Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Seeing Red

 The red pickup is taking us north for the last time.  No invoice in the console, no trailer full of Hurst Greenery plants bumping behind us. Just Blake and me lurching across the ruts on I-29, fighting the loosey-goosey front end of this 15 yr. old warhorse and looking for its replacement on the Woodhouse Dodge website.

If I sound regretful and more than a little sentimental, you'll just have to excuse me.  When we bought this candy apple red three quarter ton four wheel drive quad cab six speed back in 2001, it was Blake's pride and joy.  We took it for a test drive to lunch and pondered the cost of new and red over our Runzas and onion rings.  Red came out the winner, and the old '94 Dodge retired from plant deliveries to a pampered future as Ben's main ride in high school.
The red pickup got the full treatment: the ball for the fifth wheel, a set of running boards, and a heavy duty grill guard which came in handy earlier than anticipated when Ben's practice session with the gear shift somehow left the truck in neutral.  The first object in its path happened to be a 1000 gallon propane tank.  While this incident has become legend in our family,  it would surely have gone viral had it occurred during the age of iphones.  Instead, the next owner of the red pickup will never know that the concave bow to the grill guard is the result of something less humdrum than your average deer/truck collision………. and way more flammable.

Who can account for all those miles? Thousands of them accumulated between Westboro and Lincoln or Westboro and Omaha with a trailer full of flowers behind it.  While I don't remember when the tire blew the rear fender apart, I can tell you with confidence where it happened: west of Lincoln and east of North Platte.  A map of the blown tires Hurst Greenery trucks have experienced would show a concentration of disasters along I-80 somewhere west of the 97th parallel.  Historians say the frontier began on the other side of the 100th parallel: truck drivers know the Wild West starts just a little farther east.   Blake and I tested that hypothesis one long summer day, loading our trailer with hardy hibiscus and deliveries scheduled from Denison, Iowa to Kearney, Nebraska.  I rode shotgun lo those many miles with my shoes off and my feet up on the dash.   It was a grand adventure…... driving historic two lane highways like U.S. 20, U.S. 30, and U.S. 6....for the first six hours or so.  Then, we began to get nervous, counting the miles and the hours til closing time....and blew out a tire.
That was long ago and far away.  Before the monster hail storm that shattered the windshield and cratered the brittle dash.  Before Blake replaced one befogged headlight lens with three or four self tapping screws (Hurst Greenery was built with cordless DeWalt drills and stays together with 5/16" screws.) Before the right rear view mirror collided with....something.  But after I broke off the switch for the driver's side door light with my tennis shoe one harvest day while I was watching trucks dump with the door open. After the fan began to scream like a banshee. After several election cycles worth of losing bumper stickers.  Whilte trip by trip the steering wheel lost all but the most tenuous of connections with the front end of the vehicle. The final insult was the salesman asking if we were bringing our rumbling old red Dodge to market on a salvage title.....this travesty about the vehicle Blake published a paean to called "My Cherry Red".  
Now there's a big brown Longhorn in our driveway.  It has all the electronic gewgaws required to keep my husband hitched to the outside world of phone calls and emails and podcasts.  It has heated seats and vented seats and lord only knows how many cup holders.  The grandkids are already in love because what kids love are new things. Levi tells us he doesn't like cars, he likes trucks and has a truck in his garage; Kenzie moved his car seat to the Longhorn for the short drive to church Easter Sunday.  Gabe and Abbie joined him for the ride back to Spruce for Easter egg hunting.

Live it up, Longhorn. Now you're sitting pretty in the driveway.  But in a week or so you'll go to work.  And the coffee will spill and the bugs will splat and the dust will pile up on all that fancy trim. The odometer will whirl like a windmill and the interior will be redolent of cold fast food, not ArmorAll.

Welcome home.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

By the People

"Shall I wear my fake leather jacket? Or my fake leather denim jacket?"

"Wha-at?" Aaron and I are getting ready to attend a reception up on Capitol Hill, in the Hart Senate Office building, and I'm asking his opinion.  The notion of a 'fake leather denim jacket' tickles him  enough that we repeat it several times before I decide on the plain ol'fake leather jacket for this first evening out of our trip to Washington, D.C. After careful consideration, he decides to upgrade from his travel attire to a fresh polo shirt in deference not only to any dignitaries we might come upon but also the significance of being in our nation's capital.  Our walk up the Mall is evidence of his earnestness and sincerity:  we talk about General Meade, the Taft Carillon, and the construction on the Capitol dome, while he frames various interesting architectural elements in the viewfinder of his phone.  Traversing the lobby of the Hart building opens another strand of conversation: about the massive Alexander Calder sculpture called Mountains and Clouds, the earthquake of 2011, and where the missing "clouds" are stashed while the entire installation is reinforced.  "Stabile-ized"so to speak.
Sure enough, Aaron sees two different influential Senators at the AgriPulse reception and is introduced to a former Secretary of Agriculture, John Block, from an administration so antique to Aaron's age cohort as to be not merely historic, but legendary.  The only way to top this intro to Washington DC is to stop at Johnny's Half Shell for supper (downstairs from both CSpan and Fox News DC Bureau) where there's a big crowd this Monday night.  Aaron and his Grandpa each clean up their bowls of lobster while straining to eavesdrop on yet another Senator's politically charged conversation at the neighboring table.
A walk down Pennsylvania Ave. is an exercise in geography and history.  Here on Freedom Plaza Pierre L'Enfant's grand scheme is easier to understand even if the spider web of radial streets strikes a sensible Midwestern boy as needlessly complicated.
Aaron chooses to be photographed in the "Red Room" of the White House after learning that the Oval Office was not included in the original building. And that's about as close as he gets; we can see the President's home from the far side of Lafayette Square and can pose for a picture on the only spot of dead grass available to tourists for an unobstructed view.  Aaron was unperturbed by the distance, being way more interested in the guys wearing the Secret Service vests just beyond the yellow tape.
This mix of current events and historical perspective is a hallmark of the Washington DC trip Missouri Farm Bureau puts together for the 70 to 80 members that attend. Like most tourists do, our group mingles with the crowds at the Lincoln and war memorials on a clear and quiet night.
 Per Aaron's request, we spend time in the Smithsonian museums examining meteorites and human origins, precious jewelry and gold nuggets, the physics of flight, and sea air operations, before tumbling round and round in a flight simulator.  He sits attentively through briefings about regulatory overreach, the economics of trade, and updates on a critical vote on GMO labeling:  issues of continuing concern for anyone in agriculture but not necessarily on the top ten list for 12 year olds.

In the Library of Congress, we are nose to the glass close to Thomas Jefferson's own books, his references on plants, on architecture, on philosophy and religion.  Senator Roy Blunt has his office in the same rooms Harry Truman used when he was a Senator and later, during the 82 days he was vice President. Time compresses in places like these, and the bright line between history and current events blurs.

Not every small town kid gets to eat breakfast with Congressmen and hear them call the folks around the table by their first names. Most folks would be surprised at the familiarity and frankness with which these elected officials speak in front of this particular group.  This get together doesn't feel like the bomb throwing, fist pounding version of Washington we see on the news every night; rather, we hear that this group of representatives works for common ground, aims for civility, and does cross the party divide on occasion. At least the ones that show up for breakfast with the Farm Bureau.
 To be twelve is to be old enough not just to learn historical facts, but to begin to feel a sense of history, to appreciate the past and compare it to the present.  To touch and visit our landmarks and monuments; to meet, even briefly, those who represent us and govern our country, is to become a participant in our nation, not a bystander, and thus to help bear the burden of the past and future. It's too soon to say whether Aaron will be a better leader because of this experience. But he will be a better citizen....

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Not Free Enough

It was right there on the label.


Because we have several family members who have celiac disease, I was thrilled to discover another cereal from a mainstream manufacturer to add to the various Chex rice and corn cereals.  Even a full spectrum of Chex flavors like vanilla, cinnamon, and chocolate leaves one longing for variety.  I thought I was getting ready to provide a real treat, a breakthrough in breakfast.  While I tend to cast a jaundiced eye on the eating public's current infatuation with all things gluten free, it's an ill wind that blows no good.  This latest fad makes it easier to find foods labeled gluten free without reading through all the fine print.  One need not hunt up a specialty health food store to find certain foods. Cooking and shopping for a person with celiac is both more convenient and less risky.

Except for when it isn't.  

Turns out that the oats in these new products meet these requirements:

"FDA labeling rules allow the use of oats as long as the finished food contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten, the standard applied to any gluten-free product."

"Prior to approval of the FDA’s labeling laws, only specialty gluten-free oats grown and processed in a precise way to prevent cross-contamination were permitted in foods labeled gluten free.

Due to the scarcity and higher cost of these specialty gluten-free oats, food manufacturers making gluten-free products are utilizing mechanical and optical sorting processes to separate stray wheat and barley from the oats prior to manufacturing. This includes General Mills’ Cheerios and Quaker’s gluten-free oatmeal."

Ok. So here's my interpretation of these developments.  First of all,  there are and have been actual gluten free oats for oatmeal and baking that will not make a celiac sick.  I have some in my freezer right now.  But, you don't have to read between the lines to figure out that oats produced in an uncontaminated environment are too expensive to attract moms who believe going "gluten free" is somehow better for their family's diet but will never know whether "gluten free" means 21 ppm or 200 ppm because their health does not depend on it.

(I get a kick out of the use of the term "scarcity".  Clearly, clean facilities currently exist to process oats to ensure they are free from barley and wheat, the main gluten culprits.  Are they running three shifts? Are they bidding up the price of oats in their area?  If they are, then there may be a temporary shortage of oats while the market adjusts to the increased demand.  But if General Mills and Post don't think the families of America will pay more for truly gluten free oats, then yes, I reckon there will continue to be scarcity.  Thus has it ever been.)

My excitement over the new gluten free additions to breakfast was short lived.  Turns out the FDA label requirements for defining gluten free are insufficiently rigorous: a sensitive celiac will get sick from eating the new Honey Bunches of Oats or Quaker Oats. The label Gluten Free isn't worth the cardboard box it is printed on.  A food label is intended to provide useful and helpful information.

Until it doesn't.

Talk of labeling reminds me of the current kerfuffle about GMO labeling.  We have a greenhouse customer who wants to know what to tell her clientele about our vegetable plants.  Some of her customers want to know if our tomatoes and peppers are GMO (they aren't) and if they are organic. (nope, we use a specially balanced chemical fertilizer to ensure our plants stay green...not purple!) Sure, it's OK to ask us these questions, but how on earth would these would-be gardeners know if their vegetable plants were GMO? Can they tell by looking?  By tasting?  (I certainly wish I would never consume another cabbage looper with my broccoli from the garden.) Whether the foods purchased at the grocery are labeled GMO or not labled GMO, no one is going to get sick or be hurt when they partake.  They will never know the difference between a slice of toast spread with GMO margarine and one spread with non GMO oleo...if such a thing existed.  No one has a GMO food allergy.  No scary warning label like the ones that proclaim baldly CONTAINS: MILK or NUTS or EGGS or SOY.

But the GLUTEN FREE label so carelessly plastered on the boxes of cereal does make people sick...it does make a mockery of the food safety and information imperative that labeling implies.  If a food label cannot be trusted, if it only exists as another marketing tool to differentiate one similar product from another, if the label doesn't keep people healthy, then what's the point?

NUT FREE should mean no nuts...safe for people allergic to nuts.

And GLUTEN FREE should mean no gluten...safe for celiacs...not just a way to participate in the latest food fight.

THAT would be truth  in labeling.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Where the Wild Things Are

"All I'm trying to do is raise food."

"Getting up in the morning and going to find the worst wreck is my job."

"The Klamath Straits drain settlement should have taken two years, not eighteen."

"They are terrified the Delta smelt will go extinct on their watch..."

"Like storm fronts and droughts, bad stuff hits the west coast first and heads toward Missouri sometime later. We’re now learning some of the lessons that you’ve known for years. In fact, I seriously considered calling my talk this afternoon: “Boy, it must suck to be you!” "
That last quote is Blake's, spoken as a farmer from the humid Midwest to the farmers, ranchers, irrigators and those representing them at the Family Farm Alliance conference last week. The other quotes are just a sampling what I heard around me from producers and those who work with them in the delicate balancing act that is agriculture in our arid Western lands. To grow food and fiber there is to face a daunting minefield of interests and an ever changing landscape of stakeholders with goals far removed from the homesteading and economic development promoted by the water projects, dams, and canals built by the Bureau of Reclamation in the twentieth century. The continuing and historic drought is but the most obvious obstacle; it is the one tenth of the iceberg on the surface. Under the water lurk the competing interests of Native American tribes, birds, fish, bears, butterflies, and the legions of attorneys and government agencies claiming to have their best interests at heart.
It is a complicated and dysfunctional world. Take that little fish, the Delta smelt. While being named an endangered species for more than a quarter of a century, its population has gone from bad to worse. There is no reason to hope that those responsible for its well being understand how to help the fisheries recover. While the pumps that supply water to agricultural users can be shut down if one single smelt is detected, the agencies counting the fish have killed 120 in order to "count" them as "data". The farmers can only watch as water allocations gyrate wildly from 90 percent reliability to 40 percent. Allocation this year will be zero. Again. Farmers who "watch as water goes by to the ocean" and 200,000 acres of farmland goes fallow are justified in questioning both the science and the process. "What....", asks a water district manager, "What if the extent of the 'best available science' are statements that begin 'we think....we feel'? We need a revolution in how the agencies (like the EPA and Fish and Wildlife) function. They are overwhelmed. They need a new way to implement the act; they are locked into a conservative...and destructive mode with a 26 year record of failure."
To farm and ranch in the West is walk a log bridge with saws going at both ends. It is to work in some of the most isolated and inhospitable landscapes or to be in the bullseye under a microscope waiting for your life to explode if a cruise missile of a court decision drops in from nowhere. All farmers and ranchers share their days with the birds of the air, the critters above and below ground, seen and unseen. Most of us needn't worry ourselves with an accurate enumeration of the voles, field mice, red tailed hawks, killdeer, ground squirrels, snakes, toads, bunnies: fauna of the fields and forests, fair and foul. But to farm around a signature species like the sage grouse is to engage in a delicate game. The folks of the Family Farm Alliance are quick to emphasize the partnership and collaboration between state and local officials and folks on the land. "State wildlife officials are the local country doctors of species conservation. " Compare this assessment with the case of the sage grouse in which the "people listing the grouse had never seen one". On a ranch where sheep graze over a 150 mile spread, one enumerator counted 12 grouse, while the rancher counted more than 180 and filmed them to boot. His maxim: "Where there's a herd, there's a bird." 
sheep and grouse pasturing together in Colorado
The disparity is no laughing matter.  Wolves and grizzly bears in Wyoming have met every criteria for recovery. They remain listed despite the $5500 per bear price tag the state pays to manage them. How can anyone, whether local, official, or Federal court, hope to make informed decisions about the welfare of wildlife and the land when we cannot agree on the data or a measure of success.
It's March in Missouri, the month when skeins of geese trace across the wind blown clouds, when the wild turkeys gather in the far corners of last year's soybean fields and bees venture from their hives on the warmest of afternoons. A foolishly premature butterfly crossed my path the other day and the rural routes tell (and smell!) of the skunks that left their burrows before they were truly awake. If one lives and works in the open country, these are the sights and sounds that enrich: the bounty of the flocks a reflection of the richness of the land. It's March, a month of wild gyrations of temperature and wind, a schizoid wobbling between winter and spring. We expect it; we deal with it; we grumble about it; we stumble through it into April when the normalcy of the calendar will reassert itself and planting of field and garden commence.

My neighbors will go to the fields without a ruling from Fish and Wildlife; we need not wait on a court's interpretation of a Biological Opinion. There may be too much moisture...or there may be too little, but the shortfall will be an act of God, not of man. Our neighbors in the West will continue to do the heavy lifting where the struggle between scarce water, wildlife and farmers is joined. They will deal every day with the "worst wreck", seek collaborative solutions and encourage voluntary species conservation in order to "connect the dots and work for solutions" and to "perpetuate the greatest story of America."
usually planted to wheat, tomatoes, or melons

Almond trees in bloom