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Agriculture's gifts to you this Christmas

December 19, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

As you read this article, there will be six shopping days left until Christmas, I trust that fact doesn't send you into a frenzy. I would like to challenge you to look under the tree and see how many of the presents are brought to you by agriculture.

Of course, if the tree is real, then I guess you really have to start there. There are approximately 30 million to 35 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. every year. Those trees are grown on about 500,000 acres in the U.S. with each acre providing the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people. There are about 21,000 Christmas tree growers in the U.S., and more than 100,000 people are employed full time or part time in the industry.

In 1856, Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States, was the first president to place a Christmas tree in the White House and President Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.

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So what of the presents under the tree? There is a pair of jeans, made from cotton. Cotton is a soft fiber that grows around the seeds of the cotton plant, a shrub native to the Indian subcontinent and the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and the Americas. The fiber is most often spun into thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile, which is the most widely used natural-fiber cloth in clothing today.

Next is a wool sweater. Wool is the fiber derived from the fur of animals, principally sheep. Wool has two qualities that distinguish it from hair or fur: It has scales which overlap like shingles on a roof and it is crimped.

Wool's scaling and crimp make it easier to spin and felt the fleece. These qualities help the individual fibers attach to each other so that they stay together. Because of the crimp, wool fabrics have a greater bulk than other textiles and retain air, which causes the product to retain heat. Insulation also works both ways; Bedouins use wool clothes to keep the heat out.

Wool is a very unusual fabric also in that it insulates even when wet and it is naturally fire resistant. Sheep, of course, are raised by shepherds. And, as you know, shepherds had a big role in the first Christmas, too.

When it comes to the cosmetics and make-up under the tree, agricultural ingredients are all through them. Lanolin from wool is in many products for the softening of skin. Other products contain oils from sunflowers, soybeans and canola. Additionally, wax from bees is also used not to mention collagen from animals.

The easy place, of course, to see agriculture is in the fruits, nuts and candies. Christmas dinner also owes its thanks to the farmer, which comes as no surprise. Christmas is second only to Thanksgiving for serving turkey. Pies, cakes and sweet potatoes also grace the table.

As you open your presents and enjoy the food, think about what might be on the farmers' Christmas list. At the top of the list are fair prices for their products. In the words of John F. Kennedy, "Agriculture is the only business that sells wholesale, buys retail and pays the freight both ways."

Input costs have risen over the year while prices have not in most sectors. I couldn't imagine General Motors taking whatever the buyers offer them but farmers are forced to take whatever the buyers offer. Agriculture historically is a price taker, not a price maker.

Regardless of current prices, I know one thing for sure: Farmers will be thankful for their gifts and for their livelihood regardless of whether it is on the upswing or not.

I trust you will also be thankful and if you get a chance, thank a farmer for the ingredients in your Christmas presents and the character of your community.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu.

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