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One of the highlights of the recent Indiana Livestock, Forage and Grain Forum was the lunchtime sneak peak, private screening of the soon-to-be-released Movie Farmland. The movie was directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll. Its purpose is to attempt, on a large scale, to tell viewers without a farm background more about how their food is produced and the various kinds of people who produce it. The movie was funded by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

There are six main characters in the film from a variety of segments of farming around the country: Leighton Cooley, a Georgia poultry farmer; Brad Bellah, a Texas cattle rancher; David Loberg, a Nebraska corn and soybean farmer; Sutton Morgan, a California organic produce farmer; Margaret Schlass, a Pennsylvania community supported agriculture (CSA) produce farmer; and Ryan Veldhuizen, a Minnesota grain and hog farmer. 

All are twenty-somethings, several college educated, who are now in charge of running their farm businesses. It quickly becomes apparent to anyone with farm knowledge that these are real people, not actors. Actors couldn’t come up with the kinds of things they say, or the way they say it. They’re real. They get real dirt on themselves during the course of their days. Their machinery is not showroom new and shiny, nor are their farmsteads always pristine and orderly.

They were obviously picked to be able to connect with a younger generation that wants to know how their food is grown and who’s doing the growing. And in the telling of their stories, they do a good job, and do it in a fair manner. They come across as honest, sincere, eminently believable, likable, bright, knowledgeable, and well spoken. They have the ability to look at both sides of the issue, yet articulate their personal side very well.

One of the things the film should get high marks for, in my opinion, is for doing an excellent job of making the point that, whatever their legal business structure may be, these are family farms. In a world where many people hear daily about “Big Ag,” and “factory farms,” all of these young folks except one are the latest link in a chain that have been farming the same land for generations. Indeed, some of the lighter and more poignant parts of the film have to do with the everyday interactions between family members and generations.

In short, the film’s main characters were hardworking, smart, passionate business people with strong family connections and history. They love what they do and are willing to take the risks that go with the rewards that come with their chosen lifestyle of producing a variety of good food for us and others around the world.

I’m sure that as soon as the movie is released there will be some who just can’t wait to tell you what all is wrong with it. There are some for whom nothing short of all of their food being raised organically, by Old McDonald in his bib overalls and straw hat, will do. There are others who will believe that all of the cast’s animals should be turned loose and padlocks put on the barn doors. Still others will tell you it’s all Monsanto’s doing.

But for anyone with an open mind who wants to know more about how their food is grown and by whom, it’s an accurate depiction and a golden opportunity to learn a lot. Possibly even more important, if they have questions, the film can provide the springboard to help start the discussion. And if they do want to discuss it, we in the farm community need to be ready to enter the conversation.

I gave the film 4 of 5 popcorn kernels. I thought it did a superb job of what it set out to do. Still, it’s a documentary about farm life. On the entertainment meter, it’s not going to compete with James Bond—nobody jumping out of helicopters onto speeding trains, no bikini-clad babes here. Compared to the glitz and special effects movie goers are accustomed to, to me it seemed rather, well, normal.  But when you stop to think about it, while farm life may be normal to people like us, everyday farm life is exactly what they’re trying to portray. They portray it well.

I have to confess, at times I had to do something of an attitude adjustment on myself. There were a few times when I caught myself thinking, “Geez, everybody already knows that.” Which is precisely the point. Everybody doesn’t already know that. Although all farmers know about hard work, markets, risk, weather and GPS, this film wasn’t produced for the two percent of us for whom this is everyday stuff.

Instead, it is targeted at that great majority of people who are several generations removed from grandpa’s farm, and have no clue what’s really involved. They want to know more about their food, and regularly hear messages from those who have an agenda for disparaging our food system. When I changed my attitude to one of appreciating the attempt being made to bring those folks up to speed about what many of us already take for granted, I was able to genuinely enjoy it in a much different light.

I’d seriously encourage you to go see the movie when it comes to your area. It’s a story that desperately needs to be told, and farmers typically aren’t great at telling it themselves. These young folks are doing an admirable job on farmers’ behalf.

Even better, take some of your non-farming friends along with you, or maybe recommend it to them. Then ask them what they thought of it. It might start a good discussion!         

           

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How finally receiving a Super Bowl Ring could have eternal implications for this football junkie.

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve had this thing about championship rings. And for people with a passion for football like I have—one of those rare birds who actually enjoyed two-a-days—the ultimate of ultimates is a Super Bowl ring. But alas, I’ve never been on the right team at the right time to receive any ring, let alone the Super one.

For years, I’ve joked (although not totally) about when I get to heaven, maybe they’ll give me one there.  I’ve actually put a reasonable amount of thought into that, even how I might broach that subject. It goes something like this: “Excuse me Saint Peter, sir, but I’ve got a question. I remember hearing about getting a crown of righteousness up here, but I’m not really into crowns all that much, and you already know I’m not all that righteous either. Any chance I could just get a Super Bowl Ring instead?”

As I calculate it, I figure there are one of two likely responses to such a bold inquiry: #1  “Sure Darrell, no problem. Up here we know you better than you even know yourself, and we’ve prepared one especially for you. Enjoy it son.” And then he hands me one so unimaginably beautiful and awesome that it would make Tom Brady or Joe Montana salivate.

#2 is less desirable. In this scenario, St. Pete’s jaw drops in disgusted, disbelieving amazement, and as I read the nonverbals, it goes something like this: “We gave you 70 or 80-some years to get things figured out, and you still don’t get it, do you. Later dude!” And with that he smacks this red button on his desk and this trap door opens under my feet and you can probably figure out the rest.

Once at my new destination, there are at least a few things I figure I can count on for sure: I’ll gain a new appreciation for the literal meaning of the phrase “hot as hell;” I’ll be forced to watch never-ending (live) tapings of Oprah and Barbara Walters specials; I’m sure I’ll be forced to spend a lot of time shopping; I’ll get to spend eternity ruminating on how, after a whole life to get it figured out, I still never learned when to keep my mouth shut; and for all my new troubles, I’ll still have no ring.

Well this fall I finally figured out an answer to that high-stakes conundrum. As an NFL owner since Nov. 26, 1997 I’ve been a stockholder in the Green Bay Packers–a team that I’ve loved from my youth, and that is owned not by arrogant billionaires, but rather by several thousand regular people who drive trucks, teach math, write software, work in factories, milk cows, deliver babies, and even an occasional freelance writer. (The real “America’s Team?”) Anyway, this past July, I received a notice from the president of the Packers saying I was eligible to purchase a shareholder’s version of Super Bowl Ring XLV. After doing some financial gymnastics, I finally got it figured out–that could be my main Christmas present this year! So my wife and kids pooled their resources to make my dream come true!

Now, with ring on hand and that knotty problem behind me, my attention can move on to other weighty spiritual matters–like whether they have football up there or not. Short answer is, I don’t know. Longer one is, I suppose they could have something better than football up there for their recreational pursuits, but I can’t remotely imagine what it would be. I figure there will be at least some football fans up there who’ll need their football fix on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, and I’d love nothing better than being able to help entertain them. With a new and improved body, hopefully I’ll be able to make the cut in the Celestial Football League. Also hopefully this time, I’ll get to be either a running back or middle linebacker.

Then again, sometimes I think maybe the CFL just consists of a bunch of guys in real, comfortable Wranglers playing in backyard games. Lord knows, I’ve had some of the best times of my life playing both organized and sandlot. But whatever the case up there, I’ll know that at one point in my existence, I was at least a small part of an organization that won a Super Bowl.

And now I’ve got the hardware to prove it!

P.S.  (Lord, in case you’re wondering, I am just kidding…Sorta… 😉

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As the dominant force in the fast food industry, McDonald’s frequently finds itself the target of any number of agenda-driven activist groups seeking to force it to conform to their latest whim. The company’s mascot, Ronald McDonald, in particular, has taken more than his share of abuse within the past year. One group invaded McDonald’s restaurants, trying to get customers to sign a petition demanding Ronald’s “retirement.” And a few months ago, a food activist group sued McDonald’s, trying to force them to stop including toys in kids’ Happy Meals. The attorney for the latter group characterized Ronald as the food version of “the dirty old man on the playground, seducing children into a lifetime of obesity, etc.” In light of this backdrop, I had an interesting experience recently.

A couple of weeks ago, I wound up babysitting my five-year-old grandson Randy for a few hours. Wanting to also make the best use of my time, I had him “help” me on some errands I needed to run. Realizing it was going to be awhile before we got home, I decided to eat in town and gave him his choice of where he’d like to go. He quickly said McDonald’s. “Not my choice,” I thought to myself, “but I did let him choose. I guess we’re going to McDonald’s.”

When it was our turn to order, he told the girl at the counter that he wanted a Happy Meal with a cheeseburger. Then, despite his considerable love for french fries, he (obviously having learned some things from his parents exercising some appropriate parental authority) opted for apple slices with caramel dip. For his drink, he chose chocolate milk. Not a perfect meal, nutritionally speaking, but not bad either.

Having done this drill with Randy before and having learned a thing or two myself, I told him that we couldn’t do the Playland thing until after he’d finished his meal. He really did pretty well, although I had to help him with his last couple of apple slices, which when dipped in caramel, were actually pretty good.

He then ran to start playing on the ladders, slides, and such in the play area. He soon discovered a buddy from pre-school and they had a blast, running, climbing, sliding, laughing, and playing. I’d told him I didn’t have that much time, so he could only play for ten  minutes. But he was having such a good time that I “got soft” and granted him an additional five.

Although Micky D’s hadn’t been my personal first choice, as I watched Randy playing I couldn’t help thinking that there was something downright good and healthy about this experience. He had just eaten a balanced, healthy, sensible, nutritious meal. We’d had a good time together. Now he was getting some pretty vigorous exercise with one of his friends. I found myself thinking, “And there’s supposed to be something wrong with this?”

As I pondered this a little further, I had some additional thoughts. Although I consider most of the activists who regularly bash McDonald’s  to be pretty wacked out and extreme, nevertheless it dawned on me that despite my disdain for them and their ludicrous accusations, the sheer volume of their stuff does gradually begin to take a toll on a person. It’s kind of like you start thinking subconsciously, “despite their nonsense, do they have a valid point or two in there somewhere?”

After the experience described above, it reinforced my belief that the activists are even more off the wall, out of touch  and out of line than I’d thought. McDonald’s is really doing some things pretty well, and despite all the flack they get, they’ve thankfully stuck to their guns on some things.

When confronted by the group demanding Ronald’s resignation, they responded that Ronald was not only a symbol of the company, but the namesake of McDonald’s charities, including the many Ronald McDonald Houses across the country that are an absolute godsend to families with very sick children in hospitals far from home. McDonald’s officials stated that they had absolutely no intentions whatsoever of “retiring” Ronald. And much to the delight of millions of children, they’re still putting toys in Happy meals. Randy was thrilled with his much-maligned Happy Meal toy, in this case a miniature skateboard, which further fertilized his already-fertile imagination.

Is McDonald’s perfect? Nope. They’re a fast food company in a fallible world, and they’ve made their share of mistakes along the way. But they’ve learned from them, and they’re doing some things pretty well.

Can kids OD on McDonald’s? Absolutely. People–kids included–can make either good or bad dietary decisions at McDonald’s. But I also happen to believe in parents, grandparents, and other guardians taking some personal responsibility for their kids’ dietary needs, and teaching those kids to do the same.

As I look back on Randy’s and my recent experience, I have a renewed appreciation for an American institution that I’ve frankly somewhat taken for granted. You’re doing some good things, Ronald. Thank you and hang in there!

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It was my third year in 4-H. After two years of fooling around raising green beans and carrots in a garden project, I yearned for a “real” project, which for me meant livestock. Although I really wanted a beef steer, the best I could talk my parents into was a couple of pigs.

An April visit to a neighbor’s hog lot procured my first two 4-H pigs—both Hampshire-Duroc crossbred barrows—which I named Curly and Moe after two of “The Three Stooges,” (sorry, Larry). Like their TV namesakes, Moe was the more dominant, less congenial of the two, and Curly quickly became my favorite.

Curly was an attractive pig, with the trademark black and white markings of his Hampshire lineage, and the floppy ears of his Duroc forbears. Those who “knew hogs” said that he had good length and a good rear end (hams) and my hopes for him accomplishing big things at the county 4-H fair in late July were sky-high. And if TLC could produce results in the show ring, he would have been a champion for sure.

For a summer Curly became my best friend. I brushed him, petted him, and he especially liked it when I scratched his belly while he was lying on his side. I spent many pleasure-filled hours preparing him and me for show ring to come.
The biggest problem I had with Curly was his stubborn refusal to stay out of the blasted mud hole in the shade of the roof behind the chicken house, which formed the southern boundary of his lot. I’d spend time brushing and grooming him, getting him to look pretty good, only to return later and find him sticking his nose out of a heretofore unimaginable pool of foul-looking- and-smelling liquid slime. Although I was frustrated by his utter disregard for the hours I’d spent grooming him, I soon learned not to take it personally—that was just part of being a pig in those days. It was how he kept cool on scorching summer days, given that he had no sweat glands. (Lesson #1: A pig’s wants, needs, and interests are totally different than anything I could’ve previously imagined.)

Finally July came and Curly and I headed to the fair. It was exciting stuff! The sights, sounds, and smells of the fair’s swine barn, coupled with all the other kids, some of whom quickly became new friends, turned it into one of the most fun experiences of my 12-year-old life.

Wednesday was the day of the hog show. My dad helped me groom Curly, and when he was bathed, clipped, oiled and powdered (as they did it back then) he looked SHARP! When it came time for his class, he didn’t blow away the competition as I’d hoped, but did place sixth out of a class of about 25. I couldn’t have been prouder. To reward him, I went down to the carnival and bought a bag of caramel corn, which I shared with him, feeding him out of my hand while we both rested up from the show.

Friday night soon came, with the 4-H auction, which capped the fair week. Although I’d hoped prospective buyers would recognize what a wonderful animal Curly was and bid accordingly, he sold for a pretty average price. My dad was a fairly small farmer, and the high bids went to the kids whose dads had larger operations, and had their prices bid up by competing agribusiness suppliers. (Lesson #2: Life’s not always fair). Curly was bought by a local funeral home, which resold him to a stockyard.

Only after the auction, when I was cleaning up my pen and equipment, did it totally hit me. I was going home and Curly wasn’t. I’d never see him again. I cried. Hard. And the tears would reoccur readily for several days.

But that summer I learned what every 4-H member who has ever raised livestock has learned—that however much we may love an animal, Curly’s real purpose in life was not to be my friend, but rather to be an excellent source of protein-rich nutrition for many people. He was a meat animal. To have “taken him back home,”—and have had him grow into a 600-pound “pet” who would eat our family into a homeless shelter—wasn’t realistic. If I wanted a pet, a dog would make a better one. (And looking back from decades later, the emotion and affection was one directional. Curly—other than belly scratching and caramel corn—was indifferent).

While I never went on to raise pigs vocationally, I still enjoy them as a species—I just plain like them. But what many people who have not had my or similar experiences don’t realize these days is that whether or not they are “cute,” or “likable,” farm animals aren’t pets. Their purpose in life is not to befriend us, but to feed us (Lesson #3).

Curly, bless his heart, was also an excellent teacher.

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