Always more to learn

Sometimes when we’re in agriculture, we think we know it all. Heck, we know more about how food is grown that your typical food purchaser, right? Every so often, though, we get a slap in the face that says ‘Come down off your all-knowing high horse!’ and we’re reminded that there’s still plenty to learn, no matter if you’re conventional, organic, big, small, orange or purple (although, orange is still the best, in my opinion!).

A couple of months ago, I was offered the opportunity to do a technical article about a new ag chemical for an agricultural newspaper in the state. Of course, I said I’d do it – no problem. I’m in NAMA, I write for ANR Communications, I’ve freelanced, I’m a senior in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University — I can handle a technical piece about a new agricultural input. No sweat.

Psh, boy do I still have more to learn.

Besides realizing that a single Introduction to Crop Science class four years ago does not make me the next Norman Borlaug, I also figured out real quick that names of chemical compounds and active ingredients make about as much sense to me as Charlie Brown’s teacher. I’m really grateful there are scientists out there that understand how different chemicals and products can help farmers, but I’ll be the first to admit that I will not be joining their ranks any time soon. I will be plenty happy to continue learning as much as I can about segments of agriculture that I’m not familiar with so I can keep developing my abilities as an educator and communicator.

Have you ever run into a moment where you remembered ‘Oh, yeah. I don’t always know as much as I think I do.’ How do you get over it and learn?

The pride and tradition of being pure

There’s something about being involved with purebred livestock that just makes my heart swell with pride. Now, that’s not to say anything is wrong with raising commercial livestock – I’m grateful for every farmer that produces the vast majority of what I eat every day – but there’s something to be said for getting around people that have such a deep history in raising outstanding animals.

Like many others, the start of my livestock career focused mainly the county fair. Having only a market show, our goal has always been to develop the best market hog out there – usually the result of crossbreeding. Now, while I will say that I love the market hog aspect (my most favorite set of hogs – Grand Champion Pen! – were a set of crossbred “blue butts”), I developed a whole new appreciation and pride for breeding hogs when I got involved with the National Junior Swine Association, the junior leg of the National Swine Registry.

A Duroc boar from Shipley Genetics in Ohio. Animals like this can have a huge impact on the breed. (And don't you just love how you could drive a truck between his front legs!? Awesome!)

Breeding purebred animals, for me, is an entirely different mindset. Instead of breeding solely for type, you breed for characteristics that will improve the breed – and in turn, all hogs – in the long run. You want to breed Yorkshires and Landraces in a way that will add muscle and leanness to their great mothering ability. You want to add mothering ability and sound structure to the great carcass traits that tend to be associated with Durocs and Hampshires. If anyone can remember how far the pendulum swung towards market hogs that were too lean, too shallow bodied and horribly structured in the late 90s, you know how important the purebred industry can be in making our animals better – whether you’re in commercial production or seedstock production. Having that ability to make an impact is the thing that makes all the difference to me.

Yesterday I got to interview the faculty coordinator and farm manager from the purebred beef farm at MSU and they reminded me how it’s great to be a part of raising seedstock, not only for the pride in your animals, but also for the pride in your people. Throughout the history of the purebred livestock industry, there have been outstanding people that have made a difference – both for animals and for others. There are few things greater than getting to listen to older people – and it doesn’t matter if it’s in cattle, swine, sheep, horses, etc. – talk about those that made a difference in their lives when they were a livestock showman or make a difference in the lives of youth now. That’s huge for me.

As you or your children get involved with livestock – and I sincerely hope you do – I would encourage you to consider involvement in the purebred side of the industry. While both seedstock and commercial production are important for the entire industry, it’s definitely a unique experience to be a part of shaping a breed or multiple breeds. I, for one, am extremely honored to be a part of the great pride and tradition associated with being pure.

My life, as shaped by agricultural education

In honor of National Teach Ag Day, I wanted to share my vision of the power of agricultural educators. As the daughter of an ag teacher, I was practically born in a blue, corduroy FFA jacket and had Ag Sales CDE practicums memorized better than the high school kids when I was 10. To this day, it catches me off guard when someone has never heard of high school agricultural education, since I was raised with it from day 1 – my dad’s first year teaching was the year I was born.

Growing up in the classroom, it was really easy to see the impact a single teacher can make on so  many students. When I was 5, I was at the meeting where my dad announced to his chapter officers that he would be leaving the school to take a new position. There were lots of tears and sadness — he had made such a difference in a few short years that these students obviously had formed a connection and did not want him to leave. In the years after we moved, I got to watch as he mentored students who went on to become USDA meat inspectors, agronomy researchers, 4-H leaders, and – like him – ag teachers. I also got to see his former students go on to become more important things, like husbands and wives, moms and dads, and friends. I like to think that, even though not solely responsible, ag teachers do play a role in developing youth so they can be the most successful in the latter roles.

I’m now a senior at Michigan State University and, like my dad, I am majoring in Agriscience Education. Next year, I will student teach with another great ag teacher and work to learn as much as I can about youth, education and agriculture. I’ll admit, I have my moments when I don’t know if being an agriculture teacher is the right career choice for me. Who knows, life may throw a curve ball my way and take me down another path. For the meantime, however, whenever I have one those ‘moments’ I think about my life with agricultural education and the difference ag teachers – including my dad – have made for me. It would be my greatest hope to make that difference for others.

Local agriculture and Wal-Mart — do-able?

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of ‘Foodie News’ produced by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which can be found here. I thought it was an interesting idea and conveniently piggy-backed on a blog post from Jeff VanderWerff on the ‘Farm Fresh Food’ blog found here. What do you think? Can “big-box” stores adequately represent local agriculture and support agricultural communities across the country?

Heritage Agriculture Spotlights Local Produce

Wal-Mart is working with local farmers in its Heritage Agriculture program to bring locally grown pro-duce to customers of the country’s largest retailer. The Heritage Agriculture program was sparked three years ago when Ron McCormick, senior director, strategic food sourcing for Wal-Mart, saw an article in a local newspaper with photos from the 1920sand 1930s showing that Rogers, Ark. (the home of the first Wal-Mart) was once one of the largest producers of apples.

“This triggered the concept that allacross the U.S.there are similar stories of communities that were once thriving agricultural economies, but lost out as the agriculture migrated west and south,” McCormick said.

Today, many of these areas thatonce supported agriculture are often home to a Wal-Mart Food distribution center.

 “It made sense to us, that if we could revitalize those economies,it would let us buy fresher product for our customers and save food miles. At the same time, we would be supporting many rural communitiesthat support our stores,” McCormick said.”We are seeing success with these growers expanding the types of pro-duce they grow and extending their season. This expansion gives us more locally grown produce to buy and helps reduce their fixed costs and makes their farms more profitable and sustainable.”

The happiest place on Earth meets agriculture!

For those of you who know me, you know that there are many things I love. Agriculture and Glee are two big ones, but another one is <drum roll please>….Disney!! Yes, that’s right. I’m a huge fan of Disney and I’ll shout it from the rooftops! Last week I got to go to ‘the happiest place on Earth‘ on Spring Break and, can I just say, it’s totally AWESOME when two of the things I love intersect?

No, the cast of Glee did not go to Disney with me. Unfortunately.

Winnie the Pooh topiary during this years Epcot Flower and Garden Expo!

But it was the International Flower and Garden Expo at Epcot! During the Expo, Disney really ramps up their floricultural prowess, creating magnificiant topiary and beautiful gardens. There were Disney characters out of flowers and different plants all over the place. While sometimes we forget that horticulture and floriculture are part of the agricultural industry (a VERY important industry in states like Florida and Michigan!), it’s great to see a non-agricultural business like Disney put on display the talents of so many agriculturalists.

What’s even cooler to me is the fact that Disney values agriculture all year round. One of my favorite places to go when I visit the parks is The Land Pavilion, also in Epcot. In The Land, you can go on a boat ride through their greenhouses where you can see hydroponics (the production of plants without soil), aquaculture (the production of fish in a controlled environment), aquaponics (production of plants and fish integrating the water from hydroponics with the fish from aquaculture) and more on display. Walt was always a big fan of progress and technology, including where it is related to food production. The Land allows Disney visitors to learn about some of the newest technology related to agriculture — some technology that may even be new to farmers!

Mickey and Minnie flower power!

(And that’s Walt Disney, in case you were confused!)

Have you ever been impressed by the agricultural endeavors — horticultural or otherwise — at a Disney park? What about another location where you wouldn’t automatically expect it? I’d love to hear about it! It’s always great when non-ag groups value our products just as much as we do.

Can’t we all just get along?

There are some points where I’m caught off guard by this question ringing in my ears. Why is it that agriculturalists – farmers, businesspeople, educators – can’t support other agriculturalists? Wouldn’t it make our entire industry stronger?

I’ve been placed in a couple of situations lately where, because production methods don’t mesh, I’ve been unable to promote what I feel is a beneficial part of agriculture. As long as one side isn’t attacking the other (I can understand dissatisfaction when there are attacks and marketing ploys), why is it wrong for high-production agriculture to support small-scale, local food marketers? It would seem that we all have our niches – commodity markets, contracts, farmers markets, CSA customers. Why not promote each other for the unique role we fill in this diverse industry we’re all a part of?

I know this post is probably pretty naiive, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Can differing production systems be supportive of one another? Should they?

Farm Fresh Food? Yes, please!

You probably read the title and thought “Farmers markets? Locavore? Gardening?”. Well those are all great things, but I’m actually talking about the newest blog sharing farmers’ stories in Michigan! The ‘Farm Fresh Food’ blog launched March 1 and is a great way for agriculturalists in the state to share their stories.

Hosted on, the blog will feature posts from farmers in all segments of Michigan agriculture. Topics will range from on-farm activities to how a busy mom can clean out the pantry. It’s really a great way to show the diversity of both Michigan agriculture and Michigan farmers (surprise – they’re just like most people in a lot of aspects!).

I would encourage you to check out the blog at and leave your thoughts in the comments section. I can’t wait to see what people think and I look forward to all the agvocating that these farmer-bloggers will be doing!

**Note: If you’re a Michigan farmer (large or small!) who would be interested in blogging, let me know!