Second annual Ag Awareness Day offers students facts about food

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The below average chilly temperatures last Tuesday didn’t deter members of the University of Minnesota Agriculture Education Club from finding plenty of fellow students, faculty and university workers to share a word or two about what farming means for everyone.

Farmers and agribusiness representatives joined these ag club student, to host booths stretching along Church Street–a well-populated walkway through the heart of the East Bank campus of the university.

“Our message is that food doesn’t start in the grocery store–it comes about through the hard work of farmers who undertake a whole variety of processes to bring us not only food that’s plentiful and cheap, but fiber and energy too,” said Dale Busch, the regional representative for Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s south central region. “One young person wondered aloud and asked me what I meant by ‘cheap’ and I told her that the next time she got back from the grocery store she should separate her purchases into two groups–food and other products like paper products, cleaners and such. Typically, the food part of the purchase is very economical. Americans spend less on food than just about any other society in the world.”

Busch was joined by Professor Vern Cardwell (Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics) who staffed the Minnesota Corn Growers Association booth, at midday, along with Derek Mulhern, a University of Minnesota agriculture student and an MCGA Agvocate.

One faculty member asked about why corn is made into ethanol when the world needs a lot of food.

“We are not starving the world by making part of the corn crop into energy,” said Busch who explained that the supply is big enough to cover all food/animal feed needs as well as providing a feedstock for the ethanol industry. He explained that today’s market information helps farmers make the right planting decisions in order to cover all these uses. He added, “We’ve never said that corn is THE renewable energy solution–it has to be part of a range of renewable energy sources–corn ethanol, soy biodiesel, and in the future algae, biomass-based ethanol and other sources we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Cardwell used four mason jars of corn filled with progressively higher amounts of corn kernels, and four beakers of pellets (representing nitrogen fertilizer) to explain the incredible gains in nutrient efficiency in corn production in the past 75 years: In 1935, US farmers harvested 33 bushels of corn per acre and used 16 tons fertilizer per acre where today, farmers are raising 165 bushels of corn on that same acre and using 4.4 tons of fertilizer. This comes down 1.2 pounds of nitrogen per 56 pounds of corn–a fourfold reduction in fertilizer per unit.

“We’ve learned a lot about the placement and the timing of fertilizer,” Cardwell told a pair of university students who had stopped at the MCGA booth. “Combined with the improvements in the plant varieties, farmers have seen incredible success raising corn in the United States.”

Members of the agricultural club proved very effective interacting with the crowd and sharing their enthusiasm for the role of farmers in providing the most basic products society needs.

Kristen Wingert, a junior ag education major said the day “is all about providing an environment for learning and creates a means for people to gather information and gain understanding about the importance of agriculture.”

Wingert grew up on a farm in southeast Minnesota where both parents had jobs off the farm and worked mornings, evenings and weekends to raise a beef cow herd. She will graduate next year and hopes to teach food science, agronomy, animal science, environmental science and other topics in a high school agricultural program.

Busch believes the Church Street location improved the contact with students and others compared to last year’s venue, just outside Northrop Auditorium.

Organizations participating in Agriculture Awareness Day included the U of M College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, Minnesota Farmer’s Union, Minnesota Corn Growers, Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, U of M Extension’s Minnesota 4-H, Minnesota Pork Board, Minnesota Turkey Growers, Minnesota Beef Council, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, Midwest Dairy Association, Minnesota Buffalo Association, Minnesota Soybean Growers, Cooperative Network and Minnesota State Rabbit Breeders Association.

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