I EAT. YOU FARM. SO WHAT?

Originally published on the Gate to Plate Blog by Michele Payn-Knoper

A recently overheard conversation at a suburban grocery store between a person buying food with comments from a farmer who was visiting and knew how to meet people on common territory instead of talking “ag.”

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Here’s the thing; I don’t really get why farmers are on the warpath. Really! We can get our food from anywhere. I just care that our family has food that’s affordable and safe. And I’ve heard some pretty bad things about you farmers.

You are poisoning water and soil by using pesticides and insecticides. Our family plays in the creeks and ponds on our land. Our kids chase fireflies through soybean fields, while playing hide and seek in corn fields. Do you really think we’re going to pour poisons in fields that surround our family home?  By the way, our well for water is between the house and the field. We understand that it’s not cool to use bad chemicals, which is why we rely on a whole lot of science, research and technology to ensure we’re using the right products.

Big farms are bad, and you all seem to be getting bigger. What size of school does your child go to? There are many different sizes of schools that offer options and choices for families. Likewise, we have a mix of large and small businesses in America due to our free marketplace. The same is true for farm families; some choose to farm a large number of acres or work with many animals, while others have small operations.  97% of farms in the U.S. are still owned by families; they deserve a right to choose the best option for their family and business like other Americans, don’t they?

Animals are abused on today’s farms. I’ve worked with animals my whole life. If you’ve seen the sensationalized videos from animal rights groups, I want you to know they probably impact me even more than you.  Animals that live in barns are actually in a lot better conditions – they get to stay at one temperature, avoid predators and have a environment that’s customized to their every need. Barns do look different today than in 1970, but isn’t the same true of computers, doctors offices and stores? Yes, animals die to feed humans, but we respect their sacrifice and care for them in the best way possible.

I’ve heard farm subsidies are making you rich on our tax dollars. There are a lot of mixed opinions on this, even within agriculture. However, the big thing people don’t realize about the “farm” program is that 86% of it is for mothers and children in need of food assistance. And I’m not asking for a handout from anyone, but we manage millions of dollars of risk every year – sometimes the safety net has kept our family in business – and is a tiny part of our national budget.

Biotechnology is evil. Do I look like Satan? Sorry, just joking. Our family chooses biotechnology because it’s the right tool for our farm. But more importantly, there are a lot of hungry people around the world, a problem that’s getting worse with a growing population. I was on a mission trip last year to Africa and saw some this myself. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a hungry child? It haunts me – and that’s why biotechnology is a tool that we choose.

Hormones are making our kids develop way too soon! I have a daughter, so I get your concern – we don’t want to have kindergarteners in bras. Kids are growing more and faster because our diets are better.  Did you know there’s more hormones in a serving of broccoli than in a steak? People need to remember that all food has hormones – and it always has.

It’s been interesting to talk with you.  Are you on Facebook or are there ways we can stay connected? Sure, would be glad to connect with you. Our farm’s Facebook page has a lot of pictures to give you an inside look on what’s happening.  I’m also on Twitter and will put up some videos to show you what we’re doing during harvest. I’d also suggest you check out these websites…

Cool. I like that we share the same values. We may not always agree, but I appreciate what you do as a farmer a lot more after we’ve talked.  And I’ll remember you when I shop for our food.

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If you’re buying food, when have you sought out a person involved on a farm or ranch? Same for those in agriculture… when was the last time you truly made an effort to relate on human terms instead of ag terms?

CONSUMER CHOICE MEETS MEATLESS MONDAYS

Consumer choice is important, just look (really look) at all the choices your local supermarket has to offer. From organic to conventional, fat to low-fat and non-fat, whole milk to 2 percent and 1 percent and skim… the list goes on and on. Agriculturalists value our ability to meet your needs and we value your ability to make the choice that is right for you. As long as that choice is a knowledgeable choice.

Being a knowledgeable consumer is tough. With all those choices it becomes all the more difficult to make the best choice for you and your family and depending on how many people you talk to, with however many different opinions, it becomes even harder.

That is why it is important to talk to the right people who have the right knowledge to make you more knowledgeable. Makes sense, right? So that’s what I did.

I talked to people who have chosen not to eat meat on Mondays because they feel there are environmental and health benefits to limiting one’s consumption of meat. I talked to a dietitian about the importance of beef in the diet and I spoke with a beef producer-because producers do know their product.

What I learned about Meatless Mondays:

  1. Supporters say reduced meat consumption leads to reduced carbon footprints, reduced climate change and improved health.
  2. United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the meat industry is responsible for almost one-fifth of man-made greenhouse gases.
  3. Proponents of the campaign state the health benefits include: increased lifespan, improved diet, obesity avoidance and reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
  4.  “I would like to encourage everyone to learn about the food that they eat,” Meatless Monday proponent Melissa Dion said. “Ignorance is not always bliss.” Dion said she saw lots of improvements in her health and lifestyle since beginning this eating lifestyle in 2008. “I feel really great and I have more energy.”

What I learned from a dietitian:

  1. “I think food fads, generally, are untested in terms of their long-term effects,” said Dietitian and Professor of Food Science M. Susan Brewer.
  2. Heart disease and cholesterol are dietary issues. Brewer said it’s not just meat, it’s all that fat and the French fries that create these problems.
  3. Animal products provide the only source of B12, Brewer said. While vegetables contain iron, especially dark leafy vegetables, it is not the most absorbable form and plant materials bind up the iron making it unavailable compared to iron from meat, Brewer said.
  4. Anemia, iron deficiency, is primarily a problem facing teenage girls and young women in their reproductive years. Brewer said is hard to get enough iron on a regular basis without removing meat from the diet once a week.
  5. Vegetables do not provide complete protein that supports growth and reproduction with the right amino acids in the right proportions, Brewer said. “That isn’t to say you can’t put them together from this category of vegetables and that category of vegetables and come up with a complete protein, with a complete amino acid profile,” Brewer said. “You can do that. But you do have to know what you are doing.”
  6. According to the American Dietetic Association, the correct portion is the size of a deck of playing cards. Portion size, choosing leaner cuts of meat and leaner preparation methods of meat and are important considerations in lieu of removing meat from the diet, Brewer said.

What I learned from a beef producer:

  1. Beef has 29 lean cuts. Trevor Toland, president of the Illinois Beef Association and producer of 41 years said you don’t have to consume large amounts of fat to enjoy beef.
  2. A 154-calorie, three-ounce serving of lean beef has 51 percent of the recommended daily value of protein, 38 percent of zinc, 37 percent of vitamin B12, 26 percent of selenium, and 14 percent of iron, Toland said. There is a lot of value in a simple three-ounce serving of lean beef, he said. 
  3. To equal the amount of zinc in a three-ounce serving of steak, a person would have to eat 13 three-ounce servings of salmon, Toland said. Likewise, one would have to eat seven skinless chicken breasts to equal the amount of B12.
  4. Practices like Meatless Mondays cost the family “considerably more” than a three-ounce serving of beef with nutritious side dishes, Toland said.
  5. “I just want people to know that cattleman really care about this country and the food we provide,” Toland said. “We want to protect our land because that is what makes it possible for us to make a living and market a safe, wholesome, nutritious product that we are really proud of.”

So there you have it, three perspectives on one important dietary issue. If these answers raised more questions the best part is that you can keep asking those questions and gaining more knowledge. If you feel like an informed consumer you can stop by your supermarket and pick up a few steaks for the grill tonight—or not, the choice is completely, 100 percent yours. And that is the beauty of consumer choice, at the end of the day you decide what is best for you.

Claire Benjamin
University of Illinois student &
author of the Rural Route Review

PRIME AND SUBLIME

Did you know that today is National Prime Rib day?  I’m guessing it’s not a holiday that is recognized on your desk calendar, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate it just the same. 

The prime rib roast is a cut of beef from the rib section, which is one of the eight primal cuts of beef.  When the bones are removed and sliced, rib eye steaks remain.  Because of the excellent marbling in the meat of this cut it is loaded with flavor and remains tender during cooking.        

To be a true “prime rib”, the meat has to be from USDA prime grade beef, which can be hard to come by in your local grocery store.  But the name stands out regardless of the grade.  So if you can’t find a prime cut, don’t worry, you can use a choice cut as well.

After selecting the cut, it’s time to cook.  The traditional preparation for a prime rib roast is to rub the outside with seasonings and slow-roast with dry heat.  When cooking rib eye steaks there are more options, but if you want the best steak you can get, grilling is the preferred method.   

The tender juiciness of a prime rib is incomparable.  When you take that first bite, you’ll know why it’s called prime.

What is your favorite way to prepare prime rib?  Are you a traditionalist?  Do you smoke it first?  Or do you prefer to slice it up and have rib eye steaks? 

You can share your recipes here with us, or you can enter your very own one into the 29th Annual National Beef Cookoff contest, the deadline is April 30th so don’t delay!   

Becky Finfrock
ICGA/ICMB Communications Assistant
Beef Lover

CELEBRATE GRILLED CHEESE!

April 12 was National Grilled Cheese Day, but if you missed it, don’t worry.  We have a whole month to celebrate this gooey, savory concoction as April is National Grilled Cheese Month! 

What is it about a couple of slices of cheese melted between two pieces of toast that makes your mouth water and at the same time make you feel like a kid again?  The classic grilled cheese sandwich isn’t just a slice of Velveeta between two pieces of white bread anymore.  You can do so much more with it!  The best thing about grilled cheese is that it’s so easy even the inner-kid in you can do it.  All you need is bread, cheese and any other ingredient to put your own little twist on it.  The possibilities are endless!

One of my personal favorites is with caramelized onions, bacon and cheddar and pepper jack cheese all on buttery Texas toast.  In my quest to find the perfect grilled cheese, I’ve come across some incredibly appetizing recipes.  Take a look for yourself.

Grown-Up Grilled Cheese

Avocado Bacon-Grilled Cheese

Italian Grilled Cheese

Tomato Basil Soup & Grilled Cheese Bites

The Special

Fontina & Asiago Grilled Cheese Panini

Jarlsberg Grilled Cheese with Arugula & Truffle Oil

Smoky BBQ Chicken Grilled Cheese

Grilled Cheese Bruschetta

Ham-Taleggio Grilled Cheese

What about you? What is your grilled cheese recipe that tops all others?  Do you stick with the classic or make it a little more interesting with mozzarella or Gouda cheese?  Pumpernickel or rye bread?  Tomato, prosciutto, or a little mushroom?  You tell us!

Becky Finfrock
ICGA/ICMB Communications Assistant

THE REST OF THE STORY …

As a young boy growing up in mid-century Kansas I remember Paul Harvey on the radio with “The Rest of the Story…”.  When it comes to renewable ethanol and the “food vs. fuel” debate it is time for “the rest of the story”.

USA Today, no fan of ethanol, noted in its March 18 article, “Hunger, despair for millions” that “The farm value of food – what goes to the farmer – is about 19% of the cost in the U.S., according to the U.S Department of Agriculture.  The rest goes to labor, packaging, transportation, energy and corporate profits.”  USA Today goes on to take a swipe at corn demand for ethanol causing higher farm prices but clearly by their own admission 81% of the cost of food comes from beyond the farm.  Given the great recession, labor costs have barely nudged but packaging and transportation costs are functions of energy costs.  The average cost of crude oil in 2009 was $53.48 per barrel and as of April 5, 2011 the price for the U.S. benchmark crude oil is $108.14 per barrel, over two times as high.  Clearly energy costs have doubled and their impact on packaging and transportation have been significant – just check the fuel surcharge rates instituted by freight haulers.

And what about corporate profits?  One vocal opponent of ethanol is Kraft Foods.  Why, because it has removed the financial advantage from taxpayer-subsidized grain prices they enjoyed for decades.  You see farmer innovation and genetic improvements allowed the supply of grain to rise much faster than demand for decades after World War II.  To keep farmers planting and from going broke the USDA implemented its “loan” program which essentially guaranteed the farmer a minimum price sufficient to keep him barely in business.  Because of the oversupply condition, this minimum price paid to the farmer was generally above the market price.  Essentially this difference was paid by the American taxpayer with the benefit of low, subsidized, market prices going to the grain buyer, in this case a company like Kraft Foods.  But don’t worry too much for them, their gross profit margin last year, the difference between what they sold their products for and what it cost to produce them, was 34.8%.  That is nearly double what the farmer received for his grain, not his profit margin as he has production costs too.

So the next time you go to the store and experience sticker shock, think about the 81% that goes to companies beyond the farmer and the 34.8% gross profit margin.  Big Oil and Big Food have a vested interest in deflecting consumer angst elsewhere and small ethanol is an easy target.  Eliminating ethanol will have little impact on consumer food prices but replacing that ethanol with one million barrels per day of imported gasoline will make $108 per barrel look cheap.  To say nothing of the havoc it will create for Rural America.  The next time you hear about “food vs. fuel” remember “The Rest of the Story….”

Ronald H. Miller is Managing Director and co-founder of Prisma Advisors, LLC, a management advisory firm specializing in biofuels and biotechnology.  Miller has four decades experience in the energy sector including being President and CEO of a Fortune 1000 producer of biofuels and food products from agricultural feedstocks.

Corn Use, Food Prices, and Ethanol

Today’s post courtesy of The Farmer’s Life.

High commodity prices have reignited the food versus fuel debate.  Not that it ever really went away, but with farmers reaping high prices for several months now you can see how it’s easy for those who don’t have the right information to make the connection that high commodity prices directly lead to high food prices.  Makes sense right?  If the price of ingredients go up, then the price of food must go up too?  Well, it’s not that simple.

Let’s talk about corn because it’s the one crop that is at the heart of this debate.  If you follow any discussion about the price of corn it won’t take long before you find talk of the price of oil.  Corn prices follow the same trends as oil, and at the same time corn will do the opposite of what the value of the American dollar is doing.  Those are two of the biggest reasons corn prices are so high right now.  Another problem is we’ve have a couple years of tough weather robbing some yield which puts in a situation today where we have tight carry over stocks of corn.  The Middle East, source of much of the world’s oil supply, is going through some significant political shifts in many countries and it’s affecting the flow of oil out of those countries.  At the same time the value of the dollar is dropping.

Now that we have a very basic understanding of why commodity prices are soaring let’s get back to the food versus fuel deal.  Proponents and opponents of ethanol often agree that 40% of US grown corn goes to ethanol production.  I was at a marketing meeting a while back and the speaker put it another way.  Four out of every ten rows of the corn we grow is taken to an ethanol plant.  That statement allowed me to visualize that statistic in a very real way.  Four out of every ten?  That sounds like a lot!

OK, you probably think that sounds like a lot too, and I won’t argue with you, because I think it does too, at least on the surface.  Critics of biofuels will often stop their argument right here.  40% of the crop going to ethanol, no wonder food prices are rising!  Once again it’s not that easy.  Ever heard of dried distiller’s grains or DDGs?  This is the by-product of corn ethanol production.  It’s a concentrated feed stock that is sold to the livestock industry.  When you take into account the amount of DDGs going to livestock, therefore putting that corn back into the food market you bring that 40% of corn going to fuel down to 23%.  So we’ve cut that usage number nearly in half, and we’re just talking about the United States.  If we look at grain use on a global scale, only 3% of grain is going to ethanol production.  And don’t forget, we export corn in this country, which means we’ve got product left over after we get what we want out of it to sell to countries all over the world.

The Renewable Fuels Association has written a post entitled Understanding the 2011 Planting Outlook, Ethanol and Food Pricing covering all these figures and how farmers are producing more on the same amount of total acres year after year.  You can see in the RFA chart that planted acres haven’t changed in 15 years.  As farmers continue to adopt new technologies in seed and equipment, and increase the use of more and more environmentally friendly practices like cover crops, they are going to keep getting more productive in the future.

So you don’t need to worry that you’re starving children in underdeveloped countries if you top off your tank with E15, E85, or biodiesel.  It’s more likely those kids are starving due to regional economics and politics, not because American farmers are greedy.

Brian Scott
The Farmer’s Life

GARDENING: A FARM FAMILY ACTIVITY

I am Marla Hasheider.  My husband Larry and I are grain and livestock farmers.  We have three children and three grandchildren, with one on the way in a month.  We also have a love of gardening.

Larry and I love tilling the soil, planting seeds, watching them grow, and harvesting from our labor.  It doesn’t matter how well or bad my garden did last year, I am optimistic this year will be a good year and have a good harvest.  Larry (and I believe all farmers) are excited and optimistic in the spring when they plant their seeds and watch them grow.

Two weeks ago we tilled the garden to prepare for planting.  I have lettuce and spinach up and growing already and I have peas, potatoes, and strawberries in the ground.  I will also plant broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bell peppers, green beans, tomatoes, and jack-o-lantern and pie pumpkins when the time is right.

Larry looks forward to our garden maturing because he likes to go in the garden and pick some pea pods and just shell them and eat.  Talk about a healthy afternoon snack!

I love planting the large varieties of watermelon.  Last year I grew a watermelon that weighed 120 pounds.  I picked it to enter it in the Okawville Wheat Festival and won first place.  After the fair, we cut it open and it was not even red inside.  It had a lot of maturing to still do.

Giant PumpkinTwo years ago I planted pumpkin seeds for large pumpkins.  Once the pumpkins developed on the vine, you could see it getting bigger every day.  When the grand kids came over, I would take them out to the pumpkin patch to see the pumpkin.  Larry, our son and a nephew loaded it on a trailer and we took it to enter it in the Wheat Festival.  The scale at the Wheat Festival was not big enough to weigh the pumpkins so we took them to the grain elevator in town to weigh them.  I grew a pumpkin that weighed 500 pounds (and two others that weighed 340 and 380 pounds!) I won first place with that pumpkin.

I am the cook at our Lutheran School in town.  Last year I grew enough jack-o-lantern and pie pumpkins that I gave every student (60) in our school a pumpkin.  We also have blackberries, cherries, rhubarb and grapes that we enjoy every year.

Larry plants lots of sweet corn.   Our son wanted to plant a lot so we could give some away.  Our children and grandchildren come over and in assembly line fashion, we cut the corn off the cob and freeze it.  Everybody takes plenty home to eat all year long.  The extra corn we give to family and friends.  For us, it is more fun to give it to friends to enjoy than to take it to farmers market and sell it.

The garden is a fun place for me.  I love to try growing new things and I appreciate the bounty that it provides my family and my community every year.  Especially at this time of year, when my plot of soil is so full of the promises of good food, my family working together and award winning crops, I can always look out at my garden and smile.

Marla Hascheider
Illinois farmer

THE SKINNY ON FOOD VS FUEL

It is a touchy subject for the original parties in production agriculture and the new guy on the block, ethanol. Grain producers, livestock producers, consumers and yes, newbie ethanol producers are all up in arms about the hottest commodity in America. I’ll give you a hint, it’s golden, comes out of the ground… and the answer is not gold, but corn (albeit the two grow closer in value daily).

It seems like everyone has got to have it and the morals our parents taught us, like sharing and cooperation, are falling to the wayside. 

Common misconceptions make understanding corn usage values difficult. I thought for a time that the government was paying many farmers not to use their farms. While this has been true throughout periods of agricultural history, today farmers are paid to use small amounts of poor agricultural acreage for environmental benefits and wildlife habitats. 

Rising prices of food and corn may seem like causal relationship, with ethanol to blame. However, there are other factors at work that many of us forgot to factor in. Prices for everything are going up. Inflation and dependence on foreign oils are all factors. Ethanol helps limit that dependability.

The fact is there is a growing number of people using cars and needing to be fed. Corn helps alleviate the stress in both these areas, but not in the way some of you might suspect.

True, there is corn in your corn flakes (imagine that!) but a majority of corn that you see in fields along the interstate or in rural areas is used for livestock feed–not your corn flakes! Now, obviously it still effects the human food chain because livestock eat the field corn and we then eat the livestock. Higher corn prices=higher beef, pork, dairy, etc prices. 

However, just because some of that feed is diverted into ethanol production does not mean the industry is stripping livestock of their food. Ethanol production uses starch from the grain leaving protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins – to be concentrated into “distillers grain”-a valuable feed for livestock. A 56 pound bushel of corn will produce at least 2.8 gallons of ethanol and 17 pounds of distillers grain. Distillers grain can be fed to dairy cattle, beef cattle, swine, and poultry. It is an economical partial replacement for corn, soybean meal, and dicalcium phosphate in livestock and poultry feeds. This ethanol byproduct can even be used for aquaculture! It is a win-win situation. 

Another byproduct of ethanol: carbon dioxide. It can be used to carbonate beverages, to manufacture dry ice, and to flash freeze meat. 

And of course, the end product-ethanol-is vital for our fuel sustainability. As gas prices creep closer and closer to $4.00 a gallon (again!) it is important to value alternative fuels that support our economy.  

As a country, we need to learn to share corn amongst ethanol and livestock producers, and even China. As Americans we take for granted how little we pay for food compared to other countries. In the United States, we spend 12.4 percent of our budget on food and 17.6 on fuel.

Let’s trust agriculturalists to feed and transport the world-oh wait, they already are!

Claire Benjamin
U of I Student
Author Rural Route Review Blog

TO EAT, OR NOT TO EAT?

There’s a lot of talk, well, mainly hype and marketing, about what to feed one’s family. Being a mom as well as the primary procurer of all things edible, I find myself wondering if my family is getting enough leafy greens, colorful fruits, all while not having too much sugar. Did my girls drink enough water? Did they eat the crusts of their bread? Did I remember that Josie likes peanut butter and jelly minus the jelly…or is it Anna?

Anyway, as much as I seem to focus on the details of my family’s likes and dislikes, I hardly ever seem to worry about the actual foodstuffs that my family is consuming. Why is that? Why am I more concerned about eating the colors rather than eating organic? Why am I not following the free-range, grass fed, hormone-free trend?

Because I trust my farmers. Whether they are livestock men or women, produce growers, or grain farmers, I have a trust in my food source. We as Americans are so fortunate to have the safest food supply in the world. We have had a scare or two with spinach and sprouts, but I can count those on one hand. However, I have lost track of how many times I have stopped at the grocery store this year so far. The good works of our food supply and those who grow it far outweigh the scary stuff.

Americans have become more and more spoiled with this abundant and safe food supply, and thus, have less to worry about. Consequently, many Americans have become increasingly crazy about the picky details and over-marketed, over-hyped food trends, because it seems to be our culture’s nature to worry when there’s nothing to worry about! So-called experts on television, on the Internet, and in parenting magazines have created such a monster of basically scaring the pants off of moms and dads all around our country, when, in reality, we shouldn’t be. Farmers such as my husband care deeply for their animals, keeping them healthy and safe until their time comes to be the hamburger you may have just enjoyed for lunch. Morbid in a way, I know, but true. The television ads and movies that have been produced that lump all livestock farmers as money-grubbing, bottom-line loving, and animal hating group are not the norm. I realize that there are livestock yards that are cruel. There are livestock farmers who should get out of the business, but then there are those like my husband who give their livestock the care they need.

As any good herdsman would do during calving season, he is out there in all the elements (you have to love February and March in Illinois) checking everything from the most experienced cow to the inexperienced heifer during this busy time. To answer a trendy question, yes, we administer antibiotics to our cattle, only when necessary, as a parent would do for a child. But, unlike a lot of anti-livestock press would lead one to believe, I do not lose sleep at night knowing that my kids ate beef from animals who were given an antibiotic when they were ill. Rather, because I trust my beef source (and happen to spend my life with him!), I know that the administering of antibiotics to this animal will have no effect on me or my kids, other than to make the animal better and in the end result, better tasting! Most livestock farmers are ones who went into the business because of their love of animals, and this fact alone should give the American public something to trust.

In celebration of National Nutrition Month, I challenge you all to find out more about your food source and celebrate it. Be thankful for the good farmers out there who are slogging through mud covered snows to ensure your food is not only tasty, but safe. I challenge all of you to share what you know with anyone who asks a question, or quotes a random fact gleaned from a recent Oprah show. I encourage you all to continue to trust farmers, as I know most of you do. Maybe we can start our own trend! Happy National Nutrition Month!

Emily Webel
The Farmwife