There is Much to be Done

16 days of my trip are between me and my own bed.  My experience here in the Dominican Republic, while not quite finished, has opened my eyes to several things, and has iterated time and time again that the global agricultural community has much to do, in spite of how far we have come.

First and foremost, this trip has highlighted the vast difference between the opulence of North America, and the relative simplicity of life in a developing nation.  Prior to this trip, I had never spent much time in communities where running water is not guaranteed, the safety of that drinking water is never secure, and electricity is unstable and irregular.  My previous international experiences have always been as a tourist, where one sees the brighter, painted side of a Caribbean island, and the everyday towns and homes of the populace are largely hidden from view.

It came as a surprise to me, then, that as close as this island is to North America food security is relatively low, and food comprises a huge amount of the budget of the average agricultural employee.  After speaking with farmers here, tourism sounds like a bit of a devil-in-disguise.  As the tourist industry continues to boom, the demand from the resorts rises, causing an increase in the prices of everyday staples, without a noted increase in the average wage for a farm labourer.  The profits of those tourist traps rarely reaches very far, and mostly greases the palms of politicians and the owners of the resort.  I’m not saying that the proprietors are terrible people, and I am all for free-market capitalism, but the demand for food created by the resorts has increased the prices of food for the whole island, leaving less money available to be spent in other areas of the economy.

This island is covered, it seems, in sugarcane. Acres and acres of the crop cover every square inch of arable land, right up to the edge of the highway and as high as possible up the mountain sides. With such an expanse of 15 foot cane, it’s hard to imagine that people would ever manage the crop without modern, industrial harvesters. Yet, here, they do. Approximately 50% of the sugarcane harvested in the Dominican Republic is harvested by hand. While it is necessary in some areas, which are too steep to harvest by machine, many other areas are as flat and level as an Iowa cornfield, but are harvested by machete.

When I asked why this was, the answer surprised me. I expected it to fall along the lines of, “the machines are too expensive for small farmers,” or, “they’re not effective enough to match the human hand.” However, the primary reason for employing hundreds of temporary workers to harvest sugarcane has more of a humanitarian angle.  Many of the workers are Haitian, legal or illegal, who have fled from the poverty of the west side of the island (Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere).  They are many, and they are usually unskilled, and they need employment to support families here and across the border.  There are so many people available to cut sugarcane, in fact, that the cost of harvesting by hand is nearly par to harvesting by machine, with the added benefit of supplying some form of income to Hispaniola’s most destitute.

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A sugar cane cutter, equipped with his machete. Photo copyright Erica Simone, 2014

And, so, I dare say that agriculture has done amazing things all over the world.  Since the idea of planting and harvesting monoculture crops began tens of thousands of years ago in the Middle East, agriculture has literally allowed for everything the human race has accomplished since.  Without agriculture, we would have no cities, no roads, no civilizations, because each of us would only have enough energy to scrounge around for berries, tubers, and small animals to kill.  As far as we have come, though, we have much yet to do in countries all over the world.  Developing nations are light years behind North America, but with the development of technologies like genetically modified organisms, we can bring efficient, effective, agricultural advancement to these nations, much faster than we ever have before.  Science and agriculture can provide inexpensive, fast growing, nutritious, and widely available food for the world, domestically produced and processed.

And, as we have seen time and time again, if agriculture prospers, everything else falls neatly into place.

 

Bienvenidos

Here I sit, sweating in a seemingly-unending stew of tropical heat and humidity, a sniff of hibiscus and third-world city “aroma” on the breeze coming through the hurricane shutters.  Incessant advertisements blare from loudspeakers carried on small scooters and motorcycles, of which there seems to be one for everyone and their dog. Perfidiously green in every direction, the Island of Hispaniola has swallowed me up, and is threatening to not let me go.

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Grass grows all year, and much of it is taller than I am on the cow-calf ranch. 

In a not-so-dramatic sense, I am writing from the sitting room of a large, old house in Santa Cruz del Seibo, Dominican Republic. For those of you who have not asked me what I am doing for the balance of the summer (I don’t know who you are, because I swear I have repeated myself a million times and I only have a dozen friends), I am on a research development trip/internship with an agricultural producer in the Dominican. For those of you who might be wondering, yes, i do speak some Spanish, thanks to the help of Rosetta Stone.  Unfortunately, it seems that dear Rosetta only taught me sufficient words to quickly allow me to get into trouble, but has evidently left me with the inability to talk myself out of said trouble.

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I’ll ever have a soft spot for a beautiful Brahman cow. 

Dare I say, but my cautious and worrisome personality, combined with my lackluster Spanglish, means that I rarely speak or go anywhere. This, on top of being two hours from the nearest tourist destination (where everyone knows enough English to get me by).

Lingual barricades aside, my time here so far (13 days) have been very interesting.  There are not many parallels with North America agriculture here: they grow sugar cane, not corn; cocoa, not wheat; plantains instead of potatoes; and all manner of fruit in the place of cool-weather garden vegetables (the pineapple will make you feel certain ways).  The producer I am working with (along with a fellow grad student from Texas A&M) has many fingers in many pies.  He owns a large cow-calf operation, from which he sources the steers for his grass-finishing farm.  There’s a hog unit, a start-up chicken feeding business, a medium (for an island) dairy, and crops including sugar cane, coffee, and cocoa.  To say it is a diverse interest portfolio is a slight understatement, considering there is also a high-end butcher counter in Santo Domingo, where the beef from the grass fed steers, the hogs, and the chickens is marketed to middle and upper-class Dominicans.

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Pineapples (this is a decorative variety) are everywhere, and sweeter than I can put into words. 

Our goal for the remaining four weeks of our stay is to assist the producer in developing more rigorous culling protocols, as well as brainstorm suggestions for maintaining production levels while limiting the amount of Bos indicus genetics in the cow herd.  Along the way, we are likely to learn more about Caribbean agriculture than we are prepared for, spend at least a few days here and there on one of the many stunning, beautiful, white Dominican beaches, and, for myself at least, partake in my second favourite ag product (after beef, of course): Dominican rum.

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No, I’m not a photographer. Yes, I took this. It was twice as amazing in person. 

I hope to supply at least one more post with pictures of our travels and adventures. Hopefully I can get it done before a falling mango knocks me out and I forget (likely, as the clothes machine is located outside, under the tree, which is currently in fruit).

 

Hasta luego.

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Tour of one of the oldest European colonial cities in the Americas.  Colonial Santo Domingo boasts the America’s first fortified wall, first Roman-Catholic Cathedral, and the house of the Viceroy of Hispaniola. And this cannon, of no real significance. 

Bill 6 is Back- And scarier than before

I really had hoped that the Notley government had learned it’s lesson in late November and early December last year- Alberta farmers were not prepared to take their intrusive legislation lying down.  Bill 6 made news headlines for weeks and stirred an uproar the like of which my generation has hardly ever seen in provincial politics. You can read my original statement here: Bill 6 and the End of the Family Farm.  Cowboy under OHS

While perhaps not intended to be as overarching, socialist and far reaching as the bill was originally interpreted, farmers across the province banded together to let the Notley government know that we would not bow down to the bill by rallying multiple times in Edmonton and staging protest convoys.  Regardless of intent, however, the bill is still written as a heavy-handed, unsolicited piece of legislation which would does little to improve safety on farms, and paves the way for intrusive government OH&S investigation. Further, it essentially allows unions to move in and take over the workplaces of large farms, most of which are still family owned and operated, as they have been for decades.

Late last week, the consulting boards we were promised in early January have finally been put together, almost 6 months after the passing of the skeleton bill (which somehow went into effect January 1, without being fleshed out or amended…?). Six consultation groups have been assembled, covering the topics of: The Employment Standards Code, Labour Relations Code, two groups cover the Review of Existing Requirements and Exceptions, Best Practices for Agriculture, and Education, Training, and Certifications.  The detailed outlines of these groups are available here:  Alberta government website.

We knew these groups were coming, and we had been told to be patient.  The groups were expected to be put together in early March.  It is now late May.  Not unexpected from any government.  We were told these groups would be representative of the agriculture community.  They are.  We were NOT told that these groups would be chaired by union employees, lawyers, union facilitators and university professors.  We were NOT told that of 78 members across 6 groups, only 23 (29%, less than a third)  of them would be farmers and members of the AgCoalition , and the rest would be union employees, government employees, nurses, professors and many others whom have no viable connection to Alberta agriculture. (Wheat Growers VP disappointed with Bill 6 working group picks, only 29% farmers)103

How are we now to expect that these groups have the best interests of the agriculture community in mind?  How can I sleep at night and know that these people will come to the best conclusions, when two-thirds of every group is constructed of people who may not understand the businesses they are attempting to regulate?  Alberta agriculture is the oldest, proudest business sector in the province.  We have existed, farmed, and ranched since before Edmonton was Fort Edmonton, and certainly long before the province was formed 111 years ago.  Alberta agriculture deserves better than a 1/3 representation in the most influential ag bill of the new millennium. This is nothing more than a slap in the face to Alberta farmers, and a statement to the effect that we cannot be trusted to put together legislation that works for all producers.  We do not need to be told. by unions, by white-collars, or by the Notley government how to best keep ourselves, our families, and our employees safe. Bill 6 is not over, in my opinion. Indeed, the fight against it may really just be starting.

Bill 6 and Amendments

A Communications Breakdown

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Luckily for Earl’s Restaurants, I was too preoccupied with final exams, term papers, and end-of-semester debacles to even think about having the time or energy to pump out a blog post concerning their now-overturned move to source Kansan beef.  Although I did not have the time to write about it, studying and procrastination go hand-in-hand, and so I was extremely up-to-date on all the happenings in my home province concerning the issue.

First off, I was extremely offended by the initial move Earl’s took in announcing their new source for beef would be “Certified Humane.”  On it’s own, this is a slap in the face to anyone who raises cattle that are not “Certified Humane,” as it implies that cattle not raised under the banner are beaten and tortured- which, of course, is simply not true.  Added to the label, though, was a caveat that Earl’s could not find sufficient supplies for “Certified Humane” beef in Alberta, or even Canada for that matter, and so had begun to purchase beef from Creekstone Farms, a company located in Kansas.  Not only did Earl’s slap me in the face, they offended an entire country of beef cattle producers, as they essentially said Canadian cattle were not raised well enough to grace the plates at their restaurants.  Just in case anyone is still wondering, that’s what set off every beef producer in Canada.

A second observation I had was that, despite the industry’s best efforts, there still seems to be an major communications blockade between consumers, retailers and beef producers.  After close to a decade of Agricultural Advocacy via social media, blogs, and outreach, the beef industry doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the education of the consumers.  That’s how I see it, and here’s how I came to that conclusion:

Earl’s released a statement early in the whole scandal that stated they had surveyed consumers in their restaurants.  The survey, according to the press release,  revealed that the people who eat at Earl’s Restaurants placed emphasis on the notion that they wanted their beef to be raised humanely.  It was very important to them, and this importance was the driving force behind Earl’s decision. Let me say, that the consumer wanting their beef to be treated in a humane way is not at all a bad thing.  However, where the real issue comes in is the consumer’s definition of humane treatment.

Humane treatment in the eyes of the consumers who responded to the survey at Earl’s included cattle not receiving antibiotics of any form or for any reason (metaphylactic or therapeutic).  Dave Bursey, protein purchaser for Earl’s, said the following in a video currently posted on Earl’s website:

“[The animals] receive no growth promotants, no medication, at all, in their lifespan…”

This, to me, is an obvious failure on our part as the cattle industry to properly explain what we are doing and why we are doing it.  We have succeeded, to a degree, in reassuring people that hormones and antibiotics are not dangerous to humans when we use them in beef cattle.  However, we have evidently failed to say that their use in the  cattle we raise is not harmful to the animals (in the case of hormone treatments) and is actually beneficial (in the case of antibiotic treatments).

Perhaps the best thing to come from the Earl’s scandal is the fact that their move placed the Canadian beef industry in the spotlight.  For our part, I think we did very, very well in getting in front of the issues and conquering the misinformation that Earl’s was (unintentionally) spreading.  We had multiple industry leaders on TV denouncing the move from Earl’s, and the reaction via social media was massive, rapid, and, most importantly, accurate and educational.  We have been given an open door with this situation, and I  feel that the industry handled it extremely well, especially given the fact that Earl’s recalled it’s decision and announced it will continue to source Canadian beef as a result of the push-back.

Where do we go from here? Unfortunately, it seems difficult to keep consumers interested in learning about agricultural production once the “deliciousness” of a social justice movement has worn off.  I believe that, as an industry, we need to keep the pressure up just as we always have, but we need to increase the pressure on the media; we need to get the news stations reporting what we know to be true, rather than the thoughts of a reporter who is only looking for an attention grabbing headline.  I think the success of this whole mess is due in no small part to the presence of industry leaders and farmers on news broadcasts, morning show interviews and online articles. Those are the places where our presence is weakest, and I think, the places where we need to put pressure for accurate, informed, educated reporting.

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Humane Treatment is  firmly ingrained in the common production practices of the Canadian Beef Industry, even without certification.

Spring has Sprung

IMG_0055Across the prairies, a curious thing is happening. You can hear it in the pastures and in the barns. You can see it in the roadside fields, and, if you’re lucky enough, you can touch it: Calving season.

My personal favourite time of year has arrived and is well under way at home, with 17 new baby calves currently bouncing around the pasture on varying degrees of wobbly legs. Mom sends me updates and pictures of the new arrivals every few days, since the first calf arrived on February 15. While it pains me to be so far away from the excitement at home, I do enjoy the uptick in human female attention that comes along with baby pictures. Soon that will pass and I’ll have to wait another year for them to remember I exist. But that is neither here nor there.

Animals are truly amazing things. Compared to humans, they reproduce amazingly quickly and with exceptional fortitude. One cow will have her first calf just before her second birthday, and will hopefully have a calf every 365 days from that point onward, until she ages and is culled from the herd (this can be as many as 17 years). Even more astounding are animals like pigs. One sow averages 2.5 litters per year, with an average gestation of 114 days and an average litter size now over ten piglets! Compared to animals, even wild animals, it is a miracle humans are as smart as they are, because we definitely would have lost the game in reproductive efficiency. While the married men in my life have given me the sage advice to never compare a woman to a cow (or any other livestock or animal species, for that matter), since I have no wife to keep happy, I think I am safe for now. Human reproduction is incredibly labour intensive and slow- most women today are over 20 years old before their first child is born, humans will have somewhere between 0 children and 8 children on average, and we live for more than 75 years in many western nations. How on Earth did we ever manage to make it  to over 7 billion people on the planet? On top of this slow and extremely low birthrate, children need to be nurtured and taught and cared for biologically for 11-14 years (assuming puberty) and we keep them around for at least 18 in most cases- as opposed to the beef calves we have now, who will be totally capable of handling themselves at a ripe old 205 days.

The differences between livestock and people are amazing, and they are at once seemingly totally different, yet almost exactly the same. At the end of the day, all mammals follow the same basic methods of reproduction:fertilization, gestation, parturition, and lactation. All mammals have the same basic organs (differing in morphology but keeping true to function) and the same basic hormones which control the whole process.

At the end of the day, farms all across Canada are becoming nurseries for the next generation of beef cattle. Most will make their way, over the next 18-24 months, into the food chain and supply safe, wholesome, tasty beef for families. Some others will be retained as breeding stock to replenish the older cows and bulls in the national herd. And in the meantime, we get to enjoy such adorable little creatures as these two young ladies for a little while, which is how we know that spring has sprung:

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It’s a Big Ol’ World

The first and greatest commandment Christ gives us is this: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.” Matt 22:36-39

Recently my mind has been turning more and more to my life after my Master’s degree. I wonder what I will do, and where I will do it. Is there a PhD in my future? Am I finished with school forever in May 2017? Do I get a job right away? Do I travel a bit first?

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of taking a short break right after the completion of my Master’s (whether I go on to a PhD or not). I have now been in school for 17 consecutive years, learning, observing and writing the ever-detested essay-answer tests. I know it sounds privileged and millennial of me, but I feel as though a vacation from it all is in order, in order that I get myself in order. The decision I face between pursuing a PhD and just getting a big boy job is a doozy. It’s a life altering call, and the more I think about it the more it stresses me out. So, lately, I have turned my mind to a third option: either a volunteering or working break from it all after graduation.

There are many options a young man from Canada has overseas in terms of volunteering: Peace Corps, NGOs, mission work through any number of Christian organizations. All have their purposes, and their appeal, but I would like to keep things agricultural. This drove me to the website of the Agricorps. Similar to the Peace Corps, they operate with the aid of volunteers in poor countries around the world, but they singularly strive to provide agricultural education to the people who need it the most. Their current focus is the West African nation of Ghana.

What better method of clearing my head and making a decision  could there be than escaping all the noise and clutter of self-serving, self-oriented North America, and volunteering among a people who have so little? The Agricorps seeks to implement the North American method of agricultural education in Ghana- the program which I owe the most to: 4-H. Essentially, they believe, I think correctly, that the proper implementation of 4-H programs to educate young Ghanaians in the best methods of growing crops and raising livestock is essential to the future prosperity of West Africa. Canada and America are arguably the top-tier nations they are because of the education of generations past in the practice of agriculture.

The more I think about serving with a program like the Agricorps, the more I like the idea. I am in agriculture to feed people. I am in agriculture because I love livestock, and I love to see people learn how their food is grown. On top of that, I am conflicted on the future I need to pursue, and while I am doing my best to patiently wait for God to show me, He has also planted the idea that I am ruminating on now. As Mahatma Ghandi once said, ” The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself to the service of others.”

 

I think I will look a little further into these opportunities.

Where it All Began

Most everyone has some event or individual in their past that acts as a turning point in their life; the kind of thing where you can’t really remember what you did before that, and you can’t imagine where you’d be if it hadn’t come along. For some people, this is an experience, like competition, sports, academics, or a certain high school or college class. For others, this is a person, like a spouse, child, parent or friend, who taught you and instilled a love for a certain thing deep down in your soul.

For me, it was this cow.

Now, to be fair to her, she was not a cow when I first met her. Actually, she was a freshly weaned young heifer, living in the feeder pen at our farm with the other steers and heifers we planned on fattening and slaughtering. Fortunately for her, a certain young 4-H member had been begging and pleading with his parents to start the 4-H year with a heifer project, in addition to a steer. Figuring that something cheap, to make sure I liked the project, was the way to go, my parents finally gave in (I can be quite persuasive) and allowed me to choose one of the three or four heifers we just brought in from the neighbours.

Her name was Duchess, and I have never looked back, not even a little. Duchess and I worked on all the things that a show heifer needs to know: Leading, standing, and foot placement. It immediately became clear that Duchess was not only patient, she was a quick study, and she and I became bosom pals. All through the winter of 2004-2005, we worked together to get ready for the summer shows, and she easily taught me more than I taught her.

Soon it became time for Duchess to be bred, because heifers need to calve close to their second birthday. Alas, Duchess had not exhibited a heat cycle by late spring, and, with no real information about her mother or siblings, we were afraid she may have been infertile. We had her reproductive tract evaluated by a veterinarian, and he declared all seemed to be in working order, so he prescribed a hormonal treatment to boost things along. Duchess cycled, and was subsequently bred by a loaned bull.

All through that summer of 2005, Duchess and I solidified our friendship through the Alberta junior show circuit. We went everywhere and we did everything. And we always, always, always came in dead last, in every conformation class. Duchess taught me how to lose very quickly, and I learned early on that losing with grace is just as important as winning with dignity, and I had lots of losing practice. For as much as we lost in conformation classes, though, we smoked the junior showmanship competition many times, and it was rare that she and I didn’t at least move on to junior showmanship champion classes.

The winter came and Duchess calved on time, but late compared to all of my friend’s heifers. Duchess had a beautiful black heifer calf, who was logically named Princess to match with her royal maternal lineage. Just as I had with Duchess, I worked with her calf and showed them as a two-year old pair, and then as a three-year old pair the following year. That year, I had a herd, which is made up of a three-year old and her calf, a two-year old and her calf, and a heifer. At the Provincial 4-H beef Heifer show that year, her last show ever, Duchess was finally awarded a banner, Reserve Provincial Champion Herd. She retired on top to the pastures.

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Lord knows she wasn’t pretty, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and she was beautiful to me.

Duchess became one of the most solid cows we have ever owned. She was far from pretty, with one botched dehorning job, a lazy eye, bulbous belly and mousy brown hair, but she had a bang-up calf every year and never missed a beat. Add to that, she was friendly and easy to be around all the time.

As with all lives, though, Duchess’ came to an end after I had moved to University. She had her final calf and quickly developed an untreatable variety of mastitis in one of her quarters, which quickly spread to infect the entire udder. Sadly, Duchess had to be euthanized soon thereafter. I lost one of my absolute best friends that day, and I was a country away.

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Cool Whip, one of Duchess’ later calves.

However, I know that that was okay with Duchess because I was doing what she has inspired me to do: study Animal Science. As I sit here today, a Master’s student at that same University in Texas, I cannot imagine or dream of where I would have been without having Duchess as my first heifer. Would I have fallen so head-over-heels for beef cattle? Would I be working on methods to make beef cheaper, and more available for millions of hungry people the world over? I have no idea, but I know that I am doing these things because I had a heifer when I was 12, and her name was Duchess.

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Without owning Duchess early on, I suppose it is possible that I would never have developed my love for agriculture.