Friday, December 21, 2012

Beef is Still What's for Dinner

Recently the Kansas City Star ran a series of articles critical of the beef industry. I must admit that when I first saw the news of the series I immediately felt my blood pressure rise. I am very proud of the job I and other ranchers do of bringing a safe, nutritious protein source to consumers. How dare a newspaper question what we do.  Then I read the article.
The author focused on a tenderizing process frequently used in steaks prepared for the food service industry. This process uses small needles to inject tenderizer into steaks. This process  does present a point at which e-coli can enter the product. The article went on to recount stories by victims of e-coli illnesses and the stories were quite poignant.
I had always taken the stance that proper sanitation and preparation would eliminate most if not all food borne illness. I still believe that sanitation and preparation are key elements and I know beef is safe to eat. However, the article did give me a moment’s pause and caused me to take a longer look at the beef we send to the consumer’s table.
I have defended our agriculture system as the safest, most reliable in the world, and of that I still have no doubt. I can only speak for myself, but the safety of the consumer is a great concern of mine. I would never, ever do anything to jeopardize the safety of the product I produce. I know the vast majority of my fellow producers feel the same way. I also know many people in the meat processing business and I can attest that they hold food safety in the highest regard also.
I also believe that we have without a doubt the best oversight and inspection service in the entire world. The USDA and their dedicated employees do their absolute best to monitor and insure the safety of the food we all depend on. I have been to the plants and watched the inspectors do their jobs and they are the best.
So after all of that , do I have any doubts about the safety of the beef I produce. Absolutely not, the illnesses documented in the article are terrible and unfortunate and in many cases may be able to be prevented. If it was one of my family members or me, I would be looking for answers also. I am also just as sure as I was before I read the article that our food supply is still the safest possible.
Anything we do involves some risk. Waking up, involves a great amount of risk each morning and the food we all need does come with a certain amount of risk. Rest assured that those of us who produce, process and prepare the food you eat do everything in our power to reduce that risk. As I said earlier, I also believe you, the consumer, can reduce your risk with proper sanitation and preparation.
While the risk of food borne illness will always be there, I am sure it is lower in our food supply than anywhere else in the world. However, I also think that every business has room for improvement and ours is no different. We must continue to work with the processors, wholesalers, retailers and food service segments of our industry to continually fine tune our processes. As good as we are, we can always be better and that is what we should strive for.
So what should the consumer, which is every one of us, take away from this. We are so blessed to live in a country where food safety is so engrained in every step of the food supply chain. We are also fortunate to live in a society where food safety is such a priority, most of the world is more concerned with the availability and safety is a luxury.
Let me conclude by saying that maybe, as a producer, I should not automatically be on the defensive when the media leads us in a discussion of food safety. While we have the world’s safest most wholesome food supply, improvements must constantly be made and complete safety should be the ultimate goal. I also promise that I will continue to eat meat without a second thought.  In the end, I will always be a confident food consumer and a proud producer of that food.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Deer Season Blues

It’s that special time of the year. You know that season that is associated with this time of the year.  That time of the year when we find it hard to sleep and eagerly wake up early in the morning. We break out special clothes and follow traditions that have been handed down year after year. You could say it is almost a holiday.
Wait, you say, almost a holiday? How can I call Christmas almost a holiday? Actually, the” almost holiday” I am talking about is deer season. The time of the year that hunters find it hard to sleep and blaze orange rules the fashion world. Alarm clocks are set to really early, guns are oiled and knives are sharpened.
I must admit, I used to live for deer season, but life had gotten in the way. I just found it hard to make time to go hunting, too many things to do and too little time to get them done. Something had to give and it was my hunting time. But that all changed this year, when my kids got the hunting bug.
Somehow finding the time to go seemed to be a little easier, maybe it was a little easier to justify it. In any case, Ike, Tatum and I bought our licenses and made plans to go hunting. We carefully strategized where to go and quickly made up our minds. Since the kids are in school, morning hunts were out (at least until the weekend).
The first night Ike and I eased into our spot. As we walked in it crossed my mind that it was entirely too warm for deer season. I was in shirt sleeves and sweating profusely, it just didn’t seem right. We picked out our spot and quickly set up at the edge of a soybean field. I had to admit that the warm sunshine and the leaves nearly put me to sleep. That was more than I could say for my snoring, sagging hunting partner. I would have been right there with him, but the ever growing rock strategically placed under my rump kept me awake.
Soon I heard a rustling in the leaves off to my right. I woke up Ike with a well placed boot and we readied ourselves for the monster buck that would surely materialize. Crunch, crunch, crunch and suddenly he was there. A big, fat, red squirrel. I have always wondered how an animal that small could make that much noise. But there he stood and he was mad.
The squirrel quickly darted up the nearest tree and tail wagging he proceeded to scold us. I am not sure how long the rodent chastised us for interrupting his peace and quiet but it sure seemed long enough. I am quite sure all of the timber knew just how displeased he was about our presence. In the end, I suppose the silver lining was that he did provide some entertainment, because there sure weren’t any deer to hold our attention.
The next morning was Saturday and Ike had a debate tournament but Tatum and I were able to schedule a morning hunt. The morning was warm and the sunrise was awesome. Surely this was going to be the day, we would get our deer. This optimism continued through the first, second and third shots we heard. However, this confidence melted away with shots four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten. I am not sure what they were shooting at, but we are pretty sure it was not deer. We scrapped the hunt and went Christmas shopping.
Since he couldn’t hunt the day before, Ike made the decision to skip Sunday School and go hunting the next morning. However, the morning only yielded one coyote sighting and a broken rifle. The discussion on the way to Church was that maybe it was not a good idea to skip Sunday School to hunt. That night we went out and saw our first buck (sure he was a long way off, but we still saw him), maybe it was a sign that we were on the right track.
So as you can see our quest for horns to hang on the wall and venison steaks is still unfulfilled. Our enthusiasm is not waning and I am sure that big buck will saunter by the next time we go. All it takes is patience. If I have learned one thing it is that with age comes patience. OK, that patience also comes with the knowledge that I know the freezer is full of beef and the memories I make hunting with my kids is far more important than anything else.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

No Dust Bowl

In the past week I have been from North Eastern Kansas to South Central Kansas and my official diagnosis is that it is really, really dry. I think that astute observation might be enough to get me a job as a weatherman. All kidding aside, this drought is getting to levels that most of us if not all of us have never seen before. On top of that there seems to be no relief in sight.
I have also seen in recent days that the local PBS station has been showing a documentary about the Dust Bowl. I would really like to have seen the program but I just haven’t been able to watch TV when it was on and I cannot seem to program the DVR to record it. It would be interesting to see how close we are coming to being in the same weather pattern.
My guess is that we are fairly close to having another Dust Bowl. I know temperature levels have reached all time sustained records and we are somewhere around 11 inches short of rain for the year. I also know that my friends in Western Kansas have been mired in this drought for a couple of years longer than we have.  All of this leaves people wondering if we are headed into another Dust Bowl. I would contend that we may be right in the middle of it.
Oh there have been some pretty bad dust storms recently in Western Kansas but nothing like they had in the 1930s. So if we are in the second, third or even fourth year of record highs coupled with drought like conditions why are we not seeing Dust Bowl conditions? The answer is because we learned from our mistakes in the thirties and modern agriculture does an incredible job of conserving top soil.
Agriculture in the thirties viewed the topsoil as a never ending commodity; the soils were too deep and rich to ever disappear. We were also in an era of needing to increase our agricultural output, so we plowed every available acre. Little thought was given to soil conservation, after all, why conserve a never ending resource.
Well, we found out why. Years of not worrying about leaving residue on the top of the soil led to soil erosion from wind and water. Soon the less productive sub-soil was left exposed and it did not allow the crops to grow as well and leave as much residue. Without the residue the exposed soil was more at risk.  A series of dry years exasperated the situation and the Dust Bowl was born.
Fast forward to now. We are just as dry and the drought has lasted just as long. What is the difference? We have adopted no-till and reduced till farming practices. We leave residue on top of the soil to buffer the wind and absorb the rainfall. The resulting organic matter leaves the soil healthier. We have learned how to preserve our precious top soil and even build it back to levels near that of the unplowed prairie. We have been able to do all of this because of the new technology developed in the past couple of decades. New technology like the much maligned genetically modified organisms or GMOs coupled with a better knowledge of the soils. In short, round-up ready crops maybe what has prevented a Dust Bowl this time around.
GMOs have allowed us to control weeds while not disturbing the soil and leaving organic matter and residue in place. I know we all know that, but this is the time that we all need to be telling the public about gmo crops and how they save our soil. Instead we allow other people to speculate about problems gmo crops might create sometime in the future when the reality is that they are saving our environment and helping us feed a growing world population. The truth is that all of us in agriculture from the scientists to the farmers have prevented a Dust Bowl.
The only group of people that I can see that gmo crops causing problems are the documentary film makers who will not get to produce a film about the second Dust Bowl. To them, I apologize. However, we are facing a never before seen combination of record heat and terrible drought conditions without the terrible dust storms of the thirties. All the while we are still producing a crop (yes, a reduced crop, but still a crop), that is just another reason I am so proud to be one of the many proud farmers and ranchers raising the food we all need.

Friday, November 30, 2012

My Real Christmas Wish

The Christmas Season is upon us. Yes, the real Christmas Season not the after Labor Day, commercial Christmas Season that many of our large retail stores have turned it into. Personally, I refuse to talk about Christmas or consider anything Christmas until after Thanksgiving. That goes for Christmas shopping also, so no, I do not have any Christmas shopping done yet.
I love the Christmas Season and almost everything about it. I especially find meaning and love what Christmas really stands for. I am not ashamed to say that Christ’s birth is at the forefront and center of everything Christmas means to me. Without a celebration of Christ’s birth and an advent season with a deeper meaning, Christmas would become X-mas. Then it would become just a commercial holiday about material things and that would make it pretty hollow.
I really think my farm upbringing led me to this deeper appreciation of the meaning of Christmas. The Christmas Season was a truly special time in our house growing up. It began shortly after Thanksgiving with the cutting of a real, live cedar tree (OK so it involved the cutting of several cedar trees to find the right one). I can still remember the smell of evergreen all around our house and that along with freshly baked sugar cookies are the smells of Christmas.
Decorating the tree was a family affair. We each had our own ornaments that we put on the tree. My main ornament was an elf. I still revel in just sitting in the glow of the Christmas tree lights later in the evening and early in the morning during the Christmas Season. Often this quiet time, when I am the only one awake is when I do my best reflecting on the very things that give Christmas its meaning.
We also had certain Christmas TV shows we watched every year. Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and the Peanuts Christmas cartoons were annual visitors at our house. I still look forward to watching each of these shows every year. My favorite is Linus telling the Christmas story and it gives me goose bumps to this day. I am not a big fan of sappy movies with one big exception, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, is something we should all see every year.
Then came Christmas Eve, it was the best day of the year. Much of my childhood we milked cows. Christmas to the kids of a dairy farmer is a little different than the Christmas of other kids. Everything centered around milking those cows. I remember getting ready for Christmas Eve services and being told I needed to be ready and out of Dad’s way when he got in. We sat, anxiously awaiting church and what was to come afterward, while Dad got ready.
Then we would pile into the car and leave for Christmas Eve candlelight services. For some reason my Mom always forgot something and had to go back into the house and she took forever. Christmas Eve service is, without a doubt my favorite part of Christmas. Nothing is more meaningful to me than to sing Christmas Carols and end the service with a candlelight singing of “Silent Night”.
We would then pile back into the car and head home. The funny thing about being a dairy farmer’s kid is that Santa comes while you are gone to Christmas Eve service. You see he knows that we could not get up early enough to open presents with Dad in the morning and that he couldn’t sneak past Mom after Dad left to milk and he always knew when Christmas Eve services were. That meant we got to open presents on Christmas Eve.
Up until now you will notice that none of my memories have to do with presents. Growing up the son of farmers taught me to appreciate any and all gifts I was given. We learned to value the idea that our parents loved us enough to give us gifts. If it was a good farm year, maybe the gifts were a little bigger, but they were always something we cherished and appreciated. We never worried about whether someone else got more or better gifts, we were excited about what we were given.
I fear some of that is lost in this day of a more commercialized Christmas. It seems each year the expectations are bigger and the tugs at our time are greater. We do not seem to have the time to appreciate the build up to Christmas or to really value each gift and the thought behind that gift. More importantly, we don’t seem to have time to stop and think about what Christmas is all about.
My wish for you this Christmas Season is to have a Christmas more like the one I had as a child. Take time to enjoy each sight, sound, taste and smell of Christmas. Make sure to have some quiet time to reflect on the real meaning of the Season. Most of all take the time to spend as a family and just appreciate each other and take that time to pass an enjoyment of the simpler things on to your kids. Now pardon me as I plug in the tree and sit down in my easy chair.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Thoughts from a Farmer

I must admit it; I like to eat poultry from time to time. Fried chicken is one of my favorite meals and I don’t mind other chicken dishes occasionally. Most of the time I prefer beef and pork, but there is one time of the year that poultry is the required main dish. Thanksgiving is just not the same without a big ol’ turkey. Of course we can’t forget the dressing, cranberries, rolls and pumpkin pie. All important ingredients in a Thanksgiving feast.
While food and overeating seem to be the focus of Thanksgiving, I think we sometime miss the point. Well, maybe we don’t miss the point but the idea of Thanksgiving takes a back seat. This is the one day of the year that we are to take time to give thanks for the things that are most important to us. We all have much to be thankful for.
I truly believe that we should all take a little time each day to reflect and give thanks for all we have. Each of us is blessed with so much, giving thanks once a year is not enough. I don’t care what your situation is or what is going on in your life, each of us have blessings that we can give thanks for. However, with our busy lives we do not often take time to think about all we have, that is why Thanksgiving is so important.
First and foremost, I am thankful to live in a nation of unprecedented freedom and individual rights. I know that many of the headlines and many of the talk shows focus on what is wrong with our great nation. I am here to tell you that we still live in the greatest nation ever; we are freer than any people have ever been and those rights are more protected than any human rights have been ever in any nation. We often take the rights and freedoms we are born with for granted.
We also live in a nation where our quality of life has the greatest potential to be comfortable and happy. Notice I did not say wealthy and easy. Some are privileged enough to live a life of wealth and ease, most of us are not. However, we enjoy a better quality of life than most of the rest of our fellow human inhabitants of the world. We are relatively safe, free of worry about being harmed each day. That is a rare thing in this world. Most of us have enough money to purchase the necessities we need like shelter and food and many of us have enough to purchase “things” to make us happy. That is a rare luxury in this world.
Along with that comfort and quality of life we are so blessed to live in a nation where food is often an after-thought, at least when it comes to availability. We will go shopping for our Thanksgiving feast and have to decide between many different brands of turkey, prepared in many different ways and in many different sizes. Then we will wander the long aisles of the supermarket looking at the massive displays of all the different ingredients for the many side dishes we will prepare. What a blessing to live in a nation with all the different choices of food, the abundance of food and the quality of food, we all enjoy.
Where else are whole TV channels dedicated to food. Nowhere else in this world could you have the choice of eating establishments or the diversity of places to purchase food. It seems everywhere we go we are faced with the availability of food. Most of us have more problems with too much food than too little. I am quite sure this is a blessing that we all take for granted.
I know that Thanksgiving is also a time that I am thankful to be part of the tremendous network of farmers and ranchers who help provide this abundance. Think about the fact that fewer than 2% of our population work to grow all the food we consume. That leaves the other 98% to pursue other paths and make our nation even greater. I am so proud to be part of this occupation so revered that it is considered a way of life rather than a job.
I am also proud to be a part of a larger system of food and fiber production. This includes the researchers and entrepreneurs’ who provide us with the cutting edge technology to steadily increase the amount and quality of food we produce. I am also thankful for the educators, mechanics, technicians, and others who help us on a day to day basis. And I am thankful for the men and women who handle the raw materials we grow and bring the finished products to your table. We are all part of the greatest agricultural system the world has ever known.
This is just a small, small sampling of our blessings and the things we should all be thankful for. All I am asking is for each of you to take a moment on Thanksgiving to reflect on all that we have. Then take that moment and bring it into each day. I think if we all take time to remember what is important each and every day; we will appreciate all we have.