An interesting theory about horses

I got a press release today about a North Dakota State University assistant professor studying the therapeutic effects of horses. Specifically, she is looking into the effects on youth with troubled backgrounds.

This is intriguing to me. I don’t have a troubled background and my family never raised horses. We had some family friends who did and I vaguely remember being able to ride their horses on just a few occasions as a kid, under the diligent supervision of my parents and the owners.

The only documented evidence of this is a picture of me — probably around 6 years old —sporting my signature wild, curly hair and an ear-to-ear grin as I hold the reins, sitting atop a beautiful, shiny brown horse.

I had gotten a special day with Mom and Dad and their friend’s horse. Why? My big sister had been invited to a sleepover. And I had not.

In the NDSU professor’s study, young people at Home on the Range child care facility get to ride and groom the horses, and also participate in regular, equine assisted psychotherapy sessions with an equine specialist and a mental health expert.

Preliminary findings indicate problematic behaviors of those children participating in the equine program normalized in all areas. The study isn’t complete yet and the professor has much more to do in continuing her research, but the clinical director at Home on the Range calls her findings “groundbreaking.”

I would in no way compare my one day of sleepover-exclusion blues to kids with troubled backgrounds. Obviously, it pales in comparison.

I don’t know what those kids feel and can’t begin to predict what sadness or loss causes extreme behavioral problems.

But I know one 6-year-old kid whose giant, toothless grin was wholly attributable to that shiny brown horse.

A controversial opinion piece

In the March 10 issue of Agweek, I included an opinion piece that attacks ethanol and its production mandate in the Renewable Fuels Standard. “Ethanol mandate hurts environment” (www.agweek.com/event/article/id/22868/) was written by an executive of a group known for its loud opposition of ethanol.

I got a few responses from readers on it: one angry it was printed at all and requesting information be deleted from it; one who just wanted to discuss his opinion and disappointment that the letter writer included only her side of the issue; and a few who submitted rebuttal pieces, which is always appreciated and welcome.

Agweek has readers who are for ethanol and readers who are against it. Agweek has readers who are for pesticide use on crops and readers who are against it for a multitude of reasons, including contamination of organic crops or preserving honeybee colonies. We straddle the line between passionate sides on several hot button issues.

So Agweek printed an opinion piece that would please some of its readers and anger others. We have published countless pieces in support of ethanol and the RFS, many of which tout their side of the story. And rightfully so — it’s an opinion piece, the perfect opportunity to do it.

It’s difficult to read the passionate opinion of someone on the other side of an issue, when your own opinion is just as passionate. But doesn’t reading the other side’s opinion help shape and perhaps reinforce your own? Doesn’t it help you think more critically about your opinion and doesn’t it help you see what their points are and develop your arguments against those points? I would argue that it does. It’s healthy to listen to people who feel differently about something than you do.

So if this article angered you, write to me about it. Submit your own opinion piece: lgibson@agweek.com.

A bit of pride

If you watch my weekly Agweek promo video, you might have noticed that I’ve been rambling longer than usual. That’s because Agweek has been so on top of our news lately that I can’t pack all the teasers into just one minute.

So perhaps I’ll just start talking faster.

While it might have prompted my regular viewers (both of them) to stop watching before the promo is over, I’m incredibly pleased with the coverage Agweek has been churning out for our readers.

We’ve packed the magazine with timely coverage of the farm bill passage, the privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board (thereby opening the market for farmers instead of forcing them to sell to the government agency), a propane shortage in the Upper Midwest, and rail issues that have put a historic pinch on agribusiness in our region. And those are just the cover stories.

Agweek strives to bring the best, most relevant coverage to our readers and we always do. But I am particularly proud of my team in the past few weeks. We’ve been busy and a bit frazzled at times, but we’re staying on top of it.

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to caffeine.

A waiting game

I see a lot of reports on the farm bill and speculation about when it will be finished. I read an article today that quoted U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., saying it could be done this week. Doubtful.

If it’s not food stamps, it’s dairy policy; if it’s not crop insurance, it’ll be issues with implementing the Packers and Stockyards Act. Something will cause a divide. Something always does.

Agweek’s Washington correspondent tells me — from right in the thick of the action — that we won’t have a farm bill until February.

So hang in there.

We’ve been playing this fruitless game for years now. Extension? New bill? What will we get? I’m tired of it, as are you, and I’ve heard too many politicians say it’s right around the corner; it’ll be done this week, month. So I’m done listening to them.

What do you think? How are you dealing with it in your business? Email me (lgibson@agweek.com) about what exactly has frustrated you personally with this utter failure in Congress to come up with legislation for the industry that keeps food on our tables.

I want to hear what you have to say and the rest of our readers do, too.

A cover story about bees

The cover story in the upcoming issue of Agweek features a man who owns apiaries in North Dakota and California, but also started a company to research colony collapse disorder.

CCD terrifies me.

Pollination is pretty crucial to life on Earth, so anything that mysteriously and devastatingly wipes out the creatures responsible for that function is a huge problem for all of us.

I’ve stepped up on my “I love bees” soapbox before, so I’ll spare you that speech.

David Moreland, the focus of our cover story, is working to find out what causes the problem and he’s looking at insecticides as one of the main culprits. Sounds logical. After all, bees are insects…

Moreland is a walnut and almond farmer in California and originally started beekeeping as a way to keep pollination costs down on his farm. That’s interesting to me, as well. The worlds of beekeeping and traditional farming collide sometimes, mainly because of chemicals used in farming that are thought to cause problems for bees. Moreland has his hand in both industries so cooperation between the two is clearly possible.

Check out the Jan. 6 issue to learn more about Moreland, his farms, his bees and his research. With North Dakota’s new pollinator protection plan, the news is “abuzz” with bees (Sorry).

A tropical vacation (loosely tied to ag)

I returned to North Dakota this week from a vacation in Jamaica. I have a newfound empathy for people who suffer from seasonal depression.

After almost an entire week of sunshine, hot temperatures, beaches and crashing ocean waves, Grand Forks punched me in the face with whipping winds, subzero temperatures and a sheet of ice on my car.

Upon stepping off the plane, my warm memories of multiple sunscreen applications on my above-canopy zip line outing in Montego Bay were replaced with a cold, hard fall back to reality. Ouch.

The fresh, warm, pool-side island breeze was wrenched from my lungs and replaced with a biting freeze that I was sure would take my lungs out of commission for life.

All whining aside, I am glad to be back.

Christmas doesn’t look the same in Jamaica. Goats grazing on the sides of the roads (there it is — ag-related reference) just doesn’t scream Christmas to me like snowbanks and snowmen do. Christmas lights don’t look as cheery or cozy on the side of a house surrounded by palm trees and fallen coconuts.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my entry for the office-wide Christmas stocking decorating contest is late.

A week to be thankful

Agweek participated in Pasta Month during October, providing our readers with a crossword puzzle to complete and mail to me. We picked 10 winners from the pool of 60 entries and sent out prize packages with a few different kinds of pasta noodles, a T-shirt, a reusable canvas bag and more.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive handwritten thank you notes from two of our winners this week. It made us all here at Agweek smile and made us feel a little closer to our readers.

It also reminded me of the power of thank you notes, which I can put into practice today. A family friend gave me free tickets to the University of North Dakota hockey games this weekend, as his family won’t be able to make it here to use their season tickets. A handwritten thank you note to them will be in the mail tomorrow.

Thank you for reading, Agweek faithfuls, and I hope you have plenty to be thankful for this holiday season. I know I do (shout-out to my mom, who is an incredible cook and delayed our family’s Thanksgiving dinner in my hometown until Saturday so I can be there for it).

A learning experience

I attended the morning sessions of the Great Plains Land Expo in Fargo, N.D., on Nov. 20 and learned some new things about big bad GMOs.

The word is scary and groups that oppose genetic modification of foods have been successful in drumming up panic across the U.S. The term conjures images of petri dishes containing artificially produced chemical compounds that will be injected into our food. But biotechnology can include the improvement and incorporation of native genes, too.

Simplot is working to roll out a new biotechnology-engineered potato brand called Innate. Kerwin Bradley, the company’s commercialization director, told his audience at the expo that the potato will include favorable genes already present in potatoes naturally. The technology in the new brand will keep the potatoes from browning (sounds like a preservative to me), as well as reduce a chemical compound called Acrylamide. Acrylamide is produced from the starch in potatoes when they are baked or fried. It’s in our French fries, potato chips, coffee, nuts and more. It’s a known carcinogen and California has legislation requiring all foods containing it to be labeled.

Bradley said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will most likely approve Innate soon and it will be available for sale next winter. Simplot also will improve upon the genetics in the coming years for phases two and three.

But besides his sales pitch, Bradley shared some information that took me by surprise. A 2012 survey by the International Food Information Council found that only 2 percent of Americans said biotechnology is their main concern when it comes to their food. Disease and contamination was No. 1 at 29 percent.

I find that hard to believe. With all the fuss raised over GMOs, I would have thought that percentage would be much, much higher. But Bradley didn’t share the methodology of the survey, so I don’t know who was surveyed or where they lived, etc.

And 70 percent of the food in our supermarkets is GMO, outside of the produce shelves. That seems believable, since 100 percent of the country’s canola is genetically modified, 93 percent of corn and 98 percent of soybeans.

Bradley says wheat is next in line for genetic modification and commercialization. But I wonder how that will work, after the debacle with the rogue GMO wheat found in Oregon that temporarily halted U.S. wheat exports to some Asian countries that outlaw GMO foods. I doubt we will forget about that any time soon.

So Simplot will work on its Innate potatoes and expects about 10 percent adoption by the fourth year they are available commerically. Bradley expects 50 percent adoption by 2020.

I am not completely anti-biotechnology, but I do think we need to be careful. There’s a reason much of the foods we can buy from our grocery stores in the U.S. are banned in many European and Asian countries. But then again, the one scientist who loudly led the global anti-GMO parade for years has backed off, acknowledging he took it too far and that genetically modified food is absolutely essential if we want to feed our ballooning population in the coming years.

I’m torn. We have elevated bacteria concerns, cancer seems to be getting more stubborn and taking over, and I heard recently that human bodies are taking longer to decompose than they used to because of the enormous amount of preservatives we consume in our food.

Yikes.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if enough research has been done to determine long-term effects of consuming GMO foods, but we have to figure something out to feed ourselves.

We can follow both sides of the debate, but that doesn’t always give us a firm grasp on either side, or the truth that lies somewhere in the middle.

But I hate chemistry. So you won’t find me putting on a lab coat and goggles to do the dirty work. Like most of you, I just want someone trustworthy to tell me what the right answer is. The real answer, not tainted by bias or greed, and backed up with sound, thorough research and investigation.

It’s hard to tell who, if anyone, has that answer anymore.

A brave little toe

I almost lost a toe once.

Allow me to explain.

My family didn’t farm when I was a kid, but we lived on an old rented farmstead littered with rundown equipment. The country life posed a certain element of danger — like the time I almost broke my elbow when I wedged myself between two hay bales while trying to jump from one to the other and back as quickly as I could; or the time I sliced my arm open on a rusty nail in an old chicken coop.

But the accidental near-amputation of my toe sticks out in my memory the most…

Among the rusty equipment that dotted our yard was an old wood splitter. The manual kind with an ax head on a huge metal wheel. The wood is placed on a platform so the operator can forcefully spin the wheel, bringing the ax head around quickly to split the wood in two (imagine something like The Price is Right wheel, but with just a bit more potential for injury).

My sister and our friends were playing with it one day when I was about 8 years old. (Don’t judge my parents. They didn’t know about most of the stupid things we did because we were good at lying.)

Like most 8-year-olds, I was brilliant… As I was standing on that platform spinning the wheel, impressed with my strength and focusing on how I was able to spin it so much faster than my sister could (thus making me better than her, of course), the ax head came crashing down on my right foot, which I had unknowingly placed directly in its path.

I’d like to say I handled this unfortunate incident bravely and calmly. But I can’t, because I didn’t. I ran screaming for my mommy.

It was a winter day and it might have been my cheap, secondhand (or third or fourth) snow boots that saved the day — and my toe. The ax had cut a slit through the boot and I could only imagine the horror that awaited me inside it.

My mother was calm when I came limping into the house trying to tell her what happened. Somehow, she got the gist of it through my panicked gibberish and sat me down to assess the damage. I didn’t know at the time, but she was terrified she’d take that hard rubber boot off my foot to reveal a bloody stump.

It revealed only a swollen, angry foot with a rapidly forming bruise between my second and third toes. I had gotten off light. I still had 10 toes.

The ax was dull from sitting in the woods for so many decades unused, through multiple winters.

So my toe would live to see another day — my brave little toe.

It’s funny now. It wasn’t then.

The next day, we were back outside playing, jumping from the hayloft into the snowbank below.

And the answer to your question is yes — I jumped better than my sister did.

A new project

Starting next week, I’ll be the face of Agweek’s weekly promotional video. And the voice.

I’ll get to practice my skills as a TV anchorwoman for about one minute each week, delivering a summary of the coverage my team has compiled for the following Monday’s issue. I’ve never done this before and I’m hoping I can bribe my unruly curls into giving me at least one good hair day per week for the camera. No promises.

But I’m excited.

We work hard each week to deliver pertinent, timely and interesting news to our readers, and to make it look good all laid out on the pages. I’m happy I get the chance to promote that each week and let you all know what we have in store for you.

It will be posted each week at www.agweek.com. So check it out.

The first few attempts might be good for a laugh.