Illinois Farm Families Blog

Apr 17 2014

Hog Farm, Chapter 2: Meet the Farmers!

Meet the Gould family! Eldon and Sandy Gould have two adult children, Chris and Lynda. Lynda is a mixed animal veterinarian and married to a farmer. On the day of our farm tour, Lynda had a busy day at work caring for dogs, cats and even a horse, so she wasn’t able to join us until the very end of the afternoon. Chris and his wife, Dana, have two teenage children, a boy and a girl. Chris has joined his parents to run their family business, the Gould Family Farm, which is just 50 miles west of downtown Chicago.

Chris, Eldon, and Sandy graciously opened their doors to us and welcomed us onto their farm and into their family for the day to give us a first-hand account of their hog farm operation, our first farm tour of the year. They showed us historical photos of their farm, displaying how it has physically changed over the years with barns being added and a manure lagoon being filled in. Eldon shared with us how pig farming has changed since he was a teen in the 50’s and 60’s.Sandy has a degree in education and was a kindergarten teacher for some time before raising her family, and she clearly has a passion for teaching us moms about what they do on the farm. She keeps the records on all of the pigs, entering the data for each sow and litter of piglets. She has also successfully passed on her chocolate chip cookie baking skills to her grand-daughter; thank you, they were delicious! Chris thoroughly, yet succinctly, explained to us how the crops are managed and how they are related to the swine operation. We had an excellent overview of their operation before heading out into the barns to see the sows and piglets.

Ninety-four percent of Illinois farms are family farms, like the Goulds. Chris emphasized a point to us - that we should not define the farm as land and buildings; instead, the farm is defined as the business, the family business. It was an interesting point and I was glad he made it, because I had not considered that distinction.

Eldon grew up on a rented farm. In 1966, he and his father bought a neighboring farm that happened to come up for sale. Chris and his parents have expanded that farm operation and had an opportunity to purchase land several years ago during the real-estate market crash, but their crop land is primarily leased. Chris manages the crop side of the farm where they grow 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and winter wheat. His father manages the livestock side where they care for 650-750 sows and raise market piglets (16,000 annually) in a "farrow-to-wean" operation. They are contracted with Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, where their market pigs are sold.

I’m learning what the big mid-west agricultural universities are and the University of Illinois is a big one around Chicago. This family seems to have a U of I legacy going! Eldon graduated from U of I in 1963 with a degree in Animal Science. Chris graduated from U of I with a degree in Agricultural Engineering with a focus in Mechanical Engineering.

I was surprised to learn that the Gould farm employs six full-time employees; three on the crop-side, two on the swine side, and one trucker. They employ at least one high-school student who works on weekends and occasionally additional help during pig weaning. They also have a farm veterinarian who works with about 24 area farms. The Gould family members on this farm are largely farm managers; meaning they do all of the record-keeping, attend seminars, and manage day-to-day workings from their office full-time. I had an image in my head of the family running the farm and doing all of the physical labor themselves, but this farm is different than others I’ve been learning about.

Every one of the Gould family members we met cares about the welfare of their animals and also the welfare of the land they are farming. Chris proudly regards Illinois soil as the “best” soil. He said it is fertile and very good soil; and acknowledged that farmers in Iowa and other mid-west locations probably consider their soil the best. He explained that his interests are to manage that fertility and maintain it to the best of their ability utilizing the most current technology available to them.

To describe their character in a list of words from the few hours we spent with them, I would use diligent, deliberate, thoughtful, honest, and respectful. They seem diligent when it comes to following regulations, striving to always improve, and being responsible neighbors. They seem deliberate about how they operate the farm. Every action has a reason and a purpose. They are thoughtful people. Their actions are thought-out. They collect data, analyze it, and then use it to move forward in a positive direction. They appeared to be very open and honest with us moms about how their farm business is run. We asked a lot of questions and they were all answered openly. They seem respectful of each other, the people that work for them, their animals, and the land they cultivate.

It was a privilege to be with the Gould family and learn about their life and work.

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather 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. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

Apr 04 2014

Refusing to Take Part in the "Food Fight"

Last night a woman who I like and respect quite a bit posted a rather lengthy Facebook status.  Tammy and I met several years ago at the farmers market where I’m a vendor and she is a regular customer.  Her status bothered me so much that it’s now 3:00 AM, about 5 hours after I read the post, and I’ve given up trying to sleep, gotten out of bed, and am at the computer in our farm office, trying to regurgitate the thoughts I’ve had since the initial read.

She’s a mom of two, and is making all of the food choices for her family.  Her post centered around her feelings of being torn between “seemingly opposing sides” of the “local, heirloom, organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, sustainable, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range” farmers and those who farm using conventional methods.

I’ve left the comfort of my warm bed to try to explain that, Tammy, you don’t have to choose a side.

The recent round of fear-based marketing, most prominently displayed by Chipotle’s new advertising campaign introduced this week, will have you believe that there is only one correct choice and that it must be the one with the most adjectives attached.  I’m troubled by the increasing prevalence of emotionally charged fear mongering in food marketing and am especially bothered by how it’s affecting people like Tammy.  It’s beyond annoying to me when one method of production is misrepresented and put down to make another look good.  This tactic is being used not only by major food retailers like the burrito purveyor, but by farmers against one another.  It is this particular practice that makes me saddest, as the rift is non-productive and dangerous.  I would suggest that there is room for all types of production methods in today’s agriculture and that they can peacefully co-exist.  The reality is that there are plenty of markets for farmers today.  Consumers have a variety of desires and demands, from budget to niche related.  We also can’t overlook the fact that we’re facing a very real global population explosion and it will take all farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, doing what they do best, to feed it.

A farmer makes the decision on what kind of crop to grow andhow to grow it based on a multitude of factors, which include location, facilities, resources, market opportunities, availability of labor, personal preference, etc.  I’ll give some examples beginning with my own farm.  Here we have a herd of 60 beef cows.  It’s that size because of the amount of land, and the quality of land, that we have available.  The land where my cattle graze during the spring, summer and fall has been in my husband’s family since the 1840?s.  Because of the soil type and terrain (gravel in some spots, too wet in others) it’s not really suitable for growing a crop but makes a great pasture.  That reason, coupled with the fact that both my husband and I enjoy working with cattle, is the reason that we raise beef, and are the size that we are.  If there was more of the same type of land available we might choose to increase our herd size, but would have to consider other factors such as the need to hire more help to care for the additional animals.  Sixty cows is the size that works for us.

The decision about how to market our beef, which is directly to consumers, was made based on the fact that here in McHenry County we’re physically located in a fairly populous and prosperous area between two major population centers, Chicago and Rockford.  Because of that proximity we can market our products direct, or choose to sell through traditional markets.  I have friends who raise cattle in North Dakota.  They’re in a remote rural area literally 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks and 80 miles from a McDonalds.  Marketing direct to consumers is not an option for them simply because the population is not there to draw from, the market simply doesn’t exist for them.  They also have about ten times the number of cows that I have.  They are that size because they have more land and more labor available; there are actually 3 generations of their family working together.  That’s the size that works for them.  It’s not better or worse than what we’re doing here.

I choose to not use growth promotants in my beef.  It’s because my customers tell me that they want it that way.  As a consequence of that choice, my cattle grow a little slower than cattle from herds where they are used, so mine will require more feed.  The cost of that feed is passed along to the consumer, thus my beef is more expensive than the more efficiently raised alternative.  I’m very aware that there are people who can’t afford my beef.  That’s OK and I’m happy that there is more affordable beef in large retail stores available to them since I believe that beef is a terrific source of necessary protein (not to mention iron and zinc), and it’s great tasting, too!  I would never suggest that there’s anything wrong with the less expensive beef that is raised in a different manner.  Growth promotants have been used for decades and are completely safe.  I personally would not hesitate to buy beef from the grocery store if I did not have my own home-grown supply.  Similarly, I do not have a problem feeding my own beef to my family or selling it to others even though it does not carry the “organic” certification.  The bottom line is that I have found a market for my beef, while other farmers have a market for less expensive, efficiently-raised beef, and yet another group finds buyers who are willing to pay extra for the organic label.  We find what works best for our own farms.

I also market my beef as “natural”.  This term on a label means (by USDA definition) that it’s minimally processed with no artificial additives.  There are no preservatives or food coloring in my beef.  Again, I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with either of these, just going along with the preferences of my customers.  In fact, the absence or presence of a growth promotant, a preservative, or food coloring has absolutely no effect on the nutritional value, taste, or safety of beef.  And remember that all beef, regardless of the number of adjectives used to describe it, must always be handled and cooked properly.  A person can become ill from improperly prepared food, whether it’s organic, sustainable, free-range or not.   Getting back to the customer…I’m able to fit my production methods to the demands of my clientele.  These days, they tell me that “local” and “natural” are important to them, they don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about “organic”. They do like know that the money they’re spending is staying in the county.  They want to have a relationship with their farmer and know how and where their food is raised.  I’m happy to comply.  If things change and price, or something else, should become the priority, I will have to adapt my production methods accordingly.

I have neighbors who grow vegetables.  Their farm is located on a state highway, perfect for a farm stand, given the amount of traffic in our suburban county.  They can market a large amount of a wide variety of their vegetables directly to consumers right from home.  I have other friends who also grow vegetables but their farm is off the beaten path, actually on a gravel road.  A farm stand at home is not an option for them (they like their quiet location, and admit that they would not enjoy hosting the public at their home on a daily basis as others do), so they’ve chosen to load a truck several times a week during the growing season and sell at farmers markets, or sell to the wholesale market in Chicago.  Another friend from the farmers market has a very small amount of acreage and grows heirloom (and other varieties of veggies that you don’t see everywhere) using organic methods.  She chooses this because it’s what her customers want; the “organic” label is important to them and they are willing to pay for it.  She’s able to comply because her small scale is manageable for her without much extra help.  Her veggies do cost more due to the cost of organic certification and market expenses, but she’s found a niche for herself and gets a premium for her products.  The neighbors with the farm stand have a large amount of land with fertile soil types.  They choose to raise their veggies using conventional methods and fairly large equipment.  They don’t believe there’s anything wrong with organic, but their choice is based on the fact that organic production requires more labor which is not readily available to them, and more importantly, their customers are happy with the variety, quality, and quantity of what they produce.  It’s the size and method that works for them.  Each has chosen what works best, not necessarily “a side”.

So for Tammy, and other consumers who are struggling with food choices amidst overwhelming labels, adjectives, and headline-grabbing, myth-based marketing campaigns, I say pick whatever works best for YOU.  Don’t be mislead by fear-mongers and unjustified guilt.  Ask questions of those who are actually growing the food, and discount the opinions of those who must tear down someone else’s choice to make theirs look most appealing.  Buy what you want given your own budget and preferences.  And remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing; there is no rule against buying conventional one day and organic the next.  Whether you’re buying food for your family at a small farm stand, the local farmers market, Jewel, Trader Joe’s, Target, or Costco – with no adjectives or a list of adjectives as long as your arm – know that there’s a farmer at the other end who made choices too.  There’s no wrong answer.

Okay, glad I’ve gotten that off my chest.  The day is now beginning, time to start my day the same way farmers and ranchers all across the country do, regardless of the number of acres they own, animals in their care, or method of production they’ve chosen for their farm.  We’re all getting up and checking our animals; making sure they’re comfortable and secure, that they have plenty of feed, water, and a dry place to rest.  Our livestock comes first no matter the adjectives attached to the label.  No choice there.

Originally posted on Willow Lea Stock Farm.

Michele Aavang
Woodstock, Illinois

Michele and her husband, Gary are full-time farmers raising corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat and oats in northern Illinois. Michele takes on the role of marketing their beef right to consumers at farmers markets, giving her the opportunity to educate people about agriculture. Learn more about life on the farm for Michele on her blog, Willow Lea Stock Farm.

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.

Feb 22 2014

The Bully Holding a Burrito

Don't get me wrong, this is not a post against burritos. I love them. If I were to pick what style of food I'd eat mainly, it would be of the burrito/taco/guacamole genre.

This, however, is about the bully holding aforementioned burrito.

I'm tired of him.

I'm weary of having to read, watch, digest, respond, keep my mouth shut, open my mouth, boycott, etc., etc. It's exhausting to have to constantly explain what we do, why we do it, and how we do what we're doing.

That's even exhausting to write.

Chipotle is the bully. They have created the 2014 version of Food, Inc., this time, naming it, Farmed and Dangerous. Cute, huh? Kind of sounds like a catchy title some novice blogger/farm wife would come up with, right?

That's the point. It's catchy. It's supposed to be satirical. However, we all know that in our marketing driven world of crazy consumerism, this satire will be seen as truth.

And it's already happened.

I have been receiving links of blogs and articles in regards to Farmed and Dangerous, but honestly, I haven't had the energy to even get involved in the discussion, until this morning. I read Ryan Goodman's blog on Eatocracy on (thanks for sharing, Holly). It's a well written, not too defensive, come and see me farm blog. The blog itself is good. That's not what caught my eye. It was the comments.

Oh the comment section. Otherwise known as anonymous evil gone to seed. Misinformation fertilizing misinformation (without using chemicals, of course).

If you have a minute, read the comments. One after another, folks are commenting on "natural farming," "being vegan," "healthy eating," "unsafe food." They're even using agricultural terms that I have NEVER heard of…and these people ARE NOT IN AGRICULTURE. I know I'm still relatively new to the whole ag gig, but when folks are just spewing buzz word after buzz word, I have to assume that their research was done on, not my gravel road.

This is the thing. We're trying, Chipotle. We're trying to get our story out. We're combating the misconception that farming is mean and nasty. However, you're not coming to my house. You're not banging on my door to see what Joe does on a day that starts in the low 30s with winds gusting in the 40 mph range. You've never asked any of my ag friends to come and join you in a sit-down, knock down, drag out discussion in regards to farming, and while, again, I'm new to ag, I know some pretty powerful ag advocates.

So my charge to you, Chipotle executives, is: put down your camera. Put down your dang burrito and come to my farm. Have a steak dinner with us and then head out to do chores. Real chores. Not a farm tour. Wear your grubbiest clothes and help pull a calf. Help unfreeze waterers one day and then wade through muck and flooded roads the next.

But stop tearing us down to bring your cause up.

Because you just look like a bully to me. A bully holding a burrito.

Originally posted February 21, 2014 on Confessions of a Farm Wife.
Reposted with permission.

Emily Webel
Farmington, Illinois

Emily and her husband, Joe, raise cattle, corn, soybeans and alfalfa for hay for their animals in Illinois. Together they are raising their four children to be good stewards of the land. Read more from Emily on her blog, Confessions of a Farm Wife.

Feb 17 2014

Why We Love to Farm: For Our Children's Future

This is one of my favorite pictures of all time, and the reason why we love to farm: for our children's future, so that they can farm someday. 

Our daughter, Ainsley, talking to "Curious George."

Carrie Pollard
Rockford, Illinois

Carrie and her husband, Brent, work with dairy cows and pigs in northern Illinois. Learn more about everyday happenings on their farm by reading her blog, My Cows and Pigs.

Throughout the month of February, we're asking farmers what it is they love about their job. Whether it's being good stewards of the land or working alongside their families, we'll be sharing stories from different farmers. Do you farm? Share with us why you love what you do in the comments below!

Feb 15 2014

Calves in the House and Kids in the Barn

It's funny the things that will catch people's attention.

Last week, I did an interview with John Cody, a Chicago broadcaster with WBBM radio. He had read this blog post by Betsie Estes, a former Field Mom with the Illinois Farm Families program. Betsie blogs at Super Suburbs and is a fabulous young suburban mother I've gotten to know after meeting at Larson Farms a couple years ago. We've become social media friends, and after seeing one of my posts about caring for livestock during the polar vortex of earlier in January, sent a set of questions for my husband and me to answer. From there, she put together a very well-written post for her blog readers about what Illinois livestock farmers were doing.

Mr. Cody's questions mostly rehashed Betsie's: what did we do to prepare for the storms and the cold, what is this business with frozen waterers and pumps and light bulbs, and most interestingly, why would we bring a calf in the house?

He was intrigued by that one. Really. John and I have said, for the past several weeks, we are just fortunate to not be calving yet and we have every hope temperatures will moderate a bit before we start in a couple weeks. But as any livestock farmer knows, when a calf/lamb/goat/etc. is newborn and cold and not doing well, it comes in the house. Mr. Cody was fascinated by the idea that we might bring a calf into the basement or the bathtub, or even the garage. And I think he was quite disappointed that we didn't have one in the house on that exact day, but fortunately he was able to talk with Michael Prescott, a central Illinois cattleman and Illinois Farm Families volunteer, who did. Score one for the farm team.

He also asked a lot of questions about our kids – their ages and whether they helped with the animals in the cold. And of course, I answered that they did. The older kids have heifers and steers, and the youngest has a rabbit, and they all go out to care for them.

"Caroline? The five year old?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered. "She has a rabbit, and we have it bundled up in its hutch but it still needs feed and unfrozen water every day."

And that is, apparently, what made the airwaves. A couple of my co-workers heard the broadcast on their way into work the next day and confirmed: "All of Chicagoland now knows Caroline, age 5, is out taking care of her rabbit, Penny, every day in the cold!"

For the record, my older two were aghast that Caroline got all the credit. "Seriously?! I feed Penny about half the time!" Jenna said. Which is true; Caroline, age 5, is also good at asking her sister to do her quick chore while she's out there. And Jenna and Nathan are endlessly faithful to head out and do their chores. Oh, the irony.

But of course, like bringing a calf in the house, this is all just normal to farm people. Melissa Rhode shared last week that in her husband's absence, her sons Garrett, 12, and Preston, 9, were out doing chores for their dad.

Good kids, just doing what needs to be done. And taking care of the animals they love. No matter the temperature.

Originally posted February 7, 2014 on Prairie Farmer.
Reposted with permission.

Holly Spangler
Marietta, Illinois

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois growing crops and producing cattle as well as raising their three children. Holly is an associate editor for Prairie Farmer magazine, a publication dedicated to sharing information about farm life and farm business. Read more from Holly on the Prairie Farmer blog.

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 24 2014

Comfortable & Confident

Isn't this what a lot of us are aspiring to become?
Comfortable and confident in ____________.
Our finances.
Our marriages.
Our parenting skills.
Our physical health.
Our mental state.
Our homes.
Our career choices.
And, more specifically in regards to agriculture advocacy, our practices and lifestyle as farmers.

I have tried to be an advocate for farmers and those involved in the agricultural process, challenging us to be comfortable and confident in telling our story, in getting our faces out there, our livelihood, making ourselves real and accessible for consumers.

But to be "comfortable and confident in our place in the food chain?"


That's a concept that I never really had a grasp on, but on Saturday, I heard it, loud and clear, and it really hit home.

On Saturday, our county Farm Bureau was charged to take this up a notch.  Katie Pratt, a farm kid, farm wife, Ag Literacy Coordinator, and now one of the Faces of Farming and Ranching for USFRA, came to speak at our county's annual meeting. Katie is an Illinois girl, was a state officer for FFA, and Joe knew her "back in the day." We were excited to hear her speak, and knew she wouldn't disappoint.

And, as you can see, she didn't…as it's Monday morning, and I'm still thinking about the words she spoke.

Her charge to get comfy in my role as a "food chain" member really struck me. Food chain? Us?

Oh yeah…

I think what hit this point home so hard was that this is basic, people. This is not a fluffy sweet picture of kids in agricultural hats. This is not a sweet story about how our grain helped pay our grocery bill and for preschool and shoes for those sweet kids.

To have something as concrete as where we are in regards to the global food chain is perfect. It's simple. It's hard to argue against, but you have to be comfortable and confident in that place to keep from being defensive.

For urban consumers, this is a pretty interesting concept. The best way to relate to your farmer is to personally know them, maybe buy a quarter of a beef from them, visit their farm during harvest, etc., but that's not reality for a lot of these folks. I even consider my brother and sister-in-law in this scenario. We always feed them our beef whenever they come back to Illinois from their home in sunny southern California. However, I can't get beef to them, or vegetables from my friend Karla's garden, or sweet corn from my uncle's patch, as easily as I would wish. So, I need to figure out where we are when they head to the grocery store, and start talking about that, rather than wishing they could have some delicious rib eye steaks on an everyday basis like me. Their life isn't like mine, so why should I try to push it?

Instead, I'm going to push information. Nail down our place in the food chain and shout that, confidently, from the mountain tops. I'm going to need to do some digging on this, however. While we do not directly supply beef to a grocery store that I can stand in front of the meat case, we're there. While I don't have a grasp on all the places our corn and bean crops go to, I have some idea. I need to get basic, get simple, and make a diagram like I did in seventh grade science class, only instead of a picture of a cow or a corn plant, my family's picture needs a place in that flow chart.

This basic knowledge is an untapped, but easy concept area we as agriculturalists are missing in our plight for advocacy. Sometimes the simple things are the hardest points to get across, but I'm thankful for Katie's charge to us to keep telling our story, but once in a while, revisit our place in this world.

And maybe draw a flow chart while we're at it.

Originally posted January 20, 2014 on Confessions of a Farm Wife.
Reposted with permission.

Emily Webel
Farmington, Illinois

Emily and her husband, Joe, raise cattle, corn, soybeans and alfalfa for hay for their animals in Illinois. Together they are raising their four children to be good stewards of the land. Read more from Emily on her blog, Confessions of a Farm Wife.

Jan 17 2014

Interview With a Farm Wife

This month, as part of my Brand Ambassadorship for Illinois Farm Families, I am bringing you an interview with Kristen Strom: a mother, a teacher, a blogger and the wife of a farmer. Kristen grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but now lives in a small town outside of Peoria, IL from which she can commute to her job teaching high school English and her husband can commute to his job working on his family’s grain farm.

As someone who grew up near the city, but now is now part of a farm family, Kristen is in a unique position to bridge the gap between consumers and farmers. Like many of us in the cities and suburbs, Kristen had a lot of misconceptions about life on a farm before she met her husband. These days, Kristen tries to dispel some of these misconceptions and to share what it means to be a farmer’s wife — from a city girl’s perspective — on her blog Farm Notes from Little Dahinda, IL.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with Kristen:

What has surprised you the most about being married to a farmer? What do you enjoy about being part of a farm family?

[Some of the things that surprised me are] how hardworking they all are – they work all the time. It’s a lifestyle, similar to a family business. The whole family is involved at all times and everyone is involved in the work.  [Also], life and work depend on the weather…it runs your life and what happens on a daily basis and how crops are growing. [Lastly, being a] “Farmer’s Widow:” my first fall on the farm a fellow farm-wife told me that I was a “farmer’s widow” and I didn’t know what she meant. During fall and spring seasons, I basically am on my own due to the long working hours of my farmer husband. He wakes up before the sun — about 5am — and gets home anywhere from 11pm-2am to grab a few short hours of sleep. I take care of all household needs and my children during those busy months. Our only chances to see my husband or the farm family is by taking visits out to the field, and that may only be about a few seconds or a few hours of visiting time, depending on what they are doing, what the weather is like, what field they are in, etc.

[What I enjoy about being part of  farm family is] having opportunities for my kids to learn about agriculture, hard work, and being a part of a “team” where we all do our part. My kids will know where their food comes from, how to interact and care for livestock, and how farming operations works- they will probably know more than me as they get older.

Did you have misconceptions about agriculture before you married your husband? If so, what were they? Do you feel that urban and suburban folks have misconceptions about agricultural production in this country?

I thought all farms smelled and, on my first visit to the farm when we were dating, I asked, “where is all the grain” because he had said they were “grain” farmers. I thought “grain” only meant wheat so I was expecting to see all wheat fields. I thought all farms looked the same: white house, picket fence, a few barns, lots of farm animals, and beautiful scenery, much like the children’s books about farms and farm animals I read growing up. I also thought all farmers looked the same and were older. I didn’t realize that a guy my age could be really good looking AND a farmer!

[In terms of] misconceptions, people don’t realize how much agriculture and farming play a role in their daily lives: what they eat, what they use, how corn and soy beans are used for various products and food. Also, most farms are operated by families and not companies.  They don’t realize that farmers have a lot of  knowledge of food safety and want to raise safe food for their families and everyone else that they feed; that “organic” isn’t necessarily the best; that crop protection protection products are all regulated and farmers have to be licensed to use them, or that growing non-GMO crops isn’t a reality for meeting consumer/world demand for food.

What’s happening on the farm right now? Is this a slow time of year for your husband?

Because we have our own large grain facility, the guys are trucking corn and soybeans to the river ports and processing facilities. This means they wake up early to get in the truck to make it to the facilities by opening time (6am) and they work until they close (4-6pm).  Other things [that are going on right now]: input purchases (seed, fertilizer, chemicals, equipment, etc.), evaluating equipment needs and repairing equipment, field repair if conditions are right, meet with landlords to discuss current rented land, year-end budget analysis for 2014, lots of book work and time in the office.

Any special holiday traditions that you observe? Will you be cooking anything special for the holidays?

Each grandparent still hosts a Christmas at their house and there are lots of family gatherings since there is time to see each other at this time of year. [We also do an] annual Farm Christmas Dinner with our employees and their families – always at a steak house! My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are amazing cooks. It’s hard to beat anything they make. When I got married and received kitchen items for gifts, my mom laughed because I had never really cooked before. My husband has high expectations for what food and desserts should taste like, so I try my best and am always trying to find new recipes that will knock his socks off. I have a few “Kristen” recipes that I’ve discovered on my own or “borrowed” from them that I now share with my family which impress them during the holidays!

If you could tell urban and suburban parents anything about life as a farm wife, what would you want to tell them?

Bring your kids to visit a working farm, to meet farmers, interact with livestock, and see where their food comes from and is raised. It’ll be an eye opening and rewarding experience that the whole family won’t forget. You’ll be amazed at what you don’t know and what you learn!

Thanks so much to Kristen for taking the time to talk with me during this busy time of year. I really enjoyed our conversation and hearing about how she has adjusted to life as part of a farm family. For more information about Kristen and her family — including some of the food she makes for her husband and the other farmers during planting and harvest time –  check out her blog.

Originally posted December 20, 2013 on West of the Loop.
Reposted with permission.

Emily Paster

Emily is an East Coast native now living outside of Chicago. She works part-time teaching legal writing at a local law school and spends a lot of her time cooking, writing and taking care of her family. Check out Emily's blog, West of the Loop, as she writes about the joys and difficulties of parenting and feeding our families. 

Jan 14 2014

New Year Resolutions

January is resolutions month.  Hope for our future fortune results in goals we all make—personally and professionally—for the upcoming year.  The extent to which we follow-through with those goals, however, is the disappointment we know all-too-well.  It takes discipline, focus, and frankly a bit of “luck and pluck” to achieve ambitious New Year Resolutions—be it weight loss or career advancement.

Farmers have New Year Resolutions too, though we wouldn’t call them “resolutions.”  Our hopes and ambitions often take seed in the middle of a growing season or livestock growth cycle and are tested or implemented in the succeeding year.  They take longer to develop than traditional New Year’s Resolutions and therefore are more of an ongoing process than a ritual performed after the ball drops in Times Square.  Nonetheless we profess to ambitions for the upcoming year just as our non-farm friends.  And it is a great time to review our short-term and long-term goals for the farm—‘tis the season.

Here are a few of the goals I have for our farm.  This year, the focus is diversification and research.  Corn and soybeans have had a fine run up in prices these past few years, but the party is over I’m afraid.  Moreover, I think it’s wise to see how we can maintain (or exceed) current revenues but with a different risk portfolio rather than just two dominant crops (ie multiple crops mean multiple non-correlated revenue streams).  That’s the theme for 2014, let’s try something different!

  1. Grow quinoa successfully.  That’s right, we tried quinoa on our farm on a small scale last year…and it failed. Quinoa thrives in cooler, arid conditions—not exactly what western Illinois is known for.  But consumers are demanding these “ancient grains” that are discussed on health TV shows and in popular press.  And quinoa is a relative to a common weed we fight on our farm—so it SHOULD work eventually, right?  That’s the goal for 2014.
  2. Grow buckwheat successfully.  When the quinoa failed, we decided to try winter wheat and follow that with buckwheat—which is another incredibly healthy “grain” (it’s technically a fruit) that is in the same league as quinoa but with less press coverage.  It also does best in relatively cool conditions on poorer, drier soils.  It is also very rich for honey bees—another long term possibility.
  3. Market popcorn successfully.  This past year, we experimented with specialty red and blue “hull-less” popcorn (the seed coat is thinner, nearly eliminating the “junk” that gets stuck in your teeth that you get when you eat regular generic popcorn).  We successfully grew it, now we need to clean it, bag it, and market it successfully.  Our brand name is Pilot Knob Comforts and if we’re lucky, you’ll see them in a few different retail outlets across Illinois…and maybe filled with quinoa and buckwheat as well!
  4. Continue growing Non-GMO Food-Grade Soybeans AND Non-GMO Corn.  I believe in the right for a consumer to choose—vote with your wallet!  That’s why I grow both non-GMO and GMO crops on our farm.  Both are safe for consumers (there’s no sound science to suggest otherwise; anti-GMO advocates are wrong but so are farmers that denounce the organic movement—some people like organic and non-GMO for lifestyle reasons, not the incorrect scientific arguments that popular media portrays).  Both offer advantages on a farm.  But for us, the premiums consumers are willing to pay for non-GMO are well worth our time and effort.  It won’t work on every acre of farmland, but for us it earns more income and for the end-user they have a particular product which they are willing to purchase at a premium.
  5. Experiment with strip-tillage, root-zone-banding, and micronutrients in our corn and soybeans.  These are technologies farmers have been using for years, but they haven’t made sense on our farm—at least not collectively.  Strip-till is where we only till a narrow 8” strip in the fall or early spring, injecting most of our fertilizer in that band where only the roots reach it (the root-zone-banding component).  This reduces soil erosion, minimizes fertilizer applied and keeps fertilizer in the crop rather than in local streams.  All this while maintaining and increasing yield.  We’re also experimenting on multiple fertilizer applications during the growing season, but with micro-nutrients.  Micro-nutrients are only required by plants in small quantities.  A few pounds of, say Sulphur, Zinc, and Boron might be what gives our corn the extra “umph” at critical growth stages.  All these experiments lead to a more sustainable corn and soybean farm.  They enable greater yields, while preserving the environment and soil responsibly.  It’s win-win when we figure out how all three technologies intertwine!

Five “resolutions,” five new ideas.  I am excited for 2014 on our farm.  Wish us luck as I wish you the very best for 2014.

Andrew Bowman
Onieda, Illinois

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