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In A Digital World, Is Agriculture Still Relevant

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Traverse City, MI (Record-Eagle, September 12, 2014):  It's a digital world, or so they say. We're all plugged in — while being wireless. We've got hundreds of channels and thousands of "friends." We give our money to corporations managed by bankers whose hands we've never shaken. Our social value is measured in likes, clicks, and the size of our in-boxes. We are running ever faster away from the things that mandate human interaction and responsibility. Woefully, we refer to this as progress.

Yet despite technology's advancements, the last time I checked food isn't grown by the judicious application of ones and zeros. Websites don't plant seeds, and microchips don't worry about organic certification audits. I've never known a software company to bring a handful of loam to its nose and smile at its richness, or let slip a tear of joy at the birth of a calf. My son's Xbox, while engaging, will certainly never offer assistance to an ailing neighbor or let a dozen kids ride in a hay wagon just to hear them laugh.

With technology taking over our lives, is agriculture still relevant in a world racing to leave old ways behind? Solidly I say the answer is yes, and that its value is immeasurable.

Agriculture offers us humanity — differentiating us from every other species on Earth. Humanity cannot be a component of technology. It is in fact its antithesis. So, I offer the notion that while we should all be thankful to agriculture for its economic gifts, sustenance, and pastoral beauty, we should go one step further. We should be grateful every day to agriculture for our humanity.

The classical strengths attributed to humanity are love, kindness, and social intelligence. In today's society these attributes are easily orphaned for the advancement of political clout or net worth. And while it might be technological sacrilege to suggest it, there is no app for that! You won't find humanity with a GPS unit. It isn't kept on the shelf of a discount store, or at the bottom of a $2.99 Happy Meal.

Farm-to-store, Tags Used To Track Produce

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RFID tags used to track produce freshness from farm to store

(Florida)(Southwest Farm Press, September 8, 2014)  A University of Florida-led research team's development of a tracking system could change the way companies ship fresh fruits and vegetables, letting them know which produce is closest to expiration and providing consumers the freshest products available.

Jeffrey Brecht, director of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences' Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, studied strawberries beginning with their harvesting from fields in Florida and California to their delivery to stores in Illinois, Washington, Alabama and South Carolina.

The researchers placed two radio frequency identification (RFID) devices into each pallet of strawberries as they were picked. The devices allowed them to track the strawberries' temperature from the field, through pre-cooling and into trucks (which can hold 28 pallets), to distribution centers and then on to stores.

Their theory is that if you know the quality of the produce and the temperatures to which it has been exposed, you will know which produce to deliver first to stores.

They specifically researched the theory of "first in – first out," known as FIFO in the food distribution industry. And they found that "first expired-first out," or FEFO, was a better way to distribute delicate fruits and vegetables.

PUC Proposed Alternative Energy Rule

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PUC proposed alternative energy rule

(Camp Hill, PA)(Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, September 8, 2014)  Pennsylvania Farm Bureau (PFB) has submitted written comments to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) in response to a proposal to revise the regulatory standards for implementation of the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act of 2004. Standards adopted by the PUC will impact the eligibility of on-farm electrical generating systems hooked to public supply lines to qualify for "net metering" treatment that provides farmers with greater economic return on surplus electrical supply.

In its comments, PFB expressed concern that PUC's proposed standard to distinguish "customers" eligible for net metering from utilities and other "commercial generators" of electricity is unworkable for families using on-farm generators of electricity to manage their farm business operations.

"Farmers are not commercial electric companies. Their primary focus is making their farm business profitable, not earning a living through supplying electricity," said PFB President Carl T. Shaffer. "Typically, farmers use alternative energy production to manage the high volume of energy needed to run their farming operations. Use of methane digesters, solar panels and wind farms, often play a critical role in proper environmental management of farms and farmers' ability to meet environmental regulations. For many farmers, management of environmental impacts of agricultural production is the most important reason why the farmer installs and operates the alternative energy system."

PFB specifically wants the PUC to reconsider its proposal that would prohibit farmers from being eligible for net metering if the generation capacity of the on-farm system exceeds 110 percent of the farmer's actual use of electricity.

"Given the high costs and debt that farmers must incur to develop these systems, the 110 percent limitation will act as a disincentive for farm families using Tier I generation to achieve the level of environmental control or economic efficiency that they will need to viably sustain their farms in agricultural production," concluded Shaffer.

Interest in Agriculture Careers On The Rise

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East Lansing, MI (Michigan State University Extension, August 29, 2014);  Interest in local foods and where our food comes from generates increased interest in agriculture careers, especially if local food and nutrition topics are taught in schools.

People do not always think about agriculture when they think about career opportunities and jobs. The agriculture industry is much larger than just "farmers." It also includes building trades, natural resources trades, tourism, packaging engineering and manufacturers, food science specialists, inspectors, managers, marketers, engineers, chemists, biologists, mechanics, brokers, processors, wholesalers, retailers and so many more. Agriculture is one of the fastest-growing segments of Michigan's economy. According to a report from Michigan Agri-Business Association, the agriculture industry is diverse and high-tech.

After many years of decline in the number of farmers the increasing number of new farmers is encouraging. The resurgence of interest in local foods, including where our foods come from and knowledge about the farmer that grew it, has created more interest in learning about local foods in schools. Youth that are learning about local foods, agriculture and nutrition in schools make more informed personal choices about food and health, says the Agriculture Council of America. This message is repeated by those supporting the local food movement. Additionally, youth who learn more about agriculture in schools are more interested in agriculture-related career choices later.

According to the Michigan Land Use Institute "Not only is locally produced food delicious, Michigan's diverse food system offers a tremendous opportunity to create new jobs and spur economic growth. By investing in a local food economy, communities benefit from better tasting and healthier food, precious landscapes are maintained, and our local economy grows." Taking the time to become knowledgeable about agriculture in Michigan makes you an informed citizen; informed citizens are better able to help shape the policies that support the local agriculture industry in Michigan.

For more information about local foods, contact Beth Clawson, MSU Extension educator. To learn more about local foods, community food systems and food hubs contact Michigan State University Extension Community Food System educators who are working across Michigan to provide community food systems educational programming and assistance.


Boosting Farm Yields

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Seattle, WA (Grist, September 1, 2014):  Crystal-ball gazers looking for the future of food often start with this question: How the heck are humans going to grow enough food to feed our teaming masses without wrecking the planet?

There are two assumptions embedded in that question: first, that we're going to have trouble growing enough food; and second, that we must race to keep food production up to speed with population growth, rather than reining in population growth. In questioning those assumptions over the last two weeks, my focus has shifted. If we want to prevent famine and ecological collapse, we should be thinking primarily about poverty, not food.

However, looking for ways to deal with poverty takes us right back around to increasing food production. If we fail to deal with poverty and hunger, Joel Cohen told me, we are (counter-intuitively) consigning ourselves to explosive population growth. To make sure everyone gets a healthy portion of the world's pie, he said, we'll need a bigger pie (more food), fewer forks (level off population growth), and better manners (share more equitably). And while each of these approaches has its partisans, Cohen thinks we'll almost certainly need all three.

As I found previously, if you can help small farmers grow more food, it's a double whammy: It helps lift them out of poverty (better sharing) and gives us more food (bigger pie).

That means that we really do need to ask, how the heck we are going to feed ourselves? It's not the main issue (poverty), but it's an effective lever to work on that main issue. So we still need a contingent of farmers and scientists working on increasing yields. And that's a problem, because for years countries around the world have been pulling money out of agricultural research.

Ten Do's and Don'ts For Milking Parlors

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As tie stall dairy producers think about herd expansion they often consider converting their existing building into a milking center. In many cases this is a reasonable idea. However, 'low-cost' should not be interpreted as 'cheap.'

Harvesting milk is one of the most important jobs on a dairy farm, so the milking area should be a comfortable, low stress area for both cows and those milking them. Quality milk comes from a quality place of work. Careful planning and attention to details that enhance performance and encourage a proper, consistent milking routine is essential.

Dr. Doug Reinemann, Professor, Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, suggests the following ten do's and don'ts when planning a milking parlor—especially for 'retrofit' and 'low-cost' alternatives.

1.  Know How Much You Can Spend:

A good financial analysis of the farm operation is step one. An unprofitable business cannot afford to invest anything. Saving time does not improve profitability unless there is more profitable use of that time. 'Low-cost' is sometimes defined as a total annual cost of milking, including labor and facilities, that is less than $1.00/cwt. To be competitive build a 'reasonably' sized parlor that fits the budget and avoids putting an extra person in the milking area. Adding more operators never increases the number of cows milked proportionally to the added labor cost.

2.  Let the Installer Design the Milking System:

Designing the parlor and milking system to meet all the sanitary and safety regulations is a highly skilled task. Seek the advice of a competent milking equipment installer to work through the planning process with you.

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