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About Jonathan Knutson

I'm a North Dakota farm kid, with relatives and friends who farm. Spent my career at North Dakota newspapers, covering agriculture and business

“How Will We Feed the World?”

Until recently, I hadn’t heard of PLOS ONE, the peer-reviewed, open-access online publication from the San Francisco-based Public Library of Science. But I came across it in researching articles on GM crops and wolf control efforts, and I’ve found it to to be both useful and influential

Its work includes a collection of essays and studies examining the crucial issue of “How Will We Feed the World?”  I’ve glanced over some of the information and found it to be  interesting stuff. One essay, for example, addresses “the common logical fallacy that anything natural is good, and that anything unnatural is bad, and addresses the misconception that GM, as a technique, is specifically and generically different from other crop improvement techniques.”

Maybe you agree with that assessment. Maybe you don’t. Either way, the issue is critically important.

Check out the collection — and the publication itself — at www.plosone,org.

The greatest grain in the galaxy

It’s one of the most famous scenes from one of the most famous episodes (“The Trouble with Tribbles”) of the original and best Star Trek series.

An obnoxious, self-important bureaucrat wants to lecture Spock and Kirk on a grain known as quadrotriticale. He begins by saying he doesn’t expect them to know anything about it.

Spock interrupts and says: “Quadrotriticale is a high-yield grain, a four-lobed hybrid of wheat and rye. A perennial, also, I believe. Its root grain, triticale, can trace its ancestry all the way back to twentieth century Canada.”  Spock would have gone in greater detail, but Kirk wisely tells him he’s made his point.

(If you’re wondering, I didn’t memorize the quote. I copied and pasted it from the web.)

Yeah, it’s just one scene from a 1960s TV show. But Star Trek’s continued popularity ensures that quadrotriticale remains the greatest grain in the galaxy. And anything that draws attention to the importance of grain, even an imaginary variety, is positive for Upper Midwest and Canadian agriculture.

Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock with skill and sincerity, died today. Good actor, good guy. He’ll be missed.

The days are getting longer (and other things we tell ourselves to get through winter)

The ongoing cold spell has been difficult on everyone in the Upper Midwest. Many of us, including me, have fallen back on trite little sayings to get through it. I’ve heard three farmers say, “Well, at least the days are getting longer.” I’ve said and thought it myself, too: Yeah, it’s really cold. But the days are getting longer. Spring is coming.

Surviving Upper Midwest winters requires more than dressing properly and driving carefully. It also forces us, some of us anyway, to  rationalize our way through it. Week by week, month by month, we mouth platitudes that give some small measure of emotional satisfaction.

In early December we say, “Well, Christmas is coming.” In early January we say,  “This is the key month. Let’s just tough it out.” In February we say, “The days are getting longer.”  In March we say, “We’re on the home stretch.:”

The platitudes and rationalizations don’t hide the fact that our winters often are difficult. But sometimes they help our peace of mind.

Do you have any favorite get-through-winter sayiings? If so, drop me a line.

Fighting the cold, feeding the cattle

Years ago, when I was in high school and beef prices were poor, I fed my family’s cattle on a  bitterly cold day. I was wearing long underwear, flannel shirt, sweatshirt, pants, two pairs of socks, snowmobile suit, heavy jacket, insulated boots, scarf, cap and gloves. I could barely move in all those clothes, and I was still cold.

The past few days on the Upper Midwest haven’t been quite that cold. But the mercury has dipped low enough to make life unpleasant, to say the least, for ranchers. Record-high beef prices make cold weather a little more palatable, though.

No, don’t send me angry emails. I’m not claiming that ranchers deserve high beef prices because they work in cold weather. Nor am I claiming that they deserve good prices now because they survived long stretches of poor prices. Ranchers chose their occupation, knowing it brings bouts with miserable weather and prices.

I’m simply saying that feeding cattle on cold winter days isn’t quite as bad when beef prices are good.

Lessons learned?

Link

Pears aren’t exactly a major crop in the Upper Midwest. But farmers here might be able to learn a thing or two from the trials and tribulations of the California Pear Growers. Association.

A short film, The Pear Growers’ Dilemma, tells of difficult negotiations that the association went through. The film, the result of a cooperative partnership between the  U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency and the Prune Bargaining Association, is meant to help members of other agricultural bargaining associations.

If you have any involvement with or interest in ag bargaining groups, you might want to check out the video.  To view the video, click here.

So much time and effort

I once attended a conference where one of the speakers expressed his misgivings about federal tax law. He basic complaint was that it’s too complicated, and that society devotes too many resources (primarily smart, educated, dedicated tax accountants and specialists who would be more constructively employed in other work) to figuring out arcane tax mysteries.

I think of his point as I follow Upper Midwest agriculture’s collective effort to understand the federal farm bill. So many people — farmers, crop insurance agents, extension service folks and USDA employees, among others — are spending so much time to understand it.

Yeah, the farm bill provides potentially invaluable safety-net programs for farmers; it’s a great asset. And, yeah, the nuts and bolts of such programs are bound to be detailed. I just wish understanding it didn’t take quite so much time and effort.

Some weather-related problems worse than others

I drove to work today on streets made slippery by recent snow. I complained a little, especially since a few drivers lacked the wit to slow down.

But my weather-related problems are modest, to say the least, in the grand scheme. That was reinforced after I got to work:

I talked on the phone with a western North Dakota rancher who dealt recently with freezing rain. He thinks his cattle will be OK, but he’s concerned nonetheless.

And I received a U.S. Department of Agriculture news release, which said that 256 counties in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah have been designated natural disaster areas because of drought.

Yeah, slippery streets are no fun. But that phone call and news release helped me realize things could be a lot worse.

The toughest task in modern ag

There’s debate about what’s the toughest job in modern agriculture. Marketing is always demanding. So is trying to figure out farm bill and tax changes

But there’s a strong case that the hardest, most challenging task is passing on the family farm, especially when multiple children are involved. Parents’ natural inclination is to treat their children equally, but doing do can leave the child who takes over the farm with virtually no chance of financial success.

Passing on the family farm has always been a big deal. Now, with rising farmland prices and the advancing age of many farm operators, the challenge is more urgent and the financial stakes higher.

My cover story in the Feb. 9 issue of Agweek likes at this important topic.

GM food: Safe or not?

A lot of smart people have strong feelings, both pro and con, about genetically modified crops. Supporters say GM food will bring immense benefits to the world’s growing population which needs more and more food. Critics say GM food carries short- and long-term risk that we only partially understand.

If you’re in the pro GM camp,  you’ll want to check out the Genetic Literacy Project (www.geneticliteracyproject.org/). It describes itself as the place “where science trumps ideology” and its mission as  “explor(ing) the intersection of DNA research, media and policy to disentangle science from ideology.”

I’m not a scientist, so I can’t make a knowledgeable judgment on whether GM crops are safe. I’m definitely inclined to think they are, although I’m open to the possibility they’re not. One thing I am sure of: GM food is an important issue that we all need to learn more about.

Congratulations on a big anniversary

Sheep fly under the radar, both nationally and in the Upper Midwest. Their numbers have been declining for years, and their wool and meat aren’t as popular as they once were.

But there’s good reason for optimism in the sheep industry. I looked at the industry’s upbeat mood in an Agweek cover story earlier this winter. You can read the story here: www.agweek.com/event/article/id/24519/.

Whatever the future holds, this is a memorable week for sheep producers. The American Sheep Industry Association is holding its 150th annual convention in Reno, Nev. The event began Wednesday and wraps up Saturday.

It’s a great milestone. Congratulations to the association and its members.