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10 Interesting Agriculture Related Stories

Western Farm Press. 12 August 2013.  1. Corn, Land and World Population: Producers and ranchers take notice: Corn prices are about to settle back down. (Delta Farm Press)

2. Citrus Assassin: Pesticides haven’t worked. Quarantines have been useless. Now California citrus farmers have hired an assassin to knock off the intruder threatening their orchards. (LA Times)

3. The Hair in My Bacon: They are big, fat and hairy. Mangalitsas hogs: one of the tastiest and strangest-looking pigs around. (The Salt)

 4. Dog Meat on the Menu: Forget cultural sensitivity; the dog meat markets in China are a wretched industry. Despite a shift in cultural mores, the dog meat trade is thriving — even celebrated in some areas. (Western Farm Press)

5. Snail Slime Paying the Bills: A farmer’s industrial snail-slime harvesting process is feeding the cosmetic industry’s appetite for mucus — 15 tons worth. (Raw Story)

6. Holy Grail of Green Economy? A power plant claims to produce hydrogen by splitting water with sunlight. (Daily Mail)

7. Farmer’s Cologne: Yes, this is for real. A new field-tested, cow-calming scent for men. (LA Times)

8. Camera Peeks Inside Crops: A special camera analyzes the constituents of grapevines, corn and other plants. (Science World Report)

9. Hot Virus in the Herd: The outside world is not allowed in a sanitized and isolated pig farm. Strict protocols have kept the operation safe from a virus spreading across the country this summer, killing piglets by the thousands and distressing hog producers in 16 states.  (NY Times)

10. Farming Shrimp in Corn Country: Dave Steiner, 41, farming shrimp, one of a growing breed of producers either switching to or adding aquaculture to their livestock business. (Modern Farmer)


Growing Produce.  25 July 2013.  United Fresh Produce Association’s 2013 Summer Public Policy Webinar Series recently kicked off with an update on immigration reform and how it applies to growers. Brian Worth, coalitions director for office of the Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, U.S. House of Representatives; Charles Wingard, director of field operations, for Walter P. Rawl & Sons, Inc; and Robert Guenther, senior vice president, public policy, United Fresh Produce Association provided insight into the steps Congress has taken thus far in 2013 in regards to immigration reform.

Guenther gave some of the history on the bill that passed in the Senate earlier this year and currently stands in the House of Representatives.

Worth, who alluded to the difference between the bill that passed in the Senate and the makings of the immigration reform legislation in the House Judiciary Committee, said, more than likely, immigration reform will be broken into several pieces. He noted Republicans preference to passing individual pieces versus a larger bill. Worth also said members of Congress will be using the August recess to connect with their constituents and hear how immigration reform will impact them. He said there is a perception that immigration reform is not a top priority, given that legislators have not heard from their representative body.

Wingard urged growers to “tell your story” by contacting representatives and discussing how the current guestworker program is flawed and what growers need moving forward.

Guenther ended the webinar by giving growers contact information and urged them to contact their representatives.

For more information on the webinar series or to register for a future webinar, click here. For more from United Fresh and their immigration reform coverage, click here.

In a follow-up interview, Wingard stressed the need for growers to use the August congressional recess as a time to put a grower’s face to the immigration issue for the representatives.

“We’ve got to tell our story ourselves. Nobody can tell my story as good and as passionately as I can tell the story,” he said. “Nobody feels the pain that the growers will feel if there’s inaction on this issue. … We can not afford for them not to hear from us. Early, often, late, and loudly.”

Wingard noted that growers have to make immigration a priority to their representatives, because of the perception that it isn’t a big issue.“There’s a lot of truth to strengths in numbers. We need for our representatives to go back to DC in September and say ‘I really heard from my farmers; they got a serious problem. This is what they think we need to do.’”

When growers talk to their representatives, Wingard said that facts and statistical evidence need to be a part of the story.

“(Growers need) to put facts to their story. They’ve got to relate their story to their legislators in dollars, numbers of jobs, how much crop was lost in the field because they couldn’t get it harvested, how many people could they hire if they could grow more acres,” he said. “(Growers) have to have hard, legitimate numbers to put in front of (the legislators).”

Wingard summed up the immigration facing growers as “if status quo was working, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

He added that he worries that inactivity may lead to serious consequences for the agriculture industry. “If our industry does nothing, we might just get nothing and I don’t want to take that chance.”

Wine Grapes A Force In California’s Central Valley

Western Farm Press. 10 July 2013.  Winegrapes grown in the Central Valley have an agricultural value of more than $345 million which contributes to the $5.4 billion of overall value for crops grown in the region.

While milk is still king of the crops at $1.2 billion in value, grapes are second in San Joaquin County’s top 10 crops and near the top 10 in Stanislaus County, according to the most recent crop reports issued by the agricultural commissioners offices in both counties.

However, grapes weren’t always this successful: in the past 15 years a grape glut, due to over planting, contributed to a winegrape malaise. Among the causes were lower prices, imported chardonnay by wineries which hurt local chardonnay producers and hammered the domestic market, growers having to custom crush or take what wineries offered at the crusher, and inconsistent contracts.

For more, see: Wine grapes strong, potential replacement crops also moneymakers in Central Valley


Western Farm Press. 8 July 2013.  You say tomato, I say comparative transcriptomics. Researchers in the U.S., Europe and Japan have produced the first comparison of both the DNA sequences and which genes are active, or being transcribed, between the domestic tomato and its wild cousins.

The results give insight into the genetic changes involved in domestication and may help with future efforts to breed new traits into tomato or other crops, said Julin Maloof, professor of plant biology in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Davis.  Maloof is senior author on the study, published June 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For example, breeding new traits into tomatoes often involves crossing them with wild relatives. The new study shows that a large block of genes from one species of wild tomato is present in domestic tomato, and has widespread, unexpected effects across the whole genome.

Maloof and colleagues studied the domestic tomato, Solanum lycopersicum, and wild relatives S. pennellii, S. habrochaites and S. pimpinellifolium. Comparison of the plants’ genomes shows the effects of evolutionary bottlenecks, Maloof noted — for example at the original domestication in South America, and later when tomatoes were brought to Europe for cultivation.

Among other findings, genes associated with fruit color showed rapid evolution among domesticated, red-fruited tomatoes and green-fruited wild relatives. And S. pennellii, which lives in desert habitats, had accelerated evolution in genes related to drought tolerance, heat and salinity.

New technology is giving biologists the unprecedented ability to look at all the genes in an organism, not just a select handful. The researchers studied not just the plants’ DNA but also the messenger RNA being transcribed from different genes. RNA transcription is the process that transforms information in genes into action. If the DNA sequence is the list of parts for making a tomato plant, the messenger RNA transcripts are the step-by-step instructions.

Gene-expression profiling, combined with an understanding of the plants’ biology, allows researchers to understand how genes interact to create complex phenotypes, said Neelima Sinha, professor of plant biology at UC Davis and co-author on the paper.

“Genomics has fast-tracked previous gene-by-gene analyses that took us years to complete,” she said.

“We could not have done a study like this ten years ago — certainly not on any kind of reasonable budget,” Maloof said. “It opens up a lot of new things we can do as plant scientists.”


e! Science News.  16 June 2013.  A “cold snap” 116 million years ago triggered a similar marine ecosystem crisis to the ones witnessed in the past as a result of global warming, according to research published in Nature Geoscience. The international study involving experts from the universities of Newcastle, UK, Cologne, Frankfurt and GEOMAR-Kiel, confirms the link between global cooling and a crash in the marine ecosystem during the mid-Cretaceous greenhouse period.

It also quantifies for the first time the amplitude and duration of the temperature change. Analysing the geochemistry and micropaleontology of a marine sediment core taken from the North Atlantic Ocean, the team show that a global temperature drop of up to 5oC resulted in a major shift in the global carbon cycle over a period of 2.5 million years.

Occurring during a time of high tectonic activity that drove the breaking up of the super-continent Pangaea, the research explains how the opening and widening of new ocean basins around Africa, South America and Europe created additional space where large amounts of atmospheric CO2 was fixed by photosynthetic organisms like marine algae. The dead organisms were then buried in the sediments on the sea bed, producing organic, carbon rich shale in these new basins, locking away the carbon that was previously in the atmosphere.

The result of this massive carbon fixing mechanism was a drop in the levels of atmospheric CO2, reducing the greenhouse effect and lowering global temperature.

This period of global cooling came to an end after about 2 million years following the onset of a period of intense local volcanic activity in the Indian Ocean. Producing huge volumes of volcanic gas, carbon that had been removed from the atmosphere when it was locked away in the shale was replaced with CO2 from Earth’s interior, re-instating a greenhouse effect which led to warmer climate and an end to the “cold snap.”

The research team highlight in this study how global climate is intrinsically linked to processes taking place in Earth’s interior at million year time scales. These processes can modify ecospace for marine life, driving evolution.

Current research efforts tend to concentrate on global warming and the impact that a rise of a few degrees might have on past and present day ecosystems. This study shows that if global temperatures swing the other way by a similar amount, the result can be just as severe, at least for marine life.

However, the research team emphasise that the observed changes of the Earth system in the Cretaceous happened over millions of years, rather than decades or centennial, which cannot easily be related to our rapidly changing modern climate conditions.

“As always it’s a question of fine balance and scale,” explains Thomas Wagner, Professor of Earth Systems Science at Newcastle University, and one of the leaders of this study.

“All earth system processes are operating all the time and at different temporal and spatial scales; but when something upsets the balance — be it a large scale but long term natural phenomenon or a short and massive change to global greenhouse gases due to anthropogenic activity — there are multiple, potential knock-on effects on the whole system.

“The trick is to identify and quantify the initial drivers and consequences, which remains an ongoing challenge in climate research.”


California Agriculture. June 2013.  Biomass crops in the United States are projected to yield 136 billion liters of biomass-derived liquid fuels by 2022. The expectation is that this will require cultivation of between 54 and 150 million acres of bioenergy crops. Furthermore, state and federal greenhouse-gas reduction initiatives have incentivized widespread cultivation of biofuel crops. Of the crops under consideration, perennial nonfood grasses are the leading candidates. To be successful in this role, these bioenergy grasses will need to possess many agronomically desirable traits, including broad climatic tolerance, rapid growth rates, few natural enemies and resistance to periodic or seasonal soil moisture stress.

Some characteristics that make for an outstanding biofuel crop will make the same plant a hardy, hard-to-manage weed if it escapes cultivation. Switchgrass can thrive if it escapes into an ecosystem with an abundant, year-round water supply, so it’s best grown far from such areas.

One of the leading candidates among bioenergy grasses is switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.). Switchgrass is a perennial warm-season (C4) bunchgrass native to most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains, where it was historically a major component of the tall-grass prairie. It was included in the initial screening for biofuel crops in the United States in the 1970s and was determined to be the model bioenergy species by the Department of Energy. This was primarily due to its broad adaptability and genetic variability. Over the past three decades, breeding efforts have developed several cultivars, many of which produce dense stands, tolerate infertile soils and readily regenerate from vegetative fragments. These cultivars are often separated into upland ecotypes (Trailblazer, Cave in Rock, Blackwell and Sunburst) and lowland ecotypes (Alamo and Kanlow).

Switchgrass is not native to California and was, in fact, included for a brief time on the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Noxious Weed List due to concerns about its potential invasiveness. Although there was one documented report of an escape of switchgrass from cultivation in Orange County, California, there are no known records of its escaping elsewhere or causing any ecological or economic damage, despite its long-time use as a forage and conservation species. Since its removal from the CDFA Noxious Weed List, it has been the focus of yield trials throughout California (Pedroso et al. 2011). Because of the state’s Mediterranean climate, the yield potential is high; however, the crop will require significant water and nitrogen inputs.

Invasive and biofuel grasses

In an ideal system, biofuel crops should be cultivated in a highly managed agricultural setting similar to that of most major food crops, such that the crop could not survive outside of cultivation. Under such conditions, the likelihood of escape and invasion into other managed or natural systems would be very small. Unlike biofuel species, most food crops have been selected for high harvestable fruit or grain yield. This nearly always results in a loss of competitive ability, typically accompanied by an increase in the addition of nutrients and often pesticides.

When a biofuel crop is grown for cellulose-based energy, the harvestable product is the entire aboveground biomass. To be economically competitive, such perennial crops should be highly competitive with other plant species, harbor few pests and diseases, grow and establish rapidly, produce large annual yields and have a broad range of environmental tolerance, while also requiring few inputs per unit area of water, nutrients, pesticides and fossil fuels. Few species fit these requirements better than rhizomatous perennial grasses, primarily nonnative species. However, these qualities and traits are nearly identical to those found in harmful invasive species.  read more

Technology, Human Interaction Build Agriculture’s Future

Western Farm Press. 5 February 2013.

It’s been 50 years since the animated TV sitcom The Jetsons introduced the world to future technology through flying cars without roads, and the robot maid Rosie and her infamous attitude.

Today, the flying car which folded into a briefcase remains a dream; still grounded without a flight plan. Yet robots are instrumental on new car assembly lines and show promise in production agriculture applications.

It’s amazing how technology has improved the world, including production agriculture, over the last decade or so. Technology allows growers to stop and start irrigation systems with a simple phone call. Smart phones, other hand-held gadgets, and laptop computers allow producers to better manage the farm, use fewer inputs to produce higher-yielding crops, while also preserving the environment.

Agriculture has latched on quickly to the Internet; a world-wide commercial web of global information only about 20 years old.

The discussion of technology in agriculture was front and center during the recent round of fall, winter, and spring meetings held by farm associations.

At the Western Growers’ annual meeting, rocket scientist Charles Elachi discussed how technology developed for space travel can now help citrus producers detect unique emissions from citrus trees which have contracted the dreaded Huanglongbing disease (citrus greening). HLB is the top threat to the global citrus industry.

NASA technology also allows producers to determine actual water resources above and below the ground to make better informed irrigation decisions.

During the 2012 Arizona Pecan Growers Association annual meeting, California pecan grower Brian Blain discussed how technological gains in tree hedging and thinning, plus advancements in irrigation, literally helped save the California pecan industry from almost certain extinction.

The Almond Industry Conference included a plethora of technology-based developments. Before planting a new field in almond trees or re-planting an existing orchard, University of California Extension farm advisor David Doll suggested that growers utilize online aerial field images from Google Earth and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to determine a field’s weaknesses, the causes, and needed solutions before planting or replanting trees.

During cotton conferences in recent years, speakers have discussed how sterile insect technology has ushered the pink bollworm closer to the eradication door. The insect was once the Western cotton industry’s worst profit-robbing pest.

There are volumes of examples of how the incorporation of technology has improved agriculture and boosted producers’ bottom lines.

With the increasing use of cell phones, GPS units, and laptops in peoples’ hands today, one may ask whether our society will eventually forego human communication in favor of technology-only communication. In other words, will people continue to talk to others?

Agriculture has always embraced human interaction and this is unlikely to change. Producers understand the benefits of chats at the local coffee shop, stopping on the side of the road to talk with a neighbor, or visiting with fellow producers at the local elevator, gin, or fertilizer dealer.

Seasonal meetings are a great opportunity for producers to visit one-on-one and discuss how technology is beefing up their operations. Perhaps our world with cell phones glued to the ears and fingers could learn a lesson from agriculture and become a better place by just … talking.

Let’s hope The Jetsons never takes root … except for the flying cars.

Flying tractors, anyone?

13 Ways Corn is Used in Our Everyday Lives

Western Farm Press. 8 December 2012. Corn is most often thought of as a food. Perhaps if you’re an avid cook, you might even think of cornstarch or corn-based food additives, or perhaps those who follow the oil and gas news might think of ethanol. However, recent years have seen this dinner staple’s uses expand greatly. In fact, the bulk of corn that’s produced today does not go to food production. You’re probably using corn in ways that you don’t even realize as you go about your daily business. The countless uses of corn have prompted some interest in corn as an investable asset, and prices have surged in recent years as demand has increased.

How Corn Is Used In Plastic

Plastics aren’t entirely made up of synthetic substances – in fact, corn-based plastics have become very popular in recent years as companies strive to find methods for reducing the environmental impact of plastics. Corn-based plastics use up to 68% less fossil fuels in production than traditional plastics, and are estimated to emit 55% less greenhouse gases. Additionally, many of these plastics are also biodegradable. You’ll find corn plastics used in food containers and plastic food packaging, disposable dishware and gift cards.

Yes, Corn Is In Your Batteries

Ethanol isn’t the only form of energy derived from corn. Some batteries also contain corn derivatives found in the form of “bioelectricity.” In batteries, cornstarch is often used as an electrical conductor.

It Even Makes You Smell Better

Cornstarch is a common ingredient in many cosmetic and hygiene items, including deodorants. Many natural or homemade deodorants include cornstarch as an ingredient because of its absorbent nature; however, many gel deodorants also contain a corn derivative in the form of denatured alcohol, also known as ethanol. Similarly, hand sanitizer also typically contains ethanol.

Or Eases The Common Cold

Corn syrup is one of the main ingredients in cough drops. It provides the sweetness that is found in most cough drops, and also helps provide the shape and candy-like texture of cough drops. Corn syrup is used in this capacity because traditional sugars often form crystals or dust-like particles while blending. Luckily, corn syrup doesn’t share this undesirable trait in the manufacturing process.

Where Would Babies Be Without Corn?

You can thank the absorbent nature of cornstarch for its assistance in the production of diapers. Though the absorbent layer found in modern-day diapers is typically made with acrylic acid, which is a component of ethylene – another derivative of corn, you’ll also find traditional cornstarch used in diaper production. Baby powder, an item which is often used along with diapers, also typically contains cornstarch thanks to its absorbent nature.

Corn Helps Matches Burn Bright

Corn, and more specifically cornstarch, is a common ingredient used in the production of matchsticks. Additionally, matchsticks that are formed on paper or cardstock may include corn products in the paper itself to increase the rigidity. Additionally, you can also purchase pellet stoves that burn corn-based pellets to heat your home.  read more

The Seed Theft That Changed The World

Western Farm Press. 29 October 2012.  It was the greatest act of biopiracy of the 19th century, and maybe in history. In 1876, Henry Wickham emerged from the Amazon jungle with 70,000 stolen rubber seeds. Under absolute secrecy, he tucked the precious cargo in the hold of a steamship and sailed for England. Without even recognizing the ramifications of his theft, Wickham had permanently flipped the fortunes of world trade.

There was a time when rubber ruled the world, and as a commodity, rubber was elevated by industrialization. Steam, steel, railroads and factories all required increasing tons of rubber. The demand was literally insatiable — telegraph wires, military goods, gaskets, hoses — the exploding list of items requiring rubber was dizzying. Then came the bicycle/inflatable tire craze of the 1890s; followed closely by the automobile craze. Maybe it’s apocryphal, but steel magnate Andrew Carnegie supposedly looked at all the money changing hands and lamented, “I should have chosen rubber.”

From 1850-1913, the Amazon Basin controlled the rubber trade. When tapped, rubber trees weep a milky latex that is the base form of natural rubber. Despite a wide variety of trees, the highest quality rubber on the planet came from the Para tree that grew only in the Amazon. The Para tree produced “hevea,” the most sought after rubber of all. The Para trees grew in relative isolation, spread across millions of acres. To the outside world, the source and location of hevea rubber was shrouded, another mystery of the jungle.

England was quick to catch the hevea scent and essentially hired Wickham to find the hevea source and steal some seeds — payment on delivery. Joe Jackson’s “The Thief at the End of the World” tells Wickham’s remarkable tale. Scratching his way into the heart of the jungle, Wickham found the Para trees and collected 70,000 seeds. With each seed being approximately three-quarters of an inch long, his illicit seed haul weighed over 1,000 pounds.

When the ship carrying Wickham and his seeds hit English shores, the fate of the Amazonian rubber industry was sealed.

England planted Wickham’s seeds in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It would take 35 years of trial-and-error planting, but by 1913, the rubber trade belonged to the British. Jackson writes: “In 1913, the rubber from seventy thousand seeds smuggled from Brazil and planted in Britain’s Asian plantations flooded the market, outselling the more expensive “wild” rubber and tossing it from the stage. The bust dealt the Amazon Valley a blow from which it never recovered: In 1900, the region produced 95 percent of the world’s rubber. By 1928 … the Amazon produced barely 2.3 percent of its needs.”

Besides Wickham, the Rubber Age brought out other unusual characters. By the 1920s, America was consuming three-quarters of global rubber, and Henry Ford’s vehicles were the primary reason. Tired of paying the British for rubber, Ford bought 2.5 million acres of Amazonian rainforest on the Tapajos River in 1927. It was a vast tract of land that Ford had never visited — and never would. The Tapajos, a tributary of the Amazon, was 600 miles from the Atlantic — remote in the extreme. Ford invested $20 million in the project, micromanaged with a tycoon’s obsession, and watched as Fordlandia collapsed upon itself. Ford sold the land back to Brazil for a pittance in 1945.

Ironically, economists are once again predicting a global rubber shortage by 2020, and U.S. researchers are tinkering with domestic plants as alternative rubber sources. Southeast Asia, and not the Amazon, is still the global market’s main source of natural rubber — thanks to Henry Wickham, the thief at the end of the world.  read more