Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Farmers, Ranchers and Romance

Last week Jennifer asked me what I had written my column about. When I told her, she said, “Oh I thought maybe you had written about Valentine’s Day”. In my head my response was; “Valentine’s Day, it is Valentine’s Day already, it sure seems early this year? “ But I knew better and my actual response was, “I am saving that column topic for this week.” Then I am not sure, but I think I might have heard her say something under her breath about forgetting Valentine’s Day.
I admit it; I am not very good at this whole Valentine’s Day, romantic, and being creative thing. I think after almost 19 years Jennifer has resigned herself to that fact also, but I do think she holds on to a slim hope that I may change yet. It’s about as likely as winning the Powerball Lottery. However, when I talk to my fellow farmers and ranchers I realize that I am not all that different from most of my peer group.
I could blame it on the stresses of the farm, the time of the year, a bump to the head or genetics but those would all fall short of the real reason.  Those of us guys who farm and ranch for a living are so gosh darn romantic that our wives become immune to all of the romance around them each and every day. We simply ooze romance without even trying. Being romantic is like our super power.
Let me give you an example. Almost every night is a romantic getaway out here on the farm. Each evening Jennifer comes home (well, the one or two nights a week that the kids don’t have an activity) to a quiet, secluded location a place those living in the city can only dream about. Our house is surrounded by the panoramic beauty of the Flint Hills. She comes home to see baby calves and lambs frolicking in the barns around the house (and after all nothing is more romantic than baby calves and baby lambs).
Often we have a gourmet meal consisting of locally (really, really local) raised beef or lamb (only the finest for us and Jennifer is such a good cook). We eat enjoying each other’s company in a dimly lit dining room (the teenagers who eat with us seldom offer much conversation and I have got to get the lights fixed).  After dinner she relaxes (after starting a couple of loads of laundry and folding even more clothes) by the warmth of the wood stove while I wash dishes (it is one of my assigned chores). Often we simply enjoy each other’s company in silence (the kids are working on their homework and often one or both of us are asleep in front of the TV).
Then later in the evening, I gently wake Jennifer. Most people would simply go to bed, but not this romantic farmer. I invite Jennifer for a romantic moonlit walk (out to check the lambing barn) dressed in her best evening wear (chore clothes). Have you ever wondered why there has never been a farmer or rancher on the Bachelor? I am sure it is because of nights like this. He would set the bar too high and the show would not be able to carry on.
It really is a burden being this romantic; when I was single I really had to be careful about when I turned my charm on. Take our first date for instance. We were a blind date and I wanted to be careful and not get her hopes up too much until I knew she was the one.  I acquired two free tickets to a Baxter Black concert and took her out for drinks (soda) at Denny’s. Even at that my romantic super powers seeped out and she was hooked for life.
OK, OK, it is time to come clean. I guess our first date should have been insight enough for Jennifer. In reality it took a whole lot of begging and pleading to get the second date and I am pretty sure it was a pity date. After that I really can’t explain why she picked me, other than I was really lucky, she had a lapse in judgment and I married way, way out of my league.
I have also had some really good marriage advice over the years but none of it better than the sage words of my friend Greg (I am going to not give out his last name to protect his well-being). “The secret to a good marriage is the ability to look your wife in the eye and say; I am male, therefore I am wrong and I am sorry.” Those words and a comfortable couch are a good start to a long lasting marriage. However, finding a loving, understanding patient wife is the real secret to a good marriage for any farmer or rancher.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Tatum's Heroics on a "Normal" Snow Day

I am not going to lie; It’s been a long couple of days. I am not sure what is worse, the days leading up to a big snowstorm or the days after. I am fairly sure, in most cases, that the dread leading up to the storm is worse. However, I have to say that the aftermath of this storm may have been the toughest part. All the preparations in the world cannot make you ready for 13 inches of snow, 30 mile per hour wind and sub-zero temperatures. Especially with new calves and lambs expected.
At least it was a snow day for my wife and kids. I chuckled as I watched the news and they were talking about letting the kids sleep in and have a lazy day inside. That may be true for the majority of the kids out there, but it is certainly not true for farm kids. Those of you not on the farm may think it sounds cruel to make the kids help with chores on a snow day. However, I greatly appreciated three extra sets of hands.
School was cancelled Monday night but the snow had just started Tuesday morning. It was definitely the calm before the storm. We made quick work of making sure all the sheep and cattle were bedded down, all of the hay feeders were full and water tanks were topped off. Then as the snow picked up, someone went out every two hours to check the ewes. It seemed like it took longer to get dressed for the trip out to the barn than it took to slog out to the barn and back.
Tuesday evening came with more heavy snow and an increasing wind. The predicted drifting had started with a vengeance. Chores that night were also a team effort. Tatum and I went out to check the cows (we started calving about 3 days before the storm, another indication of my great sense of timing). The herd was nestled down in a draw, away from the wind. Well, all of them except our newest calf who was stranded at the top of the draw, prevented from joining the herd by an ever growing drift of snow.
Earlier Tatum was telling me that her friends and her were texting, messaging , Insta-graming, tweeting, Snap Chatting, or whatever form of “communications”  teenagers use these days. She was a little jealous that they had slept in until late morning, watched movies, played on the computer, texted each other and definitely had not been outside. This Tatum told me bundled up in coveralls, winter coat, insulated boots, scarf, insulated gloves and a stocking cap. No easy, lazy snow day for my teenager.
We needed to get the calf down the steep slope through a tangle of vines and through what appeared to be a two foot drift of snow. In reality the drift was probably closer to three to four feet when you factored in the slope. Soon we devised a plan. Tatum would herd the calf to me, I would get as far into the snow drift as I could and still reach it. Then I would make my way down the steep, slick, snow covered slope to the cows with Tatum pushing the brush out of my way.
The calf reluctantly agreed to the plan, well, agreed to it after Tatum pushed, pulled and finally carried it to me. I fell, staggered and tumbled through the drift with the calf. Then Tatum and I plowed our way through the maze of branches, a surprising number of which had thorns on them. Finally at the bottom of the draw we were met by the anxious mother eagerly awaiting her baby. Soon they were reunited and the calf quickly found the dinner table. Mission accomplished right? Not quite, we still had to make our way back up the steep icy slope, past the thorny vines and through the mountain of snow at the top. We crawled to the top, looking a little like mountain climbers conquering Mount Everest and, to be honest, feeling the same sense of accomplishment.
Once we were inside the pick-up and had started to thaw, Tatum looked at me through her snow covered stocking cap and wondered out loud what it would be like to have a “normal” snow day. In the end we both knew that the snow day she had was much more rewarding than the “normal” snow day her friends had. She did not have cabin fever, had gotten a lot of fresh air and exercise and along the way saved a baby calf. However, I did think I heard her sigh when I told her school was cancelled for the next day. Only a farm kid would think going to school was less work.

Anti-biotic Free GMOs

All of the sudden it happened. Kind of like a car wreck or being pulled into quick sand. There I was minding my own business, doing my chores and wham, we were calving and lambing. Sure we have been lambing for about a month now and that endeavor is starting to wind down. Another couple of weeks and we will be down to the stragglers but I got my first calf yesterday.
Now let me preface this whining by saying I love this time of the year. That is I love it when things go right and so far this year, things have went pretty right. Oh sure we have had a couple of hiccups with the sheep, but so far so good. Things have gone pretty good, especially for the cold weather we have had. Cold weather and lambing mean a lot of late night and early morning checks.
I was joking with someone the other day that I felt like the Duncan Doughnuts baker. For those of you too young to remember, the Duncan Doughnuts baker would say “Gotta bake the doughnuts” as he walked out of the house and past himself coming back home from the doughnut shop. Lately I have wondered if I would meet myself walking back from the lambing barn on my 5:30 am check.
During this time of the year I generally don’t venture too far from home and I work really hard to keep myself awake so I can go out at 10:00 and check the ewes.  Because of that I probably spend more time reading, watching TV and surfing the web than usual. What I have noticed is a couple of trends that I would say are threatening agriculture.
First of all, is the trend of promoting anti-biotic free, hormone free meat.  This past week I had a lamb with pneumonia that I saved using the best in anti-biotics available to me. I have no doubt that this lamb would have died and suffered needlessly if I had not given it medicine. I also have a ewe and a cow that I am feeding antibiotics to for foot infections. I really think both would have lost their foot or maybe even died if I had not been able to treat them.
I know the argument is more about the feeding of anti-biotics, but I assure you it is a small leap to banning them altogether. There is still not credible proof that any of the anti-biotic resistance in humans is caused by what we do in agriculture. I take great pride in the ability to care for my animals and provide them with the best of what I have to offer. Because of this I take great care to follow all of the instructions for their use.
The other disturbing trend I see is the demonization of gmo crops. Cheerios has come out and vowed to try to make its original cereal gmo free. Well, that might not be such a stretch since oats are not gmo crops, but the message they are sending/ caving into is troubling. I have done a lot of reading in the past month and I can find no credible, peer reviewed source that can say that gmo crops pose any kind of risk to us at all.
I can find lots and lots of sources that claim gmo crops pose any kind of risk from Alzheimer’s to digestive problems to behavioral problems in children. One such article claimed that genetically modified wheat is harming our digestive systems because of added DNA. That is totally false and incredibly misleading. First of all, wheat is not a gmo crop and secondly even the crops that are pose no risk whatsoever. Most of the bad information comes from politically motivated groups and nations or those wanting to make a quick buck posing as nutritional “experts”.
How do we stem this tide of over active fears spurred on by false accusations and misleading information? We need to be active and spread the word that the technology we rely on in modern agriculture is safe. We need to make sure that we tell our story and let people know that if we are going to feed an ever growing world population we must have these tools in our toolbox.
Even in my sleep deprived, blurry calving/lambing zombie state, I have tried to answer any false claims that I come across. I have tried to refute bad information with good, sound science and in the process tried to tell the true story of agriculture as we produce the food and fiber we all need. Now if you will excuse me, I must go check the lambing barn. Gotta check the lambs, gotta check the lambs.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Ag Nuisance?

This past week I was given the opportunity to testify before the Kansas House of Representative Committee on Local Government. It was a fascinating experience, I know, I am strange because I am intrigued by the whole legislative process. It had been some time since I had sat through a legislative committee meeting and my hat is off to those who can do it every day.
The bill I testified against was one that would provide counties with the ability to declare rural areas nuisances, clean them up and charge the land owner for the expense. Sounds pretty straight forward, cities have the power to do so, why shouldn’t counties? After all we have people buying or building their dream houses out in rural areas only to be confronted by so called nuisance properties.
This bill is pretty open ended and included such nuisances as; rank grass, weeds, unsafe buildings, abandoned vehicles and ponds. One of the examples given by proponents of this bill was a farmstead with a rusty stock trailer, flatbed trailer and a scrap metal pile. Now I don’t know about your place but I have a spot that closely resembles this and I have seen many others as I drive around in rural areas.
Most of us do have a “bone yard” with scrap metal, pieces of equipment and vehicles that we use for parts, so this bill hits pretty close to home. I suspect many of us have livestock areas that when in use do not smell very good and at other times maybe grown up in weeds. The smells and the weeds are just part of the natural cycle of what we do. As for the “bone yard”, we are the original recyclers, nothing goes to waste and with the cost of new equipment and repairs, we keep that area out of self defense.
I try to see both sides of any issue, so I put myself in the new rural property owner’s shoes. You have always admired the beauty and tranquility of rural areas. The idea of breathing fresh air in off the porch while you watch the stars twinkle at night with the only sounds being the rustle of the wind and an occasional coyote howling. Why wouldn’t everyone want to live out here in paradise?
Well, maybe you should have looked around a little more and done a little more investigation before you built your dream house on your little slice of heaven. My guess is that the farmer or rancher was there many, many years before you came along. We really don’t mind our neighbors and we want to be friendly but we have to make a living also. The truth is that you have moved right into the middle of our work area.
Contrary to popular belief the life of a farmer or rancher is not always so pristine. Sure we enjoy the beauty of rural America as much as anyone that is why we chose the life we did. However, we understand that at times things may not smell real good, wild animals do not understand no trespassing signs, dust does blow occasionally and not everything looks like a landscape painting. Our ponds may not always have water in them, they might even not smell real good at time, but they do serve a very important purpose.  
I don’t mean to be antagonistic or to pick a fight. We probably ought to look at our homesteads and maybe even do a little cleaning up. However, you must also realize that there are good and logical reasons for what we do. We should probably try to do a better job of explaining and communicating those reasons with you, but remember one important thing. You chose to move here, and we are simply trying to do our job and make a living.
I hope this bill does not become law, it is far too open ended, much too ambiguous and a threat to agriculture as it is written. All of the municipalities who spoke in favor of this bill stated that they would not come after agriculture and I believe them. However, it does erode away our private property rights and leaves the possibility that someone along the line will use it against a farmer or rancher who is just doing their job on their private property. Just keep in mind, the job farmers and ranchers are doing and the nuisances we create all contribute to producing the food you eat.