University of Minnesota Student Reflects on his “Vern-alization” while Studying Agriculture

University of Minnesota Profressor Vernon Caldwell

University of Minnesota professor Vernon Caldwell is retiring after 45 years.

By Nick Peterson

This past winter one of my professors at the University of Minnesota retired after spending the last 45 years with the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. It was bittersweet, since I had learned a great deal from him through my time with the Crops and Soils Club, Crops Team, and his classes.His name is Vernon Cardwell, previous professor/advisor/researcher at the University of Minnesota for the better part of the last century. As he spoke during the retirement party, he recalled the different “vern-alizations” he had witnessed with undergraduate and graduate students. With vernalization meaning acquisition of a plants ability to flower following cold periods, it was a metaphor of his students.Growing up on the family farm it was not difficult to realize that agriculture is what I wanted to continue to pursue in my career. However, the agricultural industry is a very broad field with many opportunities. As I was accepted to the University of Minnesota, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, I was still very uncertain as to where I wanted to end up following graduation.

As I attended my first Gophers Crops and Soils Club meeting, I met and talked to Vern, who was the faculty advisor for the club. Soon after, following persuasion from Vern, I decided to join the crops judging team, where we competed against students at other schools in weed and crop identification, grain grading, and seed analysis. Since the 1970’s Vern has been leading the University to top ranked finishes, although participation had been waning in the last few years. This is when my Vern-alization began.

As I spent more time looking at plant and seed mounts and taking in all the information that Vern was spewing out, I couldn’t help but notice him slowly having an effect on me. The vast amount of agricultural knowledge that he had acquired over his many years of research, extension, and interaction with students was a little intimidating. I tried to soak up as much of it as I could.

Looking at my Vern-alization, though, it wasn’t so much the knowledge but the activism that he inspired in me that I would attribute to it. What makes him such a successful mentor to students is his ability to inspire this activism.

So, as I look towards graduation and opportunities in the agriculture industry in agronomy or seed representative roles, I continue to look back and use his contagious personality as a template for myself. I have no doubt this outlook will not only strengthen my commitment to clubs and organizations that I put my time into, but it will enable me to see the best in people as well.

The agricultural community was lucky to have a man like Vernon Cardwell influencing its students for the last 45 years. And so my Vern-alization proceeds, as I am ready to follow in my mentor’s footsteps and do what I can to better agriculture and the people within.

Nick Peterson is a participant in Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s Agvocate program.

Advertisements

Minnesota Well Represented at Commodity Classic 2013

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Thousands of farmers converged on Kissimmee, Florida (near Orlando) February 28 through March 2, for the unparalleled opportunities to network, to catch up on the latest technologies and tools of the trade and to forge a united political voice–all the benefits of Commodity Classic, one of the nation’s largest agricultural conferences. In addition to the tradeshow, exhibition and learning events, Commodity Classic includes the annual meetings of National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), as well as meetings of the soybean, wheat and sorghum growers organizations.

Minnesota’s Corn Organizations were amply represented by more than two dozen grower leaders and many others along for the learning and enjoyment.

“Commodity Classic brings so many of us farmers together, so we can learn, so we can understand what issues we need to take to the public and the lawmakers and policymakers so that we can keep farming strong, and be the best, most productive farmers we can be,” said Tom Haag, a farmer in Eden Valley, Minnesota, who serves as president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

A key element of the three-day gathering is consensus-building for the direction of the 34,000-plus member NCGA. By gathering with the other farmer groups, the common bond of farmers is strengthened, and a stronger voice for farmers develops.

“Having these discussions in a respectful, public way–that’s a big part of the reason for having our annual meeting and delegate sessions,” said Greg Schwarz, past MCGA president and current chairman of the MCGA government relations committee. Schwarz farms in LeSueur, Minnesota. He said, “Our grassroots determine what we do as an organization. Our farmers express their opinions and then our staff and our lobbyists carry that out.”

The number one concern for farmers across the country remains the passage of the long-delayed Farm Bill. For Minnesota’s corn organizations and many other groups, the public support that allows broad participation in crop insurance seems to be the most fundamental, strategic element in preserving independent family farms and assuring that the collective know-how they possess continues to give America the safe, abundant, economical food supply that is the envy of the world.

“There were many informal conversations going on about the Farm Bill, and the gist of the ones I took part in, is the need for unity and finding some kind of middle ground on issues that have divided some of the farm groups,” said Schwarz. “There is a recognition that, to pass a Farm Bill under regular order in Congress, we have to be unified, or Congress members may be confused on how to vote.”

Other key issues received discussion and resolutions, including support for keeping the current Renewable Fuels Standard and developing a single label for E15 fuel to be used everywhere, in order to prevent confusion among consumers. NCGA opposed single-state rules on GMO labeling in order to prevent having 50 different sets of regulations. The resolution supports the FDA’s power to pre-empt rules on agricultural biotechnology products, passed by individual states.

Another NCGA resolution opposes tying crop insurance eligibility to conservation compliance, arguing that the current farm program already provides a robust means to ensure conservation compliance by requiring farmers obey conservation rules in order to receive any form of federal farm support.

“We put a resolution together to say that ‘We support local ownership of corn processing, livestock and grain operations,'” Schwarz reported. He said, “The local ownership part is what really gets the value back to our rural communities and provides a good consistent tax base for rural communities. We wanted to put this down in black and white, so that when the next new thing comes along that makes use of farm products… whether it’s biochemicals, or nutriceuticals or energy–we are on record that we support local ownership so that we get some of those dollars back to local communities. We have seen that value with ethanol companies and livestock facilities in Minnesota and we want to support these industries and keep them strong. This is not just about farmer ownership, but also supporting our neighbors in town owning businesses that add value to agricultural commodities, as long as it’s local–if it’s an ethanol plant in a farming community or a biochemical company in a Minnesota suburb–whenever we can have some local ownership we get so much more out of it than if some large multinational company owns it.”

A number of first-timers to Commodity Classic joined the veterans, and saw for themselves that the three-day event deserves its reputation for being an incredibly valuable experience.

“I’ve heard it said how large Commodity Classic is, and how many people there are, and the number of displays, and the awesome scope of things…but seeing it for myself was still amazing,” said Chuck DeGrote, a grower leader on the MCGA board of directors, and a farmer in Clara City who raises corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cattle. He said, “The networking at the exhibition hall, talking to people from other states, people who are active in other commodity organizations, I got to hear what people are thinking about for the future, some of the projects we could be looking into. The people are what make Commodity Classic a special experience.”

DeGrote felt discussions about the Farm Bill and the Renewable Fuels Standard were interesting and gave reason for farmers to work together and to be optimistic about what can be done, even with today’s need for a fiscally constrained approach to the federal government.

“Reflections of a Popcorn Lover”

by MCGA Agvocate Michaela Bengtson

Growing up on the farm, we had many different traditions. But one of my favorites would have to be our Sunday night suppers. Sunday nights were always the same for our supper plans. They consisted of two things, the first was that we ate leftovers from the week before, and the second part was always my favorite: when my dad was done with chores, he would come up to the house and pull out the old cast iron pot and make fresh popped popcorn.

The popcorn usually ended up being the majority of our meals and dad usually had to make twice as much because we would eat about half the popcorn while he was still busy popping the rest. We even grew our own popcorn one year to see how it would taste and what it would be like.

Why am I sharing this story with you? March 14th is National Popcorn Lover’s day so in honor of that I wanted to share some interesting facts about popcorn with everyone! The first fun fact is that in Sac City, Iowa in February of 2009, they built the world’s largest popcorn ball! It weighed nearly 5,000 pounds and stood over 8 feet tall.

In searching for popcorn trivia, one of the most interesting facts that I have found has been the following: According to the site http://www.popcorn.org, “Many people believe the acres of corn they see in the Midwest during growing season could be picked and eaten for dinner, or dried and popped. In fact, those acres are typically field corn, which is used largely for livestock feed, and differs from both sweet corn and popcorn.” This is an interesting fact for us as agriculturalist to know about our non-farming friends: Even when considering something as simple as popcorn, many people don’t know how their food gets from the field to their table. As we go about our daily lives we need to make sure that we as individuals in agriculture are doing what we can to help everyone to understand what we do and where our food comes from.

So remember the next time you hear the pop in the microwave that we need to pop into action and make sure that we are sharing our stories and enthusiasm for agriculture with everyone!

“E15 increases consumer choice”

By MCGA Agvocate Kevin Welter

July 18, 2008, for many of you this day does not have any significance. For me, this is a day that changed my life as I had previously known it. July 18th was the day I passed my driver’s test. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Holding the keys in my hand for the first time was the greatest feeling in the world, even if the keys were to an ’89 Chevy Cavalier. Looking back on that day I gained many of freedoms and expenses. The greatest expense was gas, which made me very interested in gas mileage.

In high school, I had the opportunity to be one of four students at my high school to help start the Supermilage Challenge at Stewartville. For those of you that are not familiar with the competition, a group of high school students build a one person vehicle from scratch to achieve the highest gas mileage. The first year we competed in the stock class where your vehicle runs on unleaded gasoline. Three of the four team members grew up in a farming background, which lead to our interest in renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. The next two years we decided to compete in the E-85 class. Before officially switching classes, we did a lot of research on ethanol and the benefits it has not only for the environment, but also for the saving in consumers wallets. Many researchers agree that ethanol provides about thirty to sixty percent more energy than what is required to make a gallon of ethanol, meaning ethanol has a positive net energy. Compared to gasoline, ethanol reduces CO2 emissions.

One thing we had found from our experiences and research is that all engines can run on a blend of ethanol and gasoline. The tricky part is getting the correct blend for your engine. All passenger vehicles are approved to run up to a blend of 10% ethanol or E10. Over the past few years there has been a lot of research and tests conducted to find out which blend will perform well in vehicles currently on the road. The results of the research and tests caused the recent approval of the EPA for E15 in passenger vehicles 2001 and newer. In January 2011 about 60% of the vehicles driven in the US are 2001 and newer. With more than half of the vehicle on the road with the ability to run this blend of fuel you would think we would see an E15 option at every gas station. The issue is there are laws and regulations in 36 states that inhibit the sale of E15. These laws may take a while to be updated to include the demand for E15.

As a consumer, I hope in the future that more tests are conducted to check the performance of high blends of ethanol. In the future, I feel like there will be many different blend options available for consumers. The approval of E15 is a step in the right direction for consumer choice and for the growth of the domestic renewable energy industry. I currently drive a vehicle manufactured in 2006. Next time I fill up at a gas station with an E15 option, I will be choosing this higher blend of renewable energy.

Corn takes a star turn in high school student’s video, “Ethanol Rocks!”

Pleasant soundtrack music swells while the smooth camera motion takes the viewer through rows of corn, and allows the eye to follow the pleasing green lines of the stocks and abundant golden grain peeking out of the ears. Then we see the corn leaves waving gently in the breeze, silhouetted by bright sunshine. All the while a narrator gives a simple but convincing set of facts about ethanol.

This visual celebration of corn and ethanol comes to us through the very accomplished video production of high school senior Jason Girouard, of Brimfield, Massachusetts, the winner of the Ethanol Rocks video contest sponsored by National Corn Growers Association. Girouard received $1500 for his winning entry. Freshman Emily Yue from Gilford, Connecticut and senior Lewis Kloster of Minneapolis, Minnesota were both awarded second-place honor and $500 a piece.

Words and phrases like “corn can do so much” “renewable” “replaces millions of gallons of foreign imported oil” and “the highest performing fuel on the market” appear on the screen while the narrator extolls the usefulness of ethanol.

“The purpose of the contest was to get youth interested in learning about renewable fuel while having fun,” said NCGA Ethanol Committee Chair Chad Willis. “However, I think we may have turned a few of the more inquisitive kids into ethanol evangelists. The enthusiasm about their learning experience was the biggest payoff of the project.”

The top three videos can be viewed at http://domesticfuel.com/2012/11/06/students-rock-ethanol/

Opportunities for Bright Young Minds

By Agvocate Nick Peterson

Most of us cannot help it.  If you find yourself perusing through all of the Yahoo news stories every other day as they pop up on your home page, you are not alone.  While I do not rely on Yahoo to base my life decisions on, I do use it to brush up on current events that I might be missing out on. I also use Yahoo to find weird or interesting stories that entertain me.  Perhaps it is common among the younger generations, but I assume that on some level, the authors of these short current event stories have at least a shred of credibility. 

The issue that I currently have and am bringing up yet once again is a story that came to my attention last spring on “useless” college majors. This caught my attention because the article listed agriculture as one of the five most useless degrees.

http://education.yahoo.net/articles/most_useless_degrees.htm?kid=1KWNU

Many people in the agricultural industry most likely have heard or were involved with the backlash that already erupted from this article.  I know my Facebook page, in which I am connected to many agricultural majors and enthusiasts, pretty much exploded.  The reason agricultural enthusiasts were upset (in addition to the damage to our pride) was due to this study misusing statistics to prove a point that is inaccurate. This statistic could potentially drive bright young students away from seeking a degree in an agricultural profession. 

The best defense is a good offense. 

I recently spoke with a professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Vernon Cardwell.  We spoke about the current state of the agricultural field and its demand for Bachelor of Science majors.    According to the conversations he has had with industry professionals, as well as the attention that companies in the industry have directed at us undergraduate students, the demand for Bachelor of Science graduates is almost twice the supply.  As a junior pursuing my Applied Plant Science degree at the University of Minnesota, this information makes me feel pretty good about my future. 

Dr. Cardwell also mentioned that the majority of this push by the industry for Bachelor of Science graduates comes from a need for more knowledgeable agronomists.  Seed companies, such as Monsanto and Pioneer, have realized that the seed market depends on more than just the bag of seed.  The ability of a seed representative to place each bag of seed in the field or each soil type that will garner the highest yields is a must.  Therein lies the need for more qualified agronomists to either place that seed or train the seed representative who will. 

Winfield’s Answer Plots are an example of an attempt by seed companies to engage with growers on a more knowledgeable, cutting edge level.  By looking at current field issues and ways to correct or prevent them in the future, they are selling agronomic advice in addition to the traditional product sales.  As evidenced by the success that programs such as these Answer Plots have brought to their companies, this is a valuable business tool.  Since this area is only expanding, it will mean more jobs for agronomists. 

The industry of plant breeding relies heavily on the ever evolving molecular and genetic lab processes to produce the high yielding hybrids and varieties we see planted today.  Dollars invested in research and development by seed companies certainly are not dwindling with the high corn and soybean prices.  These companies are looking for graduates with lab experience to fuel their research.  For example, Pioneer just opened a $40 million plant genetics research facility that will create 400 new jobs.

http://farmindustrynews.com/seed/dupont-opens-40-million-agriculture-research-facility

This is an opportunity for graduates who may not even have an interest in the agronomic field, but rather enjoy lab and molecular level work. 

One part of the agricultural industry that is under-appreciated when comparing ag majors to others majors is the availability and profitability of internships.  First, in many other majors or professions, internships might not even be paid.  These are invaluable opportunities for undergraduates to both help pay for schooling as well as get real world, on the job experience.  Second, internships often lead to full time positions following graduation. Third, the wide availability of internships to undergraduate students is something that I feel few other professions can offer.  Whether it is through fall internship fairs on campus, direct searches, or virtual job agents through programs such as GoldPass at the U of M (through which a rough estimate of forty internships were posted and sent to my email inbox this fall), agriculture is one industry that does not fail to give prospective employees hands on work experience. 

I realize that it may be difficult for graduates to start a farming business on their own without a personal or family connection to a farm due to the high land prices and capital investment. However, this is not where the bulk of agricultural jobs are located.  The agronomist positions, plant breeding, and lab positions are where the real demand for agricultural jobs are located; these areas are booming right now.  In my Applied Plant Science major at the University of Minnesota, the students boast close to a one hundred percent placement rate following graduation.  This is why I don’t see myself as concerned about my future as other students in other majors at this university.

It is time for the younger generation to realize all the opportunities we have in agriculture. Misused statistics that pop up on laptops should not deter students from considering studying this industry.  The growth of the agricultural field is spurring our food production. Making the decision to pursue a career in agriculture is one that I have never looked back on throughout my collegiate career and I know that I will not regret it in the future.

Eons at the verge of prairie and forest created “Lester”

The highly productive, clayey soil now designated “Minnesota State Soil”

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Some 400,000 acres, across 17 counties in south central Minnesota are home to some of the most productive soil on earth, called Lester soil. Legislation signed in April by Gov. Mark Dayton recognized Lester as the state soil of Minnesota, and a series of programs to celebrate Lester and all of Minnesota’s soils is now underway, including an exhibit called Dig It!, opening Nov. 10 at the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.

“Lester is well drained, with a nice, thick ‘a-horizon’ — that black surface soil,” said Gary Elsner, a soil scientist at Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “There are a thousand different soil series in Minnesota. Lester is in the well-drained positions which are higher in the landscape (Slopes 5 to 70 percent).”

Elsner chairs the “Perfect Storm for Minnesota Soils” committee of the Minnesota Association of Professional Soil Scientists (MAPSS), which singled out Lester soil as something special back in 1987, but did not succeed in getting the official state seal for it until this year.

“Lester soil formed at the prairie and forest interface,” Elsner said. “Most of southern Minnesota soils were worked around by glaciers, and they have been forming ever since. A forest forms and that influences the soil, then a forest fire clears the land and it becomes prairie. Over a very long time period, it goes back and forth. In forested land you get clays near the surface, and over time these leach down and they accumulate deeper in the profile. So you get a layer that has a higher water-holding capacity and that makes it more productive–both for agriculture and forestry.”

“The Perfect Storm for Minnesota Soils” committee of MAPPS arose to publicize the series of important soil science events taking place last year, this year and next. Ultimately, the committee hopes to use these events to make the public more aware of the incredible importance of productive soil in their everyday lives. The roster of events shows that concern for the health of our soils is nothing new among farmers, foresters and soil scientists. In 2011, it was the 75th anniversary of the Soil Science Society of America. This year is the 150th anniversary of the USDA (inaugurated by Pres. Abraham Lincoln). In addition to successfully passing the soil legislation this year, the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum has a new exhibit, Dig It!, devoted to soil and including soil “monoliths” (glass columns showing the stratifications within soil series like Lester) for all the official soils of the 50 states. The exhibit opens Nov. 10.

For more information on Dig It! go to http://www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/ForAdults/Exhibits/DigIt/index.htm

The soil events continue, according to Elsner. Next year is both the 100th anniversary of the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate, and the 40th Anniversary of MAPSS. Various tours and special events at locations like the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum are planned.

Elsner noted that MAPSS chose Lester soils for a number of reasons, including that it is photogenic, but its water-storing capacity may be its most important feature, especially in drought years such as Minnesota experienced in 2012 and 1988.

“Whether you’re growing a tree or a corn plant–if you have more water it’s going to grow better,” said Elsner. “When you compare to a sandy soil, you can see how Lester holds more water, and it will do better at producing healthy plants than the sandy soil, when we have dry weather conditions.”

Lester soils were first identified in Lester Prairie, in McLeod County in 1939. According to MAPPS, soil supports 235,000 jobs in Minnesota. Roughly one hundred scientists belong to MAPPS, including state and federal government workers, academics and private industry workers.