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 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.