Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tales from the Livestock Barn ~ Washington County Fair

Although I live in neighboring Madison County, I was thrilled when I was asked to write something about the Livestock Barn for the Washington County Fair. Full disclosure: In exchange for this post, the Washington County Fair is supporting the promotion of local agriculture by making a donation to my Moms on the Farm program – but my words and enthusiasm for the fair are all mine.

When you bring your family to the fair, it may be a little intimidating to enter the livestock barn. There are sure to be a few sights and sounds (and smells) that your family may not be used to. Since my 4H kid is only 7, we are new to the world of being a livestock show family. So, I reached out to some other, more seasoned livestock show moms from Northwest Arkansas and around the country to get their input on the things they think you should know about the Livestock Barn.

My little 4Her with her
first calf, Water Lilly.

The kids showing the animals are in charge of cleaning up the poop, but it’s a full time job. The first year my daughter took her calf to the fair, she was especially excited about getting to clean it up! She was about 3 or 4 and that excitement hasn’t really faded… yet. Here are a few tips:
  • Don’t wear your favorite pair of white shoes.
  • Poop can be a little slippery, so be careful. 
  • Wash your hands or use hand-sanitizer after you leave.

A sheep isn't truly clean until
everyone in the family is soaked
Family time.

When I was growing up, we didn’t go on vacation to Disneyland or the beach. We went to livestock shows. The animals are the kids’ projects, but it’s really a FAMILY endeavor. Hundreds of hours are spent together (mom, dad, brothers and sisters), working for a common goal of presenting an animal at the fair.
Success in the Livestock Barn is a family accomplishment. When our family won at the show, it wasn’t my ribbon or my trophy, it was OURS.

Small kids – BIG animals 
My daughter loves to show off her
show calf and have her friends pet it,
 but not all animals are so gentle
and tolerant of little people.

Livestock can be a little scary! The kids showing animals have spent hours and hours working with them getting them ready for the show. They know each other quite well and the animals are used to being handled by their owners. But, even gentle animals can bite, and even when an animal is comfortable with some kids, he or she may not be ok with all kids. Always ask for the owner’s permission before petting any animal in the livestock barn.

Good to know: There is a great petting zoo at the Washington County Fair where your kids can pet ‘til their heart’s content

Jenny sent this picture of two of
her boys with the their dairy cattle
at the county fair in Illinois.
Teachable moments.

The kids who are showing animals want to show off their hard work to everyone at the fair, not just the judges. If the kids are around, be sure to ask them about their animal. Ask the animal’s name, what it eats, where it came from, how old it is… You will be amazed what you will learn from these kids.

My friend and fellow 4H mom, Jenny Schweigert said it best, Last week's county fair was very successful, but my favorite moment wasn't the ribbons or trophies. It was when our middle son kneeled down with a little girl he didn't know and started explaining the difference between dairy cattle and beef cattle.

Lots of smiles. Maybe a few tears.

Vallie and her calf last year
For the kids showing animals at the fair, it’s like the District Championship game for kids who play sports - It’s a Really Big Deal. They’ve been working all summer in the heat and the mud getting their animals ready, and some will go home with lots of ribbons and trophies, but some won’t. Sometimes the animals act up and sometimes the judge doesn’t see it the way we do. It’s hard and frustrating (for kids and parents) when it doesn’t go the way you wanted it to.
But at the end of the fair, it’s not the prizes that matter. It’s the sense of accomplishment. It’s the family time. It’s the lifelong friendships. It’s the lessons learned. It’s teaching new people about how their food is produced. 
When you visit the livestock barn, you are not just seeing the animals. You are seeing the next generation of agriculture. You are witnessing the development of the people that will feed the world for years to come.

Let’s go to the fair!

The fair is letting me give away some ride tickets to a lucky local reader! Share a comment on this post about your favorite memory of a county fair to be entered to win $50 worth of ride tickets

(Info about entry prices can be found here). If you haven’t gone to a fair before, tell me what you hope to see or do at the Washington County Fair this year on your first visit. I’ll choose a winner at random from the folks who enter and be in touch to get your tickets to you.

The Washington County Fair has posted a schedule online, and also provides information about being a part of the fair by entering their contests and competitions through their Exhibitor Handbook.

Keep up to date on happenings at the fair by following them on social media at one (or all!) the links below:

Be sure to search the #MyWCF15 hashtag on social media to see what other folks are doing at the fair.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

AgriCultural Fusion

It takes a village… a global village

For the past several years one of the hottest trends in food has been cultural fusion, two or more cultures contributing to one dish or a restaurant concept. For example, last year after the Alltech Symposium we went to a little place called The Local Taco where I enjoyed the fusion of Asian and Latin American dishes with my Korean BBQ Tacos. I also had a Buffalo Chicken Taco. Another fusion of cultures. Oh my goodness! They were amazing!

As I was thinking about this year’s conference, my mouth watering in anticipation of some more Korean BBQ tacos, I realized that those culturally-infused tacos were a kind of symbol of where agriculture is going in the future. We have to embrace AgriCultural Fusion or we will get left in the dust.

This was my third trip to the Alltech Symposium. Last year, I wrote about the things that global agricultural companies do for the average consumer. It’s always an enjoyable time, a great time to interact with my blogging buddies, enjoy some fermented beverages, and learn about the next big thing in agriculture.

This symposium is by-far the most international meeting I attend regularly. This year, 88 countries were represented among the attendees. The conference is translated into 6 languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese. Alltech is involved in agriculture all over the world. The founder’s son, Dr. Mark Lyons, is currently in China working for the company.

I love meeting and visiting with people involved in agriculture from all over the world. This year I made a new friend from the Netherlands. In year’s past I’ve met folks from Mexico, Venezuela, and several from Ireland. Every one of them has a place in global food production.

Everyone involved in agriculture is thinking about and preparing to feed the 9 billion people that will populate the Earth in the year 2050. In the livestock industry, we are especially concerned with the 3 billion people will enter the middle class in that time and be demanding more animal-based foods like meat, milk, and eggs.

It will take a global effort to get us there; a global village to raise all the food we need and get it delivered to people in a safe and sustainable way. In agriculture, we will have to learn to embrace doing things in new ways to produce enough food to feed everyone.

General Colin Powell was a speaker at the conference and I think he had a great quote about China. He said, “The Chinese have a different system, and they like it. They used it to pull 400 million people out of poverty.”

I don’t mean that we will have to all do things exactly the same way, but we need to have some AgriCultural Fusion to improve everyone’s productivity. We will learn things from South Americans and Africans and Asians and Europeans and Australians and apply what works in the US. They will do the same in their country.

You wouldn’t sell many Korean BBQ tacos if that combination didn’t taste good. (mmm… tacos)
Feeding the world is going to take thinking globally and acting locally. AgriCultural fusion shows itself in lots of ways already.
  • It is as small as me trying to figure out how to grow Chinese cabbage in my back yard.
  • Cattle breeders in the US use Japanese cattle breeds such as Wagyu or Akaushi to improve marbling in our beef.
  •  It may be applying techniques of Korean natural farming to farms in Hawaii.
  • Students at Abilene Christian University research techniques for raising goats and share them with African farmers.
  • Americans teach pork and dairy farming techniques to farmers in China.
  • Charities, like Heifer International, give livestock to families in the developing world and teach them how to care for them.

AgriCultural fusion is happening all around us. Thanks to technology, our chance to learn from other cultures is only limited by the speed of our smart phone.

It will be so exciting to see where we go from here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Microblog: My American Girl Doll

On my mother's side, I'm the oldest grandchild by several years. One year when I was in college, my grandfather was planing to give all the younger girls an American Girl Doll for Christmas. 
At 19, I was a little old for a doll, so Papaw asked Mother what I needed instead. I was preparing to be on the meat judging team at Texas Tech, and I needed a pair of steel-toed boots to wear to packing plants for practice and competitions. That was my gift that year. 
I still refer to them as my American Girl Doll. All the cousins got Samantha or Kirstin or Felicity. I got steel-toed boots. 
However, almost 18 years later, I'm still wearing my American Girl Dolls. I think about my Papaw just about every time I put them on.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Don’t judge cooked meat by its color.

Just… don’t.

Everyone, myself included, does it. We look at the color of the inside of a burger or chicken to determine if it’s cooked. Is it pink? Nope. Chomp chomp!

Here’s the problem: Color is not a good indicator of safe cooking temperatures. You have to use a meat thermometer to be sure meat is cooked to safe temperatures.
Meat turns from pink to brown because the protein that makes meat red (myoglobin) is denatured as it is cooked. The protein is damaged and doesn’t reflect light in the same manner anymore, so the meat appears brown.
Lots of factors can affect how quickly or slowly the protein is denatured as it is heated. Meat color changes can vary due to the pH (acidity) of the meat, the age and gender of the animal, how long it was stored, the way it was packaged, whether it was frozen, even the feed and water of the animals can affect cooked meat color.

Sometimes meat turns brown too soon!

Meat scientists call this phenomenon Premature Browning. It can be really dangerous because meat looks done, but it hasn't been cooked to a safe temperature.

This photo is from a great fact sheet about beef color from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Both of these patties were cooked to an unsafe temperature (55°C or 131°F). Patty A looks very undercooked, but patty B looks done.

I have a previous blog post about fresh meat color. Remember that we talked about meat being oxygenated (red), deoxygenated (purple), or oxidized (brown)? Researchers at Kansas State found that when patties were cooked in the oxidized (brown) state, their cooked color was brown, even at temperatures that were too low to kill deadly bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. Other research has found that the packaging can cause meat to brown faster, too.

Regardless of why the meat turns brown at too low of a temperature, sometimes it happens. The best way to insure that your meat is cooked properly is to use a meat thermometer.
Ground beef should be cooked to 160°F and poultry should be cooked to 165°F.

Sometimes meat stays pink too long!

Meat scientists call this phenomenon Persistent Pinking. It is not as much a food safety issue as it is a perception and eating quality issue. When meat looks pink, even if it’s been thoroughly cooked, people will think it’s undercooked and will keep cooking it until its way overcooked. When it’s overcooked, it tastes terrible.
I am conducting research on persistent pinking in ground beef this summer. 
These patties were all cooked to exactly 160°F.
You can see how some of them are still pink in the middle.

Research has shown that a high pH (more basic) can protect the proteins at greater temperatures and keep them from turning brown. They may also stay pink because of a higher concentration of the myoglobin protein. Right now our research is creating more questions than answers, but it sure is interesting.

Persistent pinking can also be caused by outside substances interacting with the meat and creating the pink color.
Nitrites are a good example of one of these outside substances. Sometimes we want this pink color to appear, like in the case of ham, sausages, or bacon. However, very small amounts of nitrites can get into the meat (especially poultry) and create a pink color that kind of looks like ham. If you don’t expect the meat to be pink and it is, you may think it’s undercooked.

These pictures were sent to me by Dr. Jim Claus at the University of Wisconsin. He is one of the leading researchers in persistent pinking in processed meats. These are a pair of turkey slices and some tuna chunks with persistent pinking problems. All of these were cooked to a safe temperature, but some clearly have some color issues.

This is a pork chop that was cooked wrapped in bacon. Looks like the nitrites in the bacon seeped into the pork chop and created a pink color.

Sometimes the ovens that cook the meat can introduce gasses that react with the muscle and cause it to turn pink. We like it when this happens in smoked meats, but when you don’t expect it, you may be concerned it hasn’t been cooked enough.

This is a smoked sausage from an awesome BBQ restaurant in south Texas. See how the smoke has created the ring of pink around the edge of the sausage?

When you see pink color in meat, look to see where the off-color is within the pieces. Undercooked meat will be pink in the middle, but persistent pinking issues are more likely to occur on the surface.

Even what the animals (especially birds) eat or drink can introduce substances that can change the cooked color of their meat. Nitrates and nitrites that occur naturally in the feed and water can remain in the birds and create some color problems, especially around the bone.

This is another picture of some cooked chicken pieces from Dr. Claus. You can see some really severe pinking problems in them.

If you are served something that you think looks underdone, it’s OK to ask what temperature it was cooked to. Sometimes meat is just stubbornly pink, but sometimes it may actually be underdone. When it comes to my kids, if I think a piece of meat they've been served may be underdone, you bet I'll ask the waiter about it. 

The best way to know is to use a meat thermometer.
Cook it to a temperature not a color.

The USDA has a great fact sheet about meat color that gives more detail about persistent pinking and premature browning.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Microblogs: Ham vs. Lamb

The day before Easter, I surveyed my followers on social media on their preference of ham or lamb for Easter dinner.

According to my survey, more of you are eating ham today than lamb. Some chose beef. The reason we eat lamb today is pretty obvious. The lamb represents the sacrificial lamb of God.
But in the US many more of us will eat ham and I wanted to do a little research as to why. I secretly was hoping I would find that we ate ham at Easter because the pink color of ham matched our pretty pink Easter dresses and pink dyed eggs. But, probably not.
Some say that the tradition of ham at Easter goes back to pagan traditions associated with the celebrations of the Spring equinox, and others say that ham was eaten during this time because pork was considered a lucky meat by pre-Christian Europeans.
However, in the Ozarks and much of the rural US, the tradition of ham at Easter probably originated from the fact that pigs were slaughtered in the winter and the hams and shoulders were cured. The curing process in those days took many months, so the first hams were ready at Easter.
It really doesn't matter why we choose ham or lamb or beef, what matters is that we are taking the day to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus with our families or (like we do it) with our church family.

After note: For lunch, Ed made a ham for church pot-luck and had a piece of it, but there is a man at our church that makes some awesome BBQ chicken, so that's what I had. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Underdog

I love Texas Country music (some folks call it Red Dirt music). I’ve loved it since I was in college; Musicians like Pat Green, Robert Earl Keen, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and the Randy Rogers Band have always filled my cd case and iTunes.

I really like Aaron Watson. He lives in Abilene, TX, which is about 45 minutes from where I grew up. He’s a Christian and a family man. Listening to his music is like a trip home. His latest album recently topped the Country music charts, but he gets virtually no play time on country radio (not that I listen to country radio, anyway). The irony of that fact is compounded in the name of the album, the Underdog. 

After I downloaded it, my productivity dropped because  I was dancing and beating my hands on my desk. :)

Several of my blogging buddies have decided to write a group blog with the Underdog theme. Honestly, as much as I love Aaron Watson, I wasn’t sure I was going to participate. I didn’t know how I would tie this theme into my blog about meat and the meat industry.

Then, this morning I was listening to National Public Radio (see, not country). A young woman who was having a hard time financially was being asked about her health. She was convinced that her health was failing because she could not afford to buy food at the farmers market.  It hit me.

She was my underdog.

I don’t know her story, and I doubt she’s heard of me, but I write my blog for all the underdogs like her.

Families all over this country are told that expensive, Organic, Natural foods are better and healthier for them.  When they can’t afford them, imagine the guilt they must feel when they buy and feed their families conventionally-raised foods without the fancy, Organic, grass-fed, or Natural labels.

Even if what I write helps just a few of these folks feel better about what they feed their families, then I’m happy and it’s been worth it.

  • I want to assure the young, single moms working for minimum wage that processed meats are a great way to get kids to eat protein when that’s all the protein they can afford.
  • I want the busy, soccer mom to know its ok to run through the drive through between soccer practice and music lessons. The food will be safe.
  • I want the label-reading-obsessed dad know what nitrites are, why they are used, and that they are safe and helpful.
  • I want the concerned grandma to know that all meat is free of antibiotics regardless of what’s on the label.
  • I want the mom with the newborn to know that no pork and poultry is raised with steroid hormones, and she can enjoy it worry-free.
  • I want everyone to understand the importance of food safety and meat thermometers.

Unfortunately, we live in a society full of judging and Mom guilt. Feeling guilty and judged sure makes you feel like an Underdog. When they can’t afford the food that everyone says they should feed their kids, or they’re too busy to get it prepared, or they just don’t understand all the hype, I hope my blog helps them to feel a little more confident about the decisions they make to feed their families.

I've always been one to root for the Underdog.

Other Underdog posts:

Dirt Road Charm

Dairy Carrie

Heim Dairy

Rural Gone Urban

Farming America

Friday, January 9, 2015

What’s in a food label? Uncured, naturally cured or no nitrate or nitrite added.

This year I’ve been working on a series of posts about food labels and what they mean. In earlier posts, I talked about what the Natural label means on a meat package, but I get some questions about Uncured, Naturally Cured or processed meat products that are made without nitrate or nitrite.
uncured salami package
I’ve covered this topic before in a post called ‘What is Nitrite?’, but I wanted to cover it again in the labeling series.
Some processors want to create friendlier, less chemically labels and choose to remove nitrates. Also, when meat processors want to use the Natural or Organic labels, they are not allowed to add nitrites and nitrates as they are classified by the USDA as chemical preservatives.

What if you just removed these ingredients from natural products?
Just take it out. Problem solved.

Some processors do that, but without nitrite, deli ham would not be pink, it would basically be just a pork roast. Tasty meats like bacon and hotdogs wouldn’t have the same flavors we enjoy. And, most importantly, all of these products would be more susceptible to spoilage and the growth of dangerous bacteria. The nitrite helps them last longer on store shelves and in your refrigerator. Nitrite also makes them safer for you and your family.

So, removing it doesn’t work.

What is nitrite anyway and what is its purpose in meat?

Nitrite is added to processed meats like ham, bacon, and sausages (hotdogs, bologna, etc) for 4 reasons:

1.       It prevents the growth of Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism). Botulism can shut down your nervous system and that’s not healthy. It also helps control other dangerous pathogens and bacteria that cause spoilage, so it helps keep meat safe.

2.       It is a very powerful antioxidant and keeps the meat from going rancid. The fat in processed meat can get funky flavors if allowed to oxidize, and nitrite helps to keep that from happening. Ever notice why a package of ham can last for weeks in your fridge while leftovers go bad in a few days?

3.       It gives cured meats their distinct pink color. The nitrite reacts with the muscle protein and changes it to pink, and it stays pink for a much longer time than fresh meat stays red.

4.       It gives cured meats their distinct flavor. That unique “hammy” and smoky flavor of a ham or that unique bacon flavor in bacon comes from the nitrite.

German researchers discovered that nitrite and
not nitrate (curing cousins) was the form of
curing salt responsible for meat curing, and
started to exclusively use nitrite for curing.
Also, without nitrite, several products would completely lose their identity. The USDA has standards of identity that regulate what is a hot dog, bologna, or even bacon and nitrite is an important ingredient for making them what they are. Without it, they are no longer “cured.” This means bacon without nitrite would no longer be bacon, but would instead be cooked pork belly.

How do “Natural” and “Cured” coexist?

Even though, nitrate and nitrite are not allowed to be directly added to natural and organic labeled meat products, other ‘natural’ ingredients with high levels of naturally-occurring nitrate can be used to replace the synthetic forms.

Many vegetables contain high levels of naturally accumulating nitrate. In fact, the main human dietary source of nitrate isn’t processed meats, but actually green leafy vegetables like spinach and celery. When the nitrate is converted to nitrite, presto… meat curing can naturally happen.

Meat processors can use vegetable powder in processed meats as a source of nitrite to create the pink color and cured flavor. On the label, it may be listed as celery powder, flavoring, or natural flavoring. The nitrite derived from vegetables and found in vegetable powder and in natural meats is exactly the same compound as that found in conventionally cured meats.

However, this substitution doesn’t replace all the nitrite needed to provide important quality and safety attributes. The final nitrite levels are lower and the vegetable powder may have to be limited because it can give the meat product its own flavors, too. These lower nitrate levels mean that the naturally cured meats are not as well protected from spoilage and pathogenic bacteria like Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes. So, other steps must be taken to help keep the product safe. Meat processors add natural antimicrobial ingredients or use extra processes like high pressure processing to protect against spoilage and dangerous bacteria.

So what’s the difference, really?

Generally, natural meats are going to be more expensive because the ingredients that go into them are more expensive. However, when your dinner hits the table, natural and conventionally-cured meats should taste the same and both are safe and nutritious for your family.


For this post, I want to thank Dr. Jeff Sindelar from the University of Wisconsin for helping me explain all the nitrate/nitrite chemistry. Jeff and I have been buddies since graduate school, and he is a great meat scientist who has devoted his research to naturally-cured meats. You can see him talking about it in his Meat Myth Crusher video.