Illinois Farm Families Blog

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.

Mar 14 2014

GMO 101: The View from Our Farm

More and more questions are being asked about GMOs and their safety. Today, I’m answering some of the questions I get as an Illinois farmer. 

What are GMOs and why do we plant them on our farm?

Some would argue gene modification has been happening for centuries, resulting in seedless watermelons, seedless grapes and chocolate cherry tomatoes. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are plants that contain a single gene from another organism so that the plant can do something it couldn’t before. 

Today, only eight crops with genetically modified varieties are commercially available to farmers – corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beets and squash; with most conversations today focusing on corn and soybeans. 

If you’ve got a garden in your backyard, you probably know how easy it is for pests to damage your fruits or vegetables. It’s the same with our farm. Prior to using a genetically modified seed, one insect, the European corn borer, caused serious losses for corn farmers. Plant scientists found a naturally occurring soil bacterium (Bt -bacillus thuringiensis) that is toxic to the corn borer, selected the gene and inserted it into corn DNA. Now, instead of spraying the crop with a chemical multiple times, the plants fight the bug themselves. Organic corn farmers who don’t use GMO seeds can also have problems with the corn borer. They can use an approved Bt insecticide on their farms. The same result is achieved, but using different farming methods. 

Another crop we grow is soybeans. You may have heard of Round-up Ready soybeans. They are soybean plants that can tolerate being sprayed with Round-up, a chemical meant to kill weeds. But why would plant scientists make such a thing? To use fewer chemicals. On our farm, we’ve reduced our application of herbicides (chemicals that control weeds) by half. Fewer chemicals being applied means less traffic in the fields, less fuel, less soil erosion . . . all beneficial for our farm.

I highly recommend this particular blog post for a more in-depth, but easy to read look at this question, “What are GMOs?”  

We also plant non-genetically modified corn and soybean seeds. Planting a variety of hybrids and using a variety of farming methods like tilling the soil in different ways, crop rotation, weather analysis, and weed control by simply mowing grass on the outer edge of a field can help control the number of pests. Pests, including insects, weeds and disease, have been evolving for years. With or without genetically modified seeds and pesticides, they will continue to evolve.  So farmers must ready their tool belt and genetically modified seeds are one of many tools we’re using today. 

Are we told what to plant by “BIG AG”?

We have never been forced to plant, forced to buy, or forced to do anything on our farm. Farmers have choices, so consumer can have choices too.  

I am a fourth generation farmer and my husband is the seventh generation in his family. In America, 94 percent of farms and ranches are still owned and operated by families. To say that agriculture is in our genes (and jeans) is an understatement. We take exception to the insinuation that we don’t have a choice as to how we farm.  Decision-making on our farm is a serious task. We rely on generational, experiential and educational knowledge to make decisions for our farm. We spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing, researching, meeting, reading, talking and listening to experts on seeds, equipment, pest control, soil, water, marketing, etc. The evidence was the pile of seed catalogs (not unlike garden seed catalogs) that sat on my desk this winter.  

Are GMOs safe?

Yes. The World Health Association, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the American Medical Association, the European Food Safety Authority and the National Academy of Sciences, to name a few, have all deemed ingredients derived from a genetically modified crop are as safe as ingredients derived from crops raised in another manner. 

On average, a genetically modified seed takes almost 15 years to come to market because of the safety and regulatory measures mandated by the USDA, EPA and FDA.  

I found this article from motherjones.com, No GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health, to be very well-written without the emotional turmoil that comes with a GMO discussion: No

For further information about GMOs and other farming and food topics, I’d encourage you to visit watchusgrow.org to find out more about how real moms are connecting with Illinois farmers to get their questions and concerns answered.

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.


Feb 14 2014

Dr. Oz's GMO Global Conspiracy...Debunked

Today, Dr. Oz uncovered the “global conspiracy” surrounding GMOs.  I usually avoid these types of sensationalized “investigative” reports because they are nothing more than a regurgitation of biased studies, “expert” testimony supporting the biased studies and absolutely no exploration of another side to the story.  However, this blog is not a commentary on sensational journalism.

It also isn’t meant to attack the character of Dr. Oz or the producers of his show. I don’t know them.  They could be really nice people just doing their jobs.  They don’t know me either, but I kinda wish they did because I could have helped them clarify some of the pseudo facts they presented during their segment on “Stealth GMOs”.

Dr. Oz began his rant against genetically modified organisms by describing a tomato that can withstand frosty temperatures because its DNA has been modified with a gene from a fish.

Clarification: In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the company DNA Plant Technology used DNA from the fish, winter flounder, and inserted it into the DNA of a tomato in order to make the fruit frost-tolerant. This “fish tomato” never went into field testing or made it to market.  Yet, Dr. Oz viewers were left to contemplate a picture of a bin of tomatoes labeled GMO and a bin labeled non-GMO.  No tomato in your grocery store is a GMO.  Only eight crops with genetically modified varieties are commercially available to farmers – corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beets, and squash.

Then Dr. Oz switches the topic from GMOs to the use of pesticides.  He gives his own example of how plant scientists “improved Mother Nature” by making seeds resistant to pesticides.  But then, alas, insects became resistant to these gm-crops and farmers had to apply even more pesticide.

Clarification:  A pesticide is just one type of crop protection tool.  There are several – insecticides for insects and are usually applied below ground, herbicides for weeds, fungicides for disease and pesticides for pests (for example: spider mites, Japanese beetles and are usually applied above ground).  I know, I know. He says ta-may-toe and I say toe-ma-toe, but I thought I’d offer a brief explanation of the differences in these things.

Secondly, herbicide resistant weeds and insecticide resistant insects are an issue on the farm. I won’t deny that.  He isn’t telling us – the ones responsible for managing our fields – anything new.  Our farm magazines are full of articles, meetings full of experts and winter shop talk full of how we should apply our knowledge of our crops and our fields to push back on this pest pressure. This is why farmers will not necessarily turn to applying more herbicides or more insecticides to our fields.  We certainly won’t (and don’t) in the manner demonstrated by Dr. Oz on today’s show. (Using a hand-held sprayer he saturated his plant DNA puzzle; I hope with just water.)

Instead, we rely on multiple modes of action and production practices which range from crop rotation, various hybrids, tillage, and yes, the use of crop protection tools.  We may just pull out my grandfather’s tool of choice – the hoe – and walk fields.

Moving on . . . Dr. Oz then joins Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group and the subject changes . . . again.  Now to labeling of genetically modified foods.  Mr. Faber begins with the suggestion that we have been eating the same food for thousands of years and these new foods are something to beware.

Clarification:  Mr. Faber’s assertion that we are eating the same foods that our ancestors ate thousands of years ago is ludicrous. Folks, all our food, produce, grains, meats, etc. have been modified in some way.  Enjoy seedless watermelonsor seedless grapes?  Planting any chocolate cherry tomatoes in your garden this year?  These foods are the result of humans selecting traits from plants in order to achieve a certain result.  I suppose it has taken thousands of years for us to figure that out.

Mr. Faber also says that purchasing organic produce is your only guarantee to avoid genetically modified food and toxic pesticides.

Clarification: Avoiding gm-ingredients, yes.  But avoiding pesticides?  Organic farmers can use crop protection tools (i.e. pesticides) from an approved list.  Often, they may apply more of a pesticide than a farmer planting genetically modified seed.  This is not a reflection of good or bad on either type of farm or farmer.

Slate.com posted this really good look at organic vs. conventional produce. I like it because it was not written to claim one type better than another, but to share information.

Finally, Dr. Oz wants to let us in on a “BIG SECRET” regarding those little stickers found on our produce.  He says that if the sticker has four numbers on it then that fruit has been raised conventionally with pesticides and could be a GMO.  A number starting with ‘9’ indicates an organic fruit.

Clarification: This half-truth actually taught me something.  I’ve always been annoyed by those little stickers, and will continue to be, but upon further research I now know their purpose. (Some big secret. Google PLU stickers and the answer pops right up.)

PLU stickers or Price Look-Up codes are meant to offer grocers an easier way to check-out and inventory produce.  The numbers on them do have a purpose.  A four-digit number preceded by a 9 means organic.  Preceded by an 8 means genetically modified.  Four digits on their own means “non-qualified”.  It doesn’t fit in either category.  So, the assertion that an apple sporting a four digit code “could be genetically modified” is a blatant lie. * A) It would have been labeled with an 8.
* B) There are no genetically modified apples!  Or peaches! Or grapes! Or tomatoes! Or carrots! Or lettuce . . .

Dr. Oz leaves his audience believing that any food found at the grocery store – a potato, a pound of beef, a box of cereal, a tootsie roll or a gallon of milk – could be genetically modified. I feel bad for that audience. They responded so enthusiastically to his dire warning composed of half-truths.

This blog post is already too long to offer any other thoughts.  I will, however, link to a few other bloggers who have posted recently about GMOs.

The Farmers Daughter USA recently wrote about a push for federal labeling rules vs. the current trend for each state to pass its own regulations.

SlowMoneyFarm posted this view on GMOs just today. I always appreciate her thoughts since she comes from a farm that does not plant gm-seed.

Minnasota Farm Living explained why GMOs are safe in this post.

Finally, I’ll link to an oldie but a goodie from A Colorful Adventure. “What are GMOs?” is a straight forward explanation of the why, how and what of these crops.

Originally posted February 13, 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.

Jan 31 2014

Hibernating Fields

Winter in the open rural space of northern Illinois can be rather bleak.  When the line of the horizon blurs between the gray blue of the sky and the dirty white of the ground, the short winter days actual seem rather long. 

So, what happens on a farm in the winter?  Several farm bloggers have written about the paperwork, the care livestock receive, and the general maintenance of the farm and farm equipment.  But what about the fields, those acres that seem to sit empty doing nothing but hibernating in the cold air? 

Winter, snow, and cold temperatures are important to grain farmers.  Winter literally allows the soil to rest.  The snow replenishes moisture in the ground. Snow doesn’t match a good spring downpour, but it does help.  The cold temperatures cause the soil to freeze and on the days of some warmth, to thaw.  This constant freeze and thaw naturally break up any compaction created during the previous season of planting and harvest when tractors, combines and other equipment followed paths across the fields.  

Additionally, cold temperatures help control insects, freezing some larvae in the ground.  It won’t eliminate a mid-season bug infestation, but again, it certainly helps. Winter, spring, summer and fall . . . here in Illinois we farm with the seasons. 

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.

Jan 09 2014

Dear General Mills

Dear General Mills:

Well, you caved.

According to this morning’s news reports your original yellow box of wholesome good ‘O’s will now contain no genetically modified ingredients.  Some news outlets are reporting just that.  Others, I’m sure you’ve noticed, are declaring your decision as a victory.  Personally, victory seems to be a rather arrogant assessment of the age-old saying, ‘the customer is always right’.  Because that makes perfect sense that the consumer would be right . . . always, about yourarea of expertise.  After all, the average Joe and Jane just may have food manufacturer on their resume in addition to parent, lawyer, teacher, doctor, farmer, etc.  

A farmer friend and ag journalist, Holly Spangler wrote a thoughtful piece about this very thing. Take a moment to read it, please.

Your spokesperson, Mike Siemienas said, “We do value our Cheerios fans and we do listen to their thoughts and suggestions.”

Kudos to companies who value their bread and butter.  But who exactly are your “fans”?

I don’t know about you but I consider fans kind of like friends.  Supportive, understanding, non-judgmental, accepting that one may have knowledge the other does not.

So, Green America, the activist group that launched this non-gmo campaign against you and your “iconic” (Green America’s descriptor, hmmm.  Why’d they choose you?) yellow box is actually a Cheerios fan club? Your statement would have been more truthful if it identified the orchestrated social media campaign that pushed you over the edge.

Okay, enough with the sarcasm and dismay. Here’s the thing . . .

I’m a Cheerios consumer. Always have been and always will be.  Your cereals are popular in my house and while I’m saddened that you caved to your “fans”, I won’t boycott your product.  What I will ask for however is an explanation.

While farmers and ranchers seem fully engaged in this effort to communicate and converse with the non-farming public, I’ve discovered that other parts of the food chain aren’t as willing to do so.  OR maybe just haven’t joined in.You see, farmers and ranchers have been engaged in this movement to explain modern agriculture and food production for quite some time now.  My husband and I farm with his family.  We raise corn, soybeans and seed corn. We do plant genetically modified corn and soybean seeds.  That is just a piece of my farm story that I share on social media in addition to speaking at meetings, joining town hall type discussions, etc.

So, here’s your invitation General Mills.  Join us.  You are a BIG piece of the food chain.  What you chose to do with the ingredients derived from gm or non-gm crops is a BIG part of this conversation.

So, your decision to source non-gm ingredients is a BIG deal to all of us who are in the business of food. Instead of just generalizing that you’ll do what your “fans” ask and that it requires a significant investment, tell us why.

Your decision would make an interesting study of the economics behind a gm to non-gm switch.  Did you really take a social media campaign at face value?  Did you make this decision because of alleged gmo-safety concerns? What type of research did you do?  Have you read the reports stating over and over that ingredients derived from gm-crops are safe?  What is your stance on that?

As a farmer I am particularly interested in your former sources of ingredients and now your current sources.  What type of reporting procedures are in place to ensure the origin and make-up of your ingredients?  How does this affect your suppliers and their affiliates?

As a consumer, I’d like to know about this “significant investment” and if it is one that I’m going to see on the price of the box?  Or will it be reflected in the size of the box, the amount in the box, etc.?

In the end, you’ve made your decision for whatever reason and you’ll gain some time in the media.  Maybe that’s your end goal.  You have a business to run.  So do I, and in the big picture, my business is affected by your business.  How about we work together on telling a farm/food story that involves inclusion, respect of differences and acknowledgement that it takes all kinds to feed a hungry world?

Sincerely,
Katie Pratt
Farmer, mother, and Cheerios consumer

Originally posted January 3, 2014 on Rural Route 2.
Reposted with permission.

Dec 16 2013

Harvest Thanksgiving

Every year when the last kernel is shelled from the cob, the combine parked and the tractors washed, we celebrate. Harvest is done. Ironic that this ending usually comes right about Thanksgiving, presenting the perfect holiday season in which we can say thank you. 

It is tradition on our farm to recognize the folks who contribute to our safe, successful harvests with a simple dinner. This year we gathered in the shop, ate, drank and were merry with gratitude.  

Farming is not an insular endeavor. We cannot and do not go about our day to day farming activities separate from other people. Yes, the labor on our farm is completed by us – the family – but in order to be truly successful we rely on a team of folks who are experts in their “fields” like we are experts in ours.  

We work with crop scouts who help watch the fields for invasions of bugs, diseases and weeds, and test our soils every year to help determine its fertility and health. We work with seed, chemical and fertilizer dealers who listen to our challenges and offer solutions. So many choices, we have from which to pick. 

The local implement dealerships are invaluable to us when a part breaks on a piece of equipment.  Mechanics come when called regardless of the time of day or night and ensure that everything is running smoothly.  
Our neighbors, family and friends step in with support when needed. During long harvest days, I know I rely on the experiences of other farm wives to get through challenging days, good days and preparing field meals for a dozen people. (Those would be the challenging days.)  

Farming is not a profession that begs for total independence from the world. Farming is very much a social activity, a collaborative effort.  From the seeds we plant to the kernels we sell, we are partnering in essence with folks who live down the road, and those who live across the ocean. In a sense we partner with consumers, everyday Joes and Janes who purchase food at grocery stores and restaurants. We are all a part of this great chain.  

So, this holiday season, from our farm to your table we send a greeting of thanks for supporting farmers and a wish for continued efforts to connect the farm gate and food plate.

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.

Oct 24 2013

All This Corn & Not A Kernel To Eat

This summer two college grads, Lake and Catrin, were biking from NYC to California visiting farms along the way. Caught in a sudden summer storm, they ended up on our front porch and we shared an interesting discussion about food and farming over pizza. Interesting, because we came to the table with very different perspectives. (Read more here)

That evening as we lounged on the porch, Catrin sighed deeply staring at the corn fields surrounding our farmstead. “All this corn,” she observed shaking her head, “and not a kernel to eat.”

She caught me off guard with that statement and I’ve pondered it quite a bit since. I do understand why she made the observation.  We had just closed an intense conversation about food security in U.S. cities. I think she was feeling rather boxed in by our castle walls of corn (that’s how my daughter refers to the fields) and overwhelmed that there was so much.  AND field corn eaten directly off the cob is not recommended.  Save that act for sweet corn.

I suppose many look at these many acres of field corn and think solely in terms of food.  As in pull-it-off-the-plant-and-pop-it-in-the-mouth-food. But I’ve often stared at the 400 plus acres that surround our farmstead in wonder. Here’s this one rather simple crop from which we humans have learned to make so many different things. 

Corn is food – corn flakes, corn muffins, corn chips and then of course all the ingredients (sugar, oil, starch and meal) we find in different products from pop to soups, cereals to granola bars. 

Corn is fuel. It took 30 years and millions in research dollars to bring corn ethanol to the marketplace as a viable fuel alternative to petroleum gasoline. It will take many years and millions in research dollars to bring another alternative fuel to the marketplace. Those efforts are underway.

Corn is feed. Cows, pigs, chickens, horses, sheep, goats . . .

Corn oil is found in plastic water bottles, some sunscreens, lotions and batteries. Corn starch coats magazine pages to help the ink stick and is in sidewalk chalk.

But corn is more than things. Corn is jobs. In our rural area, corn is seed salesmen, implement dealers, truckers, bankers, mechanics, agronomists, grain bin builders, electricians, grain marketers. . .

A cotton farmer could probably list all the great things that come from cotton and a wheat farmer will say the same thing about wheat. The point is all this corn equals more than kernels to eat. In our piece of America it equals community.

 

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.

Oct 01 2013

Covering the Crop

 

Fall is in the air. The harvest engine is roaring to life on our farm.  Corn and beans are shedding green for gold and yet . . . what’s this, still growing in our fields?

The short answer is radishes.  The long answer is a story of cover crops and another effort to keep soil, nutrients and water in our fields and not running down the road ditch.

Many farmers will bring the planters out behind their combines this fall and sow various grasses, turnips, radishes and other cover crops.  The goal is not to harvest this second crop, but to improve the field. 

The crops’ mission is to do exactly what their name implies – to cover the soil and keep it in place.  But more so, to add organic material to the field and hold water, break compacted areas with their root systems, and use excess nutrients left in the soil from the previous crop.

 

On our farm, we are experimenting with a mix of sudex grass and field radishes in small areas.  In spite of the lack of rain, everything is coming up green, even in September.  Some patches we’ll chisel (or till) into the ground this fall and other areas we plan on leaving through the winter.

In both cases, we’ll be closely watching the soil, tracking fertility and any erosion.  It’s like a science experiment, but one that will take a couple years, before we see significant results.  This is how we work to continuously improve our fields and our farm.

 

 

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.

Aug 20 2013

Doing Corn

 On our farm we keep time in the summer by specific events and activities. Like when the strawberries ripen and we pick twice, sometimes three times a day. Or when the wild blackberries are ready, and we spend early mornings filling buckets in the patch. The county fair, several annual neighborhood cookouts and town festivals help us keep track of our summer days. Perhaps one of the most anticipated summer activities is doing corn.

"Doing corn” is not just an act; on our farm it is an event. Growing up, we knew when the first sweet corn landed on our dinner table, doing corn was not far away. My mom would make the calls to family, neighbors and friends and a few days later our farm would be bustling with activity.

Grandpa Ray and Dad would greet the sunrise, picking a hayrack load of sweet corn from various patches they had planted in an effort to outsmart the cunning raccoons that enjoyed our sweet corn as much as we did.

By 7 a.m. people began to arrive and we’d hike out to the cattle pasture to husk that load of corn. In the shade of the hickory trees, folks settled into the beginnings of the day’s work. Back at the house, we enjoyed a short coffee break of homemade cakes, pastries and rolls while the corn cooked in a big black iron cauldron under which an enormous hot fire burned.

When the first batch of corn came off the fire and had cooled, the work began in earnest. We fell into a familiar rhythm. The adults were cutters, wielding their kitchen knives, sitting up to picnic tables with a cake pan or cookie sheet in front of them to catch the cut corn. We kids also served an important role. We were haulers. We hauled cooled corn to the tables, cut cobs to the pigs, and bagged corn to the deep freeze in the basement. We made sure the cookers had corn from the hayrack to fill the cook pot, the cutters had cooled corn to cut, and the baggers had baggies aplenty.

Doing corn would take the better part of a day. Everyone joined the clean-up because what followed was a feast of what else? Sweet corn. And biscuits, watermelon and other delicious homemade treats. A simple meal made fantastic by the people with which it was shared.

Not much has changed. These days we do corn at my house. Now I am the cutter, my kids, niece and nephew are the haulers and we still end the day with a feast of corn.

As it did in the past, the true reward comes in deep winter, when we pull a bag of sweet corn from the freezer and savor its taste and the summer memories of doing corn.

 

 

Katie Pratt, Dixon
Originally posted on Illinois Farm Girl.
Reposted with permission.

Aug 02 2013

More Than A Midway

Lemonade shake-ups, corn dogs, funnel cakes, Ferris wheels, goldfish in a bag, petting zoos, ribbons and trophies.

Summer equals country fairs.  

In Lee County, the last week of July is fair week. It starts with the FFA show and then moves into the 4-H and Jr. Shows, tractor and truck pulls, mud bogs, dirt drags, carnival, pedal pull, Ag Olympics, corn husking contest . . . the list of activities could go on.

This particular fair is a family affair, much like our farm.  My great-grandfather, George King, was a member of the committee who moved the fairgrounds to its current location, built the initial buildings and formally organized the Lee County Fair Association, the volunteer group who maintains the grounds and coordinates the annual event. 

My grandpa was an avid supporter. The white fence that flanks the front entrance was made possible by his memorial. My father and uncle showed cattle at the fair, and my mom modeled clothing and baked pies.  As 4-H members, my siblings and I showed cattle and horses, vegetables, flowers and other projects.  

When I returned home to build a life with My Farmer, we joined the board of directors. I have been the secretary of the board for nine years, and my husband the treasurer for seven.

A family affair...for sure.   

The history of county fairs is steeped in agriculture as much as the families who have spent generations at the fair. The initial purpose was to highlight the best livestock, crops, baked goods, vegetables and other local agriculture. Fairs were the place to see what was new in farming, for vendors to sell handmade crafts and ag businesses to promote their wares. 

Today, the midway or main fair thoroughfare lures people in with lights, sounds, crazy carnivals and traditional fried food. One might find free balloons, parades, grandstanding by local politicians, church sponsored dinners, national tractor/truck pulls and rodeos.

Beyond the midway hype though, are exhibit buildings and livestock barns where families set up housekeeping and proudly show off the best their farm and home has to offer.  Finely crafted dresses, exquisite paintings, and home-baked pies sit alongside rockets, wood crafts, safety displays, and unique collections. Rotating through the barns are cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, poultry, llamas, dogs and cats. 

Attending a county fair is another way to support farmers and their families, but more so support the people who are striving to keep a bit of community history alive. Travel to a county fair this summer and ride the Spinner and eat deep fried Oreos.  But take an hour or more to wander the buildings beyond the crowds. Discover blue ribbon agriculture at its best.

Katie Pratt, Dixon