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Illinois Farm Families Blog

Sep 03 2015

What do food labels really tell us?

Labels still confuse me.  Should I be organic, free range, hormone free, antibiotic free, all natural, locally grown, low sodium or cage free (to name a few)?  Even with a master’s in Public Health, I’m befuddled.  Jodie Shield, nutritionist and author of “Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens” answered my questions.  She told me when it comes to setting a goal for healthy eating, encouraging kids to eat more vegetables should be a mom’s top priority. Most people in the U.S. eat less than one serving of vegetables a day, even though the recommended amount is nine to 12 servings daily! This is a significant contributor to the ever-increasing prevalence of childhood obesity.

Nutrition LabelJodie says what moms need to look for most in a label is the ingredient list – NOT the marketing lingo on the front. Things like non-GMO, locally grown or natural won’t tell you anything about the nutritional value of the food we are eating. Jodie says this is what she thinks is most important: avoid added sugars and don’t be afraid of canned or frozen produce. Fresh is great, but good nutrition isn’t lost when I defrost a bag of broccoli after a grueling soccer match. In fact, frozen vegetables are often fresher than fresh because they’re frozen as soon as they’re picked. Fresh vegetables are delicious, but they take time to prepare. So, don’t beat yourself up if you open a can of sweet corn instead of shucking it yourself.  What matters is that your children get as many opportunities to eat their veggies as possible!

Organic and non-GMO produce are typically more expensive because the production is more labor-intensive. If you want to spend more, go for it. But don’t feel like the worst mom ever if you stock up on conventionally grown produce on sale at the warehouse club. Oh, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau, 97 percent of Illinois farms are family owned. When I spoke to the produce manager at Ultra Foods in Wheaton, he told me some of their produce actually comes from Elgin – a mere 33 miles away. 

(Editor’s Note: While not all produce is locally grown, when in doubt, voice your questions. Stores are now required to label where the produce comes from so it you don’t see a sign, ask an employee! I have seen local Lake County farms named on produce displays in Mariano’s and Jewel. –Melissa )

One of my favorite quotes is from Walt Whitman: “Be curious, not judgmental.” It reminds me to seek opportunities for growth in every situation. So, I’m still asking questions but I’m also eating my veggies – GMO or otherwise.

Originally posted on Little Lake County.

Genevieve O'Keefe
Grayslake, IL

Genevieve is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. (City Moms formerly knows as Field Moms.)

Sep 02 2015

What's Cooking Wednesday: Country-Style Ribs with Peach Rosemary Glaze









  1. Brush the ribs with the oil. In small bowl, combine rosemary, salt and pepper. Season ribs all over with the rosemary mixture. Let stand for 30 minutes. 

  2. Prepare medium-hot fire in grill. Place ribs on grill over indirect heat (not directly over heat) and close lid. Grill for 35 to 45 minutes, or until ribs are tender. Occasionally baste ribs on all sides with warmed preserves during last 15 minutes of grilling. Remove from grill and let rest 3 minutes. 

Recipe courtesy of:

Sep 01 2015

Sunrise on the Farm

sunrise on the farm

6:20 sunrise. Another beautiful day bringing us closer to corn harvest within the next 2 to 3 weeks. Over the weekend a cow was attacked near that hill by "a large cat" and a neighbor reported seeing a large - as in Panther or mountain lion sized - cat while on a walk. We have had MANY bobcat sightings also. So, those of us with children are making sure we feed livestock in daylight and travel in pairs. It's kind of surreal given that it's 2015. Until the last few years, the only predators (on calves, goats, sheep, etc.) we have worried about were coyotes.

Heather Hampton Knodle
Fillmore, IL

Heather and her husband, Brian, both come from multiple generations of farming and continue that family tradition today on their farm in Montgomery County with their four children. They raise corn, soybeans, wheat cattle and goats. Heather and Brian take their role as stewards of the land very seriously and work every day to leave the soil on their farm in better condition than the day before so that it can be fruitful for future generations to come.

Aug 31 2015

How NOT to Prepare Your Child For a Trip to the Dairy Farm

It’s almost that time of year when little ones will be  hitting the petting zoos, picking apples and selecting the perfect pumpkins, but are parents really helping their children to connect the dots between farmers and the fun they’re  having at their local farms and orchards?

Unfortunately, I unsuccessfully attempted to do just that for Zoe and Jada this summer. We had the privilege of visiting a dairy farm on the campus of University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign. I prepped the girls for our trip by stating that we were going to see the cows that give us milk, and they echoed the news with simultaneous “MOOOs”!  It was going to be a great visit, right…wrong!

We pulled up to the school’s dairy farm and as I unloaded the girls onto the gravel walkway they acknowledged that their glittery shoes were now smeared with mud. This visit was nothing like the manicured paths that we’d frequented at our local Zoo. We proceeded to the barn and the girls grew even more apprehensive. Why wasn’t the barn red? And where was the crowing rooster to complete the scene? It became clear to them that this wasn’t Old MacDonald’s Farm, this was a real working farm with very large animals.

We slowly navigated our way through the barn and passed the milk cooler just as it was revving up! Zoe leaped 10 feet and Jada wrapped her arms around my neck…twice! What were these sounds on the farm? Why was there such large machinery? Why were the cows so BIG?

Illinois dairy farm tourThe girls weren’t even considering a move closer to the cow that we were granted permission to milk, instead they kept a distance of 10 feet away. Little Miss Jada continued to back away only to find herself lined up perfectly beneath the rear of a cow that was lifting its tail to relieve itself.

She was whisked away not a moment to soon.

We left the farm shortly thereafter and the girls were promptly asleep. Apparently our farm excursion was a little too adventurous for my tots, but here’s how I would have prepared them differently. Before our next farm visit, I plan to  read the girls books like “The Milk Makers” by  Gail Gibbons so that the girls will have a realistic interpretation of what to expect on today’s farm. Also the book “From Cow to Carton” by Aliki has received rave reviews as a resource for teaching little ones about dairy farms.

As adults, sometimes its easy to assume that our kids “get it,” when really they’re just along for the fun. But when they don’t know what to expect, a fun adventure can turn into a really scary one. And while it’s tempting to read some of the more cartoon-like books with smiling cows hand delivering cups of milk, it’s more effective to provide realistic views of the world around us.

I do plan on taking the girls for another farm tour, but next time they’re getting the real picture!

If you’re looking for some additional farm friendly approved books, there’s a great list provided by the Illinois Farm Bureau on Amina’s original blog post here.

Amina Nevels
Chicago, IL

Amina was one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visited Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms shared their thoughts by blogging about what they experienced on these farms, including five takeaways. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers. (City Moms formerly knows as Field Moms.)

Aug 28 2015

Baling Hay in Pictures

Baling hay and straw was my job on the farm and I do miss the dust, sweat and scratch of the alfalfa and straw.  Last summer photographer Greg Baker from Baker Studios spent a day with my dad and brother at my grandparents’ farm.  This particular hayfield is the one in which my Grandpa Ray kicked me off the tractor because I couldn’t drive the baler straight.  That was the day I started stacking bales and never quit.

Seeing a mundane farm task through the eyes of someone else is interesting. Seeing your parent in pictures, just doing what you’ve always known him to do... well... that’s my dad, folks. That’s my dad.

(And my “little” brother pictured at the end of the slideshow.  He is the next generation to take on farming.  I couldn’t be a prouder farmer’s daughter or farmer’s sister.)

Dixon, IL

Katie and her husband, Andy, are seventh generation farmers. Together they raise two adorable farm kids and grow corn, soybeans and seed corn in Illinois. Katie's family still raises pigs, cattle, goats and horses only a few minutes away. Katie was named one of the 2013 Faces of Farming and Ranching by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA)

Aug 27 2015

Simply Put, I Trust Our U.S. Farmers

Apparently Chipotle has had a carnitas shortage, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune business section. Even though carnitas, otherwise known as pork, is my burrito filling of choice, I haven’t noticed. I haven’t been too fond of Chipotle’s marketing strategies lately and haven’t eaten there for a while. Chipotle is now using a British pork supplier to provide their customers with carnitas. According to the article, Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ellis states that it’s been Chipotle’s preference to source meats domestically, but the quality of pork that meets their standards is not available right now.

Piglets on a US farmHogwash!

When Chipotle used domestic suppliers of pork, they insisted that their pork be raised antibiotic and hormone free. Just to clarify, all pork sold must be from pigs that have not had antibiotics in their systems for a number of weeks, so our meat does not have antibiotics in it. Many conventional farmers, such as the pig farmers I visited last year, only use antibiotics  to treat sick pigs. And hormones ? They are not used in pork production AT ALL. A pig goes to market in just six short months, and using hormones isn’t practical or worthwhile.

Plenty of pig farmers in the U.S. would be able to meet Chipotle’s demands, but instead, they have chosen a pork supplier in the UK, which  also allows antibiotic use for the health of pigs. This choice seems hypocritical to me!

As I’ve stated before, we’re fortunate that we have so many choices when it comes to buying our food. Having visited a pig farm right here in Illinois, I’m confident in the quality of U.S. pork. Here is one of my favorite pork recipes!

Slow Cooker Carolina BBQ Pulled Pork

  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 (4 to 6 pound) boneless pork butt or shoulder roast
  • 3/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • Hamburger buns
  1. Place onions in slow cooker. Combine brown sugar, paprika, salt and pepper; rub over roast. Place roast on top of onions.
  2. Combine vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, red pepper flakes, sugar, mustard, garlic powder and cayenne; stir to mix well. Drizzle about one-third vinegar mixture over roast; cover and refrigerate remaining vinegar mixture.
  3. Cover slow cooker and cook on LOW 8 to 10 hours (HIGH 4 to 6 hours). 
  4. Drizzle about one-third reserved vinegar mixture over roast during last half hour of cooking. 
  5. Remove meat and onions. Drain if desired. Chop or shred meat and chop onions. Serve meat and onions on buns. Use remaining vinegar mixture to drizzle over sandwiches. Delicious! 
Originally posted on Lemon Drop Pie.

Mount Prospect, IL

Christa was one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visited several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms shared their thoughts by blogging about what they experienced on these farms, including five things they found most interesting. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers. (City Moms formerly known as Field Moms.)

Aug 26 2015

What's Cooking Wednesday: Inside-Out Grilled Steak Salad


  • 2 beef Strip Steaks Boneless, cut 1 inch thick (about 10 ounces each)

  • 16 Boston or butter lettuce leaves (about 4 to 5-inch diameter)

  • 2 cups thin assorted vegetable strips, such as cucumber, red onion, carrots, bell pepper, sugar snap peas

  • 1/4 cup frozen shelled edamame, thawed or frozen peas or corn, thawed

  • 1/4 cup reduced-fat or regular vinaigrette (any variety)

  • 1/3 cup crumbled goat or blue cheese (optional)

  • 1/3 cup toasted chopped almonds, walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts (optional)


  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 teaspoon coarse grind or cracked black pepper


  1. Combine Rub ingredients; press evenly onto beef steaks.

  2. Place steaks on grid over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill, covered, 11 to 14 minutes (over medium heat on preheated gas grill 11 to 15 minutes) for medium rare (145°F) to medium (160°F) doneness, turning occasionally.

  3. Carve steaks into slices. Place lettuce leaves on serving platter. Evenly layer vegetables onto lettuce leaves. Top evenly with steak. Drizzle with vinaigrette; sprinkle with cheese and nuts, if desired.

Test Kitchen Tips:

To pan-broil steaks, preheat large nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Place steaks in skillet; cook steaks 12 to 15 minutes for medium rare (145°F) to medium (160°F) doneness, turning occasionally.

Recipe courtesy of:

Aug 24 2015

GMO: The ultimate battle of Nature vs. Nurture

GMOs and biotechnology are among the most asked about topics on watchusgrow.org. Recently, a group of IFF City Moms, who have toured Illinois farms and wanted to ask additional questions about Monsanto, were given the opportunity to visit their Biotechnology Research Center. The tour was provided by IFF,  with additional support from the Illinois Corn Marketing Board. 

Believing in science does not make me a traitor to my people.  

I am a nature worshipper. Nature is kind of my religion. I am a tree hugger (literally), and find God in living things. 

Since I made a visit to Monsanto, courtesy of Illinois Farm Families and Illinois Corn back in April, I have found myself in several strange online and offline discussions. With family, friends and strangers, I have defended the science behind GMOs  while being accused of succumbing to the “propaganda” of the company. 

Genetically Modified soybean plantGMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. It could really be any plant that is cross-pollinated. What it has come to mean is a seed that has been created in a lab and then enters our food supply. It seems to mean that we are eating “frankenfood” suddenly (even though GMO corn has been in fields for more than 20 years).  

Yes, there are seeds now in our supply that are modified in a laboratory. We eat them. The DNA of the BT bacteria does not enter our DNA and change it. Roundup is not part of the DNA of the seed but a coating around it. Farmers are using LESS chemicals than ever before. At Monsanto, seed bags also contain non-GMO seed and uncoated seed to preserve the food chain. (NO ONE believes me on this one, but I heard it from the horse’s mouth, as it were.) Nurture, right? The process of caring for and encouraging the growth or development of someone or something?

Nature has been modifying food for millennia, as have farmers, by selecting pollens and impregnating plants with pollens from plants they like better. This is NOT different than doing the selection in the lab. It is just more efficient. 

GMO labeling NEEDS to happen. Any entity trying to prevent this, including Monsanto, should just stop it. It would solve so many problems. Federal mandate – do it. Companies do it on your own. Just freaking label so that the Non-GMO labeling craze will stop fooling people out of their money using fear tactics and age-old advertising techniques. 

I had a very enlightening discussion with a farmer among my Facebook friends.  She and I became friends via social media; we have never met in person and we probably never will.  We became friends because of social activism – advocating for the rights of breastfeeding women. Sounds pretty crunchy and granola right? 

Just the type of company I have kept over the years. Liberal, smart women – women and men who embrace the free spirit and back-to-the-earth movements. Modern day hippies. (My most frequent nicknames over the years include Hippy, Mama, Hippy Mama and for a brief time Red.) 

Turns out she and her husband are canola farmers in Canada. Canada, the Mecca of my people. I asked her if they used GMO canola, knowing it was one of the few available to market. 

“We have choices for non-GMO canola, but we don't choose them as the yield will be worse. Farming is complicated. I just get frustrated as it is hard to explain all the factors going into our decisions in a Facebook comment. We have spent years and years farming, and Darryl spends hours researching before making these decisions each year.”

I replied to her that this is what I learned both during my experience as a Field Mom (now called City Moms) with Illinois Farm Families and my visit to Monsanto. Farmers ARE thinking about it, DO care about it and ultimately DO have choices.

She replied, “It does kind of scare me that you didn't think that before you went. I'm not attacking you personally, it just gives me insight to what non-farmers are thinking about farmers, and that kinda shocks and hurts me.”

As an earth mama, I respect the stewards of our lands – the farmer. I respect the highly educated people who make decisions every day. Farmers are not Big Ag. This is a label we are using to take the human element out of the equation. They are people like you and me who make educated choices.

After agreeing with all of the science and arguing for the inherent safety of GMO products, I must reiterate, I believe that big business is BAD for our country. Bad for our global economy. Bad for second and third world countries that are being forced into a capitalist economy that benefits business over people. Monsanto is a Big Business. We need to stop likening corporations to people.

We need to get over our materialism. Science may take us there. Nature and nurture.

Travel expenses within St. Louis and lunch courtesy of Monsanto.

Sara McGuire
Chicago, IL

Sara is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.

Aug 22 2015

Antibiotics, Chipotle, and US Farmers

"If Chipotle would talk to me, I would tell them that standard practice on my farm – and many U.S. farms – is to treat pigs with antibiotics when they are sick, and only when they are sick. It’s the exact same process being used by Chipotle’s new pork supplier in the U.K."

US Farmer responds to Chipotle antibiotic claims

Elkhart, IL

Thomas and his wife, Breann, raise pigs on their farm in Elkhart, IL with their two daughters Reagan and Lakin. They strive to be good stewards of the land and humanely raise their animals so that they may pass the farm to the next generation as their parents did for them.

Aug 20 2015

It's not a stroke; it's fair week.

I came in the house from pulling weeds this weekend and my 12 year old says, "Where were you? I thought you'd had a stroke! I looked everywhere!"

To which I would say, "Um, I don't think you looked that hard because I was right in front of the house. Pulling weeds."

"But the mixer's on!" she said.

"You mean now?" I asked, vaguely remembering that I was making banana bread at one point.

"Yes!" she said. "We came in and the mixer was on and we couldn't find you!"


I found three old bananas after lunch and started making banana bread. Then one of the kids asked about bringing up a box from the basement so I stepped out of the kitchen to answer. Then John pulled up with the camper, to be cleaned and loaded for the county fair. So I went outside. We got it unhitched and then loaded up the dogs, which John and the kids were taking for a bath (prepping for the dog obedience show on Monday). Then I pulled a couple weeds in the flower bed while they were grabbing some brushes. They left and I was on a roll, so I kept weeding all the way around to the front of the house. Then I realized it was hot and I was dripping with sweat and this was maybe not the best time of day to pull weeds.

So I headed back into the house, where upon I learned Jenna thought I'd had a stroke somewhere because she came in the house and the mixer was running and I was nowhere to be found.

Kids at the county fairSo I guess I can see where she might have thought that.

But here's the thing: It's not a stroke. It's fair week. My brain is addled.

Forgive me if it's quiet around here this week. You can rest assured we're showing and sweating and eating some good fair food, and hopefully no one is actually having a stroke.

And if it's your fair week, too? Best of luck! And don't forget to thank a fair board member.

(Also, the banana bread turned out fine, in case you were wondering.)

Originally posted on Prairie Farmer: My Generation

Marietta, IL

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise their three children. On their farm, they grow crops and raise cattle with John's parents. Holly is also an associate editor for Prairie Farmer magazine, a publication dedicated to sharing information about farm life and farm business.