Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Monsanto, Not as Flashy as Silicon Valley

Monsanto Research Center, Chesterfield - Visitor Building
Last weekend, I joined a group of about 20 Chicago-area moms on a trip to Monsanto’s Chesterfield Research Center and World Headquarters in St. Louis, MO. We were invited by Illinois Farm Families (IFF) as alumnae of the City Mom (formerly Field Mom) program. When I was a City Mom, in 2014, my top food issue to learn more about was GMOs. IFF gave me all the resources I have needed to learn the facts from credible sources like university and government websites. This trip to Monsanto was an opportunity I couldn't refuse. It was an opportunity to learn what biotechnology is, to see what it looks like first-hand, and to hear directly from scientists and other people doing the work and be able to ask them questions.

There was so much that we got out of this visit; I can't share everything in one post. So, in this post I will share my perception of the place where biology and technology come together at Monsanto. When we read about biotechnology, we read about how it combines biology and high-tech, but we don't really get an image of that high-tech stuff. What is it, anyway? I was hoping to find out on this tour.

Monsanto, Chesterfield campus, lab building on right
We landed in St. Louis and, coming from Chicago O’Hare, we knew immediately we were in a different place. The airport was quiet and we seemed to be the only ones there at 10 AM on a Saturday morning. The group of us, which also included two farm moms from the Illinois Farm Families, met our Monsanto leader, Janice Person, and boarded a bus for a short ride to the Monsanto center. When we left Chicago, the leaves on trees had not popped open yet, and when we arrived in St. Louis, we found everything was green and in full bloom. The campus was nicely landscaped with small trees and spring flowers. It was a peaceful walk between buildings.

Laboratory building with rooftop greehouses
When we arrived at Monsanto, our bus went through a security gate and drove along a curving entry drive. As we looked out the windows, we were impressed by the large brick buildings off in the distance with giant green houses up on top. It brought a new meaning to the term roof garden. I wondered to myself if we would have an opportunity to go see those, I hoped so. We wound around some buildings and stopped in front of a building with a formal entry titled, Monsanto Research Center. We were at the visitor’s building and we learned that Monsanto offers tours to the public, similar to the one we were on, Monday through Friday.

One thing I wondered was, if this is open to the public, is what we are going to see the actual stuff that happens here or at least a representation of it? It seems unusual to me that a company would give tours to the public. The reality is that biotechnology with regard to food has suffered from consumer opinion and misinformation. One thing they can do is let the consumer inside to see for themselves what is going on. 

I believe what we saw on our tour was at least a representation, perhaps more in some cases. I felt that the things we saw were generally how they do what they do at this place. It was all very much "hard wired." There may not have been critical work going on in the spaces we were taken into (that is my assumption, at least), but that's okay with me. If that's true, the spaces were representative of the spaces where real work is being done. 

Corridor with Growth Chambers on left
I was surprised by what I saw. For whatever reason, I expected high-tech to be synonymous with a state-of-the-art, high gloss, flashy place like Silicon Valley that is depicted in magazines. Instead, I saw a lab building, which is a working facility, with a mix of low-tech, hands-on science equipment as well as equipment that is probably considered by some to be high-tech, but appears banal. It was very clean and the floors were polished, but it wasn't the high design of Silicon Valley - a very different kind of high-tech. There were computers in some rooms and most spaces were climate-controlled for the plants, most likely controlled by computers located remotely. It was a building specifically designed to grow plants in controlled environments, growth chambers and greenhouses, then study them in labs. The growth chambers appeared to be self-contained units (not unlike a walk-in freezer) installed one after the next in a line down a corridor. They are impressive on their own, then to know that there are so many is fascinating. To be sure, the mechanical engineers who design this type of building have quite a task coordinating all of the mechanical and electrical requirements.

Entry lobby of visitor building
I learned the campus was built about twenty years ago and while we walked through the building called the visitor’s center which had a few flashy interactive kiosks for us to read while we waited, our tour was in one of those brick buildings with the greenhouses up on top - a lab building.

My overall impression of the lab building (we walked one floor, inside a couple of roof greenhouses, and a little more) is that they are very practical for the purpose of providing what plant breeders (scientists) need in order to do their work and not much more.  I was expecting that flashy and state-of-the-art facility. The one we visited simply is not flashy. Floors are VCT tile, there are no ceiling tiles in the corridors because mechanical ducts and electrical trays take up too much space. Everything visible is a necessary piece of equipment to make the labs function. If I had to describe the feeling I had as I walked through, it would be "clinical." If we were there on a Monday through Friday, I could imagine people in white lab coats quietly walking the corridors. Incidentally, on this Saturday morning, we didn't see anyone working.

Inside a Growth Chamber, soybeans for Brazil
The floor plan of the lab building we were in was posted on the wall where we were walking. We were told there are 124 growth chambers in that building. A growth chamber is a very small room, maybe 8 ft x 10 ft at the most, that is sealed off and completely climate controlled – air temperature, humidity, and lighting are set to a particular place on the planet. The one we stepped into was growing soybeans for a location in Brazil. Even the soil in the pots replicates the soil conditions at that location being studied. As we stood there, with the door wide open, letting all of the hot/humid air out, I thought to myself, this particular experiment must not be too critical; otherwise it wouldn't be on the tour. This is why I felt our tour was a representation. A public tour of actual working experiments would be too disrupting to the work of the scientists. With that said, I believe we saw a fair representation of the facility and work that is actually done.

Other than growth chambers at the interior of the floor plan, the only other rooms on this floor are laboratories, mainly at the perimeter. The laboratory is essentially the plant breeder's (scientist's) work room. We walked by one that had a typical lab table, lots of storage space, and low-tech equipment and tools for their work, like a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer for mixing soils, measuring cups and colored masking tape.

Corn stalks growing in a rooftop greenhouse, LED lighting
Cotton plant near ornamental pepper with pirate beetles
The greenhouses on the roof, of course, depend on the natural light of St. Louis, but there was supplementary LED lighting, as well.  We saw mainly corn stalks growing here. Another greenhouse that we went into was mostly empty, except a few corn stalks, but it had some sugar cane stalks growing and also a cotton plant. The cotton plant was interesting. It was sitting on a table next to an ornamental pepper. We learned that the ornamental pepper had been brought in to host the pirate beetle, which will eat undesirable/damaging insects on the cotton. 

The highlight, for me, in the greenhouse, was seeing the plant that biologists consider to be the first corn plant, teosinte. I will save what we learned about plant breeding for another blog post.

Teosinte plant (probably the origin of modern corn)
Overall, my impression of "the place" is that it is where a lot of very bright people go to work every day to breed, care for, and study plants (mostly corn and soybeans). It was impressive and fascinating; however, it is, quite simply, very hands-on work, a lot of which is still low-tech. Even though computers are used to control environments, rapidly analyze data or research databases, largely what I saw was a workplace that requires human hands to pollinate, make observations and adjustments, and record results. Those human hands are connected to some very bright people - the scientists who we met on our tour. I'll share more about those people in another blog post, as well.

Airfare for this trip was provided by Illinois Farm Families with additional support from Illinois Corn Marketing Board. Lunch and ground transportation to and from the airport were provided by Monsanto.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Child and Food, an Interview

March is National Nutrition Month and it is celebrated in our school with a Friday “tasting” at lunchtime in the cafeteria each week. The first week was freaky fruits. I had some insider information and knew that star fruit was on the menu. I also knew that my son would probably not partake; he just isn’t a risk taker when it comes to trying new food. That is actually an understatement. When he came home on this Lenten Friday (he knew it was a no meat day), I asked him about the food tasting. As I expected, he did not try anything new and he told me he thought they were serving roasted starfish. I laughed. I asked, are you sure it wasn’t star fruit? “Yea, it was probably star fruit,” he replied.

A day in my life.

This month, for my blog, I made a quick list of non-scientific questions about his favorite foods. I thought it would be interesting to see what he said.

First, I made a list of some of his favorite foods and asked him to tell me where they come from. The list, probably fairly typical, yogurt, eggs, milk, cheese – he knew all of these, as I expected. For rice, he said “a field.” Not bad. I’m not sure we’ve talked much about rice paddies and we’ve certainly never been to one. For pasta and bread, I was pleasantly surprised that he said “wheat.” He has helped me make bread many times, so he put it together that flour comes from wheat. Not bad. Happy mom.

The next question, what are your three favorite vegetables and what kind of plant do they come from? He doesn’t love vegetables and his response was cucumbers, pickles, and corn. I know, please don't judge me. Corn he had no trouble with. Cucumbers he thought grew on trees. The record screeched in my mind. Mother’s guilt. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to grow them in our garden. Someday, maybe we should try again to grow a vine – he’d surely love a homegrown cucumber if he thinks he likes the store-bought ones! Pickles had him stumped. He was surprised to find out pickles are made from cucumbers. More mother's guilt. He needs to spend some time pickling with his grandma mid-summer!

The third question, what are your three favorite fruits was easy. He loves pineapple, thought it grew on a tree, but knew it comes from Hawaii. Of course, grapes are a favorite and they come from grandpa’s farm (close enough). And apples, which every kindergartner knows, grow “in America on farms and stuff like that.”

I had to ask, how many fruits and vegetables should you eat in a day? His response: a very serious, 50. Okay, my dear child, if you think you should eat 50, why do you NOT?!? Maybe someday this will sink in. I also asked how many cups of milk should you drink in a day? His response was 5. Some days he comes close to that! If being in school didn’t get in his way, he’d probably drink more!

The next question I asked because I wanted to see if he knew what a “grain” was. Can you name 3 types of grains you like to eat? I was hopeful, but he said, “rice, corn, soybeans.” I was hoping to hear a couple other grains, like oats and wheat. Well, now I know we need to talk more about grains.

I’m a little embarrassed by the next question/answer because I learned so much this year as part of the Illinois Farm Familes Field Mom program. Clearly, I haven’t talked enough about it, yet. I asked what do cows eat and drink to be healthy in order to give us milk and beef? His response was, “calves drink their mama’s milk, the mama cow drinks milk, and cows eat grass and dandelions. Oh, mom, do you think that we can get a cow? And put it outside so that it can manure our garden?” I’m just going to let that one lie.

A day in my life.

Next question, same as above, except what do pigs eat to be healthy and give us ham, bacon, and pork chops? His answer: “grain, wheat, water.” Grain pleased me because in the previous question about grain, he considered corn and soybeans grains. Not sure where wheat came from. We’ll have to work on that more this summer.

We were almost done. I asked him to name one healthy food and one unhealthy food. Healthy: “rice.” Unhealthy: “lots and lots and lots and lots of sugar.” Score one in mom’s column and a pat on the back. I confess, I’ve drilled him about sugary foods. I asked him what is his favorite food to cook with me? Answer: “chocolate chip pancakes.” And the final food question, what is in (French) salad dressing? He said, “I know there is some kind of flavoring because how do they get the flavor in there?” Good question.

After we finished, we talked a minute about farms. I asked him are farms large or small? He said “some farms are large, like Grandpa’s. Grandpa owns two.” Grandpa’s two, combined, are 40 acres. Then he went on, “Do you think we could give our house away and move to the country where there’s not as much stinky air that can hurt your lungs?”


Maybe someday.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Not All GMOs are Created Equal

When it comes to GMOs, this 2014 City Mom learned it’s a mistake to lump all GMOs in the same pot of judgment. There is a lot more to those three letters than most nay-sayers will have us believe. The biggest lesson: You cannot judge every crop by the same standards. If you are going to call yourself a responsible consumer, you need to know more; and that ridiculous acronym is not helpful. “Genetically Modified Organism” tells us nothing about how the plant was developed. I have a small voice, but my plea to those with bigger voices is to change the way we address plant breeding using technology to assist. “GMO” doesn’t work. An engineered corn plant and an engineered apple are two completely different things, engineered differently, for entirely different reasons.

In my book, you are legitimately anti-GMO for one of the following reasons: it’s against your religion, you are joining a battle against big ag and the control of our food, you are against sharing genes across species (transgenics), or you aren’t sure about man playing God to change plant genetics – even if the end result is the same either way. I may not drink your kool-aid, but those are legitimate reasons to question.

GMOs will play an important part in the sustainability of our food future.  Not understanding what GMOs are is not an acceptable reason to be against them. The legitimate facts are available and main stream media is picking them up. It hasn’t always been, but it’s getting easier to understand them.

The latest headline that has splashed on social media is the Arctic Apple approval. Unfortunately, most of the knee-jerk social media posts are in the negative commentary column. It’s a GMO; bad, bad, bad. But, why? Do we know what we’re bashing here?

I get it if you just simply don’t want plant biologists messing with your food. The image of food engineered in a laboratory has always seemed more of science fiction and space technology. Frankly, I’m not a fan of the idea of scientists mixing powders in the lab and calling the result food (read, soda or “health” waters). But, this is different. Here’s the thing, plant breeders have been messing with our food since the beginning of food. Different varieties of peaches have been bred to have firmer flesh for canning versus eating one fresh and juicy off the tree. Different varieties of strawberries have been bred to be firmer, as well, to successfully make the journey cross-country from California fields to your breakfast table in New York. The really tasty ones you can plant in your backyard would never make the trip without turning to mush. Those giant strawberries for those special chocolate dipped Valentine delights? Bred to be that way. The beloved Honeycrisp apple? Someone worked really hard for a long time to breed it for our eating pleasure. It takes years, even decades, to develop and breed new varieties of fruits and vegetables without using computers to assist. Breeding in this way, we blindly wait for the DNA switches to get turned on and off by Mother Nature by trial and error. It can take a plant-breeder an entire career to accomplish a new variety.

Now that we have the computer technology that can assist those same biologists to speed up their understanding of the genetics that play the part in the characteristics of our fruits and vegetables, why are we shunning the outcome? An apple that doesn’t brown? Why not? They’re just turning off a piece of the DNA that is known to be the switch for the browning enzyme.

If you’re against transgenic GMOs, the Arctic apple isn’t transgenic. They used genes from another apple with a higher resistance to browning to flip the DNA switch.  There is no foreign species brought into play with this one.

Or perhaps if your GMO fear here is big ag and who controls our food, this isn’t the one, either. This Arctic Apple wasn’t developed in the lair of big ag or a company who controls our food; quite the opposite, it seems.

We love apples and they are packed with vitamins and nutrients. If they didn’t brown so fast, we would see them at the lunch-time salad bar and packed in the convenience foods we seem to really appreciate. Apples instead of fries for the kids at our go-to fast-food joint? I’d much rather have them without whatever that current spray is that imparts a nasty bitter flavor. Is it the best way to eat an apple? Definitely not. But, when we’re on the go, the convenience wins. At least it’s better than the greasy fries alternative to fill the void of hunger.

Once this apple has grown and been sold, we will still have a choice. As a consumer, I don’t have to buy the Arctic Apple. I will be able to choose my favorite Honeycrisp if that’s what I crave. The Arctic variety will serve a specific purpose and I can see it being useful to reduce food waste in the process. I wish we could all learn to be a little more patient and optimistic about the good and meaningful possibilities that will come out of the marriage of biology and technology.

Here are a few good resources for learning more about GMOs.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Flavor of Milk

Linda Drendel with a baby calf

Last fall, the Field Moms toured Dale and Linda Drendel’s family dairy farm in Hampshire, Illinois. They care for dairy cows and grow crops to support them. They sell their milk to a local dairy.

My big question of the day was about the flavors of milk. Why does the milk I buy (2% conventional) have such a consistent flavor year-round? What is it about organic/ultra-pasteurized milk that some people think it tastes better than non-organic milk?

I found out the answers are actually simple and straight forward. There are several factors that play a part and they include the cow’s diet, modern refrigeration, heat treatment of the milk, butterfat content, and packaging.  

One thing I did not know before the tour is that milk flavor testing is one part of a long list of test criteria (including anti-biotics and hormones) for each and every batch of milk put on the market. Consumers expect a consistent product and that is the purpose of the flavor test. An actual human, experienced in flavor testing, does the taste testing in a lab at the dairy. Any hint of an off-flavor in a batch of milk, such as onion flavor, for example, would cause the entire batch to be rejected. (Wild onion is a common weed sometimes consumed by dairy cows grazing in summer months.) We were told batch rejection does happen, but it's rare.

When I was growing up in Western New York, our milk tasted different in the summer and winter. In the summer months, the cows were out to pasture grazing on all sorts of grasses. In the winter, the cows were indoors with a diet of hay and silage. This change in diet caused the milk to taste different from winter to summer. (For more information on what dairy cows eat, see note 1 below.)

So, my first question was , why do we not taste that flavor change in the milk we buy in Chicago? I learned there were two possible reasons. The first is that many large dairy farms no longer put their cows out to pasture in summer months; therefore, their diet is consistent year-round and, subsequently, the flavor is consistent year-round. Another factor is that the equipment used at every step of milk production from the milking parlour, to the storage tanks, to the delivery system and dairy plant, all the way to our homes and including our refrigerators, is much better than it ever was at keeping milk at the proper cold temperature. Keeping the milk at the appropriate temperature helps preserve a very consistent flavor.

My next question, what makes someone think ultra-pasteurized organic whole milk tastes better than non-organic milk? The answer to this was surprisingly simple. As we all know, all milk at the super-market is pasteurized; but, some milk is labeled ultra-pasteurized, particularly milk labeled organic. So, what is ultra-pasteurized and how does that affect flavor?

First, we were reminded that pasteurization heats the raw milk up to a specific temperature and that temperature is held for a specific time. The temperature and duration depend on the product, the sugar content, and the fat content; but, generally, regular milk might be heated to somewhere around 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. This kills harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E.coli, and Listeria. The ultra-pasteurized label tells us that the milk was heated to a much higher temperature, maybe nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit, for just a few seconds. This kills all bacteria and enzymes and the milk is then considered sterile. Ultra-pasteurization produces milk with a burned, or nutty, flavor which some people prefer. (For more information about organic milk, see note 2 below.)

The third factor that affects the flavor of milk is butterfat content. If I remember correctly, we learned that all the fat is taken out of the raw milk when it comes to the dairy. Later, it is put back in and homogenized (mixed so that it will not separate) to make skim, 1%, 2%, or whole milk. Of course, the more butterfat in the milk, the creamier the milk tastes. (For more about butterfat and the cows that give it, see note 3 below.)

The fourth factor is the packaging. We can buy milk in cardboard cartons, plastic jugs, and glass. Each of those may impart (or not, in the case of glass) a different flavor into the milk.

Below are a few additional notes about what dairy cows eat, what makes milk organic, and what makes different types of cows special (other than their good looks and sweet personalities, of course).

Dale Drendel talking with the Field Moms
about the diet of his dairy cows
1. Dale Drendel showed us what their dairy cows eat. It is actually a fairly complex blend of some basic ingredients. They grow corn and alfalfa to store for winter feed. Some corn is cut and made into silage, which is the whole plant shredded to produce a nutrient-rich part of their diet. Corn may also be harvested for grain. Alfalfa is made into silage, but it is commonly cut for a nutrient-rich hay, as well. Hay is a big part of the dairy cow’s diet; it is their main source of fiber and necessary for good digestion. A surprise, to me, was to see whole cottonseed in the cows’ diet. Cotton isn't grown this far north, so that is a supplement that dairy farmers must purchase to add to their feed. It is a super-food, in a way, high in fiber, protein, and energy (fat). They also give the cows corn and soybeans in a ground-up form, for easier digestion, to supply energy and protein, respectively.

Giant hay bales in storage (over 1,000 lbs each!).
Hay is a necessary and main component
of a dairy cow's diet.

Silage (corn or alfalfa) is nutrient-rich and a main
component of a dairy cow's diet.
Grain (corn and soybeans) are main energy and
protein components of a dairy cow's diet.

Whole cottonseed is a great source of fiber, protein, and energy.
It is part of the Drendel's dairy cow diet.
2. The organic label, alone, is not an indicator of a flavor distinction. Organic milk comes from a cow that has had a diet of (organically grown) silage, hay, and grain; and probably grazed in the pasture during summer months. The conventional cow will have the same diet, although grown conventionally, and may or may not graze during summer months. Often, it seems, the organic label is paired with the ultra-pasteurized heat treatment and that heat treatment is what gives that milk a distinct flavor.

3. We learned that there are many different breeds of dairy cows. A dairy farm will choose their breed based on the specific characteristics of the breed that they are looking for. The black and white spotted cow is a Holstein; and it is probably the most recognizable of all cows. They are the highest milk producing breed and most of the milk we consume comes from Holsteins. Jersey, Guernsey, and Brown Swiss are three other common breeds and they produce milk with a higher butterfat content.

A Holstein cow in the milking parlour
To learn more about Illinois family dairy farms or even try a new dairy recipe, check out the Illinois Farm Families Pinterest page!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Illinois Farm Families Generosity Shines

2014 Field Moms at the Field Mom Acre

Harvested Field Corn
Each year, Illinois Farm Families designates a one-acre plot of land as the “Field Mom Acre.” That acre of field is planted in corn and soybeans and the Field Moms are updated monthly, from planting until harvest, with news of how the field is growing, weather conditions that have had an impact, fertilizing, and any spraying that was done to control weeds or insects. After harvest, the profits from the acre are tallied and that money is used to make a donation to a local food pantry.

Harvested Soybeans

Once again, the corn and soybean crop in this area of Illinois was record-setting. The spring weather, although it pushed a little later planting, turned out well; the summer weather was nearly ideal for growing with just enough rain and not many severe storms. The fall harvest weather cooperated and harvest was mostly dry.

Corn Seedling

Our Field Mom acre this year was planted on the Jeschke Farm in Mazon, Illinois. When we were at their farm on our spring planting tour in May, the corn had already been planted and was just coming up through the soil and the soybeans had not yet been planted. We had hoped to join them in the planting, but weather didn’t cooperate. In fact, two nights before our visit, there was snow on the ground in some places. We were told the beans needed a little more warmth with a lower risk of frost, as well as the ground needed some drying out before their planting.

Soybean Stalks ready for harvest

Through Donna and Paul Jeschke’s monthly updates, we got a good glimpse into the growing season of a corn and soybean crop. Everything went smoothly this year. However, there were a couple windy and rainy mid-summer storms that blew across Illinois. We saw on social media some of the localized damage to crops near our farm families. Our Farm Mom friends told us that most of their crops had been spared the wind and rain damage we saw in pictures. It reminded us that our farmers are dependent upon - and at the mercy of - the weather; and how quickly, in just a few minutes of a bad storm, the high hopes and optimism for a good crop can be diminished or flattened to nothing.

Field Corn Cob ready for harvest

In October’s harvest update, we learned that harvest was progressing very well and the yield on the Field Mom acre was 68 bushels (per acre) of soybeans and 225 bushels (per acre) of field corn. In total, that was enough profit to purchase an outstanding 1,000 pounds of pork which was donated to the Northern Illinois Food Bank in November.

Harvesting Field Corn

Thank you Illinois Farm Families for sharing updates of the Field Mom Acre with us throughout the growing season and also for so generously sharing your bounty with other families who will benefit from your hard work this past year.

Friday, November 21, 2014

High-Tech on the Farm

The Illinois Farm Families took us to four farms this year. All four farms grow corn and soybean crops to either feed their livestock, sell as a commodity, or both. We learned about the different forms of technology they use and the ways in which it helps them to be more productive and efficient.

A field in spring 2014, farm buildings and grain bins beyond

It may come as no surprise that large farms in the U.S. rely heavily on computer technology. Farmers have always made informed decisions, but today’s technology gives them access to more data and analysis than ever before. Technology is being used to solve problems as well as conserve energy and resources.

Showing Field Moms how technology 
is applied on the Jeschke Farm

Of course, the computer updates come at a price, but most farmers find the benefits worth the cost. As you’d expect, the larger the farm, the fewer years it takes for the technology to pay for itself. It may take a large farm just two or three years to make up the cost of the investment.

There are several different forms of tech and gadgets that we learned about. The first is GPS guidance, which is used for steering control guidance, as well as field mapping. The second is hardware and software that is used for data collection, specifically harvest/yield data and soil data. A third is equipment that is designed with variable-rate technology, which enables very precise applications of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as unbelievably precise planting - with spacings measured in tenths of an inch! 

They also use desktop and laptop computers, in-tractor monitors, tablets, and smart-phones equipped with programs or apps linked to their data. They monitor and evaluate weather data using this hardware and real-time weather apps, as well. They are also starting to use drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), to monitor the crops during the growing season.

Matt Boucher demonstrating how a UAV
is used for crop monitoring

The GPS system enables farmers to create a map of their field, collect data referenced to the map, and then put that data to work to save energy and resources and be as productive as possible. 

GPS unit atop a tractor cab

One feature of the GPS guidance is that, with the flip of a switch, the tractor operator can let the tractor drive itself. This is particularly useful, when driving thousands of acres, to keep rows nearly perfectly straight and allow the farmer to turn around to monitor equipment, like a planter, for example.  As I rode in the combine, during corn harvest, we were riding on auto-pilot guided by GPS for most of the row.

Field, mapped by GPS, gridded for soil test

Every two or three years, a testing agency tests the farm soils. A grid is over-laid on the field map and samples are taken in the field from each quadrant of the grid. 

Field map showing soil organic matter levels

The report comes back to the farmer with colorful maps detailing each of the nutrients and recommendations based on what crop will be grown thereafter. The report informs the farmer on the questions of soil health and fertilization needs. It may also influence the questions of planting - what, where, why, and how.

Image of in-cab sprayer monitor 
showing pesticide application

The most surprising aspect of all the technology we saw was the variable-rate technology that is used with the sprayers and planters. As the name implies, it has allowed them to get away from blanketing fields with fertilizer or pesticide and they can, instead, control the flow rates with amazing precision. 

Sprayer on the Jeschke Farm

The hardware is sophisticated so that each nozzle is independently controlled by the computer technology. The farmer only puts fertilizer or pesticide where it is needed, saving costs. It also contributes to sustainability efforts which include using fewer resources and lessening pollution of our waterways.

The planter on the Jeschke Farm

On the Jeschke Farm, a particular corn spacing was 6.1 inches. Planting is very precise and that is important for reasons that were explained to us.

Along with soil data, farmers collect yield data. The combines have on-board computers that collect real-time harvest yield data and immediately upload it to the cloud.

 Real-Time Yield Data (corn harvest 2014)

The photo above is actually a tablet in the farmer’s hand as we sat in his pick-up truck near the field. He was using an app to pull the real-time harvest data from the cloud so that we could look at what the combine, in the field, was doing in real-time. It was fun to watch. This same exact screen image is also in the cabs of the combine and auger tractor where the operators watch the data as it is collected.

Combine & Auger Trailer on Martz Family Farm

In October, I rode along with Chris Gould in his combine as he was harvesting corn. Watching the corn stalks get sucked into the combine is a little repetitive after not too much time, so I was pondering what it would be like to do this all day, and I asked him, “when you’re up here in the cab, is there anything in particular you are looking for as you drive through the field?” He said that most commonly they look for pest damage, often root worm, and explained what that might look like. Just a few minutes later, we came to a rather large swath that was knocked over, just as he described. He pointed out on the computer monitor how big of an effect that swath had on his yield. The swath went from green to yellow on the screen and the bushel count dropped significantly. To a farmer who is always trying to make each field as productive as possible, that is a let down. It’s wasted time and resources with little or no return on investment.

Corn Harvest 2014 on Martz Family Farm

After they’ve collected the yield data and put it together with the soil data, they use the technology to evaluate what seeds are working where, what soils may be lacking nutrients, what areas are problems – maybe with insect pests or weeds, what worked and what didn’t, and then the cycle starts once again as they plan for the next planting season and create their prescription maps for fertilizing, planting, and crop-protection.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Farmer with a Manicure

We learn a lot on these Field Mom farm tours from what is said, but there are many more things we learn by observation and listening beyond the words. And it’s not all just about the animals, the crops and, ultimately, the food. Sometimes, it’s a “people” thing. Who are those unknown people raising our food, anyway?

When we hear the word “farmer,” it undoubtedly conjures up a mental image. I’m not sure what the image in your mind looks like (we all come from so many different places), but the person, whatever age and behind whatever clothes you’re imagining, is probably a man, right? How often does “farmer” conjure an image of a woman? Probably not too often. Did you know there are more than 288,000 women farmers here in the U.S.! According to the USDA’s latest census, 14 percent of the principal farm operators are female.  This, compared to 67 percent of the secondary farm operators (partner, likely a spouse) are female.

On our last farm tour, the Field (city) Moms rode the bus together to the Larson Farms Partnership in Maple Park, IL, a custom (beef cattle) feedlot. We were joined on the bus by two Farm Moms who manage and operate cattle farms.

One of the Farm Moms on the bus with us that day was a woman farmer – the one with the manicure. She is not joined in her farming venture by her husband or brother. She is the farmer. She is a tall slender woman, with straight blond hair, great taste in cowgirl boots, if that’s what you’re into, with an impeccable manicure. By appearances, she was more hip than half the city moms on the bus (myself included). She told us that twelve years ago – if my math is correct, at the age of 38 – she decided the work-life “off the farm” just wasn’t what she had in her heart to be doing. She decided to return to the life of farming that she knew growing up. That part of her story is an inspiration to anyone thinking about changing gears (or career) later in life!

As a woman (and daughter of a farmer), I have thought of dozens of reasons why it would be extra difficult to be a farmer and the greatest challenge for me would be strength. Machinery and equipment is heavy, maintaining fences and pulling wires require brawn, other farm tasks require great strength for lifting and endurance to do it all day (think haying or moving produce around), animals are heavy. I could go on. She explained to us that, because she is female – meaning a smaller frame and less strength than a man – she has to do things a little differently on the farm. One thing she does different than most is that she trains her cattle to walk on a lead. This way, if she needs to move them around, she can use the lead, sort of as you would a dog. She also described how much she loves her animals – even though they are raised for food. Maybe it is because she is female, or a mother, or something else, but she described her softness for the animals and how difficult it is for her to say good-bye to them. She actually has another person take the animals from her farm to market so that she doesn't have to do that part of the job. She's a woman who has figured it out and seems to be making it work.

That Farm Mom wasn't the only woman farmer we met that day. Lynn Martz and her husband Mike are partners, along with other family members, in the Larson Farms Partnership, which is a custom feedlot. One might assume Mike is the primary operator and Lynn is secondary, but actually, Lynn manages the grain and crop operation. She is another Farm Mom who is really interesting to learn from and is clearly passionate about her work and life.

Lynn Martz with her grandson explaining the 
beef cattle feed rations to us (Field Moms)

I recently read someplace that a teacher asked some families, “How well do you know your doctor? How about your dentist? Maybe your banker, accountant, or family attorney? How about, how well do you know your farmer? How well do you know the person who grows your food?” I think that is a great question and we Field Moms can definitely say we are getting to know our farmers – men AND women!