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Illinois Farm Families Blog

Oct 01 2015

What Does Big Ag Look Like?

Early this fall everyone – farmers, ranchers and eaters alike – were talking about the New York Times’ Food for Tomorrow conference, its mission to discuss eating and farming better, and the fact that not one solitary make-a-living-off-the-land farmer or rancher was listed in the speaker line-up.

One Huffington Post blog captured what so many were thinking. If a group of “thought” leaders and food activists like Michael Pollen and Mark Bittman were going to discuss food policy, shouldn’t farmers be at the dinner table?

Thankfully, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance stepped up as a conference sponsor and hosted a panel discussion – with farmers – titled “Big Ag, Big Food: How Being Good for the Environment Is Not about Size”. Watch the video of this panel discussion at reported that post-farmer panel, the conference tenor changed from Mark Bittman’s opening declaration of war to his closing remarks. “We have so much in common . . .”

And the change seemed real as Bittman, clad in a “Team Iowa Beef” t-shirt, insisted, repeatedly, that farmers were not the ones under attack. We are a family, he said. The food movement includes farmers too. However, Bittman quickly made clear the type of farmers included in his movement, and it wouldn’t be those who grow corn and soybeans, farmers in cahoots with Big Ag.

Down on the farm, Big Ag arguments fall flat. They are tiring, old and annoying. The Big Ag debate is similar to the corporate farm debate. The faceless entities so many claim as evil, have faces.  In farming communities across the country these faces are those of our neighbors, our friends, and our family. Faces of the people who keep our communities running, economies strong and people at work. Down on the farm things really aren’t that big or bad.

So, we raise corn and soybeans, as do a lot of Midwestern farmers. I’ve said it before, we live in north central Illinois with an average growing season, fairly decent rainfall and winters that test the most experienced cold-loving soul. History has given us an economic system that supports corn and soybeans. Not only do we have the climate and soils to produce these crops well, we also have the infrastructure, market accessibility and workforce. There are reasons why certain things are grown in certain places. It doesn’t always have to be about a BIG conspiracy theory.

Big Ag in my county looks like 835 farmers...

(The number reported in the 2012 Census of Ag). I’d venture 95 percent of these farmers are the third, fourth, or fifth generations of their families to farm. In our country block, a farm family has welcomed home their sons making changes to include this next generation.

Big Ag looks like our seed representatives...

who hail from many companies, not just one, and who are also neighbors or former high school classmates. The truck drivers who haul our corn, again neighbors, former classmates. One driver is the mayor of the village to the east of our farm. The mechanics who work on our equipment at the local Deere and Case dealerships are our neighbors, too. In fact several of these folks will join our family in our post-harvest celebration dinner.

Big Ag looks like no-till farmers, minimum till farmers and those who plant cover crops.

It looks like farmers who fertilize fields with nitrogen or manure from a neighbor’s cattle farm.

Big Ag looks like the group of guys and gals that showed up November 8...

to finish harvest for a young farm family who needed to catch a break. Seven combines, six wagons, ten trucks and 35 farmers showed up.

farm kid in tractorBig Ag is the eighth generation of our family’s farm...

spending hours after school in the field with his grandfather, learning about the farm, the soil, the crops, the weather, gleaning that generational knowledge that seems to be the foundation of the romantic vision of an American farm. 

Big Ag is my daughter...

leaving the i-pad behind to dump grain trucks, check moisture and type it all in the computer. She is seven.

Listening to Bittman talk, I find his view of corn and soy limited, reminding me of our encounter with two college gals who were biking across country a couple summers ago and ended up waiting out poor weather at our farm. During our visit they made two observations that I won’t forget.
  1. “I had no idea that all this,” and she spread her arms to encompass the acres of corn surrounding our farmstead, “belonged to and was cared for by a family like yours.”
  2. “All this corn and not a kernel to eat,” said Catrin.

Corn and soy is so much more than food. It is feed, fuel and fiber. It is the plastic of water bottles, the wax in candles, the turf on sports’ fields . . . thinking big doesn’t have to be bad. Maybe one day tomatoes will have alternative uses too.

What is missing, has been missing and I’m afraid will stay missing from these food conversations driven by eccentric activists, is a healthy dose of respect and awe for the diversity that is American agriculture. All of us – corn farmers, cattle ranchers, veggie growers, orchard owners – we have been working hard to accept our individual differences and contribute to the national discussion about farms and food. We have opened our farm gates and welcomed questions but more often receive scathing accusations and false allegations, all in the name of transparency. When will the rest of the “family” catch up and recognize that American agriculture takes all kinds and thankfully, supports all kinds.

Mr. Bittman. Mr. Pollen. By continually labeling family farmers, sorting us in to bad and good categories, you are systematically ostracizing a key group of people who are as dedicated to the future of food, health and nutrition as you are. My suggestion for next year’s Food For Tomorrow conference: pick a Marriott Hotel, schedule the event in the winter and invite a few farmers.

Originally posted on Rural Route 2: Life & Times of an Illinois Farm Girl.

Katie Pratt
Dixon, IL

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

Sep 28 2015

Signs of Fall on the Farm

Harvest is here, which means "Meals on Wheels" for this family! Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches are easy and portable, but harvest is long enough that we need to do a little better than that for meals. 

Tonight's menu: Teriyaki pork tenderloin, garlic bacon green beans, and homemade mashed potatoes with chives. It's like a 5-star restaurant in the combine cab!

meals on wheels in the field

Heather Hampton Knodle
Fillmore, IL

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

Sep 25 2015

How to Feed a Farmer

Harvest has just begun at my house! For our family farm, that means Dad’s in the combine, Hubs is running the grain trucks, Mom’s occasionally helping in the grain cart, and I’m… in the kitchen. I wasn’t raised on a farm – I married into it. I can’t move the trailer, dump the truck, shift the 4455 or herd the calves that are grazing my front lawn while the rest of the family is shelling corn at the field furthest away. But I can give rides… and I can cook!

farm family“Field Meals” are my way of contributing to the harvest effort. As a farm wife who’s got a nine-to-five (or 7:30 to 4:00) in town, I don’t have time to pack the folding table, crock pot, and picnic basket full of gourmet goodies requiring full table service to eat supper. My family likes to “eat with one hand and shift with the other,” as my farmer would tell you! In order to keep up with the fast pace whirlwind of the season, I have developed a strategic game plan to conquer harvest hunger:

1. Plan ahead.

I’m a meal planner. I’ve always sat down on Sunday afternoon with my calendar, recipe book and shopping list — Harvest is no different. I have an idea list of main dishes, sides, snacks, drinks and desserts to keep stocked at the house. Drinks are chilling in the fridge, ground beef is browned the night before. That way when I get home from work I already know what’s going in their supper sacks – which leads me to my next tip…

2. Make it disposable.

I learned early on that stuff that gets sent out to the field doesn’t often make it back to the house – and if it does, three days later, it’s extra gross and moldy. To save time and sanity (and dishsoap!) I package everything in baggies, plastic sauce cups with lids, tin foil and plastic grocery sacks. The guys get plastic cutlery when required (which isn’t often) and in recent years I’ve invested in those Styrofoam take out boxes which have been a huge help. Once everything is individually wrapped, I do my best to split it out into Dad’s bag and Hub’s bag. I’ll pack a thermal bag with the hot food and a cold cooler with drinks to put together at the last minute in the back of my vehicle.

3. It must be 1-handed.

Some farm families I know take the time to sit down and eat in the car with regular dishes and silverware. Not us. This is where you have to know your farmer… As I mentioned before, my husband likes to eat while he drives, therefore it can’t be anything too complicated (no spaghetti, no chilli, no packets of mayo and mustard to put on his own sandwich). He’s running the grain trucks to the bins and can barely keep up with the combine. His dad, on the other hand, doesn’t mind taking a break from combining to sit in the car with me and eat “like a civilized human being.”

I’ve come up with some pretty creative one-handed meals – some more successful than others. You’ve got your classic, hamburgers & brats, to the more contemporary pigs in blankets, pork chop on the bone, and grilled ham & cheese with a tomato Soup-At-Hand. Fresh fruit is always a win and veggie sticks with dip works out well. Some epic fails include Salad wraps (think: veggies wrapped up in lettuce leaves with dressing inside), go-gurt, and those kid-friendly applesauce pouches. Apparently food packaged in tubes is inappropriate for anyone over the age of 12.

4. Keep it clean.

Don’t forget to pack plenty of napkins, paper towels, and something to wipe their hands on before eating. My mother-in-law always sends out a wet rag in a plastic baggie for the guys to wipe their greasy, dirty hands with. (She too has learned the hard way not to send out her good washcloths – they won’t come back). I’ve tried to substitute the cloth for a wet-wipe but they just can’t withstand the rough, farmer, man-hands. Trust me on this one, just send an old sock or chunk of t-shirt.

5. Don’t forget Dessert.

This may or may not go noticed by my farmer, but I always try to include a treasure at the bottom of the bag. Whether it’s homemade chocolate chip cookie, a couple Reese’s peanut butter cups, or a cold silver bullet, it’s my way of making him smile as he works late into the evening.

So what’s on my upcoming menu, you ask?

  • Stuffed French Bread sandwiches with carrot and celery sticks, ranch dip, grapes, and a pudding cup. Tea/water/soda
  • Bratwurst on the grill, individual bags of chips, steamed veggies, apple slices, and banana chocolate chip muffins. Tea/water/soda
  • Breakfast sandwiches (fried eggs with bacon and cheese between buttered English muffin halves) Rosemary roasted potatoes & onions, orange slices. Tea/water/soda… chocolate milk?
  • Corn dogs, French fries, fruit cup, steamed veggies, drinks
  • Aaaaaand probably a fast food run to Arby’s or Subway a couple times in between!

If you have any recipes that fit my criteria, I’d love to hear from you!

Reposted with permission from Corn Corps.

Ashley Deal
Danvers, IL

Ashley lives on a family farm with her husband and son where they raise corn, soybeans and cattle. 

Sep 22 2015

Growing cattle or growing kids?

Our show season wound down last month. The heifers went out to pasture after the state fair, while the steers stayed in the barn for another couple weeks, awaiting our local FFA alumni-sponsored show and sale.

That show marks the season's end for us and it's a nice one because it's just the kids from our very local community. Good kids, all of them, and all of them working hard with their cattle, hogs, sheep and goats.

Farm kidsAt one point in the show, my phone buzzed with a text. It was from a fellow show mom, with a photo taken from the other side of the ring. The picture was of my 10-year-old son, Nathan, and her 17-year-old son, Kyle, deep in conversation next to the show ring.

"I can only imagine the conversation," she said. "Beef?!"

I'm sure she'd leaned in and zoomed in to get that photo and I just love it. It speaks volumes, because her son shared later that Nathan was telling her all about his summer four-wheeler exploits and bent show sticks (not related).

Later that day, Kyle shared the photo on social media and said, "At the end of the day, it's not about who bid on your animal, who bought it, and who won the show. What it's really about is right here; the industry, making connections with new people, the opportunities and setting an example. This is what it's really all about."

Is that not the greatest? And I would add: it's about big kids like Kyle listening to and helping little kids like Nathan. Laughing at the stories, asking them questions, listening, making them feel a part.

It's been a good summer for showing cattle, but it's been an even better one for growing kids - thanks to young people like Kyle.

Originally posted on Prairie Farmer: My Generation.

Marietta, IL

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

Sep 21 2015

A Different Kind of Skyline

A different kind of skyline for a lot of us City Moms. Big thanks to the Drendel's for the hospitality!

farm skyline

More from the Dairy Farm Tour coming soon!

Bridget Evanson
Crystal Lake, IL

Bridget is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2015 City Moms. Throughout the year she will visit Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the City Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.

Aug 28 2015

Baling Hay in Pictures

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

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

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

Dixon, IL

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

Aug 20 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted on Prairie Farmer: My Generation

Marietta, IL

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

Aug 13 2015

Talk to Farmers. Get the Facts, not the Fear.

Today, on the way home from checking out some new corn and soybean hybrids with Dairyland Seed, Josh and I stopped by the John Deere Pavillon in Moline. While we were walking around checking out the new shiny green bean head and combine on display, a man from the New England area stopped us and asked a few questions about farming (apparently we looked like knowledgable farmers). We had a great conversation and then he said that his wife had a few questions for us and he would be right back. So we waited a minute and he and his wife walked up and introduced themselves, as did we.

She began asking questions about farming and then Monsanto. More specifically, questions about how much control Monsanto has over farmers and how much they pressure farmers into making decisions they may not want to. They also began to explain how Monsanto is said to be in control of 80% of the agricultural market and are responsible for the majority of the GMOs which many people have concerns about. They said this is all what they have been told by others out east. However, they also were very interested in a farmers perspective on the issues and wanted the facts.

Long story short, we began to explain that we do minimal business with Monsanto, not because they are the "devil" the Internet makes them out to be, but because we choose to deal with other companies. Yes, we have a choice. Many choices, in fact, and that Monsanto clearly does not control 80% of the food market.

We explained to them how, contrary to what the Internet makes one believe, no one on our farm has ever been pressured by any company to do business with them and that no one has ever made us plant anything we don't want to; conventional, GMO or otherwise.

We explained how we supply our customers with the products they demand, wether it be GMO, non-gmo or possibly organic (in the future).

We explained that we follow the science. Actual science, showing both pros and cons for GMOs, organic and non-gmo production, while we support and see the value in all 3.

Lastly I THANKED them for having such a great conversation and being willing to have an open mind to a farmers hands on perspective and facts.

My point of all of this: I encourage you to talk to the farmers. To have that needed conversation about your food. To get the facts not the fear. To keep an open mind and to shake a farmers hand.

I can't begin to tell you how much we appreciated this out of the blue conversation but I can say it was the highlight of our day. So if you two are reading this, THANK YOU!

Originally posted on the Boucher Farms Facebook page.

Matt Boucher
North-Central IL

Boucher Farms is a relatively small grain farm producing Corn, Soybeans, and Wheat, as well as a few Goats for future 4H projects. The goal of their family farm is to make a honest living off the land in a sustainable manner, while caring for the environment to ensure a great future for generations to come.

Jul 30 2015

Flipping a Switch

Did you know that we show cattle?

My friends and family are saying, "duh," as this is all Joe and Anna have done for most of the summer. Chores, brushing, washing, walking, then loading, packing, washing (clothes and cattle), braiding (this is my job), unloading, waiting, walking. I have joked that if I would put a show calf in the basement by the unpacked boxes, maybe we could finally get the last steps of our project finished.

Illinois girl showing her calfHa.

Now, I know very little about showing cattle. Anna has now showed for two seasons. I was a 4Her, but the cattle barns and those kids who showed animals were just strange to me. I didn't get the ribbons in the back pocket. I didn't understand the dirty jeans. Who would want to stand in the heat and scratch a calf's belly? My dad was the livestock superintendent for our county fair, but I only went to see if Uncle Dean had a gold card to get on rides for free and check out some of the cute boys. I know, pretty sad, huh?

Then I starting dating Joe, and let's just say that early on in our dating history, I thought we were going to the State Fair for a corn dog and a few rides. We went to the Simmental show, and I wore flip flops.

Bless my heart, it was a long, dirty day.

We left without a corn dog, but gained a big omen to my future self.

Fast forward to this year, and I'm in year two as a show mom. What I have learned to appreciate and understand as a mom of a cattle shower is that this experience itself is invaluable. Sure the obvious is great: the friendships made in the stalls, the effort, time management, dedication, etc., all that is pretty amazing for especially a 10 year old. This summer, though, the light bulb that has gone off in Anna's mind as a show-woman (girl who shows...I don't want to say exhibitionist! What's the word?).

Illinois girl showing her champion steerThis is fun to watch. She had success in the showmanship division last year, but this year, she gets all of it. She has taken responsibility for her animals care, and while she and her dad have had their share of "discussions" in regards to how things need to be done, her show year has been a fun one. We have an especially good steer this year, but Anna and Joe have taken extra care with his nutrition and fitness, and it has paid off. We have had some opportunities to be in the Championship Drive and have even taken home some hardware in reward for the hard work.

The switch has been flipped. The taste of victory is on her tongue, and my girl, although not obnoxious about it (she gets her normal sense of competitive spirit from her dad, not her CRAZY MOM), is enjoying the fruits of her labor. It's fun to see her look a judge square in the eye and talk about Clyde, her steer. It's awesome to watch ages of kids from 9-19 lead these huge animals around and then genuinely congratulate each other on their successes.

This is a side of the cattle business I never knew existed.

I know! Every day, something new, friends.

While I'm the snack packer, blingy jeans buyer and hair braider, my switch has been flipped as well. I am getting past the basics, and am now seeing (somewhat) what a judge looks for in a winner. Plus, I figure I should learn more, as we did some forward thinking and at one point, we will have (if all want to participate) a 19, 17, 15, 13, and 10 year old twins potentially in the ring.

I think we need a bigger trailer.

And a barn.

And stock in blingy jeans.

Either way, as the summer showing season begins to wind down, I am happy to report that we are experiencing a healthy dose of success and have enjoyed the time spent in the barn.

So, let's move to the basement and have some success there. Ha!

Originally posted on Confessions of a Farm Wife.

Emily Webel
Farmington, IL

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

Jul 25 2015

Farming is a Complex Science

farming is hard work