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By Richard Guebert, Jr., president, Illinois Farm Bureau

By Richard Guebert, Jr., president, Illinois Farm Bureau

As a farmer, I’m proud of what I do. I love growing the food on which your family depends and know I and my fellow farmers play an extremely important role in the state’s rebounding economy.

But there seems to be a knowledge gap when it comes to agriculture and the important role it plays. In fact, most Illinois residents don’t realize agriculture is the no. 1 industry in terms of economic impact, bringing in more than $9 billion to the state each year and exporting almost $4 billion of goods annually.

What’s more, approximately one million Illinois workers are employed in the food and fiber system, ranking Illinois as one of the top states in dependency on agriculture. Illinois also is a leading state in agriculture-related industries.

To help close the gap, a new statewide group, the Food and Agricultural Roadmap for Illinois (FARM Illinois), is on a mission to keep the state’s agricultural advantages top-of-mind for residents and lawmakers alike. With backing from the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, FARM Illinois will partner to encourage competitiveness and sustainable growth in food and agriculture throughout the state.

The effort has its roots with the Vision for Illinois Agriculture. The Vision for Illinois Agriculture had three main goals: to rank Illinois among the top three states in both food manufacturing and in crop and animal production, and to lead the nation in bio-based product technology and services. As it enters a new phase, with a new name, FARM Illinois includes the state’s top agricultural, business and economic leaders, including many from the Chicago business community. The group is tasked with developing and advocating for a comprehensive strategic plan focusing on the states’ economic leadership in global food security.

This new partnership, and the agricultural leaders behind it, will plan how the agriculture and food industries in Illinois can come together to promote the whole sector from farm to plate. What’s more, it could help tie all our agricultural assets downstate and Chicago food assets together.

FARM Illinois will be led by Dr. Robert Easter, president of the University of Illinois, and overseen by a high-level Leadership Council comprised of more than 25 experts and distinguished leaders with experience in agriculture, international markets, global food security, sustainability, conservation, community development and other related issues.

By spring of 2015, the group hopes to have a plan in place to help drive agricultural innovation, enable sustainable economic growth, encourage public-private partnerships and collaboration, develop a world-class workforce, address community development and nutrition needs, conserve and enhance natural resources, adapt to climate change pressures and enhance global and local food security.

The goals are lofty, but the potential rewards are endless. As a farmer myself, I know there are tremendous opportunities for Illinois’ agriculture as a global population and incomes rise. FARM Illinois will help examine our strengths, weaknesses, and our influences on agricultural production and distribution in the state so we can improve both our rural and urban economies. And that’s a win for everyone — not just farmers like me.

Recently, Consumer Reports unveiled a new report that supports the organization’s call for mandatory GMO labeling.

Following Consumer Reports’ article, CBS News ran a story on the issue and, from what we understand, it wasn’t completely balanced.

To correct faulty information in stories like the one from CBS, we often write about GMOs here on the blog. In fact, we’ve written about GMOs a lot here on the blog, and even written about GMO labeling, too.

Despite the information that we continue to push out, we started wondering. How many people are against GMOs just because they’ve been told they should be against them? How many people know what they’re fighting against?

Turns out, we weren’t the only ones with that question. In fact, Jimmy Kimmel was curious, too:

Obviously, Jimmy is in the business to be funny — and the clip did have us chuckling. But it’s actually kind of a serious problem. Most of the people in Jimmy’s segment were dead-set against GMOs, but they didn’t know why.

So we thought it might be a good idea to offer up some general GMO information and let those of you who might have questions make up your own minds. Now, we are a little biased, but we’ll try to leave the commentary out as much as possible.

  • So, what are GMOs? Well, we can look to the USDA for a pretty good definition:
    • The term “genetically modified organism” (GMO) was originally used by the molecular biology scientific community to denote a living organism that had been genetically modified by inserting a gene from an unrelated species. Incorporation of genes from an unrelated species does not occur in nature through sexual reproduction and thus, various types of sophisticated technologies are used to accomplish this. These types of plants are generally called “transgenics”. Transgenic technology has been used in over 40 species of plants including corn, cotton, tomatoes, potatoes, soybeans, tobacco, rice, cranberries, papayas, raspberries, chrysanthemums, gladioli, petunias, poplars, spruce, and walnuts. In crop plants, the technology has generally been used to incorporate insect resistance or herbicide tolerance.
    • In other words, a GMO is a plant, crop, food or something related to those things that was created with biotechnology. There are several kinds of GMOs, all of them involve taking a gene from one species and putting it into another unrelated species. (from Janice Person at A Colorful Adventure)
  • Why do farmers choose to plant GMO/biotech seeds and crops?
    • The superior weed control from GM crops requires farmers to till much less often. That has led to improved soil health and water retention, reducing runoff and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. GMO opponent turned advocate Mark Lynas does an excellent job explaining — and providing sources — in this article.
    • Insect-resistant GM crops have greatly reduced the amount of insecticide applied to insect-protected crops
    • Plants modified to tolerate drought enable crops to retain yields while consuming less water.
  • How do GM crops benefit me?
    • GMO crops are instrumental to our ability to keep pace with growing global food needs. By 2050, the global population is expected to rise to an estimated 9.6 billion people, and we will need 70 percent more agricultural production to meet that challenge.
  • What about safety?
    • There is a complex evaluation process to determine safety of GMO crops; every GM product is analyzed extensively and compared with the composition of conventional lines grown. Scientific and peer-reviewed articles show that GM crops are compositionally equivalent to their conventional counterparts. Plus, the FDA and USDA both review crops used for food and animal feed for safety and impacts on the environment.
    • A writer at Forbes magazine just broke down a trillion-meal study to determine the safety of GMOs. In the study, University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam and research assistant Amy E. Young reviewed 29 years of livestock productivity and health data from both before and after the introduction of genetically engineered animal feed. The article is an excellent piece and examines evidence from both the pro- and anti-GMO crowds.
  • And one last thing: Did you know that humans have been changing plan genomes for generations? In fact, without genetic modification we wouldn’t have one of our favorite vegetables – broccoli! With genetic engineering, we just have new, more precise tools.

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of youth programs here on the blog, in particular, FFA. I spent a lot of time in FFA in high school and loved every minute of it.

But this week, it’s time to focus on the other (okay, there are a lot of them, but this is one of the big ones!) ag-rooted youth development program: 4-H.

This week is National 4-H Week and 4-Hers across the country are celebrating with their clubs and on social media with the #iam4H hashtag.

All week, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been blowing up with pictures of 4-H members — young and old — talking about what 4-H means to them.

So I thought I would join the party. Don’t worry, I promise it will be a short party.

Unlike FFA, 4-H is tailor made for kids age 5 all the way through high school. Like FFA, kids choose from a wide range of projects to manage during the year and then exhibit during their county or 4-H fair. And like FFA, you don’t have to be a farm kid to enjoy the program!

I, of course, am a farm kid, so my projects were generally livestock related. I always showed my horses and my cows at our county and state shows.

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But I also took on cooking projects, too. Just ask my mom about the year of the dreaded gingerbread and its refusal rise. Let’s just say, six gingerbreads later, we finally had one that didn’t fall in the middle. And our family, grandmas, grandpas, uncles and aunts, were eating gingerbread for weeks. Yikes.

Coincidentally, I think that was the last year I had a baking project…

Still, like FFA, I had a blast in 4-H. I have fond memories of spending summer nights at the fair with my friends, winning the 4-H horse speech contest at Congress and traveling with my teammates on the Illinois 4-H horse judging team.

And, just like FFA, the life skills I picked up can’t be measured. I learned the importance of hard work, record keeping (yes, record keeping) and perseverance. And the art of graceful winning and losing.

Here in Illinois, more than 25,000 Illinois youth enroll in a year-long 4-H club each year. Illinois 4-H programs are offered to all youth ages 5-18, regardless of gender, ethnicity, social or economic status, religious beliefs, or physical or mental abilities. And 4-H programs reach a cross section of both urban and rural youth throughout all of the 102 Illinois counties — from Rockford to Cairo, and from Chicago to East St. Louis.

So, happy National 4-H Week to all those past and present 4-Hers out there! If you’ve been a part of the green, or recited that pledge (you know what it is!), we would love to see your pictures in the comments below.

I am 4-H 2

For more information about 4-H, or to get involved in your local club, contact your county University of Illinois Extension Office or visit the National 4-H website or Facebook page.

I can be a bit snarky sometimes. Shocking, I know. However, sometimes that comes off as just plain mean. Or even condescending. But that certainly isn’t my intention.

I know that consumers have questions about the food they’re eating — and they have every right to ask those questions. When you don’t deal with things like GMOs everyday as part of your job, what you don’t know can be scary.

But it’s tough to be all rosy and sweet when it comes to Dr. Oz. The agriculture community has repeatedly asked the Dr. Oz show to be a part of the conversation and he, or his staff, just won’t bend to having even one farmer on his show. Not even a little.

Earlier this week, Dr. Oz did a segment on Enlist Duo “GMO pesticide” (something that doesn’t actually exist, by the way) and his segment was chock-full of half-truths, misinformation and scare tactics.

Before I go any further, you can check out the short clip below. For a longer, more detailed segment, visit Dr. Oz’s website.

As I said, there’s quite a bit of misinformation in the segment, namely the fact that Dr. Oz and his panel of experts, none of which were actual farmers, claim that GMOs haven’t actually reduced pesticide use. That, in fact, farmers are using more pesticides to control resistant weeds.

Unfortunately, either Dr. Oz is ignoring some pretty great articles that are relatively easy to find at The Genetic Literacy Project (thanks for the links, Katie Pratt!), or somehow, the correct information is getting lost in translation.

GMO crops are resistant to the most common bugs and weeds that threaten yields — that’s why farmers like them! Essentially, farmers don’t have to spray the same amount of pesticides they did before GMO crops to kill the same amount of weeds/protect the same amount of crop.

Dr. Oz also used his doctor expertise to explain chemical drift. I guess because doctors are often out applying chemicals to fields…

Anyway, Dr. Oz used a bag full of yellow feathers and a fan to illustrate just how chemicals drift from field to field when they’re applied. And he’s right, chemicals can drift, but certainly not the vast amount that he showed by blowing feathers across the stage.

To buy and apply chemicals to their fields, farmers today must attend regular classes, where they learn about how much pesticide to apply, when to apply it, and how to combat chemical drift. And, contrary to Dr. Oz’s illustration, they aren’t dumping buckets and buckets of chemicals on fields. In fact, when it comes to corn, farmers apply closer to a half gallon of herbicide per acre. To put this into perspective, that’s about 1/3 of a drop per square foot.

I’ll let that sink in…

One-third of a drop per square foot.

But that’s not the only false claim Dr. Oz laid out. He had many more, including misinformation about the amount of pesticide being used overall across the U.S. and even how organic crops are protected.

I was all prepared to jump on the Dr. Oz dog pile with a list of ways he got the story wrong, but then I realized that some of our friends already had that taken care of — and could do a much better job of explaining the problems with Dr. Oz’s information than I could:

  • Katie Pratt over at the Life and Times of an Illinois Farm Girl. Katie does a great job of taking all of Dr. Oz’s false claims, correcting the information, and providing sources for her information. If you’re going to check out just one blog, make sure it’s hers.
  • Amanda at The Farmer’s Daughter USA takes a closer look at Enlist Duo, how it works and why farmers use it. Excellent read.
  • And don’t forget about the Illinois Corn Growers’ blog, Corn Corps. Rosalie Sanderson does a great job of pointing out and clarifying some of her own concerns with Dr. Oz’s information.
  • And just for kicks, take a look at this article over at Weed Control Freaks. It outlines chemical drift, how farmers control it, and just how much chemical they’re spraying on fields. Thanks to Holly Spangler for posting this awesome blog on her Facebook page!

I looked at the calendar this morning and realized October is next week. NEXT WEEK, YOU GUYS.

Then I realized, “Holy crap. I have a lot to get done in October. It’s H’s first Halloween so we need to get her a costume, because I obviously am not talented enough to make her one; then we need to do a little winterizing around the house; it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start getting some Christmas presents purchased because, let’s be honest, my little bank account can’t do that all in one month; and oh yeah, I need to update my voter registration.”

That’s right, folks. We’re just over a month away from the next election. No, this isn’t a presidential election, but that doesn’t mean you should shirk your duty as an American citizen.

Illinois citizens have some pretty big decisions to make this November. Not only are we electing a new Senator to represent us in Washington, we’re also choosing a new governor. Those are two pretty important positions for you to ‘forget’ to vote.

And just in case you don’t buy how important it is to vote, I thought it was the perfect time to resurrect our list of “Top Ten Reasons Why Voting is AWESOME!” It was originally published here in 2012, but like all important things, it bears repeating. Just to keep things fresh, I’ve added some updates, included in blue:

  1. It’s your job. And hey, just because Congress doesn’t seem to be doing their job, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing yours. Huh, funny how this hasn’t really changed in two years, right?
  2. Your vote counts just as much as anyone else’s. Still true.
  3. You get a cool ‘I Voted!’ sticker. Definitely still true! I voted
  4. You never know – if you’re unattached, you might finally have a chance to run into that cute neighbor you’ve been eyeing. Go ahead, impress him or her with your knowledge of politics and civic duty. Yep.
  5. Believe it or not, every political decision, policy or issue has or will affect you. It’s your future, why let someone else control it for you without a fight? This won’t change in the history of voting. One of the best reasons to vote.
  6. If your friends don’t vote and you do, you automatically have the right to endlessly mock them. Seriously. Still true.
  7. Don’t forget — this isn’t just a presidential election. During the election on Nov. 6, you’ll also have the chance to elect members of Congress and local representatives. And, local elections like school board and city  council races really do have an impact on your daily life. Okay, so this isn’t a presidential election, but that doesn’t matter. You’re still voting for some pretty important stuff. Oh, and the election is Nov. 4 this time around.
  8. You don’t want to earn your paycheck just to have someone else decide how you have to spend it. It’s your money and the people you elect will decide how much of your wealth to invest in public services and taxes. Oh man, am I feeling this one this year. With a little one at home, we need to stretch every penny, so I don’t want to have to feel guilty about not voting for the guy that would help me save some of my hard-earned.
  9. With the internet, it takes a fraction of a second (okay, maybe a little bit longer — but not much) to get all of the registration and voter information for your county. Coincidentally, today is the last day to register to vote here in Illinois — SO GET IT DONE! I believe the last day to register to vote here in Illinois this year is Oct. 9 — SO GET IT DONE!
  10. Failure to vote means you’re no longer allowed any paid holidays. None. Or something like that. I’ll check into that, but in the mean time, just believe me. Definitely still true.

Now remember, go vote!

Easy there, lead foot!

From the time crops went in the ground this spring, this year’s growing season has been nearly perfect. Beautiful weather, plenty of rain and moderate temperatures have made this summer one for the record books.

However, harvest may prove to be more challenging than the summer growing season. Rain continues in many areas of the state, which means farmers are finding it hard to get in the fields to get their crops out. And that also means long days and tight deadlines ahead, making harvest season one of the busiest times of year — and tempting farmers to bypass basic safety procedures.

Failure to follow basic safety procedures leads to thousands of injuries — in addition to reported deaths — for farmers and employees annually. In fact, farm-related deaths in Illinois have taken a jump after experiencing record lows last year. Twenty-one people were killed in farm-related incidents from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014.

Farm Deaths

While not all of these deaths are road-related, it’s still important to remember that, during harvest, farmers and motorists alike must share our rural roads.

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Nearly all farmers will use public roadways to haul grain to elevators or to move equipment to and from fields, creating potential hazards for both farmers and passing motorists. With National Farm Safety and Health Week, held Sept. 21 to 27, just around the corner, motorists and farmers should take the following precautions to help prevent roadway accidents:

Motorists:

  • Reduce speed when encountering farm equipment on public roads. Flashing amber lights mean “caution.”
  • Slow down when a slow moving vehicle (SMV) emblem is visible. The orange and red reflective triangle warns motorists that the tractor or combine they are approaching travels at a slow rate of speed.
  • Keep a safe distance from the farm equipment. If the farmer’s mirrors aren’t visible to following motorists, the farmer can’t see the motorist, either.
  • Pass wide, large farm equipment only if conditions are safe and the farmer will not be making a left-hand turn. Be cautious when pulling back in.
  • Be prepared to yield to wide equipment.
  • Always wear a safety belt and obey the road’s posted speed limit.
  • Watch for the farmer’s indication of a turn. Newer equipment has one or more amber lights flashing rapidly to indicate a turn. Older equipment is typically not equipped with turn signals so watch for the farmer’s hand signals.

Farmers:

  • Ensure reflective SMV signs are clean and located on the rear of any tractor and piece of towed equipment used on roadways.
  • Use reflective marking tape and reflectors at the extremities of equipment.
  • Try to avoid rush hours and busy roads.
  • Turn on hazard lights and turn off field working lights when using roadways.
  • Install mirrors that are wide enough to see following motorists.
  • If possible, pull over to allow traffic to pass.
  • Always use turn signals and be aware of oncoming traffic.
  • When practical, truck larger equipment to the next location.

For both farmers and motorists, considering safety first can help ensure a successful and profitable harvest — and that farmers and their employees are there for planting season next spring.

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We talk a lot about animals here on the blog — specifically dairy cattle. That’s not because the other food animals aren’t awesome, it’s just because I grew up on a dairy farm and have more firsthand knowledge about the way a dairy farm works and the way dairy farmers care for their cattle.   Cheryl 3 Cheryl 4I vividly remember Christmas get-togethers scheduled around milking time. Trust me, it’s hard to explain to a four-year-old that we’re going to eat lunch first, help grandma clean it up, then we’re going to sit and talk for a few hours while everyone goes out to milk before we open any Christmas gifts. It was excruciating. Cleaning the Bulk TankHeifers

Grandpa Don

Just like the most recent video released by Mercy For Animals. I’m not going to repost or link here, but the nutshell version is this:

Workers at a New Mexico dairy farm were caught on tape punching, kicking and whipping cows, tossing calves into truck beds, using heavy equipment to force sick animals into confined spots and committing other types of abuse.

Excruciating. And disgusting to say the least.

Dairy farmers across the country have come out on social media condemning the workers and reminding consumers not to throw the baby out with the bath water. In other words, there are thousands of dairy farmers out there, but there are not thousands of abusive dairy farmers.

Carrie Mess, over at Dairy Carrie, said it best:

“I hope that the people shown abusing cows in this video will be prosecuted and held responsible for their actions. I hope that they never are allowed around animals again. I hope that this will be a wake up call to any dairy farmer with employees to be watching their people more closely and to be more diligent in hiring compassionate and kind people to work with their cows. Most of all, I hope that you will not hold this video against our family and the rest of America’s dairy farmers because this is not how we do things. We love our cows.”

I’m sure that every dairy farmer echoes Carrie’s sentiment. But it was interesting to see a business — one that relies heavily on dairy to boot — follow her suit.

Here’s the story. Following the release of their video, Mercy For Animals called on Domino’s Pizza to “help end egregious animal abuse in the dairy industry by requiring all of its cheese suppliers to implement meaningful animal welfare policies.”

Company after company has been bullied as of late into implementing food sourcing strategies that are more likely to hurt their bottom line and do nothing to end animal cruelty, so it was nice to see Domino’s take a different approach. Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications for Domino’s, had this to say:

“No act of cruelty can ever be condoned. Ever. What we do know is that this is not an issue with our cheese supplier – it was an isolated case of sadistic acts by employees at a single dairy farm in southern New Mexico. That farmer, who is very likely reeling from this, has terminated the employees, turned their information over to law enforcement and has closed his operations after moving his cows to other farms (according to the Associated Press).”

McIntyre also said the group should be thanked for bringing the issue to light because “there is no room for this anywhere in the food industry,” but cautioned against thinking one dairy farmer is just like any other:

“America’s individual family dairy farms — 47,000 of them — are being painted in a horrible light due to the horrendous acts of a small group of individuals. That’s not fair to the hardworking farmers across America.”

Cheers to Domino’s. And cheers to the hardworking dairy farmers who do the right thing by putting cattle care and comfort ahead of their own, each and every day. I feel like a broken record as much as I say this and write about it, but it’s important. And anything this important bears repeating.

It’s not about the ribbons. It’s not about the (modest) milk check, even though that’s what pays the bills. It’s about doing what you love and loving what you do. Unfortunately, the farmer in question picked employees who didn’t fit either category.

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And I know I say this a lot, too, but I’m going to keep saying it in hopes it will really sink in: If you have a question, ask a farmer! With social media, there are plenty of ways to do it these days. Here are just a few:

Have additional links? Share them in the comments below!

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