Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Myth About Seed Choice

I recently had a twitter conversation on a topic that seemed to perpetuate an urban myth - that farmers do not have a choice when it comes to planting seed or that seed companies "impose" their seeds on farmers, as if it is a dictatorship... Last time I checked, America was a pretty free country. Most people are able to make choices on what they buy at the store... So why would that be different for farmers?

As a family farm, we grow both GMO (we don't actually use this term but for the sake of this blog, am using it for the reader for whom it may be a descriptor) and non-GMO crops and choose our seed produced from a variety of different seed companies, buying directly from our neighbors, which frankly, is the whole point of the fabric of rural America. We support one another.

So far, we have received about a dozen seed catalogs, and I don't mean Burpee-type gardening catalogs. I mean commercial seed for farmers. Some are large seed companies, others are small regional seed companies. None of them "impose" their seeds on us. We have 100% freedom of choice. My husband and brother in law make those choices based on our own farm's performance records, recommendations by our seed dealers, data provided by companies who do research plots on our farm and in our region, and conversations with farmer friends. No corporation influences these choices. No pressure is applied from any company to secure our business. Absolutely no one "imposes" seed on our family farm. We have hundreds of seed choices in each of our crops- corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, tomatoes, hay, and green beans. We have 100% control over what gets purchased and planted.

So we have technology agreements? Absolutely. Both our GMO and non-GMO seeds have either technology agreements or proprietary restrictions from saving seed.  As Rob Wallbridge shares in his blog An Organic Farmer Walks Into Monsanto, even organic seed has proprietary rights and cannot be saved. Seed is not unlike publications that can be copyrighted to protect the author's work. There would be far fewer food choices. Regardless of the methods of seed development, we have many, many more choices as consumers as a result of plant breeding. It is not surprising or for that matter unusual for people outside of agriculture to protect the rights to their work, why should it be different for agriculture?

The seeds and varieties we choose to plant are based on the demand we have for the markets in our area. In our tomato crop, the cannery wants specific varieties for specific products so one Roma variety is grown for stewed tomatoes while another Roma variety is grown for tomato sauce. We grow for the needs of the cannery. Likewise for our tofu customers, they tell us which soybeans they prefer and we grown to meet their needs. Likewise for our winery customers, we grow the grapes they want to process into wine.

We are also "seed" growers meaning we grow specific varieties for companies that will be then sold as seed. Farmers who can grow seed-quality seed get paid a premium for growing this level of purity. These seeds need to be "IP" Identity Preserved - genetically consistent and true to their traits, of highest quality meaning they are uniform in size, shape, color, free of weed seed and contamination.

We also grow "public domain" seed which are seeds that can be saved. These are seeds developed mainly by Universities, which are dwindling in size and support for agricultural research.  These varieties need to be tested for vigor and germination in order to determine if they are viable for the next cropping year or if they should be used for livestock feed. We use public varieties of both wheat and barley for both the commodity market and our winter cover crops.

The bottom line is we as farmers have choice - what seed we buy, from which company, and what traits those seeds have. The only time we don't have choice is when we sit on our thumbs and don't order seed in time and end up with 2nd or 3rd choices.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"When your plow is a pencil..."

 In 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower said "Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field" in reference to federal farm programs being written by Washington policy makers whom he called "synthetic farmers behind Washington desks."

As farmers, we often feel as though those "inside the beltway" (ie: Washington DC), are out of touch with the realities of agriculture and the implications of the policies they formulate. Because we are only 75 miles from downtown DC, we often have government officials, international delegations, and out of state farm groups visit. Often its the opportunity to get out of DC and into the country. More often its to see what agricultural policy, regulation, research, and collaboration looks like on a busy family farm.

Most recently we had USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden visit. She is NOT a synthetic farmer, she is a Georgia farm girl who "gets it." DS Harden visited our farm recently so that she could connect with the local needs of farm families. It is a way for her to stay connected to her roots and use that connection in federal policy development.  We talked state and federal regulations and policies that are of most concern for us: conservation, immigration, diversification, Farm Bill, and generational transition. She realizes that true farm sustainability requires that there be the next generation who wants to farm and is a big supporter of beginning and young farmer programs. At the same time, she recognizes that regulations and policies cannot be so poorly written and planned that they have a negative impact on the fiscal health of the family farm. What kid wants to take over a family farm that is losing money hand over fist because the regulators wrote economically damaging policy? Too often, regulations or policy that seem to make sense in "theory", have very little practical application on the actual farm and are damaging to the family farm. Formulating regulations ahead of sound, applied scientific evidence is poor policy development, the sign of a "synthetic farmer" who maybe has never stepped foot on a farm.

That's why Eisenhower's words still resonate today. Many policy makers use pencils without ever having operated a plow (nowadays, a no-till ripper or DMI... we don't even own a plow). The bottomline - they don't "get it" because they've never farmed or been exposed to farming. I applaud DS Harden for staying connected with the farmers she serves and with her roots to the rural community. We have many synthetic farmers in DC, but she is not one of them!

Left to Right: Alan, DS Krysta Harden, Hans, Me, our daughter.

Talking agricultural diversification in our vineyard.
Hans showing DS Harden the soil map of our research project in collaboration with the US Geological Survey, the U of MD, and the U of DE.

Demonstrating a "Veris" machine which detects soil electrical conductivity to evaluate soil particle size and develop precision management for that field.

An irrigation research project that has many collaborators collecting data.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Top 10 Annoying Words About Agriculture

A few weeks ago, I emailed around a poll to my farm and Ag friends both near and far to ask them to give me their top 10 words that most annoyed them that are used in referencing agriculture and farming. I received a lot of interesting responses. There were many, many repeats which I have ranked in order from top to bottom. What it boils down to is that as a culture, we want everyone "in their place". We want to define the people whose opinions differ from ours and confine them to a box. Social media is littered with examples of people and organizations lumping together and defining those who hold different beliefs in a negative way. It is a way of stereotyping, generalizing, misrepresenting, and for some, the ulterior motive of spreading misinformation. Thanks to my friends who contributed.

Here are the results:

1. "BIG" - In the context of activist groups, "big" is a derogatory term linked to the perception that the majority of farms are corporate farms.Frankly, the term "big" used in this context sounds rather kindergarten-ish. It has little to do with size but more to the idea that family farms are small farms whereas big farms must be corporate. In fact, 96% of all farms in the US are family owned and operated.  Farms vary widely in size as USDA defines a farm as any entity generating $1000 or more per year. (Which includes my daughter's 4H projects I suppose). $1K sets the bar pretty low in terms of defining a farm.

My daughter's 4H livestock sheep & hog projects meet the $1000 USDA threshold to be defined as a "farm".
"Big" is also used negatively by some who insinuate that because "Big Ag' is seen through corporations, that some how we farmers are not able to make independent decisions about our family farms. That some how "Big Ag" dictates what we buy and what we do on our farms. We aren't beholden to any corporation. We like most consumers, look for quality and customer service. Those two elements dictate our purchasing decisions and who we do business with.

A good example of double-speak however, is Chipotle who started a "big" campaign to redefine itself as "small". Established in 1993, Chipotle has expanded to over 1500 restaurants and ranks 2nd only to Taco Bell in the Top 50 QSR (quick service restaurants) in the Mexican food segment. Chipotle's 3rd quarter 2013 profits increased 18% to $827 Million. Let's be clear, if there is "Big" in food and agriculture it is Chipotle, not the US farmers supplying them.

2. "Factory" - Activists now define climate-controlled barns as "factories". If you are defining animal agriculture by agenda driven documentaries such as Food Inc, then you have chosen to limit your perspective and specifically elected not to look for balance in the whys and where-fores of food production in the current day. Personally, my preference is to talk to farmers, and not just the ones I perceive I am going to agree with.
Photo Credit: Edwin Remsberg
On a recent farm tour, someone remarked to my friend Jen, who is a hog farmer, how much extra space there was in each of her hog pens. If someone were to take a close up photo of the hogs to sensationalize animal spacing, the hogs would look packed together. Selective photography (and photoshop)  is a method used by some to spread myths about farming. In reality, the term "pig pile" comes from their natural preference, in barns or outside, to pile together to sleep.

3. "Industrial" - in modern agriculture, industrial is a word used to demonize progress and technology. Efficiency is apparently acceptable in other sectors, but not in farming. Not all that long ago, we as consumers did not have microwaves, dishwashers, smart phones, remote controlled - (fill in the blank), home computers, the Internet, etc.... We as consumers have adopted significant amounts of modern technology in our daily lives. Farmers have done the same. So if farmers are industrial through use of technology and efficiency, then we as consumers must be "industrial" too, right? I mean if the shoe fits, wear it! So do we all want to go back and stop using our technology so that agriculture will no longer be "industrial"?

A "combine" is named such because in one piece of equipment it combines the tasks of reaping and threshing, 2 vocabulary words foreign to most people today.

4. "Douse" - A word used to describe pesticide application. This is the type of rig used to apply pesticides and fertilizer. There is a fine mist (which in this pic happens to be fertilizer) guided by our GreenSeeker to apply only what the crop needs. Our family eats what we produce. Agricultural inputs are expensive. Why would we "douse" anything we grow with pesticides or fertilizer? Our approach is to look at the soil and plant health and apply what is "prescribed" from scouting and soil and tissue analysis. Much like your visit to the doctor, farmers diagnose and treat their crops according to their health and well being.

5. "Pump"- The word "pump" made the list thanks in part to Panera Bread's failed @EZChicken antibiotic campaign that illustrated in cartoon manner, chickens being injected with antibiotics and that farmers who use antibiotics are lazy. "Pump" really goes in line with the word "douse" as in every thing farmers do, we're believed to do to the excess. Any good business person will tell you that makes no sense whatsoever, but I suspect most of those who throw these terms around have never run their own businesses. Its easy to criticize someones business when your paycheck is funded by "unnamed donors" to a non-profit.

Earlier this year, the FDA had to issue a response to the Environmental Working Group's interpretation of an antibiotic resistance report..  The fact of the matter is, judicious antibiotic use is an issue for everyone and finger pointing does little to further the conversation. We don't like the finger pointed at ourselves but let's face it, human users of the health care system and those who prescribe antibiotics are as much at fault if not more so than farmers. How can I say that? This article from the Wall Street Journal discusses human prescriptions of antibiotics. And this report from the CDC shows which diseases and pathogens are most associated with antibiotic resistance, the majority of which are not farm related.

Human vs Animal Antibiotic Sales are Relatively Different v2
Infographic credit: Dr. Scott Hurd, DVM

6.  "Corporate"- as I said in #1, the majority of farms in the US are family owned and operated. They may vary in size, and they may be "incorporated" for tax purposes (C or S Corp) and for liability protection (LLC for example). I'm not a fan of Mother Jones, but they recently wrote an article confirming this fact. In terms of farms owned by corporations dictating the actions of the farmer, its pretty much a myth.

Infographic Credit: CommonGround 

7.  "GMO/Frankenfoods" - Wow, this one is hot in social media these days. One of the prevalent anti-GMO claims is that the foods made from genetic engineering (GE) technology haven't been studied and are not safe. A study in the journal Critical Reviews of Biotechnology looked at a decade of research on "GMO" foods and found no credible evidence that GMOs threaten health or safety of humans or the environment. A review of the study can be found here.

GMO describes what humans have done for centuries - domesticate, modify and improve the traits of plants for a specific use, such as tomatoes, corn, potatoes and the majority of foods we consume on a daily basis. Activists use the term "GMO" and "Frankenfoods" to define foods produced through a specific technology and use it as a means for fear-based marketing. Here is a good blog about fear-based food marketing by DairyMoos.

Selling Fear1
Photo Credit: DairyMoos

8.  "SuperWeed" -Let me just say it like it is.... Weed resistance is not a genetic engineering issue, it is an agronomic issue. Weed resistance to herbicides did not begin with RoundUp or with GE crops. The chart below is from the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds. It shows that resistant weeds were occurring well before GE crops were ever on the market. Notably, glyphosate/RoundUp which receives the most media attention, is 6th in chronological increase after 5 other classes of herbicides. You should also know that glyphosate/RoundUp did not come about because of GE crops. RoundUp was developed in the early 1970's and became commercially available in the US in 1976, 20 years before the commercialization herbicide tolerant crops. Its worth repeating - weed resistance is an agronomic issue, not a GE issue.

9.  "Shill" - while I consider "big" to be a rather kindergarten-ish word about Ag, "shill" is definitely a high school bully word. If you take the time to read the comments section of a polarized discussion on social media, often the first stone thrown is "you're a shill for Monsanto". Sometimes kindergarten is combined with high school and the commenter says "you're a shill for Big Ag". I wasn't directly called a shill, but the insinuation was there in the New York Times article I blogged about in Stay Calm & Farm On earlier this year. More recently, following an article I wrote for the Boston Review on Why Farmers Choose GMOs, I had the below twitter interaction with PoetryBoston who without knowing me, decided that I knew little about what I was talking about, following which they pointed out that I was one of Monsanto's America's Farm Moms of the Year for which I received prize money. I'm proud to have been selected by the American Agri-Women's Association as one of only 5 farm women in the US to be recognized. I make no apologies for the award nor am I embarrassed by it. It also does not influence my message which are data and results from our farm's experience as growers of conventional, organic and GE crops (yes simultaneously, and no... no longer organic. A topic for another day) Shill is intended to be derogatory and offensive. It shuts down any chance of meaningful conversation and civil discourse. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable but that is rare if one spends any time reading the comments section.

From my @FarmGirlJen twitter page

10. "Agrarian" - Picture "American Gothic. The word "agrarian" brings a romantic notion of the days of old, and therefore, not being appreciative of where modern agriculture has brought our society as a whole. It demeans the profession that we love, and that somehow, all of society would be better off if we went back to subsistence farming. Agrarian, after all, is a society where the majority of citizens participate in farming, not the current 1.5% of the US population.

American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930

My hope is that the conversation can become more civil by illustrating each of these words from a farmer's perspective. Farming is essentially a profession of many introverts and often an isolated job on a day to day basis. The story of agriculture and family farms has been told for us, often inaccurately. We as farmers don't all stand up and speak our minds publically about how we feel about these terms that are frequently used in reference to what we do.

People probably don't understand , we don't get to leave our jobs and go home at night. Our home is IS our farm and our job is a tapestry of our lives - of family, farm, and faith. Words that demean or misrepresent aren't words targeted just a me or my husband, but at my kids, my in-laws, and my 96 year old grandmother (who by the way does not resemble the woman above).

Its personal. You wouldn't want your family talked about that way.

We love our jobs, we love our farms, we love our family. We don't own a pitch fork.
We are today's modern farm family.

Photo Credit: Edwin Remsberg

Monday, October 28, 2013

Food, Farming, & Dietetics - Texas Style!

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at another farm tour for dietitians... this time in Texas! As part of the pre-conference activities for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the International Food Information Council invited dietitians from around the country to come a day early and attend a farm tour. Being both a dietitian and a farmer, they invited me to attend to lend my voice and experience to fellow colleagues. We got to visit Mowery Farms and learn about Curt Mowery's family farm operation, as well as discussion issues in agriculture with fellows from the Texas Farm Bureau, Missouri County Farm Bureau, and experts from Texas A&M University.

Although I know next to nothing about Texas agriculture (though more now that I did before!), I was on hand to share my experience both as a dietitian and as a farmer. It was interesting for me was Curt and I speak the same language, use very similar terminology, and have similar goals of being good stewards of the land we are fortunate to farm while being profitable enough to maintain the family farm for the next generation.

One of the topics we discussed as dietitians is though we are experts in the field of food and nutrition, the dietetics curriculum has very little content in the way of food production... as in growing food.  When I was in my undergrad program, "food production" meant learning how to prepare large quantities of food in a commercial kitchen, like a 1000 bed hospital. Food production to me now means how food is grown. That is an area of great disconnect both in training programs for various professionals, and in the general population who are generations removed from farming as a livelihood.

I'm a big cheerleader for farm tours. They are one of the best ways to inform consumers and professionals alike. Many thanks to Curt Mowery and team for engaging with the IFIC Farm Tour dietitians to help increase the knowledge and understanding of modern food production on today's family farms!

Below are a few pictures from our Texas farm tour of Mowery Farms!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

40 Chances: Howard G. Buffett is my kindred spirit!

It has been a long time since I've used a highlighter to mark passages in a book that I'm reading. When I started reading Howard G. Buffett's "40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World", released today, I grabbed my yellow highlighter immediately. There was an immediate connection to a story teller with similar experiences as mine, the love of finding farming as a rewarding career, and the perspective one gains through working and experiencing life in developing countries.  Although he surely does not know it, (or appreciate it if he did), Buffett is my kindred spirit! He spoke my language throughout each of the 40 chapter of 40 Chances from policies and practices of US agriculture to policies and practices in places I've visited and worked. Buffett illustrates what's terribly wrong with food policies and yet leaves the reader hopeful, that a collective solution is attainable.

To read my book review, click here:

To learn more, visit 40 Chances or watch the video below: 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Hosting a Field to Fork Farm Tour

Tuesday, 9/24 was a pretty special day. As part of CommonGround MidAtlantic, I hosted a Field to Fork Farm tour. Common Ground is a group of volunteer farm women who are "agvocating", in other words, sharing and talking about our family farms and agriculture so that people have a "real" view of farming. The program is self-funded by mine and other farmer's check off dollars. I blogged about check-off dollars earlier this year. You can read that post here.

Because I am a Registered Dietitian (RD) by training, I knew that I wanted to offer other dietitians the opportunity to do a farm tour. Dietitians are highly trained professionals knowledgeable about food and nutrition BUT the curriculum offers very little in the way of "food production", ie: farming. When I was in college, "food production" was a class you took to learn cooking in large quantities in a commercial food service operation, not how to grow food. We invited members of the Maryland Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to attend and had 30 dietitians attend. It was super group of women who were very engaged with all the topics we covered. And we covered a lot of very hot topics! From biotechnology to precision agriculture, conservation and farming systems, antibiotics and animal welfare, water quality and soil erosion, diversification, market access, and preserving the farm and passing it along to the next generation all were discussed. My approach of the day was that there were no off limit topics. We as farmers have nothing to hide and nothing to be embarrassed about with our operations. We would be transparent and they could ask away. Here was the day in summary:

Field to Fork Farm Tour:

 We began at my farm where we talked about biotechnology. Here I am showing the difference between a tofu soybean plant and a Round Up (glyphosate) soybean plant.  The first question I got was if I was concerned about pollen drift. My reply - no, soybeans self-pollinate. Second question - So what makes the plant on the right GMO? Answer - herbicide resistance trait. If these were corn plants that open pollinate, then we would stagger the planting intervals so that they wouldn't pollinate at the same time.

Here you can see we are standing in the middle of the road, an advantage we have from being so rural. The field behind the group on the right side of the road are food grade or tofu soybeans we grow for a farmers cooperative we belong to. The field behind me on the left side of the road are glyphosate resistant soybeans. The two fields have similar yet different management strategies but do not require different equipment. Mainly in the food-grade soybeans, we try to control for "pokeweed" which has large purple berries and will stain the soybeans if the berries go through the combine. The end result would be purple tofu, which no one would likely buy...

We talked a lot about conservation, water quality, and precision agriculture. Due to the Chesapeake Bay, farmers in Maryland farm under an entirely different set of regulations that most farmers around the nation. Our farm has invested heavily in conservation tillage equipment, installed many, many best management practices on our farm, and have upgraded machinery to be able to do precision agriculture. Here I am explaining our GreenSeeker, which I blogged about in the spring. You can read that post here.

Some lucky ladies got to ride our combine as we are in the midst of corn harvest! Not something a lot of people get to do in their lives. One comment I heard from those who rode (besides how much fun it was): "I had no idea there was so much technology in those machines!"

Lunch was served by Sisters By Chance catering. These ladies did a superb job of serving the entire menu sourced from local farms.  They even made our machinery shop look welcoming and not so diesel smelling!

From our farm we went to Grand View Farm which is a grain and hog operation. My friend Jennifer is also a Common Ground volunteer and her farm provided the opportunity to talk about confinement operations, antibiotics and animal welfare. She shared with the RDs that they do not administer antibiotics unless animals are sick and for about 1 week when feeder pigs are first group housed. They do this because they have historical data showing that those animals routinely get sick when brought into pens for the first time, sort of like when kids first go to school and catch everything from each other.

We got to see the farrowing barn. Jennifer's farm does not use gestation stalls, the pregnant sows are grouped in large pens during their pregnancy. When they are ready to deliver, they are placed in farrowing stalls which you see above. Farrowing stalls are different from gestation crates. These farrowing stalls are designed to provide an "escape area" for piglets so that they are not laid or step on by the sow. It also provides a dry environment as the vented floor keeps the piglets dry allowing for waste to drain into the catch basin below. This reduces disease and provides more comfort. The piglets are weaned in 3 weeks and the sow returns to the group housing.

Holding a piglet was another highlight of the day. Those critters are cute when they are little, but 6 months later... not so much.

One lucky attendee even got baptized by piglet pee which I'm sure was her absolute favorite part of the tour (not)!

Then we were off to the Crow Farm, a farm that has really adapted itself in recent years to bring on the next generation and keep the farm forward-looking and profitable. From a history of dairy and grains, Crow Farm is now a grass-fed beef, vineyard and winery, with a B&B and a focus on agritourism.


The group got an overview of the beef operation followed by a tour of the winery facility. 

Followed by a wine tasting of Crow Farm's award winning wines with a fantastic view of the vineyard! Prior to boarding the bus to head back to Annapolis, the group was able to buy local and purchase for themselves Crow grass-fed beef and wine. 

To cap off the day, attendees received a copy of No More Food Fights, by Michelle Payn-Knoper to reinforce the importance of farm and food conversations

This Field to Fork Farm Tour was a productive conversation around food and farming and for me, one of the most enjoyable days I've had in a long time talking about some very hot topics. 

Maya Angelou once said "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  My hope is, the dietitians who attended will have left this farm tour feeling positive about where their food is coming from and the authenticity of the family farms producing it.

Many thanks to the Maryland Soybean Board and the Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board for providing the funding to make this farm tour a great 'agvocacy" day!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Poster Girl for Crop Insurance

Risk management is critical for family farms. Crop insurance is part of that portfolio in addition to other approaches such as diversification. A few weeks ago, I was asked to do a video for the Department of Agriculture on crop insurance for grapes. Maryland photographer, Edwin Remsberg came out to take pictures and ask questions about crop insurance specifically for grapes and in general about risk management for family farms. I think he did a fantastic job!

Grapes are a very risky crop, as are many fruits and vegetables. If you have any doubts about this, read my earlier blog Rain is a good thing... The pictures tell the story of why crop insurance is so important to farmers.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rain Is A Good Thing.... Well, Sometimes.

Rain, Rain, Go Away.... that's a pretty risky thing for a farmer to say. Its usually the other way around.

I never imagined I'd blog about excess rain, maybe lack of rain, but excess rain is generally only a problem for us on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the fall when hurricane season picks up and we are trying to get crops off the field.  This year we have the opposite problem, we can't get our crops IN the field to begin with, at least not soybeans. The crops we do have in the field are struggling and fruits and vegetables are beginning to show signs of rot from constantly being wet.

While drought is a difficult thing, so is excess rain. Here's why:

Wheat/Small Grain: See that wheat in the field? Its test weight is dropping because its getting rained on... Let me explain. Wheat quality is based in part on test weights which are done at the grain elevator when the truck pulls in. When wheat dries in the field naturally, it has a higher test weight meaning it has a higher starch content. After a rain, the wheat seed begins to regerminate which uses up some of the starch it created originally, and its "weight" is lower because it has less starch. In some severe instances, the head of the wheat will actually sprout, which again, effects the quality and the test weight.

 Field tomatoes standing in water is never a good thing. They will of course rot if it does dry out. Usually we have to irrigate our tomatoes. This year we have yet to turn on our irrigation pivots.

 Fruit rot in unripe grapes is unheard of. This was what I thought was black rot but was frustrated because I had a really good spray program. Tissue samples determined this was actually ripe rot on unripe grapes which is nearly unheard of. We had 24 days of rain in June and so far in July have had 10 days of rain which means this fruit has had very little time to get or stay dry. Vineyards have a lot of downy mildew as well from the moisture. If they lose their leaves due to mildew, then the fruit will never ripen.

This hay has been on the ground for 2 weeks. Its moldy and actually slimey and will get baled for mulch. We normally get 3-4 cuttings of hay off of fields each year. This year some fields havent been cut once yet. We are telling customers that hay will be very short this winter and to look for other sources because we have so little in the barn for sale, as do most of our neighbors who also make hay.

 Just a picture of one of my downspouts to illustrate how heavy it rains these days...

We still have nearly 300 acres of soybeans to plant. Excess rain is more disasterous than drought. If you can't get your crop planted you will have absolutely no income. At least with a drought you can get your field work done and your crop planted and have a small expectation of a crop this season.

If there was a way for me to send excess rain to the drought stricken areas, I would absolutely do so.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Farming - A lesson in community and civics.

I'm so excited to have been asked to guest blog for the America's Farmers blog about strengthening rural communities, sustainability and the role of family farms. Its near and dear to my heart because as I say in the blog, we pour ourselves into our local community.

The link below will lead you to the blog which is called:

And I LOVE the info-graphic that was created highlighting some of the major 
benefits family farms bring to their local communities!

Thanks America's Farmers for recognizing the many benefits farms provide
to rural America!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Chardonnay - 8 weeks later

Back in April I had this great plan to blog about one particular Chardonnay vine once a month. Well, the best laid plans.... I missed the month of May, so here we are, nearly 8 weeks later near the end of June, and a snap shot of that same vine:

So this was then, April 20-something.

This is now, 8 weeks later, June 20th.
Different direction of the picture but you can still see the lack of bud on the cordon but the
bud on the end did push.

This is the whole vine, and it has been thinned and lightly hedged.

That is remarkable growth. From a couple inches to over 4-5 feet in length in a matter of 8 weeks. Chardonnay is an early grower and usually first to be harvested followed shortly thereafter by Pinot Gris.

From this vine above you can see a couple things: there are small berry clusters. We are just a couple weeks past bloom and into the fruit set phase of growth. Once we have finished tucking vines into the catch wires, we will begin leaf pulling on the east side. We use the "sombrero" method of leaf pulling - leaves are removed from around the cluster except the one above it, leaving a hat or sombrero as a cover from direct overhead sunlight. Leaf pulling opens up the canopy allowing sunlight and air flow more directly around the cluster which lessens disease and improve ripening. You can see above the leaves I pulled on the ground in order to take the picture. 

In roughly 8 more weeks, we should be mid way through veraison which is when grapes turn purple unless they are white grapes, in which case they turn a more golden color and soften. So if i don't get around to do a July pic of the chardonnay, I will feature veraison.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

An Example of Journalistic Integrity

If you've followed the the New York Times article from my Stay Calm & Farm On Blog, you know that my greatest issue with the article was that the reporter never contacted me to verify the information she received.  This is still true to date and yet the story has been reposted on no less than 35+ websites last time I checked.  Blogger activists have regurgitated the same information on website after website and only ONE reporter has contacted me... my local paper, The Delmarva Farmer.

Kudos to them, they showed integrity and did so in a fair and balanced manner.

Last week, they ran the story about the online petition that was started to have me and another dietitian removed from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics "Advanced Technology in Food Production" committee because we are perceived to be unduly influenced by industry, specifically Monsanto. In my case, because I was selected as one of the national finalists for Farm Mom of the Year, a program sponsored by Monsanto, and received prize money for that award, I'm accused of being unable to make professional, unbiased decisions related to biotechnology. The New York Times was mistakenly told that I was a "test farmer" for Monsanto as well. This is inaccurate on 2 fronts - 1. Monsanto has no "test farmer" program, and 2. Our farming operation as never done research for Monsanto. Furthermore, I don't make any seed purchase decisions or enter any grain contracts for our farm, so that perception of bias is totally unfounded. Last week, the Delmarva Farmer ran an article from my point of view and gave me the opportunity to present my perspective.

Here is a link to that story:

This blog is about journalistic integrity because that is my main complaint with the New York Times. They did not attempt to get any balance or alternate perspectives. They never once reached out to me unlike the Delmarva Farmer who did reach out to the dietitian who filed a complaint against me. Her view point was published in this week's Delmarva Farmer, as was the response from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics  regarding the NY Times article.

The Delmarva Farmer publishes Carole Bartolotto's view point:

The paper also publishes the Dietetic Association's response:

Why am I giving you all these links? To illustrate what journalistic integrity looks like. Journalistic integrity does due diligence as evidenced by the inclusion of each of these articles in The Delmarva Farmer. They didn't shy away from being balanced. They didn't shirk their integrity by not offering multiple perspectives. 

Thank you Bruce Hotchkiss and The Delmarva Farmer for doing what Stephanie Strom and the New York Times did not, practice good journalistic integrity. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Day in the Life of a Chardonnay Vine

I'm driving through my vineyard this morning doing my usual scouting for whatever may present itself and it occurs to me that some folks have never seen this before. The life of a grapevine. For a brief moment, I thought a "Grape-Cam" was a good idea.... but it quickly passed on as who really, would want to watch a grape camera...

But since we are so early in the season, I thought I would start maybe a monthly " life of a chardonnay vine" so you can see how the vine grows, matures, produces, and ripens fruit in a single season.

I picked chardonnay because its probably the most familiar grapevine we grow that folks would recognize the name. Our vineyard which is 22 acres has 8 different commercial varieties and 24 research varieties for the University of Maryland.

So here it is April 23, 2013 and this is a Chardonnay grapevine. You can see a couple things.

1.  We had bud break last week. Chardonnay is an early variety and is typically in bud first. Budbreak is determined by soil temperature and variety. Our soils have not been warming up all that quickly so we are a bit late from usual budbreak timeframe.

2. We have "apical dominance" which is the tendency for the buds further out from the trunk to be longer and more developed than those closer to the trunk. One premise is that the energy of carbohydrates is pushed through the plant's vascular system toward the outer buds. You can see here that although the last bud on the far right did not "push", the second to the last bud is the most developed as compared to the buds to the left of the frame. The 3rd from the last bud also did not "push" but I can't say I paid attention to that when I was taking pictures so I will have to go back and investigate.

3. We cane pruned which means we laid down a new cordon arm, also known as the "fruiting arm". This is where all the fruit will hang this coming season. Cane pruning allows us to get rid of last years' cordon arm which may have residual spores or bacteria, and lay down fresh wood. We cane prune all our red varieties and all our vinifera varieties. We spur prune all our white hybrid varieties.

4. We have no neighbors... Yup pretty much. In a 4+ mile stretch of our road, there are 7 homes, 3 of which are inhabited by our family :)

What I don't see yet is frost damage. We had a frost yesterday morning. The kind where you have to scrape the windshield. So while I don't see any frost damage yet, I am watching closely as these young buds are so tender and so susceptible. We lost nearly 40% of our crop last year due to frost. I really don't want a repeat.

So I will try to remember which plant this was (don't worry, I marked it) and you can follow this Chardonnay plant from April through September when we will be harvesting the fruit and delivering it to the winery!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Investing in Sustainability

As a result of the NY Times article and my response in my last blog Stay Calm and Farm On, I received several comments via facebook, email, or twitter about issues of sustainability on our farm. One thread of many comments was the definition of sustainability and how can a modern, conventional farm, call ourselves sustainable.  Here was one of the comments:

"If the farming focus is not on the health of the soil as foundation (ie. biodynamic or organic farming) then it's about destructive attempts at manipulating nature for profit ("intellectual property"). This at the expense of our environment as a whole. "

For 3 generations now, we have invested in sustainability. Our main focus has always been our soils. We have been planting cover crops, green manures, and no-till farming since the 1960's. We have always practiced Integrated Pest Management (IPM) because it's simply more cost-effective and good stewardship. The perception is that these are practices used only in organic agriculture. To us, they are simply the way we operate our farm. Always have, always will.

My father-in-law on an over the row, no-till Hiboy, 1964. High tech for its day.

Today, we continue to invest heavily in equipment and technology to help us not only be more efficient but also to continue to improve our soils, use less resources, lower our CO2 emissions, and improve our water quality. Sustainability does not meet a cookie-cutter, one-size fits all model, or apply to only one type of farming system or practice.  Soil types, climate, topography, equipment, resources, access to capital and amount of debt carried by a family farm are all factors that contribute to its sustainability.

So today, we were top-dressing winter wheat using our GreenSeeker technology and it ties in nicely with my comments about sustainability on our farm.

My husband, Hans driving the sprayer outfitted with GreenSeeker technology. He is applying  fertilizer which is called "top-dressing" the winter wheat crop.

How do we know it requires fertilizer?
This amazing piece of technology called the "GreenSeeker" tells us!

On the spray booms are optical sensors that detect the level of chlorophyll in the plants. Chlorophyll is the molecule that absorbs sunlight and synthesizes carbohydrates for energy for plant growth. We know this as photosynthesis, a process all plants are dependent upon for health.

This monitor inside the cab shows the driver the Normalized Difference Vegetative Index "NDVI". 
The color variation of chlorophyll is detected by the optical sensors and reflected on the monitor by a color range from brown to green. Green means there is more chlorophyll, yellow is in the middle, and brown is the least amount. The GreenSeeker applies a variable rate of fertilizer specific to the area that the optical sensor detected.

So you can see here, the spray boom with the optical sensors and the variation in the rate of the nozzles applying fertilizer heavier in some areas and less in others. Not all  nozzles run at the same rate and will turn off all together if no fertilizer is needed.

By practicing precision agriculture, we have both an environmental and an economic impact. The variable rate fertilizer application allows us to apply only what the plant needs based on its chlorophyll content. In some areas, that meant a savings of over 15 pounds of nitrogen per acre. The plant utilizes this application more efficiently resulting in less fertilizer remaining in the soil which ultimately can  improve water quality. 

GreenSeeker is just one piece of equipment that our family farm invested in to add more tools to our toolbox of sustainable farming practices. We have heavily invested in conservation equipment and practices on our farm as our philosophy is to treat our soil for what it is, our livelihood and the future for our children. We have taken the best of all farming system practices and combined them with some of the latest modern technology to create a sustainable family farm that we are proud to call home.

As we go through the growing season this year, I hope to highlight some of the other approaches we use to be environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable on our modern family farm. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Stay Calm & Farm On!

Today started with an interesting twist. My son has had a difficult week with issues at school. This morning I told him my best advice was to "stay calm and study on." Little did I know that in a short time, this saying would come back and help me deal with attention from an article in a national newspaper. . As I drank my morning coffee, I opened my email to find an article that included me in the New York Times. It was shared on a listserv by a member of the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group to which I belong (remember I was an RD before I was a farmer). WHAT? Why on earth would the New York Times care about me and why would I be included in an article?  So here is the link to the article:

The crux of the problem with this article and the way it came about was that NO ONE contacted me to inquire about my business relationships or to verify what was being written about me. This was an absolute broadside. I've never heard of Stephanie Strom, nor did she contact me to confirm the information she received from whatever source she thought was valid. Sadly, this illustrates what is wrong with today's journalists, the lack of integrity. A story is a story for the headlines and screw the accuracy because accuracy would make it a non-story.

THEN, I got my first tweet about the article! It said: 

"@FarmGirlJen Why are you in bed with #Monsanto #GMO?" 

(Oh no! What if my husband finds out?.....) 

This tweet came from a woman who calls herself a "Spiritual Teacher & Healer." Not sure she remembered her spiritualness when she tweeted me. I didn't find it very healing nor did she try to find out the facts first before she sent out that tweet. Only in her 2nd tweet did she ask what the facts were.... REALLY?

I have been speaking about agriculture, biotechnology, and farming systems for many years now.I  show yield data from our farm comparing our conventional, organic (formerly), and biotech yields and methods, talk about our farming practices and why we do what we do and how its changed over the generations. Its all about how we make decisions on our family farm and why.  When I give presentations, I  list the companies that my family farm does business with and any background about me that folks who are narrow-minded will assume makes me biased or otherwise unable to be objective, as was noted in the NY Times article. So what I did do was fully disclose all of our family farm's business associations with seed companies, chemical companies, commodity groups, and national and regional agri-businesses on the disclosure form for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. I don't personally have direct dealings with all of them but I knew that if I did not list them all, that something like this would happen. Lo and behold..... it did. Did anyone else feel obligated to disclose where they purchase supplies for their business? ( By the way, I buy my paper from Staples, and this computer came from CompUSA. I buy groceries at Food Lion and shop at Tractor Supply for my clothes... I'm a farm girl not a fashionista). I also listed the prize money I won for being chosen as one of America's Farm Mom of the Year.  I did not disclose that the funds went into my kids college funds and to local non-profits including my church food pantry. Shame on me! 

For the record, I do not know if Monsanto has a "test farmer" program but if they do, I and my family farm am not part of it. We do LOTS of on-farm research which I blogged about last year: Growing Answers: On-Farm Research

So after my initial shock, I adopted my own advice that I had given my son but adapted it to suit my situation.  Today my mantra was: 
  "Stay calm and farm on." 

Friday, March 22, 2013

No More Food Fights! Can Farmers & Foodies Get Along?

It may be coincidence that both National Ag Day and National Nutrition Month occur both over the month of March but its not a coincidence that the issues of food and farming are so intertwined. The book "No More Food Fights!' is all about the conversation over food and farming, which is very polarized these days. Consumers don't feel farmers are paying attention to their needs or are suspicious of farming practices they are not familiar with. Farmers feel consumers don't understand agriculture and succumb too easily to media stories that don't paint an accurate picture.. Dietitians want to have science-based answers for consumers on how their food is produced. People in general are connecting back to the land now more than ever, or are connecting for the first time if their family lineage was always urban dwelling.

"No More Food Fights!" was published  by Michele Payn-Knoper, CSP and Principal of Cause Matters. After I read the book, I knew I wanted to share it with my dietetic peers (the RD part of who I am) who could benefit from the variety of perspectives offered in this book.  I did an interview with Michele and wrote a guest blog for Stone Soup of Food and Nutrition Magazine

Here is the link to my interview with Michele and book review at Food and Nutrition Magazine: 

No More Food Fights! covers

I think for me as a farmer, one of my favorite quotes from the book is by Chef Renee Kelly, 
"People are fascinated by farms but far removed with where their food comes from. They can't identify with farmers because food is so readily available that customers just assume it's easy to farm." Can I get an Amen from the farm side? I find this to be so true both in person and in social media. A lot of folks talking about farming as "experts" without ever having driven a tractor, milked a cow, weaned a pig, or spread manure (at least not literally anyways). 

We all like to think we are experts with very little else to go on. When I was a grad student, I had college freshmen consider themselves "experts" after taking Nutrition 101. I've heard dietary cooks call themselves dietitians because they have been preparing food for so long. Likewise, I've been told "I have a large garden so I am familiar with farming." The one that always makes me laugh is "I know all about farming because as a kid, I spent summers on my Grandparents farm." REALLY? And four decades later, that makes them an expert on how to successfully sustain a family farm in today's environment?

The quote from To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind - "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Or this somewhat well-known and similar saying : Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his boots, Don't criticize another person's work until you've tried to do it yourself; don't judge another person's life until you've been forced to live it. (Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, 1996) I would add, "don't assume farming is easy because food is abundant."

So for me, this book echoes my heart both as an RD and as a farmer. I hope you will pick it up and read it, and apply it throughout your conversations about food and farming.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Oh Be Careful Little Eyes What You See.."

Anyone else remember the lyrics to the title I gave this blog? It is a song I learned in Sunday School a long time ago, but is apropos to today's blog- deceptive or misleading images of food and agriculture found on social media.  I have been totally amused looking at internet images these days, some on Facebook but mostly on Twitter. It amazing the kind of response people give to images without considering if they are truthful or accurate. And there are 3 camps - folks who just think this is amusing,  folks who honestly believe the fake images they see, and skeptics posting fake images to push an agenda. Here are some of my recent favorites:

 "Organic" Water?
So what's wrong with this picture? See the USDA Organic seal in the lower right corner? Water cannot legally be labeled organic. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) does not allow water to be certified as organic so the use of the label in this picture is a fraud. If you think about it, things that are literally defined as "organic" must contain carbon. Water has 2 hydrogen and 1 oxygen molecule, ... no carbon! If you see water labeled as organic in a store, it is false advertising. If you see it on the internet, its probably a fake.

Red Onion?
What could possibly be wrong with this picture? It's not the picture, its the content of the article that goes with it...It advises that placing cut onions in bowls around the house will result in the onion absorbing viruses and no one will get the flu.The claim is that onions are a magnet for viruses. Then the article accuses onions as being a huge culprit toward food poisoning.  It continues on to say that day old cut onions are poisonous and should not be consumed. Assuming you practice good, general food safety in your kitchen, there is nothing unsafe about using day-old or previously cut onions.

So what's wrong with this picture, I mean if he has to wear a mask, it can't be good right? The problem with this picture is that we have NO idea what it is he is spraying. He could be spraying copper sulfate which is an approved organic fungicide used to treat downy mildew and leaf spot in strawberries AND which requires the use of the respirator.  The copper sulfate label does instruct the applicator on what personal protective equipment (PPE) they must wear regardless of whether the pesticide is organic or synthetic. This label requires the applicator to wear a respirator. Labels are the law. The applicator does not want to breathe this stuff in, even if it is OMRI approved. The risk to the consumer eating the strawberries is negligible as growers follow strict harvest rules. If this is copper sulfate, then harvest can take place after 24 hours. Let's be clear, organic is not pesticide free. There are over 2,500 pesticides approved for use in organic agriculture. Organic pesticides are also toxic, which is why they are pesticides to begin with! Its the dose that makes the poison, not whether something is organic or synthetic.  Regardless of what type of pesticide he is using, he is protecting himself as he should. Bottom line is, we have NO idea what it is he is spraying but we assume the worst of course. When I first saw this image on twitter, it had "#pesticides #gmo" with it. That would lead you to believe that the strawberries are GMO right? Wrong! There are no genetically modified strawberries on the market so again, we're lead to believe something that is entirely unfounded.

KFC Genetically Engineered Chickens?

This is a good one! Why did Kentucky Fried Chicken change their name to KFC? Here is the internet answer! "KFC does not use real chickens. They actually use genetically manipulated organisms. These so called "chickens" are kept alive by tubes inserted into their bodies to pump blood and nutrients throughout their structure. They have no beaks, no feathers, and no feet. Their bone structure is dramatically shrunk to get more meat out of them. This is great for KFC because they do not have to pay so much for their production costs. There is no more plucking of the feathers or the removal of the beaks and feet." Seriously? Wow, someone has too much time on their hands to come up with that explanation! For the record, there are no genetically engineered chickens in our food supply.

On a different website, I found this claim: "“Chicken are GENETICALLY MODIFIED with hormones, carcinogens, GMOs, corn pills, arsenic and drugs so they become LARGER FASTER and as a result they often CRIPPLE under their own weights." Chickens do not become "genetically modified" by eating anything. Genetic modification is a scientific process requiring transfer of specific genes from DNA. It does not happen by eating.  Furthermore, it is illegal to use hormones in poultry production. I'm not even sure what a "corn pill' is. Arsenic has been used in chicken feed as it is an effective treatment for coccidiosis, an intestinal parasitic disease the infects the gut of chickens.  According to the FDA, organic arsenic, the type used in chicken feed is not a carcinogen. The bottomline is, none of this statement is entirely accurate and is very misleading and yet it is shared on social media as "truth" to promote an agenda.

McDonald's Baby Food?

This image would make you think that A) McDonald's is now serving baby food, or B) Gerber is now producing McDonald's flavored baby food. Can anyone say photoshop?

Often times, these images are shared on social media as a joke, a way to get a good laugh out of something ridiculous or silly. But often, I see the messenger promoting these images as "truth", with people or groups tagging and sharing these images who have an agenda to promote.  So when you are looking and sharing pictures on the internet, pause a few minutes and think about what the image is portraying and what, if any, FACTS you know about the image. Apply some common sense. Do a bit of research. See if you can find the original source of the image or story and what kind of validity they may or may not have.

Perpetuating falsehoods does nobody any favors. Making assumptions about stories or images is nothing more than gossip. Harmless fun is one thing. A misleading campaign is another. So be careful little eyes what you see and then share on social media.