Random thoughts

Random… as if this blog hasn’t been random enough.  Today I’ll share a few things that have crossed the path over the last several days.  These should touch upon science, farming, food, and living a measured life… hopefully going somewhat along the lines of the mission here.

Science – several days ago I was doing a little background research for a new wrinkle in our ongoing breeding work.  Bionanogenomics came up.  What?  Turns out there is also bionanophotonics… and my favorite – bionanophenomics.  No link to the last one – but for simplicity, take genomics – the study of all the genes in a genome and substitute phenomics – the study of all the phenotypes for a given genotype.  Random enough yet??  This boils down to having technology that allows us to look at lots of different germplasm (lots of different soybean varieties in our lab) and see what they’ll do as we change the combinations of their genes.  We have already been doing this for quite a long time now.  The new wrinkle is that this tech allows very specific and detailed questions to be asked (and presumably… answered) for characteristics at a subcellular level.  I won’t be doing this myself – but in order to visit with someone who might, I’ll have to be able to understand what they’re up to. 

Farming – never a dull moment.  Any day now the new Biden administration should have their Secretary of Agriculture approved by the Senate.  Tom Vilsack is up for a return engagement.  This former governor of Iowa was the secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration.  For the last four years he’s been busy in the dairy world.  I won’t suggest he’s been milking it (the groans are too easily forecast for that one)… but I will offer that I personally don’t have an issue with bringing Tom back for another round. 

Tom's intesrest while Trump was in the White House
Cows – Tom’s clientele during the Trump administration

Food – what?  Milk isn’t food enough?  Cheese, ice cream, yogurt… and on and on.  And this from a soybean breeder.  Soymilk, tofu, soy sauce… bionanophenomic measures of subcellular biology.  What’s not to like?

Well, there is the promise of newer sources of very high protein plant based foods.  There is plenty of controversy in this area of the food future, and I’m still wading through much of the minutia.  But all this wading about is fascinating.  Some of the potential in this realm may actually end up as food for the cows (so they can do a more efficient job of making food for us).  This then would be more circular and a bit less random. 

Living a measured life – on this front there is a quick anecdote about a document I just found among my Mother’s keepsakes.  After Mom passed a few years ago I latched onto a few boxes of her photos, and other memorabilia.  I’ve not been particularly active in going through it all.  But very recently I made another dip into the storage boxes and ran across the promissory note she and my Father had signed when they bought the farm my sibs and I grew up on.  It was duly marked paid.  It shows all the relevant figures for amounts owed, interest terms, legal remedies, and so forth.  The dates fascinated me, much because I was just at the beginning of my formal schooling when we moved to the farm.  My sister was about two months old when we moved.  My eldest son was about two months old when they paid it off. 

Five years ago I wrote a piece for this blog about the old barn that used to stand on that farm.  As it happens, there were Holstein steers fed in that barn while I lived there.  No, not milking it… steers end up in hamburger.  Food for thought. 

Instead of sheep, imagine Holstein steers, about a dozen, in that front pasture – circa 1970.


  1. thanks for the peek into nano agriculture, Clem. Also cute steers!


  2. jcherfas · · Reply

    I remain deeply skeptical of growing for for cows “so they can do a more efficient job of making food for us”. Depends on how you measure efficiency, of course, but might it not be more efficient to use good land to grow food that people can eat directly, without having any of the inefficiencies of passing through another animal? Let the cows eat the food we cannot eat, grazing rough pasture, uplands and so on.


    1. Hi Jeremy, thanks for stopping by and caring to comment.

      I agree that on the surface of it there is little sense feeding an animal something we can eat just so that we can eat the animal (or an animal product such as milk). So from my chair I tend toward favoring soymilk over cows milk when sustainability is the main issue. But very little is so simple as the surface might suggest (and sustainability is not always the most significant concern).

      If we dig a bit deeper we find ourselves with supply chains harboring issues such as:
      longs and shorts,
      questionable quality commodities (in need of a home)
      location dependent provisions (transportation costs being relevant)
      feed and ration balancing with items to hand

      I can go on if you’re curious. But let me flesh out a hypothetical to illustrate.

      Farmers Fred and Fran have a dozen dairy cows and a handful of beef animals. They have a dozen hectares of arable land and another dozen hectares of grassland. On the arable they raise commodity grains in rotations – lets assume they’re raising some corn, wheat, and soy. If they also keep a kitchen garden, a few hens and a pig or two they should find themselves very well provided for their family and have some production to sell. To sell… participating in a market. Quality and quantity, freshness, proximity to customers, these items now matter more than they did while Fred, Fran and their clan were the consumers. Downstream processing (making cheese, ice cream etc) concerns become more significant.

      Now, over the course of year the pasture’s production (quality and quantity) changes so that F&F have to manage a milk supply that will change to reflect this reality unless they have means to manage feed. Wheat, corn, and soy can all be used as feed if necessary to keep the cows fed, healthy and producing good quantities of milk with good quality.

      In the post above I teased about very high protein plant products. I used the cows as an example because they were already mentioned. And cows attract plenty of controversy on their own. But the primary use for the very high protein plant products is for human consumption. Still – processed foods employing these materials have residuals that we humans tend to avoid (another matter to debate, but let’s save that for the moment). For example, when making tofu from soy there is a sizeable portion of okara produced. The okara can be further processed (and there is a startup in California doing just that – refs available on request) – BUT most of today’s okara ends up as animal feed, which is better than burying it. So if someone has a higher protein soybean grain to make tofu, and a portion of the protein increase passes through to the okara, then the quality of the subsequent feed is improved (or the human food made from the okara).

      In the end, I am not the least bit skeptical of raising food that might ostensibly be eaten by a human but is instead fed to an animal if necessary.

      Finally, I might add here that the very high protein soybean germplasm that I’m familiar with has benefited from access to diverse soybean germplasm – some of which descends from crop wild relatives which have been maintained in a germplasm bank by the USDA at Urbana, IL.


      1. 25 hectares and fewer than 20 animals are scarcely relevant. Fran and Fred would do far better to find a value-added proposition.


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