Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fresh Country Air

By Matt Reese

February 2011

I have younger twin brothers who caused more than double the amount of parental consternation as young children through their cooperative efforts. On one occasion, the twins were around four years old and had gone upstairs to bed. My dad heard several strange noises outside and went to investigate. He was somewhat surprised to find a pile of toys, clothes, sheets, shoes, and just about everything else from the twins’ room in a pile below their open window.

As it turns out, the four-year olds, rather than going to sleep, decided it would be fun to work together to remove the screen from their window and throw the contents of their room outside. My concerned parents rushed upstairs to find the mostly empty room and the twins both straining beneath one of their mattresses that was partially shoved into the open window. They discovered early on that a cooperative effort could be very effective.

In the adult world, a wide variety of business cooperatives take a similar approach in pooling the inputs for the benefit of accomplishing the goals of everyone involved. In terms of agriculture, cooperatives can provide the increasingly desired farm connection with high quality food for consumers and a valuable marketing outlet and various services for farmers.

“United Producers, Inc. (UPI) is a cooperative owned by the farmers that we do business with. Our customers are also the owners. That means that they have a personal vested interest in the success of what we do,” said Dennis Bolling President and CEO of UPI. “We function as an intermediary to the marketplace. We give farmers access for their production to get to larger customers. We aggregate volume. We take the production of thousands of farmers and negotiate with the food companies on their behalf.”

UPI has around 40,000 members in eight states that are livestock producers of all sizes and shapes and provides services that include sales/marketing, financing and risk management for its members.

“We have beef producers, hog operations, dairy operations and sheep and goats are a major component as well. Our role is to bring competition to bear on their production,” Bolling said. “Our objective is to find many competitive bids that they would not otherwise be able to access.”

This market access makes farms of all sizes more profitable and more viable, which benefits rural communities and consumers.

“The consumer is far more entrenched with cooperatives than they may realize. It may be a mutual insurance company or credit union. A lot of the branded products that they buy such as Welch’s Grape Juice, Ocean Spray Cranberry or Ohio Signature Beef all have cooperative connections. Cooperatives offer the consumer a pretty direct pipeline to the farmer who produced their food,” Bolling said. “That is a growing emphasis of a lot of consumers who want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced.”

In a world economy such as ours, there is comfort for consumers when they know where their food comes from.

“Consumers and retailers are seeing the value in this connection to local foods,” Bolling said. “The consumers can put value on cooperatives because of the intrinsic value in which ag operates — good people doing a good job to produce safe, healthy food. Now more consumers want the added knowledge of where their food came from. A cooperative is often the linkage from the consumer to the farm.”

Going an additional step for the consumer, many cooperatives form a specialty brand that provides specific products that people want, including products that can be traced back to a specific farmer. Food is also safer and of consistently higher quality because of cooperatives.

“If you take programs like Pork Quality Assurance, UPI is the intermediary that assures at the farm level that all those practices to ensure quality are adhered to,” Bolling said. “The consumer is ultimately dependent upon how good a job the farmer does. We’re in business to keep farmers in business, so we help them do source and age verification, animal ID that allows for trace-back and other safety nets that consumers just take for granted.

“The co-op has the same vested interest that the farmer has, and one of those things is keeping consumers safe. And, somebody has to make sure all of the safety standards required by retailers are done, and that is a role of cooperatives. Those retailers hold us accountable, we hold the farmer accountable and farmers hold themselves accountable because that is the right thing to do for their business.”

In terms of providing what consumers demand and accomplishing goals, cooperative efforts have proven to be very effective through the years — just ask my brothers.

This column is brought to you by Ohio agriculture. Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and resides in Baltimore, Ohio. Contact him at mkcreese@yahoo.com. For more, visit freshcountryair.blogspot.com.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My wife and I try not to have a long list of silly rules for our children to follow, but sometimes, their actions warrant rules.

Here are a few of the strange rules in Reese family law.

  1. Do not stand on the table. There are clear safety issues when an 18-month old is standing on pretty much anything. Plus, no one wants the feet of anyone (even a cute kid) in, on, or around the food.
  2. Do not unroll toilet paper for any reason. There are, of course, very important reasons why toilet paper needs to be unrolled. But, due to our children’s seemingly insatiable desire to unroll the entire roll onto the floor and around our home on a regular basis, we had to enforce very strict guidelines. For now, mom and dad do the necessary unrolling to prevent an in-house TP party.
  3. Do not pet the dog. This would seem like something we would encourage the children to do, but the reality of the situation required a rule. Petting, when done by a young child, quickly turns into poking, pulling, hitting and prodding, none of which the old dog appreciates. A grouchy dog and children do not good mix. Hence, no petting the dog.
  4. Do not use daddy’s toothbrush to clean the toilet. I do not think much explanation is required here.

While we do not really want to make up all of these rules, sometimes the behavior (or the results of the behavior) requires regulation. Now, if you think a toothbrush in the toilet is bad, consider poisonous algae in the drinking water for 11 million people or killing off a $1 billion fishing industry in Lake Erie.

The extra nutrients in Ohio’s lakes and streams are already aggravating the general public, but when fish die and people get sick or die from the harmful algae growth in Lake Erie or Grand Lake St. Marys, people are going to be angry. Angry people want someone to blame and regulate.

The Ohio EPA already formed the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force (including some good ag folks) that looked at all of the sources of phosphorus in Lake Erie. They looked at industry, the oft-cited lawn fertilizer runoff, urban areas, and agriculture.

In terms of agriculture, crop consultants, Ohio State University Extension research, farmers and environmental groups are at work to proactively address this issue.

Farmers are the last people who want expensive phosphorus and other crop inputs anywhere but in their crops.

“Economics is going to drive this. These inputs are extremely expensive and nobody can afford to buy nutrients that do not go into the production of the crop,” said Joe Nester, a northwest Ohio crop consultant. “With soil testing, good management, good record keeping, and a lot of common sense, we can keep those nutrients at home.”

This is not always an easy task, though. It will take careful management and new satellite-based precision technology to minimize or eliminate nutrient loss in the future, but consultants like Nester and researchers at Ohio State University are working to address this problem with technology, development of management practices and detailed studies of soils and hydrology.

Along with these efforts, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is teaming up with farmers, government conservation programs and Soil and Water Conservation Districts to implement land use plans including wetland restoration on unproductive agricultural soils and tree or grass filter strips that capture sediment and nutrients before they reach creeks and streams.

“EDF's work in the Western Lake Erie Basin reflects our ‘working lands’ philosophy that landowners and producers are the most important people to work with when it comes to making real progress on conservation across the landscape. We have other projects like this one in the Chesapeake Bay and Upper Mississippi River Basin as well as Utah, Texas, Colorado and California,” said Karen Chapman, Great Lakes regional director for EDF. “In all of these places, partnerships with producers and landowners are key. We can discuss how both land set-aside types of programs like buffers and wetlands and in-field practices like no-till, cover crops, and adaptive management tools can work in combination to improve soil and water retention, help save the producer money, and keep the nutrients on the land.”

Nobody likes rules, but the water quality problems in Lake Erie must improve. From industry and urban areas to agriculture, everyone needs to step up with proactive measures to address the problem of harmful algal blooms. After all, there is no need to have the rule if you aren’t putting the toothbrush in the toilet.