to their counterparts from just a few decades ago. In fact, pork has gone from being notoriously fatty to among the leanest cuts of meat available. According to the USDA, in 2006, six common cuts of pork had on average 16 percent less fat and 27 percent less saturated fat than just 15 years earlier.
“Our hogs today are much leaner without as much external fat,” said Jeff Karshner, Senior Regional Manager for the Advanced Hog Marketing program for United Producers. Inc., that connects producers with meat packers. “It used to be that a hog carried an inch to an inch and a half of back fat. Today we’re at .5-inch or .8–inch back fat. That affects the loin, the chops and all of the cuts. The percent lean is really good today compared to the old hogs. That means we have leaner, better tasting products for the consumer. It is healthier for the consumers too.”
There are many factors that have gone into these improvements.
“Hogs are not raised outside but in controlled environments in newer barns so they do not have to fight the elements,” Karshner said. “And, now we really fine-tune what we feed the hogs to keep the meat lean and trim and get the best gains. Genetics has also been a big factor. The genetics have really improved to make the hogs leaner and more efficient at converting feed to meat. We can also wean more pigs per sow per year than what we could 50 years ago.”
The end result is a better, more abundant product in the grocery store.
“Hogs today are a lot bigger framed with a lot more muscle and more meat. Thirty-five years ago the top weight for a hog was 210 or 220 pounds; today the top weight is 260 to 280,” Karshner said. “Consumers are getting a leaner product with better meat quality. We have to feed a lot of people, so the more pounds of meat we can produce in a hog, the more people we can feed.”
The technology, controlled environment, cleanliness and care of today’s hogs also greatly enhance food safety.
“The food safety is really important. Everyone in agriculture is working to provide a safe food supply, and the food is a lot safer now than it has been in the past,” Karshner said. “Overall it is a healthier, safer, better cut of meat for everybody. For us, food safety starts when the pig is born.”
Like everyone else, when I see that pretty red barn and beautiful farm in Charolette’s Web, I find myself wishing for that simpler, easier time when the pastures were always green, there were no unpleasant odors and the animals talked to each other. But as a person who enjoys high quality, safe, and delicious food, I am much more fond of today’s food system than the quaint red barns of yesteryear.
After all, farmers know better now, and consumers should too.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

At the advent of spring, it is a great time to drive around the countryside and observe the green-up of winter cover crops. While many crop fields are barren or dotted with weeds before spring planting, fields with cover crops are springing into life from their winter dormancy. The most common and visible of these Ohio cover crops at this time of year is winter wheat.

In Ohio, cover crops have long been planted in late summer or fall to provide valuable groundcover during the winter months in between the end of one growing season and the start of another. Cover crops, including annual rye, clover, alfalfa, Austrian winter pea, and many others can protect the soil from wind and water erosion, reduce weed pressure, add nutrients to the soil, and improve soil structure.

While cover crops have many benefits, they can also offer new management challenges, added expense and a variety of different headaches. As a result of these challenges, cover crops have become much less common in the last 50 years or so, favoring a simpler corn-soybean rotation with nothing growing in the winter months.

But in just the last few years, farmers are once again taking notice of the potential benefits of cover crops and experimenting with ways to integrate them back into crop rotations. Farmers have been listening as Ohio State University Extension and conservation groups including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have been promoting cover crops.

“EDF supports strongly the use of cover crops, especially in combination with agronomic practices designed to increase the health of the soil as well as water infiltration rates -- such as minimum tillage systems, residue management and crop rotation,” said Karen Chapman, Great Lakes regional director for EDF. “We have begun examining how to incorporate cover crop trials into our Maumee On-Farm Network, in particular, so we can assess how cover crops might increase profitability for farmers through improved soil health as well as improve water quality.”

One of the nation’s leaders in on-farm cover crop experimentation happens to live just around the corner from my home in Fairfield County. I have heard my neighbor talk several times at various meetings about one of his favorite cover crops, the oilseed radish. This cover crop has many benefits, but is best known for its ability to break up compacted soils in fields. It also scavenges nutrients and has vigorous fall growth. The crop dies in the winter and leaves soils mellow and ready to plant in the spring with no need to manage the cover crop.

One unfortunate side effect of this cover crop, though, is the unbelievable aroma of the rotting crop in winter fields. Since our home is just a couple of miles from this nationally known farm, my wife and I have some first-hand experience with the odor of the oilseed radish. Early last winter, when we would load up the kids to drive somewhere, just about a mile or so into our journeys we would smell something awful.

At first, my wife and I thought some small mammal had crawled into our engine and died. But after a few more trips, in multiple vehicles, we determined that it was not just our car, ruling out the dead-animal-in-the-engine theory.

Then it occurred to me that the smell originated in the general area of this nearby farm. A few more olfactory observations confirmed my suspicions – oilseed radishes were to blame for the incredible odor floating up into the cold winter skies of my rural Fairfield County neighborhood. From then on, oilseed radishes were an almost daily topic of conversation for my three-year-old daughter who was both disgusted and fascinated with their odor.

Apparently, we were not the only people smelling the rotting radishes. The local fire department was swamped with calls from concerned citizens fearing there was some sort of gas leak in the area. The farmer and local firemen were even interviewed on the evening news to address the smelly situation. In the TV interview, the farmer explained that the smelly crop improved his soils and reduced the need to spray herbicides in the spring.

The persistent stench hung on for a surprising duration throughout the winter. There is no doubt that the many Ohio farmers working with cover crops are doing great things for their soils and the environment, but sometimes, conservation stinks.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

“Pork chops.”
“I think we’re going to have pork chops tonight. I love pork chops. We’ll probably have some sweet corn and some iced tea too. Mmmmmmm.”
In college, I worked for an old guy who refinished high school gym floors in the hot summers. On our long road trips to and from jobs, we would often have long discussions about one of our favorite subjects — food. Whenever conversation of the day’s work trailed off into long stretches of silence, he would inevitably blurt out the name of one of his favorite foods, usually whatever his wife was making for dinner.
I too love talking about food, and his dinner discussions would always result in resumption of lively conversation for the duration of the trip. People love talking about food and, in recent years, it has become clear that they also love to talk about the rising prices of food.
U.S. food price inflation reached 7.5 percent in September 2008 before falling 10.5 percent by November 2009. The inflation has been moving back up, and generating plenty of discussion, ever since. What factors are to blame for the increasing sticker shock at the grocery store?
“Though several factors contribute to increased food costs, farm commodities continually receive the blame, but farm products represent only 19 percent of retail food prices. Prices of many agricultural commodities are still less than the levels that sparked 2008 food riots and real food prices have decreased 75 percent since 1950,” said Dwayne Siekman, CEO of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. “Yes, grain prices are at increased levels. So, too, are the costs of supplementary root causes of increased grocery store prices including labor, energy, product marketing/packaging/shipping and speculation of the commodity markets.”
Siekman also points to the higher prices for imported food due to the weak dollar on the world market. In addition, the recent problems in Egypt and Libya have sent oil prices over $100 a barrel, which consumers pay for at the pump and the grocery store.
“We’re in a world today where food companies operate on the assumption that crude oil prices are going to be $85 to $95 a barrel,” said Corinne Alexander, Purdue University economist. “Current prices are somewhere around $105 to $110 a barrel.”
The extra costs of shipping food are passed on to consumers, she said. Alexander also said that grain shortages and extreme weather in critical crop-producing regions have combined to send retail food prices higher this year. American consumers can expect to spend about 4 percent more for food this year than in 2010, Alexander said. Beef, pork and poultry products likely will see even greater price hikes.
“With higher grain costs, the biggest food inflation price impacts we expect to see are in the livestock area,” Alexander said. “Because those feed costs are up, we’re expecting beef prices to be up on the order of 5.5 to 6.5 percent in the coming year. Pork prices will be up on the order of 7 to 8 percent. Poultry prices will rise more moderately because it doesn’t take near as much grain to get a pound of chicken as it does a pound of pork or beef, so chicken prices will be up about 3 to 4 percent.”
She said this convergence of world factors is not a long-term situation, however.
“We’re returning to a period of food price inflation after coming off a period where we saw food price deflation,” Alexander said. “We don’t expect this to be a long-term, permanent higher food price period. We’ll see these higher food prices until we rebuild global stocks of the primary crops.”
The good news is that, by global standards, our food is still an unbelievable value in this country. In places such as Bangladesh, consumers spend 40 to 50 percent of their income on food, while the total amount the average U.S. family spends on food continues to be about 10 percent of their take-home income. Now that is something to talk about.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

With spring planting on the horizon after a long cold winter, Ohio’s farmers will once again plant Ohio’s rich soils to produce abundant food for the state and the world. Unfortunately, despite this unprecedented bounty of agriculture, people around the world continue to suffer from horrors of hunger, some right here in Ohio.

“[Hunger’s] cascading impact goes far beyond just the pangs and physical discomfort that accompany it. Hunger also affects the human spirit…This horror gnaws at the heart, perhaps even more than it gnaws at the stomach and it colors every other aspect of life,” wrote Richard Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., in his book, “The hole in our gospel.”

Fortunately for many, Ohio agriculture has long been at work on this vitally important issue of local and world hunger through a variety of efforts. Here are a few recent examples.

With a goal of providing 100,000 pounds of pork, or 500,000 meals to Ohio’s needy, the Ohio Pork Producers Council (OPPC) is working with the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, the Ohio Association of Meat Processors and the Ohio Corn Marketing Program.

“In a state where agriculture is the No. 1 economic contributor, I am saddened that so many Ohioans go hungry on a regular basis,” said Dick Isler, OPPC executive vice president. “Food is a basic need that should be readily available to all Ohioans. Through the Pork Power program, Ohio’s hog farmers are committed to making that a reality by giving back to those who are less fortunate.”

Ohio soybean growers support the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (WISHH) that regularly sends high protein soy products to those in need around the world. Late last year, WISHH teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ship soy flour to Afghanistan. The 3,525 50-pound bags of soy flour provided high-protein soy to 5,000 Afghan women and their families for four months.

WISHH launched the USDA-funded Soybeans in Agricultural Renewal of Afghanistan project to benefit Afghan farmers, food processors, and rural communities, as well as women and children. It provides a total of 240 metric tons of defatted soy flour, 13,750 metric tons of soybean oil and 6,000 metric tons of soybeans over three years. Over the life of the program and all of its activities, this project will benefit more than 405,000 Afghan people.

Ohio State’s agricultural programs have long been involved with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to help improve agricultural production in countries around the world including development, research and outreach projects in many sub-Saharan nations, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Swaziland, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia. Most recently, OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) has been awarded a $24 million USAID grant to improve agricultural productivity and food security in the East African nation of Tanzania.

The project is part of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future (FTF) initiative, which seeks to address the root causes of global hunger by sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and advancing global stability and prosperity. A nation of 35 million people, half of whom live in poverty, Tanzania — whose economy is largely dependent on agriculture — has been identified as a priority country for the FTF initiative.

“With global population exploding, and new uses for the crops we grow, this grant is critical for addressing poverty and hunger in this part of the world,” said Bobby Moser, Ohio State’s vice president for agricultural administration and dean of CFAES. “This grant validates Ohio State’s knowledge and tools for improving global food security and contributing to poverty alleviation and hunger reduction worldwide.”

The five-year grant will boost the training and research capabilities of Tanzania’s National Agricultural Research System and Sokoine University of Agriculture — the chief institution of higher learning, research and outreach for the agricultural and food industry in this country. A key outcome of the project will be the strengthening of Tanzania’s capabilities in agriculture and nutrition in the region, achieved in part through the training of 100 M.S. and 20 Ph.D. students from that country. The project will also address growing private-sector needs in food production, processing, marketing and distribution.

These are just a few of the efforts of Ohioans to help solve the problem of world hunger. While using less land, global food production is going to need to double in the next few decades to meet the needs of this growing world by embracing technology, conserving resources, and improving agricultural management in developing countries. It also would not hurt if more people would follow the lead of Ohio agriculture and share some of our bounty with those in need.