Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Visit our blog about a 20-day field trip from May 12 to May 30 for a class at the University of Connecticut. The class is a new one entitled “US Agricultural Production Systems”. The objectives of the class were for the students to: 1) meet with farmers and operators of farm support businesses to discuss their businesses, and the challenges and opportunities of large scale farming; 2) comprehend the vast scale of agriculture in the US; and 3) understand how farmers are one part of an enormous and complex integrated system of food production.

The course started in the spring semester with a weekly seminar where the students researched and presented information about the many components of grain and livestock production systems in the US. The course culminated in the field trip, where 6 students and 2 professors visited 9 farmers and 13 farm support businesses as we camped our way from Connecticut to Wyoming and back driving 5,900 miles in a 12-passenger van.

The grain and livestock farmers we visited cultivate a small piece of the 220 million acres of corn, wheat and soybeans grown in the US, and they raise a small piece of the beef, milk, pork and chickens. Examples of farm support businesses we visited included the John Deere combine factory, the Iowa Soybean Association, the Rodale Institute’s Farm, a grain elevator and fertilizer plant, Monsanto’s plant transformation facility, and three university research stations.

Browse our blog to meet the farmers and operators of farm support businesses who kindly took time from their busy schedules to explain their operations and lives to us. We thank them for their thoughts and abundant hospitality. Our lives were enriched and transformed by our meetings with these people who produce our food.

Please email Tom Morris at if you have comments or questions. If you are a student at UConn and you are interested to enroll in this class for the Spring 2015 semester, email Tom for information. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Monsanto's Chesterfield Village Research Facility, Chesterfield, MO - Friday, May 30, 2014

Well this was our last official stop!

We visited Monsanto’s Chesterfield Village Research Facility. This place is amazing. We were able to tour the biotechnology research facilities with and to talk two of the research scientists working on a new sustainability initiative. In one building alone they have 134 growth chambers and they are expanding the facility! The campus currently employees over 2,000 people and they hope to add over 600 more jobs by 2017. That is a lot of ag-research in one place!

Our tour guide Jim explaining the process of producing a transgenic plant

Most people know Monsanto from their Round-up weed killer and Round-up ready seeds, but they are involved in many other projects. The company spends an enormous amount of money on research and development each year (more than the USDA’s annual budget). Within that budget, they spend more on traditional plant breeding than transgenic breeding. Monsanto also has invested heavily in sustainable farming. Currently they are putting programs in place to promote new management practices to increase the health of the land and water resources that are vital for farming. They are also involved with collecting data from on-farm technology. These data sets can be enormous and can be combined to give more accurate information about how to improve practices in the field.

Today was quite the adventure. We have learned a lot of interesting things over the past three weeks and have certainly recalibrated our thinking.

- Julie
Group photo outside of the main building

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Land Institute w/ Dr. David VanTassel - Salina, KS

The Land Institute ( was founded in 1976 by Wes Jackson. The Land Institute is working to develop solutions to the “problem of agriculture” by bringing people and the land together to form a community where all three members prosper as one. The problem in agriculture boils down to how we treat the landscape. 

Presently, large scale grain production in temperate regions is limited to annual crops and is reliant on some sort of chemical or mechanical means of preparing the ground for seeding each year. According to the Land Institute’s mission statement, their purpose is to “develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and grain yield comparable to that from annual crops.” We met with Dr. David Van Tassel to discuss the efforts being made at The Land Institute to develop perennial grains and diverse cropping systems that incorporate multiple plant species. 

Dr. Van Tassel finished his Ph.D. in plant biology at the University of California, Davis. He joined the Land Institute in 1997. Van Tassel’s work focuses primarily on breeding of novel oilseed crops from native perennial species in the sunflower family. He has made significant progress in terms of increasing the number of seed producing flowers and seed size. Also, the oil profile and protein content of his perennial sunflowers compare favorably with conventional annual sunflower. While significant progress has been made, these crops are many years from being commercially viable.

However, challenges still remain in developing cultural practices and varieties that ensure these perennial crops utilize plant available water effectively after they have been established. In Salina, KS the availability of water is critical to crop production on non-irrigated land. The extensive root systems of these and other prairie plants allow them to tap into water that typical annual crops cannot. However, in order to produce an amount of seed comparable to annual crops, care needs to be taken to decrease competition between plants and also to mitigate the amount of water they draw early in the season to ensure they have enough come seed production time.

Wild Silphium integrifolium, a native prairie plant being bred by Dr. Van Tassel to increase
seed number and size to enhance the plant's attractiveness as a potential perennial oil seed crop.
Wild Helianthus maximiliani (Maximilian Sunflower), another perennial Sunflower species of interest to Dr. Van Tassel.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

05/27/14 University of Wyoming Research Station

Today we spent the day at University of Wyoming Research Station learning a bit about what they do to support sustainable agriculture in Wyoming. The research station does research on livestock efficiency, cropping systems, and does variety trials of different cereal crops, oil seed crops and other crops.

The livestock research focuses on feed efficiency. They use a grow safe system in their feeding troughs that recognizes the animal by a tag on their ear and weighs how much food is eaten, how much force the animal eats with and the size of the bite per animal. The data is gathered and transferred to a computer that shows how efficient the animal is at converting feed to muscle and fat. This system has been useful for breeding and heritability purposes.

In addition to their research on livestock UW is also looking at different systems of cropping. They have done research on conventional wheat, no-till wheat, and organic wheat. They also have done research on different diseases that effect sugar beets, dry edible beans, and potatoes. They have also done research on biofuel production of canola, safflower, and sunflowers.

Another part of the research station we saw was their high tunnel greenhouse. The high tunnel is a passive greenhouse which means it uses no outside energy to run it. They use it to run experiments on a variety of plants and were growing quinoa, guar, and a variety of other fruits, vegetables, and other grains. Their also run workshops to inform people in Wyoming about using high tunnels and show farmers how to set them up at their own farms.

The University of Wyoming has its hands in a number of projects in Wyoming and is a great resource for education, research and outreach for farmers and

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Valentine National Wildlife Refuge

Our last stop of the day for our eventful memorial day weekend Saturday was at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge was established in 1935 and consists of 72,000 acres of native prairie and lakes. Mark Lindvall has managed this refuge since 1985 until his recent retirement on April 1st of 2014.

The refuge was established during the great depression due to the high populations of migratory birds that stop to rest in the many lakes of the area. Mark gave us a brief background on their fight to manage invasive species including plants such as canada thistle and fish like the common carp which are present in the lakes. Some management practices include renting areas of the refuge to nearby ranchers for much of the year to manage grasses as well as implementing controlled burning in some of the area for it's beneficial effect on regenerating native vegetation.

After talking and learning about the refuge's management practices and challenges we took a beautiful scenic drive through the majority of the refuge next to many of the large lakes and then hiked up a trail to a look out point where we could see for miles in all directions. It was a beautiful cap to our very busy day.

Rocking Arrow Charolais Ranch

Lead by Mark, we met the extremely friendly and welcoming family of Bob and Janet Grabher, and Dean and Kathy Churchill who run the Rocking Arrow Charolais Ranch and Oakwater Ranch. These ranches, located in the sandhills of Valentine NE, raise cattle for both beef and show, and they brought us on a journey through the history of the ranch and what their future entails.

After a lunch capped with many delicious treats, we all sat around their beautiful living room to discuss the history of the ranch. Rocking Arrow started in 1974 raising commercial beef. In the late 1980’s, they decided to shift their focus towards registered purebreds in the Charolais breed; a beautiful beige and muscled cow that’s origins stem from Charolles, France. During their registered (purebred cattle with paperwork) cattle days, Rocking Arrow Ranch won multiple awards for best in show throughout the 90’s. They have since reverted back to commercial cows and go to yearly auctions where their grass fed animals are sold to the highest bidder.

During our talk, we discussed many aspects of the ranch and about how life and business has changed over the past few decades. One huge trend, says Dean, is that work on the ranch has greatly shifted towards more machinery and less manpower. However, there is still a need for a working hand on the farm and it has been difficult to find one this year. Due to the market, it has been difficult to find reliable and hardworking individuals (or couples) to help out on the ranch. However, due to the declining popularity of being a farmhand and the overall increasing average age of ranchers, “there could be terrific opportunities” for good farmhands in the future.

Other things that Dean mentioned about the ranch seemed to mirror re-ocurring themes that we've been hearing throughout the trip from other farmers and industries. Dean claims that ranchers need to grow bigger and bigger to sustain a family and make a living (the average # being about 400  cows to support a family). He also claims that few people can afford to purchase a ranch anymore. Many ranches are purchased by investors who made their money outside of agriculture. To become a rancher today, you are usually born into it, marry into it, or inherit one.

After hearing this I noticed a general trend within many of our agriculture's farms and industries. It seems that farms and industries are forced to grow larger make sufficient income. The farms need to adopt the newest technology (in order to keep up with production), and land and equipment expenses continue to climb so high that young people are excluded from starting a new farm due to the high expenses. This was found across the board in all aspects of US agriculture, let it be Pennsylvania and Ohio dairy farmers (big and small), grain farmers of the Midwest, or hog farmers.

I was grateful to listen and learn so much from these kind people but after so much learning and especially laughing at Rocking Arrow Charolais, we reluctantly had to leave the ranch to drive to our last destination of the day.
Janet telling us about family life in Bob and Janet's living room.

Bob showing us his squeeze chute to process cattle.

Dean telling us about care of cows and calves.

We hated to leave, but we have a picture to refresh our memories. 

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge

Today was a great day! We started off by meeting up with Tom's friend Mark Lindvall who was a member of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and managed the Valentine Nat'l Wildlife Refuge. He drove us into the refuge in an official US Fish and Wildlife Ford Explorer, past a town of chirping prairie dogs and many swooping playful swallows and into the large gated fields that contained their buffalo herd of 350+ buffalo!

While driving towards the herd through part of the 19,000 acres of land Mark told us about how the park was founded by the father of conservation himself, Teddy Roosevelt who ordered it to be done via executive orders in 1913. He also gave us a brief biology lesson on how the bison are mostly born in the spring and mature in about 4-5 years. We soon came up upon a windmill-powered watering hole that tapped into the Ogallala aquifer, which was just feet below us. A good part of the large herd of buffalo was at the watering hole. We all sat and gaped as Mark pulled up only feet away from the monstrous creatures which grunted and shifted out of the way. Wow! What an incredible sight seeing the legendary American Bison so up close!

After spending the majority of the morning snapping pictures and chatting about the various management practices of the refuge, Mark drove us back and lead us to one of his friends who owns a Ranch a little while away so that we could learn what a rancher's cow raising practices entail.

Bison at Refuge
Mark driving us close to Bison
It is safe in vehicle

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kansas State University Research Farm - Colby, Kansas - Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wow what a day! We ventured to Kansas State University Research Farm in Colby, Kansas where we met up with Rob Aiken to learn more about dryland wheat production. Once you go past the 100th meridian rainfall dramatically decreases.  Eastern Kansas receives approximately 40 inches of rain each year while the western portion of Kansas only receives about 18.5 inches.  There is quite the moisture gradient across Kansas and water is definitely the limiting factor out here. 

Rob showed us research being done on possible rotation combinations and different wheat varieties.  We saw a cover crop study that illustrated why cover crops are not necessarily a good idea out here.  Water banking is very important for the production of field crops in areas that do not receive a lot of yearly rain.  Rob is thinking about and researching problems that he foresees in the future.  He told us, "I am prepping for 20 years from now." 

Larry Dible, Tom Morris and Andrew Brown examining a sweep implement used in summer fallow wheat to kill weeds with minimal disturbance of the soil.

A traditional sod house - a house constructed from strips of sod stacked on top of one another. 

Rob Aiken showing us the difference in various wheat varieties.
Panoramic of a dryland wheat field.

We then visited with Larry and Patty Dible on their 1500 acre dryland wheat farm.  Larry is retired from the research and extension station and now farms his family’s land full time.  He follows a corn, wheat, fallow rotation.  Land here is often left fallow for at least one out of three years to conserve enough water to produce a viable crop.  Production per acre is much lower here as compared to regions to the east due to the lack of water.  But crop production is higher than to the west where rainfall is lower. Larry showed us his equipment including new tractor, corn planter and summer fallow tillage equipment.

After visiting the Dible family Rob took us to the Prairie Museum of Art and History where his wife Ann Miner is the Education Director. It has the largest barn in Kansas and a large collection of agricultural historical items.  We also were able to see a replica sod house.  This was a very informative place to learn about how life on the prairie has changed over time.

-  Julie

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nebraska Nitrogen management & Central Platte Natural Resources Conservation District

We met with professor of soil fertility, Dr. Richard Ferguson, from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln to discuss nutrient and water management issues. He works closely with the Central Platte Natural Resources District (CPNRD).

The Central Platte is one of 23 Natural Resource Districts in the state. These districts are a local governance structure that can levy taxes, impose regulation and provide cost-shares for various conservation goals. Each district has staff on board and is headed by an elected board of directors made up of both urban and rural residents, farmers and other interested individuals. Each district is subject to the State of Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality for approval for funding and regulatory measures. The CPNRD is broken up into 24 different management zones.

This governance organization is significant for nutrient management as the impacts of nutrient loss on agricultural land are complex and far reaching, with many stakeholders. Under this organizational model, regulation can be passed by the farmers and their neighbors, rather than top down by higher level groups. As 95% of drinking water in Nebraska is untreated groundwater, everyone has an interest in protecting this resource. After many years of high volumes of irrigation water, highly-leachable nitrate is en route to aquifers that supply drinking water. This can pose potential health problems for both humans and livestock.

Project manager and extension specialist from University of Nebraska for the Central Platte Nitrogen and Irrigation Project, Dean Krull, spoke with us and described the efforts being made to characterize farmer's irrigation practices. Water used for irrigation is of particular importance to both water quantity and quality available to residents of the Platte River Valley. Then, the CPNRD hydrologist, Duane Woodward spoke with us about efforts being made to characterize water quality throughout the Central Platte. Approximately 1/3 of about 750 water wells in their district are sampled annually for nitrates.

The CPNRD uses a three phase system for regulation of water quality with respect to nitrate. In the highest regulated phase, several common farming practices are prohibited to prevent continued degradation of water quality. Particularly: no fall application of N, no preplant N without an inhibitor, encouragement to split N applications, requirement for fertility and irrigation recommendations based on soil testing and analysis of water nitrate concentrations.

As we move forward, regulation will be an increasingly important factor in the protection of water quality and mitigating N loss. Often economics and environment are at odds with one another. The CPNRD is an excellent example of a bottom up regulatory system; a novel approach for dealing with the potential problems of N pollution throughout our highly productive agricultural regions. Whether we will be able to continue to produce the high yields the way we have without losing nitrogen in excess of the 10 mg/L maximum contaminant level for drinking water remains to be seen. Unfortunately, even with the best regulatory and fertility practices in the Central Platte area, nitrate will continue to travel through the vadose zone towards aquifers for years to come.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

5/20/2014 Lunch time in Guthrie Center, Iowa

Larry Hanner telling us about his work with the Guthrie County Conservation District.
We were happily enjoying lunch aside the Middle Raccoon River this past Tuesday on our way into Nebraska at Lenon Mill Park, in Guthrie County, Iowa. Joe Hanner, Guthrie County Conservation Board Director, stopped by while we were eating and soaking up the sun to introduce himself. He gave us some history of the land, and answered any questions we had. Some interesting tidbits he shared with us is that the Middle Raccoon River is one of the cleanest in Iowa, with a relatively low sediment load. Many fishermen are attracted to the area because of the wide variety of fish that are able to live in the clean water! Along with this, bikers from all over come to Guthrie County to ride the 72-mile paved Raccoon River Valley Trail that runs from Waukee to Jefferson, Iowa. One day maybe I'll come back to ride it! It was a perfect spot for lunch, and super informative. They are so friendly here in the Midwest!

Here is a link to the Guthrie County Conservation Board website, if you're interested to learn more about the area:


Iowa State University - Marsden Research Farm - Cropping Systems Experiment with Dr. Matt Liebman - Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Dr. Matt Liebman discusses the cropping systems trial at the Marsden Research Farm.

Today, we visited the Iowa State University Marsden Research Farm to meet with Dr. Matt Liebman. Dr. Liebman is ISU's Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture.

We visited a set of long-term experimental plots where diversified and conventional crop rotation systems are being compared in terms of yield, profitability, soil function and environmental quality. Much of Dr. Liebman's research pertains to weed ecology and management in agricultural system, but the long-term plots have been evaluated from numerous perspectives and are ripe with potential for future research.

Three different rotations are being compared:
  • corn - soybean (conventional; 2 year)
  • corn - soybean - spring oat/red clover (3 year)
  • corn - soybean - spring oat/red clover - alfalfa (4 year)
The corn-bean rotation is a typical rotation found on Iowa's farms. In the three year rotation, the oats are harvested for their grain and the clover residue is incorporated by tillage. Clover, like soybeans, is a legume which means it can form an association with soil bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen into plant available forms. Incorporation of the clover residue increases the amount of nitrogen in the soil that can later be released to support the corn crop. Alfalfa, a perennial legume, is added to the 4 year rotation and it is an excellent livestock feed. It is cut once in the first year after it is seeded. In subsequent years, it can be cut four to five times to produce a nutritious, high value feed.
Second year alfalfa in foreground and soon-to-be soybeans in the background.

Dr. Guillard discusses the oat-clover portion of the rotation with Joe while
Dr. Liebman speaks with Dr. Morris and Andrew.
Close-up view of spring oats and red clover phase of rotation.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Friest Family Hog and Grain Farm - Radcliffe, IA

Jen, Molly, and Julie holding piglets.
Inside the gestation barn.
Mom taking a drink.

Today we visited the Freist family and their hog farm. They're a father son vertically integrated hog farm and they have 1500 acres of land they use for grain. On average they farrow to finish 4,000-5,000 hogs per year which means they raise the pig from when they are born to when they are brought to slaughter. We got to see the pigs at every stage of development and even saw some of them being born. We learned a lot and were happy to see all aspects of hog farming, even if we did leave smelling like pigs.
- Jen

Iowa Soybean Association - Ankeny, Iowa

5/19/2014 Iowa Soybean Association, Ankeny, Iowa

Grant Kimberly (ISA Director of Market Development) giving us an overview of how the soybean market has grown in Iowa over the past few years.
A group photo in front of the ISA headquarters in Ankeny, Iowa.

Soybeans are big business here in Iowa! Today we visited with the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and met with a number of different divisions within the association.  ISA is a commodity group funded by the soybean checkoff program.  The checkoff program is funded by a portion of the receipts from each bushel of soybeans sold in the state.  ISA employees over 60 people and has numerous programs to promote soybeans and soybean products.  It is involved in everything from on-farm research, data collection and management, environmental services, policy making and market development.  

I was surprised to learn that only three percent of soybeans go for direct food consumption with the other 97 percent going to other markets such as animal feed and bio-fuel.  Over half of the soybean production in Iowa is exported to other countries.  As demand for soybean meal as an economical animal food source in other countries increases, so does the potential for the ISA to help expand these markets.  Considering about 70% of Iowa is covered in corn or soybeans in a given year this association is an extremely entrenched part of Iowa farmer’s lives. 

-        -  Julie