The Farm Babe: An Ag Love Story

michelle miller, farm babe, doug sass

L.A. Girl Meets Iowa Farmer

Recently, the D2D team took a trip to Iowa to meet Michelle Miller and learn about her life on the farm. Did you know the Farm Babe once worked on the famed Rodeo Drive at Gucci? Hard to believe, right?! Not only that, but she ascribed to the “healthy” lifestyle of many Los Angelenos: was against GMOs; consumed lots of organic products; had a fear of hormones and antibiotics in her food and believed many other misconceptions about the U.S. food supply system.

Though her roots were in the Midwest, Michelle Miller’s love for travel has taken her near and far. After LA, she moved to Florida, where her fate as The Farm Babe began. While serving drinks one day in a local Pensacola beach tavern, her eyes connected with a handsome guy across the bar.

That guy’s name was Doug Sass, a 6th generation Iowa farm boy. While Doug loves the farm life and all that it brings, Iowan winters can be harsh! So Doug dodged the north winds and headed to his sister’s place in Florida for a few weeks. It was on that trip where Michelle met her “Prince Farming” and Doug his “Farm Babe”, and their lives haven’t been the same since.

After that chance encounter, there was no looking back. Michelle packed up her things and moved to Doug’s farm, where her real education in modern-day agriculture began. It started with a few blog posts about what she was seeing, smelling, caring for and living with on a real farm. Her early posts went viral, and the seeds for The Farm Babe were planted. Today, she is the voice behind the Farm Babe and works tirelessly as an “agvocate” for farmers and ranchers by tackling controversial issues and the facts behind our food.

“I just want consumers to be informed,” Miller says. “Nothing makes me happier than knowing I eased food fears for people about hot topics like GMOs, pesticides or ‘factory’ farming. If you want to talk about GMOs, talk to genetic scientists. If you want to talk about food production, talk to farmers. If you want to know about hormones, talk to a veterinarian. There’s this amazing science that happens in our industry that is something to be proud of. It kills me to know it’s drowned out by misinformation.”

New Life Experiences On The Farm

Case in point for fleeing Iowa for the winter: imagine it’s the early hours of dawn on a -50°F February morning. To make sure the newborn lambs stayed alive, Michelle brought them into her kitchen to keep them from freezing to death. Going the extra mile for her ‘babies’ is just one of many new joys of farming life.

And on another day, Michelle watched in jaw-dropping disbelief as a TV warned of a local tornado, which then ripped through their farm and decimated 50% of the buildings on the property. This is considered a normal weather hazard in this part of the country, but not something Michelle thought would ever happen to them.

But there are also the blessings of the 16th hour of the day in a combine during harvest, exhausted and proud of the long day’s work. Michelle and Doug bask in the spectacular light of a full moon in a perfectly clear sky. A take-your-breath away view that neither of them would trade for the world.

Doug’s philosophy: “A bad day on the farm is better than a good day in any other job.”

The Business of Farming

Doug and Michelle manage about 250 head of cattle every year. That means that they purchase weaned ”feeder” calves in the fall, care for them through the winter and following spring, and sell them at market late in the summer.

In addition to their cattle and row crop operations, they run BuckingLamb Palace, which is comprised of approximately 100 ewes that birth lambs every year. Michelle considers the sheep her “queens”, as they deserve a “palace” for being such gentle and kind animals that help feed us so well. Keeping the sheep business all in the family, Doug’s uncle mentored Michelle in the raising of sheep…lessons that she will always cherish. She was able to purchase her first few ewes from him and, thus, BuckingLamb Palace was born.

The ewes are impregnated by the on-site rams in late summer, and after a 5-month gestation period during the coldest part of the year, twins and even triplet lambs are born around Valentine’s Day. They are sold to market later in the summer, when they reach about 160 pounds.

The sheep are rotated through barns depending on their age, gradually introducing the lambs to a larger crowd. By the time warm spring air starts to reach the farm, the ewes are anxious to wean their young and get back out to the fields to graze until their next cycle.

Michelle took us to the barns for the fun experience of bottle-feeding the eight “orphan” lambs, as their mothers didn’t properly care for them. As sad as that might sound, taking care of these lambs is Michelle’s favorite part of the job! She has been the orphan mother for dozens of sweet baby lambs over the years.  She and Doug feed the lambs cow colostrum when they are first born, then move them to milk replacer, and then gradually to a diet of oats and grass.

Farming Through Volatility 

Though farming is a tough job with many economic ups and downs, Doug and Michelle believe their farm’s diverse operations of livestock and staple crops help them stay afloat during difficult times. For instance, while today’s price of soy and corn is down, sheep prices are up, offsetting the loss. He also mentioned that among most farmers he knows, at least one of the spouses has a job in town for additional income and health care insurance.

Furthermore, they maintain a small farm operation and haven’t over-invested in expensive technologies with no real potential for return on investment. Doug and Michelle are very hands-on with their labor, diligently adding to their workforce only during peak weeks in harvest season.  An impressive task that only dedicated farmers can achieve!

They also reduce expenses and increase yields through cover-cropping. Doug’s brother, Neil, is a soil scientist for the USDA, and twenty years ago started working with Doug and his parents to adopt this method. By rotating his cropping schedule and utilizing this method, Doug runs a no-till system wherein he plants the cash crop directly into the cover crop. This reduces emissions and leads to healthy soil, less erosion, reduces the need for expensive fertilizers, and ultimately increases yield.

Managing 2,200 acres and 400+ head of livestock as a single operator is quite a task. But by keeping the operations efficient, it is manageable, although at times even he wonders why there aren’t more hours in the day!

As for Michelle, if she isn’t tending to her flock of sheep one day, she may be off to Los Angeles to be a guest on the Dr. Drew Show or to Australia to talk about farming techniques to farmer groups.

As an advocate for farmers and ranchers, Michelle believes that our collective voice is stronger than our individual voices, which motivates her to work with blogs like Dirt-to-Dinner, whose missions are to educate consumers about myths surround our food!

My Nightmare Meal: A Personal Reflection of Our Food System

food fear

SPOILER ALERT: Your food is safe. We have one of the safest food systems in the world. But upon reflection, I can see why he made such a comment.  Indeed, there seems to be a constant avalanche of reports targeting a threat or cause for worry.  And if I don’t already fear the food, some people want me to feel guilty for not just what I eat, but almost for even eating at all.  

My So-Called Wrongdoings

Think I’m crazy?  Sit down in your local diner and order a meal.  Let’s go for comfort food:  meatloaf, mac and cheese, and a side salad with Thousand Island dressing.  Oh, and some apple pie with ice cream for dessert.  A glass of ice water with lemon, and maybe a nice cup of really good coffee to cap things off.

So what have I just done here?  How does this food get me into a maze of controversies about human, animal and environmental welfare?  Let’s look at it piece by piece, or bite by bite, if you prefer.

Let’s start with the meatloaf…

It’s hamburger, plus some breadcrumbs, some spices and maybe a few chunks of peppers or mushrooms.  Maybe I sprinkle some salt and pepper on it, and a touch of ketchup, just for flavor.

  • Should I be eating beef at all? It takes lots of water and feed grains to bring an animal to market.  It gave off a lot of greenhouse gas while it fattened up, too.  It may have been finished off for market confined in a feed lot, and maybe injected with antibiotics at some point.  It certainly didn’t enjoy the trip to the processing plant.  Dietitians tell me too much red meat will clog my arteries, or at least contribute to those extra pounds I seem to carry these days. And if I eat it more than five days a week, I might get Alzheimer’s.

  • I probably didn’t need all that salt, either. It could kick up my blood pressure.

  • And what was in those breadcrumbs? Were they from stale old bread they had lying around?  Was it made from GMO crops?  If so, should I worry?

  • What about those peppers and mushrooms? How do I know they were grown responsibly, without taking up too much water, or using too much fertilizer and pesticides?  And were the people who picked them paid fairly and treated well?

  • Did they add an egg to the meatloaf? My mom used to do that. But if they did, was that egg from a happy, free-range chicken? Was it fed antibiotics? How much cholesterol does the egg add?

  • Ketchup…organic tomatoes, or mass-produced in a hothouse or grown hydroponically in an indoor farm somewhere?  Picked by whom?  And using how much added sugar? What is ascorbic acid, or citric acid anyway, and why in the world is it in there?

Now I’m afraid to even think about the mac & cheese…

  • What grain did they use to make the macaroni? Is it also a GMO crop?

  • Is the cheese really cheese? What kinds of preservatives, colorings, flavorings and anti-coagulants are squirming around in there, just waiting for me to eat them up?

As for the salad…

  • Where in the heck did this Romaine lettuce come from? Should I worry about food poisoning? And what about the tomato, and the cucumber, and that reddish stuff that looks like an onion…is it local? How did it get here?  How many hands have actually touched the food I’m about to eat?  Who checked to make sure it’s clean, fresh and safe?

  • As for the dressing, did it come out of a bottle or a 20-gallon vat somewhere?

food fear

You know, I used to love my apple pie…

Now I’m feeling a little squeamish about it!

  • Who is this mysterious Mrs. Smith, and just where is this bucolic Pepperidge Farm, anyway? How do I know it wasn’t some team of minimum-wage newbies on an assembly line churning out my mass-produced pie?

  • Just where did these apples come from?  How much sugar is in there?  Or is it high fructose corn syrup?  Or maybe some alternative sweetener made from the leaves of a plant the Aztecs once used to smoke to get high?  Is the crust an actual food, or maybe some form of bio-degradable, flavor-enhanced cellulose?

  • The ice cream isn’t really helping, either. Did the cows who supplied the milk have drugs used on them to stimulate more milk production?  Were they treated humanely?  How was the milk handled?  How much sugar went into the mix in making this?  How much artificial flavor?

Maybe a sip of water will help calm me down…

But wait a minute.

  • Did this come out of the tap, or from a bottle? What kind of pipes are in the city’s water system?  Who checks the water for contamination, and for what kind, and when?

  • And what about that slice of lemon? Did anybody wash that lemon before they cut it up?  How long has it been lying around waiting to be plunked into somebody’s water, or iced tea, or finger bowl?  Where did it come from, anyway?

Let’s just forget about the coffee…and the sugar or artificial sweetener I put in it, or the milk.  I no longer care where the coffee beans came from, or who picked them, or much of anything else.  I certainly don’t care if the milk came from a cow or an almond.  I don’t even want to think about how much energy was needed to cook all this, or to heat the hot water they will use to wash up.

Wasteful Worries

Now my appetite is pretty much gone, thanks to all this thinking I’ve been doing.  So what do I do with all this left-over food on the plate?

  • If I don’t do something with it, they will just scrape it off into the garbage and send it to the local landfill. It will decompose slowly, I suppose.  But while it does, it will generate still more greenhouse gas.  Food waste in landfills already accounts for 7 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.  My contribution here could pollute the water table, if the landfill isn’t up to spec.  Am I more responsible for global warming if I eat this food, or if I throw it out?

  • Maybe the diner will call the local food bank and make sure the left-overs go to good use – you know, for a needy person, or a soup kitchen, or something like that.

Or maybe I just stop eating.

Phew. I just woke up from my nightmare.  But this sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  However, this is just a superficial look at some of the issues that surround the food we eat these days.  Actually, there are a great many more than these to consider – real, serious issues that people in the food sector wrestle with every day in trying to satisfy the public demand for safe, sustainable food.

OK, Now Here’s the Good News…

Educating worried consumers on our food system is one of the big reasons why we created this blog, so you’re in luck.  People want to know more about our food system: where their food comes from, how it is produced, how it is delivered, how we keep it safe and make it as wholesome as possible, and more.  We all need to know, and, frankly, we should know.  And thankfully, farmers have a great story to tell.

There is no way to adequately describe the commitment, the resilience, the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the men and women who produce, farm, ranch, and those who manufacture the food products, and those who prepare the food we need and want.  We look forward to continued innovation and advancement in our established food system. And what we hear is loud, clear and unequivocal faith in the future of food.

Secretary Perdue is correct: “This growing fear has the potential to sideline, deter, critical technologies that we already use, and derail technologies in the pipeline, that we already know how to achieve.”

Never underestimate our farmers and producers. When commitment, capability and capital converge – look out. All things are possible — including food that people don’t fear, and a food system that doesn’t induce guilt. If you want to learn more about how our food is grown, food safety, and food waste, take a look at these posts for more information:

Farming and production: Where do our fruits & veggies come from? | What is the Farm Bill | America’s salad bowlGMOs: a recipe for understanding

Food safety: There is no such thing as a dirty vegetable | CDC foodborne illness detection | Food safety at farmers’ markets

Food waste: Waste not, want not | Eat beer and drink sandwiches

Government resources: FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act | USDA’s Food & Nutrition page | EPA & Pesticides | FAO’s State of Food Security & Nutrition | WHO & Food Safety

Maybe our food system isn’t perfect yet. We need all the intelligence and technologies possible to feed a growing population while regenerating the land. We’re doing a better job today than we did yesterday, and we’ll do a better job tomorrow than we do today.

Indeed, it’s a great big world of possibilities — except maybe for a decent tasting diet cola.

What’s Happening in Ag?

aerial view of grain harvest

There’s no such thing as a completely quiet time in farming, and the job of bringing food from the field to the dinner table never takes a day off.  Something constantly needs to be done, at every step of the dirt-to-dinner journey.  But spring always seems to be a particularly busy time of year, and 2019 is proving to be no different.

Like any good farmer, let’s start with a look at the weather.

Enough Already

More rains in key agricultural producing regions of the central United States continue to delay spring planting.  As fields slowly dry out and recovery efforts continue for areas devastated by floods, the Department of Agriculture reports the corn crop is behind its normal planting progress, with 23 percent planted, trailing the five-year average of 46 percent. The soybean crop is behind by even more, now at 6 percent complete and behind the average of 14 percent.  Spring wheat planting stands at about 22 percent, also below last year. Generally, with low spring plantings, markets might expect higher prices come harvest. But the outlook for U.S. Agricultural trade exports expected to remain the same from 2018, as a result, no one is so far predicting a major run-up in prices that would lead to higher consumer prices.

US agricultural trade and trade balanceSource: USDA Economic Research Service

New Soybean Reality

And, to add to the rainy day, China will continue to affect the global soybean market. Not just because of U.S. tariffs but also because of African Swine Fever. The Chinese pig herd has dropped by 20% in the past 20 months.  The USDA is predicting a global 42 million ton decline for China’s import demand. The sliver of a silver lining is that this will help U.S. pork exports to Singapore.


Source: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service

New Hope for Dairy Farmers

The plight facing U.S. dairy farmers has been well documented. Due to a global oversupply of milk and increasing consumption of almond and soy milk, dairy farmers are in their fifth year of low milk prices. Many are operating on a negative margin. The USDA is planning on helping the farmer by rolling out the Dairy Margin Coverage program which will send out $600 million in payments to milk producers.


Survey Finds Glum Farm Investments

The economic uncertainty in the agricultural sector is doing more than reducing farm income. It’s also affecting farmers’ willingness to invest. The Ag Economy Barometer produced regularly by Purdue University and the CME Group this spring found that 78 percent of farmers surveyed felt it’s a “bad time” to make major investments in farm operations. Continuing tensions over trade with China and continuing weather problems in key producing areas are concerns for investing in technologies and equipment to increase productivity and profitability for farmers.

This also impacts food security for the people who depend upon them.  The Barometer measures a monthly economic sentiment with 400 agricultural producers and a quarterly survey of 100 agriculture and agribusiness thought leaders. The latest survey showed the fourth largest one-month drop since data collection began in October 2015.



US-China Trade Dispute Escalates — Again

 The continuing trade dispute between the United States and China has taken a new and ugly turn, with U.S. farm interests firmly in the cross-hairs.  The latest round of economic tit-for-tat saw the United States impose further tariffs on a wide range of imports from China, followed by China’s announcement of new tariffs on imports of U.S. farm products, including wheat, poultry, sugar, and peanuts.  The escalation of trade tensions sent financial markets into a sharp decline – and raised concerns among a farm community already beset by another year of declining farm income.

image showing usa-china-rivarly


EU Acts to Spur Food Waste Reduction

The fight against food waste continues everywhere.  The European Commission has adopted a common methodology for uniform measurement of food waste across all 28 member countries.  This unified measurement system will allow improved reporting of efforts to cut food waste across the food chain.  It also is expected to promote greater cooperation with food processors by food manufacturers and retailers, notably in promoting greater diversion of waste to bioenergy.

The total amount of food waste the EU 27 is estimated at 89 Mt. , i.e 179 kg/per capita/year. Households produce the largest fraction of EU food waste at 38 Mt or 76 kg per capita.

Some African Countries Think Again on GMOs

Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria have recognized the benefit of GMO crops to help feed their people. Prolonged drought and widespread hunger have the Kenyan government looking more closely at food security and re-thinking its ban on genetically modified corn.  With an estimated 1 million Kenyans facing hunger and malnutrition, government officials say they will make a decision in the next two months.  Their decision could help open the door to wider use of the GMO seeds important to improving Kenyan food security. Uganda has moved ahead and pulled together a legal framework to approve GMO cassava, potatoes, cotton, and corn all of which are now resistant to insects requiring less insecticide and better yield. Their research has also developed a biofortified banana. Nigeria has commercialized Bt cotton and also approved the GMO pest resistant cowpea.


Danes Turn up the GMO Heat on EU

Denmark’s Ethics Council has added to the pressure on the European Union to rethink its opposition to GMOs.  Much has changed since the 1990s, the Council observed, and policymakers must now think about how genetic technologies can help advance the development of the crops needed to contend with climate change, with greater resistance to pests and disease and more efficient use of water and nutrients. Until now, the Danes have been among the most vocal critics of GMOs, so the Council’s call for a new debate can’t be easily ignored by lawmakers and regulators.

Beyond Meat Goes Beyond Expectations

When Beyond Meat, who wants to separate meat from animals, began operations in 2009, no one saw the amazing response to the alternative meat producer that was to come from the investing public.  Beyond Meat’s initial public offering (IPO)had set its opening price at $25 per share, only to see the trading price immediately jump to $46 and rise to a high of $85- the best performing first day for an IPO in 20 years.  As of Tuesday, May 14th, the price is $79.68 with a market cap of $4.58 billion.

beyond meat

Presidential Hopefuls Look to Change Ag policies

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) are looking to get attention by making agricultural policy a key element of their campaigns.  Warren and Sanders, for example, would attack economic concentration in agriculture, looking to break up large vertically integrated operations. Klobuchar, who helped write the farm bill would boost all aspects of farming from dairy to animal disease outbreaks, to conservation. She also suggested a fee for mergers that would be used to investigate anti-competitive practices.  As more and more attention shifts to the difficult economic environment facing farmers and rural America, expect the list of candidates with other provocative policy ideas for our farm and food system to expand still more.




GMOs are Confusing: A Recipe for Understanding

banana bread

Banana Bread Starts With A Recipe Of Basic Ingredients

My son has a hankering for homemade banana bread, and suddenly the whole family wants a slice, including me. So I go to the kitchen to whip up a loaf. While the oven is preheating, I put the ingredients on the counter: bananas, butter, baking soda, salt, sugar, egg, vanilla, and flour.

For the best taste and consistency, mixing the ingredients in order is important. I mash the bananas and the butter together before folding in the rest, and end with the flour. Then, I pour batter in a loaf pan and bake. We patiently let it cool, then slice it up and everyone gets a homemade treat.

Our family loves banana bread and I also want to give them extra nutrition. So I add flaxseed for omega 3 fatty acids and yogurt for protein and calcium.

How Is Banana Bread Similar To A GMO?

First, the plant breeder starts with a plant they want to modify. Let’s take rice as an example, a staple food for more than half the world’s population. Many people, particularly children, in the developing world are deficient in vitamin A which can compromise their immune system and cause night blindness. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines created a more nutritious food by enabling rice to express its beta-carotene gene, the precursor to vitamin A.

Golden Rice technology was based on the premise that rice already has the ability to make beta-carotene, but this conversion was only in the leaves. In order for the beta-carotene to be present in the rice itself, rice breeders added two new genes to basic rice: one from corn and one from a commonly ingested soil bacterium. Together, these genes enable rice to synthesize the beta-carotene found in the leaves. Now a cup of rice a day can keep children healthier and fortified. Breeders in Uganda are working on a similar process to make golden bananas.

What Is The Process?

GMO infographic

1. Banana Bread Recipe = DNA

Just like banana bread, rice (like every living organism) has a recipe.  Just as the directions to make banana bread is in the recipe, the directions to make rice is in its DNA.

2. Banana Bread Ingredients = Genes

When laid out on your counter, the ingredients for banana bread don’t mean much. However, when combined together, they yield a delicious treat. On a much simpler scale, when you mix the banana bread ingredients in a different order and with different ingredient amounts, you get a different recipe all together – banana pancakes!

All living organisms have the same concept. Each human, plant, or animal has thousands of genes that create their living structure. What makes a human a human and rice- rice is that 99% of the genes – otherwise called the genetic alphabet – are written in a certain order. For instance, humans are made up of approximately 23,000 genes compared to rice which contains around 32,000 genes. Per the gene graphic above, if the sequence on the right was changed from red-purple-red-yellow-yellow to yellow-red-red-purple-red it would be a completely different organism.

DEEPER DIVE ON GENETIC CODE: Each gene consists of three out of four known nitrogenous bases: guanine, cytosine, adenine, and thymine (G, C, A, T) Think of a long string of beads where each bead is a letter. The order of these beads are important. Change the order around and you will have a different creature altogether. On a much simpler scale, when you mix the banana bread ingredients together in a certain order, it gives the desired structure and texture to the bread. 

3. Nutritional value from Banana Bread Ingredients = Proteins

With banana bread, picture the nutritional profile that come from the ingredients, such as omega 3, fiber, and vitamin B.  In a plant, it is the genes which ultimately give instructions to proteins. The purpose of the proteins is to create a specific type of cell. Should the cell be a root cell, a leaf cell, or a rice kernel cell?

4. Banana Bread with omega-3 = Golden Rice with beta-carotene

Genetically modifying an organism happens when one gene is taken from one organism and is added to the thousands of genes in another organism.  Just as you might add flaxseed to banana bread to give it more omega-3s, researchers added two genes to rice to create a healthy biofortified food.

A Simple Explanation Of Genes And DNA:

Keeping The Integrity Of The Plant

Just like banana bread with flaxseed or yogurt as an added ingredient, the bread is still banana bread; it just has enhanced nutrition. Making a GMO is similar. It is adding a gene into an organism that already has thousands of genes. The rice is still rice, it just has the added ingredient to make vitamin A.

Whether a GMO has been created to resist insects, herbicides, or viruses, the plant is still the same plant and the integrity of the thousands of genes are the same. There is just a new gene, generally from another organism, inserted into the string of letters to add value.

Genetic Changes Happen Naturally, Too

Changing the genetic structure of a plant through gene additions from another organism isn’t a novel idea. It happens in nature all the time. In fact, scientists recently discovered the first GMO created 8,000 years ago. It was the sweet potato! Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru discovered that a certain bacteria gene inserted itself into the white potato created the sweet potato we love today.

From the Farm Babe: Who is Dirt-to-Dinner?

dirt-to-dinner team with Michelle Miller, Farm Babe

Recently Dirt-to-Dinner had the pleasure of visiting Michelle Miller, one of our favorite social media collaborators and the voice behind The Farm Babe.  Here, in a piece written for AGDAILY, Michelle details a bit of the story behind Dirt-to-Dinner and sheds some light on the importance of partnering with like-minded “Agvocates”. 

Meet “Dirt-to-Dinner”: changing the game in food communication

Food Matters. There has never been a better time to share the story of modern agriculture.  That’s why “Dirt-to-Dinner” is an amazing organization that’s working to do just that. The team – Lucy, Lisa, Hillary, and Hayley, flew out to our Iowa farm last month to take a tour and learned all about how we run our livestock and row crop operation, and I’m so grateful to them for taking time out of their busy schedules to visit us.

Dirt-to-Dinner’s mission is to help you better understand how your food is grown and processed, and why this is important to you and your family. They provide the facts behind your food.

Lucy MacMillan Stitzer founded Dirt-to-Dinner to clear up food misconceptions with her friends. She learned a lot about labels and healthy food as two of her children were born with a blood disease and she had to be extra vigilant in providing them nutritious food to keep their immune systems strong. She discovered that labels aren’t always what they say, and she started asking questions, many of which were not answered online.

Needless to say, we had so much fun showing them around our farm, while taking some photos in the process!

Bottle feeding the orphan lambs. Lucy was an expert at making them share!

As an “agvocate”, I very strategically align with like-minded-brands or publications that share a similar mission to that of Farm Babe. What made me gravitate towards Dirt-to-Dinner was their overarching mission to uncover the facts behind your foods. What sets Dirt-to-Dinner apart from other agriculturally based blogs is that they do their research by talking to the top industry leaders in the ag space and beyond. Their relationships with major universities, research and development institutions, and scientist are endless. By basing each article in well-rounded, extensive scientific research, coupled with constant mindfulness for the everyday consumer, you can be sure of two things: accuracy and readability!

Michelle, Lisa, and Hayley inspecting the equipment shed!

The gals all have had interesting and varying careers and currently live in the Greenwich, Connecticut area just outside of New York City. I was excited to have conversations with them as we have similar backgrounds and share the same goals of consumer education in the food space.  Out here in rural Iowa, we don’t always hear about the latest trends and diet fads like they do in big cities. Case in point:  the celery juice craze – bad science debunked from the Dirt-to-Dinner team.  Read more about that here.

When asked about the future of D2D, Lucy responds with the thought of having a bigger influence with food corporations while raising awareness on the importance of food education for the end consumer.  As dieting trends become more mainstream with the help of social media, food companies need to wake up to the fact we have to be more proactive, not reactive when it comes to explaining what happens on today’s modern farms… particularly when it comes to topics like pesticides, food labels, veganism, and misleading marketing.  I couldn’t agree more, which is the whole reason why I also started my Farm Babe blog.

With the same ideas and goals in mind, I am proud to be a social media partner of theirs to help spread the good words of all that we do in food production, every single day.  You can follow them on, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and sign up for their e-newsletter here.

Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainability

bunches of palm fruit

So far today, I have brushed my teeth, scrubbed with a bar of soap, washed and conditioned my hair, applied foundation to my face and put on lipstick. It’s 7:00am and already I have used seven products that contain palm oil. By the end of the day after feeding my dogs, running the laundry and dishwasher and enjoying a much-deserved bowl of ice cream, I will add several more.

Until recently, I had no idea that these products I use on a daily basis are associated with habitat and forest destruction.  What is behind palm oil and is there anything I can do about this?

image: IUCN Oil Palm Task Force/World Economic Forum

What exactly is Palm oil? 

In its raw form, Palm oil is a red-colored vegetable oil harvested from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The fruit is the size of a small plum and grows in large bunches weighing 20-50 pounds. The tree bears fruit for about 25 years and is grown in the tropics. Humans have eaten palm oil for thousands of years and almost everyone in Africa and Asia relies on palm oil as a staple food for everyday cooking.

Photos: clockwise – oil palm plantation; oil palm tree; harvesting, the fruit and kernel.

Palm oil is a very versatile product

Palm oil is one of the most versatile products in the world. Among many attributes, it helps soaps produce bubbles and gives it cleaning power, allows lipstick to stay smooth and creamy, preserves the crisp in crackers and is a good source of fiber and minerals for my dogs.

Oil is extracted from both the fleshy part of the fruit as well as the seed (the kernel). Both sources can be fractionated, distilled or hydrogenated many different ways for use in the food and consumer products industries.

There are many names for palm oil, making it difficult for consumers to identify in products. While some of these ingredient names are straightforward, like Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, other names are less obvious, like Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. The World Wildlife Fund provides a good list of other names for palm oil.

Palm oil lifts millions out of poverty

Palm oil is produced in the tropical regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but Malaysia and Indonesia produce the bulk (85%) of world palm production.

Almost half of the palm oil produced today comes from smallholder farms. To these farmers and their families, palm offers a better life. For example, in Sabah, a state in Malaysia, the “palm oil boom has meant paved roads, better schools, and satellite television. In the state’s capital, gleaming new shopping malls feature Western and Asian luxury brands.”

Palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo: Mongabay

Palm oil is a very efficient crop

Aside from producing two oils, oil palm is a very efficient crop in terms of land use and yield. It is harvested throughout the year and produces more oil per hectare on much less land when compared to other crops such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed.

palm oil is an efficient crop

Source: International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN)

Because of these benefits, the global demand for palm oil continues to grow.  Palm oil production has more than tripled during the past two decades and it represents over one-third (37%) of the major vegetable oils produced in the world.

Palm highlights a challenge between a beneficial oil that lifts people out of poverty, but if grown without boundaries, it can encourage deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and poor working conditions.

But boycotting or banning products that contain palm oil won’t solve the problem of deforestation, nor will it improve the livelihoods of farmers or the economies of developing countries.

The solution lies in farming and producing palm oil sustainably so that we can take care of the planet and people.

The frameworks for sustainable production

The overarching environmental global frameworks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb deforestation are set up in the Paris Climate Agreement and the New York Declaration on Forests. Human rights are guided by the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Certification schemes provide criteria to produce sustainable palm oil. The Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was initiated in 2004 and brings together representatives from across the palm oil sector.  Mandates include fair working conditions, protecting land rights of local people, inhibiting the clearing of primary forest, protecting wildlife, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing industrial pollution.

Today RSPO reports that 19% of the world’s palm oil supply is sustainably sourced and produced with the guiding principles to protect Prosperity, People, and Planet.

Malaysia, which produces nearly half of the world’s RSPO-certified palm oil, has developed its own certification standards in concert with RSPO’s foundation, but to support local needs.

NGOs raise awareness, companies respond

Over the past 20 years, the efforts of responsible environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Foundation and Rainforest Alliance have played a very important role in bringing people’s attention to the negative impacts of palm oil production.

The work of these groups, as well as others like The Earthworm Foundation (formerly The Forest Trust), have successfully partnered with companies that buy, sell, invest or trade palm oil to invest in sustainable palm production. These initiatives have included educating farmers on efficient farming practices, providing higher yielding/less input-intensive varieties of palm, innovative land-use techniques, as well as improving worker and community life.

Source: Center for International Forestry Research

Large producers like Cargill or buyers like L’Oréal, Nestlé, Unilever or McDonald’s are putting forth serious efforts to improve the sustainability of palm oil. These companies and many more realize that to keep on producing products in a world with limited resources, they need sustainable and transparent supply chains for their raw materials. They also realize that negative publicity can quickly put their brands’ reputations at risk.

Satellite technology is one of the new tools being deployed to help palm oil producers, traders and buyers track deforestation and assist them in their sustainable efforts. Starling, Global Forest Watch, and even NASA monitor land cover changes in real time, and with this information companies can pinpoint offenders accurately and move quickly to address deforestation events.

There are still challenges

But still, there are challenges to sustainable production. Palm oil from different sources is mixed together at various stages of the production cycle, making traceability difficult. Additionally, there are thousands of people, cultures, governments, and companies involved in the palm oil supply chain, from small farmers to oil palm plantations to processors, traders and distributors, retailers and consumers.

According to Scott Poynton, founder of the Forest Trust, “every agricultural crop in the world has a footprint.” Scott and other industry experts believe it is possible to protect forests, endangered species, and indigenous peoples while producing palm oil sustainably. It takes all stakeholders to have the conversation to keep their commitment.

Source: International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN)

What you can do – use products that use sustainably produced palm oil

Boycotting palm oil is not the solution. That would mean replacing it with less efficient crops with greater potential for environmental damage. It makes more sense to look for sustainably sourced products when you can.  Rainforest Alliance Certified™ producers meet standards that require environmental, social, and economic sustainability. And the World Wildlife Fund maintains a palm oil scorecard for companies and brands.

You can also go to the manufacturer’s website of the product you are using and search for their sustainability outlines. For example, I use Dove soap, and Unilever happens to be one of the largest buyers of palm in the world and is pushing for a visible, traceable supply of palm oil.

Environmental Working Group’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list is an unscientific scam

kale leaves

This is the summary of a podcast originally from The Genetic Literacy ProjectSteve Savage is a plant pathologist and senior contributor to the GLP and has worked in agricultural technology for over 35 years. Steve became an independent consultant in 1996, advising investment and technology clients in the areas of plant genetics, crop protection, biotechnology, biofuels, and sustainability. He holds a B.S. in biology from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in plant pathology from UC Davis. Since 2010, Steve has been an active blogger, speaker, and podcaster seeking to put modern agriculture in perspective. Follow Steve on Twitter @grapedoc and visit his website.

Yes, its that time of year when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes its infamous “dirty dozen” list. They claim they are “guiding” consumers about which foods are most important and to buy organic to avoid pesticide residues, referring to mostly fruits and vegetables. The Group comes up with their rankings based on the published results of the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program.

The USDA data actually shows that consumers don’t need to worry about pesticide residues because they are only present at extremely low levels that are of no concern for our health. Indeed, health and dietary experts agree that one of the best things we can all do for our health is to confidently enjoy healthful foods, and the last thing we should do is avoid fruits and vegetables because of propaganda from EWG. There is a great website called “Safe Fruits and Veggies” that provides lots of good links on this topic and has a calculator you can use to visualize the absurd amounts of produce you would have to eat to ever see any health effects of residues.

In another episode called “Dirty Marketing,” I explained why the “analysis” by EWG is so flawed and why none of our food deserves to be called “dirty” in this regard. In the whole scheme of things, the only thing that is “dirty” is the EWG’s fear-based campaigning on behalf of their “big organic” sources of funding.

The web page for USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (

So, let’s talk about the good news, starting with this thing called the Pesticide Data Program or PDP. Each year, scientists from the USDA make visits to commercial food channels and collect more than 10,000 samples of food. They focus on 20 or so crops each year, but they periodically cover most major commodities, particularly fruits and vegetables. The latest data from 2017 analyzed apple sauce, asparagus, fresh and frozen cranberries, cabbage, cucumbers, grapefruit, kale greens, honey, lettuce, mangoes, milk, canned olives, prunes, snap peas, sweet potatoes, and garbanzo beans.

The scientists take the foods back to the lab, wash, peel or otherwise handle as normal, and then test for chemical residues. The results are then published in several forms including a high-level “fact sheet”  and a detailed, 200+page report. They also include the raw data so that others can also analyze it. Each year, I like to take advantage of that transparency, although it’s quite a challenge to read through the 2 million-rows of the main data table.

So, what the USDA provides each year are three key pieces of information about what they find in chemical pesticide residues: The first concerns which specific chemicals are detected. The second part is what concentrations of the chemicals were found. The third and very important bit of information is how the detections compare to something called a “tolerance.”

For every crop and for every pesticide approved for use on that crop, the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA identifies an allowable level of chemical residual for which it can confidently confirm there are no health risks. It is a conservative threshold based on an elaborate “risk assessment” reflecting everything that is known about that chemical from many toxicological evaluations. If a chemical residue is present at or below the tolerance, it is safe by a factor of around 100.  That means that a residue equal to the tolerance is still 100 times smaller than the smallest amount that would have a negative health effect.

Now, what the EWG does with this data is to treat any residue detected as a problem, essentially ignoring how it compares to the relevant tolerance. Ignoring that critical part of the story is what makes the “dirty dozen list” so misleading.

So, getting back to what the data really says, one thing that can make this a little challenging to understand is that the numbers we are talking about here are extremely small. When it comes to chemical concentrations, we are often talking about values in the parts per billion range. But what does that look like? Here is one way to try to imagine such tiny numbers. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a really long, but popular, book. It has 257,045 words! Now, imagine that you have a stack of 3,890 copies of that book so that all told you can look at a billion words. The stack of books would be about 324 feet tall. So, if you read just 10 words in one of those books that would represent 10 parts out of a billion words, which is parallel to the kind of chemical residues found on food.

Last December, the USDA-PDP posted its analysis of more than 10,000 food samples collected during 2017. For 53 percent of those samples, there were no detectable residues at all.  Only five samples had any residue concentrations over the tolerance (that is 0.04 percent of all the residues that were found). Even those five were only marginally higher and thus of little concern because the tolerance already has that 100-fold safety margin built in. Two percent of the samples had minute detections of chemicals for which there is not a specific residue for the crop in question, but they were not of concern according to the regulators. Essentially, there’s nothing here to worry about.

But not only were the residues officially below tolerance, most were far below it.  1.7% were 1 to 20 times lower than the tolerance, 9% were 20 to 100 times lower, and 32% were 100 to 1,000 times lower. The biggest category of detections, 44%, were 1,000 to 10,000 times lower than the tolerance! And 8% of detected residues were more than 10,000 times lower than the tolerance! So, what the data really says is that the crops tested in 2017 were remarkably “clean.”

When the EWG does its own interpretation of the data, it essentially treats all these “detections” the same, ignoring how incredibly low-level those detections are and disregarding and EPA’s science. The very fact that these tiny amounts can be identified says much more about the remarkable skills of chemists than anything else.

Now, you might still be thinking, “OK, but wouldn’t it still be better to just have no exposure to residues at all?” Well, realistically, that isn’t an option.

EWG cons many consumers to believe that by buying organic you can simply avoid residues. That isn’t true.

Organic farmers can and do use pesticides while growing their crops.  They generally use “natural” pesticides, but those are still chemicals that must be regulated by the EPA and their toxicity overlaps with that of various “synthetic” chemicals. Keep in mind, organic does not mean “no pesticides.” But what is a bit surprising is that it also does not mean “no synthetic pesticide residues.”

As seen year after year with the PDP and in other testing examples, synthetic pesticide residues are definitely detected on samples that were being sold as organic. For instance, a big study conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2014 found residues on 46 percent of the organic samples they tested.

In the 2017 USDA study, there were 622 organic samples. A total of 302 residues were detected on those foods representing 55 different pesticides. These 2017 detections of chemicals on organic were in the same parts-per-billion range I just described, so again this isn’t a safety concern. All it means that there isn’t the sort of “black and white” difference many people imagine between residues on non-organic and organic foods.

There is an allowance in the USDA Organic Program rules stating that if a synthetic pesticide residue is detected on an organic product, if the level is 5 percent or less of the EPA tolerance, it is considered “unintentional” and thus not a violation of the organic certification standard. The PDP testing isn’t about organic rule enforcement, but, there is a separate set of tests that are performed to check for compliance with the organic rules and the 5 percent rule would be applied for that.

Of the organic samples from the U.S., 99.2% would have met the 5% or less standard and only 0.8% either being those “no tolerance for that crop” situation or falling in the range of 1 to 20 times lower than tolerance. For organic imports, 98.4% met the 5% standard. What is interesting is that 96.3% of the “conventional” samples from the U.S. would also qualify if they had been organic samples being tested for compliance. Ninety-four-point one percent of the imported conventional samples would also meet that standard.

For applesauce, fresh and frozen cranberries, honey, lettuce, milk, canned olives, prunes, canned tomatoes and garbanzo beans, and all of the conventional 2017 samples would have qualified by the 5% rule for organic. Since the conventional items are typically less costly, does it really make sense to spend more than needed around this issue?

So, to sum it up: USDA data for 2017 once again shows us that our food supply is safe when it comes to the issue of pesticide residues. Yes, there are tiny amounts of chemicals that can be detected by skilled chemists, but they are mostly hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of times lower than even a conservative “tolerance” level. Pesticide residues are also detected on organic product samples, but all at levels that would not technically disqualify the food as “organic.” The same is true, however, for almost all the conventional samples.

The bottom line is that we should reject the kind of fear-mongering that is associated with the EWG’s yearly dirty dozen list and just make sure that our shopping lists include lots of healthy fruits and vegetables.