A hot button issue in today’s agricultural landscape is whether or not to label GMO’s in our food products. It is very difficult for me to have a strong opinion one way or another because I understand each side of the argument. On one hand I believe that consumers should have the right to know exactly what is in the products they are purchasing, especially a product they are putting into their bodies. I can recall feeling extremely upset to learn that lobbyists from major food production companies like Nestle and Kraft fought tooth and nail to prevent labeling legislation from being passed. The problem with GMO labeling is that it puts companies in a very difficult position that could cost millions of dollars. The truth is that there are already so many misnomers when it comes to food labeling and in general regarding how are food is produced. Additional labeling could very well create more confusion for consumers. Based on all the research that has been done on GMO products, scientists have yet to discover any negative health effects or risks attributed to biotechnology and GMO’s. I do not see a problem with companies advertising their products as non-GMO; however I personally do not believe that all products containing GMO’s should be required to include such information on labels. I do believe consumers should become more educated on GMO’s and the onus may fall on major food production companies to do so. Until GMO’s are proven unsafe in any fashion, there should be no labeling requirements.
Our class was fortunate to have technology development representative David Mayonado lecture about Industry and Agriculture. This lecture was different than most others we have had because it comes from the perspective of someone who has worked his entire career for an agricultural force: Monsanto. Dr. Mayonado made it abundantly clear during his lecture that GMO safety has been proven repeatedly and GM crops are no riskier than conventional options. I found it interesting that companies like Whole Foods and Chipotle employ more people than Monsanto. Dr. Mayonado also described how crops are not only modified, but now specific traits in genes can be manipulated. Imagining traits in a specific crop able to turn on and off like a light switch is truly incredible and certainly seems to be the future of GM crops. Before the semester I was very skeptical of Monsanto due to my lack of knowledge and the companies often demonized public image. Dr. Mayonado’s lecture was able to shed light on what exactly GM crops are and their benefits in a global society.
Mark Davis lectured to the class on the horse racing industry in Delaware, both harness and thoroughbred varieties. I always had a good idea thoroughbred racing had strong ties to Delaware but I was not aware of the history of harness racing. I was shocked to learn that in 1989 only baseball was a more popular spectator sport than horse racing in the United States. It was also interesting to learn that 34% of horse owners have a household income under $50,000. The staggering differences between thoroughbred horses and harness horses was an interesting note. Harness races take are more than 3 times more frequent that thoroughbred races, which is understandable because thoroughbred horses would never be able to sustain the constant strain on their bodies. Harness horses do not run like thoroughbred horses and therefore are raised and bred differently. It was a bit sad to learn that Brandywine Raceway which closed in 1989 was unable to get slot machines in conjunction with the raceway. It appears that the well-being of horse racing in Delaware is tied directly to the casinos, for better or worse.
Our class was very fortunate to have Delaware’s former secretary of AG, Ed Kee lecture not once but twice. I was impressed to learn Mr. Kee managed the farm at Nassau Orchards at such a young age. Mr. Kee’s first lecture described Delaware’s agriculture industry as a “Food Shed” for the eastern United States. One take home message that has been a recurring theme throughout the course is that one third of the U.S. population lies within eight hours driving distance of Delaware. This fact makes Delaware an important player in the fresh market produce industry along the east coast. I was also interested to learn that during the early 1900’s Delaware had a substantial number of canneries and processing companies, specifically tomato processing. Another important take home message was that 97.6% of U.S. farms are family owned, contrary to the belief of skeptics who believe factory farms are king. I was very pleased to get an opportunity to listen to someone with the knowledge and experience that Mr. Kee has in the field of agriculture.
Our field trip around the University of Delaware farm located in Newark was the most informative and my personal favorite. Farm superintendent Scott Hopkins joined the class on the bus as we toured the five main sectors of the farm. From vegetable production, poultry, dairy, equine, and the animals located on the Webb Farm, Mr. Hopkins oversees and facilitates the day to day operations on the farm.
Mr. Hopkins is a very engaging speaker and was able to easily relate to the students. His down to earth nature seemed to resonate with the class in such a way very few speakers are able to do. Visiting the baby calves was certainly fun, however learning about the milking process, digestive tract, and consistency of feed for the dairy cows was very interesting. While I knew Mr. Hopkins before this field trip, I have a new appreciation for his ability to balance so many tasks simultaneously and his ability to determine which facet of the farm requires his attention.
The field trip ended with a stop at the UDairy Creamery for some ice cream despite the chilly weather. The French toast ice cream with strawberry shortcake swirls may have been the best ice cream I’ve ever had. Touring the entire farm really helped me to appreciate what a great resource AG students have here at the University.
The speech delivered by Mark Lynas to the Oxford Farming Conference was definitely enlightening. To hear someone who was once staunchly opposed to GMO’s make a one hundred eighty degree turn makes his case all the more convincing. I tend to agree with Mark Lynas regarding the use of GMO’s to feed the growing population. It was interesting to learn that less infant death and not in fact more children being born is the cause of rising population. I found it disheartening to learn that members of certain organizations including Green Peace could be so vehemently against GMO’s that they would be willing to destroy and sabotage studies. I think his point is important that many folks against GMO’s do not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or about nutrient deficiencies in their diets. I do however think it is important for some of the bureaucratic restrictions to be lifted to ensure that not just the major corporations are able to develop and innovate. If GMO’s can help to solve some of these issues, which it appears they can, then I am all for GMO’s and Mr. Lynas has made a believer out of me.
Our trip to Hoober opened my eyes to the direction agriculture will take for the next generation of farmers. The fact that a new combine without any additions costs roughly $400,000 is mind-blowing. It’s hard to imagine that a piece of farm equipment can cost more than a house; which shows the opportunities for monetary success in the field of agriculture. With many new tractors, combines, and sprayers already having built-in automatic steering, it will be nearly impossible to do any large scale farming in the future without incorporating Precision AG. The drone demonstration was extremely interesting, especially the ability of more expensive drones to track nutrients, plant stress, moisture, and other important pieces of data. The accident prevention feature of the drone was awesome to witness in person. I imagine in twenty years we will forget what it was like to drive a tractor manually or to scout a field on foot.
Fifer Orchards are selling themselves short. Growing more crops than I can count on my hands and feet, Fifer’s farm operations include much more than just peach and apple trees. I was surprised to learn that sweet corn, tomatoes, and strawberries are Fifer’s biggest cash crops, while their sweet corn has been known to make its way west of the Mississippi.
I was fortunate enough to pick 4th generation farmer Bobby Fifer’s brain concerning his apple orchards. While the Honey Crisp variety of apple is currently Fifer’s best seller, they are in the process of taking out all of their Honey Crisp apple trees. Bobby explained that Honey Crisp is better adapted to cooler climates such as New York state and Minnesota; unfortunately these thin skinned delicious apples don’t thrive in Delaware’s increasingly warmer climate.
Another facet of the farm that interested me was the strawberry field. Delaware seems to have a very short growing season for strawberries, most folks are lucky to get a local strawberry after May. Fifer’s is certainly aware of this fact which is why they take advantage of black plastic and raised beds. I was shocked to learn the strawberry crop had already been planted and would be able to survive the winter months. The advantage of the early planting and the black plastic is that once spring brings forth warmer temperatures, the strawberry crop will already be well established. The black plastic helps to maximize the potential sunlight and warm the soil as quick and early as possible.
Our visit to Georgie Cartanza’s organic poultry farm helped to dispel for me some myths about the poultry business. After visiting her farm, I described the size of the chicken houses and the amount of chickens to some of my friends and asked them how many people they thought worked on the farm. Everyone was shocked to hear there were only two other employees. The ability to control feed, water, and temperature through the use of technology was very impressive. I also noticed there did not seem to be any strong odor emanating from the chicken house. Documentaries can often portray the business in a negative light; I will admit I thought these bigger birds had to have been injected with growth hormones which is simply not true. Rather, the improvements in diet, technology, and selective breeding enable farmers like Georgie to produce more meat with fewer birds.