Farmers and Education


A college education doesn’t necessarily make you a better backhoe operator; nor does the lack of one.

It never ceases to amaze me that so many people have a vision of farmers and ranchers as hayseeds who have limited education and can just barely read. That prejudice often extends to all of those who dwell in more rural areas. It’s as though “formal” education and advanced degrees are the prerogative of those who “work clean.” One of the girls who graduated from high school with the eldest granddaughter talked about the prejudice she ran into along those lines. In her valedictorian commencement speech, she said her advanced mathematics teacher asked why the student would need such knowledge if she was “just going to be a farmer.” Other counselors and teachers expressed surprise that she would have such high grades since she came from a farming background. These folks were not only displaying an unfortunately common prejudice about those involved in agricultural work, they were sadly misinformed. In reality, there are plenty of folks out there in the sticks who are highly educated.

Don’t let the google-eyes fool you; all these 4H kids either went on to college or are headed there.

As of 2017, 69 percent of farmers under 35 years old had college degrees, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s considerably higher than the general population. About one-quarter of all farmers have college degrees – and not necessarily in agriculture. Writer and farmer Wendell Berry holds an MA in English from the University of Kentucky and was a Guggenheim Fellow. The late Contrary Farmer Gene Logsdon completed the work for a PhD, although he never actually got his doctorate. I’m willing to bet, knowing Gene, that he got ticked off at jumping through the required hoops and told the dissertation committee to go take a hike. Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser, of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastapol, have multiple degrees. The Kaisers’ degrees are in international relations, natural resources management and sustainable development (Paul), and public health and nursing (Elizabeth). John Jeavons (Ecology Action/Biointensive Gardening) has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale. Mel Bartholomew (Square Foot Gardening) was trained as an engineer. Elliott Coleman (Four Seasons Farm) has a master’s degree in Spanish literature.
I have a couple of friends in a very small community up the road about 40 miles who have lived in the woods since the 1980s or earlier. They use a Pelton wheel to generate their electricity and implemented a number of other forward-thinking improvements on their homestead well before such things became fashionable. One is an electronics and computer wizard; not sure what his actual degree is but I suspect it’s a master’s or PhD. The other was a nuclear physicist in a former life. However, I know him from his multi-year tenure as the executive director of a small community health center well out in the boonies. He LOVES data-driven decisions and is fond of saying that very few things in this world are rocket science. His favorite tee shirt is one a group of friends got him to celebrate a major birthday milestone. The logo on the front of the shirt says, “It’s not rocket science.” The logo on the back reads: “But I AM a rocket scientist!”
In my own little town – about 400 souls when everybody’s home at night – we have three veterinarians, a dentist, a Doctor of Divinity, several registered nurses, at least six teachers, a physician and a lawyer. My late father was a vascular surgeon and a rancher. I can think of at least 10 local people off the top of my head who hold either bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Some, like the Kaisers, hold more than one advanced degree. You’ll find them building fence, bucking hay, wrangling cows, raising their own food and cutting wood. Apparently they don’t buy into the notion that higher education has no place in the farming world.

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Your Brain on GPS


Small fry on bottle detail. Can’t get this experience from screen time.

Isn’t GPS wonderful? In the long run, the answer is probably no. Using GPS regularly makes parts of your brain atrophy.
Not all that long ago I was waxing eloquent (or frothing at the mouth – take your pick) about how technology affects your ability to perform certain tasks. Well, it seems there are some other folks out there who have similar concerns. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that regulates emotions. It is associated with memory (especially long-term memory) and is important for spatial navigation – your ability to move around in your environment.
Neuroscientists have found that using GPS can cause atrophy in the hippocampus. Apparently that’s because you have no need to create and remember your own routes. You have no need to make decisions. You don’t have to pay attention to your surroundings. It’s like the difference between being the driver or the passenger in a vehicle. Ever been some place unfamiliar? Could you find your way back? Odds are, your chances are better if you were the driver.

Driving the four-wheeler is a rite of passage for a ranch kid (the big one has now graduated to the backhoe).

The hippocampus needs experience to function properly. Taxi drivers in London had more volume in that part of the brain because they had memorized the streets and landmarks while driving over them day after day. Other research shows that no matter how old you are, if you use the hippocampus for navigation on a regular basis, you’ll have more volume in that area. Atrophy in that area of the brain, however, has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I’m willing to bet that it’s not just GPS. Using any kind of technology on a regular basis is probably affecting our brains in a lot of negative ways. And in kids, whose brains are still developing, those effects are likely to have serious consequences for all of us. Heavy social media use, for example, has been linked to a more than tripled increase in teenage depression. And make no mistake, technology is actually rewiring our kids’ brains as well as our own.

Hands-on with the old stallion; brain, body and emotions engaged.

So what does this have to do with ranching or farming? Practicing navigation – even if it’s just going from the house to the north forty – makes you engage with and become attuned to the natural world. If you are engaged with nature, you notice things like fewer birds and amphibians in your world. You become more sensitive to small changes in the way plants grow. You can glance at a cow and see that it doesn’t feel well. It’s the complete opposite of the way too many people these days spend their time fixated on a tiny screen. When you are not engaged with nature, you don’t even notice how the world is changing.

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The Real Normals – Weight Loss



Or this?

I’m an old nurse. Literally. I graduated in 1968. When you spend half a century in the same career, you are uniquely positioned to evaluate the changes that have occurred in the medical field. If you pay attention, you can begin to put things together and identify certain trends. One of those trends is how “normal” health indicators have changed in the course of those fifty years. That is not a good thing – in many cases, what was once considered normal is now considered a disease. And of course, a disease must be treated, preferably with the newest and most expensive medication. While treatment lines the pockets of the drug companies, it often does the patient no good.
The Food Supply
We live in an era when food is abundant. While we have lots of food, the quality of said food could use some improvements. Processed foods make up 57.5% of the American diet, according to one study. Processed foods are generally higher in sugar, contain additives, are more expensive, have less fiber and contain fewer vitamins and minerals. They are also higher in refined carbohydrates. In other words, almost two-thirds of what most Americans eat is unhealthy. Not to mention more expensive than raw ingredients. But it’s convenient and it tastes good. So good, that it’s addictive. It’s no wonder Americans are overweight and/or obese, or that weight loss is such a common topic.
Carbohydrate and the Human Body
I’ve talked about blood sugar in a previous post. Blood sugar stability is important for your health and carefully regulated by insulin. Processed foods destabilize this delicate dance. But even too many healthy carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and whole grains) contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance. Our ancestors (we’re talking the cave-dwelling Uggs I’ve mentioned in previous posts) ate some plain, unsweetened ripe fruit for a short period each year. If they ate grain, it was minimal, as agriculture hadn’t been invented yet. What they did eat was protein, fat, wild tubers and vegetables, nuts and seeds. They also ate a really wide variety of foods, which increased the odds that they would obtain all the necessary nutrients for good health. Finally, they got a lot of exercise, and the carbohydrates they ate kept them fueled for that exercise.
Weight Loss
For years, experts have said weight loss was simply a matter of controlling calories. Except it’s not true. Yes, calories matter, but Dr. Robert Atkins proved that if you changed what you were eating, you could eat the same amount of calories and lose weight. Dr. Atkins proved his point in his clinical practice, meaning in the real world rather than the laboratory – many of his patients lost weight on this “unhealthy” diet. Atkins recommended cutting carbs and increasing the proportion of protein and fat in the diet. Atkins, by the way, was not the first to make such recommendations – William Banting published a similar recommendation in 1863. Banting, however, eschewed butter. Of course Atkins was overwhelmingly attacked, even after his death, by those who had a vested interest in the status quo. At the same time, Dr. Dean Ornish took the exact opposite view – low protein, low fat, high carbohydrate vegetarian diets were the way to go. Since Ornish was going more along the establishment lines, he was not attacked. Some people were very successful at losing weight the Ornish way. It’s very restrictive, however, which makes it hard for the long-term.
It’s NOT One Size Fits All
People are different (I know – big DUH!). Not everyone responds the same to a particular diet. But there seem to be a few basic principles:
1. Don’t eat sugar. Or at the most, have an occasional sugary treat, maybe two or three times a year. And pay close attention to how you feel afterward. I find grains – or worse, sugar plus grains – make my back hurt. The pain is right across the flank area, in the same location that hurts if you have a bad kidney infection. Makes me wonder if this food combination is overloading the kidneys as they struggle to get rid of something my body sees as toxic. In addition, all of my joints ache for at least a day afterward and my blood pressure climbs dramatically.
2. Don’t eat refined carbohydrates and eat very little in the way of grain products, period – they screw up the blood sugar regulation process. While whole grains are better than refined grains, they are still very high carb foods. Soak the grains and flour before cooking (see Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions).

Yum, real butter!

3. Increase your fat intake – lard, tallow, grass-fed butter, olive oil and coconut oil. It promotes satiety (which means you eat less), and your brain and nervous system need the omega-3s.
4. Do eat adequate protein, preferably animal protein, which is much better quality than the protein you get from veggies (assuming the animal is not raised in a CAFO operation). By the way, from what I can see, young people on vegetarian diets often lose or maintain weight, but that changes as they age.
5. If you are older and/or have been overweight or obese for a number of years (meaning you are likely to be insulin resistant) you are probably going to do better on a keto-, paleo- or Atkins-type diet.
6. If you are really overweight and struggling to lose, try a fat fast program alternating with the diets in #5. Fat fasting is a technique developed (or at least popularized) by Dr. Atkins. You eat 1,000 to 1,200 calories a day, with the bulk of your food coming from fat. This program kicks you into ketosis and makes low carb diets more effective. It’s probably not a good idea to use fat-fasting for more than a week at a time or more than twice a month. Fat fasting is also a way to break through a weight loss plateau.
7. No matter what your diet, take daily multivitamin/multimineral supplements plus B-complex and extra vitamin C.
8. Engage in regular exercise, including strength training, cardio and flexibility/balance work.
9. Make sure you get at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
10. Manage your stress with exercise, meditation, prayer, counseling – whatever works (but not with prescription drugs and definitely not illegal substances, nicotine or alcohol!)
11. Most important, don’t let the numbers on the scale or the opinions of others determine what’s right for you. Your healthy weight could be 20 pounds or more above the “desirable” BMI. More important is exercise tolerance, strength, energy, mental health and how you feel every day. Remember the “normal” numbers are all too often artificially low.
Think about it.

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