Ode to long days, warm sunshine, thoughts, images

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As I sort photos for a newspaper story… it seems a good time to share the random thoughts and images recorded while driving through America’s Heartland from deadline to deadline the last few summers. Much of it, the things I see, but don’t have time to stop for picturing, as I’m always running late for the next deadline. Feel the copious doses of Vitamin D, long days, warm sunshine, rural lands… 

Birds of flight soar between tufts of congregating clouds. Snowy white egrets glow sunset silver above crystal blue lakes… Appearing out of nowhere, they punctuate the landscape and reflect the vivid sky.

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Working metal parked by barns take on the rust red hue.

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Birds dance atop fields of corn … a burst of orange Tanager, brilliant Blue Bird, the acrobatic, ever-present Swallows, A woodpecker’s crisp white-wing slices  the air…

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and swallow-like … the sweeps and turns of the yellow crop-duster — left side, right side. Now you see him. Now you don’t.

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Sunlight plays off green waves of midseason soybean.

Corn, gold-fringe tasseled under the brilliant moon.

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Tractors on a mission up and down the road… Everyone waves.

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From Wisconsin to the Buffalo Ridge of Minnesota to Sioux Country and the Western Skies Scenic Byway…

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Rolling, potholed landscape almost like that of the Dakotas — where wheatgrass shimmers silvery and sage brushes gold the green sheen dotted by low cedars. But in western Iowa, gentler are the dips melding to the flat, allowing crops to be planted in organized rows that curve to the contours of the land.

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Proud large Hawk atop a Green Barn. No time to stop.

Cattle graze juxtaposed with large wind turbines of the Buffalo Ridge in Minnesota.

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Rising tall and metallic from the carpet of green… grain elevators every 20 or 30 miles.

Lines of tractors and implements in a rainbowed density of reds, orange, greens and golds.

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Small towns fringed with angularly parked pickup trucks – clods of dirt between treads as the creases of hard working hands at the wheel.

Flags diffuse light on front porches… proud fabric flies in the midst of cornfields, lining small town streets, atop grain elevators and silos.

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Synergy: old barns juxtaposed with new. Wood, weathered by age, what stories have they seen, will they tell?

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An old man’s grave from the 1800’s, buried right where he fell walking home from church… a family farming there now farms around the odd space each season.

From the pushed up earth to the flats where one imagines torrents of water resting to round sharp edges into mounds that become smaller as they come together in a swath that eventually lay across miles so flat as to suggest no horizon.

Radio on. Squawking the town’s happenings: a Saturday night fire hall dinner. The local softball standings. A community parade. Radio commentary so thick with farm talk and market reports, suggesting an area, an era, insulated from the coldness of an outside world depending on them for sustenance.

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Delicate hues soften weathered wood.

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Sandpipers and plover find morsels of grain amid a stiffened manure lagoon.

Two white ducks peer into a farm shop door. Two pigs laying on the concrete stare back… and the chorus that accompanies the leisurely standoff.

A sun-bleached road like ribbon punched through rain-fed emerald green soybeans disappears into another sea foam green of a grassy knoll, meeting the blended hues of the evening’s summer sky.

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Liberty born of the land, rooted in agriculture

By Sherry Bunting (Growing the Land in July 3, 2015 Register-Star)

“For our nation, for us all,” read the Marines billboard as I drove through the nation’s heartland. I turned the phrase over in my mind, thinking just what kind of courage, heart, and love of country it takes to serve in our nation’s military.

A rush of thankfulness flooded over me as the tires of my Jeep Patriot (yes, I’ll admit, part west-texas-sunsetof the reason I bought it was the name) ate the miles to the next destination,
and farmland stretched endlessly on either side of the highway.

I whispered ‘thank you.’

Tomorrow, our nation commemorates our Independence Day, and I think of the agraweb063A8492rian roots of Thomas Jefferson, the primary architect of the language so carefully chosen in our Declaration of Independence.

Liberty has proven for 239 years to be more than an ideal worth fighting — even dying — for, it is a condition of life in America that can be misunderstood and taken for granted.

With liberty, comes responsibility.WestPA7331

As I drove South this past week, my mind also pondered current events and the battle of Gettysburg turning the tide of the Civil War at this same spot on the calendar. This too is commemorated every July 4th weekend with re-enactments, lest we forget that our unity as a nation stood the test of valor and dignity from both sides — an internal struggle to recommit our nation to the freedom and responsibility of true liberty.063A1117xx

Traveling the country to interview and photograph agriculture from East to West and North to South, I am struck by the diverse beauty of both the land and the people in our United States of America. Diversity, too, is a key attribute of liberty.

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Driving the long rural stretches of the prairies from the Midwest through the Great Plains — where one can go hours without see another vehicle — the bigness of this land and its call of freedom is, itself, liberating.

Whether it is the eastern patchwork of small farms living at the fringes of suburbia with subdivisions often sprinkled between them or the King6373western stretches of uninterrupted farmland — nothing speaks the quiet role of agriculture as the backbone of our nation’s liberty quite like hearing the farm report come on the radio several times a day while driving.

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Thomas Jefferson once said that, “The earth is given as common stock for man to labor and live on.” He also held high the value of agriculture to the nation’s economy, which remains true centuries later in 2015.

“Agriculture is our wisest pursuit because it will, in the end, contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness,” Jefferson wrote.

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These are not idle words. In today’s times of rapidly advancing technology in everything from medicine to manufacturing to entertainment, many of us lack a full understanding of how advancing technology in agriculture ensures the long term sustainability of families farming for generations in the U.S. No other profession requires a business to purchase inputs at retail cost and sell output at wholesale prices. No other profession multiplies a dollar earned as many times throughout the local community.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “The glory of the farmer is that, in the division of labors, it is his part to create. All trade rests, at last, on his activity. He stands close to nature; obtains from the earth the bread, the meat. The food which was not, he causes to be.”

In the East, we see this truth all around us. With over half of the New York State population residing in New York City and the other half throughout the rural lands upstate, the sustainability of food production, jobs and economic vitality rest on the shoulders of farmers as they work close to the land and its animals. In many years, farmers borrow on their equity and spouses take second jobs off the farm to get through years of crashing market prices, rising input prices and drought.

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And yet, they continue to pursue efficiencies that allow them to produce ever-more food with less land, water and other natural resources per pound or bushel or ton of raw food commodity.

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Farming is a business, and it is also a way of life. The success, ingenuity, work ethic and optimistic spirit of farm families provides the basis for our nation to remain free by remaining self-sufficient in its ability to feed its own people and the world.

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting of bands,” said Thomas Jefferson when American democracy was yet in its infancy.

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Back to the American flags I see waving from farm silos and along city streets across our country…  Throughout the nearly two-and-a-half centuries since our July 4th birthday as a nation, American soldiers come from all walks of life and all regions of the country to protect our freedom. This includes a nearly 2-to-1 ratio of young men and women with roots and boots firmly born of farm and ranch living. That is amazing, considering that less than two percent of our population today is farming for a living.

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As we celebrate with fireworks and backyard barbecues this weekend, we can remember who we are and what has challenged us in the past that American men and women sacrifice of themselves to protect liberty, that it may endure and shine light to each new generation.

A former newspaper editor, Sherry Bunting has been writing about dairy, livestock and crop production for over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows. She can be reached at agrite@ptd.net.

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PHOTO CAPTION: Happy Independence Day! Sherry Bunting image.

NUTRITION POLITICS: Kids and cattle caught in the crossfire

GROWING THE LAND: Nutrition Politics: Let them eat cake!

April 2, 2015 Hudson Valley Register-Star

Seems like an April Fools’ joke, but I am sorry to say it is not. Like the ill-fated Marie
Antoinette in her final words, the federal government lacks understanding for the nutritional realities of the masses as it turns the simple act of providing a nutritious lunch to schoolchildren into an exercise in frustration.

Kids buy Twinkies instead of lunch. Or they pack. Some go hungry.

For 40-plus years, the concept of a “heart healthy diet” has been unchallenged even though it was implemented based on a set of hypotheses created from epidemiological studies on middle-aged men. No study of impacts on women and children. No clinical trials on anyone.

As noted in this column on Jan. 27, schoolchildren have been eating the equivalent of a heart patient’s diet since the mid-1990s as the fat percentage was tightly controlled even though the sugar was not. Then, the government cut the calorie totals realizing the fat that was removed was replaced with sugar to meet the calorie requirements of a growing child.

What have we to show for it? Rising levels of obesity and diabetes, particularly among children.

It is about to get worse, but there is still time to be heard. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — charged with making recommendations every five years — has now
stepped beyond its nutritional realm to consider the “environmental impacts” of foods.

From the frying pan into the fire we go.1538850_10203867018139998_98482634260761802_n

In this column on Feb. 8, we looked at the National School Lunch Program and the Dietary Guidelines just as the five-year Advisory Committee submitted its Advisory Report to the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Committee states that “The purpose of the Advisory Report is to inform the federal government of current scientific evidence on topics related to diet, nutrition and health. It provides the federal government with a foundation for developing national nutrition policy.”

However, the Advisory Report constructs and reinforces further reductions in its guidelines on the consumption of red meat and whole dairy fat such as butter and whole milk by using these so-called “sustainability factors.”

This area of science is even more subjective than the past four decades of nutrition science have proved to be. Just when the truth is coming out that decades of nutrition policies are based on hypotheses steering unwary consumers away from healthy fat and into the arms of carbohydrates, suddenly “sustainability” emerges to perpetuate the lie.

New York Times bestseller “The Big Fat Surprise” delves deeply into this subject. Author Nina Teicholz, an investigative food reporter, compiled nine years of research covering thousands of studies and many interviews with nutrition scientists to discover this April Fools’ joke has already had too-long a run and with unintended consequences for Americans.

As noted by Anne Burkholder, a rancher and blogger (Feedyard Foodie), who wrotGL 1847 (1)
e after reading Teicholz’s book: “The diet-heart hypothesis (coined by a biologist Ancel Keys in the early 1960s) proclaimed that a low fat and high carbohydrate diet provided the basis for good health. Although not proved through clinical trials, the hypothesis gained support from the federal government and provided the basis for mainstream dietary advice during the ensuing decades.

“…The culture of the American diet has shifted dramatically. According to USDA, the consumption of grains (41 percent), vegetables (23 percent) and fruits (13 percent) rose significantly from 1970-2005 while red meat (-22 percent), milk (-33 percent) and eggs (-17 percent) fell dramatically. Overall carbohydrate intake for Americans rose with low fat starches and vegetable oil took the place of animal protein and fat in the diet. Animal protein lovers shifted from beef to chicken and many traded whole fat dairy for skim milk and margarine thereby forsaking nutrition density for lower saturated fat options,” Burkholder writes. “All of this occurred during a time in the United States when obesity rates more than doubled (15-32 percent), the prevalence of heart failure, cancer and stroke all increased and the rate of diabetes increased from less than 1 percent to 11 percent.”

Here are just some of the conclusions Teicholz highlights in “The Big Fat Surprise” after nearly a decade of research:

1. Causal associations between red meat consumption and heart disease are minimal.

2. The HDL (good cholesterol) is increased by the saturated fat found in animal protein.

3. Animal fat is nutrient dense, packing protein, energy and essential vitamins and minerals — plus helping the vitamins and minerals of other foods eaten together to be better absorbed by the human body.

4. There are no health studies to learn the effect on health of liquid vegetable oils. We do know that the process of solidifying vegetable oils creates the very unhealthy transfats. Butter and red meat do not contain these transfats.

5. Insulin levels are elevated by constant carb consumption, not by animal fat and protein. Furthermore, as insulin levels are raised, the body is less able to digest its own stored fat created by — you guessed it — carbs!

Our children have been and will apparently continue to be test subjects for nutrition GL kids-cowspolitics. The simple act of providing a nutritious school lunch will become even more
complicated if the Advisory Report is accepted and used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture secretaries in the food programs they administer.

Published in the Federal Register (Vol. 80, No. 35) on Feb. 23, the public comment period was recently extended to May 8. After that, the secretaries will jointly release the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015.

A quick perusal of comments already logged shows that two parts of the Report are garnering attention:

1. There is an overwhelming support for the recommendation to reduce the amount of added sugar in the diet. My only question is: What took them so long?

2. There is an overwhelming lack of support for the recommendation to reduce even more the role of saturated fats — red meat and whole dairy fat — in the diet.

Some children may forego the school lunch and pack a nutritious replacement. But what about the child in poverty? Their options are limited to taking what the federal government dishes out, literally.

To comment on proposed Dietary Guidelines by May 8, visit www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2015/comments/. It is easy to do electronically.


GROWING THE LAND: Kids and cattle caught in the crossfire 

Feb. 8, 2015  Hudson Valley Register Star

Kids and cattle are caught in the crossfire of nutrition politics, and it may get worse. GL 0263Two weeks ago we talked about the changes over the years in the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans and their direct influence on the National School Lunch Prog
ram. This week we look at how the simple act of providing a nutritious school lunch could become even more complicated.

What I have gleaned from reader comments is a high level of frustration about the current status of the National School Lunch Program limiting the caloric intake and food choices of growing children. Now, the next twist in the nutrition-noodle may not even be nutrition-based.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the deciding agency for new “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” expected to be released soon. The HHS Secretaries are deliberating the recent report from their Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which held meetings for months.

When the new Guidelines are officially published in the Federal Register, a second round of comments will open. I’ll let you know when and how to comment when the time comes.

For now, let’s look at a few concerns with the committee’s report.

1) It is worth noting that back when we had a Food Pyramid, physical exercise was Boilermaker6929visually highlighted, where today it is notably absent from the MyPlate diagram.

2) More troubling this time around, is the fact that the committee is not just focusing on new information about healthful eating, they have incorporated so-called “sustainability”
factors or environmental impacts of various foods — namely lean meats. This opens a whole can of worms that — quite frankly — have nothing to do with nutrition!

3) Furthermore, some of the science the committee used to come up with thewWill-Feed3983 idea of eliminating lean meat from its so-called “healthy eating pattern” is quite controversial and involves a United Nations study that has since been refuted.That study had suggested meat production contributes more to climate change than transportation.

Scientists have come forward in droves with counter-studies showing the greatly reduced carbon footprint of agriculture, particularly animal agriculture. The whole lifecycle of beef and dairy cattle needs to be considered when formulating environmental impacts.

While the dietary gurus in Washington debate the merits of meat and whole-fat milk, let’s look at this term “sustainability” and what dairy and livestock producers actually care about and accomplish for their land, animals — and us!

Regarding potential replacement of a “healthy eating pattern” in favor of a “sustainable eating pattern,” there are several concerns.

1. If red meat and full-fat dairy are not considered a component in a healthy eating pattern, students will increasingly see this nutrient dense protein source removed from their diets and replaced with foods that are less nutrient dense.

2. Since these guidelines affect the most nutritionally at-risk children through their effects on the school lunch program, WIC and food stamps, the impact of the dietary guidelines would fall mostly on those children who are already on the hunger-side of the nutrition equation.

3. How can the committee recommend a “sustainable dietary pattern” when mothers, doctors, scientists, and all manner of experts can’t even agree on what “sustainable” actually means? Let’s stick to nutrition. Defining that is a tall-enough order.

Scientist, cancer survivor and new mom Dr. Jude Capper covers this topic best. She points out that, “With the world population officially hitting 7 billion people earlier this year and projected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, farmers and ranchers must continue to find ways to sustainably feed a growing world population using fewer natural resources.”

She notes the many improvements to the way cattle are raised and fed in the United States between 1977 and 2007 that have yielded 13 percent more total beef from 30 percent fewer animals. More beef from fewer animals maximizes resources like land and water while providing essential nutrients for the human diet. U.S. cattlemen raise 20 percent of the world’s beef with 7 percent of the world’s cattle.

Capper’s research in the Journal of Animal Science shows that beef’s environmental footprint is shrinking. Each pound of beef raised in 2007 (compared to 1977) used 19 percent less feed; 33 percent less land; 12 percent less water; and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy. Significant gains have been made in the seven years since the data was collected for this report.IMG_2657

What is discouraging to cattle producers — be they beef or dairy — is the lack of understanding for how cattle are raised and fed. They utilize feedstuffs we humans cannot digest and turn that into meat and milk, which are nutrient-dense sources of proteins, minerals and vitamins.

Some of their lifecycle is spent on grass or eating a mostly grass / hay diet and some of their lifecycle is spent eating a more concentrated diet at certain stages. Feedlot beef wky3327

cattle start out as calves on grass. Even in the feedlot, today’s rations — especially in the east and near food processing centers — utilize bakery waste, over cooked potato chips, wilted produce and the like that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Incorporated into cattle diets along with traditional feedstuffs, these foods provide protein and energy for the animals without sole reliance on corn. In addition, when corn is fed, the whole plant is used.

Farmers are thrifty. They don’t like to waste a thing. They understand the balance of working with nature because it is not just the vocation, but also the very life they have chosen working with their animals and the land.

I can’t think of any other reason why someone would work this hard and put their entire livelihood and all of their capital at risk to the swings of the marketplace other than they are passionate about producing food and using science and ingenuity to work with

Mother Nature in preserving a sustainable balance for all of God’s creatures — the 2-legged and the 4-legged.

Send me your questions and look for part three when the official new guidelines are posted in the Federal Register for public comment. Email agrite@ptd.net.10256404_10204082794934283_4627952695489572277_o


GROWING THE LAND: How did school lunch get so complicated        

Jan. 27, 2015 Hudson Valley Register-Star

Are you satisfied with your school lunches? Do your children eat them? Do they come home so hungry they binge out of the snack drawer?

The National School Lunch Program and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are lightning rods for the latest nutritional ideas — none of which seem to be working particularly well because we’ve gotten so far from the basics, and yet both childhood hunger and childhood obesity are on the rise.

Now it seems there will be another twist in the nutrition-noodle. Recent food studies and “The Big Fat Surprise,” a best seller by Nina Teicholz, reveals the truth about the healthfulness of natural fats in whole milk, butter, beef, ice cream, etc. Teicholz was profiled on “Live! with Kelly and Michael” last week, where she described the “nasty nutrition politics” that continually shape these programs.

In response to these animal-protein-friendly nutritional revelations, the environmental webfeed9297nail-biters (under the influence of refuted studies) are “concerned” about what they see as the effect of dairy and beef production on climate change. According to news reports last week, these groups would like the government to take their version of the facts and tweak new-again the nutrition guidelines. This means yet another lunchroom brawl will soon be coming to a school cafeteria near you where the already burdensome and counterproductive rules for lunch menu planning have lunch ladies and foodservice directors — not to mention kids and parents — tearing their hair out.

How did we let serving a decent healthy meal to schoolchildren become so complicated? Why don’t schools take their cafeterias back? One reason is the federal government ties its financial support for literacy programs (extra teachers and tutors) in schools to the number of students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program as monitored by — you guessed it — the federal government. Oh what a complex web we weave when all we set out to do is healthfully eat!

The government’s interest in the school lunch program got its first foothold during World War II when more women joined the workforce as part of the war effort. The emphasis at that time was to provide a hot meal with plenty of protein, calories for energy and the healthy fat necessary for brain development and satiety — a fancy word for no hunger pains during the end of the day math class!

My generation grew up with the “eat all things in moderation” mantra. Lunches were a bit repetitive, but they were good, honest meals and we ate them. We learned about the four food groups, and we ran and played and worked outside ‘til dusk.

My children’s generation grew up in the “food pyramid” days, spelling out the servings deal differently. Then, in the 1990s, the school lunch program went through a major metamorphosis that paralleled the “low fat” offerings in nearly every product category at the supermarket. What the 90s gave us was less fat and more carbs, and a lot of guilt. I would say those three things are actually ingredients for obesity.

By the late 1990s, the government came out with the nutrient standards for menu planning, and school districts across the country bought the software and began to submit their menus for approval. I was editor of a farm publication at the time and served as an elected director on a local school board. I interviewed not only our own district’s foodservice director but others as well, and I visited one of the schools that had piloted the program for USDA.

“Schoolchildren were being relegated to the equivalent of a heart patient’s diet,” explained the foodservice director who was piloting the program in 1997. The calorie thresholds were unchanged, but the government began regulating the percentage of those calories that could come from fat. There were no regulations yet for sugar or carbohydrates. And yes, as always, the goal was to get kids to eat more veggies and fruits and fiber. We might take a lesson from France in that department. They require lunches to be made from fresh ingredients, but they aren’t afraid to deep-fry some broccoli or soak a healthy vegetable dish in yummy cheese — real, of course.

The new fat rules forced foodservice folks to put imitation cheese product on their once delicious pizza. Ground turkey replaced beef in spaghetti and tacos. Rolls were served without butter. All milk was reduced to nonfat or 1 percent so the amount of chocolate milk consumed increased. (Whole milk is much more flavorful than nonfat, and it is just 3.25 to 3.5 percent fat!

As fat was reduced, so were calories and flavor. To get back up to the number of calories required, “we just served a bigger brownie, for example,” that foodservice director recounted. Of course, they used applesauce to replace the shortening in making such desserts. But still, no requirement on sugar and carbs.

“Two elements give food flavor: fats and sugars. When you pull one out, chances are the other is added,” the wise foodservice director observed. Whether natural or added, sugars and fats provide flavor, but what most people don’t think about is: The fat in real foods — such as beef and butter and cheese — is accompanied by a nutrient dense protein source that naturally supplies vitamins and minerals and helps kids feel satiated, not hungry or hyper, so they can concentrate and learn. Healthy fats are known to be good for brain development.

Fast forward to the decade of the 2010’s. More tinkering! The food pyramid became the plate showing portions of different food types, and we are now in a time when school menus are regulated in the number of calories that can be served using arbitrary, across the board calculations.

Caught in the crossfire are kids and cattle. We’ll continue this topic in the next edition of “Growing the Land,” so send me your questions about nutrition standards, new information on healthy fats, school lunch programs, and the real-deal on the carbon footprint and environmental contributions of today’s dairy and beef cattle. Email agrite@ptd.net.

Breaking winter’s stillness. Better late than never.

 

Breaking winter’s stillness with a cacophony of sound, a sea of white emerges over the hill, nearly blending with the remnant snow, as 75,000 (and counting) snow geese arrived March 10 -13, 2015 to the frozen tundra that is usually the lake at Middle Creek. Pushed from their normal roost on the lake by 15 inches of frozen cover on which ice-fishing continued this week, the annual harbingers of spring moved inland to the fields in various stages of snowmelt —  like waves to a beach.

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Typically they arrive in mid-February and stay through March 10 to 20 to refuel for the rest of their long trip.

This year and last, the longer and colder winters here delayed their arrival, and it will undoubtedly be brief.

These are the scenes of flocks arriving from points south in the afternoons of March 12 and March 13.

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So glad I was to hear them, see them, feel them with my husband and our grandchildren before heading south and west, myself, for a 2-week business migration to farms and dairies.

 

As a child of March, the tundra swan and snow geese connect me to a new year through this annual rite of the not-yet-spring.

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These migrations are another intangible benefactor of Growing the Land…

 

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In the deep rural countryside and fringelands of urban development, farmers and ranchers sustain the land that sustains these beautiful migrating birds with open space and nourishment before the new crop season begins.

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Wildlife management areas, alone, are not enough. Working farms and ranches provide the interconnectedness of the migration — growing the land these flocks require to heed anew the age-old call of the changing season.

 

Photos by Sherry Bunting

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Moving forward… ‘We take care of their families and they take care of ours’

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, November 21, 2014

NEW LONDON, Wis. — November is a many-faced month for agriculture. It’s the month we recognize women in agriculture. It’s the month we bring the sewebTank7962ason’s harvest to a close. It’s the month we are reminded to be thankful for God’s blessings.

In September, I met a truly inspirational dairywoman who is quietly and methodically moving forward in the face of difficult odds. She and her two daughters exemplify a thankful heart as they care for their cows, which in turn care for them.

It was a downright cold, rainy central Wisconsin day as I was visiting farms ahead of the World Dairy Expo at the end of September. My lastwebTank8066 stop of the day was Milk-Flo Holsteins, New London, where Cathy Tank still does the 3 a.m. milking of her 150-cow dairy herd, and then works off the farm until supper time; so the appointed time to meet was toward evening. Her daughters were home from school and the hired man was busy pushing up feed for the cows.

What started as a typical family farm interview, soon turned into much more. By the time I left a few hours later, it was dark and one of the two ladies employed to milk the other two of the 3x milkings had arrived as Cathy’s daughters fed the chickens befowebTank8046re heading inside to do homework.

A former dairy queen of Wayne County, Wisconsin, Cathy Tank is a woman who not only works hard, she believes in working smart and using the right tool for a job.

She and her daughters Elizabeth, 15, and Rebecca, 11, love the dairy farm they are keeping going — and progressing — after losing husband and father Bob Tank to melanoma in 2009. It has been a journey, to say the least, and Cathy is quick to point out the way communities and extended family work together during harvest and in times of need.

“That’s what makes farm folk different,” she says. “A farmer can be having the worst day, ever, and would still stop and help pull another out of the ditch.”

“I am fortunate to have good help,” she adds. Working smart, means picking the jobs she can and can’t do. While she harvests her own haylage and works the ground to get it ready for planting, Cathy uses custom manure hauling and custom choppers for the corn silage harvest.

“They can do in a few hours what would take me weeks,” she says, adding that her brother helps her do most of the planting. That is something her father, Keith Knapp, helped her with over the past few years, but this spring she lost her Dad, too, in an accident.

Getting on the tractor is therapeutic, she says matter-of-factly. “It is refreshing work, and it reminds me to be thankful. I think about all of the things my Dad taught me how to do.”

While fieldwork is refreshing, what Cathy really loves is the cows. The dairy herd was her domain until six years ago. One year before Bob’s illness, they decided she would take a job off the farm. Today, she continues onward with both the job and the farm, and she’s set some pretty high goals for her cows with the focus on paying down debt. She would like to see her cows get over that 90 lbs/cow/day mark into 100-lb territory. “That’s a hard goal,” she says. But she’s already reached a few toughies.

She started 3x milking in February, and over the past two years, she made a focused effort to reduce somatic cell counts. Today, the herd averages 87 pounds/cow/day with 3.5 fat and 3.9 protein and SCC ranging 100 to 150,000.

The herd cleared $1 million in milk sales last year, which was a goal, reached, and Cathy says she has been able to reduce the farm’s debt by almost half. The milk from Milk-Flo goes to a cheese plant, and so the premiums for reducing SCC have really helped the bottom line.

While shifting the farm from pasture-based to more conventional in order to increase production and pay down debt, Cathy muses that maybe one day in the future, it webTank8077could return to more of a pasture-based system. She has already diversified a bit, adding pastured poultry and home-raised pork, beef and chicken. She and the girls sell their eggs at a local farmers’ market. The few steers on the farm are fed refusals from the milking herd and the chickens help keep some of the lawn areas mowed.

“We do what we can to not waste anything here. We are learning how to be more self-sufficient. You learn to be resourceful when you are on your own,” she says.

“We also try to do as much as we can without antibiotics,” explains Cathy, who grew up milking cows and has an Ag Education degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “We don’t sell the milk at the farmers’ market, but people who buy our eggs know we have cows, and we get those questions. We are trying to pay attention and be more preventive in how we manage the cows, so we don’t have as much need for treatments during lactation. This approach has helped us qualify for quality premiums and have a healthier herd.”

Cows are milked in a step-up parlor and housed in an open-front barn in freestalls. The farm includes 310 acres of forages for the 150-cow milking herd and young stock. Dry cows and older heifers are on pasture.

“I like color and variety,” says Cathy about the composition of the herd today, which is mainly Holstein but includes Brown Swiss crosses, Red & Whites, Linebacks,webTank8013 and Ayrshire crosses. She has hired a breeder but picks the bulls. The two biggest things she looks at are feet-and-legs and protein.

After two years in a row of poor forage in parts of the Upper Midwest, Cathy is thankful for this year’s good hay crop and the “jumbo corn” crop yielding over 23 tons of corn silage per acre, much of which was still ‘ripening’ in the field as the calendar headed into October.

She has put some thought into positioning the farm for alternate plans should the need arise. A few years ago, she installed a scrape alley and simple manure storage for the parlor holding area. This and the open-faced barn make the property suited to substantial heifer-raising if milking cows would ever get to be too much.

Elizabeth and Rebecca are the fourth generation on the farm. Cathy explained that Bob’s family has farmed here 100 years as of 2008, which was the year before he died.

“I’m just a steward,” she said. “I’m pretty interested in staying in this industry. I can’t imagine the farm without the cows.”

While she focuses on the areas of the farm where her efforts are most productive, she still enjoys the 3 a.m. milking. “I like getting up when it’s calm and you can see the stars,” she says as she looks around at the herd, noting her oldest cow is 15 years old. “It’s a good feeling to have dams, grand-dams and daughters in the barn here. We take care of their families and they take care of ours.”webTank8005

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‘Unstoppable Mom’ shared faith, family, farming with millions of TV viewers

Mother’s Day is around the corner and I have 3 posts in store for you. Here is the first — an oldie but goodie and one of the most requested reprints of one of my stories in Farmshine, which ran as last year’s Mother’s Dairy feature.

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine May 10, 2013

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COCHRANVILLE, Pa. – When Kelly King Stoltzfus wrote a letter about her mom to ABC’s “Live! with Kelly and Michael show,” she didn’t tell her mom about it because she didn’t expect her letter to get picked for the semi-finals and finals of Live’s “Search for the Unstoppable Mom” contest. After all, the show received over 20,000 letters written by children about moms nationwide!

But Mary Lou King not only made it to the final-four — which meant the show’s producers and video crew visited for two days to chronicle her life on the farm — she was ultimately voted “The Unstoppable Mom” by “Live” viewers across the country during the first week of March.

“This should really be the ‘unstoppable family’ award,” a humble Mary Lou said during a Farmshine visit to the family’s 150-cow dairy farm here in Chester County, Pennsylvania last Friday.

Along with a trophy, Neal and Mary Lou King received $100,000 for winning the contest. “We paid our taxes, gave our tithes, and the rest went to the kids,” she said.

Kelly, 22 and the oldest of the four children, is married to Kyle Stoltzfus and works as a nurse at Tel Hai in Honeybrook. Colton is out of school and works full-time on the farm. He does all the feeding for the King family’s dairy cows and youngstock, helps with milking, and crops 300 acres with his father. Kristy graduates from Octorara High School next month and starts nursing school in the fall. And Kandy, 14, was born with a mental handicap, having the brain development of a three month old child.

“We decided early-on that she would be raised here like a regular child,” Mary Lou explains.

“I think something stood out to those television producers when they read Kelly’s letter,” she adds. “They were curious about the farm when they came to do the filming and literally everything they saw here was something they had never seen before… right down to enjoying a cold glass of raw milk from the bulk tank. They swished it in their glass like they were savoring a fine wine. And they loved the peacefulness here and the wide open spaces.”

The television producers and film crew were also surprised at how much science is involved in dairy farming. Mary Lou recalls explaining what she was doing with the breeding wheel and in the pen checking tail paint. Their eyes would glaze over. “They never knew there were so many different jobs to do on a farm.”

Many portions of the letter stood out as being unique to the New York City television producers. The words “My mom has been milking the cows at 4:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. every day with my dad ever since they were married back in 1988,” certainly got their attention.

That, and Kelly’s description of her mother’s daily commitment to 14-year-old Kandy, who alternately dozed, then smiled a sweet and contented smile during our interview Friday at the kitchen table.

“I’m just a farm mom,” said Mary Lou, who came to represent farm moms everywhere during “Live” voting in early March. But she also struck chords with parents of children with special needs and with members of the nursing profession.

Pretty much everyone who viewed the video of life at the King farm was moved by the passion Mary Lou exudes for taking care of the cows and her family.

While Neal loves most the tractors and the fields, Mary Lou enjoys the animals. She manages the reproduction, including the breeding wheel, picking bulls, and buying semen. While son Colton now does all the breeding, Mary Lou checks cows for heat daily, and she does the herd check and ultrasounds with the veterinarian.

She doesn’t view milking as a chore. “It’s relaxing to me,” says Mary Lou. “It’s where I do my thinking.”

It’s also where she has done her listening as the children grew up. “Neal and I both appreciate our upbringing of being raised on dairy farms,” she explains. “If I’m not out there milking, I feel like I’m missing out. I’ll ask Neal what the kids talked about.”

Mary Lou’s sisters all married farmers and her brother has the home farm in Lampeter. “I look at my mom who milked until she was 50 years old. That’s my inspiration,” she said. “I saw her example and the example of Neal’s mom who passed away over a year ago, and I say to myself: ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

And do it, she does. After milking at 4 a.m., she cooks breakfast for the family and gets Kandy ready for the day. She’ll do herd work, book work, house work, and get dinner started before milking again at 4 p.m.  Then it’s back to the house, dinner on the table, Kandy’s needs to tend to, and leftover book work to take care of. She may get to bed by midnight and be back up at 4 a.m.

Asked what she hopes to have taught her children through she and Neal’s example on the farm? “Faith,” she said without pausing. “and the value of hard work. But what I really see them learning is to put Jesus (faith) first, family second and the farm third. I really don’t think we could farm without faith.”

“My mom and Neal’s mom both set great examples. I loved seeing their support of their husbands in working together on the farm, and at the same time I believe women can bring incomes to the family also,” she explains. “I hope I have been able to instill that love for family and for knowing that our daughter Kandy is important – just the way she is.”

Mary Lou sees the faith in farming as two-fold. On the one hand, the blessings of raising a family on the farm give opportunities to learn an abiding love for God’s creation. On the other hand, the challenges of farm life require faith as well to see things through.

“Neal and I really hope we’ve instilled in our children the values of farming, the hard work and work ethic,” she says. “We never wanted them to feel tied down, so they played sports, did 4-H and FFA, and had choices.”

In fact, the family names their registered Holsteins for what’s going on in their lives at the time. Being soccer and field hockey enthusiasts, they have cows in the herd named PIAA and Griffin. They also have cows named for other schools their school’s team has beaten or rivaled in playoffs. They have cows named for a favorite movie, actor, actress, or singer — including Pickler (as in country singer Kelly Pickler) and Pitt (as in actor Brad Pitt).

And last week, Mary Lou informed the “Live” producers that two calves were named after the Live hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan. The heifer calf, Ripa, is out of the herd cow Rushmore; and the bull calf Strahan, is out of the herd cow Storm. “We’ll keep him as long as he performs,” Mary Lou said with a smile.

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She had emailed a photo of the two calves side-by-side in the calf barn and they made the show last Wednesday as the real Ripa and Strahan read Mary Lou’s email and held up pictures of the calf, giving “Live” audiences yet another exposure to life on a family dairy farm.

As spring unfurls throughout the Chester County countryside, Neal and Colton were getting their equipment ready last week for first cutting alfalfa just around the corner. They have a high producing herd, making 95 pounds/cow/day, which they attribute to their focus on harvesting high quality forages and working with their independent Agri-Basics nutritionist Robert Davis.

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“I like milking full udders,” says Mary Lou as Neal explained they feed a total mixed ration and that the ration forages are about 50/50 corn silage and alfalfa haylage. They also bale hay and grow their own soybeans for toasting.

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In addition to their parents’ example, Kristy says their involvement in 4-H and showing cows at the Solanco fair “made you really love the cow because when you own them, you really learn to care for them.” Sister Kelly enjoyed showing for the clipping and grooming “and making the cows really look good.”

Everyone here has a job to do. Kristy is still in school, but he helps with the afternoon milking as the designated “prepper.”

“What’s nice about living and working on a family farm is that the whole family is involved,” says Mary Lou.

“Everyone cares,” her children finish the sentence, adding that they haven’t lost a calf in three years since building the calf barn. “If any of us hears a calf cough or notices something, we’re right here to notice and we do something about it.”

Faith is also a big part of the equation in the family’s relationship and care of youngest daughter Kandy. “God has a reason for her here, a purpose. I don’t question that,” Mary Lou relates. “I know ABC had to remove some of Kelly’s references to faith and to Jesus in her original letter, but I think they could still see that what holds our family together… is faith.”

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PHOTO CAPTION:

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Neal and Mary Lou King with their children Kandy, 14; Kristy, 18; Kelly, 22 with husband Kyle Stoltzfus; and Colton, 20. Winning the 2013 Unstoppable Mom award from ABC’s morning show — “Live with Kelly and Michael” — left Mary Lou wanting to thank everyone from the producers of the show to the viewers who voted for her in March. But what has meant more than the grand prize is that her daughter appreciated her upbringing enough to write a letter about it. Mothers’ Day is Sunday, May 12 and this week of May 6 — 11 was National Nursing Professionals Week. Mary Lou was inspired by her own mother Evelyn Rohrer and her late mother-in-law Jeanette King to want to milk cows with her children as they grew. Milking time is family “together time.” It’s where farm moms and dads stay in touch with what’s going on in their children’s lives. Her example in the barn and as a trained nurse with daughter Kandy also inspired daughters Kelly and Kristy to go to nursing school like their mom. Photos by Sherry Bunting

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ABC television personality Kelly Ripa reads a thank you email the “Live” show received from Mary Lou King on Wednesday, May 1 — pointing out the photo Mary Lou sent along of the little heifer calf the King family named “Ripa” and the bull calf (right) named for Ripa’s co-host and hall-of-fame football player Michael Strahan.

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Mary Lou reports the television producers of ABC’s “Live” enjoyed farm life for two days, right down to the flavor of the raw milk from the bulk tank. She sent an email of thanks last week and included a photo of the King farm’s new calves: “Ripa” and “Strahan.”

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Mary Lou introduces the heifer calf “Ripa” (left) out of Rushmore and bull calf “Strahan” out of Storm. The family tends to name their registered Holsteins after the people, places and events of their lives. The calves were born soon after Mary Lou was voted The Unstoppable Mom by viewers of “Live” co-hosted by actress Kelly Ripa and hall-of-fame football player Michael Strahan.

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The back porch view of dry cows grazing at the King family dairy farm. The farm, founded by Neal’s grandparents Valentine and Naomi King, and then operated by Neal’s parents Merle and Jeanette, has been in the King family for three generations. Son Colton is the fourth generation now working full-time on the farm.

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Neal King took a quick break from fieldwork last Friday for a quick photo with Mary Lou. They’ve been milking cows together at the third-generation dairy farm in Chester County since 1988, and moved to the farm in 1995.

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Everyone cares about the youngstock at the King family dairy farm near Cochranville, and feeding is Colton’s job. He feeds all the calves, heifers, and cows on the farm.

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Mary Lou loves the cow-side of the dairy farm. She picks the bulls and manages herd health and repro. Son Colton does the actual breeding.

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The Kings milk 120 cows, and base their rolling herd average on 150 cows, including dry cows. They watch the bulk tank production, which averages 95 pounds/cow/day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A life lived in earnest

Tuesday was a day of significance with many shades to it. The much-debated 5-year Farm Bill got its final Congressional approval in Washington; the day was designated by American Cancer Society as World Cancer Awareness Day and Chevy developed its Purple Roads ad and “purple your profile” campaign to raise funds on facebook. Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 is also the day the world lost a good and courageous dairy farmer I was glad to call friend. Here are the thoughts I penned for this week’s Farmshine.

Zach Meck pictured here at Meck Brothers Dairy in Berks County, Pennsylvania in August of 2012

Zach Meck pictured here at Meck Brothers Dairy in Berks County, Pennsylvania in August of 2012

Zach Meck fought the fight, kept the faith

Zachary L. Meck, 33, of Womelsdorf, Pa., passed away Tuesday, Feb. 4 after a five-month battle with cancer. In the words of his wife Suzanne (Perdue) Meck, formerly of Whitehall, Md., “Zach saw a full healing as he was peacefully called to his heavenly home.” Over the past few months, she said, the couple felt the prayers and well wishes from around the world, and they were comforted to know so many people care.

In Zach, the world lost a good and courageous young dairyman. 2 Timothy 4:7 is the verse that comes to mind for a life gone too soon, loved by many and lived in earnest. Zach made a lasting impact on not just his family and friends, but also upon the future of the dairy industry he so loved and the solidarity he had with fellow dairymen, as well as the passion he had for the cow herd he and his brother Jeremy built up into a business through sheer determination.

It is not without notice that the next five year Farm Bill passed its final hurdle in the Senate on this same day. Zach had poured time and energy into being part of an effort to shape the future for young dairy farmers within the context of the Farm Bill’s dairy title.

Our paths crossed in 2009 when the dairy industry faced the most devastating milk prices ever endured. Zach and his brother Jeremy had built their Meck Brothers Dairy from scratch. They had started with the 4-H animals their late father Ronald bought them as youngsters growing up on their parents’ poultry farm in Lancaster County, Pa. They grew the herd in a rented barn — working all kinds of other jobs – then purchased and renovated a Berks County, Pa. farm they moved into during 2009.

Zach was not one to sit still. Sometimes it seemed he was going in multiple directions all at once. But his efforts were effective. In 2009, he was part of a group of dairymen meeting in two counties, which later became the grassroots beginnings of the Dairy Policy Action Coalition that spread beyond the borders of Pennsylvania as dairymen from various regions talked together about the future of their industry.

He also served as a Land O’Lakes delegate and ran a close race as runner up for a seat on the Land O’Lakes board in early 2013. Zach was a member of the Berks County Farm Bureau, Marion Grange, and Berks County Holstein Club. He graduated from Cocalico High School, where he was a member of FFA and was active in 4-H.

“We’ve been through a lot over the years,” wrote friend and mentor Nelson Troutman in a calendar-of-hope created for Zach in December. “Then came Suzanne, and when you made up your mind, I could tell. It was good. But with these health issues, try not to make sense of it all, it never will. Remember to always look forward and that you are not alone. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).” Wise words he heeded in his short time with his beloved Suzanne.

Having the privilege of writing a story about Meck Brothers Dairy in August of 2012, I could see the respect he and his brother Jeremy had for one another and their passion for what they worked to accomplish – with that edge of always pushing forward to do more to make the cows more comfortable, do more to tell the dairy story to the greater Berks community, do more to get the voice of the young farmer heard, do more to light a fire – even if only to send a smoke signal – that policies need to be changed to consider the context of the young farmer. Zach was impetuous, yet intuitive.

“It’s time to get the younger generation involved in the leadership of their cooperative,” Zach said during a summer of 2012 interview. “Our futures are at stake in the outcome of the decisions that are made. The mechanics of the market should be our focus. We should be looking out for our fellow dairy farmers around us. Large or small, we’re all important. We have to focus on creating opportunities and getting the mechanics of the market right.”

So we come back full circle to that verse, 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Yes, Zach, you surely have.

Born in Denver, Pa., Zach was the son of the late Ronald K. and Joyce (Stoltzfus) Meck. In addition to his wife Suzanne, Zach is survived by his mother Joyce, two brothers Matthew K., husband of Susan (St. Clair) Meck of Denver; Jeremy R. Meck of Womelsdorf; two nephews Jackson K. and Levi C. Meck of Denver; and his paternal grandmother Norma (Zimmerman) Meck of Lititz.

A visitation will be held on Friday, February 7 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. and on Saturday, February 8 from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. at the Tulpehocken UCC Church, where services will be held at 11:00 Saturday.

Memorial contributions in Zach’s memory may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 1274, Lebanon, PA 17042 or Vickie’s Angel Foundation, 511 Bridge St., New Cumberland, PA 17070.

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