Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Grandpa's Way

Surfing though my twitter feed today, I came upon a great quote from a friend of mine regarding how people who aren't involved in farming or ag today seem to think we should do things the way their grandfather did, on his farm. While my grandfather certainly did teach me a lot of things about farming, there are more than a few things that were common in his day that we've moved beyond. So, before we head down memory lane, let's look at a few common practices in "his day" versus what we're doing now.

Things like...
Used oil. Grandpa used to dump it in the driveway "to keep the dust down". Today, we recycle it, along with batteries, chemical jugs, and trash. Grandpa's solution was "the dump".

Spray programs. Grandpa used to spray atrazine on corn by the gallon, and used chemicals in the orchard that killed every bug in the township. Today, we are using lower pesticide rates than ever before, and integrated pest management has changed how we manage orchards.

Conservation. Grandpa would plow, disk, and drag the soil into a powder, then plant the corn. We've been using no-till farming since the early 1990's, and have installed filter strips and wildlife habitat area around the farms. Stewardship is a major concern.

So, as you can see, sometimes the "good ol' days" aren't so great. Farming has changed dramatically, but not always for the worse. So, before you criticize what we do, try to learn why we are doing it first.

Jeff VanderWerff is a 4th generation farmer from Sparta, Michigan. Learn more about his family farm at www.youtube.com/agsalesman

Friday, September 9, 2011

The 9/11 Blog.

10 years. So much happens in your life in 10 years, it’s hard to put it into quantitive terms sometimes. Think about it; what has happened to you? Did you graduate college, get married, start a family? For 343 of my brothers in New York, these things didn’t happen in the last 10 years, because they showed the supreme courage that firefighters all have.

This is my 9/11 story.

In the spirt of full disclosure, what you are about to read is something I’ve never talked about; not with my wife, my family, no one. Public servants are trained that when you see or experience something horrible, you don’t show any emotion; you bottle it up, and deal with it later.

Well, it’s later.

In June of 2001, I decided to become a fireman; my cousin Jon, who had just finished his police academy, talked me into it. I liked the idea of serving my community, and helping people, but wasn’t real big on being shot at. Fire seemed pretty safe; I mean, hell, all that gear, lots of training, no biggie. So I joined Kent City Fire, a small volunteer department in northern Kent county. It’s your typical small town department, with lots of legacy members, lots of tradition, and not a ton of calls.

In deciding that I wanted the best training, mainly because this sounded like a great career choice for me, I enrolled in the fire academy at Lansing Community College. We started the last week of August, 2001, and quickly began to gel as a group. The guys were fun, the training was exciting, and we got to wear some pretty cool uniforms to class. When I woke up on a tuesday morning, September 11th, and headed for our training tower, I had no idea how much different things would be when I got back to my apartment.

Class started at 8am, and by now we were starting to get into the meat of the program; we knew how to use our gear, and knew some basic techniques. Today’s lesson would be ladders; how to use them, where to place them, and how not to fall-pretty simple stuff. Around 9am, we stared hearing a lot of commotion coming from the command office where the battalion chiefs were having their weekly meeting. A plane had just hit the world trade center. Wow. Ok, well, it’s the FDNY, the world’s best. No sweat, class resumes. All of a sudden, people are running from the command center, jumping in their Tahoe’s, and screaming out, lights and sirens running. A second plane hit, and we were officially under attack. We all just kinda stood there for a minute, just going through the motions. We were all trying to process what was happening. Then, the next word from the TV; One World Trade had collapsed; we knew there must have been hundreds of guys inside when it came down; everyone stopped. One of our instructors, Captain Baker, told us we could head home, and told us to pray. What happened next, I believe, is when we became brothers, and when the bond was forged not just with us, but will all the guys in New York.

Gil Torres, a guy in our group, asked everyone if we would join him in prayer. Without a word, we all hit our knees, turnout gear and air packs still on, and joined hands. Gilbert prayed for the guys in New York, for the people on the planes, and for our troops who would soon be fighting this new enemy. We all prayed with him, because at that moment we began to know, began to realize a new, chilling fact.

That could have been us. All of us. Together. Gone.

The next couple of days were a blur, it seemed. We went to class, we continued to train, but with heavy hearts, and a lot on our minds. People looked at us differently on campus; they stepped aside, or just stared. I mean, how crazy were we? We had just watched 343 guys die on the job, and here we were, training to do the exact same thing.

Thursday morning is when it really hit me what had happened. I was heading east on Michigan Ave towards the capitol, and LCC. Stopped at a light, I noticed the bright sunshine just rising over the capitol dome, and there was the American Flag, flying in all it’s glory. As fate would have it, the radio began to play “God Bless the USA”, and it hit me; all the emotion, all the anger, all the sadness. As the light turned green, I tried to pull myself together, and noticed something that was strangely reassuring; the guy in the car next to me was crying too. For that moment, I realized that it was ok, everyone was hurting, scared, and angry. Someone had sucker punched us, but we weren’t going down without a fight.

Since that day, a lot has happened. There have been memorials, parades, and services. Publicly, we remember that day every September, and sadly, that’s the only day I think a lot of folks think about it. For those of us that are part of the brotherhood, we remember them everyday. I think about those guys every time I go into a fire, or respond to a wreck, or a medical call. I remember their courage, and their sacrifice, and sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if more people did as well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Apple harvest brings new challanges

Well, it's that time of year, time for the days to shorten, the air to chill, and the apples to come off the trees. Growing up in an area of fruit production, I guess I've always known how apples were picked, and generally assumed that most farmer knew as well; boy was I wrong! Sitting here at the AgChat Foundation Conference, I'm amazed that I've needed to explain several times now to people just how dependent of migrant labor we really are. Even other farmers didn't realize that apples are harvested by hand, one by one.

In order to harvest apples correctly, we depend on migrant labor, and they are far more than just employees to us; they are a valued part of our team. We can do everything right, all year, and if we don't have skilled, efficient, workers to harvest our crop, it's all for naught. I guess this is why it's so disheartening to hear the discourse regarding migrant labor and immigration. Now, I'm the great-grandson of dutch immigrants; we waited in line like everybody else. However, we need to get real with this problem. Migrant labor is a vital part of, quite honestly, our national security, and we need to realize that.

Now, I'm not advocating a free pass; but right now, we have bigger problems in this country than this, and quite honestly, we could use the money (tax revenue). Secure the border, bring these people out of the shadows, and make them start paying taxes; they are already benefitting from our social system, we might as well get some money out of it.

Our country needs a secure food supply. Consumer demand is asking for more and more fresh fruits and vegetables, and we need to have them raised by our standards, on our land. Support common sense immigration reform, and remember, your next meal may depend on it!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Safest food on the planet, now at lower temperatures!

Hopefully, you were able to enjoy the great weather this past memorial day weekend, and while you were waiting for some tasty cuts of pork or beef to come hot of the grill, you took the time to remember the brave American soldiers who paid the ultimate price to allow us such great freedom. I have nothing but absolute respect and admiration for those men and women, and I must say, I feel a little guilty bringing this up. However, in addition to thanking those brave souls for our freedom, we can also thank the American farmer who helped bring us that meal, and provided us with the safest food on the planet.

Last week, the USDA released a statement telling us something that many farmer have known for years; that it is perfectly safe to cook pork to medium, at 145 degrees internal temperature. This announcement is great news for consumers, and reinforces a basic truth about our food: that it is truly safe, and that modern farming practices have contributed to it. For example, years ago, people were leery of pork, especially under-cooked pork, for many good reasons. The pigs lived outside, basically running loose, eating whatever happened to appear in front of them (I won’t get into details). Today, pigs live comfortably inside clean, well-lit, climate controlled barns; which are probably a lot cooler than my old farmhouse right now. The pork is harvested and processed in state-of-the-art facilities, which are cleaned, scrubbed, and inspected daily within an inch of their lives. The USDA and its watchful eye are never more than a stones throw away, providing guidance and oversight to the industry.

But outside of the processing world, pork farmers are doing the right things as well. Large and small alike, most farmers today are PQA+ Certified, meaning they have taken part in a voluntary program that holds them to a higher standard, and helps them produce a better product.

Farmers today care more about food and consumer safety than ever. As a farmer, it kills me to see a recall, or hear about people getting sick from a food-borne illness, because I feel like I have somehow failed. You depend on me for safe food the same as you would depend on a fireman to come save your house in a fire. We all have a job to do, and we want to do it well. From soldiers to farmers, we’re all working to protect American consumers.

Jeff Vander Werff is a 4th generation farmer from Sparta, Michigan. Learn more about how safe your food really is at www.youtube.com/agsalesman

Monday, May 16, 2011

Recall This.

So last week a California company recalled 16,000 pounds of lunch meat due to concerns about listeria contamination. Hearing this on the news, I think the first reaction of most people is to thing, wow, that’s a lot of lunch meat, but when you really think about it, it’s not, and it proves why our food is the safest in the world.

Think about it; we live in a country, where for the first time in the recored history of the planet, we can enjoy food just about any way we want it. We can eat eggs over easy for breakfast without fear, have sushi for lunch, and then enjoy a rare steak and a caesar salad for dinner, all without the worry of a food borne illness. Imagine living in a country where you go to the market, and you have to live in fear of what might be lurking in your food.

Food recalls like this are actually a good thing; they prove and reinforce to us that our food is not only produced safely, but handled and processed safely; I mean, would you rather NOT know that there was an issue, and risk getting sick? No, you wouldn’t. That’s why the USDA inspects food and facilities; so we can find problems, correct them, and improve safety.

Finally, let’s put this recall in perspective. Sure, 16,000 lbs sounds like a HUGE number, and yea, that’s a lot of meat. But think of it this way; according to the last census, the Grand Rapids, Michigan metro area has around 1 million residents. Let’s assume that one in 10 of them eat a cold-cut of some kind for lunch everyday-that’s brown baggers, Subway, Jimmy John’s, ect, and that each consumes around a quarter pound of lunch meat-that’s about average. So that’s 100,000 people eating 25,000 pounds of lunch meats EVERY DAY. This recall is a drop in the bucket!! There literally isn’t enough meat in this recall to supply a mid-sized American city for a single day.

Food safety is top of mind these days for many Americans, especially farmers and ranchers. When I ship a product, whether it’s fresh apples or wheat to the flower mill, I want to make sure you’re receiving a safe, nutritious product. I know I’m doing my part, and you can rest assured the USDA and processors are doing their’s as well.

Jeff Vander Werff is a fourth generation farmer from Sparta, Michigan. Learn more about food safety and your food at www.youtube.com/user/agsalesman

Friday, April 15, 2011

Back to the Future.

As spring approaches, more and more of us are heading out to the deck to throw a couple steaks on the grill, enjoying that timeless summertime tradition. This year, as your steak cooks, take a minute and think about the family that raised that beef, and how much their family farm, much like mine, has changed over the years.

In the mid 90's, when I was in high school, we looked like what I think most people envision a farm to look like. We had the classic red barns, a few fruit trees up on the hill, some beef cows in the pasture, and a few hogs in the barn. However, as idealistic as this appeared to be, it wasn't viable. We didn't have enough acres, or cows, or pigs, or apples to make a living off of. It was a hobby. As we shaped our vision for the future, and decided what we wanted the farm to look like for our children and grandchildren, it became evident what had to happen. Soon, the cows left, followed shortly by the pigs. Instead of the old red barn that held a 40 acre hay crop, we built a grain storage that holds 500 acres of corn production. The few apple trees on the hill were replaced when my brother and I broke off and bought a fruit farm of our own. The picture has changed, but the people painting it hasn't.

Whether we farm 10 acres or 10,000 acres, we are the same family. We abide by the same values, ethics, and morals now as we did then. We believe in hard work, fair pay, and being good stewards of the land. And it's not just us that feel this way; my neighbors, some who farm thousands of acres and may milk thousands of cows feel the same way. It is still their family farm; the picture has just changed.

Along with this growth, comes a new opportunity. As farms grow, and families grow, the need for help arises. I grew up working down the road on the neighbor's diary farm, milking cows, feeding calves, and spreading manure. Those jobs haven't changed-but now we are hiring people in the community to work full time, and providing them with not only the basics- good wages and benefits- but also a chance to be a part of our family. My grandfather jokingly refers to our main employee Dave as "the third son", because Dave often joins him in the house for coffee, or a beer after the day is done. He is a valued member of not only the farm, but in some ways, the family.

This is not the exception with farm families, it's the rule. The picture of agriculture has, and will, continue to change and evolve; however, rest assured, the people painting it never will.

Jeff VanderWerff is a 4th generation farmer from Sparta, Michigan. Learn more about his family farm at www.youtube.com/agsalesman

VWF Farm 1955.jpgView full sizeHere's a snapshot of our farm in 1955.
Grandpa's farm 1986.jpgAnd here it is when my grandpa owned it in 1985.
VWF Farm, 2010.JPGView full sizeHere's our farm today, in the fall of 2010.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Simple Life

Surfing Facebook tonight for a few minutes, I came a crossed a post by a friend, Will Gilmer, talking about he and his son listening to the ball game on an old radio that was his when he was a kid. You know, it’s little quips like this that make me so grateful to have grown up in the country.

Where I grew up, we weren't that rural by a lot of standards. Grand Rapids, population 200,000 was only 25 minutes away. We lived just a mile west of Sparta, a town of 4,000 people that had everything you needed, including a McDonald’s!! But, even so, we grew up similar to so many other rural kids, and I think summertime baseball is the ultimate metaphor for that point in your life.

As a kid, it was the Detroit Tigers, and the legendary Ernie Harwell. Many nights, after dinner, we’d go help in the garden for a little bit, or help dad pick up a few stray bales out in the field. Like most other farm kids, we did our 4-H chores, checked cows, and, if we were lucky, got to ride though the pasture with dad to check cows for the night. Then it was back to the house, and like so many other farm kids a crossed America, we’d tune the radio in to the ballgame. I can still see, feel, and smell it. Ernie Harwell on the radio, dad reading the paper and maybe having a beer, and the cool breeze finally coming in the windows of the old farmhouse. It was heaven on earth, and really, we didn’t think it got any better.

People often wonder what it is about farmers, how they can have this almost surreal bond between them, even if they’ve just met. And the answer is simple: we all grew up the same. We all felt that simple life of living in the country, and learning to enjoy the very simple things in life. It’s how young farmers from all over the state, and even the country, and become friends in minutes, and stay friends for years, because no matter where we grew up, we all lived The Simple Life.

Jeff VanderWerff is a 4th generation farmer from Sparta, Michigan. Learn more about him and his family farm at www.youtube.com/agsalesman

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Our Duty.

This morning, I was reviewing my twitter feed, looking to see what pithy comments were out there today, when I came upon this gem:

follownathan: Nobody is gonna like this... but I am just waiting for #bigag to use the Japan tragedy as another PR spin to "feed the world"


So let me get this straight; I happen to believe that as a good christian, and quite honestly, as an American, I should help those in need. The United States is the Saudi Arabia of food; we have considerable surplus quantities of grains produced every year. So why SHOULDN’T we help Japan?

Because Nate and his “pro-food”, “whole food”, “real food” cronies don’t want us to.

They want to drag our 8th wonder on the world, modern American agriculture, back to the days of 40 acres and a mule. They don’t want us to have the export capacity to help a country in dire straits, because they believe food is far too cheap and plentiful in this country.

Right now, the Japanese people are suffering. They are hungry, and they truly need our help; and right now, I don’t think they would care if the food is BST, GMO, or Ei-Ei-O. They don’t care about the angry acronyms; they care about where they are going to find their next meal.

At the end of the day, if having the ability to help the Japanese with food due to our agricultural prowess-and the desire to do so-makes me “Big Ag”, then I’ve never been prouder to have been insulted.

Jeff VanderWerff is a 4th generation fruit and grain farmer from Sparta, Michigan. Learn more about him at www.youtube.com/agsalesman

Thursday, March 17, 2011

3 Local Meals a day...

Lately, I’ve been asking people what makes their food local, and most people seem to believe that you need to grow it in your community garden, visit the farmer’s market, or stop at a farmer’s road side stand. While all of these are great ideas, and they defiantly support farmers and local agriculture, I think you’ll be amazed to learn how local most of our food really is.

Let’s start with one of the last places you’d expect to find local food: a fast food or quick service restaurant. However, you’d be surprised to learn how local that food is. At McDonald’s, for example, most of the apple dippers your kids enjoy instead of fries are fresh, locally grown Michigan apples, all of which come from a farm just like mine. Same goes for the apples in that new oatmeal they are selling. Rather have an Egg McMuffin? Rest assured, those eggs are raised on family-owned, family-run farms all over Michigan.

Planning to stop by Panera Bread for lunch? No problem. Order a delicious turkey sandwich and enjoy Michigan Turkey Producers signature product. All that healthy, safe, turkey is produced on West Michigan farms, owned by West Michigan families. While you’re enjoying that sandwich, make sure you throw on a big handful of Lay’s potato chips; proudly produced with Michigan potatoes.

Busy evening planned? No worries here, a fresh pizza is just the ticket. Allendale, Michigan is home to one of the largest mozzarella cheese plants in the US, all made with local Michigan milk. Don’t forget to add some sauce made with Michigan tomatoes, such as those grown by lots of farmers in southern Michigan for Red Gold Tomatoes!

A huge majority of the products we enjoy everyday here in Michigan are grown and processed right here; they are produced on family farms, processed by grower-owned co-ops, and sold to families just like yours and mind. So the next time you’re out and thinking about buying local, just remember to buy Michigan; it’s more local than you think!!

Jeff VanderWerff is a 4th generation fruit and grain farmer from Sparta, Michigan. Learn more about him and his family at www.youtube.com/agsalesman

Friday, February 25, 2011

It all starts with a little trimming...

One of the jobs we have on the farm this time of year is tree-trimming, a laborious task involving a three-wheeled machine called a Brownie with what is basically a 25 pound hydraulic powered chain saw attached to it. You see, you ride up in the air in a little bucket, kinda like the power guys, and swing this saw around like a powered machete, removing errant limbs (hopefully only on the tree). It is a boring, cold, tiresome job; I can honestly say I can think of well over 100 things I’d rather do then trim trees; however, it’s one of the most important jobs on the farm. A well-trimmed tree produces better fruit, with better size, and less pressure from insects and fungus. It’s truly an investment you make for future years; the better job you do trimming, the better quality fruit you’ll likely produce.

Right now, we’re watching a lot of “fiscal tree-trimming” happen all over the United States, and Michigan is no exception. Governor Rick Snyder has climbed aboard his metaphorical “brownie”, and as we say when we need to do some hard trimming in a neglected orchard, he’s doing some major lumber-jacking. No tree is safe from Snyder’s saw, nor should any be; you see, for far too long our state legislature has worked off borrowed time; they’ve been growing some pretty lousy fruit, and the markets have changed. Consumers (and voters) are demanding fresh, high quality fruit, and they’ve hired a new farm manager to make that happen. Eventually, just like at home, the governor will replant the orchard with new trees that won’t need trimming for quite some time. But, for the meantime, stand back, cause the limbs are flying!!

Everything in the world has a day of reckoning; and just like my back and shoulders after a long day trimming in the orchard, the governor is sure to go home with a few wounds and some soar muscles. But as an old farmer once told me, when you trim trees the hardest, that’s when you get the most new growth.

Jeff Vander Werff is a 4th generation farmer and blogger from Sparta, Michigan. Learn more about his family's farm at www.youtube.com/agsalesman

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How do we measure success?

This past weekend and week, the American Farm Bureau Federation held it’s annual meeting in Atlanta, and aside from Mike Rowe giving a keynote address, one of the major highlights are the Young Farmer and Rancher competitions.

Now, these events are intense, competitive, and generally nerve racking. You are competing against the very, very best young farmers and ranchers from all over the United States for some nice prizes- such as a new Dodge pickup truck or a new tractor.

This is the Superbowl of young farmer events.

And it’s a hell of a yardstick to judge your program and state by.

Or should it be?

Now my state, Michigan, has enjoyed success in the past in national young farmer events, and we are thankful and proud of that. It is always great to be recognized for having a top-notch program, as well as winning some great prizes.

But what are we really trying to do here?

When I ask that question, I’m talking about looking at the young farmer programs in a larger sense. I think it’s worth asking the question: What are you trying to do, and how does your state measure success?

Now, for many years, I believed we needed to win to prove our worth. Having 3 contestants come home with pickup trucks would certainly prove that we had a young farmer program that is one of the top in the nation.

But then I thought about it a little harder....

What does winning a big award accomplish, really? How does this improve the lives of our member families, build leadership skills, and give agriculture it’s next generation of leaders? And really, the answer is glaringly simple.

It doesn’t.

What does, is Michigan Farm Bureau and it’s Young Farmer Program.

We have young farmers on virtually every one of our county boards, with many, many of them serving as presidents, vice presidents, and committee chairs.

We have young farmers who attend our state annual meeting, speak on issues, and develop some of the finest policy in the nation.

And that’s just what we do in Farm Bureau.

Our young farmers serve as township trustees, clerks, and board members. They are on zoning boards, planning commissions, and preservation boards. They serve on county boards, committees, and task forces.

And that’s just what we do at the local level.

Our young farmers, products of our leadership training programs, now serve in the halls of Michigan’s legislature. Several more stepped up and ran in primary races.

And that’s just what we do at the state level.

Graduates and alumni of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer program now serve, and have served, on national committees, including the American Farm Bureau board.

That, is what we do.

And it’s all worth a lot more than a new pickup truck.