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.

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.

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.

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!

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!


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!



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