Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

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.

#farmbillnow: NCGA launches Twitter campaign to speed a successful conclusion to 2012 Farm Bill debates

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Farmers rose up this spring and used Twitter to thwart bad government policy.

By sending the short text messages via the Internet-based service Twitter, farmers conveyed their displeasure with proposed farm child labor rules they felt would mean an end to time honored participation of young children in farm chores and adolescents in the operation of basic farm machinery. The ability of children to participate this way is a staple of farm life. The government responded to the barrage of messages by withdrawing the proposal. It was a spontaneous, grassroots reaction.

National Corn Growers Association, known for its culture of engaging grassroots political activism, launched a campaign recently on Twitter, asking farmers to “tweet” — as Twitter messages are referred to — in favor of passing the Farm Bill offered in the Senate.

“We need a farm bill now, not in the fall, not by the end of December, but now–farmers will begin shortly to make critical decisions for the next crop year, and not having a farm bill in place leaves too much uncertainty,” said Janice Walters, communications manager for NCGA’s Washington, DC office. She goes by the Twitter username @DCcorngal and she encourages anyone interested in the farm bill to follow her in order to get the latest news. She said, “Even an extension leaves too much uncertainty while it funds programs that aren’t working well for us, like direct payments.”

American Farm Bureau, American Soybean Association and National Wheat Growers Association have joined NCGA in this Twitter campaign.

By including the 12 characters #farmbillnow in the 140 character message, the “tweet” is channeled to any Twitter user who searches using this set of characters, known as a hashtag. Within hours of the announcement of the campaign, farmers were sending messages with this hashtag, and Senators had begun incorporating it in their “tweets” on the Farm Bill, said Walters.

She said Twitter can be an effective tool for lobbying Congress because over 460 of the 535 members of Congress now have Twitter accounts.

Walters quoted Chuck Grassley, who has been in the forefront in adopting Twitter as a means to communicate quickly with his constituents. He was quoted in Agri-Pulse, saying: “I use Twitter to keep in touch with Iowans. It’s a way to describe what I’m working on as their U.S. senator, to make a point in a public policy debate and to try to foster greater citizen participation in the process of representative government.”

The #farmbillnow outreach effort encourages farmers to include in their message that farming is an economic powerhouse that supports 16 million American jobs, and serves to even up America’s trade imbalance with the world, Walters said. Another key “Tweeting” point: the bill drafted by the Senate Agriculture committee offers $23 billion dollars in cuts over the next ten years, compared to the current farm bill.

“We want members of Congress to know the kind of fiscal restraint and fiscal leadership farmers approve of–it’s the way we run our businesses and our household budgets and we think government needs to operate the same way,” said Walters.

NCGA felt it was a fortuitous time to launch the campaign because the Senate voted 90-8 to “invoke cloture” — the technical measure required to open debate on any bill. Very shortly, Senators will begin debating the bill and introducing amendments, and with the help of the encouragement through #farmbillnow, NCGA leaders hope Congress can pass the Farm Bill before its summer recess.

Miss America 2011: Teresa Scanlan, the perfect advocate for agriculture

By MCGA Agvocate Leah Johnson

Teresa Scanlan, Miss America 2011 held her crown up to me and said, “Style, success, scholarship and service. That’s what the four points on the Miss America crown stand for.” I had no idea what I was getting into when my collegiate Farm Bureau sponsored Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan to come speak at NDSU recently. I’ll be honest, I was intimidated by her perfectly primped style and maybe a little jealous. Never had I watched a Miss America pageant or put any interest in pageants in my entire life. Well needless to say, Teresa had me wishing I was Miss America by the end of her speech.

Teresa grew up in western Nebraska, in a town of 8,000 people. She didn’t grow up on a farm, which really gave me reservations of her credibility, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Being homeschooled with her six siblings, her parents taught her to appreciate agriculture and to know its importance in our society. When she competed in the Miss America pageant, her original platform was for education against eating disorders in teens. After she was crowned Miss America and got out of the agriculturally strong Nebraska state, she found her true platform: agriculture. As she visited school after school she noticed that most youth believed their food truly came from just a grocery store. She realized that not all kids were able to grow up less than a mile from a corn field.

This is why Teresa speaks about the three main things we as farmers, consumers and as a society must take action for agriculture. She explained that the average farmer is 57 years old and in the next several years we will need 100,000 new farmers to continue our agricultural industry. So informing our youth of agriculture’s importance and the future business opportunities there are in agriculture is imperative. Her second point was to educate and inform the public about agriculture. With all the misinformation constantly being distributed, we must disprove the negativity and create a positive attitude associated with agriculture. Her final point is one near and dear to her heart as Teresa plans to go to law school someday and become the President of our wonderful nation: A strong farm policy and presence in our current legislation will protect agriculture and allow us to continue to be independent on our food sources.

These three things seem easy to do but unfortunately it cannot happen over night. Teresa can speak to millions of people and open their eyes to what needs to be done to protect and grow our agricultural industry. But we as farmers, consumers and as a society must take the initiative. Using all the opportunities we have readily available to inform our communities and our country on the future of our nation and the dire need to preserve the rights and future of our sustainability in agriculture is vital.

Planting the seeds to grow CommonGround

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

One woman complained that corn sweetener is in too many foods.

Another man expressed his worry that farming pollutes the creek where he likes to canoe, and that farm nutrients are ending up in the Gulf of Mexico.

A student said her “Holistic” class included the screening of a video that claimed a corn diet kills cattle.  Sometimes just letting a little sunshine in on a notion like this—taking it out of the classroom bubble and into the real world, is enough to get people to see that dairy and cattle farmers, whose livelihoods depend directly on the health of their livestock, would never feed them foodstuffs that would injure that health.

Minnesota’s three CommonGround volunteers were there to listen, and to let that sunshine in. The third annual Ag Awareness Day, organized by the student members of the University of Minnesota Ag Education Club, offered the opportunity on Tuesday, April 17, to respond to these worries about food and agriculture.

The CommonGround volunteers shared a booth with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, providing logistical support for this grassroots effort here in Minnesota.

The CommonGround volunteers let more sunshine in: consumers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to sweetened foods—farmers are happy to grow more crops for other uses as the market demands. Nutrient impacts on the environment are at the top of farmers’ agendas and farmers are driven both by environmental stewardship ideals and the bottom line of their businesses –fertilizers and other inputs are too expensive to waste—so farmers are driven to continually improve the delivery of nutrients, so that they help grow crops and don’t end up as waste in sensitive ecosystems.

The exaggerations and distortions about agriculture and food by media start to fall away when these farm women of CommonGround reassure people about the shared values that farmers and indeed most Americans hold—values that drive today’s agriculture—to produce safe, healthy food, to ensure the welfare of domestic animals, to ensure the quality of the environment for future generations and to build a strong foundation for an economy that can grow while achieving these other goals about food, health and the environment.

“We have to meet people where they are at, and hear their concerns if we want to connect with them and get them to have a stronger connection to Minnesota agriculture,” said Linda Kroll, who joined with Dorothy Smith-Jacobs and Kristie Swenson—all three women with farming backgrounds—in an effort called CommonGround—an organization trying to help people see past the shock video blurbs and understand how the sound bites and newspaper stories don’t tell the whole story.

Kroll farms in Royalton, Smith-Jacobs farms in Stearns County and Swenson works as a lender at a small town bank while her husband farms with her parents in Alpha.

Swenson, who attended the University of Minnesota, relished the chance to come back as a CommonGround volunteer. She has also attended the MARL agricultural leadership seminar series and before changing over to the banking field, she worked with one of the world’s most successful farmer cooperatives, Land O’ Lakes.

“We’re not only putting a face on agriculture, but we’re helping people see what’s true,” said Swenson. “An event like this is great, because you have the booths and people see the pigs and chickens and llamas, and also the crops and all the products made from the crops—people see all the different facets that make up agriculture and realize it’s not just one big thing, but a very diverse set of industries where people like my family are working hard to deliver commodities and products that people need and want. For me, putting a face on farming is a way to show the average person that when they are blaming “ag” they are blaming me and my family—not only should people think twice about reckless accusations, but they should know it’s a slap at actual people who work hard every day to do the right thing.”

CommonGround, as a volunteer program underwritten by National Corn Growers Association and United Soybean Board, has attracted small, grassroots chapters of volunteer farm women to “meet people where they are” and tackle the kind of anxieties that resonate especially with women as family meal planners and decision makers about family nutrition. Sometimes it’s just about the reassurance that consumers don’t need to go for the expensive niche products just to get the nutrition their families need. Everyday farm grown products get the job done. Everyone wants to do the best by domestic animals, so CommonGround volunteers offer for public consideration the realities that free-range practices don’t always enhance the lives of animals, and most indoor-confined animals exist in spaces that allow free range of movement, full extension of wings and legs, along with allowing for natural groom and feeding behaviors.

“It’s not our goal to tell people what to think,” said Swenson. “We want to make sure agriculture has a voice in all these discussions where there are so many concerns around food and farming. Ag needs to be represented because we bring our knowledge and experience to the table and assure that information is accurate and goals are realistic.”

It can come as a surprise to people made anxious by media reports when they hear all the things farmers are doing right in the pursuit of the good of the environment. Most people haven’t heard about all the ways farmers are working with government agencies and private industry to correct problems.


Activist farmers score victory for common sense trucking regulations

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (USDOT) announced last Thursday that it would pursue no new trucking regulations for the agriculture industry at this time.

The announcement comes in the wake of a major grassroots campaign, with members of many farmer organizations, including Minnesota Corn Growers Association, communicating with lawmakers and officials at US Department of Transportation, to explain how proposed new rules would have adversely affected farmers. FMCSA said it received more than 1700 comments on the regulations, the majority of them favoring no new regulations.

“This is a major victory, and it goes to show how powerful it is when average citizens speak their minds and tell government officials about the unfair impacts of proposed regulations,” said Greg Schwarz, a farmer in Le Sueur and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “We all should take a lesson from this and remember what we can do and how we can affect the outcomes of issues very important to farming just by each one of us taking on the responsibility to be an advocate for agriculture.”

These farmer advocates are not opposed to current regulations that provide for inspections to insure the safety of trucks and semi-trailers used to bring farm products to market. However, the proposed regulations would have required a commercial drivers license–the same rigorous licensing required in order to operate overland trucks for interstate shipping of products–not only for trucks but also farm machinery.

“There were two main worries with this,” said Curt Watson, a farmer in Renville and former president of MCGA, who took a leading role in the grassroots push to oppose the new rules. “Since CDLs are only available to drivers age 21 and older, this would prevent many capable older teens from playing the important role in their family farm operation of being an equipment operator. Also, farm labor at harvest and various other points of the growing season can be in short supply. To impose a CDL requirement would further strain the system and prevent farmers from moving grain and equipment in a timely way.”

The guidance statement released by US Department of Transportation is intended to make it clear to all states that they should not impose any additional requirements on farmers.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a press statement: “We have no intention of instituting onerous regulations on the hardworking farmers who feed our country and fuel our economy,” said Secretary Ray LaHood. “Farmers deserve to know that reasonable, common sense exemptions will continue to be consistently available to agricultural operations across the country, and that’s why we released this guidance.”

Corn Congress asks US lawmakers to preserve farm safety net

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Before the president and Congress resolve the national budget crisis, the number of dollars available for the US Farm Program is unknown and therefore getting down to specifics doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But scores of farm leaders, who came to Washington D.C. to participate in the National Corn Growers Association Corn Congress, delivered a general message: to the extent possible, preserve the farm safety net.

Cutting the farm program, which amounts to a quarter of one percent of the national budget, would amount to little more than a paper budget victory. “Disaster” bills and other ad hoc reactions put together when the crisis hits spend more money and are not as effective.

Corn Congress took care of important organizational business Wednesday. The 124 delegates–farmers from across the 28 corn growing states– elected five growers to the National Corn Growers Association board of directors for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts October 1: Chip Bowling of Maryland, Martin Barbre of Illinois, Lynn Chrisp of Nebraska, Bob Bowman of Iowa and Keith Alverson of South Dakota.

Each state’s group of delegates spent time on Wednesday and Thursday meeting with their state’s members of Congress.

“We delivered our message that crop insurance–protecting risk management at the individual farm level– is the most valuable part of farm program right now for corn farmers,” said Greg Schwarz, a farmer in Le Sueur and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “Secondly, we asked that when Congress puts together the Farm Bill next year, the ACRE program or whatever that may turn into, should provide risk management during broader risks to the farm economy. And third, we asked them to consider some kind of ethanol support. We understand that VEETC (Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit) is going away. We are supportive of what Senator Klobuchar is trying to do, to get some of that money into infrastructure. We point to the jobs and the economic development value for Minnesota and give our opinion that these are worth preserving. Trying to get money for blender pumps may be the best next move to continue to build ethanol.”

Minnesota grower leaders had face-to-face meetings with Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Representatives Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, and met with agriculture liaisons and legislative aides in the offices of the other members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation.

“We especially enjoyed the face time with the senators and representatives themselves–we felt we could really connect and deliver the message for our 6,000 members back home,” said Schwarz. “Tim Walz in particular is so positive all the time, and he’s so in tune with Minnesota’s farmers that he makes all of our talking points for us. There are still some people optimistic that our country and our system will work. It’s a messy system, but ultimately things will work out. Peterson comes at it from another angle. He pulls no punches and gives his frank assessment. That’s a valuable perspective, too. We come away from these meetings with a better sense of where things are headed.”

In addition to Walz’s optimistic message, the grower leaders were happy to hear the presentation of famed NASCAR racer Kenny Wallace at the NCGA reception for Congress members.

“Kenny gave a real “hoorah” speech,” Schwarz said. He reassured everyone that E15, which is being used in NASCAR, is an excellent fuel. There has not been a single engine problem related to using E15 in the national circuit races.”


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.