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.