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I love bacon

Warmer weather is finally making an appearance and, along with it, grilling season. But if you’ve been to the grocery store recently to purchase that perfect pork chop to throw on the grill, you might have noticed an uptick in the price of pork.

The price hike is due to a disease that affects pigs called Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus, or PEDv. PEDv was first identified in the United Kingdom in 1971, but has since spread across the world, making its first appearance in the United States in May 2013.

While it sounds scary, there are some things you need to know. First and most importantly, pork is safe to eat and remains to be safe, despite the disease. In other words, humans are not affected by PEDv and cannot catch the disease.

PEDv does, however, affect pigs — and dramatically. The virus causes extreme diarrhea in young pigs, and mortality rates can be very high. In fact, if it spreads into a sow herd with young pigs, mortality rates can range from 80 to 100 percent.

In many cases, economists and industry insiders predicted staggering PEDv losses this winter, with some predicting more than 11 percent of baby pigs would died due to the disease. But preliminary numbers from this winter show that about 7 percent of the baby pigs in the U.S. did not survive, with most of those deaths attributable to PEDv.

Farmers have been able to fill the hole left in the meat market by raising hogs to a heavier weight. Additionally, most pork producers were already into an expansion phase this winter, leading to a 3 percent increase in births. The three percent increase in birthing pigs coupled a 7 percent loss over the winter adds up to just a 4 percent loss overall — much better than predicted and, hopefully, easier to overcome.

But like most things, time will tell when it comes to pork prices in the grocery store. Obviously, summer months tend to bring out the highest demand for pork products, and it’s tough to tell how June and July hog supplies will impact harvesting runs and meat availability.

The good news is warmer summer weather may be helping curb PEDv losses. According to Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, PEDv thrives in cold winter temperatures and this year’s harsh winter may have just been the perfect storm for the disease.

And what are farmers doing to curb the spread of PEDv? Farmers are increasing biosecurity mandates on their farms, requiring stricter cleaning policies and closer inspection of visitors and suppliers.

In the end, it’s important to remember that farmers are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of the disease on their farms and produce a safe and sustainable product for your dinner table.

 

 

Feels like all we’ve talked about lately is dairy. We’ve talked about milk prices and we’ve talked about raw milk — both in the last two weeks!

But this post, shared by our friend Katie Pratt at Rural Route 2: The Life and Times of an Illinois Farm Girl, was just too good to pass up.

It comes from the TheCowLocale and is a guest post authored by Utah State Dietetics student and former vegan, Kayla Thomas. In her post, Dairy Sustainability Made Me Rethink Being a Vegan, Kayla talks about how her visit to two Utah dairy farms showed her just how sustainable dairy farming is — and just how much dairy farmers care for their animals.

sustainabledairyportrait

It’s an excellent read, so be sure to check it out!

Cheerios

In January, we told you about General Mills’ most recent marketing ploy aimed at reeling in more cereal buyers: adding a GMO-free label to Cheerios, it’s most popular cereal brand.

Now, it looks like General Mills is flip-flopping like a cornered politician.

cheerios 3

A few weeks ago, General Mills announced that, despite the change in its sourcing of ingredients to make original Cheerios GMO-free, they hadn’t seen any increase in sales. And now, they’ve decided to give very public backing to the science and safety of GMO products.

Previously, General Mills has supported GMO products — mostly because they’ve used them in their other products. But in their recently released 2014 Global Responsibility report, General Mills affirmed biotechnology as a key to feeding a growing population. In fact, in the report, General Mills noted that “Global experts project that to meet the growing needs of an increasingly hungry world, we will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy, and 30 percent more water.” The reporter went further to say:

“SAFE – We know consumers care about the foods they eat – and we care about the foods we provide. As genetically modified (GM) ingredients become more common in the global food supply, particularly in the U.S., we know that some consumers may have questions about this technology. On safety – our No. 1 priority – we find broad and deep global consensus among food and safety regulatory bodies that approved GM ingredients are safe. Those who have approved biotech crops to be as safe and acceptable as their conventional counterparts include: the WHO, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, European Food Safety Authority, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Health Canada. The National Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association, and the British Royal Society also say there is no health risk associated with GM foods or ingredients.

“This technology is not new. Biotech seeds have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in food crops for almost 20 years. Because U.S. farmers use GM seed to grow certain crops, 70 percent of foods on U.S. grocery store shelves likely contain GMO ingredients. As a result, if an American food or beverage product lists corn, soy, canola, cottonseed or beet sugar as an ingredient – and it’s not organic – it likely contains GMOs. Global food safety experts will note there has not been a single incident of harm to health or safety demonstrably linked to the use of GMOs anywhere in the world. Numerous studies have found certain benefits, however.”

The company also added:

“It’s a daunting challenge. But biotechnology shows promise to address such issues as strengthening crops against drought and extreme temperature, and delivering more nutritious food, even in poor soil conditions. We agree with the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) that the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) offers the potential for increased agricultural productivity or improved nutritional value that can contribute directly to enhancing human health and development.”

That’s pretty strong GMO-backing coming from a company that, just months earlier, said they were moving to a non-GMO product because “their fans wanted it” — especially when you consider the amount of information about GMOs General Mills included in their report. They even went so far as to explain how GMOs can benefit the environment, allowing farmers to use  less insecticide and herbicide. Additionally, it explained that GM crops often require less energy use by farmers, saying “They are associated with reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), improved water quality, improved nitrogen retention, and improved water filtration and erosion reduction in soil.”

So what does this all boil down to? I think it answers the question we asked when we originally blogged about General Mills’ decision to go GMO-free: Did General Mills really feel the need to switch from GMO ingredients to non-GMO ingredients, or are they looking for a little bit of free publicity at little to no cost to them?

I think the answer is pretty clear: It was just a marketing ploy after all. And it failed. Big time.

 

 

 

Yesterday, we dove into one of the dairy industry’s most controversial topics: raw milk. Today, we’re sticking with dairy industry topics, but moving in a different direction and tackling food prices.

Food prices are often a topic I deal with in my job as media relations manager. I often get calls from reporters asking questions about why food prices have jumped, or if certain issues or occurrences in the agriculture industry will affect food prices in the future.

Many times,  as food prices fluctuate or we prepare for them to fluctuate, there is a reason behind it. However, the interesting thing when it comes to dairy products, specifically milk, is that the price often doesn’t fluctuate in the grocery store.

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fluctuate anywhere. Often, the price changes for the dairy farmers producing the milk and the retailers buying it. It just means that consumers don’t often see those changes.

In fact, over the last several months, milk prices have reached a new, all-time high.  Growing up on a dairy farm, I can tell you that many people believe the misconception that as milk prices rise, and producers are paid more per hundredweight, retailers “jack up” milk prices in the store. Then, even as milk prices drop, retailers are slow to drop them.

ISF 9 ISF 11

However, when you take a look at the chart below, it’s easy to see that isn’t the case. And, I have to say, even though I grew up on a dairy farm, the data was kind of surprising to me, too.

Milk Prices

When you look at this chart, the exact opposite conclusion can be made.  Retailers don’t like to change the price of their milk.  Because milk is a staple and product that consumers buy regularly all year long, they like a nice, steady price all year long. So here’s what happens…

  • In times of high producer milk prices (Illinois mailbox prices adjusted to a per gallon price), which is represented by the green line, retailers take less of a profit (the spread or difference between the mailbox and retail prices), which is represented by the blue line.
  • In times of lower producer milk prices, retailers take more of a profit.
  • The lines nearly exactly mirror each other, which shows a tendency for retailers to attempt to keep a fairly steady price for milk, despite what they pay for it.

It is also interesting to note that milk is the only commodity for which the USDA sets a minimum price.  This price is set my USDA through a survey process to determine the prices wholesalers are paying for dairy products. It is announced around the fifth of every month, and applies to the milk produced in that previous month.

So there you have it. Food prices do fluctuate — as is the case with the price of pork products right now (something we’ll tackle next week), but in the case of staples like milk, retailers try to keep prices as steady as possible. They make a profit, or take a bath, in order to keep the price steady.

 

Today’s post comes from Illinois Farm Bureau Livestock Program Director, Jim Fraley. Jim is discussing one of agriculture’s hot topics today: raw milk. Some consumers back raw milk whole-heartedly, but there are health concerns associated, making it a delicate topic for dairy farmers and the dairy industry.

Jim Fraley, Livestock Program Director, Illinois Farm Bureau

Jim Fraley, Livestock Program Director, Illinois Farm Bureau

It has been said that the first human to drink milk from a cow was also probably the world’s bravest human! One thing is for certain; as soon as we humans domesticated mammals and started to care for them to supplement our nutrition, good things started to happen.  Our bones got stronger, our immune system improved, our bodies and brains became larger, and we didn’t have to be that hunter-gatherer any longer.  In fact, when a country’s economy improves to the point they can start buying more “things,” the first investment people make is in their food.  They improve their diet by eating more meat and milk.  It’s one of nature’s most perfect foods.  Today, there is strong demand for dairy products worldwide.  In fact, U.S. dairy farm families are now exporting about 15.5 percent of our products to other nations.

Back here at home, a growing trend has been brewing.  Families have been seeking out dairy farmers to buy milk directly from the cow.  This is milk that has been drawn from the cow, cooled down, and, well… that’s it.  The back-to-the-farm movement has become more and more popular.  It has been estimated as many as 60 Illinois dairy farms are now selling milk to consumers who are willing to bring their own container to the farm, and dispense it right out of the bulk tank.  It’s good, I must admit.  I’ve shared a glass of raw milk with committed-to-the-cause dairymen, and I have eaten my share of raw milk ice cream over the years.  People who regularly consume unpasteurized milk purport to have a stronger immune system, fewer allergies, and a healthier gut.

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Scientists are quick to point out that we require all milk to be pasteurized at retail sale for a reason.  It makes for a safer product.  Pasteurizing is a process that heats milk to a specific temperature, for a specific time, thereby killing much of the bacteria that are found in raw milk.  Pasteurization was mandated in the early 1900s to stem the tide of brucellosis, E. coli, and tuberculosis infections.  This process was incredibly successful, and resulted in saving the lives of countless people – perhaps in the millions.  Today, with modern microbial testing, incorporating best management practices into our daily milking routines, and the elimination of most of the aforementioned diseases, people are seeking out raw milk in growing numbers.  These folks see it as a first amendment right for them to have the freedom to choose what is put in their bodies.

My organization, the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB), believes all milk should be pasteurized.  However, we also recognize there is a segment of the population that prefers to drink unpasteurized milk.  We support their right to choose, provided the dairy farmers that are producing this food product are subject to some oversight, and the milk is picked up at the farm in the consumer’s container.  IFB is working as an active member of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s committee that is working to develop practical solutions.  The divide between the two factions is closing up.  I am confident we will come to an agreement soon.  After all, we are some of the bravest humans on the planet!

Each Earth Day, internet memes pop up all over the place proclaiming farmers the original conservationists.

Earth Day

And it’s true. Farmers have been caring for the earth and their land for generations. And they’ll continue to do so for generations to come in order to ensure their families will be able to keep farming and raising animals on the same ground they have used for years.

But, with so much modern technology at their fingertips, what are farmers and ranchers doing today to conserve and preserve the land?

For starters, Illinois farmers sought significant changes to the Illinois Fertilizer Act to establish the Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC). NREC serves as a sustainable funding mechanism for nutrient research and educational programs. For each ton of bulk fertilizer sold in the state, $.75 cents is used to support projects and programs that address the role of nutrients in enhancing Illinois crop production while minimizing the environmental impact.

Additionally, 20 percent of NREC funds must be dedicated to on-farm research and demonstration projects that address water quality issues. And with annual funding between $2 and $2.5 million, that means plenty of research into keeping water safe and clean. In 2014, 15 projects will be funded, totaling more than $2.55 million.

Illinois farmers also are a part of the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP). Their Keep it for the Crop (KIC) program is aimed at reducing nutrient losses, educating suppliers and farmers, and dedicating resources toward research to reduce nutrient losses and enhance nutrient efficiency. Additionally, the program has focused on water quality and nitrate load in eight priority watersheds within the state.

The KIC program works with farmers and fertilizer dealers to establish on-farm nitrogen rate trials in order to provide farmers with a reliable, defensible nitrogen rate for their own, individual fields.

Illinois farmers have helped to lay the groundwork for a new era of research and education. The funding provided by NREC helps make substantial progress in farmers’ efforts to minimize environmental impact, optimize harvest yield and maximize nutrient utilization. What’s more, these efforts aren’t dependent upon state or federal funding, but rather on the support of farmers themselves each time they buy nutrients for their fields.

The bottom line is this: Farmers and their families are drinking the same water you’re drinking. In many cases, they’re on the front lines, living closest to their fields. Clean, safe water is just as important to them as it is to you. Their efforts to keep water safe and conserve land helps farmers retain the ‘original conservationist’ title.

 

 

Today’s post comes from McHenry County Farm Bureau president and farmer Michele Aavang. Michele raises beef cattle on her farm just north of Woodstock, Ill., where cattle graze on pasture land that has been in the family since the 1840s. To find out more about Michele and her family, head to her Facebook page, Willow Lea Stock Farm.

By Michele Aavang, President, McHenry County Farm Bureau

By Michele Aavang, President, McHenry County Farm Bureau

Recently a woman who I like and respect quite a bit posted a rather lengthy Facebook status. Tammy and I met several years ago at the farmers’ market where I’m a vendor and she is a regular customer. She’s a mom of two and is making all of the food choices for her family.

Her post centered around her feelings of being torn between “seemingly opposing sides” of the “local, heirloom, organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, sustainable, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range” farmers and those who farm using conventional methods.

Tammy, you don’t have to choose a side. The recent round of fear-based marketing, most prominently displayed by Chipotle’s new advertising campaign, will have you believe that there is only one correct choice and that it must be the one with the most adjectives attached.

It’s beyond annoying to me when one method of production is misrepresented and put down to make another look good. This tactic is being used not only by major food retailers like the burrito purveyor, but by farmers against one another.

I would suggest that there is room for all types of production methods in today’s agriculture and that they can peacefully coexist. The reality is there are plenty of markets for farmers today.

Consumers have a variety of desires and demands, from budget to niche related. We also can’t overlook the fact that we’re facing a very real global population explosion. It will take all farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, doing what they do best, to feed it.

A farmer makes the decision on what kind of crop to grow and how to grow it based on a multitude of factors, which include location, facilities, resources, market opportunities, availability of labor, personal preference, etc.

Here we have a herd of 60 beef cows. It’s that size because of the amount of land and the quality of land we have available.

Cow 1 Cows Winter Cows

The decision about how to market our beef, which is directly to consumers, was made based on the fact that we’re physically located in a fairly populous and prosperous area between two major population centers, Chicago and Rockford.

I have friends who raise cattle in North Dakota in a remote rural area literally 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks and 80 miles from a McDonald’s. Marketing direct to consumers is not an option for them.

They also have about 10 times the number of cows I have because they have more land and more labor available. It’s not better or worse than what we’re doing here.

I choose not to use growth promotants in my beef because my customers tell me they want it that way. My cattle grow a little slower and require more feed. The cost of that feed is passed along to the consumer.

Bull Calves Cow and calf 2

I’m very aware there are people who can’t afford my beef. That’s OK and I’m happy there is more affordable beef in large retail stores available to them. I would never suggest that there’s anything wrong with the less expensive beef raised in a different manner.

The bottom line is that I have found a market for my beef, while other farmers have a market for less expensive, efficiently-raised beef. Yet another group finds buyers who are willing to pay extra for the organic label. We find what works best for our own farms.

Bull 2

I also market my beef as “natural.” I’m able to fit my production methods to the demands of my clientele. They tell me that “local” and “natural” are important to them; they don’t have strong feelings about “organic.”

They do like to know the money they’re spending is staying in the county. They want to have a relationship with their farmer and to know how and where their food is raised. I’m happy to comply.

If things change and price or something else should become the priority, I will have to adapt my production methods accordingly.

To consumers who are struggling with food choices, I say pick whatever works best for YOU. Buy what you want given your own budget and preferences.

I start my day the same way farmers and ranchers all across the country do. Getting up and checking our animals, making sure they’re comfortable and secure with plenty of feed, water and a dry place to rest.

Our livestock comes first no matter the adjectives attached to the label. No choice there.

Michele’s article was originally printed in the March 24 edition of FarmWeek.

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