Menu

Made Better in Montana

Montana’s Food and Agriculture Development Center Network leads by example

Every community desires growth, jobs and innovation, but in the Big Sky State, these goals are made a reality through the Montana Food and Agricultural Development Network.

This instrumental network helps Montanans grow their agricultural and food businesses by sharing resources through its four nonprofit centers: Bear Paw Development Corporation based in Havre; Beartooth RC&D in Joliet; Headwaters RC&D located in Butte; and Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (MMFEC) in Ronan. Each center boasts different specialties, ranging from in-house food processing and commercial kitchens to microloan funds, business development, and even conservation and food safety practices.

Through the Food and Agriculture Development Center Network, local products labeled with the Montana Department of Commerce’s programs Made in Montana, Grown in Montana and Native American Made in Montana are made possible.

LOCAL BUSINESSES. LOCAL SUPPORT

Uncle Bill’s Sausage was a small-scale company selling retail through its stores. The problem: limited market entry.

“We helped him move to our USDA-inspected facility and expand to four new markets,” says Center Director Jan Tusick, Food and Ag Development Center at MMFEC. This includes grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets.

Mustard Seed Sauce and Dressing Company needed a facility that could meet its growing demands of production. “We helped them research potential equipment that could bring more efficiency to their production. We also have the equipment needed to do fullscale processing. Now they are distributing regionally,” Tusick says.

Needing assistance with co-packing, Western Montana Growers Cooperative turned to MMFEC for chopping, blanching and other preparations of produce from local growers, which is then marketed to institutions like local schools and hospitals.

These are just a few examples of some 30 local businesses being helped on a monthly basis through the resources at MMFEC. It’s also the perfect place for any meat producer or processer with a USDA-approved “meat room” or for organic growers to meet certification requirements.

Over at Headwaters RC&D, the center similarly assists about 25 businesses during busy seasons, which includes a number of start-up microbreweries.

“Philipsburg Brewing Company became popular so fast that they decided to start canning and we worked with them to get their canning line. Now, you can buy their beer in aluminum bottles; it’s the only brewery doing so in the state,” says Center Director Joe Willauer, Food and Ag Development Center at Headwaters. Not to mention, the bottling line project created at least five new jobs.

Headwaters also houses one of the Montana Department of Commerce’s Small Business Development Centers focused on financials, which can help business owners avoid pitfalls and challenges, especially during startup.

At all four centers, education and training on Good Agricultural Practices, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are a priority. People can receive hands-on food safety training – an opportunity not presently available elsewhere in the state.

“FSMA is going to drastically increase regulations and this is a proactive measure, so we can stay competitive on a national level,” Willauer says.

Tusick adds, “We are a model nationally. The food industry is one of the most optimistic growth industries in Montana and we are well positioned to help food businesses develop through this network.”

AG BUSINESS FUNDING PROGRAMS AND GRANTS

Nothing is possible without funding, and while most ag businesses start with a Growth Through Agriculture Grant, the Montana Department of Commerce fills in where others can’t, such as with the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program.

“The Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program is able to assist ag-related businesses with grants for planning and job creation projects, such as the department’s awards to the Flathead County Economic Development Authority for Glacier Hops to purchase equipment, and Beartooth RC&D for assistance to One Montana for a prospectus,” says Sean Becker, Division Administrator of the Montana Department of Commerce.

The Community Development Block Grant – Economic Development Program is also funding similar projects.

“If a business is growing, adding jobs or doing research to see how they can attract or retain an investment, we would love to be at the table.”

This article was published in Grown In Montana magazine | 2016 (PDF)>>

Read More

Take the Pulse Challenge

International Year of Pulses to improve nutrition, health, sustainability

An agricultural rags-to-riches story, pulse crops are no longer an obscure specialty crop. Instead, they are gaining popularity, market potential and profitability as production rises in Montana and across the U.S.

Praised as nutritional powerhouses packed with protein, fiber, antioxidants, calcium and iron, pulses are the dried edible seeds of legumes and include all beans, peas and lentils. With 2016 declared the International Year of Pulses by the United Nations, consumers are seeing a trendy new “pulse” hitting dinner tables – and it’s coming from Montana’s farmlands.

MONTANA’S BOOMING PULSE INDUSTRY

As the No. 1 producer of pulses in the U.S., Montana predominately grows yellow and green peas, green and red lentils, garbanzo beans (or chickpeas), and a variety of dried beans.

“In 2014, we had over 700,000 acres in pulses, according to the USDA,” says Deputy Director Kim Falcon of the Montana Department of Agriculture (MDA). “The next year, you could easily add another 15 percent on top of that. For 2016, we anticipate there will be an even higher increase.”

While domestic markets have room to grow, Falcon sees international markets developing exponentially, specifically in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, South China and Mexico.

At Columbia Grain, a world-leading grain exporter operating five processing facilities for peas and lentils in Montana, Senior Vice President Jeff VanPevenage says, “We are currently exporting into Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, but we’re going to need more production. We are building a reputation for quality and see more buyers turning to the U.S. for that. And although I say the U.S., a lot of it is found in Montana.”

Traditionally, Montana exports the majority of its pulse crops internationally. However, thanks to the huge growth in U.S. hummus consumption in the last five years, Columbia Grain has seen chickpea exports drop from 70 percent of U.S. production to about 30 percent, while increasing production at the same time. Lentils are also in high demand, driving strong prices domestically.

“The fact that we’ve had support and backing by the Montana Department of Agriculture has been very helpful to getting more acres out of the ground,” VanPevenage says. “I’m really excited about the International Year of Pulses. I can already feel and see it driving demand.”

Other key companies involved in Montana’s pulse industry include processors like AGT Foods, Hinrichs Trading Company and New Century Ag. All are helping farmers access viable markets around the world.

BENEFITS OF PULSES

It’s no secret these super crops possess countless health advantages, especially for those with diabetes or struggling with weight loss. However, they’re also gluten-free, non-allergenic and non-GMO, making pulses a perfect fit for health-conscious consumers.

To help incorporate pulse crops into diets in 2016, the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council has chefs creating menus featuring this perfect plant protein source for individuals and institutions like schools and hospitals. For example, pasta can be made with pulse flour, and whipped cream can be made with white beans.

Consumers are already seeing more snacks, like bean and lentil chips, stocked on grocery store shelves. By substituting pea flour for traditional flour, even cookies and brownies can be healthier, and delicious. Another advantage of pulse crops are the agronomic benefits, says Kim Murray, third-generation farmer and chair of the Montana Pulse Advisory Committee.

“We were looking for something that would work in our climate and help us eliminate fallow or uncultivated land. By putting pulses in rotation, we are getting production on every acre. Land values have gone up, while erosion from wind and water have dropped dramatically.”

Looking toward the future, Murray sees Montana’s pulse boom as an opportunity to feed a growing world population with an inexpensive, nutritious and easily transported protein. He encourages consumers to eat at least 1.5 cups of pulse crops each week.

“I invite people to take the pulse challenge,” he says. Take the the Pulse Pledge at pulsepledge.com.

This article was published in Grown In Montana magazine | 2016 (PDF)>>

Read More

The Road Ahead

Ag Tag funds drive growth, progress in ag youth organizations

Even if you’re not driving down a country road in Tennessee, there are plenty of red barns to admire. Since 1996, the “Ag Tag” license plate, which features a red barn, has illustrated support for local agriculture, and sales from this farm-themed plate go to the state’s Agricultural Development Fund, administered by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Thanks to Ag Tags, a quarter of a million dollars is given back annually to the agriculture community in the form of grants to agricultural youth organizations and a variety of agricultural projects and programs across the state.

In 2003, Ag Tags (and its resulting Ag Development Fund) reached its first milestone granting more than $1 million to Tennessee’s ag community since the tag’s inception. By 2009, the $2 million mark was hit and now, 2016 marks the 20th anniversary celebration of the popular red barn tag.

One reason the Ag Tag program has been so successful is that it’s the only tag with a fund committed to supporting organizations other than itself, focusing funds outwards toward the agriculture community. For example, Ag Tag sales provide a combined $165,000 annually to Tennessee’s 4-H, FFA and Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) programs.

AG TAG BOOSTS AG YOUTH RESOURCES

“The Ag Tag fund has helped us further establish endowments that help support 4-H county programs, like providing more scholarships,” says Justin Crowe, extension specialist with Tennessee 4-H Youth Development.

Additionally, events like livestock expositions, 4-H Roundup and 4-H Congress, where students visit legislators in Nashville and learn about state government, have all benefited from increased funding.

Another area expanding because of Ag Tags is volunteer development.

“We could not have a strong program in Tennessee without the support of all our volunteers, who are out every day meeting 4-H clubs at the schools and training judging teams,” Crowe says. As of 2015, 4-H has received more than $750,000 since Ag Tags hit the roads.

“These funds have helped bring competitions, activities, events and teams to a level that we can really be proud of, and we know it wouldn’t be at that level without the support of Tennessee’s Department of Agriculture and Ag Tags,” Crowe says.

Buying Ag Tags also supports Tennessee’s FFA, which has 14,084 members, 322 advisors and 216 chapters. Allie Ellis, career and technical education specialist for FFA, sees numerous benefits.

“Ag Tag funds help sponsor state-winning Career Development Events (CDE) teams and individuals, Tennessee’s FFA breakfast at National Convention, FFA forestry camp, Blast-Off state officer training, the National Leadership Conference for State Officers, regional officer leadership training, and the state FFA degree pins and ribbons,” she says.

These additional resources make a positive difference in students’ education. Similarly, Ag in the Classroom, which provides professional development for the state’s classroom teachers, spends Ag Tag funds in support of summer workshops at 10 locations statewide.

“With the support of Ag Tags, AITC trained more than 1,400 teachers in 2014. That’s a 418 percent increase over the 270 trained in 1997 before Ag Tag funding,” says Dan Strasser, Tennessee Farm Bureau, special programs director.

LOOKING AT THE ROAD AHEAD

According to the USDA, the U.S. produces only one qualified candidate for every two jobs in agriculture that require a college degree.

“4-H, FFA and AITC make students aware of the broad scope of careers available in agriculture. This knowledge increases the odds that some students will pursue a career in agriculture through postsecondary education,” ultimately leading to an agriculturally literate population, Strasser says.

Crowe agrees. “We feel strongly that all of our young people are advocates for agriculture and are shaping the industry’s future. The training they’ve received will help them tremendously now and down the road.”

As before, community support is vital to the Ag Tag program’s success and ability to advance local agriculture.

This article was published in Tennesse Ag Insider magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

Read More

Improving Agricultural Literacy: The GMO Debate

Can you identify GMO fact from myth?

Agriculture affects each of our lives so profoundly, it’s easy to overlook its importance. Take for example, the last time you ate fresh corn – do you remember how easy it was to peel, that it cooked in minutes or was sweet and juicy?

The evolution of corn (maize) has come a long way since 7000 B.C. when a distant relative of today’s modern plant was only found in Central America, peeled by hammering and contained only five to 10 very hard kernels per ear. Thanks to years of genetic enhancements, this veggie is an appetizing, worldwide favorite with 200 varieties available in five colors and grown commercially in more than 69 countries.

Through selective breeding, countless fruits, vegetables and other crops have been radically improved since the onset of domestic agriculture 10,000 years ago. Here’s a closer look at the vital role of genetics in agriculture today.

WHAT IS A GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISM (GMO)?

“All agricultural plants and animals through domestication have been genetically modified,” says Dr. Terry Sharrer, former curator of agriculture, Smithsonian Museum of American History. “With traditional breeding, you amplify the expression of all genes, however you also get heightened examples of undesirable characteristics.”

To rectify this, scientists turned to DNA technology, or genetic engineering, in the 1980s. This laboratory process enhanced traditional breeding methods by extracting and inserting a specific, single gene that carries the desired characteristic. Any offspring produced through this process is called a GMO.

The terms GMO and genetic modification (GM) are frequently confused, however. Sharrer clarifies that “genetic modification continues to happen naturally today because plants and animals experience predation. They change the same ways humans do to adapt. It’s evolution.”

FACT OR MYTH? GMOs ARE UNSAFE FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION

Myth. With the 30th anniversary of GM technology and 2,000-plus studies conducted, research has concluded that GMO foods are as safe as conventional or organic foods. Furthermore, research has uncovered numerous benefits of GMO crops including targeted insect, disease and weed resistance, which decreases the need for pesticides and tilling, causing less stress on the environment.

“There’s nothing inheritably unsafe about GMOs compared to anything else,” says Sharrer, especially considering that chemicals naturally exist in plants and animals. Celery and lima beans, for example, contain natural toxins that could be harmful in high doses, even if they’re labeled non-GMO or organic.

FACT OR MYTH? GMOs CAN HELP FEED A GROWING POPULATION BY IMPROVING YIELDS

Fact. “Today’s American farmer feeds about 155 people around the world. As impressive as that is, it is not enough to meet the challenges of a world population headed to 9 billion by 2050,” says Commissioner Sandra J. Adams of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). Add in the fact that less than two percent of the American population is engaged in production agriculture, and the future depends on farmers continuing to use innovation and technology to increase productivity.

Growing two ears of corn where there once was one, GMOs may well hold the key to increasing food productivity. However, consumers’ purchasing decisions will ultimately decide what production methods will be accepted.

FACT OR MYTH? GMOs ADVANCE THE INTEREST OF BIG BUSINESS ETHICS AT THE EXPENSE OF FAMILY FARMS

Myth. “Almost 90 percent of our farms are family-owned and operated, although many family farms are incorporated as a business model,” Adams says. “We need to get the word out on America’s agriculture industry and that we have the safest food supply in the world.”

Undoubtedly, the loss of personal connection with the people who know agriculture best – our farmers – has fueled confusion surrounding modern agricultural practices. While consumers know that staple crops like corn play a significant role providing alternative energy or feeding livestock and people, many aren’t aware that without today’s genetic improvements, food would be more expensive, consume more resources such as land and water and require more inputs to produce.

“Improving agriculture literacy and policy starts (and ends) with the consumer,” Sharrer says. The family farm may be modernized, but it still strives for buyer satisfaction, just as it has since the very beginning.

This article was published in Virginia Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

Read More

A Fish On Every Dish

Why Virgnia’s thriving seafood industry will feed the growing population

Aquaculture has seen tremendous growth in the U.S., expanding about 14-fold since 1980. As the population grows, along with seafood’s healthy reputation, aquaculture is estimated to increase in demand by 35 percent or more in the next 20 years. There’s no doubt the “Blue Revolution” is underway, and with fish farming on the rise in Virginia, the industry is set for promising years ahead.

WHY FISH FROM VIRGINIA TASTES BETTER

“In Virginia, we’ve had some outstanding aquaculture stories,” says Bill Martin, president of Blue Ridge Aquaculture. His company sells 12,000 pounds of live tilapia daily to customers located from Toronto to Washington, D.C.

“We’ve shown that you can do intensive recirculating aquaculture and make a profit.”

Another success story is Virginia Cobia Farms LLC, which produces the only cobia fish in the world rated as “Best Choice” Sustainable Cobia by the Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch program. This inland fish farm has been able to recycle fish waste into biogas energy that helps power their facility.

Over the years, Martin has watched the industry naturally progress from wild-caught to
indoor farm production, the latter providing a more controlled environment for raising high-quality, protein-rich fish.

“We raise fish in the best conditions. We treat the animal well in a stress-free environment with the best diet that is known for tilapia. We do this because we want a healthy, strong fish and that equates to good taste.”

However, Martin stresses there are still a lot of hurdles. “We are competing with imports
that aren’t under the same regulations that fish farmers in the U.S. face,” he says.

As many consumers make purchasing decisions based on price, cheaper imported seafood
is stocking grocery stores, but at a cost.

“We get what we pay for, which in many cases is a substandard fish. We need to educate the public that seafood grown domestically is better for them. It doesn’t have harmful substances in it that may be present in substandard fish.”

Additionally, aquaculture requires capital investment and further research to advance the
industry. Martin has found this goes hand-in-hand with encouraging younger generations
to enter the industry and, ultimately, building a base of people who understand the commitment behind great seafood.

SHELLFISH LEADING THE “BLUE REVOLUTION”

In 2014, Virginia’s shellfish farmers sold $55.9 million in oysters and clams, an increase of 14 percent total revenue for clam growers and 33 percent for oyster growers, according to the annual Virginia Shellfish Aquaculture – Situation and Outlook Report (March 2015). Karen Hudson, commercial shellfish aquaculture extension specialist at Virginia Institute of Marine Science, says this growth can be attributed to a variety of factors, including lack of availability in other clam-producing states and the local food movement.

“The oyster industry is a younger industry and experiencing unbridled growth lately,” Hudson says. “For the last several decades, the cultured hard clams have been the dominant product in the market.” Then in 2008-09, there was a boost in oyster production and each year since has had an increase in sales and people planting oysters, taking after the clam model.

“We estimate over $100 million in economic impact to Virginia from farmed shellfish. That equates to nearly 1,000 jobs, many in rural communities.”

In addition, shellfish provide an ecological service by filtering the nutrient rich waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Virginia will remain the nation’s leader in hard clam production and the shellfish culture industry will continue to provide a safe and high-quality product,” Hudson says, attributing this success to a proactive industry and business-friendly regulatory structure.

Of course, Virginia’s fish farmers have one final advantage driving future success – the perfect geographic location – a highly populated corridor of the world, near coastal habitats and people who love seafood.

This article was published in Virginia Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

Read More

Advancing Animal Agriculture

Quality animal care and young farmers are critical to booming sector

A leading state in animal agriculture, North Carolina has transitioned in recent decades from a crop farm state to a livestock farm state with pork and poultry leading in production value. Pork accounts for more than $2.5 billion in farm income in the state, while the poultry industry accounts for an estimated $5.1 billion.

Behind those impressive numbers are North Carolina’s farmers and the skilled care they provide for the animals they raise to feed their families and families across the world.

ANIMAL CARE AND THE FAMILY FARM

James Lamb, a third-generation Sampson County hog farmer, took over the family farm as a teenager when his father passed away.

“I’ve probably been driving a tractor since I was 7 years old,” says Lamb, whose love of the farm and raising pigs eventually led him to study agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and graduate in 1996 with five job offers. He decided to remain on the family farm and pursue hog farming large scale with Prestage Farms, which produces over 1.3 billion pounds of pork and turkey annually through its 450-plus farm families.

More than 15 years later, Lamb is still working as a nursery grower, receiving about 3,040 pigs for each eight-week term. In a year, he cares for around 20,000 pigs.

“When caring for the pigs, you want them to be as comfortable as possible,” he says. “A comfortable animal is healthier, so if they feel stressed, I’m stressed.”

In order to provide the best care possible, Lamb is Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) certified and utilizes modern technology.

“I’m a big advocate of technology – anything that makes the pigs healthier, I’m for it. But no matter the technology you have, it’s always good to have your eyes on things.”

Also contributing to the farm’s success is Lamb’s family, including two daughters, who may one day inherit the farm.

“I always valued the lessons learned growing up on the farm. It’s hard work, but the ethics and morals help people throughout life, no matter where their paths lead.”

POULTRY PRIDE

Brad West’s family has a long history of farming. A third-generation farmer and a graduate of NCSU, West has been raising turkeys for 16 years, most recently for Butterball.

“The challenge of taking a small bird, raising it to market age and seeing the finished product is what I like the most,” West says.

The West family owns three farming operations: a brooder farm with 55,000 turkeys, a natural ventilation farm with around 18,000 birds and a tunnel ventilation farm with 28,000 birds.

As the nation’s largest turkey producer, Butterball depends on family farmers. According to West, Butterball works closely with growers. The company understands that the taste consumers have grown to expect is achieved through every aspect of caring for the birds, from nutritious food to a clean, comfortable environment.

“Butterball also has great veterinarians, so they can diagnose and treat any problems that arise,” he says.

The rise of meat consumption around the world is good news not just for North Carolina’s pork and poultry industries, but also for the state’s beef producers. With approximately 19,000 beef cattle operations – located throughout the state’s 100 counties – the beef cattle herd is estimated at more than 360,000.

Meanwhile, an estimated 500 dairy farms with more than 45,000 cows contribute more than $165 million to the state’s economy.

This article was published in North Carolina Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

Read More

An Eye on Efficiency

Mississippi farmers focus on energy use in their operations

On every farmer’s expense sheet, there’s an energy column, and no matter the energy source, the goal is the same: The better the energy-cost situation, the better the bottom line.

Luckily in the U.S., the agriculture sector is a technology leader and highly mechanized, which is largely due to the availability of economically efficient energy supplies and infrastructure to deliver it. Moreover, thanks to human innovation and energy abundance, U.S. farmers can stay globally competitive.

However, when compared to other states, Mississippi farmers have an even greater advantage when it comes to diesel, electricity and natural gas. For example, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Mississippi pays 8.60 cents/kwh for electricity, significantly below the U.S. average retail price of 9.84 cents (data for 2013).

“Mississippi is an energy-rich state. Most people don’t know this, but Mississippi has a greater volume of natural gas flowing into and out of the state than any other state,” says Patrick Sullivan, president of the Mississippi Energy Institute. “In fact, the U.S. has more natural gas infrastructure than any other country in the world.”

Abundant infrastructure, proximity to production and strong public policy are the reasons Mississippi pays less per unit of energy on average, Sullivan says. In addition, technology gives farmers more options for managing farms.

“The reality is not as much diesel is required to run a piece of equipment and farm compared to the past. Technology and conservation have aided in fuel efficiency,” he says. Sullivan explains that with the U.S. surge in natural gas production over the last five to 10 years, there have been numerous benefits to farmers including reduced costs due to domestic production of fertilizer, chemicals and farm equipment parts – not forgetting all the jobs associated with this.

“U.S. energy prices are currently as low, or lower, than almost any part of the world. The takeaway is that people should be aware of energy policy as a state and country, and we should have an energy policy aimed at increasing supply to encourage lower energy prices. That supports all the benefits to the U.S. economy, including the farm economy.”

ENERGY AND POULTRY

There’s no underestimating the important role energy plays in agriculture, and this is especially true for Mississippi’s poultry industry, the largest sector of agriculture in the state contributing more than $3 billion to its economy each year.

“Energy is used from lighting to heating and cooling, to ventilation to electric motors running the feed,” says Michelle Mangold, a fourth-generation farmer who’s dedicated the past 19 years to raising poultry. Presently overseeing eight poultry houses in Brookhaven and raising 950,000-plus chicks annually, Mangold knows from experience that “loss of electricity to poultry farmers is a potential economic loss. Our houses rely heavily on electricity to ensure the chickens stay comfortable.”

One reason poultry farming is an energy-extensive operation is that house temperatures range anywhere from 65 to 91 degrees year round. Since fluctuating temperatures can regress growth, Mangold keeps backup diesel generators for emergency situations. “When we started in the business, electricity didn’t cost much because we didn’t have all the technology we do now, but it’s good because technology makes for a better and easier grow-out as the chickens are more comfortable.”

For example, upgrades like tunnel fans and cool cell pads have helped increase average chicken weight from 4.5 to 7 pounds, which result in more poultry product.

To keep energy costs low, Mangold regularly checks to ensure equipment is running properly. She also utilizes energy-efficient light bulbs, which cost more but last longer and generate more light. Similarly, farmers who are building new poultry houses statewide are opting for energy-efficient options from the start, like lower ceilings, which improve air flow and temperature control.

With eyes fixed on the bottom line, energy saved is money earned for poultry farmers like Mangold, and continued success in U.S. energy production will be critical to future prosperity in agriculture.

This article was published in Mississippi Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

Read More

Know Your Agriculture

Consumer misconceptions about modern farming and food production

Consumers are becoming increasingly more concerned with not only who is growing their food, but the production practices used for growing it.

With this trend, shoppers leap for labels like “no antibiotics” on ground beef, but few know that cattle are only given antibiotics when sick, and the animal cannot be slaughtered for 90 days (when antibiotics leave the system). Or consumers pay more for “no hormones added” labels on poultry or pork products when federal regulations already prohibit this.

It is important for buyers to make informed food-purchasing decisions, and ultimately, identify fact from myth.

FACT OR MYTH? The majority of farms are factory farms

MYTH. It’s true most consumers don’t know the farmer in the fields anymore, and this distance combined with the extensiveness of today’s agriculture industry are the primary reasons farms are assumed to be commercial in nature.

“In Mississippi and across the U.S., over 96 percent of the farms are owned by families,” says Dr. Erick Larson, associate research and extension professor at Mississippi State University (MSU). However, Mississippi is one of the few states where a significant portion of the population is still involved in agriculture.

As a crop farmer whose family has been farming for multiple generations in Mississippi, Patrick Swindoll can attest, “It’s not some corporate farm whose boss is in New York City. It’s always family-based farms – that’s always been my experience.”

FACT OR MYTH? There’s not enough farmland to feed the world’s growing population.

FACT. Farming is dependent on land and water, both limited resources.

“Due to urban sprawl, there is going to be less land available to produce food for the future. By 2050, food supply may have to be increased by up to 70 percent worldwide,” Larson says. “Most consumers are not aware of the issues associated with food supply and even food expenses,” like that the U.S. spends about $.07; or 6.4 percent out of every dollar on food, far less than the rest of the world. To combat food scarcity, farmers can choose to incorporate new technologies into their production systems, enhancing efficiency and reducing threats from weather and pests.

Larson gives this example: “A century ago, farmers planted about 8,000 corn plants per acre. Today, they plant about four times as many. What has changed over the years is more efficient utilization of natural resources and significantly better tolerance to environmental stress – all due to modern plant breeding.”

Mississippi has witnessed this resourcefulness first-hand as “corn yields have rapidly increased up to record levels in 2014, exceeding even the state of Iowa [considered the epicenter of the Corn Belt],” he adds.

FACT OR MYTH: “Non-GMO” labels mean healthier and safer food.

MYTH. “With the anti-GMO perception by the public, food marketers have capitalized on labeling product as non-GMO, but it has little to do with product quality,” Larson says. “The process of trying to improve genetics has been going on for 10,000 years,” meaning that all foods consumed today are already the result of genetic improvement.

While non-GMO labels do carry the assumption that biotechnology was not used to improve the breeding process, science doesn’t support that non-GMO foods are nutritionally superior or safer.

“When conducting research that compares nutritional content of foods, it’s very difficult to control every variable that may have an impact on the result. Therefore, it is almost impossible to single out one variable that may be responsible for the observed difference,” says Dr. Brent Fountain, associate extension professor – Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion, MSU. For example, variances in soil minerals will result in subtle changes to nutritional content of similar foods, whether GMOs or not.

As a farmer, Swindoll is also questioned about the safety of GMOs. In response, he opens his iPad with a list of scientific studies and says, “I’ve done my research. I’m perfectly comfortable with eating anything that comes from my field.”

FACT OR MYTH? Agricultural products produced by American farmers are safe and healthy.

FACT. “We have a safe food supply providing the American population with sufficient vitamins, minerals and other nutrients at a reasonable cost,” Fountain says.

There are over 90 government bodies worldwide providing agricultural product regulations, plus three separate U.S. government agencies (USDA, EPA, FDA) overseeing food research and testing before products go mainstream.

If consumers have concerns, Larson recommends asking the opinions of farmers, scientists, experts and professionals in the field. Also, there’s a lot of misinformation online, so be prepared to filter.

Lastly, meet local farmers like Swindoll and his family through farmers markets, and start
a dialogue about what happens from field to plate.

“What farmers grow in this country is safe,” Swindoll says. “The U.S. has some of the best standards in the world for food, and health standards are only getting better.”

This article was published in Mississippi Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

Read More

Money Trees

Georgia’s forestry industry generates billions

The numbers alone speak volumes of the importance of Georgia’s forestland. In 2013, forestry’s total economic impact was $28.9 billion, providing the state with $746 million in tax revenues. The same year, it also supported 133,353 jobs and provided $7.24 billion in wages and salaries, making forest-related industries Georgia’s second-largest manufacturing employer.

With 24.4 million acres of timberland available for commercial use – more than any other state in the U.S. – Georgia benefits from valuable timber commodities like pulpwood, lumber, poles and veneer logs. Not forgetting a long list of non-timber products like Christmas trees, food, medicine and recreation, the advantages of this natural resource are truly priceless.

“Above and beyond these figures, the forests provide Georgians with an estimated $37 billion in ecosystem benefits annually,” says Wendy Burnett, public relations director at Georgia Forestry Commission, a state agency responsible for protecting and preserving the state’s forest resources.

By partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, the commission tracks forest inventory measurements across the state to ensure long-term sustainability.

“Forests lost to urbanization have been offset primarily by farmlands being converted back to forestlands,” Burnett says.

In fact, Georgia’s forestland coverage has remained stable since the 1950s.

“This data continues to show that Georgia’s forests are going to be around for future generations to enjoy.”

However, what these impressive statistics can’t tell is the deep-rooted connection between the people and the forests, the farmers and their land – a bond that has provided a livelihood to Georgians for generations.

FINDING OPPORTUNITY IN THE TREES

“My story is the story of a young guy growing up in Georgia with a passion for the outdoors and the understanding that the land has been good to my family,” says Chad Nimmer, a timber business operator and member of the Georgia House of Representatives since 2011. “The land had given my family for four generations the opportunity to work and make a living.”

Raised on the family farm, Nimmer learned the treasures and toils of working the land. Always one to sneak off to the woods growing up, the stars aligned when, as a young adult, he accepted an opportunity to learn about forest procurement by working for Mac Thompson and his son, Hugh, at Pierce Timber Company.

“It was all local guys working together to buy timber and run logging crews,” Nimmer says.

Then in 2005, he was offered the chance to help grow the business further and ultimately became owner and operator of Suwannee Forest Products, a harvesting company for Pierce Timber Co. Ten years later, Nimmer’s excitement for the industry is still contagious, as is his appreciation for Georgia’s bountiful trees. On a typical day, he wakes around 5 a.m. to start checking emails from the mills and communicating with crews. That’s his routine, but he says every day brings its own agenda – from unexpected landline issues to mill meetings to operating high-tech equipment.

“It’s a seven-day-a-week job if you allow it to be,” Nimmer says. “But it’s hard work that is so rewarding.”

He’s so committed to the industry that he works to educate landowners on how they can best utilize their timber and has initiated a Timber Harvesting and Operations Program for high school seniors to learn first-hand about the logging industry and its career opportunities.

“I always enjoy sitting down telling this story – how lucky we are to manage this natural resource,” Nimmer says. “Georgia has some of the best soil to grow timber, some of the best markets and mills to utilize the timber, and we have some of the greatest professionals out there logging and harvesting. I’m amazed that I get to be a part.”

This article was published in Georgia Grown magazine | 2015-2016 (PDF) >>

Read More

Going Global

How trade missions, education and resources benefit Wisconsin exporters

In 2014, Wisconsin hit another record-setting year with $3.6 billion worth of agricultural products exported – a noteworthy achievement because it’s a 13.6 percent increase from 2013, and the fifth consecutive year that agricultural exports have risen.

One reason for this exponential growth is that, with help from Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), small and mid-sized agribusinesses are now going global to meet new foreign buyers. These DATCP-led trade missions deliver invaluable networking opportunities – a benefit even for seasoned exporters like dairyman Tom Kestell of Ever-Green-View (EGV) Farms, who’s been trading for the last 30 years to a variety of countries, including China, Russia and India.

“We started with live cattle to South America and then moved into embryos in the mid-80s,” Kestell says. Now embryos comprise the majority of EGV’s export sales. “Last year, we exported about 2,600 embryos, and the U.S. exports around 10,000, so we’re exporting about 25 percent of the total volume.”

EGV was also one of the first embryo exporters to China in the mid-90s, and in recent years has sold around 1,000 embryos annually to the Chinese.

NETWORKING AT THE CHINA EXPO

As one of 10 Wisconsin companies to attend the 13th Annual China World Dairy Expo & Summit in April 2015 in Harbin, China, with DATCP representatives, Kestell was surprised to be treated like a rock star of sorts because of EGV’s legacy.

“We met lots of people who were very impressed by having the world record milk-producing cow,” Kestell says. During the expo, he was able to connect with potential foreign buyers, reunite with former clients and even meet with one of the Chinese provincial vice-governors during the trip. “This was very well- planned by the state. They did a great job connecting people,” he adds.

Another added-value benefit was the education. “We visited a facility dedicated to training Chinese dairymen in the process of caring and feeding cows,” Kestell says. “We visited another facility testing the feed. They’re trying to upgrade their whole dairy industry, and we want to be a part of that.”

With dairy among the state’s top agricultural export products and China ranking third in agricultural product sales in 2014, after Canada and Mexico, Wisconsin is in a good position for future export growth.

EDUCATION AND ASSISTANCE FOR EXPORTERS

Wisconsin is home to nearly 10,000 dairy farms, more than any other state, making it the perfect location for VES Environmental Solutions LLC, which has found success increasing milk production, animal health and conception rates through its ventilation and lighting systems. As a result, the company started exporting ventilation systems in 2008 with markets in Canada, Japan, Mexico, the Middle East and counting.

“Any country where we get a chance to put in one of our complete systems creates a huge trend and interest,” says John McBride, CEO of VES. To help meet new foreign buyers, VES has also attended numerous trade meetings arranged by DATCP.

“Recently we signed a new distributor in South Korea, Indonesia and Europe at the China Expo,” McBride says.

By coordinating with Jennifer Lu, economic development consultant with DATCP’s International Agribusiness Center (IABC), VES received assistance for booth space and signage.

“We’ve also received assistance verifying that companies in other countries are legitimate and have good financial strength prior to doing business with them,” says Jennifer McBride, owner at VES.

Whether the business is experienced or new to exporting, the IABC has a wealth of resources to tap into including navigating through the maze of export regulations and accessing new markets – making international trade easier for agribusinesses statewide.

This article was published in Growing Wisconsin magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

Read More