Thursday, October 16, 2014

Award Winning Scientist Calls for Better Ag Communication

Note: ag/science parody video of Ylvis here--"What Do the Facts Say?" 

CAST presented Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam with the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award at a World Food Prize side event on October 15. For more details of the event, click here

“I’m Willing To Deal with Controversial Topics," says Van Eenennaam

A good communicator gets the message across, and this year’s Borlaug CAST Communication Award winner has a way with words. The University of California-Davis animal science extension specialist and researcher believes it is important to step out of the lab and classroom often enough to let the public and policymakers know the facts. “Hunger is the enemy,” says Van Eenennaam, “and starvation is a story that needs to be told.” She believes that tech and science play major roles in the struggle to feed billions, and she also worries that scientists are being outmaneuvered by bad science and skewed sources.

Dr. Van Eenennaam proposes ways to rectify this imbalance. The agriculture community needs to

  • be proactive and develop communication skills,
  • stick with the truth and peer-reviewed facts,
  • listen to all stakeholders while weighing the pros and cons,
  • and push for more interdisciplinary publicly funded research.
What Do the Facts Say?

Dr. Van Eenennaam puts her words into action. She has participated in 60 respected publications; she continues to teach and perform research; and she uses various methods to communicate, including scores of presentations, T.V. appearances, and press interviews.

During the past few years, Van Eenennaam has also used video production as a “medium to deliver her message.” With help from students and staff at UC-Davis, she has won acclaim for several film clips, and her newest production combines insights, humor, and tech skills to ask the question: “What Do the Facts Say?” This parody of a Ylvis hit cleverly looks at the need for scientists to not only find the facts but also be willing to wave the truth like a flag as the agriculture community strives to produce enough food for our growing population.

In this year of the 100th anniversary of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s birth, the selection of Alison Van Eenennaam as the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award winner is especially appropriate to honor his legacy of science research and agricultural communication.

Note: Dr. Van Eenennaam has chaired two influential CAST publications, one about the potential impacts of mandatory GMO labeling, and one about genetically engineered animals.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Blood Moon for Farmers, Werewolves, and Us All

Update: For us here in central Iowa, the eclipse was spectacular. This CNN video report shows the action from this morning (Oct. 8). And this NASA link provides information and various videos of the event.

From werewolves to Pink Floyd to farmers in the fields, full moons have certainly had an influence, and some attribute a type of magical aura to the occasion. A special full moon is due this month, and as NASA reports:

"On Wednesday, October 8, a full lunar eclipse will start at 6:25 a.m. EDT and last until 7:24 a.m, according to NASA. Full lunar eclipses are often called blood moons because of the reddish tint they adopt as sunsets and sunrises seen from Earth reflect onto the surface of the moon. Because this eclipse will happen two days after a lunar perigee, which is the point when the moon is nearest to Earth, NASA says the moon will appear 5.3 % larger than the previous blood moon that occurred on April 15.

"This eclipse marks the second in a series of four lunar eclipses in a row, known as a tetrad. We'll experience just eight tetrads this century, according to the Washington Post, and we won’t experience the next tetrad until around 2032 or 2033."

The Western Hemisphere, Japan, Australia, and a few other parts of the globe will be able to view the phenomenon, and it may well be worth an early wake-up call. 

For some folks, any full moon is worth the effort. Farmers catch orange-tinted full moons rising, especially during harvest time, and occasionally the effect is so strong the early tint looks like a fire on the horizon. Throughout history, some farmers have used the moon for planting and other agricultural pursuits. A short blog entry here covers these and other moon-related issues.

Others believe a full moon can have strange influences over us--and our pets. According to this BBC article, when doctors at the Bradford Royal Infirmary in England examined two years of medical records, they found twice as many patients were admitted with dog, rat, cat, and horse bites when there was a full moon compared to when it was new. Many, however, discount the whole lunar mania effect.

A full moon changed a distraught Lon Chaney Jr. into Wolf Man decades ago, and Pink Floyd figured out how to use the dark side of the lunar orb as the basis of a monumental piece of music. But most of us will use it this week to rub the sleep from our eyes and enjoy nature’s beauty.   by dan gogerty

Top photo: Astrophotographer AJ Green shot this lunar eclipse sequence from Lake Minatare, Nebraska. Green took 11 photos over 5 hours on April 15, 2014.

Bottom photo: Photographer Sean Parker created this image of the blood moon total lunar eclipse of April 15, 2014 from Tucson, Ariz. by stitching together eight images.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Virtual Farms and Real Sunsets

Many farmers in our neck of the woods own smartphones, so I suppose you can find a plethora of harvest time selfies—me in the cab of my computerized combine; me unloading corn that has been analyzed by Big Data; me with a robotic tractor approaching in the background. As this article explains, a tractor that maps a field, drives itself, and precisely calibrates its movements within inches to minimize waste is nearly ready to become standard equipment.
I imagine these devices will improve yields, efficiency, and maybe even safety. A robotic tractor pulling a grain wagon up to the combine is probably more reliable than we teens were when we drove cab-less tractors and unloaded grain with our thoughts on the high school dance coming up that night. But unlike us, a robot can’t yet hum the Easybeats’ “I Got Friday on My Mind.”
Farmers have apps to help them with markets, weather, and soil conditions. This Farm Journal survey clues us into the ten apps that farmers most favor. Folks who are not net connected can ignore the buzz or slide into App Envy—an anxiety complex that comes when you think everyone else is digitally tuned into the newest thing, while you’re still trying to remember your password to access voice mail messages on your archaic cell phone.
On the other hand, any Luddite farmers are less likely to suffer from phantom vibration syndrome. Studies indicate that some smartphone users feel electric vibrations in their pockets even when there is no phone there. It’s like they’ve had something surgically removed but they think it’s still there. No worries—someone will figure out an app for that.
When it comes to farming, maybe apps will soon be obsolete. The DesMoines Register has moved into the virtual reality realm with their Harvest of Change project. It centers on a farm run by four generations of the same family. Apparently you can strap on an Oculus headset and explore an exact reconstruction of the farm using a keyboard or an Xbox controller by turning your head from side to side. The virtual environment serves as a way to navigate through multimedia content, and you “walk around” the farm, accessing various icons--360-degree videos, archival photographs, and short passages about farming in modern-day America.
The next step will be a real farmer at a digital command center performing a virtual harvest that has real results—really! I guess I’d rather manipulate a keyboard than grip the frozen steering wheel of our old John Deere 4020 or shovel corn on top of a wagon as the north wind whips in. During Iowa corn harvests, you could be virtually (or actually) dead on your feet from dust, cold, and constant struggles with uncooperative machinery.
Then again, that farmer in a computer command room will miss a few things. Grain moves into wagons and into bins with the sound of satisfaction, the white noise of a job well done. Harvest time gives off its own fragrance of dying plants mixed with tractor fumes and the ever-present smell of the Good Earth. And autumn provides color—fields turn to a sepia tint while trees flare out in orange, yellow, and red. Harvest dust floats along the horizon at dusk, and the slow-motion silhouettes of geese winging south turn the sunset into an interactive portrait.
I suppose there’s a virtual farm system somewhere that could incorporate all these images, but I’m not much into wearing a Darth Vadar style helmet to get there. It’s a good time of year to log off, power down, and take a walk in the reality of a farm at harvest time.  

by dan gogerty (top photo from Pinterest, bottom from USDA)