Farming in the 21st Century

What winter means for farmers


Photo credit: Ott

Have you ever wondered what farmers do in the winter?  Even the most casual observer can see what farmers keep busy with in the warmer months of the year.  Crops need to be planted, tended and harvested.  Hogs, cattle, poultry and other livestock go to local and state fairs.  All of those outside projects that came up during the winter (and were put-off until warmer weather) are finally completed.

Although the work of farmers may not be easily seen in the winter, the work of a farm never stops.  Winter is a time of wrapping up loose ends from the previous season and preparing for the upcoming one.  And like all farmers in Indiana, Rob Richards of Indy Family Farms is keeping busy this winter.  I had the opportunity to correspond with Rob and talk with him about what operations look like at his farm during the cold moths.

Rob said that his farm’s typical winter operations include fixing the equipment used during the harvest, organizing and cleaning the shop, hauling stored grain to elevators, and prepping for taxes.  Like any business, farms have assets they need to maintain and business operations to perform.

Winter offers a challenge to farmers because of the unpredictable conditions.  “We haul a lot of grain in the winter, and weather conditions can play havoc with travel and some of the equipment we use,” he explained.

Indy Family Farms Photo obviously not taken this winter :)

Indy Family Farms
Photo obviously not taken this winter 🙂

Additionally, the folks at Indy Family Farms spend a good portion of their winter finishing the 2014 crop budget, selecting and ordering various input items (seed, fertilizers, chemicals, etc…) and completing the 2014 crop plan by field.   Farming isn’t a simple matter of waking-up on the first morning of spring, pulling out the tractor and planting the fields.  Careful scheduling is involved to make sure farmers have a plan for planting their fields at the proper time of the year with the right supplies.

Although winter means busy days finishing 2013 business and preparing for the 2014 planting season, Rob noted there are advantages to the change in seasons.   “Work hours are more regular and there is less need to work extra late hours, like during planting and harvest,” he said.  He added that the winter season comes with more flexibility for family activities, and offers the opportunity to visit the landowners they work with, and sit down with employees to get their input about farming operations.

What do farmers do in the winter? Plenty.  The activities completed post-harvest and pre-planting are the nuts and bolts of a successful operation.  Colin Powell once said: “There are no secrets to success.  It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”  For the farmer, this is what winter is all about: working hard to learn from the previous season and to prepare for the next one.

Categories: Farming in the 21st Century, From the Field to Your Fork, The Faces of Modern Agriculture | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Laura’s Links: Ensuring Your Ag-Tech Literacy

Twice monthly, Agriculture Technology and Innovation Program Manager Laura Buck will provide a series of links that touch upon emerging technologies and advances in agriculture. Topics will range from robotics to genetic engineering and everything in between. If it involves agriculture and technology, we want you to know about it (and sound smart when talking to your friends). For questions or comments, contact Laura Buck at

Spotlight on UAV’s (a.k.a. drones):  Last month, Amazon made a splash in publicly speculating about the future use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for package delivery. Although the private-sector adoption of UAVs seemed strange to some, they’re an accepted technology in the ag world. UAV’s hold immense potential in agriculture, and this potential is starting to be realized. Read and click on…

Drones, Drones on the Range 

Next Farm Tool: Drones

Underground Drone Economy Takes Flight

As mentioned in the above articles, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently limiting the commercial use of UAV’s, but this year, six “test bed sides” will be allowed to move forward with some commercial testing. Unfortunately, Indiana is not one of those six sites, so we will have to wait until 2015 when official FAA commercial use regulations are to be implemented.

FAA Selects Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research and Test Sites

And on a completely different note – what do Subway napkins, U-turns and seed technology have in common?  Click the link below to find out.

Corporate Espionage Strikes Iowa’s Agricultural Technology

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Farming: A job for all seasons

I found myself perusing Facebook while I was cooped up in my house last weekend (thanks to #PolarVortex), and this picture and accompanying caption popped up in my newsfeed from a college friend whose family operates a dairy farm in northern Indiana.


“It is hard to describe how challenging this day is on a #dairyfarm.”

Too often, I forget that the farmer’s work is never finished.  While I was in my sweats drinking tea and watching television, farmers like the Troxels continued to do their daily work of stewarding creation.  Agriculture can’t take a snow day.

Farming is a 24/7/365 job that requires a vision for the future and sacrifice.  I’m a fan of the writings of James Herriot, a British veterinarian who worked in the mid-20th century.  With a practice in an English town, Herriot worked closely with the local agricultural community.  I think this anecdote he shares sums up the farming work-ethic:  “A farmer once told me one of the greatest luxuries of his life was to wake up early only to go back to sleep again.”

Since I’ve been working in agriculture, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the work to which farmers and ag businesses devote themselves.  Not only are farmers concerned with being good stewards of the earth and caring for their animals, they also want to create an agricultural system that is sustainable for generations to come.  These people are often heavily involved in their communities; they work with parent-teacher associations, volunteer at their churches and serve on various boards.  Their work spans the breadth and depth of society, and touches the world.

Their work is also dependent on factors outside of their control.  Not enough rain at one time of the year and too much at another time can be the difference between a good crop and a bad one. And that’s just one example.  Talk to any farmer, and he/she will tell you of dozens of instances when farm operations were impacted by weather, disease, etc.

Farming.  It truly is a job for all seasons.  I’m thankful that farmers work year-round to put food on our tables and clothes on our backs while taking care of the earth.

Categories: Farming in the 21st Century, From the Field to Your Fork | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laura’s Links: Ensuring Your Ag-Tech Literacy

Twice monthly, Agriculture Advancement and Promotion Program Manager Laura Buck will provide a series of links that touch upon emerging technologies and innovations in agriculture. Topics will range from robotics to genetic engineering and everything in between. If it involves agriculture and technology, we want you to know about it (and sound smart when talking to your friends). For questions or comments, contact Laura Buck at

“Moving Beyond Agricultural Pesticides”

Australian scientists are exploring how fertilizers can be used to control agricultural pests. You read that correctly – fertilizers as a form of pesticide. Plants are most vulnerable to pests when they are “ill” – either too much or too little nutrients – so maintaining a correct balance of nutrients improves a crop’s resistance to pests.

English: Pea plant One of thousands growing here.

English: Pea plant One of thousands growing here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“New, Disease-Resistant Pea Lines Developed”

Help is on the way for pea growers. USDA scientists have developed peas tolerant to a particularly troublesome form of root rot. There is currently no fungicide available for peas that is capable of tackling this form of root rot, which can result in crop losses up to 100%. Researchers hope the tolerance trait will be introduced to commercial pea varieties soon.

“Air, Water, Energy and Food in a Nutshell: Space Exploration as a Driver for Sustainable Robotic Agriculture”

The following article explores the relationship between agriculture and space exploration. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a farmer in outer space, this read is for you. Perhaps someday in the not-too-distant future, Major Tom will be Farmer Jon.

“Science of the Times: NASA Sows Seeds of Science for Children”

Speaking of farmers in space, NASA has launched a new program to engage children in agriculture. Once again, you read that right – NASA engaging students in agriculture. Classrooms around the country will be encouraged to create “growth chambers,” which will be used as controls for the experimental growth chambers NASA will be sending to the moon in 2015. Basil and turnip seeds will be used in the experiment, which should tell us a lot about the potential of lunar greenhouses.

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Introducing… Laura’s Links: Ensuring Your Ag-Tech Literacy

Twice monthly, Agriculture Advancement and Promotion Program Manager Laura Buck will provide a series of links that touch upon emerging technologies and innovations in agriculture. Topics will range from robotics to genetic engineering and everything in between. If it involves agriculture and technology, we want you to know about it (and sound smart when talking to your friends). For questions or comments, contact Laura Buck at


Canola field in Temora, New South Wales

Canola field in Temora, New South Wales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Could Self-Fertilizing Canola Be Coming Soon?”

English scientists have already developed self-fertilizing sugar cane, and canola may be the next addition. If plants could sufficiently fertilize themselves through atmospheric nitrogen, the need for land-applied nitrogen-based fertilizers would be reduced. In turn, the environmental burden of nutrient overloading could be lessened.

“Transformational Robotics and Its Application to Agriculture”

This article discusses the vast potential of agricultural robotics and some challenges this emerging technology will face.

“New Grass Developed to Curb Greenhouse Gas Emission”

International scientists have developed a tropical grass that may reduce agricultural emissions of both methane and nitrous oxide. For example, cattle that eat the grass are reported to produce less methane while also showing improved nutrition.

“USDA Grant Aims to Convert Beetle-Killed Trees into Biofuel”

Colorado is hoping to create opportunity out of a common insect problem. Bark beetles can kill off millions of acres of trees, and the dead trees that remain increase the risk of devastating forest fires. With the support of a USDA grant, the state will be researching the conversion of trees killed by bark beetles to a high-octane biofuel.

“Genetics Might Lead to Better Apples, Other Types of Food”

Canadian Okanagan Specialty Fruits is hoping their Arctic Apple will be approved for human consumption in the U.S. within the next two years. The Arctic Apple has been engineered to not turn brown when cut or bitten.  Researchers hope this trait will reduce food waste and increase the use of fresh apples.

AgriRover Brings Mars Technology to the Farm”

The AgriRover is a tool of precision agriculture, based off the Mars Rover. The AgriRover can easily maneuver in the muddiest conditions and provide farmers with data about animal waste and weeds in the pasture (called paddock in this New Zealand article).

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The People of Agriculture (Thanksgiving Series Pt. III)

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts.”  To commemorate Thanksgiving, “The (agri)Cultured Foodie” will use the next week and a half to look at the “ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts” that put food on your table.

Farmers. Repairmen.  Crop scientists.  Veterinarians.  Communications specialists.  Engineers.  These are the people that make agriculture possible.  These are the people that help get food from the field to the kitchen.  These are the people we should be thankful tomorrow as we sit down and enjoy a meal with our families.

But who are these men and women that produce our food?

They’re the Beck Family from Indiana who raise crops and own the largest family-owned seed company in the United States.

They’re the Gyrgleski Family from Wisconsin who grow cranberries for Ocean Spray.

They’re the Nilsen Family from California whose turkey operation uses “natural resources to create sustainable energy and eliminate waste.”

I’m thankful for the men and women who have devoted their lives to cultivating and stewarding the earth, and providing food for my family and yours.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Categories: Farming in the 21st Century, The Faces of Modern Agriculture | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tell us what you know about community {A Letter}


Indianapolis Star Columnist Erika Smith recently wrote about the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood of Indy.  She told the story of Justin Moore, a resident of the area whose grandfather was the agricultural director for Flanner House in the mid-20th century.  Inspired by his grandfather, Moore and his family are trying to educate their inner-city neighborhood about self-sufficiency.

Smith described their mission this way:

“We’re talking about teaching people how to grow their own food, how to can it, how to cook it. How to sew so that people can make and repair their own clothing. How to renovate their own homes, repair their own appliances and build their own raingardens. And most of all, how to reconnect with their neighbors and rebuild the social cohesion that has been lost over time.”

The Moores want to create community.  And they realize that two of community’s building blocks are ingenuity and productivity.

"Meal Time" by Brunette

“Meal Time” by Brunette

“We have just become consumers,” Joyce, Moore’s mom, says in the article.  “We forgot how to do for ourselves.  And it’s important people know that.”

Do you hear what the Moores are say, my friends in ag?  They recognize their lifestyle is one of consumption, and they want to engage in the processes involved with production.

I know you are acutely aware of the gap between producers and consumers.  You encounter it every day when you turn on the news, visit social media sites and talk to those outside your rural communities.  I know you often hear hurtful and false things about your practices, farms and way of life. 

If you read my bio, you know I’m not a farmer.  I didn’t know the difference between a Holstein and Jersey cow until I got to college.  But I know enough about agriculture to see an opportunity for you.

You hold important knowledge about what makes communities.  You understand the need to invest yourself in a single place for the long-haul, make wise use of your resources and act with integrity in everything.  I’m not the only one who recognizes this.  Smith described it this way:

To many older people, and perhaps those who grew up or still live in Central Indiana’s rural communities, all of this may sound like a no-brainer. Of course, you have gardens. Of course, you can food for the winter. Of course, you learn how to repair a leak in your roof. Of course, you depend on your neighbors for help.

I’d add an important item to Smith’s list.  You know that community doesn’t happen— it’s made.  It’s made by offering your garden’s bounty to those nearby.  It’s made by sharing a tractor with your neighbor, and helping him repair his truck.  It’s made by inviting people into your home for a meal.  It’s made by serving at your church, volunteering with PTA, and showing up at

"Raking Hay" by Seest

“Raking Hay” by Seest

the town meetings.

You also know that anything worth making takes hard work.  I remember sitting in an ag econ class at Purdue and being shocked hearing the stories of my fellow classmates putting in 80, 90, and 100 hour weeks during planting and harvest.  Your work ethic is the quiet force behind your communities.

So I have a question for you.  Will you engage in this conversation about what makes community?  I think we’re ready to learn from you.  You know consumers are concerned about some of you practices, and it might take people time to trust you.  So be patient as people quiet the buzz of the media and learn to listen to you, not just listen to what’s said about you.

And I think there’s an opportunity for you to learn too.  The Moores are making themselves vulnerable as they figure out how to make the place where they live better.  That vulnerability in seeking out solutions to problems sets a model for anyone to follow.  I know that you bear the burden of producing a lot of food to feed a lot of people; I don’t envy you.  But I challenge you not to bear the burden alone.  Make yourself open to learning new ideas and having conversations with unconventional allies. 

I believe the future of agriculture is bright in the United States because of the men and women like you.  Share the wisdom you have with burgeoning leaders, and be ready to listen to their good ideas too.

Thanks for reading,


Categories: Agriculture in Indiana, Farming in the 21st Century | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

3 take-aways from our radio appearance

Black and white photograph of a Neumann U87 mi...

Black and white photograph of a Neumann U87 microphone | Wikipedia Commons

Last Tuesday, my colleague Jordan Seger appeared on WFYI’s “No Limits” radio show.  Jordan is the director of ISDA’s soil conservation division.  The topic of the show was the future of agriculture, and Jordan was joined by Kim Ferraro of Hoosier Environmental Council and Laura Henderson of Growing Places Indy.  John Krull of Franklin College moderated the conversation.

I had the pleasure of listening to the show live in a WFYI studio with the show’s producer and engineers.  It was also great to meet Laura and Kim and visit with them briefly before and after the show.

Throughout the show, a variety of topics surfaced, from legislation to farmers’ markets to community development.  Here were my key take-aways from the show.

Like Laura Henderson said, the future of agriculture needs to be polyfaced.  Agriculture is a multifaceted field with many players, issues and concerns.  There is not a “right” farming method, way of approaching a problem, or solution to the issues we see surfacing.  We need CAFOs and the farmers’ markets.  In September, I interviewed Kip Tom on my blog and he put it this way: “I and many in agriculture embrace all forms of food production, whether organic, natural, local or commercial modern agriculture.  We need them all for today and tomorrow.”

Radio is a place to gain an introduction to complex topics.  There were several “hot topics” brought up on the show, including the “Ag Gag” and “Right to Farm.”  These are subjects that were introduced on the radio, but couldn’t be fully explored.  Before you make a decision on either of these topics, talk to a farmer, read some literature from both sides, and call your senators and representatives to see where they stand.

ISDA wants to help agribusinesses and farms of all shapes and sizes as we explore the future of agriculture.  Our division of soil conservation works with farmers throughout Indiana to implement stewardship programs.  In the radio program, Laura Henderson mentioned our economic development team’s efforts to assess the viability of “food hubs” (or virtual farmers’ markets)The goal of our grain warehouse licensing branch is to foster a sound grain marketing infrastructure so that Indiana can continue to be a standard in grain production.  ISDA recognizes that Indiana is a global leader in agriculture, and we want to make sure that continues into the future.

Have you had an opportunity to listen to the radio show?  If so, what questions did you have?

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Facts & Figures of Indiana Ag

October is National Farm To School Month.  Check back every Monday of the month for a post about how to incorporate agricultural themes into the classroom.

Agriculture is an important aspect of Indiana’s cultural and economic identity.  As we talk to students about farming and agribusiness, we need to make sure we’re not merely talking about the science of the industry, but the social contribution of agriculture to our communities and state.

Below is a fact sheet about the agriculture in Indiana.  As you read through the handout, remember that each fact and number represents families, farms and agribusiness throughout Indiana.

Indiana Agriculture

Fact Sheet by Indiana State Department of Agriculture

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Some easy experiments for the classroom or home

October is National Farm-To-School Month.  Check back every Monday of the month for a post about how to incorporate agricultural themes into the classroom.

Sometimes, modern agriculture becomes an impersonal force in the food system.  We don’t understand how it works, the science behind it, and what it means for our world and our lives.


Agriculture (Photo credit: thegreenpages)

Here are two links that illustrate some of the scientific principles behind the agriculture around us.

In this YouTube video, you can learn how to extract a mass of DNA from strawberries using common household items.  This is an experiment I did in freshman botany at Purdue, and it helped me visualize the various components of a living plant.

This experiment teaches about the basics of fertilizers.  Fertilizers are mainly composed of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and help farmers compensate for the deficiencies of the soil where they’re planting.  Through this experiment, students can learn how fertilizers are tools to help with plant growth.

Happy experimenting!

Categories: Farming in the 21st Century, General, Informational | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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