Education begins with transparency

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Kate Lambert and Laura Handke are working to engage consumers in conversations about the safety of genetically modified organisms. In agriculture’s case, GMOs include crops where the DNA has been modified using genetic engineering. Kate and Laura explain that hundreds of studies show that GM foods are safe, but many consumers remain unconvinced.

“We grow and feed GM crops because they lower our chemical inputs, and they lower our carbon footprint,” says Kate Lambert, who raises corn, soybeans and cattle with her husband Matt near LaClede, Mo. “GM crops make us more sustainable, our feed more affordable, and make our farms and our soil healthier. That’s the science, even if it’s not the popular internet myth.”

Laura operates a small beef farm near Atchison, Kan., with her husband, Chris. They feed GM products to their cattle. As Laura points out, “Greater than 90 percent of today’s corn and soybean supply in the U.S. is GM.”

Kate and Laura both work to reach consumers through Common Ground (www.findourcommonground.com), an organization developed by farmers through checkoff funds gathered by the United Soybean Board and the National Corn Growers Association.

Kate and Laura sometimes face an uphill battle convincing consumers about GMO food safety. But they and others in agriculture are learning how to communicate more effectively. The first step: facing reality about GMOs and public perception.

Many consumers stick with their first impression

A 2013 Internet survey of 961 people across the U.S. conducted by Brandon McFadden of the University of Florida confirms that even when given new information about GMOs, many people won’t change their minds. After they read scientific data stating that GM foods are safe, 12 percent of study participants said they felt such foods were less safe—not more—which astonished McFadden, an assistant professor of food and resource economics.

Before they read the scientific information, 32 percent believed GM foods were safe to eat, 32 percent weren’t sure, and 36 percent believed they weren’t safe. After they read the information, 45 percent believed GM foods were safe to eat and 43 percent believed they weren’t.

“Possibly, the best indicator for whether a person will adopt scientific information is simply what a person believes before receiving the information,” McFadden said. “First impressions matter.”

Farm moms may be more convincing

Kate and Matt Lambert are raising two boys, Mace, 4 and Meyer, 1. Laura and Chris Handke have a daughter, Audrey Ann, age 4. Common Ground recruited Laura, Kate and other women with the idea that farm moms who feed their children GM foods might be more credible with consumers.

Laura graduated with a master’s in agricultural science in 2014 and now works for a Missouri Farmers Care program, Ag Education on the Move. Kate is a loan officer with FCS Financial and writes a blog on farming issues at uptowngirlblog.com, and also tells her story through Facebook.

“My family eats beef that’s finished with GM grain, as do most Americans who consume beef,” Laura said, adding that the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, USDA and the Food and Drug Administration all deem GM crops and livestock fed GM crops safe to consume.

But both women find that presenting scientific facts is not an effective way to start a conversation.

Most people don’t care about the science

Since Kate didn’t grow up on a farm and didn’t care much about science, she brings a different perspective to Common Ground.

“When I met my husband and moved to a production farm, I knew I needed to understand it better,” Kate said. “Like every other mom, I wanted to know if this stuff we were growing and using on our crops and animals really was safe. Once I took the time to understand the science, it was obvious that GM foods are safe and necessary.”

However, Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, says his organization’s research shows that the science behind GMOs doesn’t matter to most people.

“Agriculture has used the science argument, but when faced with a controversial topic, most people focus more on the values and beliefs of their support groups,” he said. CFI, based in Gladstone, Missouri, is a nonprofit supported by food manufacturers, farm organizations and other groups.

Arnot cites research by Dan Kahan, who studies cultural cognition at Yale. He identifies various support groups as “tribes.” “Beyond safety, Kahan says you need to offer consumers something in the best interest of the tribes they align with,” Arnot said.

You can’t convince the anti-GMO crowd

When Laura runs into a member of the anti-GMO tribe, she likes to ask, “Is there anything that would change your mind about GMOs?” When they say no, she doesn’t bother trying to convince them. “They’ve made a choice, and that’s their right,” Kate said, adding that no one wins the argument. “Those who ignore science and follow the warnings and misinformation of bloggers and daytime television cannot be won back through science and conversation.”

Common Ground teaches participants to focus on the “movable middle.” “Most people don’t have an opinion on GMOs,” Kate said. “All we can do is tell our story. Farmers are busy—they don’t realize they need to tell their story. Social media is helping to close that gap. But we have to be open and honest and real.”

When you run into people who are on the fence about GMOs, “These are the people you can have a conversation with,” Laura said. She confirmed this while meeting with consumers at libraries last summer as part of the Missouri Farmers Care program’s Ag Education on the Move in Kansas City.

How to approach those on the fence

Arnot suggests three steps for approaching someone who expresses an interest in GMOs. “How you engage them is crucial,” he said.

  • First, listen to the concerns they raise. Usually, they involve “corporate control” of agriculture, Arnot added.
  • Ask questions such as “Tell me why you have a concern?” Many people bring up the health of their children. Farm moms can respond by saying “I’m concerned about that too!” When people talk about corporate control of agriculture, you can explain that 97 percent of U.S. farms are owned by families—not big corporations—and that includes your farm.
  • Finally, share your perspective. Explain that you respect the person’s concerns. When given permission, bring up scientific data that supports the safety of GMOs.

When they’re ready to hear benefits

Alison Van Eenennaam, a Ph.D. in animal genetics and biotechnology at the University of California-Davis, hears many incorrect statements about animals and GMOs. These include the idea that current livestock are genetically engineered (they are not), and that animals are becoming sick from eating GMO feed (they are not). She explained that in animal agriculture more than 100 billion animals have consumed predominantly GMO feed for almost 20 years, and there have been no observed deleterious health effects or negative production trends.

What would be the consequence of banning the current generation of GMOs? “There would be more insecticides sprayed if there were no more Bt crops [GM crops with herbicide resistance], and more toxic and persistent herbicides would be used in the place of glyphosate if RoundUp-ready crops were banned,” she explained. “These are documented benefits. That’s why 18 million farmers have adopted these crops, including 16.5 million in developing countries,” she added.

Still, Van Eenennaam suggests you initiate the conversation in the right place at the right time. “I don’t bring up GMOs at a cocktail party, do you?” she asked. “There is a spiral of science around these controversial scientific topics in polite society. But that does not diminish the importance of this topic, and the need to have an honest discussion about the pros and cons of this breeding method.”

Transparency is key

While most scientists agree that GMO crops are vital to feeding a growing world population, CFI says that argument doesn’t hold water with most U.S. consumers.

“Our research shows that the most impactful thing we can do to build trust in our food is to be transparent,” Arnot said. That’s why CFI supports the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association SmartLabel program initiated this year. Through the program, consumes can use smartphones to snap a QR code and learn more about the food they’re considering purchasing, including whether it includes GMOs.

“GMOs are the hot topic today, but tomorrow it may be labor, animal care or carbon issues,” Arnot said.

Arnot believes that farmers can influence public opinion—at least with those people who are concerned but not dogmatic about GMOs and other issues. “People like farmers,” he said. “One convincing argument is that our technology has changed, but our values have not.”

Farmer spokespersons like Kate and Laura want to do all they can to reach people who haven’t already formed opinions, from farm tours to educating youth.

“I want consumers to make informed decisions not based on fear,” Kate said. “I want them to talk to a real farmer. That is our role as an industry—to make ourselves available.

For more information…
GMOs are not the only issue covered by Common Ground, CFI and other farm organizations. For more information, visit:

In this Summer issue

Written by webadmin on .

Join Missouri's stewardship certification program - ASAP!

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Rick Aufdenberg grows corn, soybeans, wheat and cattle near Jackson, Mo., and works full time at the local Case-IH dealership. He leads a busy life but found time this spring to become certified through Missouri’s Agricultural Stewardship Assurance Program (ASAP), which verifies that he is a responsible steward of the land and environment, and he provides safe food for consumers.

“It shows that we’re doing the right things on the farm,” Aufdenberg said of the program, offered free to farmers and coordinated by the Missouri Department of Agriculture. “One of ASAP’s goals is to provide marketing opportunities by showing that we grow quality products,” Aufdenberg added.

Rick’s wife Renee found the www.asap.farm website, and Rick completed certification forms online in just a few minutes. “Most of the questions covered things we were already doing on the farm for a long time, like growing cover crops and using rotational grazing,” he said.

You can seek certification in six areas: farmstead, cropland, energy, livestock, grassland and forestry. To apply, complete one-to-two-page forms in each area that you’re interested in. For example, the farmstead form includes questions about pesticide and fertilizer storage. The cropland form includes questions about crop rotations and using GPS technology. The livestock form covers antibiotics use and waste management.

About a month after Aufdenberg submitted his applications, the ag department’s ASAP expert John Knudson visited the farm to conduct an audit. Audits take anywhere from one to three hours. At the end of the day, Knudson presented the Aufdenbergs with a sign for the farm’s driveway. As the sign points out, the Aufdenbergs are certified as good stewards in four areas— the farmstead, cropland, livestock and grasslands.

Two of the Aufdenbergs’ sons, Brent and Todd, are involved in the farm, and a third, Cory, helps during busy times. All three work off the farm. Renee handles the farm’s bookkeeping and operates a day care at home—including caring for her grandchildren.

When we talked in April, Rick was gathering PVC piping and other materials to erect the sign. “We want it up in time for Cory’s wedding reception at the farm in a few weeks,” Aufdenberg said. “We also host a lot of agricultural students and farm groups, and look forward to visitors seeing the sign when they arrive.”

Fordyce launches ASAP in 2015

Richard Fordyce is director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture in Jefferson City. He and his wife Renee also grow soybeans, corn and cattle near Bethany. Their farm recently earned ASAP certifications in grassland, cropland, energy, farmstead and livestock. Producers can also seek a forestry certification.

Fordyce got the idea for ASAP while attending a 2014 meeting in Michigan, which requires all farms to become certified as sustainable.

“When I got home, I decided we need to champion the good things agriculture is doing here in Missouri,” he said. “We also hope to start conversations with those outside our industry, including consumers. Finally, we believe the sustainable certification will aid producers in their marketing efforts.”

While commodity groups offer similar programs, such as the Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol, ASAP is for all types of farms. Fordyce talked to leaders of many agricultural groups, including MFA Incorporated, before designing ASAP. Almost all of the state’s agricultural organizations have endorsed ASAP, including MFA Incorporated.

“Since we started our program at the State Fair in August 2015, we have fielded calls from five or six other states,” Fordyce said. “We’ve become a leader among states with voluntary programs.”

50 farms certified so far

As of April 2016, hundreds of farmers had contacted the department with questions about the program, and 50 farms had been certified.

“When more signs start popping up, it will generate a lot of conversation,” Fordyce predicted. “Consumers want to know more about where their food comes from. Once we get more people in ASAP, we’ll have the numbers we need to send a message to consumers and policymakers about how Missouri farms embrace sustainability.”

For example, Fordyce wants the public to understand how biotechnology allows agriculture to use fewer chemical inputs and save soil through minimum tillage practices. And how precision agriculture furthers sustainability by targeting chemical and fertilizer applications in the right amount to the right place at the right time.

Look for the ASAP program to evolve. “Agriculture is changing rapidly, and we can’t remain static,” Fordyce said. Once 100 to 200 farmers are certified, the department plans to invite them to a summit on sustainability innovations.

Stepping up

Written by Steve Fairchild on .

From the minute a crop leaves the field, the grain business becomes logistics. For MFA that means being able to receive grain, store it, and deliver it to the most profitable markets in a timely manner. As part of a long-term strategy, MFA Incorporated is stepping up these logistical and delivery capabilities in northwest Missouri by building a shuttle-loader facility.

Through a joint venture with MFA Oil Company, MFA will construct the shuttle loader on the Union Pacific Railroad approximately 5 miles east of Hamilton, Mo. The grain-handling facility will have 2 million bushels of permanent storage capacity in concrete structures plus 1.5 million bushels of temporary storage. The facility’s loop rail siding will accommodate a 110-railroad-car “shuttle” unit.

“When the project is completed, this facility will give farmers in the region—stretching from north central Missouri into southern Iowa—a new option for grain delivery. The high-speed pits and conveyors will handle grain as fast as it will come out of a truck. And because we can put unit trains directly onto the Union Pacific, we will gain access to new markets and new end-users,” said Mitch Dawson, Director of Grain Operations at MFA Incorporated.

Shuttle-loader facilities, sometimes called “loop-loaders,” provide rail siding in the shape of a loop connected to the main rail line. Railroad operators favor these kinds of facilities because of the inherent efficiencies of loading all the cars of a train with the same commodity at one facility and delivering them all to the end point. Such trains, called unit trains, are commonly seen rolling through the Midwest full of coal or grain. It’s a system that has evolved over the years as railroads fine tuned freight logistics and fees.

“Logistics are a key issue in the grain business,” said Dawson. “For MFA, this is the culmination of a multi-year process during which we evaluated the needs of our grain system. We identified this facility as a strategic improvement that will help us provide needed service to our owners and customers in a large part of our northern trade territory.”

Situated on Highway 36 in Caldwell County, Mo., the shuttle-loader facility will take advantage of an improved four-lane highway, proximity to north-south traffic on Interstate 35 and direct access to the Union Pacific Railroad.

Adam McIntyre, regional manager for MFA locations in the area, sees the shuttle loader as a year-round asset for a productive part of the Midwest. “There is a lot of grain produced in north central and northwest Missouri, and harvest is a critical time for farmers. As a place to quickly unload during peak harvest, MFA’s investment in the shuttle loader will directly benefit farmers, but it also helps relieve harvest-time pressure on MFA grain receiving facilities throughout the region. During the high volume of harvest, we can move grain from smaller elevators to the shuttle loader to keep local storage capacity available.”

McIntyre added that the facility will be an asset in the sense that the shuttle loader adds value to farms throughout the year as an additional marketing option for their grain.

“Farmers favor facilities like this one because of the efficiency of large-capacity grain pits and high-speed conveyors to move the grain into storage,” said Dawson. The facility is capable of moving 60,000 bushels per hour as farmers deliver grain. That means farmers will be able to unload as quickly as their trucks allow. The facility will also receive grain from some 21 smaller MFA grain elevators in the region, making those locations more efficient delivery points for local farmers.

Aside from helping remove bottlenecks in grain delivery at harvest time, the shuttle-loader facility will help MFA efficiently sell grain to distant end-user markets—with the potential to positively affect average local basis in the region.

A 110-car shuttle will hold approximately 420,000 bushels of corn or 380,000 bushels of soybeans. “We anticipate the ability to load 15 to 16 million bushels—about 40 shuttle trains—per year,” said Dawson. “Much of the grain will be sold to poultry markets in northwest Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and eastern Texas. Some new markets we can reach include terminal markets in Arizona, California and Mexico. The facility will also provide MFA an efficient means to deliver northwest Missouri and southwest Iowa grain to terminal markets in U.S. Gulf region.”

The joint venture between MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil Company brings resources and expertise from both cooperatives and a significant investment in local communities. The facility will be operated by MFA Incorporated and is expected bring five full-time jobs as well as seasonal part-time jobs to the region.

“This is a unique opportunity to aid local farmers by improving the transportation infrastructure in northwest Missouri,” said Mark Fenner, President and CEO of MFA Oil. “We’re always looking for ways to support our existing customers and attract new ones and this joint venture with MFA Incorporated will help us do both.”

“The shuttle loader helps fulfill our mission,” said Ernie Verslues, President and CEO of MFA Incorporated. “MFA was formed more than 100 years ago to address lack of buying power and market access for farmers. We still take that mission seriously. This facility fits MFA’s vision to grow in strategic, profitable ways that enhance the economic well-being of our member owners,” he said.

MFA Grain Director Chairs County Elevator Committee

MFA director of grain operations Mitch Dawson is a veteran in the grain trade and part of the team that helped site MFA’s shuttle-loader facility. Dawson was recently elected as chair of the National Grain and Feed Association’s Country Elevator Committee. The 32-member committee represents country elevators in NGFA’s work to develop public policy. He was also elected to a three-year term on the NGFA board.

In his 36-year career, Dawson has lived in seven states and bought, sold and traded countless tons of grain and feed ingredients. His experience includes stints at a multinational agricultural firm, a major export venture in New York City, a commercial feed plant, a major livestock integrator and cooperatives. From getting soybeans across the globe to a consultation on building an ethanol plant, Dawson’s experience has earned him a great deal of knowledge in the grain industry.

As chair of the NGFA’s Country Elevator Committee, Dawson oversees the group’s discussions and recommendations important to grain warehouse operators. The committee covers issues such as futures market performance; transportation; safety, health and environmental issues; agricultural biotechnology and industry education and training needs.

“Two of the things that we’re working through now are domestic trade rules and how biotechnology traits in grain can affect how elevators and feed mills handle grain deliveries,” said Dawson. While NGFA supports biotechnology, its membership advocates for deep market acceptance of traits before moving into the marketing chain.

Dawson’s breadth of work in the grain industry was a benefit when MFA began to research building the 110-car grain shuttle facility near Hamilton on the Union Pacific railroad.

“Siting a facility like this requires a careful look at the marketplace and geography of grain production. This facility will benefit an area that is underserved by rail service for grain transportation,” said Dawson.

To increase rail capacity in today’s rail service environment requires volume to be cost effective. Thus, the 110-car unit train capacity at the Hamilton facility.

“At present,” said Dawson, “we are limited on rail availability due to cost structure and cost of freight. The new facility will put us in a position to be in the origin-supply and destination-demand business. That’s exciting because it puts MFA in a marketplace we haven’t been able to impact.”

Over the next year, as the shuttle loader is being built, MFA’s grain merchandising staff will work to expand relationships with current customers who have Union Pacific grain buying needs. “In addition, we intend to explore opportunities to develop new rail customers whom we haven’t had the opportunity to serve,” said Dawson.

In the May 2016 issue

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