Five Reasons Why I Started Using Conservation Practices On My Farm

This article was written by Keith Mears, who farms with his family near Delphi, Indiana, and is a Conservation Steward with America’s Conservation Ag Movement.

Implementing farmland conservation practices is no easy feat, but the results are well worth the efforts. Keith Mears gives us five solid reasons why the time is now…

The most important step to making a change on your farm is determining why you are going to do it. Without a firm understanding of why, it will be too easy to lose motivation and change your mind when challenges arise.

To encourage other farmers to get started, I want to explain five reasons why I started using conservation practices on my 110-acre corn and soybean farm.

  1. Being the best steward I can be. One of my favorite free-time activities is kayaking on the local streams and rivers. It is sad and concerning to me how muddy-brown our streams and rivers are. I want to take responsibility for the farmland I am called to be a steward of and make sure I do my part to keep my soil on my farm. The legacy I want to leave for my community and my children is one of cleaner water and richer soils, allowing them to produce healthy, reliable food and enjoy the environment for generations to come.
  2. Increasing soil organic matter and, in turn, increase water holding capacity. The art of farming can be boiled down to using soil and water to capture energy from the sun to produce food fuel and fiber. Considering the factors I can manage, I realize that the sun is going to come up every day and there is not a lot we can or need to do to manage that. My farm relies on rainfall for all of the water for the crops and while there is absolutely nothing I can do to change the rains, I have come to realize that I can improve the water-holding capacity of the soil by increasing organic matter and improve yields by holding more of the rains we do get on my farm for my crops to produce higher yields. A 1% increase in soil organic matter will increase the water-holding capacity in the top 6 inches of an acre by 27,000 gallons. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of water in a 1-inch rain.
  3. Improving overall farm efficiency. To win in a commodity business a farmer must produce high yields at the lowest cost possible. Reducing tillage and, therefore, reducing trips across the field reduces the costs of growing a crop and improves efficiency. Two to three tillage passes are eliminated, resulting in less time, labor and fuel required to produce crops. Eliminating these tillage passes saves between $35 and $40 per acre.
  4. Reducing the amount of equipment I need to purchase and maintain to operate my farm. I do not own a chisel plow, disk or field cultivator. I also do not need to own a high-horsepower tractor to pull these implements. Further savings are realized by not having to have a larger barn to store these extra pieces of equipment. I am able to farm using only one tractor on the entire operation. Not having to buy a high-horsepower tractor, a chisel plow, disk and field cultivator saves my farm tens of thousands of dollars of capital costs.
  5. The support I receive from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). When deciding whether to transition to a no-till cover crop system, I reached out to the NRCS for ideas and support. The conservationists at the NRCS shared ideas and practices that had the highest likelihood of success in our area. I applied for and received three years of per-acre payments for no-till and cover crops through the EQIP program. These payments covered the cost of my planter pass and all costs of using a cover crop, including seed and planting. These payments reduced the risk of trying something new and gave me the confidence to get started.

I encourage anyone reading this to consider how to improve stewardship on their own farm in addition to how their management decisions impact the community and the legacy they want to leave for future generations.

I also encourage you to reach out to your NRCS office and/or connect with other farmers in your area to discuss conservation practices.

Getting technical with conservation

We found Keith’s conservation practices fascinating, so our team followed up with him to get some specifics on how he applies these farming techniques. Here’s what he had to say:

In terms of emission reduction, have you seen a decline? If so, how are you measuring that on the farm?

I have been able to replace 3 tillage passes with one cover crop planting pass for a net gain of two fewer passes across the field.

A conventional tillage system would be (1) chisel plow, (2) disk, (3) field cultivate, (4) spray, (5) plant, (6) spray, and (7) harvest; versus a no-till cover crop system of (1) plant cover, (2) spray, (3) plant, (4) spray, and (5) harvest.

This can be measured in diesel fuel savings of about 29%, or about $9 per acre.

Do you use any solar or wind technologies for energy offsets on the farm? If so, what do these systems look like?

No.  My energy requirements are the same on still, cloudy days as they are on sunny, windy days.  However, solar and wind power are essential for the farm.  Each corn seed I plant in the spring turns into approximately 560 seeds in the fall and each soybean seed turns into approximately 300 seeds.

The energy for these returns comes almost exclusively from the sun through the miracle of photosynthesis.  Additionally, the wind is vital to bring in rains, my only source of water, and cool and aerate the plants.

What does your typical rotation look like? If you are rotating, which crops do you grow on a single set of land, what does that look like, and how do you decide?

All of my acres are in a corn cover-soybean cover rotation. Usually, I use cereal rye as the cover crop.

I decide based on crop budget spreadsheets which factor in the market prices of inputs and each grain and calculate expected profit based on historical yields.

I have grown corn after corn and soybean after soybeans to increase expected profits.

photo credit: Brooke Sauter

Have your conservation ag practices helped with pests, diseases, invasive weeds, etc.? And if so, that must also equate to cost savings. But has it? And to what degree?

Not yet. I expect an improvement in soil health to lead to an improvement in pests and diseases long term.  Short term, during a transition to no-till, disease and pest pressures have increased. I am learning how to manage cover crops to reduce invasive weeds and have seen signs of fewer weeds where covers are planted, but after subtracting the cost of cover crop seed; I have not realized any consistent cost savings yet.

What about yield? Has there been a “regrowth period” once some of these practices were put in place as the soil acclimated? 

A transition to no-till caused a 5-10% reduction in yield.  After factoring in the capital and operating expenses of saving tillage passes I did not experience a change in profit per acre.  After implementing no-till and covers for about 4 years the yields come back up and seem to become more consistent.  This drives a long-term increase in farm profitability.

The Labor Shortage: Lack of Workers or Lack of Willing Workers?

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Just how significant is the labor shortage?

Perhaps there is a better way of asking the question. Why do so many job openings go unfilled?

The number of people in the labor pool has increased steadily over recent decades, from 128 million in 1992 to an estimated 163.5 million in 2022. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a resurgence in job growth in the next few years – as many as 12 million new jobs by 2030. Job growth is expected to be especially strong in the travel and leisure industry as it recovers from Covid. Health care and personal care services also are expected to expand as the population continues to age. But 11 million jobs go unfilled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Why are there so many open positions? Part of the explanation involves a change in thinking about work. While the labor pool has grown, the proportion of the labor pool that actively seeks employment has steadily declined from a high of 67 percent to a projected 62 percent in 2022.

Many factors have contributed to the slow decline in participation rates – an aging population, changes in job and career attitudes, economic ups and downs, and of course, the profound chilling effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. Business and organizational shutdowns and reduced workloads helped drive global unemployment to the equivalent of 225 million jobs, according to the U.N. International Labor Organization. In the United States, the figure hit an estimated 20 million in 2020.

Changing workforce demands

By the end of this decade, the entire “baby boomer” generation will be at least 65 years old. This factor, coupled with the pandemic, rapidly accelerated a trend already underway toward a workforce less committed to the old model of job-seeking. Generous government subsidies created incentives to simply stay home. Lingering fears of threats from the Delta strain of Covid fostered a risk-averse stay-at-home mindset. Child-care and other family needs made a return to work difficult, if not impractical for many. Some people simply discovered that the old shoulder-to-the-wheel mentality of finding and keeping a job just wasn’t appealing or even necessary anymore.

Lifestyle becomes just as important – maybe more important to some – as finding a job or building an old-model career. The phrase ‘work-life balance’ has taken on a whole new dimension in the post-pandemic world – more like “life-work balance.”  

The result has been a significant shift in the employer-employee dynamic – a brave new world in which the worker has a more powerful, sometimes dominant position in the process of job seeking. As one California dairy farmer told Dirt To Dinner, “I no longer interview job applicants. They interview me.”

What does a new labor picture mean for our food and agriculture system?

The short answer: almost everything. The lack of willing workers cuts across every segment of our food chain, from the producer at one end to the consumer at the other and every step in between. For many, it’s a serious problem, far more than an annoyance.

The most obvious consequence is a threat to day-to-day operations. The Department of Agriculture tells us we have about 2 million full-time farm workers in the United States. But that’s not the total farm labor picture. Every year, farmers and ranchers hire between 1.4 million and 2.1 million laborers – the field workers, cow milkers, harvesters, and others critical to modern farming or ranching.

The work isn’t a nine-to-five, air-conditioned, free cappuccino, fully automated walk in the office park. It’s hard work, much of it outdoors in the elements, with physical and mental demands few outsiders recognize or appreciate. Dairy cows and other farm animals demand regular attention, often 24/7, without fail. To further complicate the picture, many states are tightening the overtime standards that govern hired labor.

Farmers and ranchers know all too well that work on the farm goes on all day, every day. Limits on the number of overtime hours translate into the need for additional positions, which only magnifies the challenge of finding willing and able people to fill the slots. And today, that’s where the lack of job applicants is hitting agricultural producers most.

“I used to have a mailbox full of a half-dozen job applications every week,” one California dairy farmer noted. “Now I get maybe one or two a month.”

Other farmers across the country paint a remarkably similar picture. “When I do get an applicant, I wind up answering most of the questions”, another observes. Those questions are not just about the job duties but also the benefits and perks and the flexibility they will have when they work.

“More and more, I extend an offer and hold my breath to see if the person shows up,” another comments. “Usually they don’t. They use my offer to negotiate something better down the road…. And if I do make a hire, I worry that they will take a lunch break and just won’t come back.”

So What Is to Be Done?

Dealing with the problem requires both short-term practicality and a long-term perspective. It means working longer hours and often asking family members to pitch in even more than usual. It means using recruitment services to seek out prospective employees – often outside the United States. Automation and robotics show promise as one part of the solution to the labor problem, but technology doesn’t yet address some tasks, and they are often an expense that just seems an awful lot to absorb right now.

But the problem does seem to boil down to greater expense, and a real threat of lost productivity, eating away at already thin profit margins. It means spending more money, not just on labor but other services, like trucking and delivery, that also may be experiencing the same kind of labor problems. It means doing what has to be done and spending what has to be spent to get by day-to-day, even if that means investment capital assets like better equipment and technology have to wait.

The Hispanic Connection

 The largest portion of farm labor involves non-U.S. citizens – notably Hispanic workers.  Roughly 44 percent of all ag occupations are Hispanics of Mexican origin. 57 percent of all farm laborers, graders and sorters are of Mexican origin, and another 8 percent non-Mexican Hispanic.  In the rest of the U.S. economy, Mexican-origin Hispanics make up only 12 percent of the workforce, and non-Mexican Hispanics another 8 percent.

U.S farmers continue to support immigration reform that will speed and simplify the process of obtaining work visas for non-U.S. citizens. Legislation on the matter remains pending in the U.S. Congress.

                                                        – Economic Research Service, USDA 2019

How is the rest of the food chain affected?

The shortage of job applicants extended far beyond the farm gate. The suppliers and service companies that provide feeds, seeds, fertilizers, and other necessary goods also report similar difficulties attracting the needed employees. They also have to bid up wages and benefits – adding to the costs paid by their farm customers, food manufacturers, warehousers, distributors, retailers, and restaurants.

Each of those segments faces the same set of challenges – simply not enough people to do the basic tasks. Meat processors report shortages of line workers that have on occasion forced process slowdowns or actual shutdowns. Distribution centers point to a lack of loading equipment operators. Restaurants don’t have enough cooks, counter staff, wait- and kitchen staff. Every segment of the chain seeks to find new efficiencies and cost-cutting innovations to alleviate the problem. But the problem persists.

Farmers and ranchers report seeing the effects of the lack of workers in a variety of places – but several show up over and over again, beyond the farm gate and the day-labor issue.

  • Transportation. The ability to move goods and services from place to place in a timely manner is the common thread tying all elements of the food chain together. Crop inputs, energy supplies, and other necessities must be delivered. Harvested crops must be moved to storage – especially the fresh fruit and vegetables with short storage lives. Food manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants rely on just-in-time delivery to make best use of storage and display space. Trucks move more than 70 percent of all the freight hauled in the United States (by weight), with as many as 60,000 driver positions unfilled. A shortage of drivers risks a chilling effect on multiple sectors of the economy – none more so than our food system.
  • Warehousing and storage. Farmers rely on a steady flow of supplies, including feeds and crop inputs. When suppliers don’t have enough workers to actually load those supplies, the farmer suffers. Likewise, off-farm storage for crops is essential. Labor problems at grain elevators and cold and climate-controlled storage facilities can risk damage to the quality – or preservation –of grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, and more.
  • Equipment maintenance and repair. Modern farm equipment is a complex, sophisticated mix of engineering and computer technology. It demands skill to keep it in top operating condition or to repair the inevitable problems in even the most reliable equipment. Service may remain available, but the wait times may be longer for some producers. The lack of job applicants plaguing our economy is in some respects much like the weather. Everyone likes to talk about it, but no one quite seems to know what to do about it. But one thing seems clear: the labor problem is likely to continue for some time.

5 Ways to Celebrate Fall

Whether you’re looking for quick information, or want something to impress your friends at dinner, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

It’s finally Fall! And, we’re looking forward to all the fun things fall has to offer. Here’s a list of some of our favorite ways to ring in the new season!

1. Apple Picking

There’s nothing better than fresh apples in the fall. We eat them for snacks, turn them into pies and pancakes, and more. And, what’s better than eating apples is picking them yourself. Grab your significant other or a group of friends, and be sure to take lots of pictures! Have fun and reap all the benefits an apple offers!

2. Baking

Fall is full of so many great tastes and smells. We love trying new recipes in the fall, but ones with less sugar to avoid a crash later. Not only do they still taste delicious, but these recipes also make the whole house smell warm and inviting. Here’s a recipe for one of our favorites: healthier pumpkin chocolate chip muffins!

3. Going for a scenic walk or hike

We’re supposed to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day, but this makes it easy! Plan a walk or hike with some friends in a scenic area. The sight of autumn leaves will be stunning, and the smells of fall will release all the serotonin you need. Or, make it a solo walk and really take it all in. We love it both ways!

4. Pumpkin fun

You had to know this would be on the list– this is probably our favorite fall activity. There’s truly nothing better than spending the afternoon in a pumpkin patch, picking out the best ones to take home, and then carving them! We think it’s the best way to celebrate the season. And, don’t forget to save those pumpkin seeds for roasting!

5. Coffee dates

There’s something about grabbing a hot pumpkin-flavored coffee with a friend in the fall. It gives us all the best cozy feelings. So simple yet so fun! Just be sure to opt for sugar-free creamers and syrups when possible to avoid too much unnecessary sugar.

White Fat’s Effect on Chronic Illness

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I am currently in my seventh month of pregnancy and have been reading allll things baby! I was reading about baby anatomy and came across a section on the makeup of beneficial brown fat they have at birth.

Brown fat? What in the world is brown fat? I thought all fat was a sort of a whiteish/yellow and something you wanted to have as little of as possible? As I dove deeper into my studies, I found that brown fat not only serves a critical purpose for infants, but plays a role in the long-term health of adults. And there are even certain foods we can eat to increase our brown fat.

Brown Fat vs. White Fat

When you were born, your fat stores were made up of primarily brown or beige fat. This type of fat is packed with mitochondria – the cell’s powerhouse – and helps to burn energy. When babies are newly born, they need this fat for protection from hypothermia. This is why you rarely see a full-term baby shiver — they have plenty of brown fat to keep them warm.

As you move into your adult years, your brown fat sheds. However, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that thinner adults tend to have more brown fat than heavier people. While brown fat may dissipate with age, Harvard Medical School discovered another type of fat, beige fat (so attractive to think of), more abundant in adults and serves a similar purpose as brown fat. It is typically interspersed with white fat tissue but contains the same protein found in brown fat (UCP1), which helps burn calories and generate heat. Beige fat could be critical in weight control and chronic illness prevention.

Why do we care what color our fat is? White fat, or white adipose tissue (WAT), is associated with serious health conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. White fat stores energy and comprises one large lipid droplet or one sizeable single fat droplet.

Brown and beige fat (BAT), however, contain many tiny lipid droplets, as well as a high number of iron-rich mitochondria, which gives it its brownish tint. Brown and beige fat can generate heat by burning fuel from the white fat energy stores. Since too much white fat causes health issues like chronic inflammation and metabolic syndrome, brown fat has the potential to use your white fat for energy and reduce inflammation at the same time.

Once I have this baby, I would certainly love a way to boost my levels of brown fat to burn calories and cut down on some white fat stores that I’ve accumulated during pregnancy. But will the baby be the only one with brown fat among the two of us? Not necessarily. There may be ways we can boost our beige fat, which can help decrease our white fat by altering WHAT and HOW MUCH we eat, exercise, and sleep.

Apples and Turmeric: Your new afternoon snack

Curcumin is a major component found in the spice turmeric. According to studies, curcumin, as well as capsaicin, resveratrol, green tea, menthol, and fish-derived Omega-3 fatty acids, all play a role in what scientists call the activation of BAT, or otherwise known as the browning of WAT.

The University of Iowa found that apples can also play a role in WAT browning.  It was determined that the ursolic acid in their peels (what gives it its shine!) could also boost brown fat.

Hungry? Eat! Or Say ‘Hello’ To More White Fat

Hunger is an interesting thing. Every person from birth (yes, still learning a lot about babies!) has hunger-regulating neurons in their brains that we rely on to tell us when we are hungry and when we are full. But these neurons serve another purpose, as detailed in a Yale School Of Medicine mice study. This study illustrated that these neurons also encourage white fat to turn to brown fat.

Alternatively, and in support of this, another study found that eating too few calories prevented white fat from turning into brown fat as the body sought to store the energy in case it needed it for later, as the calorie intake signified that there might be times when food is not available, and energy stores are necessary. Ultimately both studies concluded that eating just enough to satisfy your hunger is critical in promoting the action of these neurons to turn your white fat to brown fat and avoid accumulations of new white fat stores.

Exercise, exercise, exercise!

This may seem like an obvious recommendation, but there is more to the story than just burning calories. One animal research study published in Disease Models and Mechanisms suggests that working out triggers the release of an enzyme called irisin. This compound works similarly to the above-listed compounds by prompting white fat cells to convert to brown fat when released.

Even more recent research from the American Diabetes Association discovered that the irisin released when exercising can prompt the browning of fat in men specifically, with the browning power continuing to increase over the course of 12 weeks.

Get your fat-burning beauty sleep on!

Melatonin is a fascinating hormone. It is responsible for regulating your sleep-wake cycles (another chapter in my baby book!), but it can also help increase the presence of brown and beige fat. As found in the Journal of Pineal Research, stimulating your natural melatonin by maintaining healthy sleep patterns can aid brown fat in its calorie-burning capabilities.

So be sure to get eight hours of sleep per night, avoid screen time before bed, and seek melatonin-rich foods like cherries, almonds, and tomatoes.

Chill Out! No, really…turn the temp down

While it is still a balmy summer now, there may be an opportunity for you to burn some fat when the temperature drops! What do I mean? One study out of the Journal of Clinical Investigation studied twelve men with what they considered to be lower than average amounts of brown fat.

The subjects were asked to sit in a 63-degree room for two hours per day throughout the six-week period. These men burned an extra 108 calories in the cold than they did in average temperatures, and after the six weeks were up, they were burning an extra nearly 300 calories per day in the cold. Researchers concluded that exposure to these lower temperatures increased the activity of a gene that converts white fat to brown fat.

Cold showers and ice baths, made popular by the Dutch athlete, Wim Hof, are believed to help build your body’s store of brown fat and boost immunity. His research has been substantiated by several studies, found here.

New Frontier: Gene Editing

Research has recently found that gene editing can transform the fat we store in our bodies from white to brown. Genes have been identified that can order our fat cells to burn energy rather than store it. We can edit these genes in the future to treat obesity.

The science behind this is pretty cool! Or at least I think so—learning all about how my body and my baby’s body functions has been a very cool research mission. As we know, our body digests protein, fat, and carbohydrates and turns them into amino acids, fatty acids, or glucose. We tend to convert fat into fatty acids, which are either used immediately or directed to be stored. The “storage” process, or accumulation of white fat, occurs when you eat too many calories or too few and make your body think it may starve.

Dr. Yu-Hua Tseng, out of Harvard Medical School, took fat cells from the neck and, using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, inserted a molecular “switch” into the DNA of these white fat cells. The switch turned on a gene called UCP1. In brown fat, this gene functions in the mitochondria to churn out heat and burn energy. When this switch was inserted, it boosted 20 times the amount of protein that the UCP1 gene made. This newly switched-on fat cell (or what they called HUMBLE) was then inserted into mice. At the end of the study, HUMBLE cells communicated with existing brown fat to release chemical signals telling the mice’s tissues to take up more blood sugar and burn more energy.

This is promising for future disease-fighting research in that it may be a treatment for obesity and people with diabetes, given its blood sugar uptake capabilities. Tseng said she could imagine doctors removing patients’ fat cells, editing their DNA, and returning the cells back to the person. She says it’s “almost like waking up your fat cells to boost your glucose metabolism.” For now, however, more research is needed, and side effects need to be studied.

21st Century Fermentation: Disrupting More Than Our Food

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I just got out of the lake this morning after a long swim. It was lovely…blue skies, a bit of early morning breeze, and a loon calling nearby. Afterward, I am always starving, so I dutifully made my post-workout smoothie. As I blended my easy and quick protein powder mixed with milk, hemp hearts, yogurt, avocado, and fruit, I started to think of the new technology on the block – Synthetic Biology.

Moving beyond the lab…

What if my milk and yogurt didn’t come from a cow, an almond, or an oat, but really from fermented yeast? What if the steak I planned to cook for dinner was made from mushroom roots? The same food we know and love, but just made a different way. But make no mistake about the term ‘synthetic’.

The word ‘synthetic’ can make people fear companies are making ‘fake’ food…but that is not what is happening at all. It is really taking food proteins and putting them through the fermentation process. Similar to Kombucha, or the beer we drink on the weekend, fermentation technology has been around for thousands of years. Today, we have just adapted fermentation to the 21st century. Though there are about four different methods of synthetic biology, for the purposes of food, we are mainly talking about the fermentation process.

So how can these innovations be used in food and agriculture to feed the growing population sustainably and nutritionally? Synthetic biology seems to have some of the answers. So much so, that by 2030, it is predicted that most people will have eaten, worn, or used something created by synthetic biology. McKinsey predicts that the annual direct economic potential ranges between $2-4 billion, with around $1 billion of that attributed to material changes in agriculture, aquaculture, and food. Markets and Markets has an even higher prediction; that by 2026, the market will reach $31 billion.

The SynBioBeta report ranks the food and food ingredients industry as the second-highest in the number of investments, behind therapeutics and before life sciences, agriculture, and energy.

Solutions in agriculture range from fully utilizing the soil microbiome to aid in sustainable and increased agricultural production.

And solutions in food are replacing traditional meat, poultry, and seafood with meat created in a lab either by growing cells in a petri dish or fermenting bacteria or yeast.

Some of the companies that create these unique products state they are more sustainable for the environment and can address animal welfare issues.

…and into your fridge

If any of you have eaten the Impossible Burger, then you have experienced food made with synthetic biology. Remember when you took a bite and it was red and juicy, just like a hamburger? This was accomplished by isolating the leghemoglobin protein in the soybean plant that carries oxygen to the root nodules via the protein heme.

In animals, hemoglobin is essential and carries oxygen from the lungs to the cells. That is the part of the hamburger from a cow that ‘bleeds’. Scientists at Impossible Foods make the heme with the leghemoglobin and fermenting it with genetically engineered yeast.

Let’s say you want to make ice cream or cream cheese, but not use milk from a cow. A company called Perfect Day teamed up with agricultural company ADM to create milk proteins without the milk.

Perfect Day orders the necessary milk proteins, whey, and casein from a company with a genetic database that can send you actual genes in the mail. Scientists at Perfect Day combine these proteins in a fermentation tank with a specific synthetically-engineered microflora that ‘supercharges’ the proteins. Then the substance we think of ‘milk’ is created. They even have a non-fat ‘fat’ called Epogee to make the ice cream taste delicious without the calories.

Who would have thought fermenting fungi could create an edible protein? The company Enough also uses fermentation technology to create a meat-like substance, called ABUNDA, by fermenting fungi with sugar feedstocks from grains. This fermented meat substitute has fiber, all nine essential amino acids, vitamin B12, zinc, and iron.

Partnering with Unilever, Enough’s website states that producing one million tonnes of ABUNDA will replace five million cows, over 1.2 billion chickens and reduce more than five million tonnes of CO2.

Broadening synthetic applications

Of course, cows produce much more than just meat that we eat. At least 47% of the cow is used for leather, garden fertilizer, jet engine lubricants, tallow…the list is endless. Much of these synthetic materials replace the traditional cow hide, alligator skin, or spider silk. In one case, even jet engine lubricants.

The leather coat you wear, or the belt, even the shoes, all come from an animal – most likely cattle. Modern Meadow, however, is replacing animal-based leather with biofabrication using bio-engineered proteins and fermentation. They grow their protein cells with a yeast culture into collagen which, in turn, goes into making various materials (check out their very interesting process here).

A backpack out of mushrooms? Ecovative Design grows material using the familiar button mushrooms. By fermenting the mycelium – the root structure of the mushroom – they can turn proteins such as cellulose, lignin, collagen, or non-spider silk into strong, soft silk, leather, or even whole-cut meats.

The interesting phrase here is ‘whole-cut meats’. Normally, cell-based meats (those made in a lab) or plant-based meats lack the ‘scaffolding’ to hold it all together. That is why most of the alternative meats are made into a ‘hamburger’. But these fermented mushrooms from Evocative Design can grow into a structure that can help create a steak or a specific cut of meat.

Working in conjunction with Bolt Threads, the British fashion designer Stella McCarthy created a ‘leather’ purse out of the mycelium. Bolt Threads has created manmade spider silk ‘stronger than steel and softer than a cloud.’

Synthetic biology can now supercharge your vegetables, too. For instance, we all know that broccoli is good for us. Today, that saying has never had more meaning. Scientists in Singapore used synthetic biology to restructure a common and benign form of E. coli, Nissle, that is found in our gut. They engineered the bacteria into a probiotic that attaches to the cell of a cancerous tumor in the colon. These bacteria then secreted an enzyme – found in broccoli – into the cell. This concoction became an anti-cancer agent killing up to 75% of tumors in mice. In the future, this could be used as colon cancer prevention or a way to ‘mop up’ cancer cells after surgery, something just plain old broccoli can’t do.

Unfolding and reconstructing DNA

We have come a long way from Gregor Mendel when he began experimenting with crossbreeding pea plants in 1865.

DNA is the blueprint for every single organism. Synthetic biology can rearrange DNA to make whatever material or organism we want. This may sound confusing but let’s start with the basics.

We are familiar with computer coding using a combination of 0s and 1s. It always amazes me what you can do with just two numbers. Well, take four chemical building blocks identified primarily as their letters: A, C, T, G.

These chemical building blocks, called DNA, come together to form genes that instruct our cells to function how we want.

Our genes give us the color of our eyes, our height, and all the genetic codes that make us human. Remember Legos? You could build whatever was in your imagination: an airplane, a motorcycle, a spaceship, the list was endless. Think of the four letters in DNA as four different colored and shaped Lego pieces. Synthetic biology allows us to recreate the DNA in our food and other materials, essentially making our own Lego designs with whichever instructions we choose.

Mail-order genes?

What makes this easy – relatively – are companies that specialize in synthesizing and selling genes. They have what is called a genetic library. We used to go to a library to check out books. Now we look online to find the gene we want and get it delivered to our lab or office.  Twist Biosciences “gives you the flexibility to get the DNA you want, the way you want it. Think bigger, expand your design scope, and accelerate discovery”.

Illumina is sequencing the genes of all living organisms.

If someone is designing and building new products, Illumina provides the infrastructure to figure out the genetic pattern of the A, T, C, & Gs. Like the Legos, you need to make a structure so Illumina will tell you which genes you need.


A company like Ginko Bioworks will restructure the ‘Legos’, or genes, into what you want. But you can’t make the Lego airplane without knowing which pieces you need.

A company doesn’t need to have the technical skills to be a gene sequencer or a protein builder to make milk or meat – they only need certain starter feedstocks, usually sugars that come from grains. Then it goes through the fermentation process to make the desired proteins. For instance, if a company is an expert in fermentation, then they can order the genes they need from a company like Ginkgo Bioworks to make any kind of meat, milk, fabric, or building material.

The world needs protein!

Synthetic biology can synthesize parts of DNA to make plants more resilient to disease, have greater nutrition, and be resistant to climate change.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most well-funded companies in the synthetic biology space are all focused on feeding people. A high-protein diet is more than a new eating craze — it’s essential to our health. Protein is essential not just after we run, jump, swim, or left weights.  It is the basic building block of life that “keeps the lights on” in our bodies.

Our growing world needs to fuel itself with protein. As COVID-19 continues to rage, it’s more important than ever that humans produce and consume enough protein to boost their immune system, heal from illness and injury, and move and store nutrients throughout the blood.

That is probably why the amount of protein consumed by the world is such a staggering number. The world eats about 467 million metric tons of protein a year. If you put all that meat in rail cars, how long is that train? It would go around the Earth’s equator almost two times.

And by 2035, those 532 million metric tonnes of protein will go around over two times, which is essentially adding a train of railcars going from coast to coast 2.5 times across the United States. The world needs to grow a lot of protein!

Precision fermentation won’t replace all protein, but it will certainly help fill up the rail cars. While we just focused on protein, the market has significantly more potential via the broader technology of synthetic biology.

There is a race between Europe, China, and the U.S. to have the most competitive technology and capture the most of the potential $31 billion in global revenue. That competition will spur excellence, innovation, and an expediated timeline.

This means sooner, rather than later, we may soon have our broccoli spears fighting cancer and grown in a lab down the road.

5 Healthy Fats

Whether you’re looking for a quick bite of information or want to drop some knowledge on your dinnertime companions, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

Not too long ago, consumers sought out low-fat and fat-free products in the grocery store, thinking it was a healthier alternative. However, we now know our body needs fats, especially unsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids to remain healthy. So, here are five healthy fats to add to your diet!

1. Nuts

Nuts are loaded with fats. Almonds, especially, are a great source of healthy omega 3s. Eating a handful of nuts each day is a great way to get in some good fats. Just be mindful of how much you eat because nuts do contain a lot of calories. For example, almonds have about 250 calories per ½ cup serving.

2. Olive oil

Olive oil, like nuts, is a monounsaturated fat that solidifies when cold. These fats also reduce our body’s LDL, or bad cholesterol, levels. Again, just be mindful of how much you use because one tablespoon of olive oil is over 100 calories. A little goes a long way here.

3. Flax

Flax, or more commonly known as flax seeds, is another healthy fat and a critical part of any balanced diet. Flax seeds are full of nutrients too, like fiber, protein, magnesium, and iron. It’s a lower-calorie fatty food with around 37 calories per tablespoon.

4. Fish

Fish, especially salmon, is another great source of healthy fats. It’s considered a polyunsaturated fat. Fish contain both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but lean fish like salmon have more omega 3s. Polyunsaturated fats, like monounsaturated, also help reduce our body’s LDL level and increase the HDL level.

5. Avocado

This one comes as no surprise. Avocados are extremely important in any healthy diet, partially because of their high healthy-fat content. Avocados also contain 20 different vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin B6, iron, and magnesium. It is also a great source of fiber. However, one avocado has over 300 calories, so keep that in mind when consuming.

The Gabels: From Wall Street to little Grassy Creek

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Farming is more than a business to people like Sandy and Laura Gabel. Sure, the money side of the farm is important. Very important. It takes money to run a 1,000-acre cow-calf operation anywhere, and it’s no different here in central North Carolina.

The cost of farming operations

Currently, little Grassy Creek has about 100 cows and 95 calves split among two herds. Separately, they have 17 replacement heifers (future moms, 3 bulls, and 2 or 3 feeders (cows on feed for harvesting). They all need shade from the summer sun and shelter from the winter winds, and of course careful monitoring for proper nutrition needs and overall health. Then there’s the cost of managing the artificial insemination program that produces healthy animals, as well as animals of the right type for this environment and with the ideal developmental traits.

Vet bills have to be considered, as is the cost of genetic specialists for upgrading the herd over the long term. Probiotic regimens that aid digestion and nutrient absorption also must be thought through. There’s always a need for some new machinery, or an addition to the storage barns, or improvements to the water storage and distribution system. But thinking and planning are just the first part of the job of raising cattle.

Some piece of equipment always seems to need maintenance or repair. The temporary fences that define different grazing areas have to be moved every day, and posts replaced when an ambitious cow decides to expand her horizons.

Fixed fences that define the farm boundaries need mending, and some surrounding scrubland will make good pasture when it’s cleared. Existing grasses and ground covers need to be managed constantly to preserve productivity.

Here, no-till and other soil-protecting practices are the long-held norms, not some new idea or government dictate.

The herds have to be patiently shepherded from one grazing area to the next, and the temporary wire fences (none barbed, ever) relocated. And there always seems to be a few calves that need that little something extra to thrive – special food, special medication, or just plain old special personal attention.

Then there are the other animals that seem to have accumulated since it all started here in the early 2000s. Seven horses, including a couple of rescues. Alpacas Max and Ziggy – another rescue story.

Chickens and guineas, and of course the German shepherd pup Shadow and big sister golden retriever Lynka curled up quietly in front of the iron stove in the corner.

From 5:30 a.m. till well after everyone else has gone to bed, there’s something that needs to be done. Something else that needs to be considered. Some new idea to think about, or some potential problem to head off.

Longing for longer days

“You never get everything done,” Sandy says in passing, with Laura nodding energetically in agreement.

Why would anyone give up a successful three-decade career in the high-flying world of the New York insurance industry for a life like this? What makes the bucolic world of cattle-raising in the rural mid-South more appealing than a life on Wall Street? In Laura’s case, why pass up the prominent career in education she enjoyed? Why trade all that for this?

“No, it’s a lot more than money,” says Sandy, in what soon proves to be his usual measured, quiet and reflective voice. “It’s more about finding something that gives real satisfaction.” He continues,

“Maybe satisfaction isn’t exactly the right word. This is passion.

As sincere as his answer obviously is, it seems a little hard to accept – at first. But spend a day with Sandy and Laura, and you quickly recognize they probably have nailed it exactly right. It’s not just a chance to make a living. It’s a chance to actually live.

Sandy and I ride one of his well-worn ATVs for a quick tour of the farm, and an introduction to the cows and calves that wander slowly and quietly around us, like a rising tide of brownish-red Herefords. “We should have 110 moms, come September,” he observes as we ride among this particular herd. He sounds surprisingly like a proud parent.

“I’m really a grass farmer,” Sandy jokes as we ride. “I spend so much time thinking about what grass to plant, how to get it to grow, how to make sure it will stay productive. Grass is everything for an operation like this.”

We all seem to be so very – content. The sky is bright Carolina blue, the lush grass Sandy manages so carefully is so green that Ireland would be envious. The air is rich with the smell of nature. “You see the beauty of this every day, everywhere,” Sandy says in passing, almost under his breath. “In the animals. In the land. In everything.” On this day at least, God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.

“How can anyone not be moved by this – at least a little?” Sandy just smiles, the corner of his mouth turned up ever so slightly at the visitor’s revelation of what he discovered long ago. “The word you’re looking for is serenity,” he says. And he is absolutely right.

Creating new roots

The die for this special kind of life probably was cast very early in life. Sandy’s father was another successful businessman who grew up on a farm outside New York – not a play farm but a real working farm, with cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and more.

Even as Sandy’s father toiled at his career in the Big Apple, he also enjoyed the farm life on his own special North Carolina retreat, not all that far from where we sit today. Farming is in this family’s genes.

Graduating from nearby Duke University also probably played a role in Sandy’s decision-making. The growing Raleigh metropolitan area long ago swallowed up the old family farm that gave the family so much satisfaction. But proceeds from its sale provided the seeds for little Grassy Creek Farm between the state capital and the Virginia border. Initially, the land needed a lot of patient work to restore its productivity, “and to clear out a hundred years of accumulated garbage,” Sandy remembers.

The farm has grown steadily over the years, in size and sophistication, and so has the satisfaction that it provides. So what’s the secret, the magic formula for making the demanding world of cattle raising so satisfying?

“Our goal isn’t to maximize profits,” Sandy says over a cup of hot tea after our farm tour. “We probably could make more money selling specialized beef products to some of the local markets. I might even make more money planting some pastureland to specialty hays for the horse-feed market. But that’s not our big objective.”

The obvious follow-up question: what is?

“To leave something for the future…a sustainable farm for the future… something important… something worthwhile.” Sandy and Laura say the same things, almost in unison.

We’re trying to build up an operation for our kids and future generations, they explain. We want to leave behind a farm that is built around doing the right thing in every aspect of our operation. In how we treat the cows. How we protect the land and the water. In finding better ways to produce beef, and do it in a way that works best for all of us, from the animal to the farmer to the consumer. In making farming an appealing way of doing something important in the world and finding joy in doing it.

“People today simply don’t understand our agricultural system,” Sandy says. “They take it for granted. They need to see how modern farming is important to all of us, and the whole world around us. To our common future.”

Laura agrees completely. “I think it’s fun to have people come out to the farm and just walk around and look at what goes on here,” she says.

“Giving folks a chance to ask questions gives children – and adults, too, for that matter – is the best way I can think of to teach them about what we do.”

On-site visits may be the best way to educate people, but it’s far from the only way.

“I’ve started posting a few short videos on our farm Facebook page that show some of the tasks that go on around here,” she adds. “There’s one with Sandy baling round bales, and there’s one with Sandy feeding the replacement heifers.

You can hear him telling them ‘good morning’ which is something he always does – and that’s one reason why our herd is so settled and docile. Sandy’s out there every day among them, and it makes a difference.”

When Sandy and Laura say things like that, it doesn’t sound idealistic, and certainly not corny. These are people who don’t just say things like “do the right thing” and “leave something lasting for everyone.” They mean it. They live it.

And after a too-short day with them, I see that they are right. And I know I should want to, too.

Serving Up Sustainability at Fast Food Restaurants

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According to the CDC, 36% of Americans eat fast food daily. That’s almost 90 million people going to a fast-food restaurant every single day. And most have three items: chicken/hamburger/salad, a drink, and fries.

That’s well over 286 million individual wrappings, cups, straws, and clamshells thrown away day after day.

The 325,000 total fast-food locations across the U.S. present a massive opportunity to curb waste and boost sustainability efforts based on the sheer scale of fast-food chains. And the opportunity extends far deeper when you consider the effects these companies have on their supply chains to practice these efforts.

Whether it is Starbucks testing out an entirely plant-based menu, McDonald’s trialing a plastic-free concept store, Subway changing the companies they source their ingredients from, KFC pledging that all consumer-facing plastic packaging will be recoverable by 2025, or Taco Bell committing to make all of its packaging compostable and recyclable, each of these businesses is leading the way in their industry’s sustainability efforts.

These initiatives are honorable and necessary to combat our growing environmental crisis, but we are left with some questions:

  • Will the consumer be willing to pay more for sustainability?
  • What practices actually work to reduce their carbon footprint and decrease waste and pollution?
  • Furthermore, which third-party companies regulate these “green” claims?  Or are they internally regulated? If so, do we trust that internal oversight?

But first…will we pay more for less waste? 

It is a mixed bag. A Nielsen study from October 2015 showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to shell out more money for sustainable goods. Of those global consumers, millennials rank the highest in support of sustainability and willingness to pay with an overwhelming 73% on board.

A 2018 analysis from Statista supports this claim, detailing which age groups are willing to pay more, and even went so far as to break out how much more they are willing to pay.

A recent survey by GreenPrint found that nearly 64% of consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, but almost 75% of them struggle with how to identify these products.

How do they know what they are getting is more sustainable? A challenge many fast-food companies are looking to solve.

But do these polls convert to actual shopping behaviors? The brand giant, Unilever, found that while about 4 out of 5 people say they are inclined to buy from environmentally-friendly companies, consumers don’t actually follow through with their wallets.

Other studies show a consistent gap between purchase intentions and behaviors. Despite polling about environmental concerns and reported positive attitudes of consumers towards green products, it is estimated still that only about 25% of those attitudes translate into spending. Consumer cognitive dissonance will always be a challenge with data gathering and polling biases.

The question is who bears the cost of innovation in sustainable packaging until enough volume is achieved to be competitive with existing packaging? Is it the producer? The fast-food restaurants? The consumer? What is the inelastic price point where the consumer just won’t pay more for sustainable food? Would consumers pay 10 cents more per burger at McDonald’s to help share the cost of sustainability? For instance, McDonald’s sells 2.36 billion burgers every year. That would bring an additional $236 million in “sustainability” sales.

What methods of “green” packaging really make a difference in the fast-food world?

The Dogwood Alliance recently detailed a best-practices roadmap for “greening” fast-food packaging. It said that environmental stakeholders must make sustainability a corporate priority and this starts from the ground up. Foundational steps include embracing corporate leadership on sustainability, using a full life-cycle supply-chain approach, reducing overall packaging, and increasing efficiency.

As you drill down past the foundational level, the next tier requires that fast-food companies increase their usage of recycled and/or biodegradable fibers, work to eliminate paper originating from controversial forestry practices, increase in-store recycling and recovery, eliminate toxic inks and labels, and change the composition, weight, and size of its packaging.

Fast-food companies have taken note and have mirrored sustainability efforts after these key principles, rather than arbitrarily creating a set of their own green goals.

But here I am, an educated consumer left with one overwhelming question in my head…

How in the world am I going to figure out if the fast-food companies I choose to enjoy actually follow these standards?

Fear not: there’s a website that will do most of the heavy lifting for you.

Green Restaurant Association tracks businesses and measures food companies based on their environmental footprint, ethical workplace practices, animal welfare commitments, product safety, and marketing strategies to children.

Who is regulating these green initiatives?

Many small brands turn to organizations like Climate Neutral, Foundation Myclimate, and Global Ecolabelling Network for their stamp of approval.

However, not all companies operate or seek to be wholly verified by a third party, especially the big guys. McDonald’s and PepsiCo, for example (the latter owns KFC and Taco Bell), have crafted internal policies to address green initiatives and environmental efforts.

These companies have made similar statements, claiming to work towards the conservation of natural resources, recycling, pollution control, and the pursuit of alternative oils that can be repurposed. While these green plans appear robust and thoughtful, is internal governance enough for consumers to trust that these initiatives really are being put in place?

Good governance is critical to managing our impact on the world. Our governance structures help us to prioritize ESG issues effectively and guide our actions and performance across issues. Engagement with our Board of Directors, cross-functional leadership teams and working groups, and Franchisees and suppliers ensures we have robust governance mechanisms in place to manage these issues and can deliver long-term value for stakeholders.

— excerpt from McDonald’s Purpose and Impact statement

While internal governance is critical, it is not the only means of approvals and certifications that big chains use to provide consumer trust and verification. They may not work with regulatory bodies that can put a stamp on an entire organization. But most of them do, in fact, work with a rigorous group of organizations at an ingredient level to ensure they are meeting and/or exceeding the requirements for their sustainability goals.

What about sustainable food ingredients? 

The influence fast-food restaurants have on overall sustainability is tremendous. Holding their suppliers accountable has far-reaching benefits as many of their producers also sell to grocery store chains. Fast food companies are now answering questions. Where does the meat come from? Is it grown humanely? Is chocolate or coffee grown with fair labor practices? How do we know?

We spoke with Christy Johnson, former Vice President at Papa John’s International Inc., who shared some insights as to how they make “better ingredients, better pizza.” Johnson explained that while there is no overarching regulatory body, they partner with organizations such as the Whole Wheat Council to ensure that their crust is 90% whole grain, and with the Clean Label Project for their toppings so they comply with their regulations. Papa John’s even went so far as to remove 14 ingredients back in 2016 that were not up to the standards of these partners.

While this might mean Papa John’s spends more than $100 million each year to ensure that they are implementing and maintaining these clean label changes, it also offers an avenue of trust for the consumer.

“Papa John’s attempts to always be fully transparent—sharing data and information with the consumer about how and where ingredients are sourced, as well as the mechanisms for ensuring the best quality is imperative for consumer trust.”

– Christy Johnson, Former Vice President at Papa John’s

How to present meaningful data that’s impactful for the consumer

Nicolas Brosens, Strategic Sourcing Officer at McDonald’s, turned the idea of internal regulation on its head, explaining that it is less about the consumer-facing regulatory stamps and data than it is about true transparency and traceability initiatives. McDonald’s is currently working to create a network on their website where consumers can eventually type in an ingredient or menu item and see where it came from, how it is treated, what the environmental impact is, and so on, as verified by their farming partners, processors, etc.

McDonald’s has long been a leader in the sustainability space, and it continues to be at the forefront of sourcing, packaging, and general renewables. As it turns out, McDonald’s, and most large fast-food companies, have a slew of data points on various sustainable measures, sourcing information, green analytics, and more. It is not a matter of having the data; it is a matter of figuring out how to present that data in a meaningful and impactful way to the consumer.

As in the case of Papa John’s, many certifications are held at an ingredient level. McDonald’s shares a similar model, with ethical sourcing as a critical part of their overall sustainability strategy. They have partnered with organizations like RSPCA, FARM, Forest Stewardship Council, PEFCTM, Conservation International, RSPO, ProTerra, RTRS, GRSB, AIM-Progress, and others to help them regulate and monitor the traceability of all ingredients, including ingredients in their livestock feed products.

Coffee is another industry where certification comes into play with regulation. Brosens stated that all coffee and coffee beans in the EU are certified by the Rainforest Alliance, while other regional McDonald’s work with the Fair Trade Organization — deforestation being a massive component of their green strategy.

While the efforts being made by many fast-food chains are progressive and impactful, this does not mean that all fast-food chains are as committed to going green. It is also important to note that many of these companies are in the inception stage and have set goals of five, ten, fifteen years from now till the next impact measure.

Here is a list of a few companies and their environmental strategies and/or sustainability reports so you can make an informed decision on where your next drive-thru order will come from!

                        McDonald’s  |  Papa Johns  |  Taco Bell  |  Panera                                                                           Starbucks  |  KFC  |  Chick-fil-A