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Iowa State University Extension

October 2008 -- From Jack Payne

Jack Payne in China

Back to the Future on the Silk Road

Nicolo Polo and his son Marco returned from their trip along the legendary Silk Road laden with stories of treasures and innovations only to be met with skepticism from their fellow Venetians. In fact, it is said that when Marco Polo was on his deathbed, a priest came to ask whether he would be willing to confess to his falsehoods about his travels. “I did not tell half of what I saw,” Marco replied.

I can confirm that nearly 800 years after the Polos made their epic journeys along the Silk Road the romance of this historic trade route has hardly dissipated. My journey started at Lanzhou University, in Gansu Province, China, where ISU has an established exchange program for students and faculty from both institutions. Lanzhou also is an important strategic passage on the ancient Silk Road stretching to the west. The area abounds in rich historical and cultural heritage, including grottoes, ancient buildings and other cultural relics. Unlike the Polos, I arrived via plane, but the splendid and warm welcome that our Lanzhou University colleagues bestowed upon me was unrivaled.

Throughout my travels, whether to Dunhuang, where I saw the Mogao Grottoes, constructed in 366 BC, or on a camel ride up the giant sand dunes of the Gobi Dessert, the Chinese people unintentionally upstaged the magnificence of their landscape and historical sites. It was clear that the past, present and future comfortably converge and co-exist in 21st century China. Camels, ATVs, pushcarts and BMWs all appeared to be workable modes of transportation, but, amazingly, seemed to keep from colliding. Both ancient men wearing Chairman Mao hats and students with Gucci bags kept in constant touch with friends and family through cell phones, while on the streets, in restaurants or on the Great Wall. My Chinese colleague’s 6-year old daughter, who studies the guzheng, an ancient stringed instrument from 91 BC, also adores her Barbie dolls. I had a tall, skinny latte at a Starbucks in Xian, but found the best conversation and companionship in the numerous tea shops. And like Marco Polo, I could not tell half of what I saw.


Greiner returns to handle structural, other issues with flooded homes

Tom Greiner

Tom Greiner had read about the 2008 Iowa floods in the Arizona Republic and watched the video footage, so he knew the flooding was extensive. He also knew that since his retirement in 2003, ISU Extension was without a housing engineer. Once an extension specialist, always an extension specialist — so when ISU Extension administration asked him to come back home to help Iowans deal with structural and related issues in their flood-damaged homes, he agreed to un-retire.

ISU Extension has rehired Greiner part-time, and he reported for duty at the ISU Extension office in Linn County Sept. 15.

“I spent that week meeting with people whose homes had been flooded, a building official, a volunteer coordinator, contractors and others,” Greiner said. “I was able to visit Palo and Cedar Rapids, with a brief drive-through in Iowa City. Driving through the affected areas and experiencing the extent of the damage gave me a new perspective, though I realize I have still only seen a small part of the Iowa flood damage.”

During the next nine months he’ll be available for consultations by phone and e-mail from his home in Mesa, Ariz., and will travel to Iowa and work from the Linn County office in Marion to meet one-on-one with Iowans as needed.

“People don’t have a lot of time for meetings right now; they have a lot of individual questions,” Greiner said. “This might change as people get more settled and winter stops some of their cleaning, demolition and construction activities.”

Greiner has been through floods before. He was part of ISU Extension’s flood response team in 1993 — meeting with homeowners, answering questions and preparing ISU Extension publications on flood related topics ranging from moldy dry wall to rotting wood and wet basements.

This time around he expects to handle similar topics. However he also anticipates dealing with issues related to the coming cold weather: such as the danger of heating a home with space heaters and gas-powered generators, and the need to brace a gutted home that’s missing siding or sheathing so it doesn’t collapse from the force of winter winds.

Greiner can be contacted via the Linn County Extension office.

Study shows Iowans approve of bioeconomy, agree on energy policy issues

smokestack and cornfield

Iowans approve of the bioeconomy whether or not they live near biofuel-related industries, an Iowa State University study shows. They also agree on several key energy policy issues.

“There is strong support for alternative technologies that wean us away from fossil fuels,” said Cynthia Needles Fletcher, an ISU Extension family resource management specialist and a co-author of the study. “Iowa residents also believe that there is a clear role for Iowa in biofuel production.”

Early this year Fletcher and fellow researchers from Iowa State and University of Illinois oversaw a survey of 378 adults living in four Iowa counties to see if their physical closeness to a biofuel plant influenced their views on the bioeconomy. They surveyed Iowans living in one metro and one nonmetro county with a biofuel plant, and one metro and one nonmetro county without a biofuel plant.

“Most Iowans in our study view biofuel plants as an economic stimulus for rural communities and agree that Iowa should support these plants for the long-run, so communities aren’t left with production facilities sitting empty in the future,” Fletcher said. “They also strongly favor policies that promote alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and hydrogen as well as expansion of mass transit. They are far less supportive of nuclear power or tax incentives for oil exploration.”

The researchers’ analysis also suggests that Iowans with higher incomes and positive views of bioeconomy initiatives are more likely to support local expansion of biofuel-related industries, she said.

“Solid support across Iowa, irrespective of location, for Iowa’s current role in the bioeconomy bodes well for state policy development, but may go against the tide of public opinion nationwide,” Fletcher noted. “National data would allow us to test this ‘proximity’ hypothesis on a broader scale.”

For more information, contact Fletcher,

Iowa Hunger Summit tackles food, fuel debate

Iowa Hunger Summit

With rising prices for food and fuel, many Iowans face tough choices as they struggle to feed their families and also fill the gas tank. This was one of the issues up for discussion Oct. 14 at the second Iowa Hunger Summit, part of the 2008 World Food Prize events. ISU Extension specialists presented research and Iowa families shared their daily experiences in panel discussions examining aspects of the food and fuel debate.

“Food insecurity has increased significantly in Iowa over the last 10 years,” said Kim Greder, an ISU Extension family life specialist who is researching food insecurity and hunger in the state. Greder  helped organize one summit session, Reflecting on Iowa’s Changing Face of Family Hunger, in which Iowa families shared their perspectives and experiences about being food insecure.

Every day 421,000 Iowans do not have enough food to eat, Greder said. On average, 241,340 Iowans received Food Assistance (formerly called Food Stamps) each month in 2007, a 14 percent increase from 2005. In addition, requests to Iowa food pantries and soup kitchens increased 50 percent from 2003 to 2007 — from 1.4 to 2.1 million requests.

Another ISU Extension panel discussion examined the connections between fuel costs and food prices. ISU economist Chad Hart discussed the forces driving food prices, and extension economist John Lawrence discussed U.S. food consumption and cost trends. The economists note that 80 percent of the cost of food is due to events beyond the farm gate. While biofuel production has been one of the major reasons for higher commodity prices, it has little impact on food costs beyond the farm. Higher energy prices and general economic conditions also have impacts on food costs at and beyond the farm.

Extension family resource management specialist Cynthia Needles Fletcher discussed the effects of rising energy and food prices on families.

“Prices paid by consumers -- especially the prices of energy, food and transportation -- rose during the past year at the fastest pace since 1991,” Fletcher said.

“Wages, on average, have failed to keep up with consumer prices, eroding the purchasing power of family incomes,” she added. “Low-income families have born the brunt of this wage-price squeeze.”

Iowa youth say celebrate 4-H all year long

4-H is blooming with opportunities

Gov. Chet Culver officially proclaimed Oct. 5-11, 2008, as National 4-H Week in Iowa, and Iowa youth agreed with that endorsement. However, they’ll gladly tell you why they not only celebrate National 4-H Week, but also participate in the program all year long.

4-H is blooming with opportunities, as Kayla Wiley’s Iowa State Fair poster exhibit proclaims. “I also choose to participate to build my leadership, decision-making, goal setting and communication skills,” the Black Hawk County 4-H’er said.

“I love the 4-H program because there is something for everyone,” said Donovan Richardson, 17, Union County. “There is such a wide variety of project areas — everything from aerospace to food and nutrition to music.”

“My experiences have taught me that learning a new skill is beneficial, but taking the opportunity to communicate it well for the benefit of others is what makes you successful,” said Clinton County 4-H’er Michelle Eberhart. “Today’s youth face many challenges each day that could prevent them from reaching their full potential.  My goal is to teach critical life skills by being a positive role model and demonstrating compassion and caring.”

Jackson County 4-H’er Kaitlin Kilburg, 17, said, “I knew I would gain valuable leadership skills that would help me be successful at school, in my community and any future endeavors. I knew 4-H would also provide me with the opportunity to build my self-confidence.”

Added Kyzer Moore, 13, Jones County, “I like to volunteer my time, work with other people in the community and my club, mentor younger kids and meet-up with friends.”

Hancock County 4-H’er Ellen Bertilson, 15, summed it up: “While being a 4-H member, I have become a better leader, better listener, better speaker and overall, just a better person.”

To join 4-H, contact your ISU Extension county office.

Small farms have big potential, ISU Extension specialist says

Andy Larson

How big is a small farm? What may seem like a contradiction is instead a key question for understanding Iowa’s farm economy, says Andy Larson, ISU Extension’s new small farms specialist. From the amount of sales to the type of lifestyle, Iowa’s small farms picture is complicated, he said. But Larson and ISU Extension’s Small Farm Sustainability program are sorting through the issues to help those entrepreneurs who really want to make a business venture of living and working on small farms.

“We don’t have a good way to distinguish large vs. small farms except by sales,” Larson said. USDA categorizes small family farms as having less than $250,000 in agricultural sales and further divides this group by lifestyle.

Farming occupation/high sales farms have operators who list farming as their primary occupation and report $100,000 to $249,999 in annual agricultural sales. Other subdivisions report sales less than $100,000 annually, whether farming is their primary occupation or they are retired, have occupations other than farming or are limited-resource farms with operator household income below both the poverty level and half the county median.

Noting National Agricultural Statistics Service data, Larson said in 2007 about 84 percent (74,600) of all Iowa farms reported sales of less than $250,000, classifying them as small family farms by USDA standards. About 15,000 of these farms fit the farming occupation/high-sales category, and the remaining 59,600 fit into the categories with sales less than $100,000.

“Many of these farms are operating within Iowa’s conventional agricultural model, but others are pushing the entrepreneurial envelope; they might be raising free-range poultry for retail meat sales or vegetables for farmers’ markets,” Larson said. “They may establish new enterprises, beyond conventional crops and livestock, to bring a son or daughter into the business.”

Small farms are proving that Iowa is much more diverse than corn, soybean and concentrated animal agriculture, Larson said. From horticultural crops to local and regional food venues, to grass-finished cattle for direct-to-consumer sales, these enterprises bring great potential to Iowa’s farming landscape.

“Diversity is often a risk spreading strategy,” he said.

Extension’s Small Farm Sustainability program will provide education on farm planning and decision-making to help these small, diversified farm businesses become more viable, ecological and sustainable, he added.

For more information about the ISU Extension’s Small Farm Sustainability program, contact Larson,

Wood manufacturers learn about lean from all the right places

Wood products employees use lean principles.

Wood manufacturers in the state rely on hammers, nails, power saws and other tools of the trade for their craft. However, five northeast Iowa wood manufacturers now depend on a partnership and management program that ISU Extension designed for their small companies.

Extension staff from the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) helped form the Iowa Wood Lean Partnership and acted as a mentor, showing the manufacturers who joined the partnership how they could benefit from lean manufacturing principles. All employees from the participating companies attended CIRAS’s Wood Lean 101 class, based on the lean system first advanced by the carmaker Toyota.

“They came back and completely reorganized the shop—in two hours,” says Matt Cable, owner of Distinctive Wood Works Inc., about his five employees who took the training. “They were instantly able to apply what they heard and move on. We saw improvements immediately.” The Earlville-based company manufactures cabinets and other wood products for a diverse set of clients, including Iowa State.

The training in lean manufacturing, known for eliminating waste in the production process, spurred the manufacturers to reevaluate their entire operations. CIRAS staff developed an individualized plan for each company and made two or three follow up visits through summer 2007 to set the changes in motion.

Trappist Caskets of Dubuque, whose request for assistance initiated the program, established standardized training in each workstation. Its atypical workforce, half of whom are monks, found that meeting on a regular basis improved communication between management and employees and made them work better as a team. Another bonus was a boost in the bottom line, namely a 20 percent sales increase and a 3 percent gain in sales retention.

The manufacturers realize it’s important to keep lean manufacturing principles in the forefront now that the training is over. “We must remember what we learned,” said Trappist Casket assistant manager Kelly Myers, “and grow with that knowledge.”

For more information about the program and CIRAS’s partnering organizations, see the spring 2008 issue of the CIRAS newsletter.

Extension’s energy tip: Insulate your home against high energy bills


A good insulating system can help keep your home warm during winter and cool during summer. Check the insulation in your attic, ceilings, exterior and basement walls, floors and crawl spaces to see if it meets the levels recommended for your area. (Insulation is measured in R-values -- the higher the R-value, the better your walls and roof will resist the transfer of heat.) Consider factors such as your climate, building design and budget when selecting insulation R-value. The easiest and most cost-effective way to insulate your home is to add insulation in the attic. Check out Insulation and Air Sealing for more tips. This tip is brought to you by the U.S. Department of Energy and ISU Extension.