Sunday, March 13, 2016

What Does Ag Day Mean to Me?

Sarah Novak
Vice President, Membership and Public Relations
American Feed Industry Association

What does Ag Day mean to me? In order to answer this question, I have to think back to my “summer vacations” visiting my grandparent’s dairy farm in Prairie du Chien, Wis. As a city kid, when I visited the farm I thought this is amazing and wonderful—the calves, hay bale stacks, garden—there  wasn’t a thing I didn’t love. I saw how hard my grandparents and uncles worked every day and thought, this is what I want to do. They were proud of what they did and ate from what they could grow and raise on the farm.

When I went to college, I thought there was only one answer for me—veterinary school! It turns out I was blessed that was not the path I took. I graduated with a degree in meat and animal science and went to work for a company that manufactured milk replacers for livestock. I quickly discovered the road I turned down was the right one for me—working in an office, getting to solve problems every day and doing what I love by being closely connected to agriculture.

I’ve continued down this path, working for a few companies in the animal feed industry, in international agriculture development and now working in Washington, D.C., for an association representing the interests of companies making animal and pet food.

Living in the Washington, D.C., area is quite a change from the rolling hills of Wisconsin. While I still love cheese and the Green Bay Packers, I have the opportunity to represent companies that work with farmers and ranchers each and every day. Helping our members tell their story to Congress and regulatory agencies is just as important today as working directly with farmers. Fewer and fewer people are working directly on the farms and therefore fewer people in Washington, D.C., appreciate what has is done to provide healthy and nutritious food to Americans and many other parts of the world.

So this city kid certainly appreciates today’s farmers and ranchers and remembers the hard work of my family and my many farmer friends who are tirelessly working every single day to help put safe, nutritious food on my table for my family. Thank you, grandma and grandpa. Thank you to all the great farmers and ranchers in the U.S. and around the world.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Proliferation of Fact and Fiction

By Seth Harden, Education Specialist, National FFA Organization

Have you ever heard the adage that 77 percent of statistics are made up on the spot? I have always found this to be humorous, but a few recent articles published by The Washington Post and the World Economic Forum have highlighted just how quickly false science, conspiracy theories and other fiction can spread in our unprecedented era of unbounded connection and communication with virtually every other human on Earth. Unfortunately, agriculture is often the subject of attack.

In fact, sharing of misinformation has become so prolific that it warrants an entire field of research, including terms such as confirmation bias, echo chambers and trolling. Even Google and Facebook, which undoubtedly had a hand in creating the art of self-publishing, are developing trustworthiness scores and newsfeed algorithms to combat falsehoods.

How does this change the way we share the impactful stories and progressive science of agriculture? This all depends on how we leverage the capabilities of online platforms. In 2015, the National FFA Organization #SpeakAg Initiative challenged students to share their own agriculture stories with the masses through social media. Nearly 150 students participated and estimated that their audience was 55,000 people collectively. We can be certain that many of these students are housed in their own echo chambers, electronically socializing with others who have similar mindsets, but the impact of such a small group of students cannot go unnoticed.

If all or even a portion of the National FFA Organization’s 629,000+ members were to be trained in effective advocacy through credibility, respect and literacy, imagine how the future of the agricultural consumer-producer interface could improve for the better. Informed tweets, posts, shares and snaps could reach millions and stifle misinformation with pure saturation of fact. Students have demonstrated the ability to impact the present through modern era tools like social media, but more importantly, they will be the influencers of public perception, consumer trust and production practices as adults in the not-so-distant future.

National Ag Day provides student leaders in agriculture with the opportunity to put these skills to the test not only locally, but also in Washington, D.C., a place where discussion and collaboration are a way of life. National Ag Day serves as a symbolic reminder of the need to advocate 365 days of the year for an industry that feeds us, clothes us and provides solutions for other facets of society through a complex interconnectedness of an ever-advancing set of technologies that could be our friend or foe at any moment.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Illinois Agricultural Legislative Day with FFA

I had the opportunity recently to take part in the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Day, which brings more than 1,000 FFA members to the state capitol in Springfield to meet with our state senators and representatives. Students fill and deliver baskets with various items provided by state commodity groups and show the importance of agriculture to our state’s economy.

I knew agriculture was a big contributor to jobs in Illinois, but the latest information provided said more than 25 percent of the Illinois workforce is directly or indirectly related to agriculture - more than one out of every four people in the state! That easily makes agriculture our largest employer, and a sector that continues to grow. Nationwide, more than 23 million jobs are involved in some facet of agriculture, 17 percent of the civilian workforce.

As young people today are beginning to make decisions about their future, agriculture is definitely a field (no pun intended!) that should be considered.

Careers in agriculture are widely varied. Beyond the traditional view of agriculture as strictly crop or livestock farming, opportunities exist in finance, communications, law, government, sales, technology, and more. A knowledge of modern agriculture can translate into almost any career discipline.
Agriculture is one of the fastest-changing industries today, embracing cutting-edge technologies in the pursuit of sustainable food, fiber, and fuel production. High school students today will very likely be employed in careers after college that don’t even exist at the present time!

One of my favorite quotations reads: “Once in your life, you will need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, and a preacher. But every day, three times, a day, you need a farmer.” I would add that you also need all of the people who support the farmers in myriad ways. Agriculture is vitally important to each and every one of us, and for a young person looking for a stable, interesting, and fulfilling career, choosing agriculture is the way to go!

Monday, March 7, 2016

One Bale of Cotton

by Amy Sarkissian

Driving through the cotton belt during harvest season is always a treat. Fields of soft, white cotton seem to go on for miles. For a lot of people who have never seen a cotton field, they’re amazed at how the fields look almost as if they’re completely covered in snow when the crop is ready for harvest. Cotton is an old crop, and cotton is a commodity crop here in the United States. Although once grown predominately in the southern states, cotton is now grown as far north as Kansas and as far west as California.

Cotton is also a pretty remarkable crop. I never knew all of the ways that this simple, white fiber could be used. For example, if we look at one bale of cotton, which is roughly 500 pounds of raw cotton lint, you can produce an almost unbelievable amount of finished products.

Let’s break down that one bale of cotton:

  • With one bale of cotton, you can make approximately 800 men’s dress shirts, or approximately 325 pairs of men’s jeans.
  • With one bale of cotton, you can make approximately 850 women’s blouses or shirts, or approximately 350 knit or woven dresses.
  • With one bale of cotton, you can make approximately 1,200 pillowcases.
  • And how about those personal care items we all enjoy using as consumers? You can make approximately three thousand diapers from one bale of cotton. Yes, three thousand. 
Aside from the products we wear and consume, cotton is also something we come in contact with almost every single day. You may even have some in your wallet right now…that’s right! Our “paper” currency is made of a cotton and linen blend, and one bale of cotton yields approximately 313,600 $100 bills. Cotton is a fiber that is rich… in history and uses!

Technology Innovations are Changing Agriculture for the Better

By Isabella Chism

As we celebrate National Agriculture Week and near the first day of spring, it’s only natural to think about how far this industry has come and the innovations that continue to change agriculture for the better.

On our farm we are embracing innovation as we use global positioning satellites (GPS) and auto-steer guidance systems to prepare the soil, plant and harvest our crops. This technology benefits the soil and the environment and it can help increase crop yields while lowering input costs.

Additional innovations for agriculture will include the development of hypoallergenic foods such as peanuts and tree nuts, along with new modified seeds to help farmers in developing countries grow better crops without pesticides.

Dairy farmers continue to face the challenge of hiring willing workers in a labor intensive business. Finding people to work on dairies can be difficult because the hours are long and the job is tedious. Robotic milking systems for dairy cattle can help as the robotic arms attach milking machines to cows and automatic take-off units reduce the number of workers needed. The advanced software that runs the system also collects useful data on each cow for the farmer, including how much milk she is producing, feed intake and changes in her body condition to monitor health.

Farmers are increasingly interested in illustrating how they live their commitment to care when producing food, and technology plays an important role in their efforts. For example, spring means the birth of new life on the farm and ranch and  many modern day farmers have installed web cameras to provide  live streaming of  their  the livestock in the barns, corrals and pastures.

Social media is another area where farmers have made great strides in connecting with consumers and providing a feel for farm life. Farmers and ranchers, like other Americans, are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms in record numbers and finding common ground in conversations about food. 

As we celebrate the bounty of the land and our livestock, I encourage you to take a moment and connect with a local farmer, rancher or a consumer. Share your story and answer their questions. Farmers and ranchers continue to feed and fuel our lives and consumers are a vital partner.

Isabella Chism, an Indiana farmer, is vice chair of the AFB Women’s Leadership Committee.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Through cooperatives, we’ve formed solid relationships based on mutual respect

Scott and Julie Johnson are agricultural producers who live in Grand Forks, N.D. Their farm is near Manvel, N.D. They raise about 2,200 acres of sugar beets, wheat, barley and soybeans. They are third-generation farmers and cooperative members. As members of their local cooperative, CHS Ag Services, they believe that cooperatives are focused on building strong producers in rural communities through personal relationships and trusted advice.

In today’s world, technology allows us to do business with a click of a button. No human interaction needed. But farmers value our local cooperative because of face-to-face relationships.

It’s that focus on building strong producers in rural communities that keeps us doing business with cooperatives. We have built long-standing relationships that go back generations. Scott’s dad and grandpa have been board members at our Manvel, N.D. elevator. Bill, Scott’s dad, still serves on our local CHS Ag Services board.

Our co-op has always been a central part of the community. If it was gone, we’d miss the heart of Manvel. The local elevator is the only gathering place in town, where farmers and community members meet to share donuts and coffee while solving the world’s problems.

Those who work at the co-op have become trusted friends and advisors. Before we went on vacation, our agronomist reminded us to lock-in fertilizer prices to manage our risk. A member of the agronomy staff walks our fields almost weekly to give us recommendations that benefit our land and our bottom line.

That’s not something every business will do. But it’s what cooperatives do.

We value the personal relationships we have built through cooperatives. We’ve had the opportunity to network with other producers across the United States through the CHS New Leader Forum and built friendships with our local CHS Ag Services staff, board members, and their spouses.

Cooperatives have taught us to look outside our operation. Through our cooperative, we are building for our own future, as well as that of the company and the community. And as we head towards that future, we know the cooperatives we do business with will be right next to us, supporting us each step of the journey.

Scott and Julie Johnson
Grand Forks, N.D.

Youth in ag: Biotechnology needs you.

Biotechnology: Friend or Foe?

Stand firm in biotech career choice. Consider biotech career path.

by Mindy Ward, Penton Agriculture

In the back pages of a high school yearbook is a quote from my daughter. "I want to major in plant biology and become a researcher for Monsanto."

Agriculture biotechnology companies like Monsanto have been under fire for many years. While biotechnology continues to evolve in agriculture leading to less inputs and higher yields for farmers, not everyone is a fan of that technology.

So I wondered, should I continue to encourage my daughter to work for these types of companies?
My youngest daughter dreamed of being a plant breeder since she was in the sixth grade. But her zeal kicked in during high school when her agriculture education class visited Monsanto's Chesterfield Village Research Center, located in Missouri.

Over the next four years, she took classes designed to improve her knowledge of plant biology and today she is a sophomore majoring in plant sciences with an emphasis in plant biotechnology at Oklahoma State University.
It has not been an easy career choice. She has seen the ugly side of her degree field.

Take for instance the Chamber of Commerce board member who after hearing my daughter wanted to be a plant breeder, proceeded to lecture her on how the occupation was not a good one. He told her that she should have her "head on straight" before diving into that field. He warned of changing things from the way nature intended them. She just smiled. She was not upset. She was resolute.

"They just don't understand," she said. Her desire is to solve food insecurity. My daughter sees beyond her small town, state or even nation; she sees the world.

The fact remains--biotechnology will be a part of achieving a greater volume of nutritious food to feed a growing world population. There needs to be plant researchers and there needs to be companies like Monsanto.

Young people in agriculture, never let the negative words of others be it individuals in society, professors in college, or activist groups influence your career choice. Above all else, set your mind to use your talents to help feed, fuel and clothe the world. Resolve to make the world better for the next generation.

Mindy Ward is a Content Director for Penton Agriculture. She blogs about issues relating to farmers, consumers, youth and more at her blog Show-Me Life.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Ag Cheerleaders--Moving Beyond "Advocacy"

Kelsey Faivre was raised on a farm in northern Illinois, where she learned to love agriculture. She is a senior studying agriculture communications at Iowa State University in Ames, and she is an administrative assistant at CAST. She has written for several ag-related publications. This editorial appeared first in Feedstuffs Foodlink on February 8, 2016.  

Are You an Advocate for Agriculture?

Earlier this year, I was asked an interesting question as part of an interview.

“Do you consider yourself to be an advocate for agriculture?”

My initial thought was that I didn’t want to be called an advocate. Not because I didn’t feel qualified--I was an agriculture literacy intern--or because I hadn’t made any efforts, but because I wanted to do more than advocate.

Advocating and Cheerleading

Sometimes, it seems like advocating is like being a cheerleader for your team. But cheerleading isn’t a conversation. It doesn’t allow for give and take. Simply advocating can be limiting.

I was thinking about a science communication class I took at Iowa State. We had discussed in depth the three roles scientists can take when they communicate with the general public: advocate, arbiter, and adviser. The difference between these roles lies with the intent of the communicating scientist—the expert.

An advocate intends to sway and is the most biased expert. The arbiter is unbiased and serves with the intent of simply responding to questions as an expert. The adviser points out all available options and tends to advise on the best scientific answer. In this way, the adviser role is a blend of that of the advocate and the arbiter.

The advocate role is the most difficult for a scientist to maintain, because nothing in science is certain. To go all out in support of a policy or scientific movement only to find contradicting evidence may create polarization instead of open communication, and tends to damage the credibility of the scientist.

Being an advocate, or cheerleader, for agriculture tends to mean designating teams and picking sides instead of leaving room for more than one way of farming and an open, honest conversation. By simply cheerleading and therefore avoiding conversations about topics of doubt and uncertainty in agriculture, we lose the important element of transparency. 

At its core, the goal of scientific advocacy is to reduce the scope of available choice: in the case of agriculture this means choice of production methods and choices of food in the grocery store. I firmly believe we need to showcase the available choices and create an environment where consumers can join the conversation.
Put simply, being a cheerleader for agriculture can create distrust and be damaging to credibility. Cheerleaders don’t listen; they just keep cheering. That’s fine at a football game, but when it comes to agriculture, people can see through this one-sided championing and wonder what we’re hiding.

It Is Time to Move Beyond

I believe it is time to move beyond advocacy to ensure we are celebrating the strengths of our industry as well as listening, learning, and responding to the concerns of the public.

If I was asked that question again, I would say yes, I’m an advocate—but I want to be more than that.

I want to be a source of high quality, trustworthy information. I want to be positive while being able to see my industry with a critical eye. I want to be forward thinking, willing to adapt and change with the concerns and demands of the public without sacrificing best practices based on science. I want to be one of many informed participants in a conversation about food that is more than just a polarized argument.

by Kelsey Faivre 
(pic of sign from miller-mccune.jpg)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Painting My Passion

Note: This guest blog comes from Hannah Pagel, an Iowa State University sophomore majoring in agriculture and society. This year, Hannah also brings her farm background, her talents, and her enthusiasm to an internship at CAST, where she is a student administrative assistant.

Cow Paintings Portray Stories of Agriculture

This past year I have done a lot of painting, and in particular cow paintings. I started these works of art after my mom asked me to paint her a picture of a cow for a theme she was going with in her new kitchen. Since that request, I have painted more than 10 cow paintings. I thought my paintings could be used to share my stories of agriculture. And so with that, enjoy my paintings and a story of my life to go along with it.

The first cow painting I accomplished was the one my mom requested. It now hangs in our kitchen and fills the room with a splash of color. I decided to name the painting “Dolly,” because this cow painting reminded me of the first cow I showed at the county fair.

Now I’m not saying that my first cow was rainbow colored, but she had some features that reminded me of one—like her colorful personality. When I first showed Dolly I was in the 7th grade, and she wasn't a cow at this time either—she was a heifer, which is a female who has not given birth to a baby calf. After they have given birth to a calf they then become a cow.

You Can Learn a Lot from a Cow

Dolly was one of my favorite animals I ever showed; she was a black-bodied beauty with a white head, white tail, and four white socks from her ankles down. Every time I scratched behind her ears they would start to flap, kind of like Dumbo's ears when he would fly. I learned a lot from Dolly that year—how to provide her with new fresh feed and clean water, how to wash her and keep that black coat of hers shiny, and how to keep her comfortable in the hot July weather. There were times when Dolly had three fans directly on her to keep her cool.

All of these lessons are a part of showing cattle at county fairs and learning how to properly take care of an animal. That summer I learned the true meaning of hard work and the dedication it takes to raise an animal. I mean who wouldn't want to spend their summer in a smelly barn cleaning out dirty bedding and replacing it with fresh wood shavings on the daily? To me it was all part of the experience—catching my glimpse of what farmers and ranchers go through every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Being able to take part in this experience, I have been able to grow as an individual and I have learned life lessons—hard work, dedication, and compassion—all from caring for a cow.

The lessons I learned in the 7th grade have stuck with me today and have helped me develop a strong work ethic. Even though I may be too old to show now, I still have the memories and experiences sticking with me of those hot summers working with my cattle. I may have moved on to painting cows instead of showing cows, but if you can find a way to paint your passion then nothing can stop you from working to achieve your goals in life.

by Hannah Pagel, Iowa State University sophomore and student administrative assistant at CAST (pictured above with her dad and brother)