Oakridge Dairy Overcomes Industry Challenges

Oakridge cow

This fall, I visited 2,700 Olympic ladies. It wasn’t at the Tokyo Olympics, but here in New England. Oakridge Dairy is a fifth-generation farm located in Ellington, Connecticut. Established in 1890, the Adolph-Bahler family started growing tobacco, potatoes, and dairy cows. Now, they have a powerhouse of 2,700 Holsteins that produce over 21 thousand gallons of milk per day – an Olympic-sized feat, for sure!

While other dairy farms in the nearby area closed over the years, Oakridge expanded by adhering to the motto:

Quality does not happen by chance; it’s done on purpose.

Through the generations, this family has endured and responded to changing consumer preferences, new technology, increased regulation, and a host or other challenges. They currently have three family members who actively maintain their families’ passion for all things dairy.

Challenges in the Dairy Industry 

We wondered how they, and the dairy industry overall, are faring in today’s tough environment. Dairy has been mistakenly blamed for causing cardiovascular disease, cancer, and lactose intolerance, pushing consumers over to nut ‘milks’ such as almond, coconut, and cashew. And climate change has turned the spotlight on agriculture, specifically methane-producing cattle and dairy cows. In addition, the regulatory environment is much stricter on manure run-off and smell pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods.

But the truth about dairy farms and their products is not all doom-and-gloom. In fact, it’s the opposite. Let’s start with what these bovine athletes give us. Many of the necessary nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy are found in just one 8-ounce glass of milk. It helps us make muscle, blood, bone, skin, hair, and hemoglobin which carries oxygen throughout our blood. It regulates the nerves, muscles, and heart while also being a building block of our genes.

Milk nutrients help protect against cell damage and infection. It helps with brain functions of memory and thinking, as well as food for our microbiome. Finally, there is research that shows dairy can protect from both heart disease and colorectal cancer.

To combat the demand for alternative products, the dairy industry is becoming more creative in addressing consumer concerns. A recent McKinsey study on consumer behavior toward dairy shows that 42% of consumers perceived alternative milks as health and wellness solutions, a 14% increase from 2019.

Dairy farmers around the world are using data-driven insights to create new varieties of dairy to meet customer needs and preferences. Some choices are flavored milk, lactose-free milk, reduced sugar milk, and high-protein yogurt, milks and other products.

Some cheeses such as Swiss, provolone, gouda, cheddar, Edam, Greyere, and cottage cheese have been shown to be beneficial for our gut microbiome. And don’t forget Kefir as a fermented source of about 30 species of probiotics that aid gut health.

So, how is Oakridge handling these challenges?

The Milkman is Back

The Adolph-Bahler family is conscious that not everyone understands how a dairy farm operates. They have a delivery service called The Modern Milkman that delivers fresh milk, local eggs, butter, yogurt, and cheese within a 50-mile radius of their farm.

To further this community offering, Oakridge Dairy want their neighbors to see where milk comes from. They host field trips, educational events, and farm fairs over the course of the year to enhance transparency for all customers. Quite literally inviting them in to see exactly where the milk comes from and how it ends up in their carton or cheese.

Oakridge Dairy strives to be the farm of the future in a world where people know their farmer.

Feeding People with the Environment in Mind

There is no denying the environmental impact of feeding 7.9 billion people, 1.7 billion cattle and pigs, and 34 billion chickens around the world. However, each year, sustainability across the ag sector improves. Farmers around the world, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, are giving humans, animals, and birds the nutrition needed while minimizing the impact on land, water, and air.

This is also true of dairy, where farmers have made significant strides over the decades to produce more milk using less land and fewer cows emitting less methane. The average cow in the U.S. produces about 7.8 gallons of milk per day, an increase from 5.7 gallons in 1999.

For the cows to produce that much volume, they eat about 100 pounds of food and drink 50 gallons of water each day, equating to an acre to feed one cow and calf for a year!

While the number of dairy herds has dropped from approximately 46,000 in 2013 to 36,000 in 2023, the number of dairy cows has remained the same due to dairy farm consolidation.

Yet milk production has increased by an extra two gallons a day per cow than more than 20 years ago. This is due to the science around animal feed.

Animal feed science for dairy has increased cow digestibility and decreased methane. Cows eat plants for their diet, but they lack the ability to efficiently digest their food. Hence the methane burps we’ve heard about in the news the last few years.

To digest the food most efficiently, the cows need a strong set of microflorae such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi, archaea, and bacteriophages. Data science has allowed feed companies to match the perfect microbiome and feed combination for a specific farm to enhance yield production.

Oakridge Dairy’s ‘Cow Power’

Methane, or anaerobic digesters are an environmental solution for all that manure and urine. Each day, the waste is cleaned out of the barn and placed in a big lagoon covered with a rubber dome.

The gases, which otherwise would go into the atmosphere, are captured inside the dome and used for a variety of purposes. The farm can use the gas to generate their own electricity, thus eliminating the need traditional coal-powered electricity. If the farm generates excess energy, it can be sold back onto the grid as an alternative energy source for the surrounding area.

Additionally, the captured gas can be injected into natural gas pipelines and used to power renewable natural gas vehicles. It is fun to think that the electricity used to charge electric vehicles could be run on cow power. These digesters are not cheap and can be cost prohibitive for farms with dairy herds of less than 500 cows. Another reason for dairy consolidation.

Oakridge Dairy implemented a digester at its farm. Not only does the digester give them enough energy to power the electricity needed on their farm but depending on the time of year and energy prices, they also can sell it back on the grid.

Another great benefit is that Oakridge Dairy uses the solid waste for the cow’s bedding. It sounds a little unsanitary, but when we visited the farm, we saw that the digestor heats up the manure and kills all the bacteria.

The heated manure goes through another heating and drying process which makes it fluffy and clean for the cows to use when they lay down.

Cows lay down for about 14 hours a day, so it is critical that their bedding is clean and bacteria free.

Artificial Intelligence & Dairy

Data management and artificial intelligence definitely have its place on a dairy farm. It gives predictive dairy and cow information to the herd manager to monitor cow health and milk production.

At D2D, we have talked about sensors that dairy cows wear – like collecting your data on your Apple Watch. The herd manager can look at the data on any cow and see if she is eating enough, has a fever, milk production is consistent, and if she is socializing with her friends. The data is endless. This has helped reduce sick cows by at least 15% because it lets the herd manager see and treat a cow before she is in distress. This has a tremendous impact on animal welfare.

Furthermore, dairy farmers can now put all this information together and find trends. What does the overall fertility rate look like for the herd? Is the animal feed just the right balance for the cows’ health? How well are they chewing their cud? Should the beds be changed more often? Do the cows like classical music or rock and roll when they milk? The farm can then adjust feed rations, milking schedules, and labor for optimal financial results.

A contented cow is a productive cow.

Farmers do everything to ensure their cows are comfortable, well fed and stress free.

At Oakridge Dairy, automated milking uses the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence as an on-going innovation in the milking parlor. The data can show the best time of day to milk, optimizing cow traffic which affects milk quality. The cows are automatically sorted into a moving carousel which helps reduce lameness and decreases costs.

Each cow’s udder needs to be cleaned before the milking apparatus is placed on the teats. Otherwise, bacteria would get into the milk. Generally, this is done manually by one or two farm laborers. However, this is time consuming and always fraught with human error.

Oakridge Dairy invested in two robots that go underneath the cow and prep them for milking. The fascinating part is that even though most cows are Holsteins and should have a similar teat anatomy, all cows are unique, just like us. The robot goes underneath the cow and because of AI, it remembers each teat placement of each cow.


After the milking, there is another robot that also has the same AI-type memory bank that sprays the teats, so they are clean before entering the barn.

Recycle and Reuse

If it were not for cows, a lot of food byproducts would just go to landfills.

For instance, the world eats a lot of almonds. The United States alone produced the most at 1.3 million tons of almonds. Did you know that almonds grow in a shell? What happens to those shells? As the almonds are processed, the shells get crunched up and sent to use as animal feed for dairy farms, like the hulls that are fed to the cows.

The world also drinks a lot of beer. The United States is 20th, with each of us drinking about 73 liters a year. FYI, Czech Republic is the global winner, drinking 140 liters a year. Beer comes from barley malt or other grains. After fermentation, there is something called brewers’ grains which is used for animal feed. If cows didn’t eat it, it would end up in a landfill.

Bread has been a staple in the human diet for over 30,000 years. So, it is no surprise that the left-over product of making wheat is used for animal feed. Wheat middlings are a great source of protein, fiber, phosphorus and other nutrients for animals.

Visiting Oakridge Dairy to witness reusing & recycling, AI, and biodigesters in action was an insightful experience into the future of ag, where technology helps to meet the needs of the cows and our global health.

The farm’s concern for their ‘Olympic ladies’ is self-serving because cow comfort means more milk for their customers. And as seen first-hand, these cows are clean, comfortable, and very happy, indeed.


Digging in with Ethan Meissner, FFA Entrepreneurship Winner

We spoke with Ethan about how he started from the ground floor, cleaning the facility and assisting customers, where he is now, and what he hopes to do in the future. He is currently a sophomore studying agricultural engineering at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and hopes to stay involved in the processing side of the industry since there are many processing-related careers, such as creating new equipment and machinery.

Working from the ground floor up, Meissner’s responsibilities started with cleaning the facility and assisting customers in loading up their purchased products. His on-the-job performance has led to experience in mixing, stuffing, and grinding the product, as well as cutting fresh product for retail sales. Meissner also engaged in the smoking, curing, packaging, and labeling processes.

Since meat processing takes many years of experience, he is looking forward to continuing to learn the trade, he said. We can’t wait to see what the future has in store for him.

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.

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.

New England Farm Connects Soil to Health

Steve McMenamin is the manager of Versailles Farms, a Connecticut-based market-garden operation at the forefront of regenerative agriculture. Versailles Farms’ mission is to grow food for the community with an emphasis on nutrient density, flavor, and good digestion. 

Steve and his wife, Ingrid, started the farm in 2013 after selling Versailles Bistro, a local institution, taking it out of bankruptcy and earning a 4-star review by the New York Times in 2010.

Steve is also the executive director of the Greenwich Roundtable, a non-profit research and education group, and publisher of best practices that focus on long-term investing.

Steve learned almost everything he knows about agriculture from his grandfathers and YouTube.


FFA’s Kayla Rossi: Responsibly Managing Livestock

Kayla Rossi of the Soroco Future Farmers of America (“FFA”) Chapter in Colorado lives on her family’s cow/calf operation and developed an interest in the experience at an early age. She runs her livestock operation on roughly 100 acres of irrigated pastureland, raising cattle, sheep and goats. Kayla irrigates, fixes fences, drags meadows, monitors the livestock, and harvests hay. 

In 2021, she was the Future Farmers of America’s Entrepreneurship Winner for Diversified Livestock Production. To hear more about her operations and role at FFA, click here.

My life on the family farm

I am a fifth-generation rancher. My family began ranching in the early 1900s by owning a small herd of Hereford Cows and growing potatoes.

Progressing into the mid-1970s my grandpa and uncle worked in the local coal mine and managed summer yearlings, which eventually led to the building of our cow herd that we have today.

A cow/calf operation allows us to have a permanent herd while producing calves to sell later in the year.

Having a cow/calf operation allows us to make breeding decisions that are best for our location, learn the importance of delivering the calf, keep accurate records on the cows, calves, and bulls, and know when to wean our calves to prepare for selling them.

What’s the process of running such a large operation?

I run my sheep, goat, and cattle enterprises on 100 acres of irrigated pastureland from my dad. I can lease these 100 acres through a labor exchange agreement, as it’s part of the family-owned ranch.

At the beginning of my SAE [FFA’s supervised agricultural experience], my dad taught me proper management and husbandry skills.

This enabled me to become independent over the last two years to ensure my operation ran smoothly.

What kind of work goes into maintaining the farm?

To be successful in my SAE, it is my responsibility to uphold my labor exchange contract. This includes irrigating, which I do from mid-May to early September. I learned about water rights from my dad and grandpa and the local water commissioner. This gave me an understanding of how much water I must use and where I need to get it in the pasture.

My family begins harvesting hay in late July. It is my duty to run the racking tractor because I am the youngest and that is how everyone starts on the ranch.

I do know how to run other equipment, but my sole responsibility is raking hay.

Farming challenges & opportunities

What is the most challenging part of your job on the farm?

The most challenging part of my job is time management. Every day I have to focus on all enterprises, which can be troubling. The best way that I can overcome this problem is through recordkeeping.

Solid time management skills allow me to understand what is going on in my operation, what enterprise needs the most hours of work out of my day, and what animals need attention.

I have to ensure I am giving enough time to each of my different enterprises while maintaining the responsibilities of my labor exchange.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love breeding and kidding, lambing, and calving all my livestock. I take pride in knowing that I can breed my livestock with the animals that I have, and I get to see the end result.

Lambing season is the first major event of my year in late January. This requires me to check my ewes every few hours, and I get the ewes to the lambing jugs in the barn if there are babies.

I lamb until late February. Then, I calve in mid-March.

I love calving because it has been my life since I was a little girl. I have learned a lot from living on our family-owned/operated cow/calf operation. Later, I kid in early June to give me some time from when calving season ends in late April.

Goats are hard to raise in the cold, so I try to do it in the beginning of summer. This is to ensure they live to the time I sell them.

What is the most rewarding part of your job on the farm?

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing all my hard work pay off. The biggest example was with my proficiency application. I applied for the Diversified Livestock Proficiency award at my state-level last February 2021.

This application allowed me to explain my operation through prompts. When announced as the Colorado state winner, I revised it to be sent to the National level. Little did I know that I would be announced as a National Finalist in this area in August of 2021. I prepared for the interview that would allow me to show my knowledge of my operation.

At the 94th National FFA Convention and Expo, my Diversified Livestock Proficiency was announced as the National Winner. I was filled with excitement.

This taught me that while the work may be challenging, I know I am finding success at a job well done.

Creating the path for growth

What is an example of a regenerative practice that you’ve instituted at your operation? 

A particular regenerative practice that I have implemented in the livestock operation involves integrating livestock and crops.

In the spring, garrison grass begins to grow. I put cows out to graze the grass prior to irrigation. Grazing before irrigation reduces the amount of garrison grass that matures.

What is your best piece of advice for young people looking to focus their careers in farming?

The best piece of advice that I can give young people looking to focus their careers in farming is to not give up during the hard times. There are many days that agriculturists face where life seems to not be going their way, especially during droughts. However, the FFA has taught me to not give up because the rising sun symbol introduces a new day in agriculture.

Jupiter Ridge: Regenerative Stewards of the Land

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Nestled on a bluff atop a 1,200-foot-high ridge in Iowa, surrounded by dense forest, Jupiter Ridge Farm is an ideal landscape for growing all types of mushrooms, vegetables, and perennial flowers.

The Importance of Regenerative Agriculture

Will and Adrian farm on land leased to them by the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). The land was donated to SILT by Steve Beaumont (on far right in above photo). To farm here, Jupiter Ridge – and all SILT farmers and ranchers – are required to have third-party certification to affirm that their agricultural practices are regeneratively grown.

For Jupiter Ridge, this means applying environmentally-responsible growing methods, like healthy soil building, cover cropping, crop rotation, compost amending, using all-natural fertilizers, and minimizing chemical use for pesticides.

These measures ensure that their farming practices give back to the land in some way. As Will explains, they are only temporary stewards for this land, and they will eventually pass it along to another farmer. It is critical that their operation continues to improve the soil, making sure it is full of nutrients and microbes.

It’s important to note that the term, “regenerative agriculture”, does not have any globally definitive guidelines that state whether one operation is effectively regenerative or not.

But operations like Jupiter Ridge use these farming practices to make real and lasting changes.

When we asked Will and Adrian why regenerative ag was important to them, they did not hesitate in their response:

“We are honored to be able to grow whole, healthful food for our community while ensuring the sustenance of those who eat it, but also the health of the land it came from.

We have always felt a ‘beyond organic’ spirit when it comes to farming, taking it a step further and always making sure we’re putting life and health back into the soil after every crop.”

– Will Lorentzen, Adrian White

By cover cropping and crop rotation, Jupiter Ridge re-injects micronutrients back into the soil. Rather than ripping up the root system after every harvest, rotational planting allows them to nourish the soil with a variety of new nutrients. Furthermore, cover cropping provides protection against soil erosion, maintains healthy topsoil, suppresses weeds, and deter pests.

This promotes biodiversity and ultimately reduces soil compaction, allowing for better CO2 sequestration in the root system.

Regenerative Ag Practices

At Jupiter Ridge, Will and Adrian don’t just farm mushrooms, they also grow a variety of vegetables and perennial flowers. They believe this not only promotes soil health but encourages large pollinator habitats on the native prairie lands to thrive and expand.  Will explains that by applying regenerative farming practices like planting perennials, it can increase biodiversity, and ultimately serves as a tool on the farm.

“If there is wildlife flourishing around our farm every year — monarch butterflies, beneficial pollinators, pest predators — then we feel we’ve done a good job, too.”

– Adrian White

 “If you look at studies and research, the health of the soil is directly tied to the actual health of the plant foods that grow in it. Abundant soil life is critical for adequate nutrient uptake into fruits, vegetables, etc.”

Will continued, adding that with soil health comes flexibility, explaining that resilient soil allows them to keep their products and production methods varied. Healthy soil increases water absorption to protect against droughts.  This flexibility, he says, is imperative in an ever-changing world.

One of the coolest things to see on the farm are the tangible results of these efforts: when farmers help the land, the land then helps farmers.

“We had a pest problem take care of itself this year with no needed actions taken from us because of the flourishing perennial environment. Soldier beetles that thrive in the surrounding prairies fed on the pest and took care of the job! If we didn’t grow sustainably or regeneratively, this wouldn’t have happened,” Adrian White commented.

Measuring the Success of their Hard Work

While the most formal method of measuring success in regenerative ag is to measure carbon sequestration, Jupiter Ridge has identified other ways to realize the effects of its regenerative practices. With carbon sequestration measurements not yet scalable and mainstream, Jupiter Ridge measures their increased yields, decreased inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, as well as increased resiliency of the crop — like in the example of the soldier beetles.

“The subjective feedback we get is from our customers. Returning customers, chefs, and CSA members say it all—they want more of the quality food we grow, which keeps them coming back. If people are pleased with the quality, beauty, and flavor of the food we grow, then we feel we’ve grown regenerative food very effectively.”

“We also use responsible forestry techniques to source the logs for our shiitake and other mushroom production. We also use things from off the waste stream as much as possible.

We’re also planting more and more perennial crops each year that require less maintenance and tillage. Some of our practices are sustainability requirements in our one-of-a-kind land lease with SILT and encourage good soil erosion prevention techniques.”

 Challenges and Misperceptions to the Operation

Farming regeneratively does not come without its challenges. Will and Adrian both note that the timing and terminating of their cover crops is difficult. Furthermore, perennial crops are expensive when they are not sold. He points out that growing regeneratively demands labor, time, and investment.

“Even if people can charge more for regenerative to compensate for their labor and time, the process of making a considerable profit margin is far more challenging than most other businesses.”

While Will and Adrian don’t think that any misperceptions exist at this early stage in regenerative ag, they want people to know that it is more than a buzzword. It is a way of connecting eco-friendly farming practices to climate change and soil health.  This, they believe, is another incredible and impactful step in the sustainable movement to better our world.

But so much of what goes on at a farm is invisible to the consumer, leaving many of us out of touch. That’s why Jupiter Ridge supports ongoing traceability efforts and believes the best way to know where your food comes from is to shop local. An added benefit? Regenerative operations are often started without immediate financial rewards, so shopping directly from the farm helps to offset these financial burdens.

FFA’s Nicholas Mello: The Importance of Seed Science

Nicholas Mello of California’s Hanford Future Farmers of America (FFA) Chapter is a finalist in the Agriscience Research–Plant Systems Proficiency field. Plant systems proficiency…what does this mean, exactly? Nick conducted research at Zonneveld Dairies, comparing the yield per acre of three different hybrid corn seed varieties planted on 95 acres each to determine the highest yielding variety.

Nick learned that nearby Zonneveld Dairies was interested in investing in higher yield producing corn seed variety to feed their dairy cattle. Mello developed and designed this experiment to ensure that each seed had the same acreage and grew under the same conditions. Dirt to Dinner had the opportunity to communicate with Nick about his experiment’s findings and his FFA experience.

Want to learn more about Nick’s research? Check out his video here.

Defining Research Objectives

Describe your Agriscience research experiment in detail for our readers—how did you develop the idea, what problem were you trying to solve, and how did you go about achieving results?

My agriscience research experiment compared three hybrid corn seed varieties based upon the yield they produce. These hybrid corn seeds are being used for silage for Zonneveld Dairies. I compared 3 branded hybrid seeds: Dekalb 67-44, Masters Choice 6522, and Croplan Genetics S5700. These seeds were selected based upon their similar and outstanding characteristics to grow in the Central Valley conditions, such as high heat and drought.

The goal of my experiment was to find which hybrid corn seed variety would produce the greatest yield to help the farmer generate more revenues and help Zonneveld save money in feed and make more money by providing the cows starch to produce more milk for dairy cow feed.

I hypothesized that out of the hybrid seeds, the Dekalb 67-44 seed would produce the most yield per acre due to its size and coating. I separated each seed into three 95-acre fields, totaling 285 acres of experimental land. I collaborated with DeKalb agronomists and 3D’s Family Farming about crop management, irrigation scheduling, and fertilizer management.

I then prepared the ground of each 95-acre field by ripping the soil in the fields, two passes of disking to break down the soil to be soft, then furrowing the ground into rows, and pre-irrigating the land so the soil has moisture for planting. I then planted the seeds at 34-35 thousand per acre.

We waited till the corn sprouted to begin soil compaction and injection of UN-32 fertilizer. After this, I irrigated the corn with 3D’s Family Farming and maintained the corn with fertilizer. Our goal was to reach 300 units of UN-32. I maintained the corn till it was a hard dent and was at peak starch. Starch is the nutrient that will allow the dairy cow to produce more milk.

Danell Custom Chopping came to harvest the corn, where I recorded the weight of the trucks and silage to find the total amount of yield. Masters Choice 6522 produced the most yield at just over 32 tons per acre, Croplan Genetics produced just under 31 tons per acre, and Dekalb 67-44 produced 28 tons per acre, going against my hypothesis.

Why this experiment? Have you always been interested in seed technology?

What got me into this experiment and interested in hybrid corn seed varieties is from working at 3D’s Family Farming. I work in the summer there as a tractor mechanic and operator. When I ran this experiment, my father, who normally furrows and does groundwork, had to take time off because he had surgery on his thyroid to remove cancer. Another worker also had to take time off. This opened the opportunity to step up and gain responsibility in the business and gain knowledge in farming.

When I found out that Zonneveld wanted to plant different hybrid corn seeds for silage, that sparked my interest in hybrid corn seed varieties. I collaborated with Dekalb Agronomists Barbra Kutzner, Pete Lain, Robert Fahey, and Jacob Lehar, who provided expertise on both hybrid corn seeds and crop management.

Crop Tech’s Future in Soil…and Beyond

This is such an exciting field that seems to be constantly evolving and innovating. How do you see seed technology advancing in the future?

I see technology evolving to make better crops that will hopefully help continue to fix the problems we face in agriculture. Agriculture has made a lot of advancements in technology and machinery. I can see technology evolving further in that field, as well as with hybrid crops and GMOs.

I believe technology in hybrids and GMOs will allow agriculture to produce more crops with fewer resources such as water, fertilizer, or other crop inputs such as potassium and phosphorus. This is especially true in California where water is scarce and creates more yield with less ground to feed a growing population.

Looking ahead to 2050, where there will be more mouths to feed, what do you think is the key to feeding this growing population? And why?

Advancements in modified crops and machinery will be vital in providing for this ever-increasing population. Maybe crops can be modified to require fewer resources such as water and nutrients from the solid but still produce more yield or crop.

This modification would allow for more production and may even allow our ground to last longer because the crops will take fewer nutrients from the ground. This modification in the crop can also enable more resources to be used elsewhere around the world or in agriculture.

Machinery advancements are needed to make agriculture more efficient in the production aspect of groundwork such as disking, ripping, furrowing, crop maintenance such as injection rigs and spray rigs and harvesting such as choppers, and also the repair and maintenance part of agriculture as well. Parts need to become more accessible for repair and maintenance.

These advancements will allow agriculture production to be faster, possibly allowing farmers to double-crop their land to produce more. This will also minimize the downtime lost when a tractor or implementation breaks.

These advancements with crops requiring fewer resources while producing greater yield and improving crop efficiency via machinery will allow agriculture to keep up with the growing population.

A Vast Array of Careers in Ag

We love to share about the diversity of career opportunities in the ag space. We know farmers and ranchers are just one piece of an enormous ag puzzle. Where do you see yourself in the ag field in the future? And why?

I can see myself in the agronomy field of agriculture as a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) or research agronomist to continue experimentation and also try to find new ways to help agriculture.

I am currently pursuing a biology degree at UC Merced, focusing on ecology to use in the agriculture field. My dream job would be either a research agronomist or CCA because a research agronomist does similar actions such as my experimentation and also tries to find new ways to help agriculture.

I want to make a change in agriculture and try and solve one of the many problems agriculture is facing. I would also enjoy being a CCA as it helps farmers with their crops and production.

I would enjoy both of those careers because they are both involved in science which is my favorite subject, and understanding plant science and the interaction of plants with the soil and the environment is crucial for agriculture.

If you could advise other young people interested in seed science or agriculture in general, what would it be?

My advice to other young people interested in seed science is that it’s complex but exciting. Don’t let the complexity of genetics steer you away because this is a field of research that will be needed in agriculture to help solve the problems that agriculture is facing.
My advice for young people interested in agriculture is that it isn’t just farming and animals. There are so many aspects to it, and I’m sure one may have your interest for a career.

Also, don’t believe all the stereotypes and bad things in the media about agriculture because a lot of it isn’t true, and it just gets generalized over all of agriculture. The best thing to do is to actually get involved in agriculture through classes, FFA, or even working in an agricultural job.

By being involved, you learn the true experience and knowledge of what agriculture is all about. I would like to also say that although agriculture seems to be frowned upon by many, please remember that we eat, have shelter, clothing, other jobs, and actually survive because of agriculture because everything depends on it.

Gratitude and Community Building with Farming

Many of our regular readers are farmers. Is there anything you would like to leave them with – a piece of advice? Something to consider? A call to action?

I would like to tell farmers please don’t give up even if times are rough because everyone depends on you to feed them and provide resources. Although I understand you don’t always get thanks or appreciation, I know that I appreciate agriculture. I know I’m not the only one and know that a whole community is out there supporting you.

I would also like to say to farmers that many kids are willing to go into agriculture in this future generation, but not enough for the future of agriculture.

I would like to ask that farmers and any agriculturalist who listen please try to draw in the younger generation’s attention to agriculture and don’t try to push them away from it.

My family tried to warn me of the hardships of agriculture as if trying to push me away, but I found my roots there and am happy I did. Agriculturalists can reach the younger generations through FFA, agricultural advisors, and a big one is social media. Use social media to try and draw their attention to truly understand the different aspects of agriculture, which may help them find their passion by holding events or tours of agricultural business and destroy these stereotypes of agriculture.

Let’s try to get the younger generation into agriculture for the world’s future, but also have them understand that agriculture isn’t just farming, dairies, and cattle, but so much more and a great big community that is more than happy to teach anyone that decides to explore agriculture.

Toigo’s Transition from Tomatoes to Cannabis

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If you wanted to visit Toigo Orchards a few years ago, you could have driven out to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and pulled down the long drive of the 106-acre farm. You’d see workers freely coming in and out of the unlocked doors of five acres of greenhouses surrounded by organic peach trees. No one would stop you, or mind you were there.

Today, the friendly nature of Toigo Orchards remains, but there’s also a massive security presence. Unlocked doors are replaced by security guards and checkpoints. High fences, controlled access gates, and 24/7 video surveillance greet you upon arrival. Entry to the farm now requires everyone entering to go through rigorous protocols. Badge access is required for all workers. Visitors must leave their driver’s license with friendly security guards for the duration of the visit.

Why such a dramatic change in so short a time? Proprietor Mark Toigo says the high-tech security is all part of a business decision he was forced to make when low-cost foreign tomatoes flooded the organic market in the mid-Atlantic states – nearly bankrupting his decades-long greenhouse tomato business. To save his struggling farm from the glut, Toigo converted his tomato crops to cannabis.

The move not only helped save his generational family farm but may also save lives. Mark not only grows cannabis for use in medical marijuana but has also partnered with major Philadelphia hospitals to research pain management and opioid reduction.

The boy who grew up amongst the organic fruit trees covering the majority of his acreage (his cannabis operation is surrounded by a peach orchard) didn’t expect to find himself the entrepreneur of a small cannabis empire. But, the markets, Mexico, and a few knowledgeable Canadians helped him realize it was time to forge a new high-tech and highly entrepreneurial path in farming.

From Farmers’ Market to Farm-to-Table

Mark began farm-life young when he would work in his parents’ orchard. The Toigos were successfully selling a variety of conventionally grown apples, peaches, strawberries, and other seasonal tree fruit at local farmers’ markets. Thanks to their farm’s proximity to Washington, D.C., the Toigos were one of the first farmers to tap into the burgeoning local food movement in the city. The family’s success helped them expand business north to farmers’ markets in New York City.

When Mark became an adult and started running the farm, he expanded his selling season beyond summer fruit. He began cultivating greenhouse tomatoes “just to give us something to sell earlier in the season.”

“We started with hydroponics,” Toigo said. “It extended our ability to sell and keep more people around. We could do a fall crop, and we had them in the wintertime too, so that was a big, big change for us in how we worked.”

Soon, Mark found himself at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement just as it was taking off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “We started to really cultivate relationships with customers over a long time, and we really got much, much better at growing diverse food items, Mark said. “We were specialty growing just for farmers markets and restaurants.”

That’s when the local retailers started to sit up and take notice. That’s when Mark decided to switch from conventionally grown tomatoes to organic. At the same time, he raced to build a farm infrastructure that could provide his locally grown organic tomatoes to grocery chains in the mid-Atlantic states.

A Glut In the Market

Mark says it took a lot of time, money, and effort to get certified organic.

His operation was the only greenhouse producer on the East Coast, giving him a competitive edge. But then, there was a shift in supply.

According to Mark, producers from Mexico began exporting organic tomatoes to the mid-Atlantic retailers and created a glut in the marketplace. Suddenly, Toigo says he was losing profit.

“Now we’re forced to sign larger supply agreements, but we’re not holding water,” Toigo explains. “You know what retailers we had a supply contract with said they were going to pay what we were promised, and then what we were getting paid was not the reality.”

The retailers that Tiogo had contracts with shifted their supply strategy to include
Mexican tomatoes. “They want you when the price is right. Not necessarily when there’s a harvest and you have to move your product.  So it does become a contentious kind of thing that takes place between buyers and growers; as much as retailers want to promote their steadfast dedication to the local, you can get banged up in the process a lot.

When Mexican producers flooded the organic heirloom market, Mark says he tried to stay afloat by growing different variations. But foreign producers quickly caught on and he couldn’t grow enough tomatoes to sell for commercial volume at a profitable price point.

“And so we started getting a lot of pressure from our buyers telling us, “I’ll buy more organic from you if you can beat Mexico’s price.” Toigo said this was about more than profit. “What the heck’s that have to do with local?” Mark wondered about the retailers’ request for Toigo Organics to match foreign prices.

“I mean everything you’re selling to the consumer is the concept that you’re supporting the local growers, the food system as a whole. But the reality is, you know, you’re buying some of our product, but most other producers are not even growing in America.”

Toigo calls it a form of greenwashing.

“Farming is historically a cultural event, it’s not an occupation to speak, you have to grow into it, and you have to have a really good relationship between you and your partners, because not every season is going to be a good one. And they have to be able to pull you through when you’re having a bad time, and you got to take care of them when you’re having a good year too.”

Helpful Canadians

Toigo says he finally saw the writing on the wall after working with “world-class horticulturalists” from Canada. They recommend Toigo switch his greenhouse operations from tomatoes to cannabis. The Canadian government had legalized marijuana for medical use in 2001.

Since then, Canadian farmers had been perfecting cannabis-growing techniques for nearly twenty years. They saw in Mark’s tomato greenhouses the perfect equivalencies to growing cannabis and encouraged him to convert. Canadian horticulturalists encouraged Toigo to make the switch and helped him convert his greenhouses.

“So, in the cannabis space you’re either an indoor grow, or you’re a greenhouse grow, you could be hybrid too, but we are truly a greenhouse grower,” Mark explained.

“Some of my friends up in Canada started getting into cannabis cultivation. They just started switching from tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers or whatever they happen to grow, and they migrated into cannabis.”

Mark followed suit. Cannabis, Toigo found, had many similar attributes to the tomatoes business.

As with his tomato business, Toigo was able to use cannabis and grow his own product, market it, and build a transportation business around it.

“We felt like we are really well aligned to be able to do it because we already had the right people,” Mark told D2D. “We were already doing a lot of this work; now we’re just doing it with cannabis. The parallels are really profound. Now we’re just doing it with a different commodity.”

The one thing that didn’t translate from tomato to cannabis was how it reaches the end-user. Cannabis, even for medical use, has some of the most stringent regulations in all of agriculture. With tomatoes, Toigo was selling directly into retail grocery chains, restaurants, or farmer’s markets. With cannabis, Toigo decided to open his own dispensaries and use his transportation business to send his product to other dispensaries in Pennsylvania. Toigo is proud of how he has vertically integrated his business and intends to grow it in the coming years.

Environmental Impact

Toigo says he’s committed to ensuring his facility has not only the healthiest growing environment possible for his farm but for the entire community. His first step was to ensure the CO2 produced during cannabis production at the backside of their burners is captured. That captured carbon is then fed back into the cannabis for improved plant health.

Most importantly, Toigo is committed to the high-quality watershed district his facility operates in, free from any harmful agricultural runoff. Toigo says his cannabis is “pesticide-free.” And, while he uses private wells for watering, he ensures it’s all captured in a close looped system that reuses water and prevents any runoff into nearby waterways.

We knew any runoff from our backyard would go straight into the Chesapeake Bay,” Toigo told D2D. “That’s why we have no runoff at this facility.

A Lasting Legacy

Toigo said profits continue to rise for cannabis producers, but, like all other crops, it is a commodity and subject to price fluctuation. And as states continue to legalize both medical and adult (i.e., recreational) marijuana, Toigo thinks prices will like decrease in the long run.

But Toigo says his sole reason isn’t profit. When asked what his proudest accomplishment has been thus far, he points to his partnership with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM). Toigo and PCOM are currently running five studies to conduct research into pain management and opioid addiction. That, Toigo says, despite the many struggles he and his family have faced over the years as farmers, makes everything worth the price.

“And really, it’s the best part of the whole process, to know that we’re helping to contribute to non-anecdotal evidence about medicinal marijuana. That’s the flip side of all this that we’re here for the right reason.”

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 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.

Regenerative Ag in Your Own Backyard

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When Steve Hall bought his 43 acres of farmland in the Appalachian foothills more than a decade ago, he quickly discovered the difference between his dreams and farming reality. The land wasn’t as productive as he had hoped. “More rocks than dirt, really,” he remembers. But he talked with knowledgeable local producers. He sought out experts. He experimented, observed, and learned.

And in the intervening years, a lot has changed – the productivity of his land, and the attitudes of a lot of people who think and act like Steve.

Moving Beyond Gardening

Today, Steve and his two sons operate “Hall’s Regenerative Agriculture”, a consulting company that provides hands-on help for an increasing number of home farmers from the city, suburbs, and elsewhere on how to make their own contribution to the growing focus on sustainability and regenerative practices.

Colin Hall (left) and his father, Steve Hall, work with an expanding roster of clients to apply basic regenerative ag principles to home landscaping and gardening. Photo courtesy of Sonya Mull.

“I’ve worked with bank presidents and average homeowners,” Steve notes. “But they all seem to want the same thing – to use whatever space they have responsibly, not just to look nice or produce a little food. They want to feel like they are doing something worthwhile for the earth we all share.”

Steve has helped clients with as little as one-tenth of an acre, to some with dozens of acres, or more. “I help some folks in rural areas,” he observes, “but more and more it’s people in the suburbs, and even some in the city. It’s about the attitude and awareness people have of our world and our environment, more than how much land they have to work with.”

“The interest in this isn’t really so much a flood as a rising tide,” he notes.

Most of his clients, he says, look for diversity in plants, trees, and other growing things that not just produce some food but maintain the health of the larger ecosystem. “You see some strange combinations sometimes,” he adds. “You want perennials that come back year after year, giving up something edible but also co-existing with each other to replenish the ground and maintain a healthy balance.”

Making the right choices can mean having food from your own land “nine, and maybe even ten, months of the year in this area,” he notes. Maybe just as important, some of these planting configurations will continue to generate environmental benefits that span 50 to 70 years – and maybe more.

On this day, his clients are Ted and Sonya Mull, and their son Connor and daughter Avery. Ted is a medical doctor, his wife a nurse, and his kids two typical suburban high school students. They contacted Steve after realizing their plans to do some landscaping improvements could have a lot more than cosmetic value.

Short-Term Work for Long-Term Results

“It dawned on all of us that what we were doing was more important than just planting a few bushes, or getting our garden plans in order,” Ted reflects. “Maybe it was the effect of being locked away and having so much time to reflect. But we saw a chance to do something more important – something that mattered a lot more than how our place looked.”

Adopting the regenerative approach to home landscaping and gardening led to the addition of a wide variety of plants, all with beneficial environmental qualities.

Making their own small contribution to a healthy and sustainable environment was just the starting point, according to both parents. Ted explains, “Today, it’s so easy for us to forget what it takes to produce the food we eat every day.” He continues:

“We don’t see the effort and the expertise that goes into growing the food we need. Doing this helped remind the kids exactly what it takes to produce food. It teaches them about how connected we all are to the earth and how important it is to make sure we keep that earth healthy and thriving.”

“Covid has been tough on all of us,” Sonya adds. “There’s the isolation and distance from other people, of course. But for kids, there’s also the sense that things are out of control, that the future isn’t what it once seemed to be. Doing this has helped them see a kind of regeneration through nature. We’re doing things that speak to the future – a better future. It sounds kind of like Mary Poppins or something that usually will make teenagers roll their eyes. But they have gotten into this. It’s been great for them. For all of us.

Avery, in fact, soon enlisted friends from school to be part of the regenerative project. Together, they planted trees, shrubs, and other growing things. And as they did so, they talked with Steve, and they learned about the environmental value of the things they planted.

The mix of plants and trees proved to be more diverse than anyone had considered. Beyond the usual suspects of cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and other backyard garden staples, Steve advocates lots of berries – currants, goji berries, sunchokes, pawpaws, and more. Black walnut, pecan, maple, apricot trees — “and lots and lots of blueberry plants and apple trees,” Steve adds with a hearty laugh. “People love those, they are good for you, and they are critical to balance in so many situations.”

To the right: Avery Mull, Gabby Sutcliffe and Sarah Katy found that a home landscaping project could be valuable both to a sustainable local environment and their own understanding of regenerative agriculture. Photo courtesy of Sonya Mull.

Every situation is different and demands some thinking and careful planning. “The big thing is to understand how all different types of growing things interact with each other and the world around them,” Steve notes. “It’s a dance…planting the right things in the right places and treating them right. It’s thinking not just about right now but what happens next.”

Steve’s parting advice? “Don’t just go stick some things in the ground and expect to get the results you want. Think about it. Do some research. Ask somebody who knows more than you do. What you are doing is important, so take the time to do it right.” He also provided some great tips to introduce regenerative ag in our backyards, no matter the size…

10 Simple Tips for Home Regenerators:

  1. Plant trees in pairs to promote effective pollination
  2. Always place taller plants to the north so smaller plants get the sunlight, too
  3. Use eco-friendly sun-blockers to control weeds (cardboard, hemp mats, cocoa mulch, burlap)
  4. Don’t skimp on nitrogen fixers (such as beans, clovers, and lupins)
  5. Consider investing in a simple device to monitor nutrient levels in your soil
  6. Diversify what and when you plant to help stagger your harvests
  7. Monitor your water use carefully to avoid overwatering and water waste
  8. Consult your local ag extension agent or gardening expert to find out what is right for your situation. Also, ask about micronutrient accelerators — plants that help gather micronutrients and minerals important to local soil replenishment.
  9. If you use commercial products to nurture or protect your plants, always follow label directions closely
  10. Observe what works well and what doesn’t. Take good notes and learn from them. Share them with your neighbors.

For a more comprehensive look at how to make your home gardening and landscaping more regenerative, check out this “Food Forest” article at Modern Farmer.

Need more help or have a comment for Steve? Contact him at bolohall59@gmail.com.

Foster Brothers Farm: Covering Good Ground

We are pleased to have Bob Foster of Foster Brothers Farm write about the farm’s cover crop practices. Based in Middlebury, VT., the dairy farm supplies milk for Cabot cheese products through the Agri-Mark cooperative. The farm also recycles cow manure for their “Moo Doo” compost products sold around the Northeast. Foster is a member of the New England Dairy Association and serves on the Board of Directors for the Soil Health Institute.

When you drive past a farm field this winter, you might be curious about what’s growing there. Yes, growing. At our dairy farm and farms across the state, we’re growing plants on our fields — even in the winter. 

We keep the growing season going 365 days a year with cover crops, like winter rye (shown in the photo at the top of the page). You’ll see fields throughout Addison County and across Vermont green with cover crops still growing as long as the temperatures are around 30 degrees. When temperatures dip even colder or fields are covered in snow, winter rye will go dormant then renew growth in late winter.

Vermont recorded nearly 30% of its available cropland planted to cover crops in 2017 according to the Soil Health Institute, and we’re increasing that number every year. The U.S. average is only 5.6%.  

Covering Ground for Soil Health

Why does this matter? Farmers are covering what were once barren cornfields in the winter because we’ve seen the scientific benefits like carbon sequestration, reduced erosion and nutrient runoff, and flood mitigation. We pair that with reducing tilling or no-tilling in the spring for even greater gains in each of these areas. 

More people are now starting to understand these benefits, too, as documentaries like Kiss the Ground call attention to the fact that without healthy soil our society is in trouble.

Cover crops help us solve the issue of climate change because they are an amazing carbon sink. UVM Extension agronomists estimate that if all 80,000 acres of Vermont’s annual cropland had a cover crop, the carbon sequestration would be equivalent to taking over 51,000 cars off the road. 

To the left: Kirsten Workman, an Agronomy Outreach Specialist at UVM Extension, demonstrates the benefits of rolling cover crops and no-till planting for soil health at a field demonstration at Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury.

George Foster of Foster Brothers Farm (far left in photo) volunteered to share the farm’s conservation practices as part of a tour of area farms with the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition.

Another reason we use cover crops is to help the soil hold more water. As extreme weather events like heavy rain and flooding become more common, we need our soil to absorb that water and stay in place.

On an acre-by-acre average basis, developed land can contribute up to four times more phosphorus pollution through runoff than farmland and seven times more than forested or natural areas (Lake Champlain Basin Program). According to Food Solutions New England, 85% of the farmland in New England is managed by dairy farmers and is keeping land from being developed.

Putting it into Practice

At Foster Brothers Farm, we grow 900 acres of hay, 550 acres of corn, plus 300 acres of soybeans and small grains to feed our cows. In the spring, our winter cover crop needs to stop growing so it won’t compete with the corn we need to plant on the same field.

Farmers do this in several ways, depending on their goals and conditions. Some harvest the cover crop for feed for the cows, some flatten it down with machinery, some till it underground, and others will kill it with an herbicide like Round Up®, also known as glyphosate. At Foster Brothers, we’ve experimented with doing all of these methods.

The winter rye cover crop is pushed down by a roller-crimper on the front of the tractor. Corn is planted directly into the flattened winter rye at the same time using a no-till planter pulled behind the tractor.

On our farm, the biggest environmental benefits come when the cover crop is not tilled and is left to decompose into the earth, building organic matter, increasing water infiltration, and protecting the surface of our soil. Either rolling it down or using herbicides means there will be no tillage on the field, which dramatically reduces our carbon footprint and helps maintain healthier soil. We have seen this with our own eyes as we have watched our soil improve dramatically as we adopted this conservation cropping system of no-till and cover crops. 

Our soil is biologically active, and we want to take care of it just like we do our cows and people.

Managing Pesticide Use

We recognize that some people have concerns about the use of glyphosate. We don’t take the use of herbicides lightly. We are raising our families on our farms and we share the same concern for safety. We employ certified experts to ensure we utilize these tools safely and only when needed. The time, amount, and method of application of herbicides is extremely precise, specific to the crop, and regulated by EPA and the State of Vermont.

The U.S. EPA, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as well as other regulatory authorities in multiple countries, continuously review registered pesticide products and have repeatedly confirmed that glyphosate-based products can be used safely and are not carcinogenic when handled according to their label

Most farmers I know have reduced their use of longer-lasting and more toxic chemicals, instead favoring safer and less persistent chemicals to achieve the same goals. Glyphosate is one example of this. It is applied to a growing plant (the cover crop or target weed). It breaks down quickly and is safer for humans, animals, and the environment compared to other options when handled appropriately.

Looking to the Future of Farming

The latest biotechnology innovations enable farmers to practice more regenerative farming techniques and are just one tool that farmers can choose to use. 

I believe agriculture is at the heart of solving a lot of the issues we face like climate change, flooding, and the water quality in Lake Champlain, and there are many paths farmers can choose to get there. Farmers started on this path to improve soil health because protecting the environment is in our blood.

Most agriculturists aren’t out waving the flag about what they are doing. But, as people become more interested in how our food impacts the environment, it’s time we shared how we’re getting the job done while also providing people with things they can use, whether it’s milk, cheese, compost, or other farm products. 

When talking about sustainability, the media and research often focus solely on greenhouse gas emissions or one component of how we run our farms. Few think about the big picture including the positive impact local food production has on food security, nutrition, and our economy. 

The saying is ‘there is no such thing as free lunch,’ but dairy farmers are on track to continue to provide affordable, nutritious food with little impact on the environment. The movement we are building is nationwide and the dairy industry has set our sights on being carbon neutral by 2050.

Every farm has something to contribute and I’m proud to do my part.

Q&A with FFA’s Tyler Gardner

Future Farmers of America (FFA) is the premier youth organization preparing members for leadership and careers in the science, business, and technology of agriculture.

To support FFA’s members and their contribution to ag, Dirt to Dinner is please to introduce Tyler Gardner. Here is a Q&A from Tyler’s point of view.

Tyler Gardner is one hard-working college student. His education in ag started with working various positions at his family’s cranberry marsh. As his experience broadened, his mission evolved to produce healthy and sustainable food for generations to come.

Tyler, tell us a little bit about your background, family, and studies. 

I grew up and currently live on one of my family’s cranberry marshes in Pittsville, Wisconsin, a small town in central Wisconsin.

I am currently attending the University of Wisconsin River Falls and majoring in Agriculture Business. 

I hope to use my degree in Ag Business to obtain a job in the ag industry and eventually come back and work within the family’s business.  

What is your favorite part of working on your family farm?

My favorite part of working on my family’s farm is the feeling of pride and ownership. It is not just a job, but it’s a way of life for my family.

My father taught me from a young age the value of hard work and to never quit until the job gets done. These values have always stuck with me and it reminds me to keep working hard because someday that marsh could be mine.

It is also very rewarding to work throughout the summer months on a crop and then see your hard work pay off in the fall.

“It is just a great feeling of accomplishment to know that all the early mornings and late nights over the summer paid off to grow your cranberry crop. Seeing the final crop at the end of the year is by far the most rewarding feeling and it is one that is truly hard to describe unless you’re a grower.”

Tell us about your cranberry operation…how long has it been in the family? 

My family’s cranberry operation began back in the early 1990s with my uncle, Butch Gardner, and my father, Tom Gardner. The first cranberry bogs that they planted were on the marsh that I grew up on. They proceeded to grow the family business by building and planting more cranberry marshes in the Pittsville area. They then began to buy other marshes around the state. 

We currently operate around 2,000 acres of cranberry bogs. Along with growing cranberries, my family also has built cold storages and cranberry processing plants. This has streamlined the processing for our cranberry juice concentrate and sweetened dried cranberry products.

How is farming cranberries different from other crops? 

Cranberries are a crop that needs to be taken care of all year long, but once springs rolls back around that is when the cranberry vines come out of dormancy and they begin to start growing again. 

What is needed to grow cranberries is sandy soil, a large water source, and the correct climate. The cranberry’s root systems grow best in the sandy soil because cranberries need more acidic soil to grow in. The sandy soil also makes it ideal for drainage.

It sounds like cranberries can’t grow just anywhere…

Cranberries need to stay moist, but cannot be saturated for long periods, because it can create rotten fruit and damage the plant’s roots. We also need a large water source to grow cranberries, because in the summer months we need to irrigate the plants, and then in fall, we need the water to harvest the crop. We also never use any high-pressure wells, rather we reuse water from large bodies of water such as ponds and reservoirs.  Lastly, having the correct climate is the last most important part of growing this fruit.

Cranberries can only be grown in certain parts of the world because of their very specific climate needs. The area where I am from, for example, is a perfect area because cranberries need warm summer months for the growing season, the cool falls months to change their color, and the cold winter months so that they can go into dormancy until the next growing season.

How do you harvest your crop?

Harvest for this crop begins with the flooding of the cranberry beds. Our cranberry beds are in a rectangle shape with dikes and ditches surrounding them, this makes it possible to add and take water off the cranberry beds. Once there is about a foot or two of water in the cranberry bed, we then take a large rake attached to a tractor and drive into the cranberry bed and knock the berries off the vine.

Once they are all knocked off the vines then we added another two feet of water into the bed to completely flood the vines. Cranberries naturally have 4 little air pockets that allow them to float to the top of the water.

Then we take float boom to corral all the cranberries together and then we take a berry pump and pump the cranberries out of the bed and put them into semi-trucks to take the cranberries to market.

Cranberry vines produce a crop every year and usually do not need to be planted twice or every year. There are even some cranberry vines that are over 100 years old and still producing a crop. But the biggest reason why people do replant or renovate cranberry beds is to create a better producing bed with vines that are going to give them a better yield.  So yes, we do use the same vines (bushes) and reuse (plant) exiting vines into new beds. When we plant cranberry vines, we take the cuttings off existing cranberry vines and place them into the ground into a new bed. It takes about three years for these new cranberry vines to develop and start producing well. 

What is processing cranberries like? 

What makes our cranberry operation unique is that we can clean, store, and process our cranberries ourselves. The process for cranberries begins with the “cleaning station”. Cranberries are hauled into the station with semi-trucks and they are stored and cleaned. In the cleaning process, only the best berries are selected to be placed into storage. After the cranberries are cleaned and sorted, they are placed in large wooden boxes and then sent to the freezer where they stay until they are needed for processing. Fresh cranberries can stay in the freezer for up to two years before they are processed.

Cranberries are cleaned and sorted using machines such as shaker tables and specialty cleaning equipment made for cranberries. We don’t use robotics during the cleaning process, but before the cranberries go into further processing, we use robotics to sort out all the light-colored berries or any unusable cranberries that were not taken out during cleaning. 

The cranberries are then taken out of the freezer and transported to the proccing plant, where they are processed into jams, sauces, juices, and my favorite, sweetened dried cranberries. 

Tell us about your pest and weed management practices. 

Because of our abundant acreage across Wisconsin, we have hired and trained our scouting team. This way, we have resources for our growers year-round on all pest, weed, and other growth management practices. This team works hand-in-hand with each property manager to discuss, discover, and decide what is best for that particular property. 

Our scouting season starts in early May and goes until late August where the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) team surveys the marsh and identifies weeds as well as monitors pest pressure.

The team then correlates the information with growing degree days and pheromone traps and will conclude if anything is at an economic threshold—or is at the level where is it damaging your crops enough that you will see a decrease in yield.

If a weed or pest hit an economic threshold, the team and the manager will come together and decide on the best solution promptly. Because we are growing fruit for human consumption, we are extra cautious and sustainable in all our practices here at Gardner Cranberry.

What are some of your sustainable practices?

We take a lot of pride in our sustainable practices as a large cranberry grower in Wisconsin. All the fruit we grow is approved to the highest market standard and can be shipped anywhere in the world. The unique thing about cranberries is the large amount of water we recycle and reuse during all seasons of the year. We have reservoirs that hold our water for all irrigation, frost, and flooding events. These large reservoirs bring with them a diverse ecosystem that includes anything from floating peat bogs to native Tamarack trees and migratory birds.

Because our system is naturally integrated, our top priority is always to use sustainable and regenerative practices.

We understand our system works best when everything is in its natural state and can work together. During the springtime, we have an opportunity to do a spring flood to control our first major pest of the season – the spanworm. If the timing works out, we use our water to flood up the cranberry beds until the vines are fully submerged and we keep it on for 48 hours to kill any live insect activity in our vines.

This is a great regenerative option that we conduct at least once every season. By doing this, we naturally eliminate a large pest concern and we avoid using any alternative options.

We want consumers to understand that our family not only eats these cranberries, but we also live and work on these properties – it is essential for the land to be healthy, safe, and sustainable for generations to come.

~  ֍  ~

Stay tuned for more Future Farmers of America stories like this. If you would like to get involved with FFA, visit www.ffa.org.

If you’re a fellow FFA and want to share your story or tell us about an inspiring member, please email us at info@dirt-to-dinner.com – we’d love to hear your story!

Behind the Scenes with a Local Beef Farmer

On the run? Listen to our post!

“My ancestor’s life was tough, and their values of hard work passed down from generation to generation. We were taught to ‘stay by the stuff’ and keep a steady resolve to get through every major crisis that impacts your life. We have taught our children to wake up in the morning and do the very best job on the day they have been given.” 

– Dave Albert, owner of Misty Mountain Farms

Dave’s family has been farming the land for six generations, since his ancestor, John Wolfgang, first turned the soil in 1854. An immigrant from Germany, Wolfgang and his fiancé landed in Philadelphia. Once they married and acclimated to America, they pushed their few belongings in a wheelbarrow over 200 miles before settling on 110 acres in Trout Run. Clearing trees, picking rocks out of the soil, tilling the soil, and cultivating a crop was not an easy way of life in the 1800s (or even today).

Six generations later, the Alberts farm ~300 acres grazing multiple species of livestock, including Angus cattle, Texel/Suffolk sheep and lamb, and pastured poultry, including chickens and turkeys. To support this effort, they grow row crops of corn, soybeans, oats, barley, and canola. The main focus of tillable acreage is for forages and cover crops. The balance of their operation is dedicated to improving the pastures.

Soil Health Translates to Profitability

“A healthy soil will produce the same amount of yield, if not better, without any inputs such as pesticides and commercial fertilizer.”

Misty Mountain Farm is profitable because Dave believes that soil health is the foundation of any farming enterprise. With farm incomes generally down across the country, this is a big statement.

He utilizes no-till farming to grow corn, soybeans, and barley with limited inputs of commercial fertilizer. Imported poultry litter is readily available and he uses approximately 200 to 300 tons per year. When expanding his land holdings, it takes him about three years before the soil has enough organic matter to support the crops he harvests.

No-till means that Dave will simultaneously plant multiple cover crops such as rye, Austrian winter pea, eco-till radish, and multi-species clovers. These covers are planted post-harvest and stay on the fields until it is time to plant his corn and soybeans. He will plant the spring seeds right over the cover crops without turning the soil. The cover crops then turn into food for the trillions of soil microbiota and ultimately his row crops of corn and soybeans.

How does Dave know his soil is healthy? His definition is that he can achieve the same yield per acre as conventional farmers with little to no herbicides and pesticides.

The level of input determines soil health, which then allows the farmer to achieve target yields combined with optimal profitability. In addition, this summer was a drought year with only a couple of inches of rain a month. Yet his crops were healthy and strong because of the soil biodiversity. When it finally did rain, the ground absorbed the water like a sponge. He says you can tell a farm has unhealthy soil when there is a lot of mud on the road after a rain — a sign that the soil quality has deteriorated so much that it simply just washes away.

Organic or Conventional? Neither – Regenerative

“We live in a world where production and monoculture crops are the norm. To get the highest yield, you need the highest inputs but yet we have a market structure where profit is not there.”

Regenerative agriculture is when you not only protect the land but you make it better than when you first started farming. It enhances the ecosystem around the farm or ranch by enriching the soil, protecting and improving the watersheds, and increasing biodiversity — all while improving crop yields.

Dave is a student of agriculture. When Dave was a high school junior, he won first prize on a paper about cover crops at the state-level Future Farmers of America convention in Harrisburg. He then graduated from Penn State in 1984, with a degree in Animal Science. That is where he met Holly, who also grew up with an agricultural background.

In 2007, he was a participating member of a team of soil scientists who traveled to Europe to study organic waste recycling. Dr. Richard Stehouwer led this team, spending two weeks in Germany and Austria. While ferrying down the Rhine River on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Dave saw the town of Wiesbaden, Germany where his great, great, great grandfather, John Wolfgang Albert, was born. An unexpected highlight of the day for sure.

Dave spends his winter months reading and learning from soil experts such as Ray Archuleta, the founder of Understanding Ag, LLC, and Gabe Brown, a regenerative farmer from North Dakota, who has a 5,000-acre farm with 20% higher crop yield than the county average. 

Conservation: Protecting the Chesapeake Bay

Streaming right through Misty Mountain Farm is West Branch Murry Run, one of the five headwaters that ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay. One of the more pristine rivers, the Loyalsock was the 2018 Pennsylvania River of the Year.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chesapeake Bay was floundering under a high nutrient load from the hundreds of farms leaking their fertilizer, manure, and pesticides into the rivers that fall in the watershed area.

Recognizing this issue, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation set up a series of grants for farmers to keep the run-off clean by establishing buffer zones between the farm and the watersheds.

In 1999, the Alberts were the first in Lycoming County to fence an 80-foot buffer between their cattle and the stream. At this time, the stream was warm, semi-polluted, and had no trout. Instead of trout, which are an indication of cleanliness and purity, they found only a few chubs and crew fish.

Just buffering the stream produced dramatic improvements. So much so that in 2017, they celebrated a 100-person ‘field day’ that included the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and State Rep. Garth Everett. They enjoyed a Misty Mountain beef barbeque, talked about soil health and water quality, and examined the stream for a 9-year improvement.

Working with students from the Lycoming College Clean Water Institute, they shocked the stream, temporarily paralyzing the fish, to see what fish now inhabited the ecosystem. A brown trout popped up. Now, trout flourish in the cold, clear, and oxygenated water that provides not just places to hide but also clean gravel for their eggs.

How Dave Grows Beef

Dave’s proprietary cattle feed produces beef with such tenderness that ‘you can eat it with a spoon.’

The crops he grows feed his 150 head of cattle. In the summer, they graze on improved pasture and cover crops in his fields. For the wintertime, the cow-calf pairs are fed mostly forages and corn silage. The finished ration is fed year-round in a finishing barn post-weaning. Both spring-born and fall-born calves are weaned at 10 months of age.

Dave says the key to a high-quality eating experience is prepotent genetics for marbling, coupled with a consistent energy release in the rumen, to allow for a steady rate of gain and growth. Cattle are harvested at the peak of perfection in quality grade. Harvest weights average 675 lb. on the rail. Plating a ribeye steak that is manageable is key to his restaurant trade.

As we sat in the warm sunshine, his pregnant cows trotted over to see us and investigate if we had any food. We heard his bull over in the nearby field wanting to visit the cows. Dave is careful what breed he uses for his Angus cattle. When I asked him if he used antibiotics, he said, ‘sure’.

He continues, “the other day, I had a pregnant cow who was about to calve. She contracted pneumonia and was terribly sick. I gave her an antibiotic cocktail, she lived, and the calf lived. If I hadn’t, I would have lost both of them. It is inhumane to let them suffer.”

As a nice push to gain valuable nutrients on pasture, Dave raises poultry, including chicken and turkey.

Customer Transparency: Strong Local Market

“Consumers don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

For five generations, the Alberts have been selling their beef into the local market in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding area. They use three local USDA-inspected processing plants to turn their cattle into cuts for both the local restaurants as well as the farmer’s market. Since Covid, the local market has boomed! Per-month sales have doubled over the previous year. Slaughter dates are now being held for all of 2021 and into 2022.

The consumer wants to know their farmer. Misty Mountain Farms has long enjoyed a loyal following. But since Covid, more of the consumers who previously shopped in local supermarkets have bought his beef from the local market. Dave and Holly meet with consumers to inform them how they raise and feed their cattle from the time they are born. Customers love the taste and consistency of the Alberts’ meat.

Here’s how the farm prepares the cattle’s feed for winter…somewhat meditative to watch!

Their customers’ trust in Dave and Holly has placed the couple in the education business. Dave says, “we meet people where they are at. We don’t make a judgment on their knowledge, we just make a product that keeps them coming and we explain how we get there.”

This shows how important the farmer’s brand has become. The consumer wants great taste and flavor, but also to trust their food producer. Dave could just as easily sell his cattle to one of the ‘big four’ meat processors. It would be sold to the grocery store market and get absorbed into the retail system. There, the very same consumer would see the ‘generic’ beef and walk away not knowing the unique care that Misty Mountain Farm takes to grow their cattle.

FarmLink: Connecting Food Waste to Food Security

Going to the grocery store is suddenly accompanied by a strange anxiety – do I have my mask? My sanitizer? Will they have what I need? What if I can’t find any milk or meat? In the midst of all of this stress and chaos, very few of us have stopped to think about the people less fortunate: those who can’t even afford to shop at the grocery store. Where will they get their food?

Food Problems in the U.S. Existed before COVID

Food insecurity is an increasingly large problem in the United States, even when we are not dealing with a pandemic. We’ve always faced challenges with feeding our entire nation, especially in low-income and food desert communities. In 2018, 10 million adults in the U.S. used food pantries – that’s 5% of the population. Since COVID, Feeding America gave out 20% more food in March than the average month and estimates that 1 in 6 Americans could face hunger.

Now, this does not mean that we don’t have enough food to feed our people. In fact, we have more than enough. The COVID economy is not helping. In addition, the problem currently lies with how much food we waste, how much goes uneaten, and how much food we lose along the food production chain. In fact, the FDA estimates that between 30 to 40% of the food supply in the United States is wasted and lost every year. Each year, it’s estimated we waste about 140 billion pounds of food, with produce on farms accounting for 20 billion pounds. How is this possible when so many people are going hungry?

It is a perfect storm: food is being wasted and food banks need food. Seems counterintuitive, right? With unemployment at 13.3% due to businesses closing and workers being let go by their companies, people suddenly find themselves in a position where putting food on the table is no longer a simple task. Lines outside of food pantries run for miles long, but because of the disturbance in the food supply chain, many return home hungry and empty-handed.

Then came FarmLink…

FarmLink is an organization that started about 2 months ago by some pretty incredible young people: Will Collier, a Brown University graduate; James Kanoff at Stanford University; and Aidan Reilly, Ben Collier, and Max Goldman at Brown University. They came up with the idea after reading about the lines at food banks and the amount of food being wasted in the country. From there, they connected the dots, or linked them, if you will. Aidan Reilly and James Kanoff, who volunteered at their local food bank in Los Angeles in earlier years, saw the effects COVID was having close to home.

“COVID spurred our creation of FarmLink because of the unprecedented amount of food waste in the system and demand at food banks. Food bank lines were miles long. There’s more demand than in the Great Depression. Seeing food waste and food security, we wanted to attack both and combine two pieces of the process.”

– Will Collier, co-founder

The goal of FarmLink was simple: to rescue wasted and surplus food from farms and connect them with food banks around the country in need of food during COVID. The first transfer they made was with an onion farm in Idaho, Owhyhee Farms. At Owhyhee, there were millions of pounds of surplus onions going straight to the dump because they had nowhere to go. FarmLink called the farm and inquired about rerouting the onion truck to a foodbank in L.A. instead of the dump. They successfully transferred the onions, and FarmLink took off from there.

How It Works

FarmLink, though early in its inception, launched with what has proven so far to be a well-oiled transfer system from farms to food banks. With efficiency top of mind at every step, they get in touch with farmers and food banks with the use of research teams. The researchers figure out where to find surplus and what farms are in surplus of what items, depending on which items are in harvest. They then look to see what counties around those farms are underserved and in need of food.

The method is not to move food more easily, but rather to fill in the gaps and get food to communities truly in need. Some places where FarmLink has already provided food are the Navaho Nation in southwestern U.S., New York City, Detroit, Chicago, L.A., and Siskiyou County in Northern California, which was labeled the hungriest county in California in 2017.

FarmLink is 100% volunteer-operated and all proceeds go to the purchasing of food from farmers and transportation. They work hard to pay farmers that need compensation for pick-and-pack fees, which include harvesting, labor, and packaging, and also provide breakeven money on a crop so farmers can continue planting that crop. FarmLink also compensates truck drivers and any essential workers in the process to support the supply chain.

“The growth and support we’ve gotten and sheer volume we’ve been able to move has been completely overwhelming … we’ve been in awe with the scale we’ve been able to grow at and seeing so many people come together.” – Will Collier

FarmLink Today and Going Forward

Today, FarmLink has hundreds of volunteers all across the country and from more than 20 schools, and it’s still growing! They have a weekly newsletter to keep donors and supporters up to date on what’s going on and how they can continue to help the process. Every piece of FarmLink has been developed and continues to operate virtually, proving you can do anything you put your mind to, even with limited human contact. The founder and most volunteers are young college students or recent college graduates.

Will Collier recognizes the benefits to this: “It’s been incredible for all of us to see how interested and motivated our generation is. One thing you hear is millennials are looked at as selfish with phones, technology, social media, but I think this has been an amazing way for all of us to share that we do have interest in helping out our communities and people across the country.”

Even once COVID is no longer an issue, this will only be the beginning of FarmLink in fulfilling their continued goal of leaving no person hungry.

Will says, “the cusp of what we’re trying to get to is still undiscovered.” In May alone, FarmLink moved one million pounds of food, and in just the first half of June, they have already moved over three million. The possibilities are endless for this incredible company!

Want to be part of the change?

FarmLink is always interested in volunteers! Applications can be found on their website and donations are always welcome! You can also subscribe to their weekly newsletter, join their Facebook group, and follow them on Instagram @farmlinkproject to stay in the know!

A Farmer’s Life on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Every morning, Brandy Johnson cooks breakfast for her 6 and 3-year-olds and her husband, Russell. After kissing each other good-bye for the day, Brandy takes their children to school and Russell checks on hundreds of cattle on their family’s ranch. Before leaving the house, they each tuck a holstered 9mm pistol in their waistband.

While some Americans carry a pistol for basic protection, very few must consider defending themselves when they wake up in the morning. The Johnsons are not protecting themselves from grizzly bears, but rather the sometimes-dangerous situations that arise from those trying to cross the border right onto their backyard.

Immigrant Workers as an Essential Part of the U.S. Workforce

Many people from around the world have flocked to this country to build new and better lives for their families and future generations. They provide the labor behind countless essential job functions. Many immigrants harvest our crops and process our meat. Some maintain our households and tend to our homes and gardens. They ceaselessly study to pursue the knowledge and training that opens doors to more opportunities, better lives, and better futures. Some bring special knowledge and skills, already present yet unable to be used as productively as they should.

In total, immigrants of diverse backgrounds, capabilities, needs, and dreams provide an essential source of the energy and commitment that pushes our nation and our world forward. It is an approach to nation-building that has worked well for years. It remains a cornerstone of the traditional view of the American dream.

Many U.S. industries are reliant on this workforce. As of the most recent U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers’ survey report, almost half of farm laborers are unauthorized immigrants. And this isn’t just in the interest of labor costs…many farmers and ranchers have difficulty hiring local workers, as they just aren’t interested. As for the value of the immigrant workforce, a dairy industry study found that if the foreign-born workforce is reduced by 50%, 3,500 dairy farms would close and dairy product prices would increase by 30%. And this study was conducted before COVID-19…who knows what that figure would look like now?

But that vision of immigration as a good and positive thing is under assault. Desperate people taking desperate actions have made the question of immigration increasingly polarized. It is an unpleasant fact that Mexico and Central American countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, are rife with poverty, drug cartels, and crime, forcing many citizens to leave their homes. Compassion toward those who come over to escape for a better a life is necessary – intolerance for criminals is mandatory.

Illegal immigration today produces a political and social firestorm – a polarization of opinion that can be traced to the dangerous difficulties that face people across our nation – and none more so than those at the front line of the immigration question, like those along the U.S.-Mexico border.

And how these unauthorized immigrants arrive at their destination can be a very different story…

Welcome to Cattle Ranching on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Russell is a fourth-generation rancher, grazing sometimes more than a thousand head of cattle in the rugged country of southwestern New Mexico.  His big spread abuts the U.S.-Mexico border for eight miles, marked by sparse vegetation and sparser water, protected and defined in long stretches by crude vehicle barriers or a single strand of barbed-wire fencing. The nearest city of any size is 40 miles away.  Everything here is big, and the scale of things immense.

Russell and Brandy work hard to make a go of it in the demanding world of cattle production. It’s hard work keeping tabs on the cattle 24/7, protecting them from predators, and doing it all in a way that preserves the delicate balance that protects the natural resources they and their predecessors have relied upon for more than a century. It’s a rugged life made even more so by dealing with desperate immigrants passing through.

Russell patiently paints a scary picture of how illegal immigration has changed not just the way he manages his cattle operations, but maybe more concerning, how it has changed the way he and his family go about living their day-to-day lives.

He says the core of the problem is where his ranch lies. For miles and miles of that border, on either side of his ranch, there is no substantive barrier – other than that strand of barbed wire – standing guard against those intent upon entering the U.S. There is nothing to stop individuals from coming across their land. Increasingly, these newcomers come in waves of all-terrain vehicles, rampaging across the countryside in a headlong dash for that elusive better life somewhere north of the so-called border.

“It can be individuals, or groups being taken in by somebody with a van or a panel truck,” Russell explains.  “Sometimes they may be drug runners, or smugglers bringing cheap labor into the country for whoever wants them, or just people grasping for something better, no matter the cost or the danger for them or others.”

There’s no one way to define who is coming over. And that may be the point. “There’s just more and more of them all the time,” Russell observes.

“I have no problem with people seeking a better life,” he says in the laconic western drawl. “We all want better lives for our families. I get that. But what I don’t like is what I see happening to my life because we won’t face up to the big issue – which is building a workable immigration system. I’m tired of waiting. And frustrated.”

When a western cattle rancher says he is frustrated, it’s time to pay attention.

A Dangerous Way of Life

The increasing number of undocumented immigrants entering Russell’s ranch carries with it a lot of collateral damage.

“Well, it starts with my fences being taken down,” he says. “I get a call at 2am from Border Patrol telling me somebody has run down my fence. I have to get up and fix the fence all over again. And again, and again.”

But what animates Russell is something far more frightening than the repair expense, or the inconvenience, or more hard work. As a rancher, he’s used to that.

“It bothers me when I find one of my line sheds has been broken into for shelter,” he says. “Or even burned down to keep warm.”

Or consider the situation faced by Russell’s father and uncle during one of the worst cycles of immigrant flow into his farm. “My father and uncle’s pickup was stolen at gunpoint while they were checking on the chili pepper harvest. There were young men blending into the chili picking crew, but apparently, they were actually guarding a marijuana field in Mexico that had been raided. They needed a pickup to escape, but got it stuck in the mud just before they could cross into Mexico. The young men left the truck…some fled to a village just across the border and engaged in a gunfight with Mexican law enforcement, while a few others ran back into the U.S.”

“I’m not happy about it,” Russell adds. “But there are places on my property that I won’t let my children go – at least not without me or Brandy being with them, and without at least one of us being armed. The local police can’t be of much help. They just can’t cover all this ground.”

Asking if these kinds of episodes are a frequent problem or an occasional annoyance, Russell responds, “it goes in waves. We’ll go a while with only an occasional sighting, or even nothing happening. We’ll have a single drive-through, then have three or four for about a month.  Then they’ll move on to a new spot, the point of least resistance. They’ll move to where the Border Patrol isn’t…to where they aren’t focusing their limited resources.”

Trying to get state and other federal authorities to take action hasn’t produced much to help alleviate the problem.

“We contact all the right people, and sometimes they will send somebody out from the Border office to walk around and look at things,” Russell says, choosing his words carefully. “They don’t see anything or anybody of interest at that moment. So they sorta shrug it off and go back.”

What they don’t seem to appreciate, he adds, is that the problem is like water seeking the lowest level. “There are hundreds of miles of border” in this region, he says, including lots with nothing more than the wire fences. “When the flow of illegal immigrants builds up in one spot, Border Patrol might send out what resources they have available to help. But the runners always seem to sense when that is happening, and they just shift to another weak point and make that their way in. Then the whole process repeats itself somewhere else.”

It’s not that Border Patrol doesn’t want to try to help us, he adds. “It’s just that they don’t have enough people or resources of technology to cover it all.”  Russell knows; he used to be a Border Patrol agent, covering 67 miles of territory.

What Can be Done for Farmers at the Border?

“We need to secure our border with a barrier, put Border Patrol agents in place with the proper technology, and have immigration reform for those who want to be good productive citizens of our country.” 

Russell adds, “Long-term is the real reform of immigration policy. Let’s find a way to let people in the right way so it works for them – and not the criminals.”

As it turns out, things are moving in Russell’s favor. As we prepared this post, significant progress has been made on their 3-mile stretch of unprotected border. Russell was eager to report that things have changed drastically on his ranch and, “for a change, it’s better”.  Wall construction has started on his family’s ranch and, furthermore, Russell received a status report that a contract has been in place to fortify the 3-mile stretch of barbed wire they feared was going to be left as a gap. This gives his family much relief in knowing that their property will no longer be a funneling point.

Communication here is key, as Russell had to elevate his needs to the Administration for this additional coverage. Though it’s not an answer to a much larger, pressing issue, it’s a step in a better direction that protects the Johnsons’ ranch while helping to direct flow through the proper channels.

What’s happening at our local grocers during COVID-19?

These are some of the pressing questions we addressed during an interview with Jake Heinen, a fourth-generation family member of Heinen’s markets, who is helping to run a 90-year-old grocery business.

History of Heinen’s

Started in 1929 by Jake’s great grandfather, Joe Heinen, the original store was a small butcher shop on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. But Joe, who emigrated from Germany, had bigger dreams. Back then, stores were separate markets: you visited bakeries for breads and pastries, butcher shops for meats, farm stands for produce, and so on. This structure forced consumers to run all about town to get what they needed.

By 1933, Joe’s plan for a one-stop shop was in motion, carrying staples like butter, pickles, and donuts, in addition to his renowned meat selection.

Now, four generations later, Heinen’s has 23 stores in the greater Cleveland and Chicago areas and employs over 3,500 associates. One of the many things that distinguishes this business is their close relationships with suppliers and employees. Also, as a smaller independent grocer, they can quickly change direction to meet business and customer demands – a serious challenge for larger operations.

Specialty Suppliers in Produce & Meat

Heinen’s strategy is to truly ‘partner’ with their organic and conventional farmers. They are in constant communication about growing specs, pricing, and produce distribution. This assures Heinen’s of their supply while giving the farmer a reliable customer. By working directly with more than 75 Ohio and Illinois farmers who ship almost exclusively to Heinen’s own warehouses, they cut out the transportation middleman, therefore “limiting room for disruption and ensuring fresher quality,” as Jake calls it.

These relationships allow them to expand certain popular purchases, like heirloom-variety produce. In the summer they are 70% local but, to assure year-round supply, they also source from the U.S., Mexico, and Chile using large-scale suppliers, such as Western Growers and Driscoll Foods, also a family business.

Heinen’s promotes both conventional and organic foods. Entire quality control teams are dedicated to inspecting all products entering the warehouse to ensure their customers get the best products around. 

In discussing the big picture of the produce industry with a Driscoll employee, they casually mentioned Heinen’s as a grocer that focuses on freshness, consistency, and packaging. They observe that Heinen’s devotes more floor space per square foot than most retailers. Furthermore, their produce team is very well-trained on the sourcing, nutrition, and value of all produce, something that’s also shared with their customers who buy more produce than the average grocer’s customer.

Heinen’s takes pride in its specific criteria to meet beef, pork, and chicken products. The company follows Joe Heinen’s advice that “we must buy the best to sell the best”. All their suppliers follow the practice of humanely raising and handling their animals and never treating them with added hormones or antibiotics.

By working with these trusted family businesses that allow exclusivity on their goods, products get to their stores faster and fresher. Because Heinen’s is comparatively small, they must have their own supply and not ‘stand in line’ behind the bigger chains. This, Jake says, has been a critical component of Heinen’s ability to be “flexible” during uncertain times, like COVID-19.

How has the Coronavirus affected Heinen’s?

“It has flipped everything on its head!” Jake explains. “It has made us rethink the way that we distribute, how we are buying goods and how we can quickly change direction within our current supply chain. We are living one day at a time – everything is fluid.”

Jake attributes Heinen’s trusted supply chain and lean management style to provide a nimble foundation for special situations, like COVID-19. What do we mean? Let’s start with their safety at the store level, because Heinen’s believes their associates’ health and safety is top priority.

Being deemed an essential business has its pros and cons.

On the upside, the grocers continue to make a profit and keep their employees working. However, every day these employees come to work, they put their health at risk, something Heinen’s considers top-of-mind.

Because they have just 23 stores, all of which maintain a level of what Jake calls “managerial autonomy,” they can address the needs of the associates quickly and precisely. When COVID was deemed a pandemic, Heinen’s installed plexiglass shields at its registers. Recently, Heinen’s was able to purchase face shields and masks for their associates who felt they needed these to work safely.

They also gave their associates the first ‘dibs’ on Lysol, toilet paper, and hand sanitizers. Furthermore, Heinen’s is allowing its staff to take a three-week furlough or, if they need more time, to use their paid time off consecutively.

As new state laws rolled out with the evolution of the pandemic, Heinen’s quickly placed signs in their stores to remind employees about hand washing, social distancing, and to avoid touching their face. Markers on the floor remind shoppers of what a safe six-foot distance looks like when waiting at the checkout line, and signs posted on the shelves politely remind customers to limit purchases of paper goods and cleaning products.

Changes from Suppliers during COVID-19

“If we didn’t have our long-term relationships with our suppliers, we would be in trouble,” said Jake. “Large chain grocers such as Kroger’s and Costco get fed first – we would be at the bottom of the food chain in procuring some products.”

While grocers like Heinen’s make necessary changes, so do suppliers. Grocery product manufacturers are experiencing a lag in production and are unable to keep up with unruly demand during this crisis.

Major packaged goods companies are shifting their focus from 20 choices to eight. For instance, Barilla used to have around 20 types of pasta, but now they are putting all their production toward just eight varieties. But once-choosy customers are now just happy to have any kind of pasta. However, even with limited product production, companies still can’t keep up with the demand – just consider the shortages on toilet paper.

Because of this, Heinen’s previous schedule of buying products to ensure a plentiful supply to customers has gone out the window. Being nimble and patient during this time pays off when orders are finally delivered to the warehouse. And to make things a little smoother during this disruptive time, the company is loyal to its devoted brands and accepts goods as they come in, not giving a particular vendor undue priority.

Consumer Behavior Changes

But all that is behind the scenes. Once in the store, Heinen’s is known for being a bright, cheerful place with quality meats, cheeses, pre-made meals, and fresh produce. Their flagship store even has a nice bar on the second floor – a feature many patrons are eagerly awaiting during this pandemic.

The biggest shift in consumer behavior Jake has experienced thus far in the pandemic is their online delivery business. Online grocery sales typically make up 3-4% of Heinen’s overall sales, but with coronavirus, their online business has tripled. This leaves questions about consumer experience and satisfaction. Sometimes online shoppers don’t pick the right things they’re looking for…what does that do to their experience? Will they use this platform more going forward? How can we maintain that in-store connection while our customers are shopping online?

Jake’s Major Takeaways

  • Trust our food supply. This situation is unique and there are plenty of quality goods. They will continue to be available and handled in a safe way by producers and retailers. From the farm to the food manufacturers, everyone is working hard to bring quality food to the grocery store.
  • Don’t hoard. Help your community by only buying what you need. Those who buy up all the toilet paper, hand sanitizers, and paper towels when they already have enough at home are putting their community at risk.
  • Continue social distancing while shopping and take precautions. As much as we all want to get out of the house, grocery shopping should not be a family outing activity. Stay in and stay safe at this time, unless necessary.
  • If anyone at Heinen’s store were to test positive for COVID-19, know that the store would immediately close and management would take all precautions to properly decontaminate and isolate. Furthermore, a third-party cleaning company with FDA-approved products would also disinfect the stores before re-opening.

In the long run, Heinen’s believes that their consumers will appreciate transparency in all that they do, because being a boutique family business puts them in the unique position of connecting with not only their associates to address their needs, but their loyal customers, too.

Cork & Cow: FFA Spotlight on Emily Matzke

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.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we would like to introduce Emily Matzke. Her passion for ag was rediscovered in FFA and now she’s developing a business plan to tie her love of ag and local food products together to make a unique frozen treat! Here is her story told from her unique point of view.

I am Emily Matzke, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I am studying Animal Science and Life Sciences Communication with a business emphasis. I became interested in these areas of study due to my interest in agriculture from a young age.

I got my start in agriculture on my grandparents’ dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin, where I learned to find value in working the land. When I was in third grade, my grandpa passed away and my family made the ultimate decision to sell our herd of cows. At that point, my one true connection to production agriculture was lost.

Reconnecting with the farm

As I grew up, I found other ways to become involved in agriculture. I joined 4-H to participate in projects such as veterinary science, photography and showing dairy cattle. Through this, I was able to spend time on a family friend’s farm, which helped return me to my roots. Once I was old enough, I joined my local FFA chapter, which is where I like to say that I had a “light bulb” moment.

My experience in FFA made me realize that the agriculture community was where I was meant to be and where I would build a life and career.

In FFA, I participated in speaking contests, equine and poultry judging, attended numerous leadership conferences, planned field trips and much more. I felt the greatest joy when I had the opportunity to share my agriculture story with younger students. While in high school, I also began working on a farm, where I fed calves and assisted with field work.

A fine idea with wine

My experience in FFA and working on this farm is what truly sparked my idea for a future business. My goal is to produce wine ice cream from a small herd of cows using local Wisconsin wine. This business venture would allow me to stay true to my roots of involvement in the dairy industry, while also finding a unique way to stay afloat in this tough agricultural economy. I am hoping that my studies in college will provide me the necessary knowledge to be successful in this business opportunity.

Additionally, I would like to have a “side hustle”, as they call it, where I work with elementary students to educate them about agriculture, as well as blogging and speaking about agriculture with consumers.

Evaluating the specialty dairy market

I have always known that I had an interest in production agriculture, but knew that it was going to be next to impossible to find my place considering today’s economy. I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a town that has one of Wisconsin’s largest and most successful vineyards and wineries, which is where I drew my inspiration from. I knew that the wine industry was growing in Wisconsin, and with our proud dairy heritage, I decided to pursue this opportunity.

I began my research and learned that there is alcoholic ice cream on the market, but not much that is specifically made from wine. My goal is to market this product towards young millennials “foodies”, as market trends indicate this group is most interested in trying new food products. I plan to sell my products in the southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois markets, specifically in larger metropolitan areas.

My current biggest challenge is figuring out the supply chain that will help me reach my ultimate goal of bringing my product to market. I am hoping that my experience at the FFA New Century Farmer will help guide me down the right path for accomplishing these goals.

Stay tuned for more Future Farmers of America stories like this. If you would like to get involved with FFA, visit www.ffa.org. 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 info@dirt-to-dinner.com – we’d love to hear your stories!

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 www.ffa.org. 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 info@dirt-to-dinner.com – we’d love to hear your stories!


Our Agricultural Extension Service: From Gardening to Food Safety

Have you ever visited, or even heard of your local agriculture extension program? Extension services provide an amazing array of resources, instruction, and assistance to people everywhere – from those living in the inner city to the most rural locale –to educate about food and farming and to help bridge the distance between dirt and dinner.

The United States’ Cooperative Extension system is a vast network of offices and resources specializing in all things ag, from helping you plan your seasonal veggie garden to providing assistance to large farm producers. These services are available nationwide at the county level and you can find your local office here. What’s remarkable about the system is that it’s backed by local colleges and universities to provide current information and in-depth research for the county’s specific location.

In this post, we take a look at how one state’s extension service works to fulfill the ambitions laid out in legislation dating back more than a full century. We spoke with Dr. Gary Bates, director of the The University of Tennessee’s Beef and Forage Center and professor of plant sciences at the UT Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville.

The program is a huge undertaking

Over 400 agents, working in offices, fields, and homes across Tennessee’s 95 counties, backed by university researchers, scientists and scholars. Education and support to 71,000 families, over 200,000 children and nearly a quarter-million people engaged in farming and food production. Practical help and instruction for more than a half-million state citizens, to the benefit of all 4.3 million Tennesseans.

In this case, the “undertaking” is the University of Tennessee’s Extension Services program – the outreach program of the school’s Institute of Agriculture. Its mission: to improve people’s quality of life and solve problems through the application of research and evidence-based knowledge about agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, 4-H youth development, and community development.

Behind the somewhat cool institutional language, the real message is far more compelling.

“Our extension services seek to answer real-life questions,” according to Dr. Gary Bates, director of the University’s Beef and Forage Center and associate professor of plant and soil science. It’s learning for the real world, not just a classroom or a course exam or even a dinner-table discussion.

“Our approach is to look at three sectors in what we do,” Dr. Bates explains. “There’s the ag side – the producers. Then there is the average person, the homeowner, and consumer — urban, suburban and rural. Then there is the 4-H.”

Why does the 4-H get such special attention?  “Here in Tennessee, we have one of the larger 4-H groups in the country, roughly 180,000 kids. Sustainability is all about the future, and those kids are our future.”

Through the extension program, young people learn not just basic agronomics or animal husbandry or sustainable farming practices but also a host of other demanding subjects. “A lot of science goes into feeding the world,” Dr. Bates says.

“Just look at what science has done in our lifetime to boost corn yields. We’re feeding a bigger, hungrier world thanks to science. Think about the importance of plant breeding, how we can use drones to be more productive, how to turn precision agriculture and big data into practical improvements in how we farm. We help kids understand all that, and how important and exciting career in agriculture and food can be for them.”

“Farming isn’t Jim-Bob in a pair of overalls today, if it ever really was,” Dr. Bates notes. “If you are interested in science, agriculture is one of the best fields you can go into. What we do helps kids see that.”

Teaching Life Skills

But that is far from the sole focus of the extension service, he adds quickly.

“Our programs help develop those young people, and not just to farm. We want people to know that their food didn’t just spring up magically from the ground, or just appear on a grocery shelf or a restaurant plate from thin air,” Bates says. “But we use agriculture to teach life skills. How to care for animals and plants and other living things. How to be responsible.  How to work with others, and to listen and communicate with people, including public speaking. And a whole lot more.”

That philosophy is nothing new. It’s been part of the extension service program since the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Even then, the Act’s objectives went beyond education for rural Americans in agricultural production to home economics, leadership and other skills contributing to an improved quality of life.

Dr. Bates notes that commercial producers represent only about 2 percent of the state population.

“You would be surprised at how many other kinds of agriculture are out there – home gardens and small part-time operations, local food businesses like restaurants and sidewalk markets, and that kind of thing,” he says. “And beyond that, there’s one really important thing to keep in mind: everybody eats.”

Dr. Bates also emphasizes the importance of extension services to people in making the best use of food, not just producing it.

We help people learn how to set up and manage a home budget, how to prepare food safely, how to plan out a wholesome, nutritious meals for the whole family, how to manage your time wisely… pretty much anything we can think of that will help people and families live better lives.” 

Through the extension services, local operations offer instruction in small-acreage agricultural production for home gardeners and part-time producers.  They sponsor farmers’ markets and local community gardens. They provide courses in food preparation and nutrition, and even advice on budgeting and managing small business operations.

“It’s a continuous education process,” Dr. Bates explains. “It can’t stand still, or stop thinking about new ways to help people.  We’re constantly evaluating what we do and how effective it is, and how we can do it better. Above all, what we are doing is helping the entire local community to have locally produced food and to use it safely and wisely.”

What Lies Ahead

What are the biggest challenges? What issues are you wrestling with today?

As with every industry, keeping pace with technology presents its issues. “There are new systems, new equipment, new management programs, new everything, it seems some days. We have to stay on top of all that, and be prepared to help people understand it and what it can do for them as producers –and consumers.”

The fast pace can create a new sense of urgency, too, Dr. Bates notes. “People want answers faster. They want help faster. They want results faster. That keeps us on our toes, to say the least. We have to be responsive, and we work really hard to do that.”

He also points to complications arising from the cyber age. “There’s tons of data out there. We want to use the science and research generated by the University to accomplish something in the real world, to make things actually work better or deliver more.”

Then there is social media, he adds. “How do we use it to help consumers learn about food and where to find it and how to prepare it and so on. Our extension agents are clamoring for help in understanding how to make the best use of social media.”

Healthy Ag, Healthy Economy

Why is that ambitious goal of promoting the general welfare of the state population the role of the extension services?

Dr. Bates has a quick answer to the question: “Why shouldn’t it be?”

“We’ve built our programs around the simple idea that if our state economy is going to be healthy, we have to have a healthy agricultural sector…we want everybody in the state to be able to benefit from that.  Not just the men and women who produce agricultural products…we teach people how to get the most from that system, in how they choose the right foods, how they preserve food and avoid waste, how they prepare safe meals for their families, and on and on and on. We teach everyone how important it is to make the system truly sustainable.”

So extension services are about far more than helping farmers make more money?

‘We’re working to make sure our ag sector thrives, and that it is profitable, sure, but also that it is sustainable,” he adds. “When we do that, we give our agricultural system real stability – and make sure it stays a cornerstone of a healthy state economy.  Those aren’t just words we say, either.  We’ve got people in 95 counties working to make sure it’s a lot more than just talk.”

Thoughts from a Bystander

Whether we’re a farmer, manufacturer, or consumer, extension programs, like the University of Tennessee’s, help us produce more of the food people need and want, profitably and sustainably. They help us develop new and better crops and more alternatives for meeting our food needs. They help us feed our families with better, safer, more nutritious foods. And they help us waste less. They help us make the best use of our natural resources, and preserves and protect them for future generations.

Like they say again and again across the extension service network, we’re all in this together.

Manuka Honey: Life Changer or Money Waster?

I don’t know about you, but I am always a sucker for the latest superfood, cure-all, next-best-thing! I love to try products out for myself, but always wonder if it will actually work. And can I do any harm in the process of my personal exploration?

What’s the 411 on Manuka Honey?

Manuka honey, different from regular honey, is being hailed as liquid gold because of the supposed healing and antimicrobial powers of this superfood. The emergence of Manuka popularity comes on the heels of new superbug discoveries claiming that antibiotic-resistant pathogens can be treated with Manuka honey. The medical field has started dealing with these pathogens in alternative ways, thus Manuka honey’s gain in recent popularity due to its ability to slow down or prevent bacterial growth.

However, what comes from a spark? A fire. And the claims of Manuka honey began to spread. Instead of an accurate portrayal of an alternative antimicrobial substance that is under scientific investigation, thanks to social media, we have gone from zero to a hundred in less than 5 seconds.

What are the supposed health claims?

Manuka honey has carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and phenolic and flavonoid compounds. However, what makes Manuka particularly unique are three special ingredients: methylglyoxal, dihydroxyacetone, and leptosperin. MGO is said to fight off several bacteria-related infections. Dihydroxyacetone, a precursor chemical of MGO, is found in the nectar. Leptosperin is a natural chemical from manuka nectar that makes the product shelf-stable. When these ingredients work together, they enable this particular honey to potentially fight off several bacteria-related infections.

The combination of these ingredients is touted to reduce allergies, boost immune function, enhance skin, improve sleep, combat staph infections, reduce IBS, prevent tooth and gum decay, treat infected wounds, burns and ulcers. Sounds like another Celery Juice cure-all!

Is there a scientific foundation for these claims?

To be frank, scientific studies do not exist to support every health claim out there. Investigations into some of the supposed benefits are in the works, but here is what we found on its efficacy…

Evidence for treating all these ailments remains largely anecdotal. However, a few small studies have concluded that Manuka honey can aid in treating gingivitis. By chewing what they refer to as “Manuka honey leather”, plaque was reduced, and ultimately was proven to be a positive treatment for oral health.

The most compelling studies show that Manuka honey can help to inhibit or stop the growth of certain topical bacteria – especially compared to other types of honey. This study showed that when Manuka is used in wound protection, it elicits antibacterial results. Continued study is critical as chronic wounds resistant to antibiotics are a global health issue around the world.

For instance, a friend of mine had a terrible bacteria infection on her face and antibiotic cream didn’t work. She tried Manuka honey – and it disappeared with a week. However, it has been determined that replications to these clinical studies are needed before claims like this can be truly confirmed.

Ultimately, there is little evidence to support the purported benefits. However, it is safe to consume, can be a natural and safe topical antibiotic, and there is likely little harm in trying it. Western medicine often refers to it as a ‘worthless but harmless substance‘. Unless you have a bee allergy, of course – then take caution!

So what exactly is Manuka Honey?

Manuka honey comes from the manuka bush, which is indigenous to New Zealand and Australia. Some argue that only the “real” manuka comes from New Zealand. In fact, the two countries are actually in a dispute for the trademark over the health product.

The honey itself comes from the flower nectar on the manuka bush. But both the nectar and the bees together are what give manuka its unique properties. It is thicker in texture than other types of honey. It tastes less sweet, though it can still be used in drinks, as a spread, and for baking.

The UMF Honey Association developed the term UMF, or Unique Manuka Factor, that grades the honey as to whether it meets the UMF Honey Association standards. The ideal score is between 10 and 18, and is based on certain chemical markers unique to the manuka plant. However, more research needs to be done to determine whether this rating has any significance. Brands that use the rating system include Manukora, Comvita, and Happy Valley.


Where can I buy Manuka Honey?

It’s widely available now – even at Walgreens and CVS. In fact, I just bought some at Whole Foods to see if it’ll help my mosquito bites heal. While I could not determine if it was time or the honey that helped heal the bites, it was worth a shot on such a mild affliction.

With its uses spanning from topical application, to cooking, and now in the healthcare spectrum, Manuka is a well-known product to specialty grocery store shelves, as well as many eCommerce sites. It comes in its raw form, in a supplement, and in a variety of products where Manuka honey is the primary or active ingredient. This includes beauty products, throat lozenges, face washes, hair masks and acne treatments.

How can I be sure it’s the real stuff?

For starters, don’t forget that Manuka is currently only made in Australia and New Zealand, so if a label says any other origin, it is likely not real Manuka. Another thing to note is that many labels state that their honey is “natural” or “organic”. These two labels do not mean that the honey is Manuka; you must look for the word “Manuka” in the ingredients list. Another good sign is the cost: Manuka is currently averaging about $30 a jar, or between $50 and $150 for supplements, so if the price you see is less than this average cost, be sure to confirm.

On the Farm & In the Books: FFA Spotlight on Katherine Smith

ffa katherine smith

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.

Our first featured story is about Katherine Smith. Through her extensive work on the farm and in the books, Katherine sees the biggest challenge in modern agriculture is helping smallholder farmers achieve profitability through financial stability and process improvement, and her mission is to make that happen.

Here is Katherine’s story told from her unique point of view. She details how she found her special niche in ag and what she is doing to further her career in the industry.

I grew up in Lynden, Washington, an agricultural community known for our dairies and berries. 90% of North America’s red raspberries are grown within a 50-mile radius of Lynden. My grandparents live on the south coast of Oregon and are organic cranberry farmers. Growing up, I always got to skip at least a week of school during October so that my family could go down to help with the harvest. Perhaps one of my fondest memories was my grandma teaching me how to do long division on a cardboard box so that I could calculate something for the farm. From a young age, I knew I wanted to work in agriculture. I loved how there was always a new challenge to solve, whether that was machinery breaking or trying to figure out a better way to complete our work.

I first joined FFA during my freshman year of high school because I wanted to show pigs at the local fair. I’d been involved in poultry 4-H, but my mom thought FFA was a better fit. I joined the Livestock Judging team because I figured that would be a good way to make me a better and more knowledgeable showman. However, I wasn’t that committed to FFA until after my judging team went to state and ended up placing second. This meant that I was now going to the state convention the following week for the awards on stage.

At the first State dinner, one of the advisors asked me if I was good at math. I said sure, and he asked if I wanted to join the Farm Business Management team since they had an extra spot. The Farm Business Management competition is a three-hour agricultural economics, accounting, and finance test.

That was a pivotal moment for me; from then on, FFA became my passion. I ended up raising hogs, competing in Livestock Judging, Horse Judging, Farm Business Management, Parliamentary Procedures, and Extemporaneous Public Speaking. I served as a chapter and district officer and ran for state office.

The summer following my senior year of high school, I began working as a Quality Control Lab tech at Enfield Farms, Inc. in Lynden, WA. Enfields grows, processes, and packages individually quick-frozen raspberries and blueberries, in addition to puree and juice stock products. Having grown up working on my grandparent’s organic fresh fruit cranberry farm, I had experience with processing fruit and thoroughly enjoyed my work at Enfield’s.

The following summer I was offered an internship with the Quality Control department. Through that internship, I continued my work in the lab, but also performed a study on storage temperatures and the formation of ice crystals. I then assisted in the development of a process to allocate pallets of finished product to different product codes based on quality.

My third summer at Enfield’s, my internship changed a bit to focus on Food Safety and Inventory Control. During that summer, we implemented a new warehouse management system and I worked with the inventory tracking personnel to take raw fruit weight measurements and label-finished product according to the product codes given by the process I had worked on the previous year. I also worked with production employees to ensure food safety protocols were followed.

Last summer, my job title was Production Quality Coordinator. I was responsible for ensuring the correct operation of our inventory tracking process within the processing plant, the product disposition process, and shipping finished pallets to the various cold storage facilities.

While in college, my hope had been to work with my grandparents to expand their cranberry operation and to eventually move into farming full-time. As a result, I began majoring in biochemistry since the university with the best scholarship didn’t have an agricultural program. I started taking some business classes, as well, and eventually realized my passion for accounting.

Perhaps I should have figured this out a little sooner because as soon as I graduated high school, I began coaching my chapter’s Farm Business Management team and have always been passionate about bringing business and agriculture together. I ended up changing my major to Accounting during my junior year and miraculously still managed to graduate on time.

In college, I realized that while my grandparent’s farm is great for them in their retirement, the amount of capital required to expand it to the point where it would be profitable for a family is extensive. At the moment, I am studying for my Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exams and this fall will begin working for a local public accounting firm with a lot of agricultural clients. While at the moment I’m not pursuing agriculture full-time, my plan is to save my money and slowly work into farming for myself.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned that I love educating people about agriculture, working to develop new processes, and the challenges provided by agriculture. My hope is that I will be able to use my business education and agricultural experience to help farmers do business better so that they can continue to do what they love. Whether that means that I continue in accounting or end up with my own farm, I think I can achieve those objectives either way.

Stay tuned for more Future Farmers of America stories like this. If you would like to get involved with FFA, visit www.ffa.org. 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 info@dirt-to-dinner.com – we’d love to hear your stories!



Fair Oaks Farms: Taking Responsibility

Fair Oaks Farms

What happened on Fair Oaks Farm is surprising, unacceptable and horrifying. Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) videotaped five people, four of whom were employees, severely abusing calves. Fair Oaks had previously terminated three of these employees before the videos were released. The fourth, who was behind the video camera, was terminated after the videos were released. Additionally, there was a truck driver involved who worked for Midwest Veal, a company that picks up and delivers calves between farms or for delivery to processors. He is now banned from any Fair Oaks Farm.

A few years ago, I was so excited to hear about the partnership between Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana and Coca Cola. They created a new technology that gives us healthy nutrients, such as DHA and more protein, while reducing the sugar and fat compared to other milks.  They have committed to traceability and sustainable farming – which includes exceptional cow care.  I have never looked back.

CEO Takes Full Responsibility

It is not the challenges that define you as an individual or a company, it is how you handle them and prevent them from occurring again.

Mike McCloskey, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms, immediately took control and made a statement:

I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort. The employees featured in the video exercised a complete and total disregard for the documented training that all employees go through to ensure the comfort, safety and well-being of our animals.

While they already have a strong policy which adheres to each animal’s welfare, Fair Oaks Farms has now strengthened it further. It is due to their existing policy of “if you see something – say something”, they were able to fire the three criminals well before the videos came out. His additional policies not only will make Fair Oaks cows more protected, but this will most likely filter out to other large dairies, thus making animal welfare an even more significant focus on his farms.

McCloskey guarantees this will not happen again at Fair Oaks Farms, as he has already implemented the following protocols since the incident:

  • Invested in a 24-hour camera system at each point where animals and personnel interact. This will stream live into the public domain and the Fair Oaks Adventure Center.

  • Contracted with a third-party animal welfare company to perform random audits on his facility and expects that they will be on his facilities every other week. They will report directly to McCloskey.

  • Hired an animal welfare specialist to continually train all employees at all locations and be responsible for reporting on animal welfare. All employees will continue their animal welfare training upon hiring.

  • Working with an attorney to prosecute the employees in the video and any future animal abusers.

Changing an Industry for the Better

This fallout has caused some grocery stores to pull Fairlife from their shelves. Some people have elicited a ban on Fair Oaks dairy products, or even dairy itself, saying that the entire industry abuses their animals. This is not true. This is not the first time some twisted individual has infiltrated a company in an attempt to spread rhetoric like this.

How many of us take Tylenol or other over-the-counter anti-inflammatories? If you recall the Tylenol scare in 1982, someone replaced extra-strength Tylenol pills with deadly cyanide-laced capsules pills inside the Tylenol bottles, resealed the boxes and put them on pharmacy shelves near Chicago. Seven people died. Jim Burke, the CEO, immediately pulled all Tylenol bottles off the shelves and set the new standard for safety. Johnson & Johnson was the first company to implement triple-sealed tamper-resistant packaging. We, the consumers, didn’t reject all anti-inflammatories as a result of this disaster.

Who’s Next to Take Responsibility?

In the Fair Oaks case, there are a couple of unanswered questions:

  • If ARM has the best interest of the animals at stake, why didn’t the person behind the video camera report the abuse immediately? It is difficult enough to watch the video – how could someone film this without saying something?

  • Who was the person behind the camera? Was it one of the three employees who was fired?

  • The videos ended in October of 2018; why did it take nine months to report such abusive behavior?

We might never know the answers. What we do know is that workplace violence is a form of terrorism, in this case, on animals.

Supporting the dairy industry is more important than ever. 95% of American dairy farms are family owned. The U.S. dairy industry employs, directly and indirectly, almost 3 million people with over 40,000 farms and 1,300 facilities. Banning an entire industry because of five violent individuals just doesn’t make sense.

The Farm Babe: An Ag Love Story

michelle miller, farm babe, doug sass

L.A. Girl Meets Iowa Farmer

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

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

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

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

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

New Life Experiences On The Farm

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

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

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

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

The Business of Farming

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

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

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

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

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

Farming Through Volatility 

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

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

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

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

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

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

#CeleryJuice: Based on Facts or Followers?

social media icons with word "trapped"

Perpetuating pseudoscience

The #celeryjuice sensation has flooded our social feeds, mainstream news outlets, and Instagram stories. Images of beautiful and healthy green juice drinkers are regularly splashed upon our screens. These alluring photos and tweets touting the magical benefits of celery juice even prompted some at D2D to run to our local grocery store in search of celery stalks!

But, wait, we asked, “where is the science?”

The major health claim is that by drinking 16 ounces of raw celery juice in the morning, on an empty stomach, you can transform your health in as little as one week. It looks and sounds so easy-breezy, but is there any scientific proof?

Social media influence is blinding

The latest miracle elixir has gone viral, with over 120,000 posts tagged and swoon-worthy celebrities like Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Secret model Miranda Kerr, rap star Pharrell Williams, and talk show host Busy Philipps all enthusiastically supporting the celery wellness movement.

Celery juice looks delicious but it is not a miracle elixir!

“Apparently it’s supposed to do all of these wonderful things for you and something with Gwyneth Paltrow and I don’t know but I’m on board.”
– Busy Philipp

The self-proclaimed originator of the global celery juice movement is “medical medium” Anthony Williams, a Los Angeles-based health guru. With over 1.7 million followers on Instagram, Williams states that this cure-all elixir “is a powerful herbal medicine that is killing bugs in people’s bodies” and can transform your health in just days. What kind of “bugs”? The flu? Colds?

And have we learned nothing from the Fyre festival, that perception based on social influence can distort reality?

Williams says that he respects medical professionals. However, he rejects basic science and lacks scientific peer-reviewed studies to support his claims. This social media movement exploits chronic illness sufferers by giving them false hope.

Spirits and salts?

Williams explains that he has discovered the health benefits of celery juice via “spiritual clairvoyance”, which means that a spirit speaks to him in a voice only he can hear. In addition to the transformative claims of gut health, Williams also declares that he has uncovered what he calls cluster salts. He explains that cluster salts are a subgroup of sodium which can kill pathogens in people’s bodies, helping to rid chronic illness sufferers of ulcers, acne, eczema & psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, UTIs, acid reflux, and even high cholesterol.

Red flags all over the place!

How can one vegetable, comprised of almost 95% water and not particularly high in any vitamin or mineral, cure all these different ailments? Well, the short answer is that no human research has been conducted to prove all these claims. #Celeryjuice is the epitome of pseudoscience.

The truth is that celery, like most veggies, is a healthy dietary choice. Celery is hydrating due to its high water content; it is also naturally low in calories, fat, cholesterol, and carbohydrates. It contains a good amount of folate, as well as sodium, vitamin K and flavonoids, which have been shown in studies to balance electrolytes, keep blood pressure low, and combat inflammation. But most other veggies like broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower offer the same, if not more, nutrients.

Source: nutriliving.com

Your money would be better spent if you buy the whole celery stalk and incorporate it into a whole-food diet full of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, whole grain, and lean proteins.
–Kristen Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Convenience over correctness?

Think of the recent wellness trends that have come and gone–oil pulling, activated charcoal, apple cider vinegar, the Master Cleanse, fasting, jade rollers, the red wine diet, waist trainers, raw milk—the list goes on. Psychologists have recently studied the implications of our “quick-fix” society”, determining that consumer decisions are not made with respect to the most effective option, but rather the quickest, and often only temporary, remedy.

Nutritionists we spoke to unanimously dismissed the quick fix mindset. To truly understand our health and optimize our well-being, we must look at our overall lifestyle, which includes behaviors, activity, sleep, relationships, and diet. And ultimately, not fall for social gimmicks, rooted in misleading pseudoscience.

“The science behind celery juice is very complicated. Many of the articles Williams references in his writing are animal-based studies, using high dosages. Ultimately, our dietary decisions should be looked at on an individual level, as each body is so different from the next.”
– Keiy Murofushi, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Cedars-Sinai Medical

Social media and social acceptance

According to Sprout Socialsocial networks are the largest source of inspiration for consumer decisions. It is a massive marketplace, with advertising revenue reaching $18.4 billion in 2018 spent on influencing you, the consumer. It is no wonder we as a society struggle with proper decision making when the influx of consumer-targeted ads and social messaging is utterly overwhelming.

Additionally, social media is designed to be addicting, taking advantage of our need for a sense of community, acceptance, and inclusion. How many followers do you have? How many likes did you get on your last post? It preys on a basic desire to “fit in” with our peers.  It is this unconscious desire that often drives our decision making and blinds us to the facts. And in the case of celery juice, obscures our view of what is truly a healthy diet!

So how can you combat a very real societal challenge? Base your health decisions in science.

Rallying for our Flooded Farmers


At Dirt-to-Dinner, we love working with farmers and telling their story. We want to take a moment to not only inform others of the flooding’s magnitude but also to consider a few ways to help those in need.

Floods sweep away livestock and buildings

Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska and Iowa have been suffering through a natural catastrophe that has yielded unprecedented damage. The flooding that began in March was so strong that it literally swept away cattle and other livestock, never to be seen again. But the devastation doesn’t end there. As flood waters continue to roll in, farmers’ losses are compounded as time eats away at what would otherwise have been used to plant crops for the upcoming harvest.

“The extensive flooding we’ve seen…will continue through May and may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as the water flows downstream.”
– Ed Clark, Director of NOAA’s National Water Center

The timing of these floods couldn’t be worse for farmers and ranchers, many of whom currently struggle to keep their farms in operation. Farmers have been working on very slim profit margins with historically low commodity prices and punitive export taxes in ongoing trade wars. When this flood rushed in, it hit our farm belt like a tsunami.

The flooding also wiped out farmers’ reserves. Many farmers strategically store last season’s crops to protect against a downturn, like a rough trading climate or a bad storm. In fact, because of tensions with China, farmers stored more of their harvest last year than in previous years for such protection. Sadly, all those efforts – and lost income – went to waste.

Damage is in the billions

Nebraska and Iowa were hit the hardest by the flooding, with initial damage estimated at $1.4 billion and $2.0 billion, respectively, and these estimates exclude long-term damage, which can multiply the loss, especially when you consider all the unplanted and unharvested crops this year. Furthermore, other affected factors like feed, soil quality, and water supply, will have a profound ripple effect throughout the system that lingers far beyond the current flood.

“This flood isn’t just bigger; the effects will last longer. Long after waters recede, the sand and debris left behind must be cleaned up before planting. But the equipment to remove that debris is not always available quickly and fields may not be ready in time for farmers to get a crop in at all this year.”
– Sam Funk, Iowa Farm Bureau’s Senior Economist

More than 500,000 acres of land were flooded in total, mostly comprised of corn and soybean crops. That’s the equivalent of the area of 35 Manhattans! While floodwaters are now receding in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, river levels are increasing across the northern Plains, with more flooding likely. In Nebraska alone, $400 million worth of livestock have been killed or displaced. This affects not only the ranchers’ operations and livelihoods, but also our dinner plates as the market seeks to find a new balance, leading to beef price fluctuations.

Additionally, with 81 of the 93 counties in Nebraska in a state of emergency as of March-end, many of the roads, bridges, and tunnels are in disrepair, leaving farmers unable to get their goods to the market or transportation hub. For instance, what normally took one Nebraskan farmer around 15 minutes now takes more than three hours to bring his food to market, increasing costs during an already extremely challenging economic time.

A farmer’s limited protection

Our nation provides protection in such disasters at both a federal and state level that farmers can utilize. Of particular aid to farmers in need is the Farm Bill, which significantly extended disaster assistance as of 2014 to include livestock loss from weather events, livestock emergency assistance, and other relevant programs. Also, farmers and ranchers not previously signed up for protection prior to these catastrophic events now have access to coverage.

Despite the breadth of programs offered to those in need, they can still leave the farmer vulnerable to massive loss, as many of these programs only cover a fraction of the damage, if even at all. For instance, with the stored crops we mentioned earlier, neither insurance nor the Farm Bill will cover the loss. In more typical weather events, farmers would have enough time to relocate their grains and seeds in the event of flooding. However, the recent flooding filled the fields too quickly, leaving farmers with no time to relocate their millions of dollars’ worth of stored crops. Any farmer depending on selling those crops for necessary operations and taxes will likely go out of business.

Given the magnitude of loss and the lack of farmer protection in particular issues like stored crops, we expect that new legislation may be proposed in the near future to cover such devastation. But, for many hurting families and communities in the Midwest, those funds can’t come soon enough.

Humanity at its finest

For those who have lost so much, not all hope is lost. Thanks to the compassion of many individuals, companies, and organizations, these farmers and ranchers can find more relief from the storm. Addy Tritt, a recent college graduate, found a remarkable way to help: she purchased a stores’ worth of shoes to donate. Now some may think she must have pretty deep pockets to donate over 200 pairs of shoes, but she used her ingenuity to provide relief. Knowing that Payless was going out of business, she called the corporate office and negotiated over $6,000 worth of inventory down to $100. Talk about a good deal!!

Ralco, an ag tech company, has donated over $15,000 of their animal feed and wellness products to farmers in need. With products that help cattle overcome high-stress situations, Ralco’s donation will go far with livestock that may have temporarily suffered from malnutrition and trauma.

And organizations like Farm Rescue are continually seeking ways to help farmers and ranchers by providing the necessary equipment and manpower to plant or harvest their crops. They also provide livestock feeding assistance and other services.

What can we all do to help?

For one, know that it’s never too late to give. And two, every little bit helps. Even providing a can of beans, donating $5, or just sending a hand-written note of support and warmth will go far. You can donate money or other services at Farm Rescue which has locations throughout the farm belt.

Nebraska Farm Bureau established a Disaster Relief Fund, where 100% of the donations will be distributed to Nebraska farmers, ranchers, and rural communities affected by the disasters. And if you are a farmer in the area and have hay, feedstuffs, fencing materials or equipment to spare, please consider donating to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, where they will provide supplies to those in need.

Should your spring cleaning leave you with extra gently-used clothes, the United Way of the Midlands’ Omaha office at 2201 Farnam Street in Omaha, NE 68102 is set up for donations. They have established the Nebraska & Iowa Flood Relief Fund to help people who lost homes or suffered other setbacks in the flooding. 100% of every donation will be given to nonprofit programs that provide shelter, food and other services in the area.

D2D On the Farm: The Row We Hoe

Fresh vegetables from Hindinger Farm

2018 Farm Income is at a 12-Year Low

You might be surprised to learn that the family farm still prevails! 99% of the farms in the United States are family-owned, and these farms account for approximately 89% of total farm production.

But the bigger picture of American agriculture is sobering. A volatile commodity trading environment, higher operating costs, and lower crop prices have farm income forecasts at a record 12-year low.

The effect of these factors, which are beyond a farmers control, ripple down to the grocery store. For every dollar consumers spend on food at the supermarket, the farmer receives just 14.8 cents.

“The prices that farmers have been receiving for their products aren’t paying the bills, and too many are being forced to give up farming.” – National Farmers Union

The Row We Hoe – Hindinger Farm

On a broad vista of 120 acres in New Haven County, Connecticut, fourth-generation Hindinger Farms grows a variety of fruit and vegetable crops from early spring until late fall. Seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, George prepares the fields, nurtures the plants, weeds, keeps crop pests at bay and harvests the crops. Liz takes care of the farm stand, finances, and marketing.

As with many smaller farms, the costs of running their farm can sometimes exceed the income they produce from growing and selling their fresh fruits and vegetables. These substantial costs include insurance, electricity, fuel, loan payments, equipment, labor, irrigation, seeds, nursery stock and much more. So, they are always looking for ways to increase revenue and get people to eat more fruits and vegetables!

The Hindingers – Anne, George, and Liz run the 4th generation family farm in Hamden, Connecticut. The farm produces vegetables and fruits from May through November.

The Dirt-to-Dinner team chatted with the Hindingers to get a better sense of their farm and operations.

D2D: Tell us about the beginnings of Hindinger Farm.
HF: Our grandparents emigrated from Germany in the 1890s, bought the farmland, and started raising turkeys, pigs, and a few vegetable crops. They did all the farm work themselves and would sell at the wholesale market in New Haven. In 1955, Liz and George’s father expanded farm production by adding more fruits and vegetables.

Picking strawberries at Hindinger Farm, 1914

D2D: Do you grow with organic or conventional methods?
HF: Actually, for over 30 years we have practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which you could consider the best combination of the two. IPM allows us to prevent pest damage to fruits and vegetables while minimizing pesticide use.

We regularly test our soil, rotate crops and scout the fields for pest damage to stay ahead of their cycle. We utilize the resources of the Connecticut Agricultural station to help identify and manage crop pests. Fallow fields are cover-cropped to nourish the soil, and beneficial plants are planted alongside crops to help produce a healthy and biodiverse ecosystem.

Kale and Collards — two late-season crops.

D2D: Do you require seasonal labor?
HF: Yes, we hire H2-A workers from Jamaica. We provide housing, transportation and comply with the rules and regulations of The Immigration and Nationality Act. These workers are vital to our operation as without them we would not be able to farm. We cannot find local labor to work long hours, come back season after season, and genuinely care as much about our farm.

D2D: There is an upward trend in consumers’ desire for buying locally-grown food, and research forecasts that this trend will continue as consumers demand transparency and sustainability. What do you think of this?
HF: We earn the majority of our income by selling directly to consumers through our farm stand and seasonal Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions.

But, we live in a town of 60,000 people and have approximately 300 CSA subscriptions. So, consumers are shopping elsewhere or not eating enough fruits and vegetables! This may be out of convenience, time constraints, or a better price point in the grocery store, but the reality is you cannot compare the freshness and variety of locally-grown produce with that you find in a grocery store.

“We estimate that if our customers would spend just $5 more per week on produce, we could be ahead of our expenses.”

Sweet corn – a summertime favorite.

D2D: How do you try to differentiate yourself to bring in more customers?
HF: We are the farmers, and the people who meet us can get honest answers on anything they ask. We work the same soil as our great-grandparents did, and think that heritage resonates with a lot of people. We also sell vegetables from other farms, milk and cheese, jams, jellies, and gift items to help customers get more shopping done in one place.

George Hindinger promotes the annual strawberry festival on Connecticut Local TV

D2D: How have you adapted to social media?
HF: A social media presence on Facebook, Google Search, and even Tripadvisor have helped bring in customers to our farm. People and families have fun when they are here: they meet us, can visit with our petting goats, and enjoy a tractor ride or tour of the farm. And they go home with fresh fruits and vegetables to feed their family.

D2D: What else do you do to bring more customers to the farm?
HF: We host our famous Strawberry Festival every June, with ice cream, face painting, and music. The festival is excellent exposure and brings in many people outside the community to learn about our farm. We also host a fall harvest where we make and sell apple cider and sell lots of apples, pumpkins, gourds, squashes, and any other fall vegetables in season.

The Hindingers grow the most delicious peaches!

D2D: What will you plant differently this year than last?
HF: Every year we grow something different for our CSA customers. Maybe it’s a new type of squash, bean or tomato. The seed companies always have a great selection in January when we do our seed purchasing. Additionally, we will be growing more cut flowers this year so that people can have a fresh bouquet adorning the dinner table.

D2D: Farming is a lot of hard work. Why do you do it?
HF: We love the farm, the land, and our community.

D2D: What about the next generation – will they assume the farm?
HF: At this time, we are still working with the next generation to carry on with the farm. They have witnessed our struggles, good years and not so good years, and are not sure they want the same life. But we remain optimistic: as we modernized the farm and brought it into the age of technology, our children have the opportunity to take the farm again to the next level.

Do you know a farmer who would like to share their story? Let us know at connect@dirt-to-dinner.com

Is Glyphosate Safe?

glyphosate - roundUp

At my home, we struggle with an ongoing battle against goutweed— a Hydra Lernaia of the invasive weed world. If you pull or cut this weed, it will only sprout more roots underground as a survival response. We researched and spoke with weed experts and ended up turning to Roundup, a glyphosate product, to get rid of it. And after three applications this past spring, the weed was finally gone.

At Dirt-to-Dinner, we have researched and written about glyphosate before and concluded it safe for use as directed. But with the enormous judgment against Monsanto, in California last month, have things changed?

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide – meaning it kills anything green and growing that it is sprayed on. It is the active ingredient in Roundup®, among other herbicides, and is marketed to homeowners and farmers to kill weeds in lawns, crop fields, vineyards, and orchards. Other major users are golf course owners who use glyphosate to keep the greens and fairways pristine and the U.S. Forest Services – for forest management.

Glyphosate is also used in conjunction with herbicide-tolerant seeds for corn, soy, and cotton. So, for example, a farmer can plant Roundup-ready soybeans in the early spring, then spray the field with glyphosate for weed control and not kill the soybean seedlings.

Why do farmers use glyphosate?

Weeds compete with crops for nutrients, water, and sunlight and some even release toxic chemicals through their roots that directly harm crops. Controlling weeds with herbicides like glyphosate is a critical part of field management for farmers to achieve profitable yields. This also affects consumers in that higher yields translate into more plentiful and affordable food.

Additionally, farmers practicing no-till farming may use glyphosate to clear their fields for planting. In this case, farmers use herbicides to suppress weeds instead of tilling their field to rip them out. Reduced tillage means lower fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions from not firing up the tractor a countless number of times. It also means more decomposing matter in the soil which creates a healthy soil. Healthy soil creates strong plants, retains water, and reduces runoff and erosion.

Here is a great video produced by Know Ideas Media explaining why farmers use glyphosate.

How does glyphosate work?

Glyphosate inhibits the activity of an enzyme, called EPSP synthase, which is essential to plant growth. EPSP synthase is not found in humans or animals, and when applied to growing weeds,  just stops them in their tracks.

Once absorbed by a plant, glyphosate travels to the roots, where it is broken down naturally by bacteria and other organisms living in the soil.

How much glyphosate does the average farmer use?

Brian Scott is a soybean, corn and wheat farmer who manages 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. In this YouTube video, he demonstrates that the amount of glyphosate applied to his crops is less than 2 soda cans for every acre of land. Canadian farmer Jake Leguee puts in it another way:

“Here’s the thing about spraying a chemical like glyphosate. An acre of land is 43,560 square feet, which is a little smaller than an American football field. On that acre, 360 grams of glyphosate active ingredient is sprayed. Put another way: 2 cans of beer of glyphosate sprayed over an area almost the size of a football field. That’s 0.015 mL of beer on each square foot – and that includes the solution the glyphosate active ingredient is suspended in. That is an incredibly low concentration. A standard “drop” of water is 0.05 mL. That’s less than a third of a drop of water!”

Is glyphosate safe to use?

The science says yes. Pesticides used on conventional and organic crops are highly regulated and undergo rigorous scientific evaluation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is through this process that pesticides are safe when used according to the product label. In the case of glyphosate, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and regulatory authorities throughout the world have reaffirmed that glyphosate is safe to use as directed and does not cause cancer.

As farmer Jake Leguee says, “…it has absolutely been the single greatest invention in agricultural history. And it is unequivocally, fantastically safe. It is one of the lowest toxicity herbicides we use on our farm. It is less toxic than alcohol. Less toxic than caffeine. “

What about the findings of glyphosate residues in our food?

Whether farmed conventionally or organically, trace amounts of pesticide residues can find their way into our food system. The question is: how much residue is too much? The answer is: to consume the amount that is too much requires you to eat many, many portions, every day, for the rest of your life!

To understand how much is too much, we need to understand the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI).  ADI is a measure of the amount of a specific substance in food or drinking water that can be ingested on a daily basis over a lifetime without an appreciable health risk. The ADI is set with a large margin of safety, usually 100 times the maximum effect seen in the laboratory. The European Union has set an ADI for glyphosate at 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. The U.S. EPA figures are 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Cheerios™ by General Mills and Old Fashioned Oats by Quaker® Oats were among the favorite consumer products recently tested for glyphosate residue by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group has a history of presenting (or misrepresenting) data in a manner that causes unnecessary fear.

In this household, Cheerios™ was a staple breakfast item in this household during my children’s younger years. I wondered about EWG’s claim that I poisoned my kids.

In the examples below, we use the more conservative European Union Acceptable Daily Intake for glyphosate (0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day).

The science says… The highest level of glyphosate found in the EWG report for Cheerios (serving of 28 grams), was 0.53mg/kg. The highest level of glyphosate found in Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats (serving of 40 grams) was 1.3 mg/kg.

A child weighing 11 pounds would have to eat 29 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 101 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

An older child weighing about 44 pounds would have to eat 115 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 404 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is testing for glyphosate levels in harvested crops for the first time, released data in October 2018. In milk and eggs, none was detected, according to the agency. In corn and soybean samples that did test positive (many tested negative), the amounts were below minimum levels established by the EPA.

What about the lawsuit against Monsanto?

The California jury ruled based on their assertion that Monsanto intentionally kept Roundup’s potential risks hidden from the public – it did not link glyphosate with cancer. Monsanto maintains that glyphosate does not cause cancer. Decades of scientific studies have shown the chemical to be safe for human use. (If you would like to read more about this case, read here.)

What are the herbicide alternatives?

First introduced in the mid-1970s, glyphosate has low toxicity to humans and animals and decomposes in the soil. While there are certainly other chemicals that farmers use, glyphosate replaced a class of much more dangerous herbicides and is considered the safest and most environmentally friendly herbicide on the market today.

D2D on the Farm: Support Local Farms

Dirt-to-Dinner working at Versailles Farm

More and more mindful consumers are getting to know the farms in their area, attending farmers’ markets, and supporting local growers. And while connecting with farmers and understanding how your food is grown is important, dictating how a farmer should best grow their crops resembles a patient telling a doctor which medicines to prescribe! As a result, organic practices have been overemphasized and the use of genetically modified technology is very limited. The question remains: Is it clear to the consumer how safe conventionally grown fruits and vegetables actually are?

Does local mean organic?

There seems to be an inextricable link between local and organic produce. Consumers often assume when they are buying local, they are also buying organic. According to a survey done by Statista, 96% of those surveyed believe “local” means the produce was grown within 100 miles, 57% think that it is produced by a small business, and 44% believe it means natural or organic. As shown in the chart below, despite the lack of clarity around what “local” means, more and more consumers are visiting farmers’ markets to buy just that.

In reality, local does not mean organic— and there is nothing wrong with that. Despite this fact, there is a push for farmers to produce only organic crops for their local farmers’ markets. However, what the consumer doesn’t always realize is that both organic and conventional farmers have bugs, weeds, and weather issues. In order to get a good yield, farmers must utilize a variety of different tactics. Sometimes this includes pesticides, sometimes herbicides, and sometimes both. Farmers are concerned with soil and their local environments’ health.  When it comes to growing practices, it isn’t black or white. Yes, farmers are often classified as conventional or organic— but there is a lot more to it than that.

In fact, conventionally grown crops are often misrepresented and pitted against organic produce as the greater evil. As we’ve discussed on D2D, conventional farmers create safe, healthy, and affordable produce. But many consumers still believe that organic is healthier and more nutritious because it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. This impression is misguided. For instance, conventional farming practices have traditionally been held to a higher sanitation standard than organic farming, which sometimes uses improperly composted manure as opposed to more sanitary synthetic fertilizer. Or organic farmers may use copper sulfate as a fungicide and pesticide, which can be more toxic to the environment, including bees, than the conventional treatment of glyphosate.

The U.S. organic market reported a record $43.3 billion in sales in 2015 and shows no signs of slowing down. The organic food and beverage market is supposed to grow to $320.5 billion by 2050.  (Source: Organic Trade Association

As we learned on Green Cay Farm in Florida, there are many challenges that farmers face when growing crops. These include, but are not limited to, pest pressure and maintaining healthy soil. Sometimes, to deal with these challenges, a conventional input is better for the land, the farmer, and the crop.

Because there is less technology used in organic farming, inputs are more expensive. This drives up the price of the produce. One organic farmer stated, “it takes $1,800 to weed an acre of organic spinach compared to $150 an acre for conventional.” (Source: Genetic Literacy Project)

D2D discusses conventional farming practices with Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farm.

In the case of Green Cay Farm, genetically modified technology could have a significant impact on the quality and availability of their corn and squash crop and would ultimately increase the profits of the farm. As Nancy Roe told us, she would like to use GM seeds but that could negatively affect her CSA subscribers. If she were able to use genetically modified crops she could yield more on less land and apply 1/3 less pesticide to her crops.

Versailles Farm, in Connecticut, takes another approach. Here, the “French-intensive method” is used to grow a variety of lettuce crops, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, edible flowers, and mushrooms. This approach combines conventional and organic inputs to produce roughly 12 acres of food on 1.5 acres of land!

Versailles Farm. The tightly packed rows using the French intensive method produces on 1.5 acres what would normally require 12 acres.

For Versailles Farm, “best practices” means fully utilizing new technologies like soil moisture sensors, irrigation sensors, and (if necessary) synthetic inputs based on detailed soil analyses. The owners, Steve and Ingrid McMenamin combine this with more old-time techniques, like the broad fork, which is a hand tool used to crack the soil before planting to allow oxygen in without disturbing the all-important microbiome of the soil web. They also grow companion plantings, like marigold flowers, nasturtium, lavender, and dill in order to naturally fight off pests. For example, lavender repels cabbage worms.  They can then harvest these companion plants for additional revenue. The bees are able to pollinate the flowers and create the honey made on the farm.

Versailles Farms grows thousands of marigolds in between crops. Acting as a companion plant this little flower is repelling insects, preventing fungus and keeping everybody healthy. Their roots contain thiophene which is toxic to certain nematodes, aphids, and beetles.  Marigolds also attract beneficial insects.


“We grow for flavor rather than compliance. Versailles Farm takes a best-practices approach in everything we do.  If organic has a best practice we use it. Same goes for conventional techniques.  Some may question how synthetic fertilizers affect the soil.  We use both organic and synthetic inputs.  We plant a cover crop and amend our soil with compost every year.  We spoon-feed our tomatoes with synthetics because they’re heavy feeders and the flavor is better.  Our soil is healthy and the worms are happy.” (Steve McMenamin, Versailles Farms)

Owners and farmers Ingrid and Steve McMenamin are responsible stewards of the land. They hold Versailles farm to the highest standards of plant culture, hygiene and flavor — they don’t feel compelled to adopt a purely organic regime in order to get a “badge.”

The health and quality of a farm’s land are extremely important to both conventional and organic farmers. If farmers don’t manage their inputs properly they are wasting money, negatively affecting their crops, and hurting overall profitability. We must trust both conventional and organic farmers to do what is right for their land given their seasonal challenges, pest threats, and growing conditions. Get to know your farmers, and you will be pleasantly surprised at the care they take of their land—even if they aren’t solely organic.

Successful farms are those who can marry the best techniques that are applicable to the crop, the soil, and the environment. It is not just one or the other – it can be both!

A big thank you to Steve and Ingrid McMenamin from Versailles Farms and Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farm and Farming Systems Research. 

D2D on the Farm: America’s Salad Bowl

The Dirt-to-Dinner Team in Salinas Valley

The D2D team recently took a tour of Monterey County in Salinas Valley, California. Perfectly nestled between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges,  the valley spans 90 miles long and 15 miles wide. The soil is some of the most fertile in the world, created after thousands of years of nutrient dense mountain erosion and the ebb and flows of the Salinas River.

The north end of the Salinas Valley opens to the Pacific Ocean. This marine influence cools the valley and makes possible the wide range of crops found here. With a total value of over $1.9 billion, Monterey County is the fourth highest agricultural producing county in California. (UCDavis)

Two very deep underground aquifers and cool air from the Pacific Ocean contribute to the ideal growing conditions, which enables farmers to plant crops twice per year. Because of its prolific crop production, the area has been nicknamed the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Its top crops are Leaf Lettuces, Strawberries, Head Lettuce, Broccoli, Nursery stock, Wine Grapes, Cauliflower, Celery, and Spinach.

One of the most important takeaways we had from this trip was the care and stewardship of the land, with little differentiation between organic and conventional farming practices. The large and smaller scale farmers in this area— regardless of whether they are conventional or organic growers— are growing sustainably, efficiently, and safely. They take care of the land by employing successful crop rotation, appropriate pesticide use, and using an advanced recycled watering system to irrigate their crops. In fact, 72% of crops utilize water-conserving drip irrigation tape as their main delivery method for irrigation.

Our tour was guided by Evan Oakes, owner of Ag Venture Tours and a former agricultural scientist for the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Salinas. He first showed us one of the few edible species of thistle: the artichoke.

Salinas Valley is the primary U.S. home for artichokes because of the cool breeze coming off the ocean, rich fertile soil, and roughly 200 days of cloud cover, which closely mimics the weather in parts of Italy, the artichoke’s indigenous home.

Artichoke ready for picking from Pezzini Farms

We visited Pezzini Farms, a 4th generation artichoke farm and saw acres and acres of “Green Globe” artichoke plants. Each of these hearty plants can reproduce for as long as 15 years, as long as it is properly pruned!  When artichokes are in season early in the spring, Pezzini Farms sells about 200 pounds per week, and is best known for the delicious menu of cooked artichokes, including French fried chokes, from the “Choke Coach.” We can vouch that deep-fried artichoke hearts are delicious!

Pezzini Farms sorting their artichokes by size. The artichokes roll down a conveyer belt which drops the different sizes in their respective bins.  image: Pezzini Farms

Artichokes are harvested at several different sizes. The jumbos work great to hold a variety of stuffing; the extra smalls are best eaten whole! (image: Pezzini Farms)

The farm utilizes integrated pest management practices, such as turning under the spent plant to nourish the soil and reduce pesticide use. The farmed acreage also utilizes drip irrigation to reduce water consumption and fertilizer usage.

For all you chefs out there, we also learned the best way to identify a ripe artichoke at the grocery store or farmers market… it QUACKS!

After the tour of Pezzini Farms, we loaded up into Evan’s Ag Venture Tours van and began to absorb the vast amount of growing acreage in this area. Fields and fields of dark loamy soil stretching to the horizon.

Currently, the Salinas Valley is early in the growing season. Because of this, our team saw crops in different growing stages. Broccoli was being harvested, while cauliflower was just showing its bud. Some strawberries were being harvested, but other fields had a few weeks to go. Most of the lettuces were being planted or were still in the baby leaf stage. Raspberries were just about to break bud, and specialty crops, such as broccoli rabe, were getting ready to be harvested.


Most of the fruits and vegetables produced in the valley is grown for large U.S. growers, such as D’Arrigo BrothersDoleDriscoll and Taylor Farms.  In many cases, small independent growers contract out to these larger firms. The larger parent company (like Driscoll) will operate the research facility which provides information and farming strategy to their contracted growers. However, we also saw large grower operations that were not contracted. Andy Boy, operated by the D’Arrigo family, is a fourth generation family farm that handles all of their packaging and shipping on site as well. In fact, when visiting the grocery store in Connecticut the day following our trip we found fresh Andy Boy broccoli rabe — and it was delicious!

Andy Boy broccoli rabe at the grocery store back home

Many thanks to Evan Oakes from Ag Venture Tours for surviving 1,000 questions a minute from the D2D team!
For more on Monterey County visit the Monterey County Farming Bureau website.

For more on the growers and producers in the area, you might be interested in the following sites:

Andy Boy Produce

Taylor Farms



D2D on the Farm: GMOs

Green Cay farm talking with Dirt-to-Dinner

D2D recently visited Green Cay Farm, also known as Farming Systems Research, in Boynton Beach, FL. Green Cay is a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, that has operated between 10 and 15 acres of farmland for 17 years. CSA means they are a direct-to-consumer farm that delivers fresh veggies weekly or bi-monthly to their subscriber list. The farm grows over 30 different vegetable crops, including tomatoes, beans, broccoli, peppers, kale, squashes, watermelon, and lettuces, as well as different varieties within those crops.

Farm manager Nancy Roe gave us an expansive tour of the farm fields and we discussed the successes of the farm as well as the various challenges they face from season to season. One of the most interesting conversations we had was about a heavily debated topic in Ag. You guessed it…GMOs.

Nancy’s farm does not grow genetically modified crops, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a fan of the technology!  Because of consumer misconception, Nancy cannot integrate GM seeds into her farm without the fear of losing customers. But, every year Nancy estimates they lose roughly 30% of the crops they plant. And last year they were required to spend more money on pesticides in order to keep up with the disease and pests that threatened their crops.

These leafy greens are still a viable crop but have been the snack of different insects. If you look closely you can see how they have damaged the leaves.

“We cannot grow genetically modified crops because our consumers won’t buy them, but it would help with crop loss. What consumers often don’t realize is that traditional crops farmers plant today have also been modified! The seeds they plant are not the seeds that were originally found in the wild. Using plant breeding technology, scientists have created better crops. Genetically Modified technology does the same thing— just a lot faster. ” Nancy Roe, Ph.D.

The hot, humid climate in South Florida offers its fair share of challenges. Ultimately, GMO technology would allow Nancy to experience less loss on the farm and require fewer pesticide treatments. Corn, for example, is a profitable crop for the farm, but because of pest threat, Nancy must treat the crop 2-3x a week in order to fight off insects and disease. This does not mean she is haphazardly spraying her crop in excess pesticide! She noted, “Farmers don’t put pesticides on their crops because they’re bad people! My grandchildren run through my fields and pick the salad we eat for dinner. Conventional farming is safe. And pesticides are so expensive— we wouldn’t spray our crops if we didn’t have to.”

If she were able to grow and sell genetically modified corn to consumers, she estimates she would not need to treat the crop with any pesticides or herbicides until the very end of the growing season, when the corn silk fly becomes an issue for the crop. In Florida, this pesky little bug will lay its eggs on the corn, which will then bury as maggots under the protection of the corn husk. This is a pest that is specific to the humid temperatures of Florida, so corn growers in a cooler climate might never need to spray any pesticides on their crop! In Florida, if she was able to grow genetically engineered sweet corn seeds she would be able to spray 1/3 less than she does now. Nancy also noted that many organic farmers in the climate are forced to spray more frequently in order to keep up with the pest and bacterial diseases of the south Florida climate. (Yes, organic farmers use sprays too.)

Additionally, this season, the farm’s broccoli and cauliflower crops were knocked out due to bacterial disease and damage inflicted by the Diamondback moth, which eats the leaves and flower buds of crucifer plants. On average their crops are threatened by 8-10 different types of disease and 12 different types of insects.

Diamondback moth leaf damage.

Three years ago, Nancy saw the benefit of growing GE crops first hand. After losing her entire squash and zucchini crop to an unforeseen virus, Nancy was visiting a neighboring farm to discuss the issues and successes the farm was experiencing. When walking those fields, she noticed gorgeous squash and zucchini plants. Because the seeds were genetically engineered to not get the bacterial virus, the neighboring farmer had a great growing season and successfully sold his crop. Since genetically modified crops have been proven safe by 275 organizations, including the FDA, USDA, WHO, EFSA, and NIH, and they help our farmers, shouldn’t we support it, as well?

Farmers are constantly trying to heed the needs of their consumers, but at the same time, they need the flexibility to create a more sustainable farm that not only benefits its customers but also the land and its workers. 

This beautiful purple Brussel sprout crop is actually a loss for Green Cay farm. Due to the hot, humid climate, the sprouts themselves never grew.

Milk: From Cow to Carton

The D2D team got their introduction to dairy farming on a visit to Evergreen Farms, run by the 2nd generation Harpster brothers in Spruce Creek, Pennsylvania.

dirt-to-dinner team

Evergreen Farms comprises 8,000 acres of land and is one of the largest and most productive dairy farms in Pennsylvania.

They manage 7,000 animals, and milk close to 3,000 cows three times per day.

A team of 85 employees, animal nutritionists, and veterinarians care for the animals and the land they farm on.

The Beginning: A Calf is Born

The average Holstein calf is born weighing from 70-100lbs. With their familiar black and white markings, Holsteins are the most common dairy cow because they are the best producers of milk. They consume high levels of food and tend to be larger in size from other breeds.

A Jersey calf may be 40-50 pounds. Jersey cows, are tawny in color, are smaller and lighter eaters but they produce the milk which is high in butterfat and protein.

After birth, the males are either sent to a feedlot or used for breeding, while the females will stay on the dairy farm.

Newborn calves are moved to individual hutches, which are placed next to each other so the calves can begin bonding. They are bottle-fed a combination of the mother’s colostrum (for one to two days), whole milk, and a milk replacer (like Enfamil). They grow so quickly that it is imperative that they are cared for with a nutritious diet of fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. During their stay in the hutches, the calves are de-horned as well. Yes, female cows also grow horns.

Did you know that calves…

Require passive transfer of immunity from their mother’s first milk or colostrum?

Drink two gallons of whole milk each day?

Double their birth weight in the first two months of life, from 90 to 180 pounds?

The calves will outgrow the bottle feeding after 6-8 weeks and will transition to a grain-based diet. At this point, the youngsters will be moved to larger pens or pasture, where they can roam and socialize together. Throughout this ‘growing’ phase, and up to three years old, these animals are referred to as heifers.

Cows are very social animals. They make friends in the calf pens and stay with those friends for life, even going back and forth to the milking parlor together.

Breeding the Cows

At 15 months, the heifers start ovulating and are ready to be bred. This is almost always done through artificial insemination. The average gestation period is roughly 281 days. At any given time on a farm such as Evergreen, there can be 300 or so cows preparing to calve. This phase of preparation is called “springing” for heifers and “dry period” for mature cows. During this time the cow’s nutrition, veterinary, and socializing needs are met but she is not yet a part of the milking herd. Once the calf is delivered, she produces milk and becomes an important part of daily milk production on the farm.

The average milking cow produces 65-75lbs of milk per day, which is about 130 glasses of milk. High performing dairy farms, like Evergreen farms, produce anywhere between 90 -100lbs of milk a day.

cows at a feeding trough

Evergreen Farms produces approximately 10 million gallons of milk per year, which means four to five times a day, a 7,000-gallon tanker truck rolls up to the milking parlor to collect the raw milk. On a smaller farm, the trucks may fill up every other day.

Roughly 100 days after delivering a calf, the cow will be impregnated again while she is still part of the milking herd. Her lactation cycle (days she produces milk) is about 310 days. She is taken out of production eight weeks prior to delivering a calf. Again, this ‘time off’ from lactating is called the “dry period.” During this dry period, she takes a break from milking and is often let out into the pasture with the heifers. Her diet is specially formulated to meet the needs of the developing calf and prepares her for her next lactation.  This birthing/milking cycle continues for approximately 8 years.

Technology and the Dairy Barn

It is important to constantly monitor a cow’s health and production. The tags in their ears are unique identifiers that can be scanned to tell a farmer all of the details of her heritage, when she was last milked, and how much milk she is producing. The system also tracks her health record and at what stage she is in her lactation.

Cows have a good life. They eat about 12 times per day, are milked 2-3 times, require 16 hours of light, and rest between 11-13 hours.

Happy Cows Make More Milk

Dairy farmers take good care of their cows because happy cows make more milk.

A comfortable, quiet environment, playing music in the barns, incorporating cooling fans and sprinklers and scratching brushes, and treating them with respect are important factors for happy cows.


  • have a 360 degree vision – like an owl.
  • produce 125 pounds of saliva…a day. Saliva aids in the digestion process.
  • can walk upstairs, but don’t bend their knees to walk downstairs.
  • are colorblind. They charge at a waving blanket– not the color red, as you might think!

Feeding the Herd

Cows require a lot of food to produce milk. Their stomachs have four separate compartments, each with a specialized duty in the digestive process. They eat their food quickly, burp it up as cud, and chew it again. Digestion of feed ingredients occurs in the second compartment called the rumen. It takes about two days to process the food into milk.

holstein dairy cattle in field with blue sky

Producing 100lbs of milk a day takes as much energy as running a marathon. Cows are fed a complete nutritional mix of corn silage, haylage, corn, soy, canola, high-protein, high fiber grains, vitamins, and minerals — where each bite is perfectly balanced. High milk-producing cows such as those at Evergreen Farms consume over a 100lbs of food a day.

Feed varies depending on the cow’s age— whether they are first- lactation cows or mature cows. Each dairy farm is different and requires their unique formula, adjusted as often as needed.  The dairy nutritionist uses sophisticated computer models to create diets.  Feed analysis takes place each week.  Cows have food available 24 hours a day.

Cows need sugars in their diet. Evergreen Farms collects unsold candy from Hershey and mixes it in with the feed giving cows an added treat in their feed. (This also reduces food waste at Hershey.)

In order to feed the cows, many acres of land are needed to grow grain crops (corn and soybeans) and forage (grass and alfalfa). These crops are specific to optimize digestibility and energy and protein intake. At Evergreen Farms, 96% of the feed for the animals is home-grown or locally produced by neighbors. This is a typical sustainable model for most dairy farms.

Evergreen Farms goes through 170 tons of silage a day to feed all their animals.

What happens to the cow waste?

Manure is a resource. Farmers recycle the manure back to the crops using best management practices which include application timing and soil/crop nutrient analyses.

Barns are hosed down daily and the manure is separated into solids and liquid. Special processing equipment repackages the wastewater for irrigation use on the farm.

Manure creates a nutrient-rich, moisture-retaining soil that is essential for crop growth.

The Milking Parlor

A cow actually looks forward to the milking because her udder becomes full — and she will happily walk into the milking stall. Since they are creatures of habit and appreciate a routine, milking is scheduled at the same time each day for each group of cows. A cow is milked about every eight hours.

Today’s milking machines can milk a cow in about 7 minutes. First, the cow’s teats are cleaned with an iodine and water solution, then dried. Then rubber-lined cups are attached to the teats, and milk will flow into the milk tank. The pumping action of the cups imitates a sucking calf so it does not hurt the cow.

Milk exits a cow’s udder at a little over 100 degrees and is cooled immediately to 35 degrees by flowing through a series of stainless steel plates called a plate cooler. It is then stored in large stainless steel tanks to await the tanker truck pick up.

Milk is cooled immediately after leaving the cow to eliminate the possibility of bacterial contamination.

The milking parlors are cleaned after every milking session. With a large herd of cows, the process of moving cows to and from the milking parlor is a constant activity.

The Milk Market, Organic Milk and Antibiotic Use In Dairy Cows

Milk Pricing

Unlike most businesses that will price their products based on what it costs to make that product, and include some sort of profit, dairy producers are paid per 100lbs of milk, called a hundredweight (cwt), and are subject to prices set monthly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pricing per cwt will vary according to the supply and demand for the milk and milk products in that region and will take into consideration the export market as well as any supplies of milk products waiting to be sold.

What is Raw Milk?

Raw milk is milk fresh from the cow. It is neither pasteurized nor homogenized. Both the FDA and CDC assert that raw milk can run the risk of being unsafe to drink because certain bacteria forming enzymes remain in the milk and can grow easily and quickly.

rBST & Marketing Misconception

The “rBST free” label often found on milk cartons has created a bad reputation for a growth hormone that is in reality no longer used in dairy farming.

Oakhurst Dairy Milk labelno rbST milk label

BST is a growth hormone that is created naturally by the cows’ pituitary gland and rBST at one time was used in dairy farming to help increase the cows’ milk production. Several organizations have created fear regarding the safe use of this hormone and because of the consumer backlash, it has not been used in U.S. dairy farming since roughly 2000.

Antibiotics and Antibiotic Testing

No matter if a cow is raised on an organic or conventional farm, the use of antibiotics is accepted to treat a sick animal. In both cases, an animal treated with antibiotics is taken out of the milking parlor until all traces of the antibiotic are gone from her milk. Milking a cow not withheld for the full FDA mandated period after receiving antibiotics is a serious business. Every tanker of milk organic and non-organic milk is tested three times: by the farm, the dairy processing plant, and the USDA. If the milk tests positive for antibiotic residue the entire batch is thrown out immediately, the farmer receives no payment and is fined and put on notice by the USDA.

Organic Milk

stonyfield yogurt cups on a grocery shelf

According to the strict guidelines in place by the USDA, organic milk must come from a cow that has not been treated with antibiotics or any type of growth hormone and has been fed at least 30 percent of its diet on pasture.


Cheese production in this country is big business and accounts for about 40 percent of the milk fat and 15 percent of skim solids from farm milk..

Mozzarella takes the greatest share of the cheese market. Cheddar is a close second. It takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. That’s good business for dairy farmers!

Processing the Milk

In order to see how raw milk is processed, the D2D team visited the Cornell Creamery, where they use milk from their local cows to create delicious ice cream, yogurt, and milk.

Raw milk is collected from the dairy storage tanks into a large, refrigerated tanker. It is re-tested for safety and then taken to a dairy processing plant. At the processing plant, the milk is retested again and then processed either into beverage milk or other dairy products. After it leaves a processing plant, it may go to a distribution center and will be delivered to the grocery store within 1-3 days.

From the udder to your cup, the U.S dairy industry follows strict government regulations to ensure that milk and milk products are safe for consumption.

Milk Safety research continues: Cornell University and IBM recently announced a joint research project that will use genetic sequencing and big-data analyses to help keep the global milk supply safe.

“As nature’s most perfect food, milk is an excellent model for studying the genetics of food,” said Martin Wiedmann, the Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety and Cornell Institute for Food Systems faculty fellow.

To make various dairy products, raw milk is spun to separate out the fat. The fat is then added back in depending on the product that is being created: skim, 2%, or whole fat milk.

Why is milk pasteurized? To make your milk safer to drink. Pasteurization kills bacteria and makes enzymes inactive so you can drink it and not get sick. It does not hurt the nutritional value. Chilled raw milk is heated by passing it between heated stainless steel plates until it reaches a temperature of at minimum 161F for a time of at least 15 seconds. It is then quickly cooled to best practice temperature of under 40F. Some milk is ultra-high temperature processed (UHT) and is heated to 280 degrees for two seconds. UHT will make a milk product more shelf-stable because it is completely sterilized. This process will also make your milk more expensive.

Why is milk homogenized?  Homogenized milk is smooth with an even texture, and is more consumer-friendly — you don’t have to fuss with mixing the cream in yourself.  Milk that isn’t homogenized has a layer of cream at the top.

What is the “shelf life” of milk? The shelf life of milk is based on the quality of the milk produced on the farm and the level of excellence in sanitation practices at the processing plant. Ideal storage temperatures for milk and dairy products are 34-38°F. Under these conditions, the shelf life of milk can range from 15 to 18 days. “Sell by” dates are based on the shelf life. Most pasteurized milk will remain fresh for 2-5 days after its sell-by date. When in question, the “smell test” is a good idea. Fresh milk smells, well fresh. While drinking sour milk is not necessarily harmful, it is best to not drink it. Ultra-Pasteurized milk (and products) can have a longer shelf life of 60-90 days, depending on the packaging, but only until it is opened. After opening, Ultra-Pasteurized milk should be kept well refrigerated (34-38°F) and consumed within 7-10 days for the best quality and taste.

Beyond the Carton

We don’t just drink milk, we use it for butter, cheese, yogurt, cream cheese, and ice cream! And there are nifty other uses for milk as well, from soothing itchy skin to fixing fine china. Glass for glass, milk is one of nature’s most nutritious foods. So grab a glass and enjoy a milk fix today.

Follow milk’s journey from farm to table in this video by Midwest Dairy:

Dirt-to-Dinner is grateful to the Harpster family for letting us into their dairy barns and educating us on all things dairy. We also thank Chris Canale and Kevin Campbell, Cargill Animal Nutrition, the Cornell Dairy Processing team and the faculty at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Unless otherwise sourced, the images in this post were taken by D2D or contributed.

Other resources we used: Washington Dairy FarmersNew England Dairy and Food Council American Dairy AssociationUSDA