Saturday, January 30, 2010

Strange Maps

What a cool site!

h/t: Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

Outlaw (DIY) Biology Symposium

The Outlaw Biology: Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio symposium is currently running at UCLA.

This whole genetic-engineering-in-your-garage movement scares me - particularly with all the anti-establishment language recorded by DIYbio's post. It's really easy to picture some malcontent reproducing some formerly-extinct human pathogen or changing the transmissibility of a living one. We're not there yet, but eventually we'll also be capable of creating organisms that affect ecosystems in really meaningful ways. It's easy to think of good and bad results of this (waves of new invasive organisms or acid-tolerant reef-building corals?) but I suppose it's all totally moot. It's going to happen in our lifetimes and no amount of regulation can stop it (not here, not in China...).

I guess the only solution if for professionals to get involved in the movement and encourage its development. Maybe if citizens get as involved in genetic engineering as they are with software and the Internet we can dilute out and keep an eye on the cranks.

Thoughts?

h/t: DIYbio

Advances in Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is slowly but steadily catching up to other forms of engineering in being more reproducible technical skill than trial and error art. Here are some cool new advances I heard about at PAG.*

Cis/intra-genics
Would you feel better about eating genetically engineered rice if you knew it only contained rice DNA and not DNA from mustard, bacteria or fish? Most people would. That's the idea behind cis-genic (a.k.a. intragenic) engineering (as opposed to transgenic, get it?). One speaker had a particularly fascinating presentation where he described how his group searched through the rice genome to find stretches of DNA sequence that were very similar to the flanking sequences that we already use to inject DNA into plant genomes (e.g. mimicking the TDNA left and right borders of the Agrobacterium plasmid).

This approach strikes me as somewhat cynical... I'd rather use the optimal sequence for any given engineering project than try to search for a native sequence that's close enough to work (while explaining to the public why genetic engineering isn't inherently scary in the first place). At any rate, I applaud them for the sophistication and precision of the tools they're developing. These types of advancements will really help us to engineer organisms rationally (as opposed to our current approach which generally involves making thousands and thousands of transgenic individuals and then exhaustively testing them all to see which one turned out right).

New Commercial Products
The big seed companies are getting close to releasing transgenic plants with traits that benefit consumers themselves and not just ag and food companies. I've predicted before that the public opposition to GMOs will largely evaporate as they see benefits of genetic engineering in their day to day lives - we'll see if I'm right.**

One company pointed out that 2/3 of fat in the American diet comes from soybeans - so changing the oil profile of soybean varieties can have a big impact on health. They're close to releasing new varieties that have no trans-fats and low saturated fats (through a combination of transgenic and natural*** mutants). These changes actually made the major oil profile of soybeans the same as olive oil! If olive oil really is as healthy as nutritionists seem to think, I'd bet a lot of money it's due to more than just the oil profile - but making 2/3 of the average American's fat intake better is definitely a step in the right direction.

They're also finishing up work on potato varieties that produce much less acrylamide when fried, and are less subject to browning, bruising and starch degradation (all important consumer traits). One speaker pointed out that many crops (like potato) are extremely difficult to improve by breeding and will greatly benefit from transgenic techniques. The same speaker pointed out that after a massive effort, a natural resistance gene for apple scab was once found, but by the time they were able to breed it into modern varieties the apple scab fungus had already evolved to overcome it! Similarly, the speaker invoked the story of Marge the cow, who has a natural mutation that makes her milk naturally skim. Butter made from this milk can apparently be spread even while frozen! Breeding a commercial herd from her would take a very long time, but genetic engineering could quickly make this trait available to everyone (no word on if anyone's been working on this).

One of the Monsanto talks showed an impressive graph charting the increases in yield (and decreases in water and chemical input per bushel) that have occurred in the past several decades. Pesticide and water use in particular seemed to rise from the '70s to the early '90s, when it began to crash accompanied by increased regulation and introduction of transgenic resistances. The speaker talked about the wide differences in corn yield in different parts of the world (from an average of 150 bushels/acre in the Midwest to only 20 in Sub-Saharan Africa). Their stated goal is to double corn yields and cut chemical inputs by 2/3 by 2030. Some corn breeders I've met thought this absurdly optimistic, but we didn't land on the moon by shooting for Antarctica...

Finally, there was another plug that both Monsanto's famous first generation glyphosate herbicide and Bt pesticide traits will be entering the public domain very soon. The speaker, of course, emphasized how much better their patented, second generation versions of these traits were. I know there's been a lot of concern about whether Monsanto would require farmers to destroy all seed with the original trait (they won't), but you all should know that the DNA sequence of these traits are freely available and I (and thousands of my colleagues) could walk into my lab any day of the week, build these DNA sequences, and stick them into any plant I wanted to easier than I can change the oil in my car.**** I'm sure there are some little seed companies doing this right now.


Also - Howard Jacobs, one of the plenary speakers, told a series of amazing, rambling stories on the frontiers of medical science - one of which seemed to involve forcing human somatic cells to become stem cells and then injecting them next to the liver of a mouse - which then (based on the types of cellular signals are present in that part of the body) induced the human stem cells to form a tiny, anatomically correct liver next to the mouse's liver... Our communications technology seems to have surpassed the original Star Trek and now, I guess, our medicine is getting close!

* As a total aside, our complementary notebooks contained high-quality paper that was marked "100% recycled." Since when can we make any paper 100% recycled?
** Roger Beachy once gave the example of a lab that tried to commercialize a strawberry that was resistant to Botrytis gray mold (i.e. why almost all supermarket strawberries are gross and go bad in a few days)
*** Companies are putting huge amounts of effort into finding new traits in natural germplasm - it's easier than reinventing the wheel and presents less of a regulatory/PR hurdle.
**** The oil plug bolt's all rounded off and the idiot mechanics at walmart always put it on with air

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Organic Crop Rotations

Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual (Mohler and Johnson, free download here) is the result of an organized effort to capture local knowledge of popularly-nominated expert organic vegetable growers in the Northeast.

It was interesting to listen to the seminar speaker describe the impetus and main findings of this study. Textbook descriptions of crop rotation apparently tend to be rigid and idealistic - so the authors made an attempt to describe them in a more intuitive fashion that will facilitate on-the-fly rotations that allow for unpredictable weather and markets.

Crop rotations are key to preventing the buildup of host-specific pests and pathogens, while evening out soil nutrition when chemical applications aren't an option. Completely stripped down, they basically recommend that you keep a given plant family (e.g. tomatoes-potatoes-peppers-eggplants, legumes or melons-squash-cucumbers) in a given plot for only 1 in every 4 years. Grasses can be cycled more quickly since our local pests and pathogens here tend to be specific at the Genus instead of Family level. They also give common sense advice on how to prioritize which crops should go in the best fields.

I was shocked to hear that these farmers have virtually NO weeds in their fields. Apparently they pull this off with zero-tolerance for weed seed contamination in crop seed or compost and summer fallows (e.g. no bare dirt), finished off with hand pulling. On most farms, weeds are the No. 1 problem - so this is pretty impressive management!

I was also impressed by the extensive use of intercropping.

During the Q&A, we learned that overcomposting is a major problem (that doesn't help keep weeds down and is at times absurdly unsustainable). I guess being surrounded by horse farms looking to get rid of tons of manure is tempting towards overuse...

These farmers don't rotate animals onto their fields since they don't want the soil (that they work so hard to fluff up) to get compacted. They may occasionally bring in chickens or ducks (to eat slugs), but having to deal with fences to keep the animals in and predators out is rarely worth the effort.

One audience member asked if today's expert organic farmers are any better than their counterparts in the Middle Ages. The speaker mused that since all of this knowledge simply arose from lifetimes of local observation, that they probably aren't.

(Outside of new technologies of course!)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hantz Farms of Detroit

Flying into Detroit at night a few weeks ago, it seemed much darker than it should have been - though I don't know if that was just my imagination.

At any rate, on the subject of the agricultural rebirth of this city, the Hantz financial group has invested in the "world's largest urban farm" in Detroit. They have a glossy website you can check out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why There Are No Male Cows

You'd think after hundreds of years the English language would have a word for the singular form of "cattle." Of course, you'd also think we'd have have a non-gendered, singular, third-person pronoun (I'll take "they," I suppose...).


I remember one of my old college mentors clucking about the misuse of the word "cow" (or for that matter, "horse") to describe all manner of creatures that we already have plenty of good names for. Accordingly, I enjoyed Life On a Cattle Ranch's sorting out of the meanings behind cow, heifer, bull, steer, etc...

HOT Pepper! [UPDATE]

Violent coughing exploded from the adjoining lab as my labmate aspirated vannilnamide.

Step 3 in our pipeline to analyze the chemistry of fruit is to crush them into dry, frozen powder in what amounts to a $1,000 coffee grinder - often accompanied by a puff of nitrogen gas carrying fruit juice aerosols. If we had processed the sunberries earlier (which produced purple clouds of vapor that stained any nearby textiles), we may have known to grind the chili pepper samples in the chemical fume hood...

Grinding 10 grams of those tiny little chilies gassed our laboratory pretty effectively. As my labmate fought to catch her breath, I moved the apparatus to the fume hood and my boss opened the windows. It was pretty amazing how just being in that room for the next 10 minutes affected your eyes, mouth, nose and throat. Fun fact: humans also have hot pepper chemical receptors in their lungs! My boss joked that he know knew what it felt like to be a thief/bear (who got sprayed with mace).

My boss had described my previous experience with these chilies to our resident pepper breeder/geneticist. I was disappointed to hear that our "wild C. eximium" pepper accession actually shares morphological and DNA sequence characteristics with C. frutescens, and is almost certainly domesticated. Apparently C. frutescens accessions either have small, pungent fruit or large, nonpungent ones - ours obviously is the former.

The breeder also said that he knew which specific chemical must have been dominant in our accession based on the way its pungency built slowly in the back of my mouth. As I was searching the Internet for more examples of different chili chemicals with different properties, I stumbled across Mike's Pepper Garden, which describes the capsaicinoid family of chemicals in depth.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Raising the Auroch

An Italian group has assembled a rough map of the Auroch genome (an extinct ancestor of modern cattle) and hope to use it re-breed this creature from scraps of DNA still found scattered throughout modern breeds (molecular markers, I presume?).

The picture is of a Heck, a breed that was selected to look like an auroch. The Italian group hopes to replicate the appearance and the underlying genetics of this animal.

h/t: Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Identity Preservation in Corn

Corn is a commodity - which, by definition, means that buyers do not differentiate different parcels of corn by quality. There are certain minimum regulations that designate safety, etc., but once a shipment passes inspection, corn is corn.

This came up as I listened to corn breeders discuss efforts to increase the nutritional qualities of corn. "Identity preservation," has been hotly contested for decades as some entities hoped to release corn varieties with various improved qualities while others balked at the enormous difficulty and cost associated with trying to keep track of different batches of corn. Right now, virtually all corn that passes inspection is dumped into a massive, undifferentiated national stream of grain. Changing this would require everything from duplicating equipment at local elevators to developing a national tracking system.

Although there is some traction to be made for improving quality for human consumption, apparently there is none for animal feed. I was shocked to hear that the job of a feed purchaser for a poultry operation is to simply find the cheapest possible corn available with complete indifference to quality. Whatever standards the operation holds with regard to feed are addressed by running chemical assays on the cheap, purchased feed and adding in any nutrients, flavor or color compounds that are lacking!

It wasn't clear to what extent this occurs with corn meant for human consumption. It is, of course, a familiar story to us plant pathologists that a farmer whose grain doesn't pass inspection (e.g. due to pest contamination/damage) doesn't just throw out that year's harvest - he tries to mix it in with completely unblemished grain so that the average then falls below the rejection threshold. This has been going on as long as the marketplace and it makes me thankful I live in a country with stringent regulatory thresholds!*

*Back in the Middle Ages, gingerbread was supposedly invented to disguise a batch of flour that was rank with smut fungus.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Got Bull Semen?

I've been meaning to tell this story for some time. It's a good example of how not all biotechnology is genetic engineering.

Traditional Breeding
In trad breeding, the breeder/gardener simply crosses two parents that show great (and complementary) traits, grows up the offspring, selects the best and repeats. It's effective, slow, labor intensive and limited by the perception of the breeder. Most traits are also very heavily impacted by the environment, so each new genotype must be grown in multiple locations +/or multiple years to make sure the recorded phenotype is due to the genetics (not the environment) of the individual. Most of our crops were domesticated and refined this way (quite a success!). Modern breeding has additionally been refined by the development of various statistical techniques and crossing schemes that make the whole process more efficient.

Marker-Assisted Selection
MAS relies on the development of "markers" that co-segregate with traits of interest. Picture a chromosome: an incredibly long stretch of DNA with genes located occasionally along its length. You can develop molecular markers (e.g. SNPs or microsatellites) that act as signposts along the whole length of the chromosome (where each of the signposts look different in each parent). Since sexual recombination moves DNA in big chunks, lots of the nearby markers will be moved with each gene. Statistical techniques can then be used to see which markers are associated with each trait. Since markers that are physically close to the gene along the chromosome are more likely to move with it during recombination (and since you know where on the chromosome each marker sits) you can narrow down where the gene that causes your trait is and then actually have a shot at identifying it! Or you can just use the marker to help make sure your gene moves where you want it to. This has been an extremely useful tool to complement trad breeding but in practice it's often impossible to pin a trait on just one or two genes (e.g. human height, last time I heard, was associated with huge number of genes that together only explained a small amount of the total population variation - even though it's extremely heritable).

Genome Wide Selection
In GWS, the breeder doesn't even bother to try to identify which traits or genes a marker is associated with. She simply picks a population of her crop or livestock and measures each individual with huge numbers of markers. She uses statistics to see which markers are "good" and which are "bad" and decides how good future offspring are just by their combination of markers. New developments in biotechnology are making marker development and measurement absurdly affordable - which makes phenotyping (growing and measuring offspring over multiple sites/years) the bottleneck in many breeding operations.

This is where it gets really interesting...

Even if the markers aren't as efficient at recognizing "good" offspring, you can more than make up for this with shorter generation times. A typical maize breeding operation will need to grow each generation in multiple sites in some representative climate (probably the Midwest) to see which individuals/lines are really the best. With GWS, you can ship the whole lot to some tropical location and grow three generations a year (picking the best in each round with markers)!

From what I've heard this is most advanced in the dairy industry. Artificial insemination (AI) has been a huge advance in animal breeding because dairymen can simply order semen from the best bulls in the country instead of keeping their own mediocre bulls on site.* Breeding elite bulls is BIG business. Currently 9 million Holstein cows in the U.S. are bred with AI from just 500 bulls!** Bulls need to get "proved" to access this market. Traditionally, the quality of a bull was determined by seeing how much milk its female relatives produced (b/c milk quantity is what matters to dairymen!). This process traditionally involved waiting for each individual young bull to grow to reproductive maturity, produce several rounds of daughters, let the daughters mature, mate them and then measure their milk production. This took years and cost about $50,000 per bull. Now a genetic marker test give you just as much information about a male calf the day it's born for just $250!

Dairymen are really excited about this. There's been talk of developing a marker certification system for dairy bulls for 20 years but only now is the technology cheap and effective enough to make it work. From what I've heard, the U.S. government now runs a certification program (AIPL I think...) that will assign official breeding values to any cattle DNA that a farmer sends in. I bet they'll be a lot more farmers in the bull semen business now!


* I once worked with a guy who did dairy AI. I'm all for getting my hands dirty, but that doesn't include anything that comes with gloves that go past your elbow!
** Hopefully the animal breeding community is as on top of preserving unique germplasm as the plant breeding community is

Bernardo and Yu. 2007. Prospects for genomewide selection for quantitative traits in maize. Crop Science. 47.
Schaeffer. 2006. Strategy for applying genome-wide selection in dairy cattle. Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics. 123.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Food Rules"

I just listened to Pollan discuss his new book today on On Point and found myself very surprised to agree with him for once!

My second biggest complaint* with the modern food movement is the obsessive focus on optimizing food for perfect health - the medicalization of food. In previous works, Pollan seemed to sympathize with the idea that our food and environment are so incredibly full of poisons that the only way to live a healthy life is to develop a religious dedication to your diet. I think the last thing well-off, educated Westerners need is another self-absorbing thing to worry about - the world would be a better place if people weren't so wrapped up in their own lives that they remain blind to the things that really matter.

I'm glad to hear his recent proselytizing is more focused on just eating diversely and in moderation and explicitly counters the idea that there's some magical perfect diet that will solve all your problems. He even made reference to the fact that many cultures have lived for thousands of years on all kinds of extreme diets and done just fine. He emphasized that traditional diets, even extreme ones, are probably a lot better for you than living on fast food. He concluded that just cooking for your family and not worrying about the details too much is probably the best thing you can do - chances are you'll eat well most of the time and won't put in the effort to constantly surround yourself with rich desserts and fried food. Speaking of which, I need to get home and deal with yesterday's bread before it goes stale...

I'm all for a food culture that celebrates traditions and DIY competence over neurotic philosophy and fad diets!


* no. 1 is the reliance on intuition over evidence

Friday, January 15, 2010

GM Toxicity Study

My (very expensive) Lenovo laptop just committed suicide after a year and 1 month (which is ironic since I thought that buying computers more expensive than Dell would help them to last longer than the typical 2-3 years). Hopefully I can manage to keep posting regularly with my work computer or (god forbid) my phone.

Anyway...

I was asked about the recent GM toxicity study where researchers re-analyzed Monsanto toxicity data and came to a different conclusion. It's a good example of how the Truth in science lies in the tiny details.

I (along with other) responded to this question recently on U.S. Food Policy.

Other scientists wade in on blogs compiled in the AgBioWorld mailing list.

For example? The "Impact Factor" of scientific journals is rated based on how many people use and cite the articles within. Prestigious journals with huge audiences (e.g. Science and Nature) have Impact Factors in the high teens, twenties and up. Very good journals with small, specialized audiences often have Impact Factors above 5. Journals with Impact Factors below 4 are usually mediocre, specialized journals or (more often) lousy journals. The International Journal of Biological Sciences is not even rated (though they assign themselves their own number of 3.24!).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

On the Road + Open Source Seeds

Well, I'm packing for the PAG conference...
Goal 1: Learn some new statistical/ecological genomics

Goal 2: Get some leads for a real job
It's a pretty long conference, so I'll have plenty of downtime to work on my backlog of manuscripts and job applications (and get my fill of Mexican food!). Hopefully when I get back we'll get our LCMS pipeline patched back up and I can run through the rest of our 2009 field samples.

At any rate, I'm excited that I got my 2010 Seed Savers Exchange catalog in the mail today! I'll spend part of my plane ride looking forward to moving somewhere I'll hopefully have a yard.

On a related note, Joseph is instigating some participatory amateur breeding over at Greensparrow Gardens (which I think is brilliant!). Does anyone know if there's much of an amateur breeding movement out there? I've only ever known one amateur (rose) breeder, but I'd love to hear if there was some interest out there.

I picture a wiki where amateur breeders could set up pages for their creations (with pedigrees, characteristics, etc.) and trade seeds, pollen and tips...


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Roundup Ready Patent Expires!

Monsanto's patent on its first generation herbicide resistant Roundup Ready soybean is about to expire!

They had originally planned to force farmers to destroy all their first generation seed as they released their second generation (newly patented) Roundup Ready seed, but backed away from this stance, possibly under pressure from a Justice Department investigation. The original Roundup Ready trait will now be in the public domain and available to farmers and breeders (a very exciting development!).

Patent law and copyrights are critical to facilitate technological and cultural progress but it's a HUGE pet peeve of mine when organizations try to extend their claim beyond what's precedented. (If you're not fired up by this like me, download Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig).*

At any rate, I'm glad that public opinion and government regulation continue to keep the big seed companies this side of evil.** Now if we could just do the same for the pharmaceutical and entertainment industries we'd be all set...

h/t: U.S. Food Policy

* Companies like Disney flaunt the public domain by continually lobbying congress for absurd extensions on their "ownership" of things like Mickey Mouse
** We'd be even better off (more competition, more disruptive technologies) if we loosened up genetic engineering regulation and let the small guys play

The Decline of Ag Research

Q: "no one really does field agricultural research anymore" Really? I would love to hear more about this. Thank you.

A:
money, money and money!

1) Agriculture is not prestigious and undergrads don't pay the big tuition bucks to go to a great ag school. Logically, UC Davis and Cornell both seem less interested in maintaining their status as world-famous ag research institutes, than in cultivating their second and third rate med schools. The past decade has seen a huge consolidation and defunding of agricultural research departments - especially with this past year's economic troubles.

2) Agricultural research (just like other applied fields, e.g. transportation) is supported by small, mostly local organizations (e.g. USDA and farmer organizations) not the powerhouse government research funding agencies (e.g. NIH, NSF, DOE), and is therefore less valuable to universities (which make money by skimming up to 50% of incoming grants). 50% of $10 million keeps the lights on a lot longer than 50% of $3,000. (see answer 1)

3) When most Americans worked in agriculture, it made sense to spend a decent chunk of taxes paying local scientists and extension agents to help their communities farm successfully. Since agriculture became highly consolidated and incorporated, it makes less sense to assist them with special research programs - besides, big farms are perfectly capable of hiring their own private plant doctors to solve problems. They're also not tied to the land in the same way as a post-colonial family farm. I remember standing in an onion field in the Central Valley that was slowly being consumed with a devastating fungal pathogen. The farm operators explained that instead of fighting the infection, they would simply move on to a new plot of land when the yield fell below their economic threshold. (I think this fungus is part of the reason Gilroy is now the Garlic Capital of the World in name only).

Still, agriculture is one of the U.S.'s most important industries and it makes sense to fund it better than we currently are. The good news is that the repeated pleas by ag scientists (along with increased public interest in food and environmental issues) have finally caught some traction - notably with the creation of the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which will increase research funding for the environmental and economic sustainability of our communities.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Trouble Brewing in Maine

I heard a rumor today that forces in Maine are fighting to have the whole state certified organic, which I suppose simply means deregulating all pesticides for all crops? No word yet if this extends to banning Ortho from the hardware store...

This is absolutely a terrible idea and I hope, for the sake of Mainers, that it doesn't succeed/isn't accurate. It's really silly to suggest that pests and pathogens can be controlled as well without judicious chemical application as with them. I can't imagine how challenging it must be to grow a profitable crop with such a short growing season to begin with. It'll be the end of a lot of farms if sprays are no longer available to help fend off diseases during cool, wet summers.

Supposedly, part of this proposed law includes the special labeling of all imported transgenic seeds. It was pointed out that this could prevent Maine farmers from purchasing modern, cutting-edge seed from major seed companies, which would be unlikely to design special packaging just for one small market. It will be absolutely impossible for farmers who grow mainstream crops like corn to compete with other states if they're forced to use obsolete, non-hybrid seed.

At any rate, it's not a very strong statement of the superiority of your methods to legislate them.

Let me know if you hear anything about this!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Detroit Farm City?

I previously described the efforts of artists to revive Detroit's infrastructure and economy.

Mental Masala
has a very nice post describing the parallel efforts of farmers.

I love watching the abandoned, rusted-out husks of post-industrial cities reinvent themselves. Pittsburgh pulled it off and I'll bet we haven't heard the last of Detroit. It offers hope to similar cities across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.

h/t: the irresistible fleet of bicycles

4,000 lbs Hard Labor

I spent the day helping my boss move a dump truck full of corn into a forced-air silo.* A combine harvester (which picks and separates corn cobs from their kernels) couldn't be used to harvest his 2009 fields since it would inevitably cross-contaminant different genotypes from different plots. The fields were way too big to pick by hand but our farm crew luckily has an obsolete old one row-picker (which picks but doesn't thresh the corn, predictably, one row at a time).

Our silo is a short, squat cylinder about 1.5 stories tall. A diesel engine pumps hot, dry air up through the metal screen floor, drying the corn completely so it can be stored and processed properly. Since no one really does field agricultural research anymore, the farm runs on a sliver of a skeleton crew, but they did a good job getting the previous users out of the silo in time for our harvest.

In order to keep the genotypes separate in the silo, we had to put them in 100-lb burlap potato bags. With the truck bed elevated, John kicked and shoveled 4,000 pounds of corn cobs towards a small door in the tailgate. My boss swept the cobs into the burlap bags, which were held open by a homemade potato bag rack. My job was to sew each bag shut and throw it into the silo.

The handheld industrial sewing machine was an austere, metal creature about the size of a circular saw, connected to the workshop by daisy-chained extension cords. It stitched the coarse cotton string seen frequently on large paper bags of charcoal or flour - the kind that unravels when you pull the twisted, loose end.

I only spent half a day climbing in and out of that silo, but it was exhausting nonetheless. Towards the end, John joked, "Matt, you're becoming quite the seamstress!" My boss spit out a correction: "tailor." It was hard work, but I was thankful for the few tools we had access to, and for the weather - which was warm as it could be while keeping the snow frozen (and us dry).

For those of us who earn our livelihoods behind desks, the opportunity to get out into our gardens and stretch our muscles is a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, many romantic back-to-the-earth types extrapolate this to a disdain towards farmers who use labor-saving devices. I love to get my hands dirty just as much as the next gardener, but there was nothing satisfying about manually loading a silo with corn cobs.

I suspect that most of those who pine for pre-industrial agriculture have never actually done the tedious, physical labor that it requires.

*This story was drafted on 12/20/2009, but I was too busy to get it out before break.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Define: Liberal

I'm back from a very busy (and excellent!) Christmas vacation. I have a huge backlog of ideas to write out, but here's something small to get us started:

Jim recently announced to me that he's trying to take back the word "liberal," which is synonymous with "leftist" only in the United States.

His referenced explanation, "What's in a word: 'Liberal,'" is written in the gently mocking, international style typical of The Economist.

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