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.