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Monthly Archives: July 2015

View From the Combine’s Seat

Sure, many crops are harvested in the summer, but for corn and soybean farmers pulling the combine out of the shed conjures thought of apples and pumpkins, chilly nights and football games.  Not so with wheat harvest.

Wheat harvest-- pictures from the combine's seat.

We have been planting a small percentage of our acres to wheat over the past few years to help build terraces.  Summer is the time to take the bulldozer out to the fields to fix any damage done by torrential rains or the effects of time.  That doesn’t work so well if you’ve got crops growing in those fields, so we started growing wheat because the late June/early July harvest window means time to work on our soil conservation efforts.

Wheat harvest-- pictures from the combine's seat.

For those who are new, I love growing wheat.  It’s the first thing to green up after a long winter and it’s beautiful in all it’s growing stages.

This year, however, I thought instead of snapping my usual photos I’d ask Wayne to take some shots from his place in the driver’s seat.

Wheat harvest-- pictures from the combine's seat.

How’s that for a workplace view?

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Categories: Farming | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Why Do We Need GMOs?

Yesterday I listened to an interview of a farmer in Indiana who currently grows non-GMO soybeans on his farm because consumers are willing to pay more for this premium product.  Next year he doesn’t plan to grow them anymore.

Why?  What’s wrong with regular ol’ beans and why would a farmer choose GMOs, even if the others pay better?

Well, I can answer that will a little more from my tour of Monsanto.  If you missed it, be sure to catch the first two posts, What is A GMO? and Can You Eat Like Your Ancestors!  If you’re up to date, please continue. 🙂

Why do farmers use GMO crops?

This particular farmer (as do all farmers) was having trouble with weeds in his fields.  Weeds are a problem because they use resources, like nutrients from the soil, water, and sunlight you wanted for your crop.  The competition can cause crops to produce less food.

Famers of the past, and those that grow non-GMO products, used a combination of products to kill the weeds, often applying them two or three times to kill those weeds.  That costs in time, money, and harm to the environment.

GMOs were created so farmers could spray a product one time and kill weeds more efficiently.  Scientists had the idea to make a spray that interferes with a protein in photosynthesis.  Then they created a seed that was protected from the spray.  Dead weeds, less chemical.  All around win.

Another problem solved by GMOs is the damage from pests.

Why do farmers use GMO crops?

This works a little like a vaccination.  Scientists take DNA that protects from certain insects and put it into the seed, “turning it on” like we discussed in Monday’s post in the roots or leaves, and keeping safe from bugs.  In the above photo three healthy soybean plants were infected with disgusting caterpillar things (scientific term) on June 11th.  (And moved into that case on the 16th, if you’re wondering about the bottom date.)  I took this picture on June 18th.  You can see the damage done in just seven days.

Why do farmers use GMO crops?

I wish I’d gotten clearer pictures of the labels under each plant so I could show you better, but I’m sure you can guess the nice looking plant on the bottom right is the GMO designed to taste nasty to the pests.  Our guide said the caterpillars figure it out and after a quick bite, never go near the GMO plant again.

It works with corn as well:

Why do farmers use GMO crops?

Hopefully you can read those signs a little better.

In addition to killing pests and weeds so the plants can grow and produce well, GMOs also keep those two little problems out of the combine and away from the food that is trucked into town.  Since a combine can’t tell the difference between Johnson grass and corn, anything growing in the field gets pulled into the equipment– even nasty caterpillars.

So the farmer I heard interviewed was going back to GMOs.  It means less spraying for weeds, less damage to plants, less loss of income, and better for the everyone.

Categories: Food, Science | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Can You Eat Like Your Ancestors?

eating like your ancestors

I’m excited to see you’re back for more of my tour of Monsanto this week! If you missed the first installment you might want to check it out before going any farther. You will also have to promise to over look typos and ridiculous sentences; I’ve been transcribing interviews for the blog that pays! 🙂

Hopefully you have an understanding of GMOs; let’s look at another term– GM.  You’ll see/hear people using the acronym, partly because two letters are easier, partly because we’re tired of the GMO backlash, and partly because it is trendy and we must keep up!  “Genetically modified” is sometimes used to show the difference between a seed whose genetic information is altered in a lab (GMO) and a seed whose genetic information has been altered by selective breeding, but in the U.S. you may correctly use it for both. Since plants no longer look like their ancestors, you can scientifically say that all plants are “GM.”

corn evolution3

Here’s a poster from a greenhouse at Monsanto.  It shows what the ancestor of modern corn looked like.  Teosinte grain (red circle) resembles a stalk a wheat more than an ear of corn.  We don’t have a name or university to credit with the discovery, but they did find plants with fewer stalks used their energy to grow bigger grains and eventually the corn plant changed. corn collage

These are also from the Monsanto greenhouse.  The one on the left is teosinte, on the right -corn.

corn ansestor2

Genetic engineering today is the same- we’re just better and faster at it.  On our tour we saw pictures of college interns trudging through corn fields with a (highly scientific) hole punch.  The interns punched holes in the plant’s leaf tagged the plant.  The punched samples were analyzed to see which genetic traits the plant carried.  Scientists chose the plants with the best combination of traits to continue growing; the interns went back to the fields and pulled up the other 90%.  The remaining 10% were grown to be parents of a variety of seed that was more drought tolerant, or had stronger stalks, or yielded better etc..

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

Then somebody had a brilliant idea.  Since our DNA is present in all our cells, including the seed, the plant didn’t have to grow to torture students in a hot field. A piece of the seed could give all the same information.  As long as the chip doesn’t come from the part of the seed that is the embryo, the plant will grow, making more seeds of its own.

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

And since chipping seeds makes your hand cramp, somebody else thought up this contraption. If you take a soybean seed and shake it up, it will always settle with its black line (the embryo) parallel to the ground.  If you slice along the top or bottom, the seed will still grow.  There’s another machine for corn that takes a picture of the seed and a little robotic arm adjusts accordingly.  Seed chipping took two years off the time it used to take to create a variety with  a new trait.  So brilliant!

Plants created with this method are “genetically modified” without being GMO.  If the seeds are grown according to USDA guidelines the food they produce may even be “organic.”

So none of the food you eat is Paleo.  Those foods don’t even exist anymore.

And I bet early man would think we’re crazy for even wanting it.

Categories: Science | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

What is a GMO? My Tour of Monsanto

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

Most consumers can’t explain what a GMO is, how it is made, or even what the letters stand for.  Even for people with strong opinions on the topic there is a lot of confusion.

Since understanding agriculture is the goal of my Ag Leadership of Tomorrow class, we toured the Monsanto Research facility near St. Louis a few weeks ago.  I was able to take a fair number of photographs and I’ll be writing three posts this week to share what we saw.  Since there’s a lot of confusion let’s start with the basics.  What is a GMO?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism.  A GMO starts as a seed whose DNA has been mapped and whose traits have been carefully chosen in a laboratory.

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

You might remember that double helix DNA strand (on the table behind the guide).  DNA is made of four nucleotides, A, T, C, and G.  Each letter may only pair with one partner and the order of the pairs determines what protein is made.

The idea of a GMO is that proteins do all the jobs that allow us to be living, growing organisms: some make your eyes blue, some give plants the ability to photosynthesize, some are resistant to a specific disease or insect.  In the past we counted on the process of reproduction to randomly select the DNA (importantly- proteins) that would be passed on to the offspring.  Since we can now read the DNA of many plants we can be more specific about putting just the right protein into the offspring.   

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

This chart shows the map of a corn plant.  You can see the rows of genetic information– our guide called them “streets.”  Each street has “houses” which is where the code for one protein lives.  The “address” for that protein is important, as sometimes the code is turned on and sometimes it’s off.  Remember that every cell in your body (or a corn plant) has the DNA for your entire body, but not all of it is being used the same way.  Cells in your fingertips produce nails, cells in your eyes show a different color than cells in your skin, cells internally produce different proteins than cells in your skin.

Through the wonder of science we can now “turn on” proteins that increase yield, or move proteins to new houses to use water more efficently.  There are some kinds of modifications that take proteins from an organism that is attacking a plant and put the DNA code into the plant to make it resistant to the disease.  This tends to worry people, but keep in mind, the genetic modification for root worms is only “turned on” in the roots.  The genetic modification for Round Up is in the leaf.  It changes nothing in the corn kernel or soybean.

Also, despite what you may hear, GMOs are the most tested product available.  They must be approved by the FDA, EPA, and USDA.  (And I didn’t just link to those agencies, each click will take you to the page that describes their role in testing.)  And here’s a quick article linking you to all kinds of long-term studies of GMO safety.

This video What is a GMO? An introduction from GMO Answers is a great start to understanding GMOs.  Actually, the whole website is rather useful.

The awesome thing about proteins is they are responsible for all functions of life.  The same research that leads to plant resistance to glyphosate may also lead us to proteins responsible for Autism and the process for Bt resistant corn may lead us to the process that ends Alzheimer’s.

I, for one, will be cheering that on.

Categories: Science | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

14 Things You Need to Know This Weekend About Hot Dogs

As a farmer I feel it is my duty to bring you information regarding your food choices.  When you have all of the information you can make the decisions that are best for your family this Fourth of July weekend.

Which is why I’m sharing this highly educational hot dog etiquette video.

Dedicated to livestock farmers everywhere. 😉

Categories: Food | Tags: , | 1 Comment

What Will You Pay for Your July 4th Cookout?

I’m in the grocery store at least once a week.  And believe me, if I didn’t live 20 minutes away I’d be there a lot more often.  I’m pretty good at guestimating the total cost of my cart using nothing more than simple life experience.  Believe me, I notice when the cost of food goes up.

What does your 4th of July cookout cost?

When it comes to meat, I can’t get as much for my dollar as I used to.  I’ve notice the price of eggs is climbing steadily (although I get my eggs from the backyard) and we’ll drink $12-$15 worth of milk in a week, never mind cheese, yogurt, etc..

What’s funny is that I never really notice when prices go down.

The American Farm Bureau Federation does a pretty cool project several times a year where they send out 88 volunteers in 30 states to record food prices at the stores where they shop.  They just finished their 4th of July estimates and guess what?  If you’re buying hot dog, buns, cheeseburgers, potato salad, baked beans, corn chips, pork spare ribs, lemonade, watermelon, and chocolate milk (and who is not?!) you are likely paying 3 percent LESS than you did in July of last year!

They gather prices based on the amount of food needed to feed ten people.  The grand total for this year is $55.84, or $5.58 per person.

What does it cost to feed 10 people this 4th of July?  Less than it did last year!  Surprised?!

Last year’s total was $57.57.  What went down in cost?  Well, two big ones were the pork and dairy products. Buns and baked beans also went down; lemonade and ketchup are up.

Why are some prices declining?  Well, we’re producing more pigs, so supply and demand says pork costs are down.  Beef production is stable, so at least prices aren’t still jumping.  Another factor is fuel and energy costs, which are lower now than they were a year ago.  Keep in mind that, according to the USDA, the farmer only receives about 17 cents of each dollar you spend on food.

What does your 4th of July cookout cost you and how much of that $ does a farmer recieve?

In fact, the farmer is only a small part of the cost of food.  This graphic, also from the USDA, shows who contributes to the cost of food.

Where does your food dollar go?

So stand a little taller America.  Our country produces the cheapest, safest, most abundant food on the planet.

Now go enjoy your $6.00 cookout!

Categories: Food | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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