Digging in: Dancing Vineyard’s Cynthia & Lauren Russell

Going back to her California roots, Cynthia and her family decided that a vineyard in Healdsburg is just the place for family and friend vacations.

What has started out as a novelty is now becoming a full-scale business.

Naming it Dancing Vineyard, Cynthia and Lauren’s mission is to take the mystery and intimidation out of enjoying wine by creating a product to be enjoyed on all occasions. With their unique crop and acreage, and their focus on the integrity of the vines and soil, we can’t wait to enjoy their wine “for the fun of it”!

Cynthia and Lauren detail the history of zinfandel grapes, their primary varietal, which have a sweet fruity flavor with a touch of spice. These grapes mix well with other varietals to make the desired wine that is enjoyable to drink, and not daunting to purchase. A historic grape, zinfandel was brought to the U.S. from Croatia in the early 1800s. These grapes mix well with other varietals to make the desired wine.

Cynthia graduated from Claremont McKenna College, has her MBA from Harvard, and a Doctorate from the Department of Organization and Leadership at Columbia University. Lauren graduated from Dartmouth and has her MBA from Columbia University. Both Lauren and Cynthia have extensive marketing, consulting, and business management experience.

Digging in with FFA’s Emily Hoyt

When Emily was a sophomore in high school, her local FFA Chapter in Missouri encouraged Emily to take part in its Ag in the Classroom program. She was soon challenged to grow the existing program and even applied for Ag Ed on the Move, a program that helps teach third-grade classrooms about agriculture commodities.

Currently, Emily interns with the local school district, serving as a teaching assistant for seventh and eighth-grade students exploring agriculture. Listen how Emily’s entrepreneurial spirit engages children…and perhaps a few of us, too.

Can sugar be healthy? Yes!

Bonumose creates delicious, rare sugars that are affordable and healthy. Bonumose has a mindset of “business as a moral imperative” to make a lasting positive effect on the world.

How Sweet it Is!

Tagatose is a rare sugar that not only tastes sweet but has multiple health benefits, such as fiber and prebiotics. It doesn’t affect one’s glycemic index and has fewer calories than regular cane sugar. Because it has the same characteristics as sugar, it can be used in baked goods, sports drinks, candy, ice cream, protein bars, the list goes on to include anything that uses regular sugar.

Join us as we talk to Ed who has 30 years of entrepreneurial business experience as a founder, investor, adviser, and lawyer. Before co-founding Bonumose, he practiced law for 11 years, co-founded an animal food technology company, and designed and implemented a grant-funded venture investment endowment for a foundation in rural Virginia. He has a Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctor degrees from the University of Virginia.

At the recent Tagatose production kickoff event, the Bonumose team invited Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to help scoop the first ceremonial spoonful of tagatose. It was wonderful to see the standing room-only crowd, including investors iSelect Fund, ASR Group, The Hershey Company, Applied Food Sciences, Ed Williams, and our friends from Japan. Read the full press release here.

Avian Flu: Should We Worry?

Poultry’s high viral transmissibility

The world loves poultry. The total number of chickens around the world is over 34 billion; 9 billion are in the United States alone. Americans eat about 118 pounds of chicken and turkey per year. And, they are easy to grow. Their feed conversion rate is low: two pounds of chicken feed contribute to one pound of growth. This is compared to beef which has an eight-to-one ratio and fish which is one-to-one.

Chickens typically live in very close proximity to each other, making infectious diseases like Avian Influenza challenging to contain. The term ‘fowl plague’ virus was first detected in 1878 in Italy. Since then, it has morphed into two categories: high and low pathogenic. This latest outbreak seems to be high. The current virus, H5N1, originated in China and then spread through Europe and the rest of Asia.

The most recent H5N1 bird flu outbreak has killed over 140 million domestic birds around the world.  In the United States alone, at least 58 million birds have either died or been culled because of Avian Influenza since January 2022.  While it is hard to tell exactly how many wild birds have Avian Influenza, the CDC estimates it is around 6,000 and is in 47 states.

Here are the U.S. counties that have reported an outbreak, to date:

Since the outbreak in 2014-2015 poultry farms have been diligent about keeping their operations sanitary and not spreading germs between facilities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has biosecurity measures called ‘defend the flock’ and these precautions are taken seriously. An outbreak at a farm seems to be caused by wild birds that somehow infect the domestic birds.

Free-range birds are the most at risk because they can catch it from wild birds since their living arrangements are the least controlled.

And the birds that it affects are mostly egg-laying chickens versus broilers – those that we eat.  Turkeys are also affected.

Can wild birds pass it to mammals?

The World Health Organization reported to the BBC that the most recent outbreak is spilling over into mammals. It has been found in animals that eat birds such as foxes, mink, and seals. But surprisingly, dolphins, too – which generally don’t eat wild birds.

Sea lions in Peru were particularly hard hit. It is difficult to tell whether they transmitted it among themselves or they were all eating infected birds. Researcher Victor Gamarra-Toledo and his team at Peru’s Natural History Museum of the National University of San Agustín de Arequipa reported that 3,000 sea lions died. They are in the process of genetic testing to investigate the virus sequencing.

Along the coast of Maine it was reported that there have been 337 seals that are either sick or dead with H5N1 since June 2022. This has been deemed an ‘unusual mortality event along the Maine coast’ by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Minks at a farm in Spain were decimated this past October from an H5N1 outbreak. All 51,00 minks either died from the disease or were culled. The minks were kept in netting cages where they had a roof but the sides were open. There were sick birds found along the coast nearby.

There was also a mink farm outbreak in the Netherlands. So far none of the workers at either farm have caught the H5N1 virus and they are all wearing masks and protective clothing to mitigate their chances.

Does this spread to humans?

JAMA Network states that only a handful of human infections have been reported, all among people who have had direct contact with poultry.

An 11-year-old girl in Cambodia died from H5N1. Her family had 22 chickens and ducks so she easily could have got it by close proximity to their feces. It can be inadvertently transmitted by inhalation. While her father has the same strain of flu, it is hard to know whether he got it from the birds – or from his daughter.

In April 2022, a man in Colorado was culling an infected herd and caught it. He recovered fairly quickly as he was given Tamiflu. According to WHO, in the past nine years, from June 2003 to February 2023 there have been 870 cases of humans getting H5N1 – however, they have all had close proximity to poultry and did not catch it from another human.

The CDC website says this regarding human-to-human transmission:

H5N1 viruses currently circulating in wild birds and causing poultry outbreaks are well-adapted to spread among birds. However, these H5N1 bird flu viruses do not have the ability to easily bind to receptors in the upper respiratory tract of humans, or to transmit among people.

Can we safely eat poultry and eggs?

It is safe to eat poultry and eggs and like any animal products, it is important to cook thoroughly.

  • Properly cooked poultry and eggs (at 165 internal temp or higher) are safe to eat- and there is no evidence that it can be spread to humans through properly prepared foods
  • It is unlikely that infected eggs or chickens can enter the food chain given that the symptoms of this flu have a rapid onset
  • USDA has safeguards in place including testing flocks and Federal inspection programs like HPAI-risk based classification system to determine the order in which egg farms are inspected, works with the State Animal Health Officials on farm checks and testing

Soil Science with FFA’s Elszy

soil science

Brennan, an FFA member of the Hanford Chapter in California, loves soil science. His particular interest is examining the effect of fumigating soil to manage plant parasites called nematodes. His research involves examining orchard soils that were previously planted with an orchard to determine the soil’s current health.

Brennan’s previous research focused on examining the health of pruned trees in various fumigated soils to determine if ‘replant syndrome’ was caused by nematode populations. Replant syndrome is when tree fruit yields decrease as trees are repeatedly planted in the same nursery.

Let’s listen in as Brennan explains the practical applications of his work in soil science and what he has in store next for the ag community.

Want to read more inspiring stories from our Future Farmers of America? Click here.

Russian Wheat & Global Food Security

The Russian wheat situation is somewhat different from Ukraine’s, which you may have read about in last week’s post. Despite the conflict, Russian wheat production and exports have shown remarkable signs of rebounding from the trade disruptions that accompanied the Ukraine invasion. Russia is still the number one wheat exporter in the world…and by a large margin. (Want to learn more about wheat? Click here to read an informative post.)

Russia & Wheat: We’re Number One

Various media reports place this year’s Russian wheat crop at 92 million metric tons, compared to a five-year average of around 78 million metric tons. This is despite lingering problems with drought in some production areas and spot shortages of high-priced inputs. (Global fertilizer supplies and prices remain a major concern.) The Russian trade ministry recently raised projected wheat exports for 2022-23 to 41.5 million metric tons.  Russia remains the number-one wheat exporter to the world, selling more than $7.3 billion in 2021.

russian wheat import export

Other trade sources report similar numbers and point out that Russia exported 24.9 million tonnes of wheat, 3.2 million more than a year ago. Exports more than doubled to 3.8 million tons last month from January 2022, before the invasion. Russian wheat shipments were at or near record highs in November, December and January, increasing 24 percent over the same three months a year earlier, according to British-American financial market data firm Refinitiv.

russian wheat yieldsRussia’s investment in agricultural-related infrastructure and application of improved production techniques have helped drive the significant yield improvements essential to this growth.

Estimated crop yields of 3.2 tons per hectare in 2022-23, when compared to 1.8 tons per hectare as recently as 2012-13, powerfully reflect the commitment to continuing growth of both Russian wheat production and export capacity that have been underway and established for decades.

Russia has become the world’s leading wheat exporter not by accident…but by design.

The first year of the 21st century, Russia exported a modest 696,000 tons of wheat. In the late 1970s, they were struggling to import wheat. Ten years later, having made tremendous inroads into Asian, Middle East and African markets, Russia increased that total to 18.5 million tons.

By 2018, Russia more than doubled that total when it exported a jaw-dropping 41.4 million tons of wheat, which still stands as a record. Since then, the country has exported around 35 million tons per year.

World Grain, Dec. 27, 2021

Apart from the need to feed a population of 148 million, at least some of the drive to maintain and grow wheat exports today can be traced to Russia’s need for foreign exchange to help cover the costs of a potentially prolonged conflict. With energy demand from major customers in Europe reduced by a mild winter and astute European supply-management steps, reduced energy income must be offset somehow. Wheat exports offer an important alternative source.

Russian wheat & food security

But from the Russian perspective, optimism clearly may not be the operative word.  Maintaining exports of the agricultural commodities the world needs must remain a top priority for Putin, if only for national economic interests.  But as a further concern, Putin has to be sensitive to the absolutely critical role played by wheat in providing political stability across a large swath of the world on its southern border.

When you look at the last two decades, Russia has shown such impressive growth. You look at the acreage changes; they’ve gone up 30% to 50% for many of the grain crops such as wheat and sunflower seed. Production has grown three times more than it was.

Wheat production nowadays is 150% above where it was 20 years ago. It’s been impressive to see how much this country was able to scale up production.”

Stefan Vogel, Rabobank’s global sector strategist for grain & oilseeds

A staple around the world, wheat – and bread – provide basic nutrition for literally hundreds of millions of people, often in regions where the need for an affordable source of life-sustaining nutrition is most critical. Egypt is the number one importer of Russian wheat. Right now, they are in an economic crisis where one-third of their population lives below the poverty line.

Neighbor Turkey remains the largest per-capita consumer of bread in the entire world. Governments across the Middle East and Africa often provide generous consumer subsidies to assure it remains affordable and available. Elimination and reduction of these subsidies have been major factors cited in the “Arab Spring” uprisings of the early 2010s. To this day, a steady stream of wheat remains a top priority for these nations.

The larger issue of food security remains very much unresolved, despite the remarkable achievements of the past year in restoring the flow of wheat and other commodities from the Black Sea region. The global community will be watching closely for signs of what comes next.

But is it enough?

Capitalizing on the value of its wheat may not be a simple process, however. Much of the global community remains committed to imposing a high cost on Russia for its Ukraine actions. Shipping costs, primarily insurance, remain unsettled in the region, due to the lingering threat of further escalation in the conflict.

The continuation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative that opened the door for resumed exports also must be renewed this spring.

While the benefits to Russia of maintaining the agreement may seem obvious, observers nonetheless caution that the enormous pressures facing Russian leaders could prompt still more logic-defying actions.

Maybe just as important, the much of rest of the wheat-producing world seems intent on fighting to supply the world’s rising demand for wheat. Australia, for example, has enjoyed back-to-back record wheat crops, and in December reported a 50 percent increase in monthly wheat exports.

Significantly, Australian trade officials note that many of the country’s current export customers are the Middle East and African nations so dependent historically on Black Sea shipments.

And then there’s weather, finance, politics….

Reports of a renewed offensive by Russian troops have circulated widely, with evidence of an increase in Russian troops to about 500,000  and more equipment along the eastern Ukraine border and occupied territories. Heated rhetoric from the Kremlin has only added to the tension, and President Joe Biden’s recent daring visit to Kyiv has prompted yet another round of dire threats and warnings of an escalated conflict.

China’s top diplomat paid Putin a visit in February which sent nervous energy throughout the western world. National leaders worry that support from China and more aggressive action by Russia could expand the conflict still further, prompting more and more retaliatory response from the West.

The unspoken fear is the emergence of voices seeking to “weaponize food” – that is, to punish Russia by limiting or attempting to cut off Russian agricultural exports.

Leaders so far have recognized the enormous damage to food security everywhere in such a misguided effort. But if Russian aggression expands, the risk of overreaction is always a worry.

In such an environment, the risks associated with moving grains, oilseeds, fertilizers, and other commodities through the Black Sea corridor also might drive shipping and insurance costs even higher – and at some point, to unacceptable and uneconomic levels.

Russian political upheaval

The conflict has been expensive for Russia, in every way possible. The Hill reported the cost of the first nine months of the conflict alone at $82 billiion, including equipment losses of $21 billion.  At that level, the conflict is eating up as much as a quarter of Russia’s 2021 earnings.

Human costs have also been high. The protracted battle has created an enormous need for more Russian troops.  Six months into the conflict, Russian officials increased the size of their armed forces by 137,000, to 1,150,000.  U.S officials cited by the BBC estimate that between 169,000 and 190,000 Russian troops are involved in the conflict.  This spring it is estimated that at least 500,000 civilians will be called into action.

Speculation over possible changes in Russian leadership has become a global parlor game.  But ample credible evidence exists of frustration with the current situation, and reports of paranoia and competing leadership cabals can’t be dismissed. Should change occur, the question might well become whether a new regime would seek to unwind the conflict, or escalate it in search of a final victory, no matter the international consequences.

In the meantime, many Russian citizens are fleeing the country. One media report in September claimed that as many as 700,000 citizens fled to western Europe and more easily accessible neighboring former Soviet satellite countries in a single two-week period.

Wikipedia claims that “following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 300,000 Russian citizens and residents are estimated to have left Russia by mid-March 2022, at least 500,000 by the end of August 2022, and an additional 400,000 by early October, for a total of approximately 900,000.”

The Moscow Times in May 2022 reported that 3.8 million Russians left the country in the first three months of the year alone. Whatever the actual figure of emigres, the exodus of Russian citizens during the conflict has been enormous.

Our Daily Bread: Uncertainty in Global Wheat Markets

A year ago, the world held its breath as Russian troops poured across the Ukraine border and sent global energy and commodity markets into a panicked spiral. Food security for millions seemed at greater risk than ever before, as vital exports of wheat, corn and oilseeds from Ukraine and Russia through the Black Sea corridor simply ceased.

What’s in store for wheat now?

But today, the picture seems to have changed. The Russian onslaught has been stymied if not totally repelled. Exports from the area have resumed, and energy and commodity markets have calmed a bit and retreated from record-high levels. Crop production in Russia has rebounded, and Ukraine producers have proven to be remarkably resilient in the face of continuing battle and devastation in important eastern agricultural regions.

So why are so many people still holding their breath about the ongoing conflict, and its potential threat to food security? The answer is simple.

Despite the signs of hope that have emerged over the past year, the list of potential threats remains substantial, each with dire consequences.

Solving all the remaining threats is a Rubik’s Cube of agronomic, economic, political and other decisions and actions involving the entire global community.

The complexity of the challenge can be seen in the open issues facing just one segment of the global agricultural system: wheat.

(Want to learn a little more about wheat before you dive in? Read this.)

What’s so important about wheat?

Wheat is the source of bread. Virtually every citizen of western society knows the simple common prayer at the heart of western religion and the social contract that makes civilization possible: Give us today our daily bread.

Six simple words express the essential role of wheat in the food security we require in our daily lives. The bread that wheat makes possible is one of our oldest foods – with evidence of a primitive form produced more than 17,000 years ago. Scientists tell us that bread became a dietary staple during the Neolithic era, 10,000 years ago.  The wheat we recognize today originated in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, whose headwaters begin the mountains south of the Black Sea in today’s headlines.

Wheat is a cornerstone agricultural commodity. Flour is used to bake breads, cakes, pizza, tortillas, pasta, pastries and more – all the elements of the “daily bread” of human existence.

The word ‘bread’ – in all its linguistic variations – is a common and easily recognized element of virtually every language on earth. 

Pain, brot, xleb, roti, nan, akara, mkata… all mean bread, and all are part of the foundational vocabulary in their respective linguistic training.

Bread remains something all of us both need and want in our lives, every day. It drives a relentless demand for wheat – a basic human need common to the entire western world.

Ukraine and wheat

This apparently incessant increase in demand for wheat may be one of the largest reasons for worry that persists about the Ukraine conflict.

Over the past year, the world has been told over and over again just how important Ukraine has become as a major supplier of grains and oilseeds to the global marketplace.

News of the courage and resiliency of the Ukraine producer and the entire national agricultural sector has been inspirational.

But the fact remains that the Ukraine agricultural sector’s rebound has been built on a pivot to greater emphasis on export of corn and oilseeds specifically sunflowers, more than wheat.

Regardless, Ukraine is still the 5th largest exporter of wheat, just behind the United States and France.

Reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show the devastating effects of conflict on Ukraine’s wheat sector:

The 2022-23 wheat crop just harvested showed a 37 percent decline from the previous year’s production, down 25 percent from their five-year average.

Not surprisingly, Ukraine wheat exports have dipped as well, falling from roughly 18 million metric tons last year to a projected 10 million in 2022-23, according to the Ukrainian Grain Association.

Ukraine wheat remains very price competitive, and the near-by European Union still relies on available rail and other transportation channels to buy as much as 45 percent of Ukraine wheat exports, the USDA estimates.

Ukraine’s uncertain future

The risks associated with the conflict continue to generate high shipping and insurance costs, and Ukraine trade officials seem content to focus undamaged resources and energies on more lucrative market opportunities for corn and oilseeds.

Imagine trying to farm when your country is at war. You know growing food is important, but so is your freedom. In a country slightly smaller than the size of Texas, it is hard to separate farming and fighting. In addition, wheat production overlaps areas of Russian invasion.

As a dire result, Ukraine has even less land as the Russians have taken over 3.8 million hectares of beautiful rich black soil of Ukrainian farmland and another 3.8 million are too close to the frontline, either destroyed, and/ or full of landmines.

In addition, even the land further away is difficult to manage because of financing, lack of working capital, and high fuel and fertilizer costs. All of this makes it difficult to sow seeds this spring.  Yet, it is a credit to human nature that the farmers are optimistic they will win the war.

It is expected that the fighting will pick up this spring. Russia is moving 500,000 recruited Russian troops in the area and the 60,000 Ukrainian troops have been training with NATO countries (watch operational update here). It seems that May will be a telling month.

Next week, D2D will explore the importance of Russia’s wheat exports and why they are important for global food.

[Subheadline: Despite Progress, Resolution of Russia/Ukraine Conflict Remains Critical to Global Food Security  |   Keywords:  Russia, Ukraine, bread, wheat, food security, hunger, invasion, conflict, Black Sea, shipping, exports, emigration]