By Matthew Wilde
The technology, equipment and care to protect the environment that go into raising soybeans at the A.J. and Kellie Blair farm near Dayton amazed food editors and advocates Tuesday.
Seven people on the three-day Soyfoods Council Editor Tour, which ended Wednesday, write stories and blogs about food and healthy eating, provide nutritional advice and regularly talk about food safety, among other things. Yet, most of the attendees admittedly have little to no first-hand knowledge about production agriculture. For some, it was their first time on a crop and livestock farm.
Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council based in Ankeny, wanted to change that. Who better to explain how food gets from the field or feedlot to the dinner plate than progressive Iowa farmers, Funk propsed.
“We want to get them excited about soyfoods so they can tell all the people they chat and blog with about soybeans, soyfoods and what Iowa does,” Funk said. “It’s important for them to understand what it takes to raise soybeans (and other crops and livestock).
“It’s critical for them to come to a farm,” she added. “We can say farmers care about the environment but for them to show it, it’s a very strong message.”
A.J. and Kellie raise soybeans and corn with A.J.’s parents and share labor and machinery with a neighbor. All were in attendance. The Blairs contract feed dairy heifers and also contract feed hogs for Murphy-Brown, which had representatives available to talk about pork production.
The young farmers explained how technology like satellite guidance, seed coatings, genetically modified (GMO) seed and precision agriculture helps them be more productive, while using less fertilizer and herbicides. Many in the group nodded in approval as the couple continued to describe how no-till and other conservation practices reduce soil erosion and improve water quality.
“This group has a lot of influence over consumers … it’s good to get them out to a modern farm,” said A.J., 31, a former Iowa Soybean Association board member. “We raise GMO and non-GMO crops. We want to help them understand about these acronyms in the news that don’t mean a whole lot and sometimes scare people.”
Jan Greenburg of New York City and upstate New York, who writes articles about food and food politics for the likes of National Culinary Review and Foods Arts Magazine, was particularly interested in how farming affects the environment and GMOs.
Greenburg says she now has a better understanding of both.
“I think GMOs are good, but the (ag) industry is too defensive. Let them label it and don’t create an issue that shouldn’t be,” she said. “I like the attention (farmers pay) to environmental issues.”
Tour goers asked about pieces of farm equipment parked in the yard and machine shed — a Case-IH combine, Caterpillar Challenger tractor, a nitrogen fertilizer tool bar and a 24-row John Deere planter — and how much they cost. To show that farming is an expensive business, the Blairs and others eagerly rattled off new and used prices, which easily topped one million dollars.
Mark Messina of Port Townsend, Wash., executive director of the Soy Nutrition Institute and co-owner of Nutrition Matters, Inc., a nutrition consulting company, was in awe of the Challenger. Then he got a ride in the yellow tracked behemoth – his first in a “real” tractor in decades, other than one that cuts grass — and he was even more impressed with the machine and the financial risk associated with farming.
“The idea of having a bad season and basically not being to plant (like some Iowa farmers this year), I would have a stroke the first year,” he joked with hint of seriousness. “I came away with a lot of admiration and respect for farmers.”
Besides the farm visit, the group toured a tofu plant and learned how to make it at Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames. A presentation about GMO and non-GMO crops was also given by ISU experts. Other stops included the Meredith Test Kitchen, Gateway Market and the World Food Prize — all in Des Moines.