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Right and wrong. Good and bad. Choices.

Food is essential for our survival as human beings. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that society needs to provide its people with the means to obtain food. In our modern society, farmers are responsible for ensuring that enough food is produced to feed all humans. This leads to the enhanced well-being of citizens and that by eliminating hunger and malnutrition we improve human health. But the production of food to feed people cannot be the only consideration. Natural resources and the natural world should also be valued and a balance should be struck. These somewhat opposing forces (agriculture for the betterment of humans and protection of the natural world) necessitate the making of choices.

Farmers make choices everyday about how to produce that food. Government workers make choices everyday about regulating food production. Researchers make choices about the science they conduct to advance agriculture. Industrial workers, lawmakers, technology developers, consumers, and protesters all make choices.

Choice Impact Outcomes

It is these choices that determine the ethics of agriculture. Are the choices good or bad? Are they right or wrong? Not every choice has a purely positive outcome. Some choices have negative consequences. But to determine if choice is good or bad sometimes we need to decide if the positives of the choice outweigh the potential negative impacts of the choice. These ethics can be documented through legal codes, religion, literature, and other hallmarks of our recorded history. Ethics are values generally agreed upon by the collective whole. But because we are humans and each view the world a little differently that agreement or consensus isn’t solidified. Ethics can change as society changes.

Fewer People Produce Their Own Food

As early as 16th Century Europe, farming started to transition from ‘a way of life’ to a profitable business. Since then farmers have continued to specialize as a profession. For most of human history, all people of the society had to be involved in raising and producing food. But today, fewer than 2% of the U.S. population is involved in production agriculture. Farmers raise and produce food to feed the other 98% and our global market of trade and exchange has allowed farmers to specialize and raise only one or two crops or livestock species. The trade-off is that this system has led to mono-cultured crops and intensive livestock production systems.

Agriculture and farming was also held in high regard as an underpin of democracy with hard-working, solid citizens. Farming can be viewed as a noble human endeavor – to feed the people of Earth. At the end of World War 2, there was a tremendous need to increase food production. Agriculture and the role of farmers has been to supply abundant, safe, and nutritious food that is affordable to the consumer. New technologies and governmental policies allowed this to happen and today farmers produce enough calories to feed every person on earth. But it isn’t necessarily the right kind of food,.and logistical problems of food distribution keep nutritious food supplies from areas that need them. At the current rate of human population growth it is assumed there will be at least 9 billion (2 million more) humans to feed by the year 2050. Farmers still largely view their role as one to produce more food.

Sustainability Provides Ethical Guidance

In modern agriculture we can use the idea of sustainability to help determine if a choice is ethical. Sustainability has three parts – economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability.

  1. Economic sustainability – If the farm will be profitable and the farmer will stay in business, it will lead to economic sustainability.
  2. Social sustainability – If the choice is good for individual humans and the community, it will lead to social sustainability.
  3. Environmental sustainability – If the production method doesn’t degrade the natural environment (soil, water, air, and plant and animal communities), then it will lead to environmental sustainability.

Finding a Balance

Ethical conversations teeter on this balance. And different groups of people might prioritize one leg of sustainability over the other. For example, people passionate about nature, wildlife, and wild habitats might say those require top consideration. But if a farmer can’t use the natural resources like soil and water to produce their crops and raise their livestock, then they will not be economically or socially sustainable. As another example, vegans and vegetarians might protest the killing of livestock for human food consumption. But throughout history, humans have been omnivores and eat meat and animal products as a part of their diet along with plants. The meat provides essential amino acids, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that all contribute toward a healthy diet. Without meat as a part of the human diet, humans may not be as healthy and therefore the system wouldn’t be as socially sustainable.

In ethical conversations there are many considerations to weigh and balance. The conversations can include farm structure, animal welfare, food safety, environmental impacts, international trade, food security, biotechnology, research, and more. Where we land on these conversations and choices help determine governmental policies, food safety regulations, research and technology regulation, and other guiding rules and laws.

For example, biotechnology has incredible potential to advance agricultural production. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? Prudent regulation can help mitigate the risks but still allow for the advances.

Raising crops in monoculture has an incredibly high level of efficiency and productivity, but can lead to soil degredation and increased disease pressure. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? New practices like no-till farming and cover crops can reduce the negative effects of soil erosion and improve soil micro-organisms, but can cost more money to implement.

Raising animals indoors can significantly improve the efficiency of the production system. Can the positive results outweigh the negative aspects of confined quarters? Health monitoring, access to fresh food and water, and manure management keep livestock healthy with a high level of care and welfare.

These are just a few examples of the pros and cons in agriculture and why the choices made are thought to be ethical.

Farmers and others in agricultural industry make choices every day. No situation is perfect and farmers can continue to improve their practices. And ethics of farming may evolve and shift and change, but I would submit that they make these choices with the best of intentions and the hope that they are making the right, good, and ethical choice.


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Purple, green, orange, yellow, red? No, these aren’t colors of M&Ms. These are some of the colors you’ll see on agriculture crop seeds that have been treated with the latest technologies to fight diseases and pests. Treating seed is nothing new. Farmers have been using different types of seed treatments dating clear back to 60 A.D. In this blog post, you’ll learn more about how farmers use them today and why.

So, just what is seed treatment?
Seed treating is the act of applying a product to a seed prior to planting. When seeds go into the ground, there are many diseases and pests just waiting to take advantage of those young seeds and seedlings for their own benefit. Farmers want to protect their investment so treating seed is one way to help prevent crop loss.

There are a variety of treatments, but the main categories include fungicides, insecticides, and antimicrobial products.

  • Fungicides are chemical compounds or organisms used to kill fungi or their spores. Typically, two or three fungicides are used at a time.
  • Insecticides are substances used to kill insects. In any given field, many different insects want to feed on the seed. Insecticides help protect against both the actual insect as well as their eggs or larvae.
  • Antimicrobial is an agent that kills microorganisms or stops their growth. These biological treatments can also help plants in other ways such as producing their own nitrogen or helping to extend root systems.

Why do farmers use seed treatments?
Every year, between 20 to 40 percent of yield is lost due to pathogens, insects and weeds, according to Bayer Crop Science. Maybe this is why treating seed has been around for centuries. Farmers throughout history have been trying to find ways to protect their crops from damage. The earliest reported use of a seed treatment dates back to 60 A.D. when wine and crushed cypress leaves were used to protect seed from storage insects, according to the American Seed Trade Association.

Besides farm equipment, the purchase of seeds is one of the most expensive products a farmer must purchase. And it’s an annual purchase. Farmers and companies that support those farmers continually want to find ways to protect the value of the seed as economically and environmentally responsible as possible. Seed treatments are one way farmers can protect the seed’s value. Seed treatments can also be a more environmentally friendly way of using pesticides and insecticides. Smaller amounts of these chemicals can be used to benefit the seed when comparing seed treatments to spraying. 

Benefits of seed treatments

  • Seed treatments protect seeds and seedlings against early-season insect pests and diseases.
  • Results in stronger, healthier plants, and higher crop yields.
  • Allows for more accuracy and efficiency in crop production inputs.
  • Reduces the environmental impact of the production process by decreasing the number of spray applications needed on any given field. In short, using treated seed allows for less spraying during the growing season. This helps lessen the exposure to pollinators and other wildlife.
  • By applying color with the treated seed, farmers can tell immediately what type of seed and chemical solution is on the seed in the case of accidental spills.

Seed treatment safety

Source: GMO Answers

Agriculture is one of the most heavily regulated industries. It can take a decade or more for a new trait to go from an idea to a seed in the field. New products – both seed and chemical applications alike – go through years of research and testing. Once products are ready for market, agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) evaluate the product for safety purposes.

Treated seeds are no different. Farmers are required to follow safe handling procedures to protect the food industry, wildlife, and the environment. Here are just a few of the procedures farmers must follow to protect the environment.

  • Know which treatments seeds have received to ensure proper handling.
  • Wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling treated seed.
  • Clean up spills immediately.
  • Avoid generating dust when handling treated seed.
  • Properly dispose of leftover treated seed.

Ultimately, farmers want to give their seeds the best possible chance to mature to a healthy plant ready to harvest. They deeply care for the land, which has likely been in their family for generations and want to see that land continue to produce crops not only for their family but also the world. Seed treatments are one of the tools in their toolbox to help them to just that.


Additional Sources

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When growing crops of any type, it’s important to understand the required inputs in order to receive the desired yields. One of these inputs, arguably the most important and critical one, revolves around nutrient management. All plants have these requirements, whether it be crops grown for biofuels, fruit production, or landscape ornamentals. Each plant needs various amounts of nutrients, which can be used to classify them (by quantity) into macro or micro nutrients. It’s important to remember that each one is vital for plant growth, simply required in different doses. As a sidenote – this blog is going to be mainly focused upon corn production, but all of these elements are necessary for any plant you’re trying to grow! First I have a couple questions to spark your curiosity about nutrients in plants…    

  • A plant can be deficient in oxygen, how is that possible?
  • Plants need calcium just like humans do. If it doesn’t go towards bone and teeth strength, then what’s its purpose?

Let’s start with the big three: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. If you’re reading a fertilizer label, they don’t typically advertise for these elements. So, where do plants take them from? Why are they necessary for plant life? Should I be worried that my garden isn’t receiving enough hydrogen? The simple answer is that no one should be concerned about their plants being nutrient deficient in C, H, or O, as long as the plants are surrounded by air!

Carbon (C) – Thanks to many fields of science, we know that carbon is the base for life on Earth! This means that if plants are going to continue to be alive, they must obtain and maintain C. In more direct terms, plants produce and uses chains of carbon with other atoms called carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. But what happens if the plant is unable to take in carbon? This would be a very unfavorable scenario for the plant, especially since carbon is essential to photosynthesis. More specifically, without carbon (in the carbon dioxide form) the Calvin cycle wouldn’t occur. This means there’s no G3P, which helps make glucose, and without energy the plant cannot continue to live.

This depicts the Calvin cycle in photosynthesis. Diagram from Khan Academy

Hydrogen (H) – Whenever I think of elemental hydrogen, I don’t normally think of it as a nutrient. I don’t directly eat anything that is marketed as “high in hydrogen”, so how could a plant use it? To start off with, every living organism on Earth needs water (H₂O) to live. Plants use water to obtain hydrogen atoms when splitting H₂O molecules through the light reaction of photosynthesis. The hydrogen ion is then used to create NADPH, which is a crucial ingredient in the Calvin cycle. If a plant is missing this chemical compound, then photosynthesis would cease and the plant would die.

This shows the light-dependent reactions in photosynthesis, commonly referred to as the z scheme. Image from LibreTexts

Oxygen (O) – Wait a minute – oxygen is a product of photosynthesis, why would a plant need to take in oxygen too? In order to break down food through aerobic respiration, there must be oxygen present. Yes that’s right, plants respire just like humans do! Cells within leaves and stems obtain oxygen atoms that are a product of photosynthesis. However, cells found in areas that aren’t photosynthetically active must find oxygen elsewhere. To solve this issue, roots are able to take in O₂ from the air between soil particles. If the ground is saturated to capacity, then the roots cannot take up oxygen in the gas state. If the area is flooded for longer than 72 hours, it’s likely the plant will run out of oxygen and not recover.

The chemical equation for photosynthesis.

Nitrogen (N) – This is a much more commonly discussed nutrient, especially since it has a huge correlation to high yields in corn production. If you were to walk into a farmer’s field, you would be surrounded by nitrogen in many forms! N₂ is a gas found in the air, whereas NO₃⁻, NH₄⁺, and NH₃ are compounds found in the soil. But if nitrogen is found in the air, why can’t corn absorb it like carbon or oxygen? This is because corn can only take up nitrogen when it’s in a nitrate form, which can be found in solutions and attached to soil particles! When taking a closer look at NO₃⁻, it’s more prone to being lost to the environment due to its negative charge. Soil naturally has a negative charge, which means that a nitrate is more likely to move elsewhere in the environment than wait around to be absorbed by a plant. This is why many agriculturists use anhydrous  ammonia as a N fertilizer, because it contains NH₃ and not NO₃⁻. Overtime soil microorganisms will convert ammonia to a plant available nitrate. Why is nitrogen so important in corn physiology? N is essential to grain fill and development. This means that if the plant is deficient in nitrogen, the kernels and ear won’t fill to their genetic potential. A common symptom of N deficiency is a yellowing midrib on a lower leaf.

Nitrogen deficiency in corn. Photo from SDSU Extension

Phosphorus (P) – This is another very important macronutrient! In a similar respect to nitrogen, plants are unable to absorb and utilize the elemental form of P. This creates a problem in fields, because P is most commonly found in a plant unavailable form! Luckily, roots have a symbiotic relationship with Mycorrhizal fungi which are able to turn P into a more usable form. Corn can easily uptake phosphates, and the most common compounds are H₂PO₄⁻ and HPO₄²⁻. Since phosphates have negative charges, they are more prone to leaving the soil than the elemental form (similar to nitrates). This is why synthetic fertilizers that contain significant amounts of phosphorus are delivered in a P₂O₅ compound. Why is phosphorus so important in corn physiology? P is directly correlated to crop maturity, yields, and overall plant growth. More specifically phosphorus is a huge makeup of sugar phosphates, which directly affects ATP. Energy transfer with ATP is crucial, due to it’s role in both RNA and DNA. A lack in P will affect the overall efficiency of any plant. Phosphorus deficiency in corn appears in older leaves and starts as a purple hue. An increase in severity will turn leaf margins brown.

Phosphorus deficiency in corn. Image from Channel.

Potassium (K) – When applying synthetic fertilizers, it’s common to see potassium in the K₂O form. However, this form is not immediately available to plants. Plants can only take up K+ when it’s in a solution. This form differs from the available compounds of N and P, since potassium is a cation. Why is potassium so important in corn physiology? A deficiency in K can have a multitude of negative affects upon the plant. This could be seen as an increase in susceptibility to drought, temperature stressors, and pests. Agronomists refer to K as “the quality nutrient”, meaning there’s a direct connection to traits like seed vigor, size, color, and shape. To be more specific, potassium helps build cellulose, increase protein content, maintain turgor, and move sugars and starches throughout the plant’s vascular system. K deficiency symptoms start as a yellowing of leaf margins on older leaves, and an increase in severity turns the pale color to a brown necrosis.

Potassium deficiency in corn. Photo from Thompsons.

Secondary Macronutrients

There are three elements that fall under this category, as they’re needed in higher quantities than micronutrients but lesser amounts than N, P, and K.

Calcium (Ca) – Calcium deficiencies are most common in sandy and/or acidic soils, since the Ca ions can be leached through the soil profile. Similarly to potassium, Ca²⁺ can only be imbibed by plants when in a soil solution. Why is calcium so important in corn physiology? Ca holds a vital role in the creation of cell walls and membranes. Calcium deficiency symptoms are visible in new growth, so in corn this would be around the growing point. It typically appears as a yellowing color, slowed growth, and leaf tips sticking together.

Calcium deficiency in corn. Image from Crop Nutrition.

Magnesium (Mg) – Without Mg, a plant would not be able to photosynthesize. This element is a sizable component within chlorophyll molecules, which is 100% necessary for capturing the sunlight’s energy! Additionally, Mg serves as a phosphorus carrier. Simply put –  if there’s not enough Magnesium then the plant would be unable to uptake P, even if it was available in the soil! Mg²⁺ is the plant available form, and can be heavily affected by the pH and sandiness of soils. Mg deficiencies are first seen in older and lower leaves, starting as a purple interveinal discoloration.

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Most of us have heard the term hydroponics before, but what does it actually mean? According to the dictionary, hydroponics is the cultivation of plants by placing the roots in liquid nutrient solutions rather than in soil. Furthermore, if we break the word into two parts, we have hydro and ponics. Both come from Greek origins, with hydro referring to water and ponics from the word ponein meaning “to labor or toil.” With that being said, hydroponics can be used just about anywhere and with multiple types of plants. In fact, there’s a lot of fruits and vegetables grown in hydroculture systems! Whether it’s a leafy green like lettuce, kale, or spinach to a juicy fruit like strawberries, tomatoes, or blueberries, it can be productively grown without soil!

Even though it may appear to look like one long pot of soil, but these strawberries are planted in an artificial growing medium.

But wait, don’t all plants need soil?

Actually no, plants don’t need soil. Soil is highly beneficial to plants by providing structural support for the roots as well as a substrate to exchange nutrients on, but this can be achieved through various materials. Try thinking of it this way – a plant has W.A.N.T.S. Water, Air, Nutrients, Temperature, Sunlight. With only a single one of these elements missing, a plant cannot survive. For example, if there’s a drought, eventually the plant will lose too much water through transpiration and will wilt and die. But what about if the temperature is too hot or too cold? The plant could easily burn or freeze, which quickly ceases its productivity. And what if a plant is grown in an environment lacking carbon dioxide? The plant wouldn’t be able to continue photosynthesizing, which means there are no sugars being produced. In a hydroponics system, the crops are receiving proper amounts of water, air, nutrients, temperature, and sunlight!

Now that we’re all wondering about hydroponics, it’s time to dive a little bit deeper! There are six main types used in large-scale production systems.

Wick System

Let’s start off with one of the more simple hydroculture methods. A wick system, or more commonly referred to as wicking, is when a plant is growing in the top of a material that is partially submerged in the nutrient solution. This material (it could be cotton, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, etc.) is absorbing the liquid at the bottom and wicking it upwards towards the plant. This process means the plant’s roots are not wholly submerged in the water, which minimizes the associated risks and chances of this system failing. There are only four main components needed to create this system: wicks, growing medium, a container for the plant to grow in, and a holding container for the nutrient solution. This could easily be done in a classroom or around the house for a little innovative fun!

Photo from Smart Garden Guide.

This picture shows a very simple wick system, one that uses a cotton string to bring nutrient solution to the perlite growing media.  Photo from ehow.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

In a nutrient film technique system, there is a constant flow of nutrient solution over the roots of the plant. This greatly differs from wicking because the roots come in direct contact with the water. One of the biggest risks associated with this system is the chance of drowning out the roots. Due to this, it’s important to ensure the roots are receiving an ample amount of oxygen, whether it be from the air or an air pump in the water. The most efficient and productive NFT systems only submerge the root tips in the water, which means the remaining surface area on the roots are able to breathe. There are a few more components in this system, which makes it a bit complex and complicated. There’s still a reservoir for the nutrient solution and a growing media (perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, etc.). Additionally, there needs to be a channel for the water to run down, an air pump, a water pump, and a return pipe to complete the cycle.

Photo from Green and Vibrant.

This is lettuce grown with NFT. You can even see some algae growth that can accumulate if not cleaned often enough. 

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

In this system, the plant’s roots are also coming into direct contact with the water, but it’s not constantly flowing over them. In a simplistic view, DWC is very similar to wicking, just without the wick. The plants sit in a growing media at the top of the reservoir container, and the roots grow downward to reach the water. The most important and vitally crucial aspect of this system is the air pump. Without an air pump, the plant would take up all the available oxygen in the water solution and essentially suffocate. This air pump allows for continuous oxygenation and really serves as the heart of deep water culture. The best management technique would be to clean out and refill the tank about once a month, or frequent enough to prevent algal growth.

Photo from No Soil Solutions.

Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain)

Ebb and Flow is my favorite system, simply because of how autonomous it can become once properly set up. In this structure, there is a generally larger reservoir tank which is pumped into a growing bed that holds plants. Instead of letting the water sit and suffocate the plants, it will drain back down into the water tank. This is controlled by a timer and can easily be scheduled for the right frequency and duration of each flooding event. The plants sit in a growing media such as peat moss or rockwool, which absorbs the nutrient solution for extended periods of time. To make your own ebb and flow system, you’ll need a tank for the nutrient solution, a water pump, a growing bed that can be flooded, growing media for the roots, and tubing for the uptake and return pipes. Once this is completed, it should look something like the picture below! This is another great example of cycling water and nutrients through a system!

Photo from Green and Vibrant.

Drip System

The idea behind a drip system is quite similar to that of ebb and flow. The only major difference between the two is that instead of flooding the growing bed from the bottom up, there are small irrigation pipes that provide water from the top of the growing media on downward. This particular cycle still needs a pretty decent sized reservoir to hold the nutrient solution, an effective water pump, a growing bed to hold and drain water, as well as tubing to complete the cycle. Additionally, the grower needs a drip emitter, or at least a pipe with minuscule holes to allow for water to escape the tubes. This water pump can also be set up to a timer, which allows for minimal day-to-day upkeep. The grower can accurately control the quantity of water, nutrients, pH of the solution, and air available to the plants and their roots.

Photo from Home Hydro Systems.

Aeroponic System

Wait a minute, the prefixes aero and hydro mean two completely different things! How can aeroponics be considered a type of hydroponics? An aeroponic system still has the main components of every other type of hydroculture system, which includes exposing the roots to a nutrient solution without utilizing soil. When using an aeroponics setup, this allows for the most oxygen exchange with the roots since they are never fully submerged underwater. After learning about the five previous systems of hydroponics and how they work, you can probably guess the similarities and differences in this specific one! Instead of flooding a growing bed or utilizing a drip emitter, the nutrient solution is distributed through misters. These misters are positioned beneath the roots and growing media, and when turned on will coat all surfaces in a thin film of water droplets. This method still provides the necessary nutrients and water to the plants, without taking away any of the other W.A.N.T.S. The similarities include the basics of most hydroponic systems: having a good sized tank for holding the water solution, a growing bed and medium for the plants, a working water pump, as well as small tubing to connect everything.

Photo from Home Hydro Systems.

I’d love to give you all recommendations on which system works the best and some specific management techniques, but alas I’m still learning in those areas. Some important takeaways are:

  1. Plants can be grown without soil, but still need a medium to exchange nutrients on.
  2. Hydroponics can be used in many situations, from commercial fruit production to explaining simplistic ideas in a classroom setting.
  3. Each system is not necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ scenario. It may take time and practice to perfect your system for a particular plant!


P.S. If any of you have experience growing hydroponics or..

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School is out, which means it’s teacher professional development season!

During the last two weeks, we’ve held four teacher workshops across the state. More than 130 teachers have spent two days immersed in learning about agriculture. They toured farms and agribusinesses, participated in hands-on lessons, experienced FarmChat® from a student’s perspective, discovered new resources, and spent time discussing ideas to incorporate agriculture into lessons during the coming school year.

Almost every time we present to teachers we tell them not to think of agriculture as one more thing on their list of things to teach. With a jam-packed schedule of reading, writing, math, science, social studies, PE, guidance, music, and art – there’s not room in the school day to add one more thing. Instead, we encourage teachers to think about how they can teach their current subjects through an agriculture lens. To do this, their agriculture-based lessons must align to the Iowa Core.The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has spent the last five years doing just that – developing lesson plans and resources that are aligned to science, social studies, math, and language arts standards. Our goal is to make it easier for teachers to incorporate agriculture topics into their existing curriculum.

At this summer’s teacher professional development workshops, we are asking teachers to develop a concept map illustrating how agriculture connects to what they teach. We introduce the guide below on the first day and challenge them to think about how the topics and resources they discover during the workshop connect to their existing science and/or social studies units.

During the next two days, we eagerly watch the concept maps grow as teachers add existing resources and ideas for new lessons. We intended to collect their concept maps at the end of the workshop, but most teachers have not wanted to let them go. They want to keep them as an easy reminder of the resources that they can “plug and play” into units during the upcoming school-year.

While we didn’t collect their concept maps, we did take pictures! We will use them as inspiration for future lesson plans and resources. I also plan to share some of them in a series of blog posts on agriculture connections to elementary, middle, and high school science and social studies standards.I’ll feature one concept map today, as a sneak peek to the many ideas that will be introduced in future posts.

This concept map was created by a 3rd-grade teacher at the first workshop of the summer.

I love how she used the entire page and identified agriculture connections to every science and social studies unit that she teaches!Do you see the numbers in the cloud-shaped outline? Those are the specific Iowa Core standards covered in each unit.

In social studies, she identified agriculture topics and resources for units on supply and demand, natural resources, and economic decisions. Agriculture will be the theme that weaves these three units together as they learn to discover how weather and soil impact farming, how crops and grain are bought and sold, and how agriculture impacts our local and distant economies.In science, students will discover the real-world applications of simple machines as they learn they can identify them in farm equipment and learn how they make work easier.The 3rd-grade growing unit will focus on plants and animals raised on farms. Students will do hands-on investigations with soybeans and do a FarmChat® program to learn about livestock.By using agriculture topics in both social studies and science, these two subjects are no longer stand-alone sections of the school day. Instead, they are woven together as students explore both the science and economics of the crops, livestock, and natural resources.-Cindy

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For me, summer has always brought relief. The schedule is relaxed. There is less pressure to get things done. Our family has more freedom to explore. But after a week or so, as a parent I begin to wonder, “am I letting my kids lose what they have learned?” “Are we beginning the dreaded ‘summer slide’?” “How can I sneak some education into their little Jell-O minds before they set?” Why not fill this summer with these delightful ag-ventures?

• Make it a point to check out your local county fair. These are a great time to get a look at different kinds of farm animals. You can tour building after building of sheep, cows, goats, rabbits, chickens and more. Many are free to attend, and you can be sure to find one near you.

Introduce your young learners to the livestock they will encounter with the lesson, Animal Life Cycles. The activities include animal flash cards as well as excellent background information. Comparing similarities and differences between groups of animals is one fun way to get kids talking about the animals at the fair. Also in the lesson is a section called “Did you know?”

  • Discovering some interesting Ag Facts could include:
     Looking for animals that don’t have upper teeth in the front of their mouth (incisors). Answer: goats, sheep, and cows
     Finding a breed of chicken called the Aracauna lays eggs that are a light blue or green color.
     Asking what the word “cow” actually means? It is often used to refer to cattle in general, however, cow actually refers to female cattle who have had a calf.

Visit a processing plant or local locker. If you and your family eat meat, this might be a good way to help your children understand where their food comes from. Contact a butcher in your area to see if they would give a tour of their facility. Most processing plants will be able to show you how the meat from each animal is used. Lessons like From Pig to Bacon help kids learn about the many items that come from pigs, not just bacon. Sausage, ham, Canadian bacon, pork chops, cosmetics, gelatin, crayons, and chalk, a well as insulin and even heart valves are produced from pigs.

• Find a farmer willing to give a tour. Farms are busy places and are usually run by people who truly love their jobs. Farmers need to be experienced in a variety of things. From fixing fences to caring for sick animals, a farmer needs the skill and know how to do it all. In this activity sheet, Many Hats of an Iowa Farmer, your kids can get an idea of just how many hats an Iowa farmer wears. No matter how busy, I’ve yet to meet a farmer who isn’t willing to take a few minutes of their day to educate someone about the career that is more like a lifestyle. Remember, on your tour to wear chore clothes and sturdy shoes. The farm is no place for flip-flops.

Purchase produce from a farmer’s market. This is an area where cash is welcome, so let your kids do the math. Have them select something new and be responsible for making their purchase. Adding, subtracting, and simple multiplying can all be accomplished with your purchase (plus, you’ll be supporting local farmers). Here’s a fun activity called Eat ‘Em Up. You and your kids can review the plant parts that they eat, including roots, stems, flowers, leaves, fruit, and seeds. You can then choose a favorite fruit or vegetable to feature in a healthy recipe and prepare it with your family.

• If your little one is into big machinery, check out these museums.

It takes a lot of equipment to get a crop in and the history of those machines is really quite amazing. There is a lot of engineering behind some of these agricultural marvels. Kids love to learn how things work, and a tour of a tractor museum could be a great way to spark their interest, perhaps in building something of their own.

In the lesson, Terrific Tractors, children will learn vocabulary words like tractor, planter, sprayer, cultivator, combine, and grain wagon as well as discover what each one does. Encourage your family to recognize the simple machines that are behind the farmers most useful tools.

Find a nursery or garden center. Planting a tree is a great way to teach children patience. It can make a lasting impact as a child watches their tree grow year after year. Beginning quite small as a seed and soon, even outgrowing them. You may want to visit a farm that sells evergreens and Discover Christmas Trees.

You might not be thinking of Christmas in the summer, but all-around Iowa, farmers are caring for the trees that may end up in your living room this winter. Here’s a guessing game you can play with your kids before you arrive. Ask your kids if they can name the crop after the clues you provide.

o It is harvested one time per year.
o It is not a food crop.
o It is not produced by animals. (If needed, help your kids conclude that it is produced by plants.)
o It takes 6-10 years to grow.
o It has needles instead of leaves.
o It is primarily green and cone-shaped.
o It is most associated with the Christmas holiday.
o What is it? (a Christmas tree!)

Visit the World Food Prize building in Des Moines. I recently had the opportunity to visit and it was one of the most impactful tours I had ever been on. Learning the stories of the men and women who pioneered Iowa agriculture is really quite amazing. While walking through the historical building there was something around every corner. The magnificent rotunda actually uses the four corners to tell the story, and origins, of four primary crops involved in feeding the world: wheat, rice, corn, and soy.

When I tell myself, “I can’t wait to make time to take my kids there,” I definitely mean it. I really shouldn’t wait. The importance of this one summer visit could make a huge difference in the way they see the jobs their father and I do. Him as a farmer and me as an agriculture literacy educator. The sense of pride I felt as I looked at the wonderful exhibits is hard to explain. It really made me feel like part of something bigger, something global.

Which one of these places will you visit this summer? Leave a comment in the section below to share your favorite Iowa Ag-venture.


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As with many industries, there’s lots of jargon and learned vocabulary in agriculture. We’ve spent some time unpacking cattle-related vocabulary in previous blog posts, which you can find here, here, and here. However, recently I had an interaction where I was using some corn-related jargon and had to back up and explain what I meant. That made me realize how many pieces of the corn industry have vocab words many people don’t know! Here’s an outline of some of the big terms and what they mean.

Maize: Maize just means corn! For our international friends, maize may actually be the preferred term.

Husk: The husk of a corn plant is the leaves that grow around and protect the ear. When we buy fresh sweet corn, the husks are green and pliable. When farmers harvest their field corn in the fall, the husks are brown, dry, and brittle.

Husk can also be a verb and refer to when someone removes the husk from corn before they use it. People may also say they “shuck” corn when they do this.

Stalk: The stalk is the main stem of the plant. Some corn plants will grow up to 8 feet tall and most of that height is from the stalk.

Tassel: The tassel is the male flower portion of the corn plant. The corn plant is interesting because it has both male and female flower parts, but they are not part of the same flower. The tassel grows out of the top of the plant, and the female part of the flower (the ear) grows nestled between the leaves and stalk of the plant.

Detasseling: Many people have had jobs detasseling corn. As it sounds, it means removing the tassel from the plant! This is not done on every farm, however. This is only done when farmers are growing corn that will be used for seed to plant new fields. Farmers sometimes cross-breed two different types of corn and want to make sure the cross happens correctly. They contract with seed companies and those companies provide the genetics for growing this seed corn.

When farmers or researchers are crossbreeding varieties like this, they will plant a small amount of “male rows” that will keep their tassels, and a larger amount of “female rows” that will have their tassels removed. This ensures the ears of the female rows are only being pollinated by the tassels on the male rows. This is how we get hybrid plants!

Conservation till: Tillage has historically been used as a way to warm up the soil, create a nice seedbed for seed-to-soil contact, reduce soil compaction, and control weeds. However, we now know that tillage also increases erosion and negatively impacts the natural soil structure. Conservation tillage is a relatively new idea for how to get the best of both worlds. Maybe a farmer will till only where they plant their seed or will use a type of tillage that doesn’t disturb as much of the soil as conventional methods. There are lots of conservation tillage options.

No-till: No-till is another method of field management, but in this method, they don’t till at all! Farmers who don’t till may use a grain drill fitted on their planter to plant their seeds and may be more dependent on chemical weed control. However, they will gain benefits of reduced erosion (benefiting water quality) and see an improvement in soil health.

Trash: If you hear a farmer talk about trash on their field, you may think they have a littering problem. But likely, they are just talking about leftover plant residue from previous years. In fact, planters can have angled, toothed discs that help clear the soil of this trash to ensure the seed gets good soil contact. Though these are formally called row cleaners, these discs are sometimes called trash wheels or trash whippers.

Silage: Silage is an interesting corn term. Corn silage is harvested differently than the grain you may see at a grain cooperative. Silage is the entire corn plant that is harvested while green in the summer. The whole plant is chopped up and held in an airtight container (like a silo, silage bag, or silage pit) to ferment. It is then stored and used as cattle feed throughout the year. It smells amazing, and cattle love it because the fermentation makes it slightly sweet.

Silo: A silo is a tall, metal, cement, or clay structure originally used to ferment silage. Though silos aren’t as popular as they used to be (many farmers today use silage pits or silage bags), they are a popular addition to farm scenes in storybooks.

Side-dress: This term doesn’t mean anything about clothes. It has to do with fertilizing! It has become clear that for both financial and environmental reasons, it is important to put fertilizer where it will be safe from the elements and actually reach the crop when the crop needs it.

This is where side-dressing comes in. This is the term used for the placement of fertilizer that is two inches beside and two inches below the seed. Farmers may side-dress nitrogen shortly after (or even during) planting, to make sure that that nitrogen is there for the plant as soon as those roots start to grow.

Anhydrous: Nitrogen is the most limiting nutrient for corn. Anhydrous ammonia is the most affordable form of this nutrient for farmers to use. It comes in large tanks that you may see at cooperatives or in fields. You may hear farmers talk about seeing the anhydrous tanks out or getting anhydrous on their fields. They just mean nitrogen fertilizer!

Sprayer: A sprayer is a large piece of equipment that helps farmers spray their fields for weeds or pests. They have tall, skinny wheels, and a very high clearance, so they can be driven through corn fields even when the crop is fully grown. The boom on the sprayer can be raised and lowered, the nozzles can be changed for different chemical applications, and applications can even be altered while the machine is turning!

VRT or Variable Rate Technology: VRT is a really cool technology that is part of the precision agriculture movement. It essentially means that nutrients, pesticides, or other applications are only applied at the exact place where they are needed. Variable Rate Technology helps with this by reading maps and following GPS signals to understand things such as one spot in a field needing less nitrogen than another, and will adjust the rate applied to the field accordingly.

Combine: A combine is a machine that harvests the corn crop. To harvest corn, a combine uses a corn header, which looks like it has big teeth or witch-y fingers. The row of corn is guided in between the fingers, the plant is cut off and guided inside the machine, where the ear is picked, husked, and the kernels are shelled, or knocked loose from the cob. Then, the kernels are stored in the hopper, and the rest of the plant material is put back onto the field.

Grain bin: A grain bin is a big, round, metal, corrugated structure that houses grain. Though not every farmer has a grain bin, they can give a farmer flexibility of when they can sell their crop. Without a grain bin or similar grain storage facility, a farmer would have to sell their grain as soon as they harvested it or pay to have someone else store it for them.

Stover: This is what we call all of the corn plant material that is left on the field after harvest. This is primarily the dried stalk and leaves of the plant. The plant material can protect the soil from the elements and provides extra organic material to the soil (which translates into healthier soil with more nutrients).

Dock: If a farmer goes to sell their corn at a cooperative and it is damaged, contains inert material (like rocks or weed seed), or is too wet, their price may be docked. Naturally, farmers don’t want that, so they work to harvest and sell high-quality corn.

Are there any other terms you’ve been wondering about? Let us know, and you might see it in a future blog!


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Iowa Agriculture Literacy by Iowaagliteracy - 1M ago

Conventional wisdom encourages marathon runners to fuel up by eating a lot of carbohydrates. Bodybuilders pump iron and eat a lot of extra protein in their diet. Even nursing mothers need a special diet and bloggers recommend everything from oatmeal and flax seed to brewer’s yeast and fenugreek to help produce and let down milk for the newborn.

The science is a bit mixed on each of these and doesn’t prove that they work the way proponents claim. It stands to reason that marathoners need a lot of energy. Carbohydrates convert to sugars in the body which can be used for quick energy in metabolism. Bodybuilders are trying to build muscle and so an increase of protein and amino acids to build that muscle should be beneficial. For nursing mothers, the oatmeal could provide some iron as they are often anemic with low iron levels in their blood. The flax seed can provide some healthy fatty acids and the brewer’s yeast can be a source of B-complex vitamins, protein, minerals, and chromium. The bottom line is that whether you are running a race, pumping iron, or nursing a baby you need to give your body what it needs for peak and optimal performance.

The same is true for livestock. Farmers are constantly looking for ways to keep their animals healthy and well cared for. The diets they select for their livestock are usually recommended by a veterinarian or animal nutritionist to provide optimal performance. Dairy cows need a diet that will help them produce a lot of milk. Pigs, turkeys, and beef cattle need a diet that will help them grow big and pack on muscle mass. Chickens need a diet that will help them lay eggs.

Dairy Cattle: To keep dairy cattle healthy and producing milk, their diet should include a lot of high-quality forages and grains. The forages (think corn stalks, grasses, alfalfa) provide fiber in the diet. This can come in the form of wet forage like silage (fermented forage) or dry forage like hay. As ruminants, a healthy gut biome is important and the cattle will regurgitate that forage, chew their cud and then swallow it and continue digestion. Bacteria in their stomachs will help break down the thick plant cell walls and extract the nutrients. Grains like corn, soy, wheat, etc. can provide quick energy and carbohydrates to fuel their body. A healthy diet will then include a balance of rations to meet other nutrient requirements (different for each stage of lactation). These nutrient requirements can include added fats, vitamins, minerals, protein supplements, and salt. It can actually be quite complicated with mathematical formulas to determine the exact amounts. The human diet is quite varied and therefore it is hard for nutritional experts to say exactly what a human should eat to stay healthy. But for cows who basically eat the exact same thing every day (grasses) experts can tweak the ration and provide exactly what they need to stay healthy and produce great quality milk (and a lot of it)!

Pigs: Pigs are more omnivorous, meaning they can have a more varied diet like humans. This means that farmers can have more flexibility, but it also means that the math can be more complicated. The goal is to get the pigs to grow quickly and put on lean muscle mass. Current consumer trends want to see lean cuts of pork and so the lean muscle mass is important. That lean muscle mass is largely determined by the pig’s diet. Pigs can be fed molasses, beets, cane, oats, grain, groat, peas, rye, milk, sorghum, soybeans, eggs, fish, flax, meat and bone meal, canola, barley, alfalfa, sunflower seeds, wheat, and whey. Their ration is often then supplemented with protein, meal, vitamins, and minerals. For muscle production, farmers are trying to ensure pigs get enough essential amino acids like isoleucine, lysine, methionine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. In Iowa, because it is readily available, the major feed components for a pig’s diet are corn and soybeans.

Beef cattle: Like dairy cattle, beef cattle need a lot of forage. But because their purpose is to produce muscle mass, like pigs, they might be supplemented with some added protein. Beef cattle will spend the majority of their life grazing grasses, as ruminants they are excellent at digesting those grasses and converting them into energy and ultimately muscle mass. While on pasture, they are provided mineral and salt lick blocks that can provide minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, and selenium. Most beef cattle are grain-finished, which means that they are transported to a feedlot where their diet is more closely regulated. Their diet still is largely forage, but farmers add in corn, soybeans, and other grains. This allows the animals to put on additional weight and even some fat which promotes marbling in the muscle which makes it taste really good when cooked. Corn and soybeans help provide the additions to their forage diet. Many cattle that are raised on pasture in the West are shipped to the Midwest to then be finished on grain. It is easier and more cost effective to ship the animals to the grain than to ship the grain to the animals.

Chickens: Chickens, like most animals, need a healthy mix of the basic nutrient requirements like carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. Their exact nutrient requirement is tailored to their age and the stage of egg laying that they are in. Corn and soybeans can provide most of the nutritional requirements for chickens. Those base ingredients can be broken down into the specific nutrients that chickens need for optimal egg production including protein, lysine, methionine, tryptophan, and threonine. Then the diet can be supplemented with vitamins and minerals like calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and chloride. Calcium is very important for producing the shells of the eggs, so this becomes a key ingredient to add to chicken feed. Human nutritionists are also looking for ways to make eggs healthier to eat. If we supplement chicken feed with lutein that lutein will end up in the eggs. Lutein can potentially help in humans with brain development and eye sight. Other additives to chicken feed could make eggs even healthier for humans to consume.

So whether you are a farmer trying to care for your livestock, a runner, a weightlifter, or a sleepless parent trying to nurse a baby, fueling the body is an important piece of the puzzle to ensure health and optimal performance. Science is making new discoveries everyday and farmers are working hard to implement best management practices to feed and care for their livestock.


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Spend any time around farmers’ markets, school activities, fairs, and other similar events and you’re likely to hear agriculture ‘facts’ from adults and children alike that can make you scratch your head. Iowa is one of the leading agriculture states, so you’d think most of us have had our fair share of time on a farm or around others who have a farm. But I think you’d still be surprised to hear some of the misconceptions in agriculture.

A recent family outing to a local farm over the Easter weekend was one such event. This local farm offers many activities for families throughout the year – a pumpkin patch, Easter egg hunt, and a cut-your-own-Christmas-tree experience, among others. They have farm animals you can feed, ponies to ride, a corn pit, massive hay bales to climb, and a huge mud kitchen as well as several other activities. One of my daughters’ favorite activities is feeding the goats. While my daughters were feeding the goats, I overheard another child ask their parent why the farm only had boy goats (since they all had horns). The parent responded that it was kind of strange that there were only boy goats.

It got me thinking…what other misconceptions do children and adults have regarding agriculture topics?

Misconception 1: Only male goats have horns
Despite the misconception that only male animals can have horns, some female animals such as goats can have horns. The horns of a male (buck) goat are typically much thicker and longer than the female (doe). Animals with horns typically use their horns to defend themselves from predators or members of their own species, and for dominance.

Misconception 2: Cotton is from sheep
The fluffiness of cotton can cause some people to think it comes from sheep. Cotton actually comes from a plant and is one of the planet’s most widely-used natural fibers. Cotton has been cultivated and used to make fabrics for at least 7,000 years.

Cotton plants
Cotton is native to the Americas, Africa, and India. The plant requires a warm, dry climate with lots of sunshine. In the U.S., these growing conditions limit cotton production to the southern U.S. region. According to the National Cotton Council of America, 98 percent of the U.S. cotton is grown in 14 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas).

Cotton takes about five months to grow from a planted seed to a ripe plant ready for harvest. Cotton plants grow into green, bushy shrubs about three feet in height. The plants grow pink and cream-colored flowers. Once these flowers are pollinated, they drop off and are replaced with cotton bolls. Inside each cotton boll is fluffy white lint as well as the cotton seeds. The cotton must be removed from the seeds before it can be made into items such as clothes.

Cotton harvest
Clear into the 1950s, cotton was picked by hand and the seeds were removed by hand which were both labor-intensive activities. As early as 1793 though, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that was able to extract the seeds from cotton bolls.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Today, cotton is entirely machine harvested.

Image Source: John Deere

Some of today’s high-capacity gins can turn out as much as 30,000 pounds of clean, cotton fiber in one hour. This video shows how cotton is grown and harvested.

Cotton uses
While you may think cotton is only used in materials such as clothes, cotton is also used in many items we consume. The oil from the cotton seed is extracted and used in products such as potato chips and crackers as well as beauty products. Cotton seed is also sold as livestock feed for animals such as dairy cows.

Educational resources
IALF has several lesson plans devoted to cotton. Check out our King Cotton Lesson Plans for 3-5 grade, 6-8 grade, and 9-12 grade. We also have several books in our Lending Library such as Where Did My Clothes Come From and In the Garden with Dr. Carver. These are available to check out for free.

To get back to our original question does cotton come from sheep? No, sheep produce wool. You can learn more about wool in one of our previous blog posts.

Did you know? John Deere’s Des Moines Works production plant is one of the locations that build John Deere cotton pickers.

Misconceptions 3, 4, 5 & 6: Milk is…
More than 47 billion pounds of milk was sold in the U.S. in 2018. Despite this large number, many people still have quite a few misconceptions on where milk is from and how it’s produced. The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture asked recently what common questions agriculture education professionals hear about various topics. The topic of milk came up and some of the questions show us there is definitely confusion of where your milk comes from. Examples of these questions include:

  • Beef cows make the milk I drink from the store.
  • Chocolate milk comes from brown cows.
  • Milk is cow urine.
  • (When viewing a dairy cow with an udder) – Is that a bull?

Milk comes from dairy cows, not beef cows. A dairy cow is bred to have a calf so they can continue to produce milk. Once the calf is weaned, the mother continues to lactate for another 10-12 months. This is the milk collected for human consumption. The key to a good milk output is a good diet. Dairy cows eat 45 kilograms of feed (a mix of hay, grass, and grains) and supplements with minerals. On a hot day, one dairy cow can drink the equivalent of a bathtub of water. This YouTube video, Milk – How It’s Made, gives you a peek inside milk production. And, no brown cows don’t make chocolate milk.

Educational resources
Dairy is a popular agriculture education topic as it’s easy for children to relate to. Who doesn’t love a glass of milk or a piece of cheese? IALF has more than a dozen books in our Lending Library on the topic of dairy. We also have several free lesson plans on milk and cows.

Did you know? Iowa is the 12th largest milk-producing state in the U.S. There are approximately 1,360 licensed dairy herds in Iowa. Source: Midwest Dairy Association

Misconception 7, 8 & 9: Eggs are a dairy product
In the past, families had their own cows, chickens and other animals to produce their family’s food. As modern agriculture progressed, more people were able to leave the farm life behind and move into cities in search of their fortunes. However, this move of people away from the farm has led to an increasing lack of knowledge of where our food comes from. This is even true for something as simple as eggs. When asking both young and old, there are quite a few misconceptions of eggs.

Eggs are a dairy product.

You need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs.

Brown eggs are from farms, white eggs are from the store.

Let’s break down each of these misconceptions.

  1. Eggs are a dairy product – While eggs may be shelved in the dairy section of your grocery store, eggs are definitely not a dairy product. The definition of dairy includes foods produced from the milk of mammals such as cows and goats. Eggs come from poultry, and in the grocery store that means mainly chickens.
  1. You need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs – Unless you want fertilized eggs, you don’t need a rooster (male chicken) for hens (female chickens) to lay eggs. A hen will produce an egg once every 24 to 27 hours and it will form the egg regardless of whether the egg is actively fertilized during its formation. Learn more about how a hen produces an egg
  1. Brown eggs are from farms, white eggs are from the store. Nowadays, both brown and white eggs are available from the store. Egg color is determined by the genetics of the hens, according to the Michigan State University Extension. White-feathered chickens with white ear lobes lay white eggs. Red or brown-feathered chickens with red ear lobes lay brown eggs.

    Hens on farm

    Different regions of the country have a variety of preferences in shell color. White eggs are the most common in most places except the New England states. Those states prefer brown eggs. No matter the shell color, nutritionally there is no difference. Eggs are among the highest quality protein source you can get and is a crucial ingredient in many recipes.

Did you know? Iowa is the number one egg producing state in the United States. Iowa farmers are responsible for about 1 in 5 eggs consumed in the U.S. each year. Iowa’s economy benefits from the egg industry as well as contributing to more than $2 billion in total sales and more than 8,000 jobs. Learn more about Iowa’s egg industry.

Educational resources
IALF has quite a few educational resources related to eggs and poultry in our Lending Library as well as free lesson plans. Search our Lending Library and lesson plan sections for terms such as ‘eggs’ and ‘chicken.’ We’ve also written several posts on our blog regarding eggs and chickens.

What are some common misconceptions you’ve heard or have about the agriculture industry?



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Before participating in a study abroad, I heard all of these sayings before: “Traveling leaves you speechless and turns you into a storyteller!” “Adventures are the best way to learn!” “The journey is the destination!” They sounded exciting, thrilling, and had an immense call to action within myself. This accompanied with my desire to learn more about agriculture on an international level really pushed me to apply for a travel course. Fortunately, I was accepted into a two-week program that would provide exposure to Panama’s agriculture products and international business model. I toured both family and corporation owned farms, specializing in animal production, meat processing, and crop management. It’s second nature for me to compare all of these processes to that in the U.S., and specifically Iowa while analyzing their efficiency, safety, and overall productivity given the change of climate and soils. After returning to the states, I have an entirely new view upon international agriculture and hope to broaden your perspectives on the ag industry as well!

Does Panama produce corn like Iowa?

It’s a known fact that Iowa is great at growing and selling corn, so it’s a given that this is the first question my brain went to. The short answer is that while Panama does grow corn, it’s nothing compared to the yield and quality of Iowa’s maize. To obtain some reliable numbers, I used the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website. In the year 2017, Panama produced just over 5 billion bushels of corn and Iowa produced 2.6 billion bushels. At first glance this might seem as though Panama is clearly ahead of Iowa, however, this doesn’t take into account the yield of this crop. Panama’s yield averaged 32.5 bushels per acre, compared to Iowa’s whopping 202 bu/ac. To put this huge difference of yields into perspective, if Panama could grow corn as efficiently as Iowa then their yields would be 6.2 times higher, roughly making their total production reach 31.8 million bushels.

So now that we know where Panama stands on corn production, it’s a good idea to determine what’s accounting for this huge difference from their potential yields. This is the first question I asked upon meeting a Panamanian maize grower. He said his corn normally averages 130 bu/ac, which is significantly higher than the national average. He planted corn on land with higher slopes because maize is more suitable for it than some of his other cash crops. Management practices vary a lot from the U.S., the two biggest differences being non-GMO crops and minimal chemical application. Most farmers we encountered were certified organic, and make minimal to no post-emergence applications. One side effect of this is the lack of protection against pest damage. Even though this management practice yields much lower than alternatives, the farm is able to stay financially stable thanks to the organic premium received upon selling the crop. Another key factor affecting their corn yields is knowing that the soil has a large clay content. This could be beneficial during droughts but can be detrimental during tropical storms with high rainfall accumulation. I have come to the conclusion that if the soils were more of a loam and had more water drainage qualities, this would help boost the yield and production of maize in this country. It’s also important to realize that because of Panama’s tropical climate, this area is much more suitable for effectively producing other crops.

This Panamanian corn is hand planted at 29,000 plants/ac and yields 130 bu/ac.

This ear of corn grown in the southern peninsula of Panama only filled about 2/3 of the entire ear.

Agroforestry – what is it?

Agroforestry is an uncommon term in the midwest, especially in Iowa, but is more well-known in countries like Panama. Simply put: agroforesting is the incorporation of trees and shrub-like plants into a crop and/or animal production system, usually reaping benefits from economic and environmental aspects. The most impressionable agroforesting production I’ve visited was a cacao plantation grown and managed by a Panamanian indigenous tribe. On the side of a steep hill underneath the canopy of a forest, there were crops grown for consumption, fiber materials, and various other plants that fall under the realm of sustenance farming. An interesting fact about the cacao tree is that it actually grows the best in a partially to fully shaded area! This and the need for a tropical climate are the two main reasons why cacao cannot be commercially produced in Iowa. The Ngobe Bugle tribe’s lifestyle and family traditions revolve around the cacao tree. The chocolate plant not only provides the main source of income for the community, but it also holds together their culture and traditions. The trees normally produce three crops throughout the year, and the entire first crop is used for tribal activities and festivities. The remaining harvest is sold internationally through an organic cooperative. Since the Ngobe Bugle people are one with the land, they never apply pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers to their crop. There is a downside to this production method, which is the susceptibility and infestation of pests and diseases.

Cacao trees start the reproductive growth phase with many flowers emerging from its branches. These flowers can only be pollinated by tiny insects and flies because they are simply too small for normal bees to pollinate. Of these flowers, about 60% are killed by a virus. This virus could be minimized and prevented with modern technology and chemicals, however, this would conflict with and disrupt the Ngobe Bugle’s lifestyle. Of the remaining 40% of flowers that are pollinated and start producing a pod, only 20% successfully make it to harvest. The rest are lost to crickets, fungi, worms, and severe weather events. This means that the cacao trees are only yielding at 20% of their potential. 

While I’m looking at this from an agronomist’s perspective and classifying it as a major problem, the indigenous tribe sees no issues with their production system. They make just enough money to break even with the organic premium they receive when selling with the cooperative. At first, this ideology was difficult for me to comprehend. In all areas of agriculture production in the U.S., the producers and growers are striving to improve in the upcoming year’s production and quality. If yield remains stagnant or decreases, that’s typically reason for producers to reevaluate some of their management choices. If there’s ever a new tactic for improvement or an increase in yield, there’s a high likelihood the producer is willing to try it. This idea of becoming more efficient and productive is not present in the Ngobe Bugle people, since they’re sustenance farmers. They only grow what they need, and have no reason to produce excess. This is just another difference and aspect of the global ag industry that many never have the chance to see.

It’s easy to be caught up with learning more about the ag industry in Iowa, and the midwest in general, but it’s important to take a step back and look at it with a wider scope. It’s quite interesting to see and be able to visualize how the sole state of Iowa is able to help produce, and compete in yields, on a global scale. One must also realize why Iowa..

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