Valentine’s Day=Flowers=Agriculture!

14 02 2011

If you are lucky enough to ever have received flowers on Valentine’s Day you are playing a role in the agricultural sector called Horticulture: Horticulture is the industry and science of plant cultivation including the process of preparing soil for the planting of seeds, tubers, or cuttings…etc

We all know that scientists are mixing and matching genes to make brilliant corn plants for our fields that ward off pesky bugs or to make wonderful bean plants that are resistant to important herbicides that kill off pesky weeds.

But what are these brilliant scientists doing in Horticulture to bring you even more spectacular flowers than mother nature can provide? Who would have guessed that your flower bed could be a product of genetic engineering?!

Even more amazing, that the same technology bringing us super purple petunias, could be life-saving (or at least life-altering!!) as well!

NOVA has the answer.

For more information/the longer 14 minute version go to: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/rnai.html.





Celebrate National History Month!

31 01 2011

Today officially kicks off National History Month and there is a lot to celebrate! A few generations back, in 1930, my family could provide for 10 people (according to Crop Life Ambassador Network) and today my dad could feed 130 people (I’m not sure how many cows that equals). However, this month is not just about celebrating where we are today but celebrating where we come from.

I come from Benjaminville, Illinois-founded by my great-great-great grandfather John R. Benjamin. While Benjaminville, known today as Bentown, is an important part of my family’s history-it does not define our history.

My family’s history is defined by their beliefs. Benjaminville was founded as a Quaker Community. Quakers do not believe in war. They also believe in equality for different races and women, even at a time when this was a rarity. Therefore, black people lived in Bentown because they knew they would be treated well. Women were respected leaders within the Quaker church. These are important values that my family has preserved to pass down to me.

My family’s history is defined by kindness. A poor gypsy family buried their son on our land because they could not afford a burial plot at the cemetery. My great-grandfather would adopt an orphan boy from the community. My grandmother would call a widower across the way each morning to keep him company and have him over for Sunday dinner each week.

Ingenuity is also an important part of my agrarian heritage. John R. Benjamin, the founder of Benjaminville-regardless of what Wikipedia says, once got lost coming home in the sea of prairie grass (or perhaps it was just dark). He found his way home by following the familiar bark of his dog and later would plow a “road” to Bloomington, Ill. so that it wouldn’t happen again…. as family legend goes t this was essentially the Oakland Ave. Bloomington knows and loves today. Also, my grandfather was an early adapter of terraces and contour plowing. My dad can remember the USDA hosting a tour from Washington DC to see his farming practices.

And yes, my family even has small claims to fame: John R. hired a German immigrant to work for him and in return gave him a tract of land. One day this land would be farmed by his nephew-George J. Mecherle, founder of State Farm. John R’s brother, Rubin, was given his bar exam (to practice law in Illinois after the family relocated) by none other than Abraham Lincoln! The local history museum states that Rubin Benjamin was instrumental to antitrust legislation that limited the power of railroads. Bentown also was home to a semi-pro baseball player at one time.

This list is just a small cross section of the values and stories that make me proud of my family’s agrarian history. I also posted some of the pictures of the last two generations of Benjaminville. I hope to post other pictures throughout the month as well.

This is a picture of my dad, George Benjamin, in front of our old combine. It might not be the newest or shiniest but it gets the job done and there is something to be said for that. There is also something to be said for worn out blue jeans and dirty shirts that represent a hard days work.

This is our tractor, in the back you can see some of our outbuildings on the original farm. We call the red building pictured the shop building. My brother and I used to explore it to see what family treasures we could find, including an old fashioned horse drawn sleigh!



Two generations of Benjamin siblings at Napa Valley.





A Once Deadly Ice Cream Topping…

27 01 2011

The almond enjoyed today atop ice cream sundaes and amidst trail mix is a far cry from its bitter, fatal roots. The two billion almond industry (I contribute to the Almond Joy sector) of today is made possible by a genetic variation that made domestication of almonds possible. Before domestication, eating only a few dozen of the nuts would be lethal…

The lethal effect is due to the presence of glucoside amygdalin which becomes deadly prussic acid  if the nut is crushed or chewed. And the by-product of prussic acid…. cyanide! Due to the genetic variation the domesticated almond is sweet, instead of bitter, and lacks the ability to produce to the deadly prussic acid. Who knew almond  trees had such a nasty trick up their sleeves branches! Not only does this glucoside amygdalin protect the almond tree from potential predators (including us!) but it also safely attracts pollinating insects and harms potential predators… does anyone else detect a biotech innovation?

The ideal characteristics of the almond are made possible through a single recessive mutation in a gene that blocks the production of amygdalin. The simplicity of the difference between the two means genetic variation amongst wild and domesticated varieties continues today where a handful of individual trees will produce the opposite type of nut.

Almonds have been around awhile now, some 3200 years bp (in case you haven’t heard of bp that means before present and present = the 1950s when carbon dating came in vogue… I learn something new every day!) according to archaeological finds in Numeria, Jordan that included the remains of almond shells alongside other domesticated foods: wheat, barely, and parched grapes.

Almonds were ideal candidates for domestication because a tree is able to grow from the seed alone even before the invention of grafting practices. It’s funny how I am so far removed from horticultural practices that I never think of that as a problem, like people who are far removed from the farm don’t mind if it doesn’t rain hardly at all in the summer.

By domesticating the wild almond a new food source was established that would one day become a major agricultural product (and sundae topping!) we know and love today.








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