Illinois Farm Families Blog

Dec 13 2014

10 Most Fascinating People in Farms & Food, 2014 - Part 3

Along with Christmas trees, holy nights and candy canes, top 10 lists are making the rounds. Even though last year was supposed to be Barbara Walters’ last 10 Most Fascinating People, she’s got a new list coming in a week. So, I thought I’d put together another list as well. Here are my thoughts on the 10 Most Fascinating People in Farms & Food, 2014. Keep in mind fascinating means interesting and or charming. Who would you add?

3) Mr. Petitt, my agriculture teacher

Mr. Petitt represents the old-school high school ag teacher and FFA advisor, spending every hour in his class with his students teaching lessons not found in books. He was my teacher and one reason why I can’t stop talking about agriculture today. Although farms and food are in the spotlight, agriculture education is disappearing from our schools, not necessarily because of lack of funding or interest but because we can’t find the teachers. #TeachAg is the national campaign designed to showcase the value of a career teaching students the facts of farms and food in order to refute the fiction. Ag teachers are a dedicated bunch. I was lucky enough to learn from one of the greats. Thank you, Mr. Petitt.

2) Farmers who share their stories

Sharing the why and what of farming isn’t too difficult. Farmers & ranchers are doing so in droves, adding blogs, Instagram feeds and twitter handles to the social media universe. They share about tractors, seeds, cows and pigs. They talk about soil, business partners, pesticides, growing seasons and investments. In general, farmers and ranchers have peeled back the veil and opened the gates to every inquisitive mind.

But farmers are more than their fields and livestock. They have lives peppered with challenges that link them to their “city cousins” more than anyone may know. This year, several ag bloggers shared deeply personal stories about themselves and their families. They opened their hearts and reminded us all that in spite of our labels we share so much. Here are a few that caught my attention.

  • Kelly at Country Nights, City Lights tackled bi-polar depression in the wake of Robin William’s death. In Your Darkest Hour touches on her own struggles and shares resources for those who need them.
  • Debbie at Of Kids, Cows & Grass put a rural face to organ donation when her son needed a liver transplant.
  • Nicole at Tales of a Kansas Farm Mom deciphers the medical speak regarding dyslexia and ADHD. She has shared an amazing amount of resources and hope for other families asking the same questions.
  • Katie at The Pinke Post, has shared often her personal parenting story and did so again this fall as it related to a ballot measure in North Dakota. It takes courage to put the most challenging of days out for public consumption and then deal with the backlash.

1) My Dad

Whether baling hay, feeding pigs, working calves or crawling across a field in a tractor, time spent with Dad was golden. He worked hard from sun up past sun down to give our family the life we enjoyed. He served the school and community on a number of boards. He split time as a fair volunteer and 4-H parent. One 4-H show day, a passing steer struck with its hind leg, its hoof connecting with my thigh. I remember thinking don’t cry; don’t let the boys see you cry. But it hurt, and Dad suddenly appeared to help hide my tears. He is the man who cultivated my deep love for agriculture, showed me how to do right without saying a word, and taught me that a person is only as good as his/her work. He continues to pass the farming legacy to my brother and the six grand-kids who call him Papa. My dad is a farmer, and farmers are fascinating.

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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)

This blog originally appeared in Katie's blog, Rural Route 2.

Missed Part 1? Click here for entries 10-7

Missed Part 2? Click here for entries 6-3

Dec 12 2014

10 Most Fascinating People in Farms & Food, 2014 - Part 2

Along with Christmas trees, holy nights and candy canes, top 10 lists are making the rounds. Even though last year was supposed to be Barbara Walters’ last 10 Most Fascinating People, she’s got a new list coming in a week. So, I thought I’d put together another list as well. Here are my thoughts on the 10 Most Fascinating People in Farms & Food, 2014. Keep in mind fascinating means interesting and or charming. Who would you add?

6) The Food Babe

Another shudder. I have to hand it to Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe). She chewed on a yoga mat (why???) and never looked back. She re-fus-es to engage in dialogue with individuals who take issue with her brand of pseudo-science. Instead, she plays the victim when mainstream media decides that the personality they created is taking things too far. It would be so easy for agriculture to dismiss the outrageous claims leveled by The Food Babe. But we’ve done that before and now we’re playing catch up. I’d like to believe the woman who is Vani Hari is well intentioned, curious about food and interested in learning. Unfortunately, her alter-ego isn’t much for any of those things except for, well, ego.

5) Norman Borlaug

In March, the agriculture community celebrated Norman Borlaug’s 100th birthday by revisiting the “Green Revolution” and exploring the future of farming, world hunger and food security. Mr. Borlaug’s work is well-known, well-criticized and well-celebrated. But his mission cannot be refuted: “I personally cannot live comfortably in the midst of abject hunger and poverty and human misery, if I have the possibilities of–even in a modest way, with the help of my many scientific colleagues–of doing something about improving the lives of these many young children.” – Norman Borlaug

4) California Farmers and Ranchers

In 2012, the Midwest experienced a drought. We prayed heartily watching the clouds with fierce intensity, daring Mother Nature to storm on our parched fields. And finally, it rained. That was one growing season.

Farmers and ranchers from Texas to California have been dealing with drought for much longer. This year I couldn’t look away as California farmers fallowed land, ranchers sold their herds and everyone watched as rivers, lakes and streams just disappeared. On top of losing generations worth of work, farmers and ranchers were again defending their livelihood as the conspiracy theorists leveled claims that this drought was the government’s doing or Big Ag’s creation. The Faces of the California Drought shares the heartbreaking stories of farmers, ranchers, students, families and communities. Orchards uprooted, food lines wrapped around the block, no grass found in a playground, and yet in each story there is strength; belief that relief will come one drop at a time.

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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)

This blog originally appeared in Katie's blog, Rural Route 2.

Missed Part 1? Click here for entries 10-7

Come back tomorrow for entries 3-1

Dec 11 2014

10 Most Fascinating People in Farms & Food, 2014 - Part 1

Along with Christmas trees, holy nights and candy canes, top 10 lists are making the rounds. Even though last year was supposed to be Barbara Walters’ last 10 Most Fascinating People, she’s got a new list coming in a week. So, I thought I’d put together another list as well. Here are my thoughts on the 10 Most Fascinating People in Farms & Food, 2014. Keep in mind fascinating means interesting and or charming. Who would you add?

10) Buck Marshall

Chipotle barely let 2014 begin before launching the first missile of the food wars in the form of Farmed & Dangerous, “a Chipotle original comedy series that explores the outrageously twisted and utterly unsustainable world of industrial agriculture.” The character line-up included Buck Marshall, the head of a fictional agriculture organization representing industrial farming, factory farmers and Big Ag. Oy! Laden with labels Farmed & Dangerous, according to Chipotle, supported their effort to find “food with integrity.” Integrity means the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Chipotle’s burritos are being served with a side of something and integrity is not it.

9) Derek Klingenberg, farmer

This Kansas farmer has spent hours perfecting his parody talents churning out hits like Do You Want To Drive My Tractor? Ranching Awesome and What Does The Farmer Say?" My personal favorite, We Are Farming showcases the amazing diversity of farmers from around the world. However, his simple serenade to bring in his cows fascinated the world and got people talking about farmers and what they do. My dad calls his cows with a low tonal, “come bawwwsssss.” And they come, but only for him. It’s something farmers do.

8) Robb Fraley, Monsanto

My Farmer and I met Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto, two winters ago in Hawaii. During that brief conversation, I sensed I’d met a man who didn’t have time for the drama plaguing discussions about agriculture. 2014 found the World Food Prize Laureate stepping forward to challenge that drama. I find it refreshing that an agribusiness leader is joining the ranks of farmers and ranchers who have been focused on telling agriculture’s story.  The farm story is a book with many chapters. Farmers have one, but agribusiness has more and that voice needs to be heard.

Most recently, Mr. Fraley joined panelists at Intelligence Squared to debate GMOs. It is worth the watch.

7) Dr. Oz

When creating a list about farms and food certain names might illicit a shudder, but the conversations created in their wake are fascinating. In the Kingdom of Dr. Oz, truth comes with several caveats. Weekly he calls out the horrors of another food group, preaches the next weight loss miracle and misrepresents the American agriculture community. There is no charm here, but an amazing amount of interest that a doctor can blatantly lie on television and not be held accountable. Congress tried, but what resulted was a slight hiccup in the Dr.’s march to dominate food based conversations. Note: He has yet to invite a farmer to the table.

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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)

This blog originally appeared in Katie's blog, Rural Route 2.

Come back tomorrow for entries 6-3

Oct 30 2014

Why Farmers Plant GMOs? Same Question, Different Answer

This won’t be the usual blog post listing all the reasons why genetically modified seed is an important tool to us on our farm. I promise. But it doesn’t hurt to refresh.

Using genetically modified seed has helped us reduce our application of herbicides by half. Fewer applied pesticides means less traffic in the fields, less fuel use and less soil erosion. That’s our experience on our farm. Every farm and farmer is different with different experiences and different reasons for using one tool over another. Genetically modified seed is just one of those tools a farmer can choose to use.

But I digress, because this isn’t going to be that post.

Recently I was asked, “Why do farmers keep planting GMOs if consumers don’t want them?”  A valid question to be sure. Certainly along with soil type, climate, geography, weather, market access and local infrastructure, market demand has something to do with what a farmer plants and why.

In the case of GMOs, there has yet to be a definite swing in demand on the farm side for non-genetically modified grain over a genetically modified hybrid.

The market for non-GMO commodity crops, in spite of what seems like a loud demand coming from the masses, is actually quite small in terms of number of bushels contracted, and is somewhat saturated with farmers already filling the available contracts.

In fact, according to Phil Thornton, Value Enhanced Project Director for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and Illinois Corn Growers Association, the majority of the non-gm corn grown in the United States is exported. Japan alone imports three million metric tons (120 million bushels) of non-gm corn which is only a fraction of the 15 million metric tons imported annually.

Thornton said that the U.S. market for non-gmo corn, in particular, is small and that many 2015 contracts have already been filled. It is a difficult market for a farmer to break into, especially if looking to gain a premium. Many specialty grains will garner a premium over general market price. The assumption is that because it seems like everyone is debating GMO versus non-gmo, a high premium exists. But, Thornton said, these days with corn prices at $3.00 per bushel, premiums might be as low as $.10 or even a nickel. In other years, when corn prices have been good, premiums have risen to $1.00.

The reality is a farmer’s choice to plant non-gm seed or gm-seed has very little to do with the premium or the market, and everything to do with what is right for his/her farm. Thornton pointed out that much of the non-gmo corn on the market today is not sold for a premium or even marketed with the non-gmo label. For the bulk of the market, both domestic and global, corn is corn is corn.

There will always be specific contracts for non-gm corn, and there will always be farmers growing a crop to fill that market demand. But for us and the decisions we make on our farm, until that demand outweighs the cost of not using a genetically modified seed, we will continue to seek out strong hybrids first and beneficial genetically modified traits second. 


Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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). Read more from Katie on her blog, Rural Route 2.


Sep 05 2014

Images of Harvest - The First Color of Fall

I just snapped this Wednesday.  The first color of fall.  Harvest is on its way.


Jul 22 2014

American Farmers Just Love Their GMOs and You Should Too

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its latest data on farmers planting of crops genetically enhanced to tolerate herbicides (HT) crops and to resist insect pests (Bt).

HT soybeans went from 17 percent of U.S. soybean acreage to 94 percent in 2014. Plantings of HT cotton expanded from about 10 percent of U.S. acreage in 1997 to 91 percent in 2014. The adoption of HT corn reached 89 percent of U.S. corn acreage in 2014.

Plantings of Bt corn grew from about 8 percent of U.S. corn acreage in 1997 to 80 percent in 2014. Plantings of Bt cotton also expanded rapidly, from 15 percent of U.S. cotton acreage in 1997 to 84 percent in 2014.

See the chart below for the trends.

Why are modern biotech crops so popular with farmers?

Earlier this year, U.S. News reported the views of Illinois farmer Katie Pratt:

According to Pratt, her family uses GMO crops because of the clear value they bring to their family business. They have greatly reduced the amount of insecticide that needs to be sprayed, and they only need to treat the weeds at one point, not several times over a growing season. Her soil has now improved, because she and her family don't have to tromp through the fields as often. The family also uses less fuel, because they spend less time in the tractor. “No one is more aware than the farmer of the impact we have on the environment, in addition to the urgency to feed and fuel a growing population, while reducing our footprint on the planet,” she maintains.

And remember folks, biotech crops are not only good for the environment, eating them as caused not so much as a cough, sniffle, sneeze or bellyache. For example, a statement issued by the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific organization in the United States, on October 20, 2012 point blank asserted that “contrary to popular misconceptions, GM [genetically modified] crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.” The AAAS Board concluded, “Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.

Originally posted on Reason.com.

Jun 23 2014

I Plant GMOs In My Fields, Not In My Garden

Back in early February, I sat in my kitchen in front of my laptop preparing to Skype for the first time. I know, I know. My lack of techy-ness is shining through. I use my computer for work, my phone to talk to people and the TV to watch. Old school.

On the other side of my computer screen sitting in a studio in L.A. was Larry King, – as in TV-host, journalism legend Larry King – a panel of celebrity “experts” and one scientist.

Ensuring Skype worked properly sent my anxiety levels through the roof, even more so than facing off with Larry King about the hottest topic in food and farming . . . until I realized who was asking the questions and how much they didn’t know.

The topic was none other than GMOs and the panel of “experts” included celebrity chef Curtis Stone, actress Mary Lou Henner and former NBA-player John Salley. The scientist was Dr. Bob Goldberg from the department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at UCLA. He knows science and biotechnology.

During the hour long show the panel spoke to numerous guests and bantered amongst themselves about the value of biotechnology in agriculture. I did not hear any of that though, as I waited in my kitchen for the notification bell to ‘ding’ on my computer. I thought when that happened I’d be able to see who I was talking to and hear their conversation prior to my interview.

When the bell ‘dinged’, I saw just me on my screen. Uh oh. Then, I heard Larry ask, “Let’s start with why you use gm-seed on your farm?”

I didn’t expect this to be a friendly interview, (i.e. Mary Lou’s first question, “Do you feed your children these crops?” referring to our acres of field corn.), but I did expect if folks were going to be on a webcast they’d be somewhat up on the facts. Not the case.

When Chef Stone in so many words called me a hypocrite because I plant genetically modified seed in our fields and not in our gardens (He said I plant organic seeds. I do not buy seed labeled organic.), I realized who I was talking to – another uninformed food consumer.

This doesn’t make Chef Stone a bad person. In fact of all the panelists I thought he was pretty nice. But I wonder if he hadn’t taken Mary Lou’s advice to “google it” to find out about biotech and agriculture. After all, if it’s on the internet, it must be so.

Only eight crops have commercially available genetically modified seed – corn, soybeans, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, squash, and cotton. As a back-yard gardener, I can’t plant a genetically modified squash seed in my garden, because I am not a commercial grower.  A tomato labeled non-gm is labeled as such because you can’t grow/buy it any other way. A head of lettuce labeled non-gm says so because no gm-lettuce exists.

As Chef Stone pointed out approximately 70 percent of processed food may contain an ingredient derived from a genetically modified crop. However, the science states that these sugars, starches and oils are no different compared to their counterparts derived from non-gm crops. Even more arguments speak to the genetic make-up of said ingredients – can a sugar really be genetically modified when a sugar is chemically a compound with no genes to be found?  I know that high school junior year chemistry, Mr. Simpson’s class.

I've pondered this interview quite a bit while weeding my garden and plucking beetles (already!) off the plants, wondering if that gm-squash seed would kill those buggers so I don’t have to. GM-squash is disease resistant. No help to me.

This interview still irritates me, which is why I haven’t shared it until now. I’m all for robust discussion challenging what we hold to be true, but posing as an expert and sharing an opinion as fact isn't right.

You can watch the full Larry King Now episodes here (see below). It is a two part series and I do recommend watching both pieces in their entirety; however, for shameless self-promotion kicks, my less than stellar performance is after the first break in Part 2.

Larry King Now: GMOs, Part 1 
Larry King Now: GMOs, Part 2 

Originally posted June 23, 2014 on Rural Route 2.

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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). Read more from Katie on her blog, Rural Route 2.

Jun 20 2014

Why Farmers Need Respect

Today, several teachers gathered at the Bureau, Lee, Whiteside county Summer Ag Institute II, a two-day workshop focusing on specific agriculture topics. Summer Ag Institutes are offered across the state and range from two-days to a full week of lecture, activities, tours, and workshops. Teachers have the opportunity to explore ways to incorporate agriculture in their classrooms, earn CPDUs or graduate credits. The program is often hosted by county Farm Bureaus and includes much information shared by Illinois Ag in the Classroom. 

As my county’s ag literacy coordinator, I was responsible for planning today’s session titled, Dissecting the Food Label. In case you haven’t heard, food labels are a big deal. The labels on the front of a food package serve to inform and yet most often confuse. (Last week I bought a bunch of cilantro, labeled gluten-free.)  

The label on the back of the food package gives us the nutrition details so many of us don’t know how to read or may just ignore. (Serving sizes as grams? What does a gram look like?)  

Because so many food labels describe the how of food production (for ex. organic, cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free, natural, certified humanely raised, etc.) vs. the health of food, we started our day with the people who are responsible for the how of food – farmers.

The farmers on our panel had all chosen to use and or adopt certain food labels – locally-grown, no antibiotics, USDA Certified Organic, and American Humane Certified.  Although the labels differed and methods of raising crops and livestock differed, their stories were very similar. As our first panelist, Renee Koster from Windsweep Farms said, “My dad always said, ‘get big, get a niche or get out,” referring to a farm family’s choice to create a sustainable business structure thus making a living from the farm. 

Listening to the farmers explain why they’ve chosen to farm certain ways illustrated the point so many agriculture advocates state so often. Every farm and every farmer is different. How awesome that the people who raise our food have access to so much information and thus to so many choices.

Although a food label fight rages on social media, the teachers were impressed by the panel’s show of respect to each other as well as other farmers. “That was so refreshing,” said one teacher. “That respect makes me feel even better about my food.”  

Farmers need choices as much as farmers need respect.  It’ll make our food experience better. 

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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). Read more from Katie on her blog, Rural Route 2.

May 23 2014

Picking Rocks

Here in north central Illinois we live and farm in an area that was scraped flat by glaciers. It is a land of deep, rich fertile soil that can hold on to water, provide a great place for plants to root and is broken by a slight ebb and flow of low hills. However, every spring from this pristine soil, farmers spend days picking rocks. These are not rocks you’d find on the shoulder of a road, but rocks, boulders, behemoths of stone. 

Farmers call them field rocks, others say moon rocks and landscapers call them landscaping stones and pay a good amount to stock their garden centers with piles of them.  

Picking rocks from our fields is one of the more laborious jobs and most necessary, on the farm. Can you imagine what would happen if a piece of our equipment had snagged this beauty? 

One spring after cultivating and planting, My Farmer took our Scout (think ATV) to the field to pick rocks. He came upon the very top of this (pictured above), started digging, pulling and finally with a backhoe, pulled the boulder from the ground and dumped it in what was my new flower bed. Perfect décor. 

Each spring, we crisscross our fields, picking up smaller stones and mid-sized jagged rocks. These can wreak havoc on farm equipment, punching holes in tires, knocking planters off row, breaking the knives of cultivators or chisels, etc. 

So we pick rocks. You’ll see piles sitting on farmsteads or out in fields. We’ve used them to edge our landscaping. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law used them to create their fireplace. Who knew rocks plucked from a field could be so beautiful?   

Picking rocks is back-breaking work. In spite of all the technology available to farmers today, no machine exists for this task. So, if you want rocks . . . or landscaping stones . . .  and are looking for exercise and adventure, call on a farmer. We’ll loan you a wagon, show you to the field and happily help load your truck. No charge.  

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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). Read more from Katie on her blog, Rural Route 2.

Mar 28 2014

Signs for Spring

Just to make sure everyone is aware . . . this has been one long winter.  Here on the farm, we are waiting for the snow to melt, water to recede and soil to warm up and dry out.  Planting time can’t come soon enough. 

Farm work has transitioned from paperwork and general maintenance to planting preparation.  The seed is stacked high in the shed.

My brother-in-law, Peter, makes final adjustments to the planter.  

Meanwhile, with more hours of daylight the kids are pulling on mud boots to play outside and I am happily preparing for spring. 


Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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). Read more from Katie on her blog, Rural Route 2.

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