Monday, June 4, 2018

Interview with Farmer Tracey Doonan

I recently attended the Todays Dietitian Spring symposium and went on the farm tour, it was well organized with stops at farms that grew sorghum,  The American Botanical Council and a small organic farm that trains young folks in farming and leadership skills. Sadly it was a rainy day and this prevented us from walking into the fields. 

The first farmer was a lovely gentleman who farmed nearly 2000 acres of corn, soybeans and sorghum that mostly went to China. Historically most Sorghum has been grown for cattle feed in the US but times are changing as this is a healthy and tasty grain and theres a push to get more of us eating it. One thing that stuck with me with after the tour was that the first conventional farmer stated that he sprays the sorghum with glyphosate/ round up to speed up the drying process this didn't sit well with me at all. Also he stated starting to use Dicamba this has been banned in Arkansas as its volatile and can damage neighboring fields. The reason its being used is that weeds have grown resistant to Glyphosate that is used along with the GMO corn and soybeans. 

Around this time I had started following Tracey on twitter enjoying his tweets and I got to wondering what do organic farmers do to dry their grains? he replied that mostly he lets them dry in the field by the sun, being honest this put my mind at ease. I feel as a society our agriculture has become too chemical dependent and there is another way. I learnt a lot from the tour and loved the lunch at another farmers house and chatting to the other dietitians on the tour and as always I am thankful to social media to have connected me with another awesome farmer. I thought it would be wonderful to interview him for you all to get to know him, and I am sure you will agree he's a gem and like all farmers be that conventional or organic he's an asset to this Country.

Tracey and Mary Doonan

1. Tell us a little about yourself, how long have you been farming?

Like most farmers in America today, I'm getting on in years, sixty six to be exact.  Of those years I have almost always been a farmer, there was a gap there in the early 1970's. My great grandfather, grandfather, and father all farmed in this area, but I'm the last generation; we never encouraged our children to farm. Trying to figure out how to transfer this farm to a younger farmer is one of my biggest worries right now. I've spent so many years maintaining my organic status that I hate to turn it over to a conventional farmer that is probably already farming 1000 to 2000 acres. And finding a young couple that want to farm organically won't be impossible, but they will need financial help to make it happen.

2. What do you grow and do you have a favorite crop?

To be organic you have to have to grow a variety of crops, this breaks the weed and pest cycles. You also must promote soil health, and improvement. I grow wheat, alfalfa, oats, rye, barley, corn and soybeans, but maybe not all in the same season. This years crops are wheat, alfalfa, oats, corn and soybeans. I think wheat is my favorite, it's not a common crop in my area, and it's so nice to see a ripe field of wheat waving in the wind. It's harvested in the summer so it boost my cash flow and spreads out my harvest work load.

3. How do you dry your grains and can you talk about the processes involved in both organic and conventional grain growing.

Corn is the only crop that is artificially dried. Everything else dries in the field. I do sometimes swath wheat, and oats to speed up the drying process. A swather cuts the standing grain and lays it out in a windrow to dry. Then a combine with a special type of head picks up this windrow and feeds it through the combine. This is most often done if the field has a lot of weeds. All grain hast to be at 13% moisture to be safely stored long term.
The biggest difference between organic and conventional farming is one gets to use chemicals and one doesn't. The equipment used to plant and harvest are exactly the same.
A corn dryer is a lot like a really big cloths dryer. The corn passes through while super heated air is blown through it. It's a time temperature setup, the wetter the corn is the slower it passes through, and the dryer it is the faster it can pass through.

Corn is harvested at around 26% moisture, it has to be dried to 13% moisture to ensure save storage. If I let the corn dry to 13% in the field too many of the ears would fall off the stalks and a combine can't pick up dropped ears. ( that's what cows are for )

4. I have seen a lot recently on social media stating that organic growers use more pesticides and it seems to be a myth, would you like to add anything to this?

The beauty of the internet is your ability to find facts to support any position you choose to take. It is true there are organic pesticides, but I believe they are all naturally occurring compounds. I don't use any pesticides on my farm so I don't have a great deal of experience with any. Any USDA certified organic farm must have a certifying agency. Mine is MOSA. This agency helps farmers comply with all the NOP rules. Once a year you meet with an agent from your certifying  agency and he or she reviews all the inputs you have bought and used on your organic acres.  They look at seed tags, farming practices, and any other inputs you have used. If you are found to be out of compliance, you are out of the organic program for three years, and you have to start the certification process all over again. You are considered to be " transitional ", you must farm by organic standards but sell your crops as conventional.

5. What do you wish folks understood better about farming?

This a tough one. I really wish that consumers had a better idea of what goes into producing their food. I sometimes think the consolidation of agriculture would have moved along much slower if the consumers knew the outcome. It has been great for me though, the boom in organic sales are a direct result of people's fear of what is in their food.

I host a group of college students every fall at the farm. I always ask, who here today has a connection to a farm or farmer. I may get one student out of 30 that had a grandparent or uncle that farmed. Most of their questions are about food safety, the use of Ag chemicals, and GMO's. I never tell them one way of farming is better than another, that is their decision to make.

If your on twitter, give Tracey @outinthefield a follow you will learn so much and I hope he finds some wonderful young farmers to take over this farm for the future generations.

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