Friday, September 12, 2014

Walking Beans, Marketing Grain, and Crunching Numbers



The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology has a close association with Iowa State University, and a key aspect is the intern program. Students receive valuable experience (and some monetary benefits) in the areas of agriculture, finance, and communications. CAST benefits by having talented students bring new ideas and enthusiasm to the organization. Collete joined the CAST staff in August.

From Beans to Business, CAST’s New Intern Stays Focused on Her Goals


Collete Haag might be the only sophomore at Iowa State University with a certain archaic skill listed on her resume—Bean Walking 101. From the age of eight, she joined her dad and others to perform the classic weed pulling ritual in soybean fields—a task that has become nearly extinct since Round Up and other herbicides swept in. “I also loved riding the tractor with Dad.  We didn’t have many animals—a few chickens and a peacock that went astray—but I’m happy I grew up on a farm.”
Collete appreciates her farm roots, and an internship at CAST seems to be a smooth way to keep that connection. “I like the ag-related nature of CAST’s mission statement,” she said, “and according to my job description, I’ll be able to get plenty of financial experience.”
Rural living may be in her roots, but Collete has her goals set on some heavy-duty number crunching. She is majoring in accounting, and even though the certification sounds challenging, she is bound and determined to achieve her CPA accreditation. She even used a summer internship to further her progress. “I worked with MaxYield Cooperative, and I was lucky enough to be involved with grain marketing and hedging. Oh yes, an internal audit, too.”
Not everyone would want to spend summer days wrestling with audit figures, but Collete keeps things balanced with her ISU activities. She is the treasurer of the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity, and she continues her high school sports talents (softball, basketball, and volleyball) by participating in college intramurals. And like many of her fellow students, she spends  weekends supporting Cyclone football and other ISU teams.
Collete is proud to come from a place where the nearest town—Ledyard, Iowa—has a population of 128. “But it still has a bank, an annual tractor pull, and a community fundraising supper that includes a secret recipe for the chicken.” We suspect Collete’s abilities to work with finance and numbers might take her off the farm, but if bean walking ever comes back into fashion, we know where to find a talented worker. CAST staff members welcome her to the organization and look forward to working with her.
by dan gogerty

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Harvest Time--a Cosmic Ritual


Science Fiction in the Fields


Last week my brother went to a meeting hosted by the local seed salesman, and along with the latest in GMO products, he demonstrated his new drone. “These things are great for collecting data.”

Farmers and ranchers can use GPS, auto-steer, robotic machinery, and “on-board” processing. They can use data to review, analyze, visualize, and conceptualize. As one company says, precision technologies will help growers “further their sustainability efforts through increasingly efficient use of inputs and resources.”

I’m a techie fan. If you can cut through the jargon, it seems like promising stuff. Farming becomes more efficient—food more available—more people eat. It’s harvest time in America’s breadbasket.

Harvest Time—a Cosmic Ritual

Last night featured an early Harvest Moon—its beams lit up the edges of the corn leaves, now turning light brown as fall approaches. Soybean fields have a yellow tinge interspersed with the remaining shades of green, but it all projects a sepia look in the full moon’s light.

It’s a good time to visit my folks’ farm—the crops are nearly ready, my brother has the huge green combine greased up, and Dad has parked two wagons in the shed. It’s the quiet before the harvest storm, and I’m able to sit on the front step and time travel. I slip into my Rocky and Bullwinkle Wayback machine and dial it up for 1967.

A large grain bin sits north of the house, and I see the pilot light flare up and hear the whine of the dryer fan as the heater kicks in. I walk through crunchy leaves and into a cool north breeze that slides in through the pines. The day’s last load of corn sits near the bin, and the auger hypnotizes me as it moves the grain out of the hopper and up the tube. I look back and see low yellow light slanting out of a few house windows, and the dog runs over for a scratch behind the ears.

A lonely twilight falls across the pastures. I crawl up the attached ladder to look in the bin, high enough to see a faint glow in the west. Distant yard lights flicker and neighbors’ tractor lights bounce in the fields, their dim glow shrouded by grain dust. A thin fog of particles rises from the growing pile below me in the bin, and a faint smell of diesel exhaust mixes with the scent of corn kernels and autumn leaves.

I’m only thirty feet off the ground, but the horizon seems to curve off in all directions—I see the silhouettes of the harvest moving along in field after field. The earth rotates in the starlight, and farmers cling to its surface, pulling in the grain they planted four months ago. The harvest is a ritual dance of man, machine, and the good earth.
 
Many farmers will approach the coming harvest with modern-day equipment and precision techniques. New combines are like agricultural mega-transformers, and huge semi-trucks move the corn to towering grain elevators in town. It won’t be long before drones and robots complete the harvest while the farmer sits in command central.
 
The full moon has inched a bit higher, and as I look across the wide stretch of fields, I wonder--where are the farmhouses, the smoke-billowing tractors, the cattle in the fields? When did so many farms float off the prairie? But the harvest will go on—safer, more efficient, maybe more economical.

Farmers will still work to keep their machines moving; grain will flow into the hoppers; and if I come back to this spot in three weeks, I’ll see Dad driving a load of corn in from the south forty. The lights from my brother’s combine will be bouncing in the terraced field across the creek. And if I climb the old bin they still use, I might not see the chorus of neighbors dancing through nearby fields, but I’ll see a modern version of the cosmic ritual called the harvest.  

(for a related earlier blog about the harvest in the field,click here)


by dan gogerty (top photo from precisiondrone.com; bottom from commons.wikimedia.org)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Topping the Market at the Chicago Stockyards



(Guest blog from a farmer who has stayed rooted to the land that his family has worked since 1856)
During much of the past century, “topping the market” meant a cattleman was paid the top dollar per hundredweight for his load of cattle in Chicago at the Union Stockyards, the Mecca for people who fed a 4-H calf or a herd of fat cattle. Marketing cattle back then involved fewer dollars but more emotion when trainloads of cattle converged on the stockyards. Farmers had invested months of work and tons of corn before they turned their cattle over to commission men who in turn sold them to one of the giant packing houses like Cudahay or Swift.
Back in the early 1900s, Dad, Grandpa and some of the boys would load cattle in our small country town and prepare for the 270 mile trip to the Windy City. Sometimes they rode in the caboose attached to the cattle cars. The train would stop at every town—they all had stockyards and a shipping association—and finally it would switch to a main line at Marshalltown, a major rail hub that included a roundhouse.
The caboose had a couple of cots and a few chairs plus a pot-bellied stove. Passengers stayed occupied by playing cards, telling stories, and passing around a bottle of Four Roses whiskey. When the train stopped for water, a cattle owner would walk along the cars to check on his herd--and maybe prod a steer that was down and could get trampled.
The Union Stockyards could be intimidating for first-time visitors as I found out some years later when I was old enough to ride in with a load. Men occasionally yelled expletives at livestock and each other. Commission men and packing house buyers normally road horses and carried whips—walking the plank boards in the 640-acre maze of pens and alleys would take too long. Also, herding livestock could be dangerous as cattle sometimes spooked and stampeded. A neighbor said he saw a commission man’s horse rear up and throw the man onto a plank gate, killing him.
Stockyards created a tough work environment, especially when rain or snow increased the smell and reduced traction. Most workers started at first light, and the place remained noisy and exciting, especially on the “big run days” of Mondays and Tuesdays when fat cattle were on the market—maybe 20,000 choice and prime steers being sorted, judged, and sold. That’s when newspapers like the Drovers Journal or the Des Moines Register would report prices and list who “topped the market.”
One old boy from Hubbard told me about the day his cattle topped it. As he said, “That made up for the loads that barely held their money together. But you know what they say—if you lose your billfold in the feedlot manure, just look until you find it. That’s my philosophy.”
No trip to the Union Stockyards was complete without a steak dinner, a cigar, and a few drinks at the Stockyard Inn. Sometimes that included reserving a room at the Inn and a ride the next day on the 10:15 “Challenger” heading west out of Chicago—a much more satisfying trip if your wallet held a fat check from Swift and Co. to pay off a loan at the bank and buy a load or two of whiteface steers from Montana. Cattle feeding gets in your blood whether you’ve got $100 or $100,000 in the pot.
The livestock, the commotion, the people—I’ll never forget seeing the stockyards for the first time. A simple marker is all that remains to show where this dynamic industry once helped make Chicago “the city with broad shoulders.”  
by Rex Gogerty  (top photo courtesy of Carl Kurtz; bottom photo from chuckmanchicagonostalgia.com)