Ag in the Classroom: FFA Spotlight on Lauren LaGrande

ffa lauren lagrande

The Future Farmers of America (FFA) is the premier youth organization preparing members for leadership and careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture. In an effort to spread the word about the inspiring efforts of leading FFA members, Dirt to Dinner will be highlighting some participant stories.

We would like to introduce Lauren LaGrande. Her education in ag started on her family farm and has taken her back to the classroom. Her mission is to educate future generations on something that connects all of us – where our food comes from. Here is her story told from her unique point of view.

My name is Lauren LaGrande and I am a proud fourth-generation farmer from Northern California. My family grows mostly rice, almonds, and walnuts, along with a few row crops we keep on rotation. My younger brother and I also manage a small herd of cattle between us, which has helped fund us through college.

A passion for agriculture was instilled in me at a young age and was ignited further throughout my college years. My earliest memories stem back to sitting on my dad’s lap in the harvester, watching the tines on the reel gobble up rice.  I grew up participating in 4-H and the FFA, which are two experiences I will always be grateful for. In high school for FFA, I showed livestock, competed in agricultural communications proficiency contests, job interview contests, and project competitions.

A new lens on the industry

While all this was going on, I was asked to blog for a commodity group, as they wanted a younger generation’s take on agriculture, which was where my passion for connecting people with their food sprouted. This passion took deeper roots during my time at Oregon State University, where I majored in agricultural sciences with minors in leadership, writing, and communications. I interned with commodity groups, animal agriculture alliances, conservation groups, and spent some time lobbying in Washington D.C. with a cooperative we are involved in, all of which expanded my views and perspectives on agriculture. My once narrow “production” lens of agriculture was now broadened to see the industry from a societal, regulatory, cultural, and legislative lens.

This new “ag lens” continued to expand through my college courses where I learned to appreciate agriculture beyond a production standpoint and appreciate its societal, economic, and environmental contributions. And today, I feel the same passion when I am able to help a student develop or deepen their appreciation and respect for an industry that not only feeds and clothes their hometown, their state, their country, but also the world.

I continued on to graduate school where I received my master’s degree in agricultural communications from Texas Tech University (Wreck ‘Em Tech!) and conducted research on consumer trust in the agriculture industry. I now teach agricultural communications courses at Oregon State University and am currently helping to develop a program in this concentration..

I remember getting my undergraduate degree here at Oregon State and wishing they had an agricultural communications program. I wished I knew how to talk about an industry I was so deeply rooted in to those who knew nothing about it. I am so ecstatic that Oregon State is in the works of developing an agricultural communications program. This will serve as a curriculum that I hope all students, whether within the agriculture, forestry, and natural resources fields or not, can benefit from. No matter your diet, food production preferences, or lifestyle choices, we all eat. Therefore we are all connected by agriculture.

Challenges in the education space

Many personal and professional experiences have revealed to me how little the public knows about where their food comes from, how it’s managed, and who is producing it. This lack of understanding fuels my burning desire to connect people with their food. I am very humbled and blessed to be back at my alma mater and to have the chance to help students find their agricultural voice and to help those without an agriculture background understand some of our practices.

I think one of the most significant challenges I face as a teacher and as an agriculturalist is the public’s mistrust in agriculture. Consumers not only vote on production regulations in the voting booths, but with their dollars every time they visit a grocery store, without really knowing what they are standing behind.  My master’s thesis research revealed to me that agriculture doesn’t have a “reputation issue” per se, but it has a trust issue.

Today’s consumers do not trust the agriculture industry. They are constantly bombarded with news stories and articles saying how “big ag” is pumping their foods with chemicals and destroying the environment, which are misconceptions we as an industry need to address and debunk. Agriculture has a great story to tell and we, as its  authors,  need to use our voices to help educate.

Overcoming obstacles through teaching

One of my biggest successes in this role thus far came from an email I received from a student who didn’t come from an agriculture background. She explained she took my class not knowing what agriculture really consisted of and wanted to learn more behind the “scary” articles that get blasted all over the internet. She thanked me for helping her understand agriculture, a subject that affects all of us every day.

In one of the classes I teach, students are required to do a feature story regarding an aspect of the industry of their choice. They’re also required to conduct two interviews that would add depth and credibility to the story. This assignment allowed this particular student to talk with farmers about her concerns and research her agricultural topic from both sides of the issue to come to an informed opinion. She fell so in love with her topic that she decided to pursue an internship in that same agriculture area. Although this was just one instance and just one student, I am so proud that I was able to play a small part in allowing someone who knew nothing about agriculture become passionate and informed.

Agriculture is more than just an industry; it is a lifestyle and way of life for so many. One that stems from hard work, passion, humility, craft, science, and community. It is my hope that down the road in the future, agriculture is known and trusted for all of these components and more.

A few tips on getting involved in ag

Want to know more about ag? Ask questions and make connections! Reach out to your county’s co-op extension office if you have a question about something you saw on your drive home, like an airplane flying on seed or if you want to know how to plant cherry tomatoes in your backyard.

Farmers are some of the friendliest and most passionate people I know. Talk to your local grower at your farmer’s market and ask questions about how they are growing the food you are taking home. Can’t get your “boots on the ground”? That is okay! Luckily, today’s world allows us to make connections online and globally. Reach out to agricultural professionals and organizations through their websites and social media pages.

Interested in learning directly more about agriculture? Sign up for an agricultural course or class, whether it’s at the high school or college level or joining a program such as Master Gardeners through a local co-op.

Have a giving heart? Volunteer with your local Community Supported Agriculture project, FFA chapter, community garden, extension office, etc. Get your hands in the soil and work with those who cherish the land and you’ll harvest more than just vegetables.

There are so many ways to get involved in the ag space; simply reach out and you’ll have roots planted in agriculture in no time!

Stay tuned for more Future Farmers of America stories like this. If you would like to get involved with FFA, visit If you’re a fellow FFA and want to share your story, or tell us more about an inspiring FFA member, please email us at – we’d love to hear your stories!


2 Trade Deals and Plant Food in a Pear Tree: Top News in 2019

This year’s reporting sets the stage for some tough discussions for the ag industry to what no doubt will be a series of challenges in 2020 – and beyond. Though it seems out of our hands, we as consumers have serious pull here based on our purchase decisions. And for the future of food and agriculture at large.


“Gee, that’s a tough one. So much happened it’s almost impossible to pick just a few!”

2019 has been jam-packed with news headlines affecting our choices in food, the well-being of our farmers, and how new technologies will disrupt the industry. Every day, we’ve heard and read about…

  • Throughout the year, farmers remained highly focused and surprisingly hopeful on trade issues, especially involving China and our North American trading partners
  • African swine fever is reshaping entire markets, with the virus resulting in 40% of the global pig population to be culled
  • The ongoing RoundUp trial regarding glyphosate has enormous implications for farm production, Bayer’s balance sheet, and legal stakes with human health
  • Investment in ag technology has exploded in areas such as big data, precision farming, and food supply transparency, with all sorts of new doors opening for all parts of the food system
  • And the rapid developments in genetic engineering, such as GMOs, CRISPR, and synthetic biology, have created an ongoing debate over their regulation worldwide
  • A focus on soil health and other dimensions of ‘regenerative agriculture’ has become more critical for the health of future harvests
  • Claims and counter-claims have been made about finding the right balance between a healthy diet and best use of natural resources for our global health
  • Food labeling requirements have gathered steam as consumers drive greater demand for transparency along the entire supply chain
  • Food insecurity once again is on the rise around the world, as the United Nations reports

So, how do you pick from that hefty list? Here’s my attempt to weed out the most critical issues as we come into 2020. Take a look at my countdown and let me know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter!

#4. Food Safety.

The African Swine Flu swept through Asia and decimated the pig population. There are 770 million domestic pigs on various farms worldwide – at least 300 million have died. That is a lot of pigs to bury. China was hit the hardest as they have 440 million pigs – almost half of which have been affected. This does not only have implications for the hog farmers, but it shows how quickly a virus can spread around the world.

Food safety and animal welfare are critical components here:

  • How can we improve the quarantine process for animals and poultry?
  • Will the African Swine Flu virus spread? What are the implications?
  • Will the reduced pork supply change our buying habits? If so, what other forms of protein are we likely to eat?

This is an incredible amount to think about as we head into the new year, and we are only on the first point!

 #3. Weather alert.

When a 95-year-old corn and beans farmer in Central Illinois, who is still farming the 1,500 acres he owned since the 1920s, says he can’t remember a worse spring for planting in seven decades of farming, we all should pay attention. Add lingering wet conditions to the mix, and you have the prescription for significant harvest delays and losses – we’re talking up to half of last year’s corn and soybean crop levels in parts of the upper Midwest.

Bad weather is nothing new for farmers, of course. But the extent and severity of this year’s bad conditions caused huge damage, disrupted lives and entire communities, and only complicated the production picture for farmers already reeling from steady income declines.

Maybe more significantly, these reports may prove to be harbingers of the bigger questions yet to come for agriculture about climate change:

  • Will consumers accept seed technology and gene editing to help crops grow in wetter, cooler, drier, and/or drought conditions?
  • Can the four-row crops, canola, soybeans, cotton, and corn, be modified to grow in new climate regions?
  • Are there specialized crops that are more adaptable to varied climates?
  • What technologies and farming practices will be implemented to keep our soil secure? No-till farming and cover cropping quickly come to mind here.

And focusing on farmers is just a piece to a much larger puzzle. The right response to climate change involves all industries: from the municipalities, to the golf course, to the housing developer and homeowner, and beyond.

#2. It’s all about the trade.

I wish I had a dime for every time the word “China” appeared in a farm-related story this year. By now, we’ve all figured out just how important China is to U.S. agricultural interests – not just soybean producers, but a lot of other growers, suppliers, and people along the supply chain, too.

That political football has been kicked around all year, with a fair amount of optimism with China’s agreement to buy $50 billion in agricultural goods, up from $23.8 billion in 2017 (52% of which was comprised of soybeans). We hope to get this all sorted out so we can get back to normal in a huge and growing trade relationship.

Finalized on December 10th, the USMCA (U.S.- Mexico-Canada Agreement), formerly NAFTA, was a win for American agriculture. Canada and Mexico are integral to our trade health, as these countries are the U.S.’s first and third largest export markets for food and ag, respectively. Together, this equals about 28% of total food and ag exports in 2017. The USMCA is anticipated to increase US ag exports by $2 billion. Even though NAFTA was a free trade zone, there were still some tariffs and quotas.

The new USMCA will be a win for U.S. dairy farmers, as this agreement will open up opportunities for milk products such as cheese, cream, and yogurt. It will also expand U.S. poultry and egg market access to Canada. Mexico and the U.S. will have the same grading standards for ag products. Finally, the three countries will have the same sanitary standards, based on science as well as agricultural biotechnology and gene editing.

As Trump pushes forward with success on these fronts, it still brings forward new questions for the future:

  • What will China buy to reach $50 billion? More soybeans?
  • Will trade always be used as a leverage point between the U.S. and other countries?
  • How can we protect the U.S. while still ensuring we have global fair trade?
  • Will we have other multilateral agreements such as USMCA?
  • Will China’s theft of intellectual property continue to occur?

#1. Plant-based protein.

I used to call it “alternative meat,” but the story is a lot bigger than that now. Plant-based meats, eggs, fish, milk, leather, and even collagen for your skin, are here to stay. The speed with which companies like Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats gathered steam (and investor dollars) absolutely amazed me in 2019.

According to AgFunder, ‘The alternative meat market sales growth is expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $140 billion ten years from now, growing to 10% of the total meat market.’

But let’s put this in perspective: the total animal products industry in 2018 was close to $2.23 trillion and is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2025. There is plenty of opportunity for all types of protein producers. But I never would have expected to be deluged with fast-food ads on television pushing exciting new vegetable-based burgers, or to see so many people willing to give it a try.

To me, that’s surprising, but in a very good way: consumers should have a choice. They should be able to choose products that meet their tastes and align with their values.

If someone wants to eat a veggie burger or a meat product produced in a lab, for health reasons, for environmental concerns, for moral values, so be it. Just don’t tell me that I have to eat one or the other. Let me choose. But let me choose facts, not marketing. Let the markets work.

As more and more consumers indicate their preference for plant-based foods, what implications does this have?

  • Are consumers getting the facts about meat and dairy, or is it marketing?
  • As consumers move away from meat, how are they getting their daily recommended protein requirements?
  • Demand for plants and meat will rise as our population grows. How do global producers sustainably meet demand?
  • What kind of labeling information does the consumer require to make an educated choice?

This is a profoundly important story about how responsive our food system is proving to be. Consumer tastes and preferences are changing as society changes around us. That should surprise no one. But the story of how fast and how well the food system can recognize that change and accommodate it is indeed newsworthy and earns my number one spot for the Top Food and Ag story of 2019. It will be fascinating to see where the story goes from here.

5 Surprising Facts about Our Organic Foods

Did you know that vitamin C doesn’t cure the common cold? And that Twinkies don’t last forever – they’re only fresh for around 25 days? And that gum doesn’t stay in your gut for 7 years – it passes through just like everything else? These myths have been proven false by credible institutions.

So, in this age of transparency and information, how can we still believe so many falsehoods?

There’s another big misconception in the food industry. And with two kids and a goal to prepare nutritious foods for us this holiday season, I decided to closely examine what it means when a food is labeled “organic”. Is it really worth splurging for that organic heritage turkey and finding herbs and vegetables locally grown on organic farms to prepare and season our dishes?

What I’ve found when asking what “organic” means to people is that it’s a very contentious term with very strong opinions. It means many different things to different people: pesticide-free, GMO-free, small local farms, nutrient-dense, richer soil…the list goes on.

For many, choosing organic foods is an emotional decision. Mintel reports that most of us purchasing “natural” or “organic” products don’t fully understand the nuances of these claims, but just feel better about buying them, for one reason or another. This leads to most of us purchasing these products for our family while not knowing precisely why, besides a broad feeling of moral obligation.

So, despite its perceived flexibility in definition, what makes a food officially “organic” in the U.S. is not as wholly-encompassing as many of us think it is.

So what does “organic” really mean, then?

In its simplest terms, organic foods must be produced while protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and cultivated with no genetic engineering or ionizing radiation and with mostly natural pesticides and fertilizers.

For a food to be considered “organic”, it requires the approval of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS). The overarching purpose of the AMS is to create worldwide marketing opportunities for U.S. producers of food, fiber, and specialty crops while also ensuring the quality and availability of applicable food products.

In addition to the National Organic Program, the AMS oversees a variety of other programs affecting our food and ag system, including food quality protection, hemp production and country of origin labeling. With the U.S. organic industry under the scrutiny of the AMS, all such foods must be produced using their approved methods, whether it is grown in the U.S. or another country.

So now we understand that organic foods can’t be genetically engineered nor cultivated with popular synthetic pesticides, like Roundup. But what about other claims, like “pesticide-free”, “clean”, “locally-farmed”, “grass-fed”, and all those other terms that are tossed about when thinking of organic food? Let’s take a closer look.

Organic food can have pesticides?

Contrary to popular belief, organic foods have pesticides, whether used directly on the crops or not. Organic foods can be treated with pesticides from the USDA’s approved substances list, which includes products like copper sulfate and hydrogen peroxide. Though organic farmers mostly use natural pesticides on their crops, there are synthetic pesticides approved for use on organic crops, as well. Also, the USDA reports that pesticide residues are found on both organic and conventional crops alike in its Pesticide Data Program, but all crops are held to regulations governing safe consumption levels.

Aren’t organic foods locally farmed?

Just as conventional farms have larger and smaller operations throughout the country, so do organic farms. In fact, many larger farms have both organic and conventional operations. Because of this flexibility, it is awesome that we can find both conventional AND organic raspberries on our grocery shelves in the dead of winter. An amazing feat!

Organic foods are also imported into the U.S. every day from countries all over the world. All farms exporting their organic products to the U.S. must also be organically certified according to the USDA organic regulations. Though not all organic products indicate their country of origin, the products must still comply with the U.S. National Organic program.

How about only grassfed and no drugs?

Contrary to popular belief, organic livestock can indeed be raised in a feedlot; purchasing organic meat does not guarantee grass-fed or grass-finished animals. However, the USDA organic seal on meats does mean a few other things that may be important to you.

For instance, organic livestock must be raised and must have year-round access to the outdoors. They must also be fed an all-organic diet (which can include organic grains), and may not be given antibiotics or hormones. However, they can receive vaccines for disease prevention and a handful of approved drugs, like pain and deworming medications.

It’s important to note that, for the U.S., hormones are prohibited for use on all chickens, turkeys, and pigs – whether organic or not. So if you’re buying your family organic chicken tenders only to avoid added hormones, save your money and buy conventional chicken! Furthermore, almost all dairy cows, both organic and conventional, don’t receive additional hormones, like rBST.

But at the least, aren’t organic foods better for us and the environment?

Many of us assume that organic foods are better for our bodies than their conventional counterparts. However, a consensus has not been formed by the scientific community on this hypothesis, as many studies have had inconsistent research parameters, such as too small of sample size to apply to a larger population.

Of particular note, several studies have shown that those eating organic foods more frequently are less likely to be overweight and have heart disease, but it turns out they were more likely to practice healthier diet and exercise choices, in general.

But you know what’s definitely better for all of us? Eating a fresh salad instead of a bowl of Annie’s organic and grassfed mac & cheese! No offense to Annie’s – my kids are obsessed with their shells with white cheddar 😉 But the answer is to just eat lots of veggies, no matter how they’re grown!

There’s another big issue here that’s not as black and white as “organic” or “conventional”. If nutrient-rich soil is of utmost importance for you, then you’ll need to do some research and look into the farms growing your produce. As stewards of the land, good farmers – whether of organic or conventional crops – take great care of their soil, crops and livestock, which is the most integral part in creating healthy, wholesome foods.

Thinking about it a different way, let’s say you lease a modestly-priced, mid-range SUV for your family, while your neighbors, the Joneses, purchase a top-of-the-line, luxury SUV. Darn those Joneses! Three years later, when the lease is up, you’re eager to trade in your car because you’ve taken such good care of it. However, your neighbors have significantly damaged their once-sweet ride and must suffer the consequences. It’s not the model of the car, or the type of farm, that mattersit’s the owner – the farmer.

I hope this has been enlightening for you as doing this research was for me. It’s definitely opened my eyes to how easily we make decisions based on marketing and misperceptions without thinking about what’s really important – our ongoing health and wellness that can only be achieved by making sound dietary choices.

For my family and me, that means paying less attention to gimmicky food labels and simply just eating tons more fresh fruits and veggies, organic or not.

Soil Health: A Personal Chronology of a Global Paradigm Shift

Michael Doane is a guest columnist for Dirt to Dinner and will be sharing a series of articles on how restoring our lands is the best tool for sustainable food systems. Read his first post on Land Degradation: The History Lesson We Are Still Learning.

Michael is the Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water for The Nature Conservancy. Michael started farming at a young age and is a partner in his family’s cattle and row crop farming operation located in Kansas. He combines his passion for agriculture with his love for nature in leading one of The Nature Conservancy’s top global priorities to provide food and water sustainably.

A Journey Begins

I drove my tractor and disk combination to the edge of the field and paused to survey the scene. Across a vast area was an overrun combination of weeds, large and small, and crop residues. It looked unruly, not cared for properly, and I was about to fix that. It was my first time to turn the soil on this farm and at just 18 years old, I felt a sense of energy about the task.

Having grown up on a working farm, I embraced my role as steward of the land. I didn’t know much about this particular field, but I knew the farmer managing it before me had some wild ideas on how to farm. The field always appeared overgrown; I had never seen it clean and neat, freshly turned to cleanse it from weeds and prepared for planting.

The opportunity in my mind was to make good on what I saw as neglected duties of the previous farmer to manage the field properly.

Little did I know I was about to begin a lifelong journey to understand soil health.

I pulled into the field and prepared the disk to turn the soil, anticipating a long day of working a rough, compacted field. But, as I lowered the disk into the field for the first time, I didn’t feel or hear the tractor begin to pull as I had experienced so many times before. I quickly craned my neck to inspect the situation behind me, fully expecting a breakdown – either the disk had not descended into the soil or perhaps it had somehow become unattached from the tractor. Instead, the disk was there and doing its duty, slicing through and aggressively turning the soil.

The soils in North Central Kansas are variable but mainly light brown in color. From my tractor seat, I noticed the soil in this field was much darker than any field I had ever worked. Perplexed, I stopped the tractor to get a closer look. I knelt into the soil, running my hands through it. The black, moist soil had an overpowering earthy smell of fertility and goodness, unique to anything I had experienced so far in my young farming career.

At the time, I was unable to make sense of what I experienced that day, but I was pleased with the growth of several successful crops on that wonderfully productive piece of non-tilled ground.

Fast Forward

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself in the seat of a small tractor towing a newly developed planting drill, delightfully named the Happy Seeder. I made a few passes with the drill and noticed how elegantly it mulched and placed the crop residues from the prior crop neatly between the new rows while it simultaneously opened a narrow slot to plant a new crop of wheat and place a small amount of fertilizer without turning over the soil. This no-till drill was unlike any I had seen before. The field was located in rural India, within the state of Punjab and the research complex of the Borlaug Institute of South Asia (BISA).

This region in Northwest India is in the midst of a major transition in their food production. Food security in India was achieved within a short and critical window of time, earning Dr. Norman Borlaug international fame as the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. An iconic example of the “Green Revolution,” this region increased food production as a result of advanced plant breeding of staple food crops such as wheat and rice and aided by the benefits of irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides.

But after many years of benefits, the situation has now changed. The once productive aquifer supporting the paddy rice and wheat cropping system has dwindled. In an effort to maintain paddy rice production with much less groundwater, the planting dates of the paddy rice, as a matter of public policy, have been shifted to take greater advantage of the monsoon season.

But this new cropping system is having unforeseen consequences. With a compressed window of time to harvest rice and plant their wheat crop, farmers have started burning the rice residues in the field, which allows a single pass of tillage to prepare the field for wheat planting. Tragically, the residue burning practice has caught international attention for the human health hazard it creates.

The Happy Seeder, however, offers an elegant and cost-effective solution to this problem. As documented by a recent Science article, the Happy Seeder allows the farmers to plant their wheat crop in one field pass – without burning the residue or tilling the soil. The Nature Conservancy is now cooperating with several partners to unlock the full deployment of Happy Seeders across the region with the goal of eliminating residue burning.

The Paradigm Shift

My experience of planting with the Happy Seeder in India and the curiosity sparked in me as a young, aspiring Kansas farmer were separated by 25 years and a global paradigm shift around soil health.

I now understand the farmer whom I followed into the field of my youth was on the right track – he simply didn’t have access to the knowledge, techniques, and innovations farmers now enjoy. He appreciated what I did not know at the time – tillage is devastating for soils.

Tillage destroys the biological life and functionality of a delicate living ecosystem in ways we can now comprehend and manage to avoid. While he was ultimately unable to achieve his vision in a profitable manner, what he left behind was healthy soil, full of life and highly productive. My conventional management practices at the time – which depended heavily on regular tillage – went on to extract this productivity.

Tillage is still a common management practice on nearly 90% of global croplands. As tillage continues, the life of the soil is interrupted, depriving it of plant cover and roots, making it more prone to erosion, unable to retain and cycle water and nutrients efficiently. Tillage in croplands is one of the primary drivers of land degradation, but it doesn’t need to be.

Over the past 25 years, a global movement to eliminate tillage in agricultural croplands has taken shape. My experience with the Happy Seeder convinced me we now have the technology to bring productive, zero-tillage cropping systems to farmers worldwide at any size and income level. This technology and the development of other no-till systems are also being deployed in the organic sector, whom we must thank and acknowledge for keeping attention on the priority of soil management.

When zero-tillage systems are paired with the regular planting of cover crops and more diverse crop rotations, soils currently on the slow but steady path toward degradation anywhere in the world can be restored to their prior glory as productive, living ecosystems. The paradigm shift to prioritize soil health is an ecological and human health imperative. Thankfully, our family farm made the switch to zero-tillage during my personal chronology of this movement and we are now utilizing cover crops and more diverse crop rotations. I am now confident any farmer in the world can acquire the knowledge and technology to make the paradigm shift too, reversing the looming land degradation threat one field at a time.