Brave

I am not brave.

Actually, I am what we in the South call “a chicken”. I love knowing what is ahead so that I can plan accordingly, and I rarely deviate from that plan. I get anxious when things happen outside of my control, and I spend way too many sleepless nights worrying about the “what if’s” that rarely happen.

Ironically this play-it-safe girl married one of the biggest risk-takers known to man. My husband believes that rules are just suggestions and the best way to overcome an obstacle is to plow right through it. He lives passionately and loves big. The very traits that I found exhilarating in a boyfriend now cause panic as a husband…he lives on the edge, and many times it’s all I can do to just hang on.

However, this time it’s me that is taking a risk. Through a partnership with the Catholic Relief Organization’s Farmer-to-Farmer program and American Agri-Women, I have been selected travel to Uganda and teach basic agribusiness principles to remote Africans. I will spend 22 days with these people, sharing my story and learning more about theirs.
Uganda
While I am very excited about this opportunity, I am also very nervous. The thought of traveling alone to a foreign country, leaving my business and my family is very overwhelming…not to mention the bugs and the critters that I am guaranteed to encounter on my travels. It’s enough to make me want to reconsider and stay safely planted in NC.

But, for once in my life, I am ready to take the risk. Instead of cheering on my husband from the sideline, I am prepared to lead the race this time. I feel very inapt and overwhelmed, but I also feel excited and alive.

For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to be brave.

McDonalds and Costco Make Headlines ; Farmers and Processors Make Safe Food

McDonalds and Costco made headlines last week when they announced a campaign to eliminate the sale of food products treated with antibiotics.  While many consumers rejoiced, others questioned the need for such a proclamation. Are farmers needlessly injecting their animals with antibiotics?  Is there antibiotic residue in the meat we eat?  How can consumers be assured their food is truly safe?  As a small meat processor, I have seen firsthand the USDA’s commitment to this issue.  Countless hours have been spent discussing preventative measures and receiving training to ensure that the food produced within my facility is safe for human consumption.

In order to be eligible for slaughter, animals must be able to walk off the trailer and pass an ante-mortem inspection…things that are not always easy when sick livestock are involved.  While the media would have consumers believe that antibiotics are unnecessarily pumped into healthy animals, the truth is that sometimes – despite a farmer’s best efforts – livestock get sick.  Random infections, traumatic births, and muscle aches are all reasons why good farmers make the choice to medicate their animals.  Unfortunately, sometimes the medicines do not work and the producer is forced to decide the greater good…humanely slaughtering the animal in a facility such as mine with the hope of preserving the meat, or allowing the animal to finish its life on the farm where prolonged suffering may occur.  This choice is not an easy one.

To aid my customers in this process, all producers are asked to complete a livestock verification form when bringing their animals for slaughter.  This internal documentation ensures the topics of age, origin, and health are discussed with every animal.  Through these conversations, I have denied service to several producers over the years whose livestock did not meet the recommended antibiotic withdrawl period.  In every case, these farmers were more concerned about the safety of their animals and their consumers than about their profit.

Unfortunately, larger slaughterhouses do not always have the ability to talk directly with farmers and learn the health-history of every animal…making the USDA’s role even more important.  As part of their commitment to food safety, the USDA randomly samples meat from every facility to ensure that it is clear of all pathogens and residue.  These carcasses are held at the processor until the results are analyzed and the USDA is satisfied the meat is completely safe. While admittedly not a full-proof method, this random sampling has proven to be very effective in preventing tainted meat from entering the market.

Lab Result Report

As we have seen this past week, retailers like McDonalds and Costco are good at making headlines.  However, consumers can feel confident knowing that farmers, processors, and USDA staff are committed to making safe meat products…not just for your family but also for our own!

I Wasn’t an FFA Member in High School…

I wasn’t an FFA member in high school. 

While I knew about the organization and saw their signature blue jackets proudly worn by my classmates, I never sought out a jacket of my own.  As a rural farm kid, I understood the importance of agriculture; yet, there are no ag classes listed on my transcript.  Active in many student organizations, I embraced the call to leadership but never was trained in parliamentary procedures.  I competed in several oratorical contests; however I never experienced the challenge of extemporaneous public speaking.  Balancing school and work was always a priority, although never with the extensive recordkeeping of a supervised ag experience.

I wasn’t an FFA member in high school…but I should’ve been! 

North Carolina Delegates at the 2014 National FFA Convention

North Carolina Delegates at the 2014 National FFA Convention

My husband introduced our family to the FFA when he answered the call to teach an ag class at our small Christian school.  The students wanted an elective other than art or drama, and, for the farm kids of our community, Introduction to Agriculture was the perfect choice.  As the student interest grew, so did the school’s program. Not only was FFA embraced in the high school, but our daughter was in 6th grade when the middle school FFA chapter was established.  It wasn’t until I became an FFA Mom that I finally started to understand the value of The Blue Jacket.

As an FFA Mom, I saw firsthand the transformation that comes with just a simple zipper.  When my daughter put on her jacket, she became a part of something much larger than herself…an organization embedded with history and entrenched in leadership.  She built lifelong friendships within her chapter, explored new opportunities within her association, learned to network within our state…but most importantly, our daughter found herself in the FFA.

The passion that my daughter felt was contagious within our family.  Suddenly, it was no longer enough that our family embraced the values of FFA…we wanted to share those same passions with others.  It was then that we became aware of the FFA Alumni Association, an extension of FFA designed to provide support and assistance to local and state chapters.  Thankfully, the Alumni Association wasn’t restricted to just former FFA members…it was open to anyone with a passion for The Blue and Gold…and I definitely qualified!

While I may not have been an FFA member in high school, thanks to the work of the FFA Alumni Association, I realized it is never too late to join! 

Blessed to share my ag story with members of the 2014 FFA National Officer Team

Blessed to share my ag story with members of the 2014 FFA National Officer Team

As a current Alumni member, I consider myself a cheerleader for all things FFA.  I support the students, the teachers, the state leaders, and the national organization any way possible.  While monetary donations are nice, I have found there are so many other ways to give to this worthy cause.  I have shared everything from lunch to pantyhose tips…time spent practicing for a career development event to chaperoning a trip to a symposium…all through my tenure as an Alumni member.  These brief exchanges have inspired me and challenged me…molded me into a better leader and helped me to be a better person.

I may not have worn the blue jacket in high school, but I am proud to say that I do now! 

Alumni

*Visit https://www.ffa.org/support/alumni to learn how you, too, become an FFA Alumni member!

Science: A Gift of the Heart

A young Caden at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh

A young Caden at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh

Yesterday I watched an ultrasound of my son’s heart.  Recent unexplained chest pains, rapid heart rates, and low oxygen levels had brought us to the pediatric cardiologist office that afternoon. I was scared and very anxious as I watched the sound I first heard over 11 years ago suddenly visible on the ultrasound screen.  I stood guard as the technician carefully examined each chamber of his heart, taking numerous digital images from varying angles. I saw the bright red and blue colors circulate his heart, indicating the blood flow that was occurring throughout his body.  With each rhythmic pump, that powerful muscle was allowing my little boy to live – to breath – and I was truly overwhelmed by the science and technology that allowed us to capture every heartbeat on the screen.

Science in medicine is a beautiful thing. I have confidence in knowing whatever issues my precious boy is facing, medical professionals will use their knowledge and resources to help keep him safe and healthy. However, I am often perplexed why consumers do not have that same trust and confidence in the farmers and the processors who oversee their food. Debates about GMOs, antibiotics, and pesticides are frequent on social media. Strong opinions exist on both sides, and there is very little common ground in these conversations.  However, what most consumers fail to understand is the science utilized in crop selection and management is just a small part of the technology used to ensure the food in our grocery stores and farmers markets is safe for human consumption.

As a small meat processor, science plays a huge role in the safety of the food produced at my facility.  Multiple e-coli and salmonella tests are required on all carcasses (grain-fed, grass-fed, and even organic) at varying steps in production.  Random tests are also done to check for antibiotic residue in the meat.  When testing for listeria, everything from the product, to the floor drains, to door handles are sampled to ensure there is absolutely no contamination.   As a plant owner, I am responsible for conducting my own microbiological tests, but the FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) officials of the USDA are also on-site, overseeing my operations and performing their own tests throughout the process.  Regardless of the production methods utilized in the field, science is vital in bringing safe food products to our grocery store shelves.

Caden loves helping pack the boxes at the plant

Caden loves helping pack the boxes at the plant

As a mom, it is my job to ensure the health and the safety of my children.  As a farmer and as a processor, it is also my job to ensure the food that I produce is safe…not only for my family but also for the consumers that we supply.  Science plays an important role in both of these endeavors. While most people will never have a cardiologist discuss their little boy’s heart on a monitor or a meat processor examine the results of Shiga toxins in their hamburger,  I pray that one day we can all learn to appreciate the science and technology that aids both of these valued professions in doing their job.

Food Access…It Isn’t Black and White

  • North Carolina ranks in the top ten of national agricultural production. 
  • Within the state, my county is ranked 13th in agricultural income.    
  • Of our 55, 574 residents, 40.3% are white and 57.7% are black.
  • Only 10.5% have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, resulting in a median household income of $33,960 (making it one of the poorest in the state).   
  • My county housed one of the first schools for black church leaders in the South and includes the oldest town incorporated by African-Americans in the United States.
  • Currently, our Representative serves as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.  
  • Recently-released reports show that 10 out of 14 schools in my country received a grade by the State of “D” or “F”.
  • Despite our diverse agricultural heritage, my county also ranks as the second largest food desert in the nation. 

Abandoned Farm House: Speights Chapel Road, Northern Edgecombe County, NC

Although farmland is plentiful in my county, you could literally drive for miles on our rural highways without passing a grocery store or a farmer’s market.  Discarded tobacco barns and dilapidated houses pepper the road…a reminder of the families that once existed.  Rundown gas stations serve as the focal points for many of these small towns…snacks are more likely to consist of honey buns, Nabs, and a Pepsi Cola than of sweet potato chips produced from the harvest of the adjacent field.

Isolated from many modern luxuries like high speed internet and cable television, it is easy to understand why many of these residents feel abandoned…and angry.  We talk about the dangers of obesity but limit their access to fresh, local food.  We tell them to plant a community garden, yet ignore the “modern slavery” mindset this invokes.  We ask them to embrace diversity while many are still waiting for social justice.  Poor white families are labeled “trash” and poor black families are labeled “thugs”.  Our churches remain as segregated our politics, and our children wake up and go to sleep hungry…both for attention and for food.

As a lifelong resident of this community, I have always been aware of the economic importance of agriculture, the poverty of my neighbors, and the strained race-relations of our ancestors.  However, it was not until I joined our local Food Action Committee that I truly became aware of how these issues of the past have affected our current circumstances.  For the first time in my life, I am now the minority race in many of these conversations.  Instead of feeling outcast, however, I find myself in awe of these strong black men and women and their determination to make a positive change on the food choices and health of our community.

While my voice may not change history, I do believe it is possible for our white and black residents to unite and to overcome the issues plaguing our area. Race might have once dictated our roles in agriculture, but, through collaboration, we can ensure that local, fresh, affordable food is available to all.

Common Core Math: Find All Solutions

chicken-math-easier-to-understand-than-common-core_fb_2961765

To Whom It May Concern:

My husband and I are good parents…involved parents…educated parents. Since the moment they entered the world, we have dedicated our lives to advocating on behalf of our daughter and our son while also holding them accountable for their behavior. Until now, I think we have done a pretty good job.

However, our daughter now sits in a Math III classroom with no textbooks, no clearly-defined curriculum, and no hope of passing this course. Our honors 10th grader is feeling overwhelmed and discouraged as she watches her dreams of attending North Carolina State University slowly fade with each failing grade. It doesn’t take Common Core math to realize that a 4.4 GPA (the average GPA of high school students admitted to her desired major) simply is not possible with her current math scores.

As parents, we have done all of the right things to support our daughter…we have met with her teacher and communicate with her often. My daughter attends after-school tutoring offered by her Nationally Board Certified teacher twice a week…free of charge. In addition, we secured a qualified math tutor (at a fee of $40/hour) that meets with my daughter weekly to provide additional one-on-one instruction. We have sought online resources, and our daughter spends approximately one-hour per night on math homework or supplemental practice.

Despite these efforts, we now conclude that the problem does not exclusively lie with my daughter or her teacher…it is so much larger. A phone call to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Math Curriculum Specialist offered little support, and instead directed me to contact our local county school administration. The county, in turn, directed me back to NCDPI and reminded me of the legislative battle that has been unfolding within our state over the Common Core curriculum. I then reached out to my local government officials who shifted the blame to the opposing party’s political agenda.

So, if you are keeping score…
• The Republicans blame the Democrats…the Democrats blame the Republicans.
• The State blames the County…and the County blames the State.
• Most parents blame the teacher….good teachers are blaming themselves.
• And, at the end of the day, honors students – like my daughter – are still failing math.

We understand that changes are being made to address these issues for future students, but our family is very concerned for the current students in our system. What is being done to ensure these high school students are not collateral damage in our state’s educational battles? Who is going to explain to the admissions offices and the scholarship committees examining our children’s transcripts that these grades are not reflective of their ability or their work ethic, but, instead, reflect a broken system? We have given our daughter every possible resource to be successful, but what about those students who lack transportation for after-school tutoring or who cannot afford a private tutor? Who is speaking for them?

North Carolina once believed that no child should be left behind. However, in only a few short years, we have transformed that message to an “every man for himself” mindset. Our state’s students and teachers deserve better, and it is time to stop playing politics and shifting the blame with our educational system. North Carolina students may be failing math, but North Carolina is failing these students…and this issue should concern everyone.

Most Sincerely,
Amy Robinette

Can We Test Our Way To Safe Food?

It seems to happen daily…another food recall is flashed across the news screen of our televisions and social media. Meat products are recalled for e-coli concerns…produce and spices test positive for salmonella…listeria is found in another processed item. With all of the attention given to these recalls, it is easy to understand why consumers might feel uneasy about the food they eat and begin to question our industry production methods.

While agriculture is working to address these consumer concerns by becoming more transparent in their dialogues, there is still a very large part of the food chain that has yet to step up to this challenge…our nation’s food processing facilities. Consumers understand that cows do not become hamburger, potatoes do not become French fries, and milk does not become cheese without some pretty extensive work behind the scenes. However, food processing – once an industry entrenched with skill and craftsmanship – has transitioned into an industry saturated with science and microbiology…the faint of heart need not apply.

As the owner of a small USDA-inspected meat facility, I see firsthand our government’s focus and commitment to safe food production. Not only is my facility closely monitored by the USDA for cleanliness and sanitation practices, we are also subjected to numerous product testings each month. The USDA issues random testing including carcass swabs, meat strips, ground and finished product all in search of the infamous microbiological pathogens knows as e-coli, salmonella, listeria, and Shiga-toxins. In addition, as part of my facility’s HACCP (industry talk for “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points”) and SSOP (“Standard Sanitation Operation Procedures”) my plant is also responsible for completing our own product testing and the results are shared with the USDA officials. All products are held pending the results of these tests, helping to ensure the food produced in facilities such as mine are completely safe for consumption.

While I embrace the role that science now plays in food production and safety, there is no doubt that larger, corporate-owned facilities have an advantage over small, independent food processors like me. Whereas I have to send my samples off to be analyzed and eagerly await the results (typically 5-7 business days) the industry giants are now equipped with their own scientists and testing labs so that results can be generated much quicker and at a much lower cost. Any “presumptive positive” results from my facility require further testing (requiring additional fees and product hold times) while these larger industry counterparts can immediately resubmit their tests until a negative result is achieved. The food safety standards for both operations – regardless of size – are “zero-tolerance” but the time and resources required to achieve this scientific level of acceptance are a much larger burden for the smaller facility.

Test Our Way to Safe Food?

As these food recalls continue to occur, I challenge consumers to not just focus on what has been recalled but to also examine why. Understand that e-coli and salmonella are naturally-occurring organisms and any scientific efforts by the USDA to fully eradicate them need to be coupled with adequate cooking times by the consumer. Invest in a food thermometer and allow temperature to determine product cooking times…not the color of the meat. Don’t just know your farmer, but get to know your processor also…while the food safety guidelines are the same, not all processors are created equal. All food is labeled with a USDA establishment number that can easily be searched to determine exactly where the item was processed and how far it traveled to reach your plate.

As the world’s population continues to increase and farmland continues to decrease, the future of our food is uncertain. While the pendulum is now swinging in favor a local food system, we need to be mindful that local processors are a key element of that movement and educate consumers of their plight. The USDA would love to believe that we can test our way to safe food, but small processors are not equipped to weather that storm without added resources and consumer education. Therefore, we must all come together to ensure that science never takes the place of consumer education and old-fashion common sense.