Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Life is not all about “me.” Life is about serving others, not ourselves, and agriculture has a unique way of teaching this key value.
An attitude of service always seems to be a bit more prevalent in rural agricultural areas (at least to me). The act of caring for the soil, tending to animals and producing products for others on the farm has a way of weaving itself into your moral code and instilling a willingness to serve others.
My wife and I are already trying to use lessons on the farm to teach our young children about the value of service to others. With this in mind, I tried to involve both of our children in the Operation Evergreen program this year. Each year on Veteran’s Day, veterans come out to the Christmas tree farm and select trees that will be sent to troops overseas with the hope of providing a bit of holiday cheer so far from home. It combines two important holidays that highlight the value and importance of an attitude of service.
Christmas trees from around the state are brought to the Ohio Department of Agriculture where they are inspected, baled and boxed for shipping to Kuwait where U.S. troops are stationed. I try to go help at this event each year, but more often than not, there are so many helpers that there is not much left to do. Many Christmas tree growers give up their time to serve others who are serving us all — what a lesson in service!
This year, 110 trees received a phytosanitary certificate for international shipment and will be delivered to troops by UPS. In addition to the trees, decorations were donated by local schools, churches and veterans’ groups so military units receiving the trees will have all that is needed to celebrate the holidays. Operation Evergreen is sponsored by the Ohio Christmas Tree Association and has delivered Christmas trees to troops stationed overseas since 1995.
I took my three-year-old son with me this year to the tree inspection/loading site at the Ohio Department of Agriculture so he could “help” and learn about serving others. I was a very proud father as he helped carry trees and boxes with great zeal. I could not help but grin as numerous others at the event complimented his hard work and cheerful attitude.
As the boxes of trees were filled with handmade ornaments from elementary schools and community groups from around Ohio, my son gazed in wonder at all of the Christmas cheer that he was helping to provide for others. I beamed.
“Daddy, which one of these goes in my room?” he asked.
As it turns out, my son thought that most, if not all, of the 100 Operation Evergreen Christmas trees were destined for our house. After I again explained that the Christmas trees were for service men and women, and not for us, he seemed to be a less enthusiastic assistant. Oh well, I thought, back to the fatherly drawing board on this one.
Sometimes it seems that an attitude of service to others is all too rare in today’s society. Worldly wisdom suggests that it is much more important to focus on the needs of ourselves. One only has to turn on the television, read a newspaper or surf the Web to find countless examples of the problems people get themselves into when they are focused on serving themselves and not others.
I am fortunate in my job, though, to see a very different side of society as I cover the happenings of Ohio agriculture. I get to talk with farmers who put family, farm, church, neighbors and God above their own personal advantage. I write about families who have generations of service to our country in the military. I spend time with the people who dedicate their lives to producing the food the world needs.
Needless to say, I was a little disappointed after my three-year-old son revealed his selfish motives for helping at the Operation Evergreen event. We had just left and were walking through the Department of Agriculture parking lot, when my son told me he was hungry and pulled a mangled chunk of chocolate chip granola bar from his coat pocket. It had pocket lint, some straw and a few pine needles stuck to it. He went to take a bite, but before he did, he asked if I wanted some. I politely declined with a grin. Maybe we’re on the right track after all.

Monday, May 14, 2012

With full bellies and suspicious minds, consumers are questioning more than ever the science behind their food. Genetically modified crops, antibiotics, pesticides — these are all scary sounding things that seem more at home in a science laboratory than in relation to something as intimate as the food on our plates. Despite the fact that it is this same technology that allows for those plates to be so full of healthy, bountiful and diverse foods, the reality is that such science sounds suspicious to many consumers
With every aspect of these seemingly mysterious production practices, science is on the side of agriculture, but it is not always easy, or practical, to convey this to people. Because of this, it is easy for the agricultural industry as a whole (from the scientists to the farmers) to make decisions based on the science and move forward without much explanation to or consultation with the general populace about what is going on.
Any change has some inherent risks, some more than others, and the decisions that are made in agricultural production are based on the pros and cons considering the best science available. Zero risk is impossible, but if the risks are very small, and the benefits are very significant, it only makes sense to move agricultural production forward as mankind has done for thousands of years.
This concept does not always make sense to consumers, though, who do not care to hear about any risk in their food supply. The result: we don’t tell them about the risks because, quite frankly, they are much too difficult for most of us to explain. Hence, agriculture implements these practices that are “dark secrets” in the minds of some consumers.
The details of the science behind agriculture are not quick sound bites or catchy headlines. And, when a hog farmer gets a concerned phone call from a neighbor about an article they read about the risks of antibiotics in meat, how would he effectively, honestly and accurately convey the complex science to defend antibiotic use? It cannot honestly be stated that there are no risks associated with antibiotic use. There are risks. The word risk, though, is not something that a neighbor wants to hear about their food.
Most hog farmers cannot honestly say that they do not use antibiotics, thus incurring the associated risks. Again, this is not something the neighbor wants to hear. The hog farmer could honestly explain that the use of antibiotics allows farmers to bring a healthier animal to market for the consumer, which is a significant benefit to the consumer that outweighs any associated risks based upon the body of available science. Whoa, there’s that risk word again. Eating pork from this farm must not be safe.
The farmer could clam up and not say anything, which obviously does not inspire trust. The farmer could lie. But, in most cases, whatever the exchange, these dark secrets of agriculture continue to persist, despite the best attempts for open, honest discussion from both parties.
Unfortunately, this happens over and over again with many aspects of modern agricultural production. The science is accurate and valid, but hard to explain to suspicious consumers who have been scared to death from all of the reports highlighting the worst-case scenarios of the production practice in question.
The answer to this broad problem is not an easy one. The concerned neighbor could quit his job, go to college and get a food science masters degree and write an exhaustive literature review to get an accurate handle on the science behind the production practices. The farmer could neglect his duties on the farm, sift through stacks of research and go through the science of all of his production practices with the neighbor over the course of months or years. Neither one of these options is terribly practical.
The most practical solution, however, may be even more challenging. Trust. This is a two-way relationship. If the neighbor does not want to trust the farmer, he can go out and find plenty of accurate scientific research about the possible risks of eating food in our current system of food production. He can find examples of bad players in agriculture that abuse their responsibility and examples of some of these risks realized. That is as easy as a few quick Google searches on the Internet.
And, while the neighbor has to trust, the farmer has to be worthy of that trust by taking the time to understand the concerns of the neighbor and explain how things work on the farm in an honest and open manner. The farmer has to make the effort to develop a relationship with the neighbor that facilitates trust. The farmer also has to understand the science enough to accurately spell out the realities of the situation.
Many consumers are taking steps to learn, but it is easy for them to get lost in the sea of twisted science and misinformation out there. If agriculture does not take measures to re-gain trust, the politics stemming from consumer concerns about these perceived “dark secrets” of agriculture will limit or eliminate the tools that enable farms to provide such a bountiful, safe harvest — a dark possibility indeed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I think I have convinced my children that I am pretty smart. They are at the ages where they ask copious amounts of questions. And, every time they ask me a question, I have an answer for them.

“Daddy, why is this soccer ball round?”

“So it rolls after you kick it.”

“Daddy, why do we have a fireplace?”

“So we can stay warm in the winter.”

“Daddy, where do baby puppies come from?”

“Ask your mother.”

And, while it is important for all-knowing parents such as myself to have all of the answers, it is a matter of political survival for politicians. The reality is, though, that nobody has all of the answers. In the case of what to do about the oft-discussed algal blooms in Lake Erie, there are no clear answers. But, an “I don’t know” from a politician in response to an angry constituent who got a gooey glob of blue-green algae stuck in his jet ski is not acceptable.

So, the politician offers, “That is terrible, I’ll look into it.” Soon the disgruntled jet skier becomes Lake Erie’s 5 million water drinkers and $10 billion recreation industry and there is a political cry for funding to solve the problem.

This funding goes to experts in the field, consultants, advisers and so forth, who know that the real answer is, “I don’t know.” But, it is amazing how quickly a couple of million bucks can change those, “I don’t knows” into, “We need to conduct more research into the situation in an effort to solve the problem.”

The current result is millions of dollars being poured into land use, agricultural management education, and research of a problem that may not even be solvable.

“We see signs of the problem, but the science hasn’t figured it out yet. There is no denying the pea soup in Grand Lake St. Marys, but at the same time we’re seeing close to the same thing in southeast Ohio where there are no livestock operations or nutrient applications,” said Mark Wilson, with Land Stewards, LLC in Marion. “We have science that says that dissolved reactive phosphorus will result in an algal blooms, but we don’t know the triggers. We’re going to see laws and regulations put into place and I’m a little uncomfortable with the approach that the government, USDA and Extension have taken because, while there is an educational need here, there is also some self-interest on the parts of these organizations to receive and distribute funding. The government wants to throw money at this to show they are being responsive, but nobody really understands the science of it. It makes the constituents in those areas feel like they are getting some attention from government, but in the bigger picture, it really isn’t going to make a whole lot of improvement overall.”

Even if all of the research, funding, and land use changes are a complete success and totally stop dissolved phosphorus from entering our streams and lakes (an impossibility), there is ample phosphorus already in lakes and streams to support harmful algal blooms for many, many years to come.

“There is enough phosphorus in the system that agriculture is set up to fail,” Wilson said. “This is about managing expectations. Right now there are a lot of expectations that

agriculture will fix this problem and I don’t think they’ll be able to do it. People will say, ‘Look, ag hasn’t been able to get this done and we need to force them to get it done.’ But we’re not going to appreciably change the levels of dissolved reactive phosphorus because it is such a minute quantity.”

The massive government funding efforts for a “quick fix” of this extremely complex situation seem misguided on this issue when the chances of solving the problem in this manner seem so small. With all of this being said, though, these efforts are still worthwhile. Regulations or not, there is still much that can be done within agriculture to improve nutrient management, both for the benefit of disgruntled jet skiers and for farm production efficiency and profitability.

“There are good things that go along with putting these management practices into place, but I really don’t see significant changes taking place in the ecosystem and how these things are balanced with regard to dissolved reactive phosphorus,” Wilson said. “No matter what we do, we will have a nutrient enriched landscape that will continue to deliver nutrient enriched runoff.”

This situation will leave the algae situation unsolved. And, until there is an answer on this issue, I just hope my kids don’t ask me about how we can control harmful algal blooms.

“Daddy, what causes harmful algal blooms?”

“Uhh. Politicians. Ummm, phosphorus. Uhh…jet-skiers…Ask your mother.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

To celebrate Ohio Ag Week (the second full week of March) at the Reese house, we made an all-Ohio meal. We used fresh eggs gathered from our own hens that day, bacon and ham from a hog we got from our neighbor, Snowville Creamery Milk from Pomeroy, Ohio and some cheese. The cheese came from the local grocery, but we’re not sure about the exact origin of the cheese, so we fudged a bit there.

Our four-year-old daughter made the meal from the cracking of the eggs (she has been doing this since she was two) to adding the cheese, with some supervision from her mother. The scrambled eggs were delicious and the meal was (almost) all from Ohio. It was a great meal, a fun family project, and a fun way to help the kids learn about where their food comes from during Ohio Ag Week.

During the second full week of March the new Ohio Department of Agriculture director David Daniels also took the opportunity to remind Ohioans about the importance of the state’s top industry.

“Today, agriculture tells a much different story than it did when I was growing up,” Daniels said. “Ohio farmers are on the cutting edge of technology. They are doing things faster and more efficiently, using precision equipment and GPS-guided tractors, and the effects are resonating far beyond Ohio’s borders and into a global marketplace.”

Daniels toured two new facilities that highlight Ohio agriculture not only in terms of benefitting those within the state, but also people around the world. He went to Bluegrass Farms and Central Ohio Logistics Center near Jeffersonville, where food grade Ohio soybeans are cleaned bagged, and shipped around the world. He also visited Feed the World, LLC, in Sabina that exports high quality livestock to foreign countries.

“Ohio farmers and agribusinesses are now sorting and sending thousands of bushels of identity-preserved, food-grade soybeans to Japan and Korea. Through this high-tech process, a customer in Asia can trace back the beans in each bag to the plot of land right here in Ohio they were grown on. The process creates jobs, and the Ohio farmers growing these soybeans are often paid a premium above the standard price of the commodity,” Daniels said. “Ohio’s quality livestock are also in high demand and are being shipped all over the world. In 2010, Ohio exported 7,034 livestock animals compared to the 25,836 livestock animals Ohio exported in 2011. The volume of livestock going through the state is projected to exceed $3.1 million in economic activity, just in feed costs.”

These businesses are a great benefit to the local agricultural economy and to Ohioans in general.

“When Ohio farmers and agribusinesses are successful, we all benefit. There are more jobs and income, and money from these transactions filters through the community and helps support the bank, the grocery store, the local car dealer, or any other number of community businesses,” Daniels said. “The food you buy to feed your family costs less. Simply put, every time another country invests in Ohio agricultural products, it means a better way of life and a secure future for you and your family.”

Agriculture has been the lone bright spot in the darkest of economic times for Ohio.

“Now, more than ever, we need to look toward agriculture. Even when other industries are challenged by changing trends, agriculture continues to be our top industry, adding $107 billion to the economy and providing thousands of jobs to people who live in our state,” Daniels said. “Did you know Mercer County is number one in the state in agricultural production? It is also number one in the lowest level of unemployment in the state. That is no coincidence.”

Agriculture means much more than a great meal of scrambled eggs, and the rest of the plentiful food on the table, for Ohio. Agriculture has always been the engine driving the state’s economy and will continue to fill this role moving forward. For this reason, for every Ohioan, every week should be Ohio Ag Week.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they say. And, right now, the wheels of federal farm programs are running smoothly, which may not bode well for the farm bill and agricultural funding amid the tight budget situation.

“The budget situation is only going to get worse,” said Joe Shultz, senior economist for the U.S. Senate Committee of Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry, to attendees at the Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium back in mid-December. “There are going to be some real challenges as agriculture programs are targeted for cuts.”

As commodity prices have risen, input prices have followed. Farmers have enjoyed profitability in these times of high prices, but a drop in commodity prices could mean huge losses for every sector of agriculture due to the higher level of costs associated with production. The success of the current farm bill, along with crop insurance, provides protection for farm businesses in the case of plummeting prices or weather disasters.

“I see highly volatile prices in the markets. Folks that don’t understand agriculture don’t understand this risk,” Shultz said. “We know there will come a time when prices will dip and we’ll have lower prices with continued high input prices.”

In the current good times for agriculture, farm policy has proven its efficacy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced that, during the current strong farm economy, government payments have dropped significantly -- the farm bill is doing what it is supposed to do. The amount paid directly to agricultural producers is expected to total $10.6 billion in 2011, a 14.4% decrease from the estimate of $12.4 billion paid out in 2010. If the estimates are correct, this would be the lowest amount paid to producers since 1997.

The largest decreases in payments are expected in disaster relief payments and Average Crop Election Program (ACRE) payments. This good news for taxpayers and the budget is a very timely announcement in terms of the farm bill debates, but the political wave from this announcement may not be much more than a ripple in Washington’s sea of budgetary woes.

“This is how the programs are supposed to work, they pay when farmers need help. They don’t pay when they don’t,” said Adam Sharp, with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “It should matter, but likely won’t matter much politically.”

Instead, agriculture is probably facing a disproportionate share of federal budget cuts because things are going well for agriculture right now. Such funding cuts could weaken the success of these programs and the safety net for producers that may be more important than ever with the high risk, high volatility months and years ahead.

In addition, as more scrutiny is being placed on environmental concerns, water quality and land use issues, the conservation programs included in the farm bill will also take on increased importance. In Ohio there are ample headlines about Grand Lake St. Marys and Lake Erie. Improvements in these and other watersheds depend upon the implementation of state and federal conservation programs through the farm bill.

With this in mind, all of agriculture needs to encourage Congress to move forward with cuts that are equitable for agriculture in what will become an increasingly challenging farm bill amid the budget crunch.

“You need to tell members of Congress that we need to move forward right now because we all risk losing if we can’t move forward together,” Shultz said. “We are at a pivotal moment in farm policy right now. We are seeing a shift towards risk management and that means the work is hard.”

And that may mean that the wheels of agriculture need to start squeaking a bit louder.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

It really is not a secret that Americans (and Ohioans) are overweight. Any trip to the mall, visit to a restaurant or trip to the movies shows that, in general, there are ample expanding waistlines around us.

While there are many factors that played a role in this, there have also been many proposed solutions to America’s weight problem. A year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a proposed rule to update the nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The proposed changes to school meal standards add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals. Schools would also be required to limit the levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories, and trans fats in meals. The Ohio Small Grains Marketing Program (OSGMP) decided to take things one-step further than food mandates by working with education consultants to change students’ behaviors and attitudes about their food choices.

“Rather than us writing a curriculum and handing it to them hoping that they would do something with it, we brought a team of teachers together from Mt. Gilead, which was the first school we approached,” said Carol Warkentien, one of the OSGMP education consultants. “We laid out some of the challenges we would be facing if we wanted to bring kids along with this notion.”

The initial meeting led to a decision to consult the students themselves on the best ways to shape their attitudes and behaviors about their foods. Soon, the Mt. Gilead FFA was working to change attitudes about food in the school. The FFA students started by making a video in the school cafeteria.

“The students did a video in their own high school lunchroom and asked other students what they thought about their healthy lunch. Of course there was some hilarity in the interviews, but there is also an awareness of some of the gaps in student knowledge of and understanding about their food,” said Jeanne Gogolski, another OSGMP education consultant working on the project. “One of the prime athletes at the school ate an entire pack of Oreo cookies for lunch. Naturally that produces some conversation about what it takes to have a healthy lunch.”

As a follow up to the video, the Mt. Gilead health class posted some nutrition information in the lunchroom listing the calories in some of the lunch food. The school also had a whole grains taste test event where students rated whole grain snacks and chose their favorites to include on the school menu to help reach the USDA requirements.

The Mt. Gilead FFA students also used their cafeteria video at some events to generate interest from other FFA chapters in their “Food for Thought Challenge.” For the student-created challenge, the OSGMP gave out $500 scholarships to nine Ohio FFA chapters (including Mt. Gilead) to help them develop a nutritional awareness campaign about healthy food choices for their fellow students.

Each participating chapter will make a presentation at the Ohio FFA Convention next May and the winning chapter will receive $2,000 from the OSGMP. Participating FFA chapters submitted campaign entries in September and were selected in October based on the originality of their campaign ideas.

The participating Food for Thought FFA chapters have already begun implementing their campaigns, which include promoting the use of student food logs, organizing educational fairs with health-related groups and providing healthy snacks between classes. Along with Mt. Gilead, the participating FFA Chapters are: Ridgemont, Northwestern, Clear Fork, London, Miami East, Ridgedale, North Union, and Twin Valley South.

“The schools’ progress will be monitored throughout the year as they launch a program in the school. The winner that can best show that they changed attitudes and behaviors in their district will win the award,” Warkentien said. “We think interest will be even higher next year. It is kind of fun and it has gotten kids working within their own districts and they are reaching out to younger kids in the district as well. Kids can be very innovative and creative and they are going to come up with a lot of ideas that can be shared around the state.”

The nutritional possibilities are limited only by the expanding imaginations of FFA students around the state — and imaginations are much more beneficial to expand than waistlines.