Thursday, March 29, 2007

From Wonder Dog to tree wonders: the journey continues

By Tara S. Polinsky

Since my visit to the world’s largest hairball, I’ve been on a mission to take in all the curious wonders Oregon has to offer.

I ticked three more items off the list, including a trip to see a mural devoted to Bobbie the Wonder Dog, a grove of trees from all 50 states at a rest stop and the world’s smallest redwood park.

Before the oddity tour began Sunday afternoon, I took in the tulip festival in Woodburn. Tulips are probably my favorite flower, so that was quite a sight. Not Holland exactly, but I imagine it’s close.

Now, on to the quirky stuff. First, I drove out to Silverton to trace the tale of Bobbie the Wonder Dog.

I think I’m the only person in Oregon who didn’t know this story, but for any others who don’t know, I’ll recount it now. Back in the summer of 1923, I’m told, a couple from Silverton drove across the country with their dog Bobbie.

Somehow when they arrived in Indiana, the dog got lost. And although the couple searched for Bobbie during their three-week visit, he didn’t turn up. They were upset and heartbroken to leave him behind, but they had to get back home.

Six months later — on Feb. 15, 1924 — Bobbie arrived on their doorstep in Oregon! He was much thinner after his 2,800-mile trek, but he apparently had made some friends along the way. He stayed at a few homes, and many people spoke of their Bobbie sightings, which helped authorities retrace his route back home.

Books were written about him, movies were made, and now, Silverton memoralizes the canine each May with a pet parade. The town also has a mural painted in Bobbie’s honor and has declared Feb. 15 Bobbie Day. There’s even a little replica doghouse in town.

I was sure to get a Bobbie pin at the Silverton museum as a souvenir. Again, they didn’t have T-shirts, magnets or earrings, either.

Now, on to the grove. The Baldock Rest Stop just south of Wilsonville on Interstate 5 is reportedly the state’s largest and most visited. Nestled amongst the restrooms and vending machines is a small trail with trees from each state, plus Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Back in 1967, Oregon Attorney General Robert Y. Thornton wanted to commemorate the meeting of attorneys general, held that year in Portland. He arranged for the highway department to plant the official tree from each state for the occasion. All the trees are labeled with a number, state and type.

I was excited to see the grove and maybe catch a glimpse of home — the Pennsylvania tree. However, the first tree on the trail was No. 2 Delaware. I couldn’t find No. 1 anywhere, and I’m guessing that one was from PA.

I’m not sure of the rhyme or reasoning to the numbering system. I only know that it’s not alphabetical or according to when the states ratified the Constitution. At any rate, it’s still an interesting sight to see and one you wouldn’t expect at a rest stop.

Monday afternoon, I spent part of my lunch break at the world’s smallest redwood park in Salem at the corner of Union and Summer streets near the Capitol. For years, it was the smallest park period at 12 by 20 feet. But Portland was not to be outdone, and a 2-by-2-foot park, supposedly inhabited by leprechauns, took the honor. (More on this later when the oddities tour takes on Portland.)

A California salesman was said to have sold a redwood sapling to a Salem judge in 1872. The judge, William Waldo, planted said tree on his property, but as the tree grew, so did the city.

The judge gave up his land for construction of a road, but he struck a deal with the city of Salem that the redwood go untouched. The tree is now about 85 feet tall with a circumference of 22 feet. Proposals have come and gone to remove the so-called traffic hazard, but the tree lives on.

I’m mapping out plans for my next adventures now. I’m not sure where I’ll go next, but I’m really wanting to see the vacuum cleaner museum, the world’s oldest piece of wedding cake and take a tour of underground Portland.

Stay tuned...

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Oregon's oddities and attractions on display

By Tara S. Polinsky

I moved from Pennsylvania to Oregon in early January and have worked to learn my way around. In the first few weeks, I stuck mainly to Portland’s downtown and Hawthorne Boulevard but decided I wanted to see more. During one of my escapades around the city March 17, I stopped at Powell’s City of Books.

I had never seen anything like it before. I had heard stories, but they didn’t prepare me for the block-long, three-story-high bookstore. I wandered for about two hours, and I’m sure I still didn’t see everything. While I was there, I bought a book called “Oregon Curiosities” by Harriet Baskas with quirky and odd things to see throughout the state. I figured it would give me lots of ideas for fun things to do and help get me acclimated.

Curiously, Powell’s is just one of the offbeat things covered in the book. And the $14.95 was well worth it.

One of the first things that caught my eye in the book was the world’s largest hairball in Mt. Angel, which is just about 20-30 miles from where I live in Wilsonville.

Here’s a little background: Apparently, back in 1941, some workers at a meat-packing plant found a 2 1/2-pound hairball in a 300-pound hog. For some reason, they decided to take it to the St. Benedectine abbey, thinking that was something the monks would like to see. They were right apparently, as the monks accepted this gift and put it in their museum, next to an eight-legged cow, a six-legged calf and many other oddities.

I became obsessed with seeing this hairball. It was all the talk at work all week. But when I went online to find the monks’ museum hours, I learned that it was only open till 4 p.m. on weekdays. That pretty well crushed my hopes of ever seeing it. (It turns out, the hours have now changed from 1 to 5 p.m. for anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of the hairball.)

But at the end of a meeting at work March 23, a fellow copy editor mentioned that he couldn’t get me to stop talking about the hairball. And I lamented the museum times and how it just didn’t seem meant to be. My boss surprised me when he said I could leave work early to check it out.

He told me to be sure to take lots of pictures. I was very excited and found it very hard to concentrate on work the rest of the afternoon.

Most people think the hairball is pretty disgusting, and I had a hard time talking anyone into going with me. I had dinner with friends the night before and tried in vain to get them to see the light. They just kept saying how they have cats, and that’s not something they want to see.

So, I made my way in solitude out to the abbey, which sits at the top of a hill, overlooking rural Oregon. It’s a magnificent view up there and so solemn and peaceful. I was loath to leave when my fun came to an end.

I picked up a map at the library and headed over to the museum, where I was surprised to find two other adventure-seekers. I located the hairball amidst an array of taxidermy animals, quartz stones, various bird eggs, religious artifacts and more. “Random” described the scene well.

One of the other quirky tourists was kind enough to take my photo.

“Do you want the hairball in it?” she asked me.

“Of course!” I proclaimed. “It is the world’s largest, you know.”

She did know. It turns out, they are into the curious and odd, as well, and we talked for quite a while about Oregon oddities. We shared ideas about things to visit, then headed to the bookstore, hoping to find a souvenir of the hairball.

I had visions of hairball T-shirts and magnets and maybe even earrings. But alas, that was not meant to be. I did, however, come across a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I love my German shepherd,” with a picture of the pope on it. I’m not Catholic, but I couldn’t resist buying that! I also found a bottle labeled, “Holy water.” And when I was paying for it, my cashier kindly offered to fill it with said water.

“Sure, if you have some around,” I said. I needn’t have worried. There was a cooler under the counter that dispensed cool holy water.

After that, I said goodbye to my new friends and headed back to more urban environs. I’ve recounted the story many times, and only a few have seen the draw in the giant hairball. But for any other like-minded tourists, take the Woodburn exit off Interstate 5 (#271) and follow Route 214 toward Mt. Angel. When you get to town, turn left on College Road or Church Street and follow the signs to the abbey.

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New team member added to blogging team

Every newsroom has its own character: personalities, egos, ambitions and priorities in life. Occasionally the priority is to put out a newspaper.

At Capital Press, the editorial department is a pretty-easy going kind of place. You'll never hear yelling, shouting, arguing or especially "Stop the press!" Part of that is because ... well, the press is across town at another newspaper company's building. "Stop that computer!" would be just downright silly to yell out even in the most newsworthy of moments.

When new people join our newspaper, we welcome them warmly and try to see how soon we can corrupt ... I mean, influence them. We eagerly seek ways to teach them about the newspaper but also about the community we're in: we share what it's like to live in this state, or even in the West, and try to encourage new people to see all that we have stumbled across in our own journey through life here.

And thus, that is how Tara S. Polinsky heard all about the Great Hairball. By day, she helps do newspaper layout, but when she's not at our office she's off exploring Oregon to see if we were telling her the truth about some of the things she'll find in the state. Such as the giant hairball.

Tara has agreed to become part of our blogging team so she can share some of her experiences and help people feel like they were actually there in some of these exciting places.

Hopefully fans of our blog will respond with feedback. And if anyone has any suggestions of other places to visit and things to see, please let us know.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rabbits, toads, nutria and other ideas gone horribly wrong

Next time anyone considers smuggling some non-native critter into another state or country, hopefully that person will think twice about the consequences.

Often agriculture has ended up being negatively impacted by what can go wrong when these pets, game targets or science experiments run wild.

Check out ponds or waterways in Oregon, and chances are you’ll soon spot a familiar sight: nutria swimming among the ducks, walking on the muddy banks, or off searching a nearby field for a tasty treat.

If you’re not from the West, the first time you see it, you wonder what is it: beaver? Muskrat? Otter? For those who know it well, the nutria is described in one word: pest.

According to, nutria means otter in Spanish, and when it first was brought here from South America in the 1930s, people thought it would be a good thing for the state and the fur industry.

According to Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Many hopeful investors started small captive colonies in many locations in the United States, Canada, and many European countries. Many of these farms, however, did not succeed and the animals either escaped or were intentionally released to the wild, which resulted in the wild populations present today. Wild nutria were first reported in Oregon during the 1930s.”

Again, for those of you not in the West, here’s what it looks like, according to ODFW: “A nutria is smaller than a beaver but larger than a muskrat; unlike beavers or muskrats, however, it has a round, slightly haired tail. Nutria have large incisors that are yellow to orange-red on the outer surface. The dense grayish underfur is overlaid by long, glossy guard hairs that vary in color from dark brown to yellowish brown. The guard hairs are long and coarse on the back and finer on the side and the belly. The forelegs are small compared with its body size. The forepaws have five toes; four are clawed and the fifth is reduced in size. The claws are used to groom and to excavate roots, rhizomes, and burrows, and are used in feeding. The hind foot consists of four webbed, strongly clawed toes and one unwebbed toe. The hind legs are large compared with the forelegs; consequently, when moving on land, the nutria's front end is lower than the back end and it appears hunched.

“Nutria are approximately 24 inches long. Their round tail is from 13 to 16 inches long. Males are slightly larger than females; the average weight for a male is about 12-20 pounds, and average weight for a female is approximately 10 to 18 pounds. The ears are small and the eyes are set high on the head.”

Perhaps one of the most important things to note about nutria is this: “Nutria appear to breed throughout the year. Females sometimes give birth to their first litter when they themselves are only 8 or 9 months old. Each adult female produces two or three litters a year. The number of young per litter ranges from 2 to 11 and averages about 5.”

Not to forget: “Nutria are especially fond of alfalfa, clover, root crops, and garden produce (cabbage, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc).”

The department goes on: “Burrows can weaken roadbeds, stream banks, dams, and dikes, which may collapse when the soil is saturated by rain or high water. Rain action can wash out and enlarge collapsed burrows and compounds the damage.

“Nutria depredation on crops is also well documented. Crops that have been damaged include corn, sugar and table beets, alfalfa, wheat, barley, oats, various melons, and a variety of vegetables from home gardens and truck farms. Nutria girdle fruit, nut, deciduous and coniferous forest trees, and ornamental shrubs. They dig up lawns when feeding on the tender roots and shoots of sod grasses.

“At high densities and under certain adverse environmental conditions, foraging nutria can also significantly impact natural plant communities.”

Suddenly those fur-bearing animals don’t seem so lovable anymore. Actually, they’re sort of cute from a distance, but get close to one and as soon as they flash their yellow teeth, the cuteness disappears. Okay, so they are still cuter than opossums…

Lane County in Oregon is one of the places that has had enough of nutria.

According to an Associated Press story, these 20-pound nutria have been bothering people in Eugene and have become nasty.

“They're huge, and they look like a beaver with a rat tail,” resident Jim Hayes was reported as telling the media. “Not only that, but if you corner them, they can get nasty. They rear up on their hind legs and hiss.”

Some areas in Eugene have contemplated even putting in special fences to try to keep the nutria away, but these fences can be expensive and not an option for a lot of people fighting nutria.

And, of course, while the nutria might be stopped from burrowing underneath, the opossums might still find a way to climb into yards.

What to do if that opossum is in the yard? According to ODFW, ( be prepared: “When threatened, the opossum may bare its teeth, growl, hiss, bite, screech, and exude a smelly, greenish fluid from its anal glands. If these defenses are not successful, the opossum may play dead.”

Fortunately, most people in Oregon already find these critters in the latter state — only very dead — and usually quite flat, because often they’re roadkill.

Again, these animals were introduced here, carried from the Southern states by people who probably didn’t think they would become a problem someday. They were just supposed to be something for them to hunt, like they did in the good ol’ South.

These are just two examples of animals that are brought into a new place and there are dire consequences later. People don’t always consider what will happen: how fast do they reproduce? What special needs do they have? Will their diets lead to damage to agricultural crops in the area? How controllable are they? What natural predators are there? Do they spread diseases, cause damage to buildings, maybe harbor secret ambitions to dominate the world someday?

Which brings us to the topic of European rabbits and what they did to Australia.

Wild rabbits are more than just a nuisance there: it’s estimated that each year it costs $600 million in control costs and production losses. First introduced in the late 1700s, most of the problem appears to have originated in 1859 when rabbits were brought in and released as a target for hunting.

Obviously, killing rabbits isn’t as easy as the hunter thought. They began so spread rapidly in the country: soon millions of them were killing off native plants, and competing with livestock for food. Ten rabbits will eat as much grass as one head of sheep.

The Australians have tried everything from a rabbit fence 1,833 kilometers long to trying to introduce viruses to kill the rabbits. Each time there is some success with the viruses — in the 1950s, the virus successfully killed off 99 percent of the infected rabbits — but the population continued to jump back again.

Talk about your hare-raising situation.

In 1990, a cattle rancher in Australia was questioned what it was like when rabbits were at their worst when they attacked his farm. The rancher paused, then lifted his arm towards the horizon. He described what it was like to watch what seemed like a cloud of white slowly move towards him over the hills and through the valleys. He said the rabbits were unstoppable and ate almost edible everything in their path. He reckoned that was what locusts were like in other parts of the world.

As researchers continue to hop to conclusions on how to battle the curse of the rabbits in some parts of Australia, another part of Australia is fighting yet another problem that someone brought into the country.

After the problem with rabbits, surely people should have become more wary of bringing non-native wildlife into Australia.

However, a recent Reuters story said that in 1935 cane toads were brought to Australia from Hawaii to battle native cane beetles. Not only did the toads fail to do that, but they also increased to being 200 million toads.

Probably somewhere out there are the skeptics who first heard about and protested shipping toads into the county and they all exclaimed: “Toad you so!”

So how big is the toad problem?

According to the Reuters story, someone has captured a cane toad the size of a small dog: 8 inches long and just under 2 pounds, about twice the normal size of those toads.

When not scaring people, these poisonous toads have “ led to dramatic declines in populations of native snakes, goanna lizards and quolls, which are cat-sized marsupials,” said Reuters.

So where does this all leave us?

We probably will never truly learn our lesson, as long as there is international travel and people ignorant or stubborn enough to carry creatures from one place to another, for whatever the reason.

And never underestimate how determined people can be.

Last week, according to AP, guards at the Gaza-Egypt border stopped a woman who had three 20-inch long baby crocodiles strapped to her waist under her robe. Apparently, she was part of a smuggling ring that valued each crocodile as potential to earn $500.

The story explained that when the woman was searched, “At first there was a lot of screaming, but a spokeswoman for the European observers who run the crossing says people actually admired the woman who was able to ‘tie crocodiles to her body.’”

The lesson learned: the smuggling world is not all it’s croc’ed up to be.

Now, how cute are these quolls, can they scare off the nutria, and how can they be smuggled here?

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Sweet 16

The 16th episode of the Farmers' CAP podcast has been posted. You can listen to it here.

Editor's View on News

When asked in the sales meeting this week about the dynamics of writing the recent successful newspaper special section, Climate Change in recent months, the managing editor of the Capital Press remarked, "Climate change is not news, but a discussion about the politics of science."

- Carl Sampson, Managing Editor, Capital Press Agriculture Weekly

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

We have company

Our advertising staff, which is normally spread out in four states, is in town for their twice-yearly conclave. In a few minutes, they'll be participating in discussions about our websites, and

I will get to bore them for a little while with some details about visitors to our website. Nothing like a presentation involving statistics in the late afternoon on a sunny day to put a group of people around a conference table to sleep.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

During the first full day of spring, it’s appropriate to share with others across the country a cheerful image from here of our cherry blossoms, magnolias and daffodils near the state Capitol building in Salem, Ore.

This was taken last Saturday, before the rain knocked down some of the blossoms.

Seeing the first signs of spring here, I decided on the weekend to call my family back at the farm on the Canadian prairies. This is the time of year I think of the farm the most, the time of renewal, and most importantly, calving season.

My younger brother and my father are taking shifts day and night to ensure the calves are born safely. They’ve had more snow than usual, so there’s been extra work making sure the calves are warm and dry.

For those of us who have ties to raising cattle, this is such a busy time but also one of the best times. When calves are born healthy, when they’re accepted quickly by their mothers, when those calves begin to take their first steps and then soon start to run and jump and play … those are the times when we feel relief, pride and joy about the hard work we do on our farms.

I'll post pictures of calves and cattle another day, but for today I thought perhaps spring images from Salem might be more suitable.

Enjoy, and we welcome people to email us their pictures that we can share with others of what spring looks like wherever they may be.

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Hear from three wise men of Oregon's education and natural resources community

In my last post, I mentioned a meeting Managing Editor Carl Sampson and I had with three deans from Oregon State University. If you would like to hear portions of that interview for yourself, excerpts are now available online.

Hear what Thayne R. Dutson, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, A. Scott Reed, dean of OSU Extension Service, and Stephen D. Hobbs, executive associate dean of the College of Forestry had to say on by clicking here.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Taking a gigabyte out of OSU programs' budgets

The Capital Press Editorial Board met today with three deans from Oregon State University to discuss various issues, but mostly funding for the university's Extension Service, Agricultural Experiment Station and Forest Research Laboratory.

Managing Editor Carl Sampson and I talked with Thayne R. Dutson, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, A. Scott Reed, dean of OSU Extension Service, and Stephen D. Hobbs, executive associate dean of the College of Forestry. The deans shared a great deal of information over the course of our two-hour meeting about where their funding goes and the world-class research and programs the natural resources-based departments offer.

In our ongoing foray into multimedia use, we recorded the session to share with our executive editor, Elaine Shein, and reporter Mitch Lies, who weren't able to attend the meeting today.

Obviously, I need to go back to school if I'm going to have any hope of learning the multimedia aspects of information gathering and distribution. While I've used our digital audio recorder to capture sound for our podcasts, I'm certainly no audio engineer. It took me a half hour to figure out how to set up the recorder to use two microphones (previously I've only used one). And I must have had something set wrong.

As I write this post I'm still trying to convert one of the audio files from our discussion into a smaller file format for Elaine and Mitch, because I'm pretty sure they don't want the 1.26 gigabyte files that the recorder ended up with. It took a more than a half hour just to copy the files from the recorder to my computer. Now it's taking another 20-plus minutes to convert the monster file down to a more economical file size.

Dealing with the complexity of funding for a major land-grant university and stereo digital audio recording on a Friday afternoon may be too much to take. My mental hard drive is full up. I can't absorb another gigabyte. Not today anyway.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A year of evolution, growth and change

What started as an uncertain experiment has now endured for a year. Back on March 15, 2006, I didn't know whether this blog would last a day or a week, let alone a year.

The Capital Press has a long and proud tradition of thinking outside traditional boundaries and expanding into new areas, reaching out to readers in new ways. A newspaper that started out to serve the Hollywood neighborhood in Salem, Ore., has undergone a name change and a change from covering community news or covering agriculture. It has grown from covering a neighborhood and one city to four states and beyond. With print subscribers in all 50 states to a global reach on the Internet, the staff of the Capital Press has taken some bold steps since its founding in 1928 as the Hollywood Press.

But when Blogriculture was established, there may have been a few people in the Capital Press family that thought I had sniffed too many photo chemicals early in my career.

I certainly had my share of doubts. I wasn't finding very many agriculture-related blogs out there at the time. Finding agriculture blogs was a challenge, but blogs related to West Coast agriculture was even more rare..

The blogroll has grown over the last year. And the number of people contributing to the blog has grown too. One year ago, I was also looking for agriculture related podcasts, now we have our own podcast, that's four (or 5) months old and 15 episodes strong.

Our effort and success has been modest. We've had about 7,800 visits in a year's time, which is about equivalent to one-sixth of the subscribers our printed paper has in a week, or about the number of unique visitors our website gets every six days.

But web traffic isn't the only measure of success. For those of us here at Capital Press, it has opened our eyes, and our minds. to new options and opportunities. We've explored topics on the fringe of agriculture, like rodeo coverage and rural life topics that might never have been covered in our print paper. We've supplemented our coverage of event with blog posts. We've previewed first drafts of editorials and columns on our blog before they made it into the printed paper. We've published other pieces that we thought were interesting, but not necessarily a perfect fit for our printed paper. We've made some cyber friends and acquaintances here in Oregon and across the country.

We hope you've enjoyed some of our posts here. I'm looking forward to seeing how the next year evolves here at Blogriculture and on our site as well as in the printed newspaper. Agriculture is evolving too, and we hope you will join us in the dialogue about what is good about those changes, what may be bad about them and how the changing world is affecting the people who work in and around agriculture.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

It's not so good to be the king

Spotted today on a bumper sticker affixed to a car driving in Salem, Ore.

"Men are idiots and I married their King."

Anyone else wonder if the woman driving the car was still still married? If she is, the bumper sticker alone should be grounds for divorce. Oh, yea, I thought it was a funny sticker, but would you want to be her husband? And ride around in her car?


The newest episode of the Farmers' CAP podcast has been posted. Feel free to check it out, it's episode 15. Can you believe it? Me neither. How has that show survived cancellation?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Another online ag resource worth exploring

I've added a new link to our blogroll for a site called If you are looking for podcasts and blogs about agriculture, it's worth checking out. They include not only links to blogs and podcasts about agriculture, but also include details on what their latest posts from those sites are.

"Everything is sorted by newest to oldest, so when you add a new one it will go to to the top and then work it's way down as newer files are available," says site creator Dwayne Leslie. "The newest 4 feeds are also on the homepage."

Thanks, Dwayne, for including our podcast on your directory. This could be a good resource for farmers wanting to know what is happening in other parts of the country. For the most part the links we've been putting on this site we have tried to limit to either West Coast specific sites, or general agriculture sites/blogs that might be of interest to West Coast farmers and ranchers. So, is a nice collection of ag-specific sites representing a broader geographic and commodity range of sites.

In a press release issued last month when the site what announced, the mission of the site was described as "the first website designed to help the farm media communicate better with farmers and the agriculture industry."

In the statement, Dwayne Leslie said, "Farmers spend more time with the radio than they do with any other form of media. Listening to audio content on their MP3 player is the natural progression so they can listen to the daily markets and news regardless of what time it is or where they may be. Having the opportunity to listen to specific programming from outside their regular listening area is also a huge benefit."

I would agree with Dwayne in that there is great potential out there for this sort of use for podcasts. It's very much a content-on-demand model, where farmers and ranchers can choose what they want to listen to and listen to it when and where they find it most convenient.

Thanks again, Dwayne. Check out his site. You are sure to find something there that will be useful or interesting for you if you care about agriculture. And it will be another place you can monitor to tell if we have a new podcast episode ready to download.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Thanks, Ali

A new blogger, Ali, has added Blogriculture to her favorites through the ORBlogs directory. Thanks, Ali. Stop by any time.

If you want to find out more about what Ali finds interesting, check out her blog, Come to the Aliway.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Dairy deja vu

There's a story making the national Associated Press wire today about how California Dairies Inc., a large cooperative in the nation's largest dairy state, is asking it's members to sign on to a deal not to use a popular but controversial synthetic hormone.

The wire service is now picking up the story after a few other mainstream papers in California did stories on this issue.

I can certainly understand why this would make the national wires. After all, it deals with a big agricultural issue in a big agriculture state and could also have implications for a big international agriculture company, namely Monsanto and its product Posilac.

But the funny thing is. I feel like I read about this before. But where did I read that?

Oh, yea. I read it, and a lot of other folks did too, in the Feb. 9 California edition of Capital Press.

Bravo to reporter Cecilia Parsons for getting news out there to Capital Press readers. Sometimes it just takes other folks a while to catch on.

Too much stuff to remember

The dumbing down of America? I blame it all on the stuff we have to remember these days. How can we think clearly when we have so much to remember?

When I was younger and supposedly quicker of thought and stronger of memory, I didn't have to keep track of as many things as I do now, when I'm slower and dumber, and that doesn't seem quite fair. There weren't as many kinds of cars then, or professional ball teams, and there was only one computer -- a big machine named Univac that as far as I was concerned existed only in the pages of the Weekly Reader at school.

I've tried to keep track of the many kinds of automobiles on the road, but lost that battle long ago. Today's cars all look like multi-colored Chiclets to me, and they have even stranger names than Bel-Air or Fury. As a semi-skilled but regular New York Times crossword puzzler, my biggest fear has been that the puzzle's creators will start slipping in names of new models of cars. Well, they've started. What the heck is an Acero, anyway?

In my prime (somewhere around the age of 12, I think), most major league baseball teams were located east of the Mississippi, with the exception of two expatriate teams in California. Ergo, fewer players to follow in the sports pages. And never did their exploits on or off the field end up elsewhere in the newspaper with the exception of those who married actresses. Now the players and teams are all over the place, seasons running into each other, a frenzied polyglot of sports drinks, shoes, courtroom trials and meaningless statistics.

The proliferation of numbers and letters crucial to our daily lives is perhaps the cruelest modern trick on the memory impaired. It doesn't seem so long ago that I had to know only my telephone number and the alphabet. Now I have to remember numbers and letters of cell phones, pagers, ATM codes, security codes, computer passwords and television channels (of which there were only three back then, if I remember correctly, which is doubtful). Would Albert Einstein have been able to think up the Theory of Relativity if he had all those numbers crowding into his brain at the same time? I think not. He would have had to settle for the Guess of Relativity.

Computers? Wonderful things, but I find it ironic that a technology that has so revolutionized the way we conduct our business, with its ensuing complications, is based on the simplicity of the numbers one and zero. I can remember one and zero. Why do I have to know RAM and ROM and gigabytes and megahertz? Or is it megabytes and gigahertz. See what I mean?

The names of many countries and cities have changed over the years, further crowding the memory bank. Somewhere along the line Burma became Myanmar and the Chinese insisted we call all their cities something impossible to pronounce, much less spell. Perhaps they were tired of the "peeking duck" jokes. Not to be outdone, China's arch rival the Soviet Union decided to call it quits solely in order to foist on the world an even more confusing collection of countries whose only apparent similarity is that their names end in -stan.

National parks? I used to know all their names and where they were. Now the neighbor's probably got one in his backyard. We keep getting new presidents, who are hard enough to keep in order, but now they're starting to have the same names as old ones.

It's my theory (sorry, I mean my guess) that it was a proliferation of numbers, details and hype-generated factoids that caused the downfall of the Roman Empire. In their heyday, the Romans had only a few chariot makes to keep track of, and sports fans gathered in the Coliseum to watch the exploits of but a handful of gladiator teams.

Then General Chariot Co. came out with its new, souped-up Jupiter model to escalate the competition with its rivals, and things began to get complicated. The Professional Gladiator's League expanded to 32 franchises and created the Colossus of Rhodes Bowl in order to advertise all the new chariot models and the latest fashions in sports sandals, togas and snacks. Finally, Julius Caesar conquered a bunch of new countries and changed all their names. Ultimately, with people having to remember so many things, Rome got sacked.

See what can happen?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Tips for farmers on how to handle journalists

As I listened to the tips a former journalist gave dairy producers recently, I thought there were some good suggestions on how farmers can handle the media better, but frankly I also worried about some of the advice.

Dave Yewman, a former newspaper reporter and columnist who now is a strategic communications expert, held a session for the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association complete with some role-playing to see how farmers handle journalists, and offering 10 tips to help them out.

The 10 tips were:
1) Tell stories.
2) Use facts.
3) Be prepared. Know when the deadline is, or who the reporter is. The first question the farmer should ask is when is the reporter’s deadline. Then if possible, offer to do the interview a bit later that day or the next day, and think through what to say to the reporter.
4) Think visual. A farmer should think what visuals are behind him or her on the farm while doing the interview. Those visuals could help support or may conflict with the message the farmer is giving.
5) Ask questions. Ask what type of story that reporter is writing, and ask if there is anyone else the reporter would like to talk to.
6) Be quotable. Make them memorable, be conversational. Use statistics, specific quotes and anecdotes.
7) Practice. Practice an interview out loud several times.
8) Keep it simple, short and compelling.
9) Beware of loaded questions. He reminded people it’s part of the game and everyone is always on the record.
10) Respond rapidly. Even if farmers are busy, they should ask when is the deadline, ask if they can call back, and make sure they do that before the deadline.

Do I think farmers should be given advice on how to handle reporters? Absolutely. Like in any profession, there are good and bad journalists in our media industry.

I agree with Yewman that people should know such things as who is the journalist, and what’s the story supposed to be about.

Be prepared though: a story can change, even based on the interview or on other circumstances.

For example, the story might originally have been a scheduled friendly profile of a farmer and his family-run operation.

However, that day there might be some unfortunate disease that killed a cow on the other side of the country, which the farmer knows nothing about. The reporter sees this as an opportunity to do a local angle on a national story, and suddenly the farmer is being quizzed on such things as food safety, import rules, market prices and even why should the consumer trust the beef or milk from American farms.

Is it fair to the farmer? No. But unfortunately, that’s what can and does sometimes happen.

Knowing the identity of the journalist is also important, particularly during a time when there are so many special interest publications, personal agendas, and unfortunately people who may look for a chance to attack rather than report agriculture.

I always shudder when I hear how often members of animal rights groups or other special interest groups have passed themselves off as journalists and visited farms to collect damaging “evidence” of “atrocities” they claim to find. This doesn’t mean there aren’t farms who can and should do things better, but unfortunately these types of undercover visits give all agricultural practices a bad reputation, not just the ones visited.

Always be aware of and also wary of journalists who might not be tied to a publication or organization you have heard of or that may be asking questions that seem strange or biased. Listen very carefully to questions and how they are presented. What was the tone, what were the words, how loaded were the questions? Did the person seem more distracted by other things going on around than actually listening and writing down what you said? Have there been statements made by this so-called journalist that made you wonder if there was already a bias or different motive for this interview? What pictures did this reporter take, or what visuals seemed to draw the most attention?

Go with your gut feeling at times, and be prepared to end the interview if you don’t feel comfortable. You have that right. You also have the right to ask the reporter to read back a quote or give back his or her interpretation of what you just said, to clarify and ensure the reporter got it right in words as well as meaning.

Even if it’s a legitimate reporter for a familiar publication, ask how long has the person worked for the newspaper or even in that news beat, and how familiar is that reporter with agriculture or even that type of agriculture.

This lets you know how much background or explanation you need to offer, or might even influence you to decline the interview because you don’t feel comfortable talking to that reporter. You may wish to recommend the reporter talk to someone else, such as the executive director of your organization, or someone else you know could better handle as well as teach this reporter.

I said teach: often we don’t think of interviews in that term, but that is what a source does all the time.

A journalist is being taught about markets, production methods, breeds, varieties, ideas, attitudes, and issues that are relevant to agriculture.

No journalist knows it all. Any journalist who claims to know-it-all is probably not going to be the best person to interview anyone, because that journalist might already have biases and opinions that will mean the reporter won’t listen or be willing to write what the source says but be more tempted to write what he or she thinks should have been said.

This type of reporter might also use too much jargon, miss good questions or skip explanations since he or she is not thinking from the readers’ perspective, and not be open to new angles in the interview or story.

Even though I come from a farm and have been an agricultural journalism just about my whole career does not make me an expert on agriculture: in fact, I will be one of the first to declare the only thing I have learned is that there is so much more out there to learn. It’s a challenge, but it’s also why I love my job: I am continually learning about agriculture from the farmers and other sources I meet.

Yewman stressed journalists have deadlines and are busy people, as are farmers. He made a good point. Another suggestion is to make it clear from the start how much time is available for the interview, from both sides: the farmer’s side, as well as the reporter’s side, so each side knows the need to focus better on getting certain questions out and points across during that time.

One of the things I didn’t necessarily agree with Yewman is when he suggested people should always see if they can do an interview later so they have time to prepare. The media world has been changing, where deadlines even for a weekly newspaper aren’t what they used to be.

In this electronic age, even our weekly newspaper is trying to get stories up as soon as possible on our internet site. For other publications and especially in the broadcast world, there is a rush to be the first to get a story out on the air or on the World Wide Web, and there isn’t always the luxury of time to wait a day or even a few hours to get that interview again later.

Also, sometimes it’s better to do an interview more promptly because of other circumstances. For example, say a farmer speaks up at a conference or other event. After the session, the reporter approaches the farmer. The reporter will probably get the best quotes at that time while the event is still fresh in both the minds of the reporter and farmer: each will remember more clearly what was said, there might still be some of that emotion carried over from what the farmer said at the meeting. There might also be a better chance of the reporter getting things right in terms of what happened, such as having it straight who said what, and going over the precise words again.

A reporter is memorizing sources (if it’s strangers, what did they wear, is it possible to approach them later), what words were used, what mood was the person in and why (the farmer was responding to comments by a speaker, or certain facts in a presentation, or maybe talking to another farmer beside him).

The reporter may have already scribbled down the quick follow-up questions that will help complete the story. A few minutes might be all that is needed with that source.

If the farmer turns down the interview immediately afterwards or delays it for hours or days, the reporter may lose interest in the source, get more things incorrect, and the farmer and reporter might both have problems remembering more of the circumstances of what happened and why the comments were made in the first place.

That’s the reality of human nature and our memory span.

Yewman did offer some valuable tips, and hopefully farmers learned how to work with the reporters. Some farmers deal with media all the time, but some have never been contacted by a reporter before, and that is why such training is useful.

There are some great reporters out there who truly want to understand agriculture, make sure they get the story right and make sure it’s factual, fair and in context: but there are also those who are just trying to make a deadline, no matter what the consequences are to the farmer who shared the story.

Farmers can be valuable ambassadors getting the story of agriculture out to others, but they also deserve to have some tools to help tell the story better — and if needed, protect themselves at times against reporters.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Better than what?

Did you see the Today Show this morning? The were featuring a story about which is better, locally grown produce or organic produce. Here's a link to the text version posted on the Today Show website, which also includes a link to the video story as it aired this morning.

As part of the videotaped portion of the story, it featured an overlay of text at the bottom of the screen, which read "Today's Health: Is the organic food craze over?"

If you look closely, you can tell where the idea for the story came from. Specifically, it came from the March 2 issue of Time magazine.

Time magazine's current issue also features an article headlined "Eating better than organic,"
in which the writer, John Cloud takes nearly 5,000 words to tell us why he would pick one apple over another.

He starts off his article like this:

Not long ago I had an apple problem. Wavering in the produce section of a Manhattan grocery store, I was unable to decide between an organic apple and a nonorganic apple (which was labeled conventional, since that sounds better than "sprayed with pesticides that might kill you"). It shouldn't have been a tough choice — who wants to eat pesticide residue? — but the organic apples had been grown in California. The conventional ones were from right here in New York State. I know I've been listening to too much npr because I started wondering: How much Middle Eastern oil did it take to get that California apple to me? Which farmer should I support--the one who rejected pesticides in California or the one who was, in some romantic sense, a neighbor? Most important, didn't the apple's taste suffer after the fruit was crated and refrigerated and jostled for thousands of miles?

A casual reader of the Time article, or casual watcher of the Today Show may assume the stories explore the issue of food safety. But they don't. Not even close. Although it's not hard to tell where Cloud is coming from in his views of agricultural chemicals from his choice of words, namely "sprayed with pesticides that might kill you" and "who wants to eat pesticide residue?"

Well, no one wants to eat pesticide residue, but nowhere in Cloud's 5,000 word screed does he substantiate that anyone in the U.S. is eating pesticide residue or harmful levels of pesticide residue. And no where in his piece does he offer facts about consumers eating produce poisoned by pesticide residue which caused deaths.

If you pick though Cloud's piece and the Today Show piece by nutritionist Joy Bauer, you can actually find nuggets that tell you eating produce, regardless of how it is grown or how far away it is grown, makes for a healthier diet.

"No matter how you get your produce, get ample amounts of fruits and vegetables," Bauer tells Today Show host Meredith Vieira.

If you can sift through the inflammatory, scary language, you will find that whether people decide to buy organic or locally grown produce isn't really a matter of food safety, it's a matter of personal taste and social choice.

However, neither piece really benefits the American farmer, regardless of whether the farmer grows using organic, sustainable or conventional means. Next door, in the next state or across the country, efforts to differentiate one type of product from another to market to consumer choice are now being used by consumers, long-winded writers and unimaginative reporters who are somehow inferring from all this that our food is dangerous, in spite of the fact that life expectancy grows ever longer (as the Capital Press wrote about in a recent editorial). Because farmers grow food for the rest of us, apparently some of us have plenty of time — and money — to fret over worries about how everyone is out to poison them.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Giving away the store

A new episode of the Farmers' CAP podcast has been posted. And there may be a prize just for listening (and sending an e-mail).

But you'll have to check it to find out what we're giving away and how you can get it.

Is agriculture sustainable?

One of our freelance columnists, Don Curlee, wrote a column that appeared in the Capital Press recently, which attracted the attention of at least one blogger.

The Virtual Farmgirl blog features a post that mentions Don's column. The piece that Don wrote reflects his opinion, so I won't attempt to speak for him or reply for him. But I did find the Virtual Farmgirl post interesting. Everyone from family farmers to "corporate" farmers are facing the reality that consumers are seeking more foods from "organic" or "sustainable" growing practices. And in some cases farmers benefit from getting some sort of certification for their crops because they can sell there crops for a higher price.

However, I can't help but wonder where people think the bulk of our nation's food will come form if, for the sake of argument, all U.S. farms and ranches followed someone's definition of "organic" or "sustainable," which I can only assume means little or no pesticide or herbicide use and little or no chemical fertilizers are used. Won't that mean that overall crop production in the U.S. would drop, as yields fall due to reduced nutrients and more losses to bugs and weeds? Will Americans eat less? Or will we just import more food from foreign countries? And will those countries adopt our "organic" standards?

I also can't help but wonder how many people who want to tell farmers not to use chemicals to help things grow adopt the same standards in their own homes. What do they do when ants or cockroaches or mice or rats invade their homes? Do they call an exterminator? Break out the bug bomb?

The public needs to realize that the "evil" they perceive in agriculture is, in part, created by things like ever-growing hoops farmers have to jump through for so-called environmental protection. It's getting more and more difficult for a small, family operation to grow food and fiber in this country, but the demand for food grows ever larger as the population grows taking over ever-larger pieces of lands that were once farmed. That's what's threatening the sustainability of American agriculture and the family farm.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Making movies at CP, hold the Oscar

Winter makes it a bit trickier to drive the mountain passes, but heavy snowfall in the Cascade mountains of Oregon and the high desert near Sunriver, Ore. made for a wonderful creative backdrop for anyone who loves photography.

After the Oregon Dary Farmers annual convention wrapped up last week, I grabbed my camera and began shooting pictures. For a while, I've wanted to create a picture slideshow for the Capital Press website, and this allowed me to learn how to do it.

Thanks to Debbie Evans in our production department, the result is a short Quicktime movie that people can find on our website, Check out the multimedia area under our main menu on the left side or click here for a shortcut.

We hope in the future to have more of these types of items available, and also start mixing sound and images for a richer movie experience.

It won't win any Oscar nominations, but it's still nice to share with you our modest attempts at making movies.

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