Illinois Farm Families Blog

May 25 2015

From Charlotte's Web to a Real Pig Farm

This past weekend, I was a part of the City Moms group that visited the Gould family farm. It was an amazing opportunity for this city mom who has never stepped foot on a working farm before (unless a Pumpkin Farm in the fall counts). After learning about who works on the farm and what their jobs are like, we got the rare opportunity to go into the pig barns and see their homes. After gearing up in jumpsuits, hairnets and plastic booties (for the pigs’ safety), we stepped into the stinky, but clean barn. 

We first got to see where the sows were held. This massive room of over 600 sows was the first stop for the pigs on the Gould farm. This was the breeding and gestation room. Yes-they were kept in individual pens, but it was clear why. These ladies were huge! I can see why keeping them in larger pens would be much more difficult and much less efficient for the farmers. Next we saw the rooms where the mama’s came to give birth and nurse their piglets. Here they were in farrowing stalls- a controversial method in the farming community. I was unaware of the controversy behind farrowing stalls, but that was mostly because I had no idea they even existed before this tour. Again, these crates were a deliberate choice for the overall health and safety of the moms and piglets. When a mama wants to lay down, she throws all 300+ pounds of herself down. These crates keep the 10+ piglets safe from their mom. The piglets have plenty of room to run around their mom and nurse whenever they want. 

Finally, we saw where the family of pigs is moved to allow those piglets to grow a bit and finally be weaned off of their moms. What struck me about all of these rooms with all of these pigs was the record keeping. Everything that went on with all of the pigs was carefully documented. Every ailing or sick pig was looked after by a veterinarian and treated accordingly. The temperature was carefully controlled and backed by a generator (the family home was not!) Other than that, they were left to do their own pig thing. 

Now, being a city mom with knowledge about farms that doesn’t much go past Charlotte’s Web, I was a little bummed to see the pigs in pens. But I do now understand why. No decision at a farm is ever come to lightly. All of the decisions are backed by farming best practices and science with the best interest of the pigs in mind. It makes more sense to me now why big open fields of pigs and piglets would not be the best choice. How would they know who might be sick? Who was getting enough to eat? Who was pregnant?   How would they keep disease spread by birds out? Intestinal parasites they pick up from the ground? What was abundantly clear at the Gould’s farm was that this system ensures the consistency, safety and quality of the pork being produced for us, the consumers. 

Sarah Deitch
Park Ridge, IL

Sarah is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2015 City Moms. Throughout the year she visits 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.

May 21 2015

Mama Mania

While I would LOVE to breath a sigh of relief, that is not going to happen. Calving is almost done, we have about 10 more cows to go, and we have started planting! Actually I have disappeared for awhile due to crazy hours in the fields. We are almost done with our corn planting and then we will be onto soybeans. For the time being I have a moment to sit down and tell you about the scariest part of my job… the mama cows!

While I dearly love the time with our calves, I wouldn’t exactly call this time of year cute and cuddly. Actually I pray more during calving than any other time of the year. I mainly pray for safety. Sometimes you just never know what you are getting into. The job should be simple right? Catch the calf, move the mom and baby over to the pasture, give the calf some bling (ear tag) and check gender. This could take 5 minuets or an hour depending on the mom cow. While we have many friendly mothers who know the routine, there are others that just kinda freak out. I have never held the glare of a 1500 pound animal as she angrily stares into my soul until this year. The only thing between us was the ATV and I’m pretty sure she was considering jumping it. This is the part where I say a quick prayer… multiple times… plus a few more… and consider that things can get bad very VERY quickly. We trust that our Lord and Savior will keep us safe, maybe send some guardian angles or something, but let me tell you, not every day is a piece of cake.

There are a few stories I can recall from this last calving season. We had two crazies, as we call them, this year. I don’t think they even cared about their baby, they just like to try and run us over. Both times my prayers were answered and the cows would go from trying to charge to a moment of confusion where they literally just turned around and ran off in just enough time for us to get the calf and do our thing.  My husband had to park next to a hut and clime on top of it in order to even get off of the ATV as the cow would try to get him the moment he stopped. Usually they leave you alone on the ATV, but this one was different. I have walked into the barn to feed and had two more cows literally charge the fence. Great way to start the day! While it would be so much easier to just leave the cows and calves alone, it is necessary to check the calves.  We make sure they are nursing and healthy. This is the price we pay. After everything is checked and good, we move the two where the calf can have shelter and we can ensure water and feed every day for the cow.

As you can see, there seems to be a pattern with things happening in pairs of two here, but needles to say, while calving is the most precious time of the year, it is also the most dangerous. I don’t know the statistic, but more people die from cows every year than deer. On the contrary, like I said before, most of our cows are very gentle. We even had one cow that waited until we drove up with the ATV and cart, she moved over by the ATV to wait, we got the calf and as soon as we shut the door on the cart she came back around to follow. We got out of the pen and she led us to the pasture. She stood out of the way while we worked the calf and then nuzzled her with love when we were done. (Fun fact, if you read my blog last year, this was Buddy’s mom! Buddy lived in our basement for a week.)

I have said it and I will say it again. This is my favorite time of year! I love to watch the calves as they grow, play and interact with the others. Yes they still kick hard, some can be rambunctious, and the mothers are not always the best, but to be part of a new life coming into the world and doing everything in your power to help it grow and thrive is the best feeling in the world!

Originally posted on Dare to Dream with Rachel.

Rachel Asher
Ursa, IL

Rachel farms with her husband and his family in West Central Illinois where they raise cattle, pigs, corn and soybeans. You can learn more about Rachel and her farm on her blog: Dare to Dream with Rachel.

May 12 2015

My understanding of farming changed after I met farmers

I am a food science and human nutrition major with an AAS in culinary arts that had previously served almost 9 years in the US Navy. Even with all of that, I had absolutely no idea about production farming. Everything that I knew about farming was whatever I had read or seen on the internet or TV. This of course includes movies like Food Inc. My perceptions of farmers were that they were only nice farmers if they were organic farmers and bad if they weren’t. I assumed that because of what I had seen, via various forms of media, that enormous multinational corporations owned the majority of farms in the US. I thought farmers were exactly the way they are often depicted on TV, simple characters lacking any kind of sophistication without any regard for the environment or animals. This was not something that I thought was specific to any region, I just thought all farmers were this way. In the case of Illinois farmers, well, I just thought they really liked corn and soybeans. 

I had no idea. I suppose the reason for this is that I had never really been on a farm, nor did I know any farmers, except for the inner-city hipster, “strictly organic” variety. This past semester all of that changed when I decided to enroll in a class on “farm, food and environmental policy.” The whole point of the class was to compare and contrast the differences between farms and farming practices in California to those of Illinois. Our class toured farms and talked to farmers in both states and I can tell you that everything I thought I knew about farmers was what someone else wanted me to think. After going to meet and talk with these fine men and women, I was finally able to make my own decisions and come to my own conclusions.

I found myself to be completely wrong about my assumptions. Farmers are very sophisticated. The technology that farmers use is mind-blowing to me! I found out that they use GPS navigated equipment to get within two inches of accuracy when applying fertilizer and planting seeds. They use drones to survey their fields, which allow them to detect soil issues and identify weed species. To accommodate the needs of their customers, they use different varieties of seeds and are involved in commodity trading. Farming is neither a yokel’s business nor some large industrial machine. Illinois farms are, I have learned, for the most part (97%) family-owned businesses. In talking to these farmers, I have realized that their way of life is something that has been passed down to them by their elders from generation to generation and that they have an intense interest in conservation. For them, taking care of their land and animals means that they will have something to give to their children. This way of life is a source of pride for them. 

The biggest take-away that I’ve gained from this experience is that misinformation about these people and their businesses spreads through conventional media, and especially social media, like wildfire. I believed it and so do many others. I’m not sure what exactly motivates all of this misinformation, but I would highly recommend to anyone that’s interested in learning about their food go to a local farm and ask for a tour. Talk to your local farmers. Ask them questions, get to know them and find out what they do. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised.


Originally posted in Farm Week.

Regina Cortez
Chicago, IL

May 07 2015

Farm Visit

As a part of the City Moms program, I have had some great opportunities to learn about farming in Illinois, and to share that information with my family. But another exciting part of the program was when we were all given a farmer pen pal, and to find out that mine lives less than an hour from my home! 

My pen pal contacted me right after our City Moms orientation in February, and invited my family out to the farm to see the calves in the spring. My boys were off school on a recent Monday and we were able to take advantage of this invitation! My boys enjoyed hearing about my visit to the hog farm in March, but actually getting to visit a real farm themselves was very exciting! We saw a five-day-old calf up close, and we got to bottle-feed an orphan calf that was just over a month old. 

We were at the farm during spring planting, so we got to take a look at some corn and soybeans that had just been planted a few days earlier and were already beginning to sprout – tying in to the lessons my second grader is learning in science right now! It was a great opportunity for my kids to learn more about where their food comes from and see it all first hand. They’re already talking about going back in the fall to ride the combine during harvest! We’re all looking forward to it!

Jen Meiring
Batavia, IL

Jen 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.

Apr 22 2015

You Bet Your Life On It- Earth Day 2015

You get your hands in it
Plant your roots in it
Dusty head lights dance with your boots in it…

You write her name on it
Spin your tires on it
Build your corn field,
You bet your life on it

It’s that elm shade
Red roads clay you grew up on
That plowed up ground that your dad
Damned his luck on…

You’ve mixed some sweat with it
Taken a shovel to it
You’ve stuck some crosses and some painted
Goal posts through it

You know you came from it
And someday you’ll return to it

The first time I heard Florida Georgia Line’s song Dirt, it struck a chord with me, and I imagine with many other farm families. 150 years ago, my great-great grandfather Daniel Mackinson decided to “bet his life on it”, to “plant his roots in it”.  He decided to start farming near Pontiac and today our family continues to live and farm those original acres plus a few more.  This concept of “dirt” being so important is both symbolic and real.  When Jesse and I got married, we each had 2 containers of dirt, 1 from each of our family farms that we poured into a new container.  This represented the coming together of our families, and the importance of agriculture in our lives. The practical importance of dirt is not to be understated either.

At Mackinson Dairy, we use cow manure as a natural source of fertilizer and follow a detailed manure and nutrient management plan.  In 2011, we worked with engineers and other experts and together, they helped us design and build a manure-handling system.  Our current storage facility holds 2.8 million gallons and it is applied to our fields in the months after harvest. The manure helps improve the productivity and water-holding capacity of the soil.  As recognition of this work, we were awarded the 2013 Conservation Farm Family Award by the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Other examples of sustainable farming practices regarding ‘’dirt’’ include crop rotation which is used to naturally mitigate weeds and to improve soil quality. No-tillage crop farming for soil and fuel conservation involves leaving a field as it is after harvest and then planting over it the next year.   This reduces erosion, retains soil moisture, and conserves fuel.

We believe that using resources wisely and planning for the future so that our children will also be able to not only live here, but to be able to live off the ‘’dirt”. Conservation is part of what do every day at Mackinson Dairy.  The agriculture industry as a whole also continues to work towards achieving a sustainable food system.  You can read more here about what other sustainable work Illinois Dairy farmers are up to.

You might be wondering what you could do to help (even if you aren’t a farmer).  Everyone (me included) can reduce their food waste and this article provides us with 7 simple tips for cutting back on food waste. Our time here is limited so remember that it is our job not only on Earth Day but every day, to protect the land, water, and air for future generations.

You know you came from it

and someday you’ll return to it

Originally posted on Mackinson Dairy.

Mary Mackinson-Faber
Pontiac, IL

Mary raises dairy cattle and grain with her husband, Jesse, and two children in central Illinois. Mary's great-grandfather started the dairy farm over 150 years ago with just a handful of cows. Today, her family continues to live and farm on those original acres. Farming is a history and a passion for Mary and her family!

Apr 19 2015

Farm Families do more than put food on your table...

"Farm families are doing much more than putting food on our tables. They are raising well-rounded, modern-day problem-solvers, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. We need more young people like that in our country." 

Alicia Gonzalez
Chicago, IL

Alicia 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.

Apr 07 2015

What does it mean to be a farm family?

Our City Mom visit to the Gould Farm on a beautiful spring-like day earlier this March began with a warm welcome by several members, indeed generations, of the Gould Family. That warm welcome and that up-close encounter with the family is what has stayed with me most about the hog tour. While many of my colleagues are much more interested in and well-informed about food safety and animal welfare, I have to admit I am always much more interested in the human side of things. 

What does it mean to be a farm family? I think the Goulds are the perfect example. Along with Eldon and Sandy, the patriarch and matriarch, their son, Chris, and his wife Dana, as well as their kids, ranging in age from high-school to college, it seemed like the whole family is involved in the farm in some way or another. This is important because running a modern-day farm requires a multitude of talents and knowledge, from using computer technology and sophisticated software to monitor breeding and average litter size to actually handling the animals and feed. 

During our visit, Chris` teen-age son handled a huge boar, as Chris demonstrated the artificial insemination process to us. As a high school teacher, I am always drawn to how teenagers think, how they learn and how they grow. Meeting Chris and Dana`s kids that day was so refreshing. They are regular high school kids who play sports and take AP classes, but also obviously know hands-on how to run a farm. 

Based on my very limited encounter with the Goulds that day, I can`t help but observe that farm families are doing much more than putting food on our tables.They are raising well-rounded, modern-day problem-solvers, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. We need more young people like that in our country. 

Alicia Gonzalez
Chicago, IL

Alicia 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.
Apr 02 2015

Caring for Calves

Even though agriculture was a part of my life growing up, I did not grow up on a farm. My father was a farm laborer and my grandparents had a farm, but I didn’t have much interest in the farm life. So when I married my farmer husband, almost 25 years ago, I knew nothing about exactly what it took to raise animals or farm. But I was very eager to learn, and we soon had dreams and goals that we are determined to meet.

Since we have steadily grown our farm the last 25 years, I’ve learned a lot. We are very diversified, growing wheat, grain sorghum, corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and we have a cow calf herd.

I’m most proud of our cow calf herd. It has taken a lot of work, but we have grown it considerably since we first started. My dad had a few cows growing up, but I was really never around the major part of the work. I would get to go check them with him and I thought they were cute, never realizing just how much work it really was.

I will never forget the first time that my husband had to bring a baby calf into our home to warm it up. It was born on a night when the temperatures were below freezing, and the calf would die if he did not get it dried off and warmed up quickly. My husband woke me up to help him get towels and a hairdryer (my only hairdryer!) to dry the baby off so that it could go back to its mother.

At first, I did not like the idea of an afterbirth baby calf being in my house. Soon, though, the motherly instincts kicked in, and I realized that I had to help save this calf.

We saved the calf that night, and it triggered something in me that has never left. I realized just how much farmers and ranchers care for their animals and just how much work it really takes to raise them. Nowadays when the cows are calving, it’s not unusual for us to have a baby calf or two at my feet on the floor of our pickup truck warming them up.

And, now, we have a special hair dryer dedicated for cold calves only.

Calving season is upon us, and this will all become reality once again, but I wouldn’t change any of it for anything in the world. I take great pride in caring for and raising something that feeds our nation and my family.

Originally posted on America's Farmers.

Stacey Forshee

Mar 30 2015

Spring on our Farm: The Hampton-Knodle Family


Last week looked totally different than today’s sunny weather that had our boys in shorts. We now have 3 calves on the ground in our new beef cattle enterprise.

Heather Hampton-Knodle
Fillmore, IL

Mar 23 2015

Spring on Our Farm: Rachel Asher

Due to the extreme cold this year, we had to rush one of the calves home for a hot bath. We used our extra large sink in the basement of our home to soak the little one in warm water until her blood warmed up. I soaked her for about an hour and a half. Because calves are soaking wet when they are born, it is important to get them somewhere warm right away. 

One of my favorite times of year is calving season. They are all so cute, fun loving and eager to explore the world around them. It can be dangerous working with the protective mothers, but together we work to give the little ones a safe home where they can grow and thrive. 

My view this evening while checking the cows. We check the pregnant cows 3 or 4 times a day looking for any signs of difficulty calving or see if there are any new calves we need to move to the pasture. 

I couldn't help but snap a quick photo when I checked on this photogenic mamma and her baby. We are all so ready for spring!

Rachel Asher
Ursa, IL

You can learn more about Rachel and her farm on her blog: Dare to Dream with Rachel
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