The 2019 Wheat Quality Council’s spring wheat tour: Great learning experience and my first professional gig

It’s shortly before 7 am, and we arrived at the first stop of the day. The sun is peeking through the clouds, it’s 63 degrees outside and the smell of morning dew is in the air. The only sounds you hear are the closing of the doors to the van and the birds far off into the distance. The four of us walk through the field, through the rows to different parts with yardsticks and a pen in hand.

“What did you get for row width?” asks Michelle.

“I got 8 inches,” I answer back, and the others agree.

Our first stop is a wheat field just outside the town of Starkweather, North Dakota. A small town with an estimated population of 117 in Ramsey County in the north-central portion of the state. It’s the third and last day of the 2019 Wheat Quality Council spring and durum wheat tour in North Dakota. We agreed to meet at 6:15 in front of the hotel and depart on our assigned route to scout fields and measure the estimated yield and condition of the wheat crop.  Today our van would make 10 stops. We are one of 13 other cars each assigned a color route departing from Devils Lake and ending in Fargo, North Dakota for the final tally and wrap-up.

The previous two days would take me from Fargo south through parts of Minnesota, then west on highway 11 through towns such as Lidgerwood, Oakes, lunch in Ellendale and overnight in Mandan. A total of 315 miles and stopping in 11 wheat fields taking measurements. The second day was north on Highway 83 to Minot and east on highway 2 through Rugby, the geographic center of North America and ending in Devils Lake, for 12 stops and 228 miles.67476065_10157418649124851_7223735164776480768_o

“We were on the purple route with 12 stops. Our average yield was 34 bushels per acre with a high of 43.5 and a low of 23.8,” states Michelle to the crowd gathered in the meeting room of the motel.

Each evening all the cars would give their recap of what they found, exciting stops on their routes and the overall yield for their route. Some groups reported driving along the Enchanted Highway, a stretch of highway in western North Dakota that has several large metal sculptures. Others stopped at decommissioned nuclear warhead silos or some that were not with soldiers in Humvees and 50-caliber guns on the backs. Everybody mentioned the good and not so good places that they ate lunch.

How we measure the fields

Prior to leaving for the first day, there was an orientation where we were given a yardstick, a booklet with information on the procedure for taking samples and a formula devised by NDSU Extension. Each individual usually walks about 40 to 50 yards into the field. Depending on your preference, you measure the width of the planted rows first or the number of heads in three feet of row. I started with a row width by placing the yardstick halfway down the stalks and seeing the distance between the middle of each stalk. Rows are usually planted in 7, 8 or 10 inches apart. On your yardstick, you note the width. Then I place the yardstick on the ground in the row and count the number of wheat heads in that 3-foot section and again note that on the yardstick. From there, you select 4 random heads and count the spikelets from different parts of the plant not counting the very bottom or top one. If there is a disease, you note that along with the development of the kernels.

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Wheat head with individual sprinklets

“What did you get, Charles?” someone will ask.

“I got 85 and 10,” would be something I answered back with 85 being the number of heads and 10 the number of spikelets.

The assigned person takes an average of everybody and does the calculation based on these three factors. At the end of the day, we will take a calculated average based on the number of stops and note the high and low yields for the day.

To give context, a bushel of wheat yield weighs 60 pounds. One 60-pound bushel of wheat produces about 42 pounds of white flour (more for whole wheat since it uses the kernel), or 60 to 73 loaves of bread depending on size, or 42 pounds of pasta. The calculated yield for the entire tour was 43.1 bushels per acre. North Dakota ranks number one for production of spring and durum wheat and harvested 6.31 million bushels of wheat (about 49 bushels per acre). This year was lower due to wet weather and planting conditions, along with many fields not being planted or growing other crops.

In early Spring there is also a hard winter wheat tour in Kansas, as well as tours by various organizations for other crops. This year’s tour had 61 people participate from government organizations, flour mills and others in the industry, international organizations, and three journalists, like me, tweeting the results.

There is something so tranquil about standing in a wheat field with the gentle breeze blowing and watching the waves of grain move in the wind that made this worth it. It was an exhausting three days of getting to bed late to file a story and getting up early to have a couple of cups of coffee to function. I ate some great food and stayed at some so-so motels. However, it was a great learning experience writing the story, seeing firsthand how it is done, and talking with farmers over supper. I met some great people, and I hope to write about them in the future.

 

Regenerative Agriculture: What is it and how does it differ from sustainable agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a concept that is not new to agriculture, and aspects have been practiced by farmers and ranchers for generations. However, the word has been mentioned by those in the legislature and the media lately as a solution to the climate crisis. Sustainable is a word frequently used in agriculture, and yet, has no clear definition. What is the difference between the two and are we using the wrong term? Is there more that the agriculture community could do to be sustainable or regenerative?

The concept of regenerative agriculture was first mentioned by Bob Rodale, chief and executive officer of Rodale Press prior to his death in 1990. In an interview in 1989, Rodale stated that he preferred the word “regenerative” agriculture as he was not satisfied with sustainability saying, “I don’t think people would prefer to live in a sustained environment,” but rather, “something that is expanding and growing better.” Rodale noted that it is, “more fruitful in an inventive, scientific concept to point to ways of opportunities.”

Those opportunities are several practices designed to what Terra Genesis International state, “farming principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services.” They advocate implementation through four basic principles consisting of designing and making holistic decisions, ensure reciprocal relationships with all stakeholders, growing and evolving to actualize their potential and improve whole agroecosystems through several farming practices. These principles can be achieved through methods such as planting cover crops, no-till farming, managed grazing with animal integration, composting, pasture cropping, silvopasture and agroforestry.

These are not new practices and have been practiced in some capacity over the decades. Regardless if you are an organic or conventional farmer, they share the basics of minimize tillage, keep the ground covered in some plant material, rotate crops and incorporate animals into the fields and forests. However, there are differing views of what the exact definition of regenerative agriculture is as illustrated by the chart below:

BLOG Regenerative chart

source: http://csanr.wsu.edu/regen-ag-solid-principles-extraordinary-claims/ 

Whether you adopt all or some of these practices, each will contribute to carbon sequestration. The amount depends on which article and there is no clear consensus of how much exactly it will sequester. Terra Genesis International states that the amount of carbon sequestered can be anywhere from 1 to 34 metric tons per year or the equivalent of a minimum of 413 gallons of gasoline consumed, or 0.639 homes’ electrical use in one year or 467,545 cellphones charged. Tim LaSalle of the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State University at Chico realizes that many will be skeptical without the strong evidence to back up the evidence of regenerative agriculture acknowledging, “we just need the research and replication.”

However, LaSalle is confident that this system will work stating, “I know it’s going to solve the climate crisis, I know it’s going to solve the hunger crisis, and I know it’s going to solve the water and topsoil crisis,” LaSalle said speaking to Grist. “That’s something organic agriculture can’t do, and conventional can’t do. But regenerative agriculture can.”

Given the concepts of regenerative agriculture, how does it differ from sustainable agriculture? The definition and practices of sustainable agriculture are broad, but an encompassing definition can be found from the University of California at Davis’ Agricultural Sustainability Institute. The institute states that “practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system—growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers—can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.” This definition is envisioned in the broadest sense in that it meets the needs of the present while trying to assist future generations to meet their needs by incorporating the individual farm and communities affected by the individual farm both locally and globally. Local farms can be sustainable by incorporating the use of cover crops, reducing tillage, management of the soil and maximum diversification through the incorporation of crops and livestock. For farmers to be sustainable, it needs to diversify through the use of multiple crops to prevent mono-cropping and the possibility of losing the crop due to situations beyond their control or a slump in commodity prices. Sustainable practices are those that can be used by organic or conventional farmers as it stresses the use of products that are the least toxic and energy intensive, yet maintain productivity and profitability for the farmer. The goal is to develop biological systems that do not need high levels of material inputs.

The problem, as I see it, is that it requires not only the farmer but all aspects in the supply chain including consumers, food processors, distributors, waste recovers and others. This is where the cycle is broken as food waste is a problem in food production and with a diversion from consumer waste. According to the EPA, food waste in landfills accounts for approximately 16 percent of methane emissions. We, as consumers, like our fruits and vegetables to be blemish free and be available year-round regardless of the growing season. Food is transported over great distances to meet our demands.

Perhaps Bob Rodale was correct, expressing that to be sustainable is maintaining homeostasis by maintaining at a certain rate or level without ever improving. Until then, everybody in the chain needs to practice the principles of sustainability to make it viable. Whether it is regenerative or sustainable, there needs to be a fundamental change to incorporate new technology with some of the practices generations have used in the past. It starts with the field and works its way to the dinner table.

 

 

Terroir, Landrace and Identity Preserved Could they be a value-added marketing tool for farmers?

Several weeks ago, I was conducting an interview with Peter Schott of Genesis Feed Technologies regarding their app for selling soybeans to animal feed producers in Asia. During our conversation, Schott mentioned that soybeans grown in North Dakota have a higher crude protein that buyers wanted. Schott’s desire was to have farmers recognized for this quality and receive a premium for their product. During our conversation, the concept of terroir occurred to me.

Terroir, aside for being the buzz-word for wines, is the concept of a sense of place. It is the unique environmental qualities of the soil, weather, variety selection and farming practices that make a product distinct from others. Not only is this concept applied to wine, but it has been applied to cheese, coffee, chocolate, tea, hops and wheat. Commodity Grains, a company in Oakland, California is applying the concept of terroir to the pasta it produces but under the label of “Identity Preserved” (which I will describe below). The company lists the pasta variety, where it is grown and the specific farm. It may sound like a gimmick, but according to Dr. Stephen Jones at the Washington State University Bread Lab, wheat varieties and growing conditions do contribute unique flavors. When conducting tastings with bakers, chefs and random people, they notice differences in milled 100 percent whole wheat describing such flavors as “nutty”, “earthy” and “chewy.” The concept of terroir in pasta is also being applied to wheat grown in the Abruzzo region in Italy with a pasta line called “Primo Grano” or first grain.

Perhaps terroir is just a clever marketing tool as some believe. There are instances when a seed or plant originated in one area but was perfected in another area of the world. Take the case of the Zinfandel grape. We never knew its origins until recent DNA testing revealed that it is most closely related to a grape variety from Croatia called, Crljenak Kastelanski, before that we thought it was the Primitivo variety from Italy. The only knowledge we had was that a Boston nursery advertised a grape variety named Zinfandel in 1830 and it made its way west to California during the Gold Rush. Today some of the best Zinfandels are produced from Sonoma County and the Lodi area of the Central Valley. In the case of wheat, a variety called Red Fife originated in the Anatolian region of what is now Turkey and was planted by Dave Fife in 1842 on his farm in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. It is renowned for being a fine milling and baking wheat. Most bread wheat grown in Canada owe part of their genetic lineage to Red Fife.

Although they originated in another region and perfected in another, there is some genetic variability that allows it to grow and adapt under a variety of growing conditions. More specifically, it is called a landrace or what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) describes as “a plant with historical origin, distinct identity and lacks formal crop improvement, as well as being genetically diverse, locally adapted and associated with traditional farming systems” (more in the case of Red Fife, but I would argue that Zinfandel could apply). The term landrace when broken down, is “land” or the ground the crop is grown on, and “race” which in biology means “distinct population within the same species.” The FAO further defines landraces into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary landraces are crops that developed through what is termed as in situ grower selection and not subjected to formal plant breeding. They can be either autochthonous or grown in an original location developing its unique characteristics through grower selection; or allochthonous, an introduced crop locally adapted and has developed its unique characteristics through grower selection in another region (such as the case with Red Fife). A Secondary landrace is a crop that has been developed in formal plant breeding but is maintained through repeated in situ grower selection and seed saving. Due to their adaptation, farmers will use these selections with other improved varieties due to factors such as lower cost, hardiness to local conditions, disease resistance, and culinary preferences. Although this defines landraces in a broad context, what if this concept could be applied to other crops? While there are landrace crops still grown around the world, farmers are planting cultivars for such factors as high yield, drought and disease resistance, and other factors for commercial production.

There is another program that perhaps could be a step-up from landrace and could be used as a marketing tool to not only preserve crops with their own unique characteristics but give farmers the recognition for their product. It is a USDA designation called Identity Preserved. It is described as, “a voluntary service that provides participating companies with independent, third-party verification of the identification, segregation, and traceability of their product’s unique, value-added characteristic.” The Northern Food Grade Soybean Association is trying this program for its soybeans grown in North Dakota.  According to Ken Bertsch, N.D. State Seed Department Commissioner, it is a program that “preserves the genetic and/or physical identity of a product by providing traceable identification of a field crop from planting, production, storage, handling and delivery of the product.” The program has requirements such as having seed source verified, planting after other crops (specifically after GM crops), inspections for genetic and varietal purity and keeping those soybeans in a separate area of a handling facility. While it may be labor intensive for farmers with added extra paperwork or confuse consumers with another label on the package, it is one more thing for farmers to be recognized for their products and meet consumer demand. This could work in conjunction with landrace seeds as consumers are growing aware of where their foods come from.

The difficult parts are these types of tools is consumer awareness, scalability and whether people are willing to pay a premium for these types of products. As far as price, consumers are willing to pay extra for organic foods or products with the “Non-GMO” label. As far as scalability and awareness, it is up to the agriculture industry if they want to implement programs such as these for the potential of being recognized for producing a unique or superior product.