Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Calorie Counts, Hippie Hunters, and Ag Apps

**  Calorie Count: The Food and Drug Administration announces a new calorie count rule that affects restaurants and food—from pizza to popcorn to salad bars. It was much easier in the days of Fruit Loops, Dots, and Jelly Beans--as this blog explains: The Sweet and Sour Fructose Debate.

 ** "Hippies" That Hunt:  This article claims that a new generation of hunters is taking locally sourced eating to the next level. 

** App Mania:  As this article points out, there is an app for just about anything--and this list might be helpful for anyone on the farm or in the agriculture business.

An Analog App on a Digital Farm

I guess we need an app to keep up with new ag apps--and then an app to clear our heads as the digital cloud gets thicker. Farmers and ag-related folks are taking to smartphones and apps in increasing numbers, and those of us with dumb phones slowly 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.
But no matter which digital wave you surf, apps and smartphones are transforming food production. App topics range from soil testing data to seed analysis to voice-activated email. Many farmers now keep up with markets and the weather using apps—while they might have a split screen for sports or music.
If only these apps had been available when I was growing up on the farm.  On warm summer afternoons, my brothers, cousins, and I would roam the back pastures looking for trees to climb and spots in the creek where we could build dams. No smartphones for parents to call and remind us when to get home and do chores; no stream water quality app to scare us about the toxins in the water we played in; and the only “angry birds” were the red-winged black birds that attacked us whenever we came anywhere near their nests.

When we started taking on farm jobs, we didn’t have a GPS system to guide our tractors around the fields. We either learned driving skills or we tore out a few rows of young soybean plants while we cultivated. During breaks while baling hay, we didn’t have text messaging to keep us occupied, so we listened to embellished yarns or semi-rude jokes the farmer might come up with when he handed us ice water and homemade cookies. And during evening baseball games, we didn’t even have tweets to read, so we had no idea what our friends were eating at the drive-in or buying at the record shop. We actually had to concentrate on playing the game and interacting with our friends who were there with us in person.
The digital revolution is changing agriculture for the better, but I have a feeling somewhere there is a farmer who walks out of his house unarmed, with no smartphone in hand. He pets his ten-year old collie as he walks to the feedlot to check on the cattle. After getting a few buckets of grain for the new calves, he looks over the farm while standing in the shade of the oak tree that has anchored the place for 130 years. A summer breeze ripples through the tasseling corn, a red-tailed hawk hovers over the back grove looking for mice, and the newly baled hay stacked in the nearby shed still has that intoxicating alfalfa-clover aroma. I doubt if there is an app for that. (by dan gogerty; top photo from ars/usda)

Monday, November 17, 2014

A View of Pesticide Use--New Research Released

CAST Press Release
The Contributions of Pesticides to Pest Management in Meeting the Global Need for Food Production by 2050 
Note: CAST Issue Paper #55 is available here. Information about the pesticide panel discussion and other CAST information is available at the website here.

“You Can’t Eat What Doesn’t Grow”

All agree that the world needs a safe, plentiful supply of food, and most acknowledge that global demand will grow along with the expanding population. This peer-reviewed report looks at how pesticides fit into this equation. After a data-driven examination of past developments and current uses, the authors conclude that a safe, thoughtful integration of pesticides is essential if we hope to attain an abundant food supply for a hungry world. 

The term "pesticides" has been around for centuries, and it describes many different chemicals. The term has also--at times--been maligned and misunderstood. The authors of this publication use extensive data and provide clear examples to explain that pesticide use in agriculture has
•    increased crop yield and quality,
•    lessened the workload of pest management, and
•    improved the prospects for long-term sustainable food production.

This paper gives a brief background about the use of pesticides and then a thorough look at why they have become popular and widely used. Intelligent use of pesticides has led to crop management that is more efficient, sustainable, and productive. For example, the authors produce evidence that fungicide use has helped stem the curse of soybean rust, aided with the prevention of fusarium head blight in wheat, and increased farmer income.

Along with better pest management, pesticides have helped with the development of improved agronomic practices such as no till, low till, higher plant densities, increased yields, and efficient use of water and nutrients. The authors point out that in comparison to hand weeding, herbicide use is less expensive and more effective. "By substituting for cultivation, herbicide use leads to lower fuel use, less carbon emissions, less soil erosion, and less water use."

Of course there are controversies and challenges. The authors indicate that concerns exist regarding water, soil, and atmospheric resources, as well as the need for safety during application and food processing. Regulations, testing, worker training, and other safeguards are factors that mitigate unwanted effects.

More than 800 million people in the world are food insecure, and the amount of crop yield lost each year to pests could run upwards of 30%. But many experts are optimistic about developments involving safe, efficient production methods occurring around the globe. When pesticides are effectively applied and integrated into a comprehensive approach, the world is better able to provide food for the 9 billion humans on earth in 2050.

Task Force Authors:
Stephen C. Weller (Chair), Purdue University
Albert K. Culbreath, University of Georgia
Leonard Gianessi, CropLife Foundation
Larry D. Godfrey, University of California-Davis

CAST Issue Paper 55 and its companion Ag quickCAST are available online at the CAST website, www.cast-science.org, along with many of CAST's other scientific publications. All CAST Issue Papers, Commentaries, and Ag quickCASTs are FREE.

Contacts for this Issue Paper
Dr. Stephen C. Weller-Phone: 765-494-1333; E-mail: weller@purdue.edu
Ms. Linda M. Chimenti-Phone: 515-292-2125, ext. 231; E-mail: lchimenti@cast-science.org 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Precision Agriculture—What’s in Your Cloud?

As one expert says, “We are in an era of using data to make decisions.” He suggests this will lead to a wave of connectivity, information sharing, and consultations with “decision-makers.” Precision ag is rolling in faster than you can say Big Data.

I’m all for tech that makes life more efficient, safer, and maybe even more fun. After all, who wants to plant corn like my grandpa did, with clunky two-row planters and flatulent horses. Data feedback then was learning that your planter box wasn’t dropping seed or your cantankerous mule had decided to lie down for a spell. Data feedback now concerns planting depth, GPS adjustments, and split screens that feature the football scores along with the latest grain markets.

Another ag expert says farmers need to learn how to play well with others, because this precision ag movement will connect them to a trusted network of advisers. I assume that means all the numbers a farmer gathers—cost, input, seeds planted, fertilizer used, soil quality, etc.—will be crunched by the group that is in the cloud, and they will give advice so farming can be more efficient and profitable. No doubt they will also try to sell upgrades, enhancements, and even more digital devices, but there is no free lunch--unless you head to our small town on the days the local gas station is providing a chili and pie lunch for customer appreciation day.

That one-stoplight town is where Grandpa’s cloud used to be. The technical advisers and research analysts were known then as the old boys who gathered at the hardware store, the grain elevator, or maybe at Henry’s tavern. The cloud was not only virtual—it had a concrete fog of cigarette smoke and a few empty coffee cans to collect tobacco juice. And the advice then might have been less technical. “Frank, your boots still have hog manure on ‘em. Reckon you could hose ‘em off next time ya come in or are you just tryin’ to improve the ambience in here?”

The members of Grandpa’s cloud were also a bit less cordial when they interfaced with fellow farmers about data they’d gathered while driving the country roads. “When ya gonna ship those horses of yours off to the glue factory, Berry?” or “Dan’s still got some harvesting to do before he can plant a new crop. Maybe he thinks corn is nature’s snow fence.”

Grandpa's analog type of cloud connectivity was slower than today’s satellite-driven info, but it could be crucial to a farmer’s success. An analyst in bib overalls might explain to a young farmer how to set the cultivator gangs so the shovels would tear out weeds and not corn. And it might take a growing season or two, but eventually the group would convert from “I sure as hell ain’t payin' $5 a bag for this new hybrid corn stuff” to “I hear the new corn stands taller and the yield is much higher—guess it’s time to switch over.”

These precision ag systems will have plenty of benefits, and few would want to farm using the old ways. But the analog cloud had several positives: it was cheaper—usually the cost of a cup of coffee and a donut or two; it was more social—a bit of good-natured sarcasm from a friend sippin’ coffee at Pooch’s gas station is preferable to a Siri-type voice suggesting that you adjust the chemical flow in your sprayer; and it was less intrusive—you didn’t have a screen mounted in front of you, a smartphone in hand, and a cab overhead. For better or worse, Grandpa could watch an eagle swooping low along the creek, and he could tell which way the wind was blowing by feeling it on his face.  

by dan gogerty (top graphic from blogs.jnit.edu, bottom one from blog.myspace.jpg)