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.