Illinois Farm Families Blog

Jul 25 2015

Farming is a Complex Science

farming is hard work
Jul 24 2015

What is Fair Week?

If you follow any farmer bloggers, I would venture you’ve been reading a lot about fairs – 4-H fairs, FFA fairs, county fairs and state fairs. Fairs are the quintessential summer activity giving us funnel cakes, lemonade shake-ups, corn dogs, and fried . . . anything. Carnivals, pedals pulls, pageants. Ribbons, trophies, rodoes – some intentional, others not so much.

For fair families, fair week is one of the more chaotic times of the year. Project details are finalized at the. Very. Last. Minute. No joke. One year I pulled an all-nighter finishing a crossstich. My dad was adamant. You paid the entry fee, the project goes.

Dinners are relegated to a bowl of cereal, slice of cold pizza or 11 p.m. spaghettio’s (a friend posted that dinner pic with the caption, “It must be fair week.”). And as well-intentioned as most fair moms are – slicing fruit and veggies late at night, packing a cooler with water, homemade sandwiches and Grandma’s cookies – by day three, corn dogs and nachos fill a hungry kid just fine.

A fair family hopes to make it through day one without an epic meltdown. Meltdowns are standard on day four and completely excusable, but on day one . . . you’ll be getting sympathetic looks from the other fair moms.

Fair week, however, takes on a different meaning when your family is not only a fair family but a fair board family.

A friend who sits on our volunteer fair board of directors lamented early last week, “If only people got ‘fair week’.”

Because along with regular life stuff, fair board members are spending countless hours – literally, we can’t keep track –preparing for the onslaught of people, animals, questions, concerns, tractors, cars, pork chop dinners and wayward storms.

My Farmer and I are both fair board members along with an eclectic group of former 4-H members, community folks, 4-H leaders and guys who made the mistake of attending a board meeting. Now they are official fair officials.

Our fair week started yesterday. Holly Spangler wrote an Ode to Fair Board Members.  She includes this: “Oh, the fair board member. Answerer of endless calls and balancer of ever-slimmer budgets. Answerer of questions relating to everything from electricity to fair queens. They are the people who figure out how to keep decrepit buildings standing, to get another year out of the beef barn, to run another water line. They are the ones who debate adding a beer tent or closing the fair, because the money just isn’t there. They organize exhibits, move tractors and maintain grounds, and even more, make peace between the horse people and the cattle people.”

And that pretty much sums up fair week. Yesterday my farm princess was answering the landline, “Lee County Fair. My mom can help you in a minute”, as I was on my cell calming the nerves of a new 4-Her who was pretty sure she forgot to enter her dozen eggs in the poultry department.

Today, we are packing the car with materials for Kids’ Korners, Kiddie Carnival, Ag Olympics and the Corn Boil. My farm boy asked, “When do my projects get to go?”

Illinois 4-H Fairgrounds Lee County

My great grandfather was a founding member of the board who established the Lee Co. 4-H Center. The white fence that flanks our front gate bears my grandfather’s name. It is a memorial to him and other dedicated fair believers. My dad spent my 4-H years on the fair board.

And now it is my turn. Fairs, like farms, are generational. And our commitment to them is just as strong.

Thank you fellow fair board members – fair family members. We may not like each other by week’s end, but we’re in this together and for that I am grateful!

(The Lee Co. 4-H Fair & Jr. Show is July 23-26 at the Lee Co. Fairgrounds near Amboy.  It is the perfect throwback county fair! For more information find us at or on facebook!)

Originally posted on Rural Route 2: The 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)

Jul 03 2015

I spy with my little eye...

Farmers are pretty used to seeing animals on a regular basis. Sometimes, though, we find some unexpected and unwelcome visitors by the feed bags!

Farm animals

So, I'm feeding the goats and horse more hay, and as I reach for the cat food, I find a visitor (lower right). 

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.

Jul 02 2015

Personalizing Food Choices

In 1991, I moved to DeKalb, Illinois, to teach in a small farming community 17 miles southwest of DeKalb. In the years since then, it’s been easy to see that farmland is disappearing. New housing developments have cropped up around DeKalb and more strip malls are being built. The Chicago suburbs are expanding farther and farther west. Is this progress? Perhaps. Yet all these outlet malls, auto marts, and huge new houses are swallowing up some of the richest farmland in the world. The flat farm fields of Illinois may not look like much to the naked eye, but farmers will tell you that the dark rich soil of Northern Illinois is perfect for growing crops.

farmland, farm land

Disappearing farmland should be a concern to all of us. When the year 2050 comes around, we’ll need to feed 9 billion people on approximately the same amount or less farmland we currently have. This is more important than the fight between organic and conventional foods. There isn’t just one solution. By using a variety of farming techniques, including organic and conventional farming, we can succeed in feeding the world.

The conversation about food is difficult. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Among suburban moms, it is “fashionable” to buy only organic foods. We are making the topic of food choices too personal. I have been told (not by a doctor) that I should eat only grass fed beef because of my medical history. When I wrote on Facebook that I was was going to visit Monsanto, one person unfriended me. When my husband became interested in what Monsanto does and liked their Facebook page, a member of the family asked him, “You don’t really like Monsanto, do you?” Social media has done a good job of spreading fear and mistrust of GMOs and the companies that produce them. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that one of Monsanto’s executives agrees with using organic and GMOs to help feed the world. It can’t just be one or the other.

The farming community is opening their doors to City Moms. Farmers are talking about why they farm the way they do. They are open to discussing GMOs, use of pesticides, and how they treat their livestock. They have many choices, and Monsanto seed is only one of their choices. They also have the responsibility of providing enough food for everyone as our population keeps growing. It takes courage for the City Moms to have open minds and to listen to what they are telling us, even when our friends are telling us not to listen.

I had no idea when I became a City Mom that I would be learning so much about agriculture and the food we eat. I didn’t know I would develop a passion to learn more. I also didn’t realize that I would not only be learning about the food on my dinner table, but also about feeding billions of people in the future. I now read farm blogs and agricultural reports, along with scientific articles about our food supplies. I’m personalizing my food choices by learning more about my food.

Originally posted on Lemon Drop Pie.

Christa Grabske
Mount Prospect, IL

Christa was one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visited several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms shared their thoughts by blogging about what they experienced on these farms, including five things they found most interesting. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers

Jun 30 2015

Best Seat in the House

Farm views

This was a picture I took while waiting to fill the planter. I was in our pickup facing the tractor with the sunset behind me. I couldn’t help but snap a quick photo!

These days go by pretty quick. Every few hours I get a call that someone needs filled and I bring the seed bags (weighing 30-65 pounds each) to the planter that is running low. The tractor will stop, I pull up in the truck, we take off the planter lids and load ’em up! It takes about 20 minuets total and then the tractor is back in business. We literally do this all day, weather willing.

Originally posted on Dare to Dream with Rachel.

Rachel Asher
Ursa, IL

Rachel grew up on her family's farm where they raised dairy cows, pigs and crops. Today, she and her husband raise cattle, corn and soybeans on their own family farm in Ursa, IL. You can learn more about Rachel's farm on her blog: Dare to Dram with Rachel.

Jun 26 2015

Modern Day Farmers

"I kind of had this mental picture of a farmer in overalls sitting at his kitchen table pouring over the Farmers’ Almanac to figure out how he’s going to plan his planting and just kind of haphazardly, and with no conscience, throwing around weed and insect killing chemicals on the plants.  When, in reality, that is not the case.  It’s really making me pause to think about the “truths” that I hold to when it comes to growing food and what I choose to buy at the grocery store." 


Learn more about today's farmers and the technology they use here.

Frankfort, IL

Stephanie 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.

Jun 22 2015

Old School Skills & Modern Technology

So, I've mentioned on the blog before that I am part of a group of bloggers called the City Moms that will visit local family farms this year and share our experiences. Illinois Farm Families coordinates the visits. A couple months ago we visited a hog farm and last month we all went to the Saathoff Family Farm in Manteno to learn a little about planting season for corn and soybeans.

As we have found on many of the farms our family has visited, farming is a long tradition - that also goes for the Saathoff and Meyer families. Three generations were there on the tour. There have been 5 generations that have lived and worked on the farm.

For family farmers on small to medium sized farms, it isn't that easy to rely on it as your primary source of income. Nick is also a seed representative and his wife is a middle school teacher. They cover 1200-acres on their farm of corn, soybean and wheat. Last year the kids also started a little 3/4 acre pumpkin patch and had a successful season simply by leaving a cart of pumpkins near the road with a can to deposit money in, done on the honor system.

Nick's brother-in-law and his family utilize the farm to raise cattle that their kids show at county fairs and then sell at auction. We got a quick rundown on the difference between dairy cows and beef cattle and an explanation of why its more cost effective to ship the cows off to another pasture over the state line for part of the season rather than sacrifice valuable farm land with rich soil during peak months. There were three parts of our tour and the cattle barn was the first portion.

Next we moved outside for part two of the tour where we learned a little about corn production and all the uses for corn besides eating it off of a cob. Much of what they grow is used as livestock feed and some is used for ethanol. I was surprised to also learn that a lot of corn grown in the U.S. is exported.

Planting really involves a lot more than putting a seed in the ground. There are so many variables and so much science that goes into so many decisions, like planting locations, timing of planting, crop rotation, soil conditions, etc. Then there's maintaining the fields, harvesting and getting it to the correct moisture level before it goes to market.

The third part of our tour focused on planting and we learned about the GPS programming systems that allow tractors to operate on auto-pilot. Farmers sit inside rigs that steer themselves, which I thought was pretty cool. It was a neat marriage of the ancient art of farming with the benefits of modern technology. Among the benefits of the GPS system are the reduction in human error and a decrease in fatigue in farmers who spend long hours inside the tractors planting row after row.

I was really surprised at how much technology plays into modern farming. On part of our tour we took a look at an iPad with a grid on it that mapped out a farm field, showing how through soil testing and other methods it could be determined if certain spots needed extra attention or if seed placement needed to be modified due to the conditions of that part of a field.

I was also surprised to learn that there are so many specialties within agriculture (one of our speakers after lunch was an agronomist) that I didn't know about and so much research, planning and modification that farming entails. Farming has really evolved in the past century to where it's no longer commonplace for a farmer to raise children who stay on the farm throughout their lives. A majority of the newer generation of farmers are college educated and have left the farm for some time to study in an area of agriculture before returning to work on their family farm or they branch out into agriculture professions.

Our day was another eye opening day of how much work and how many resources go into the food that we put on our tables. It furthered my sense of appreciation of the work that farmers do.

Originally posted on Chicago Foodie Sisters.

Lansing, IL

Carrie 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.

Jun 21 2015

What he never said...

As Father's Day 2015 approaches, I find myself trying to determine WHO exactly influenced me the most - my Dad or my Grandpa Bud.  Of course they both, along with the rest of my family, influenced me, but the kind of influence I am divulging into is in reference to my passion as an adult. I am a farmer's daughter, a farmer's granddaughter, a wife, a mother, a sister, a cattle producer, a teacher and many others.  These are the most important to me, but as I write this I cannot help but think about the first two A LOT! Keyword: Farmer

I was born into a family deeply rooted into agriculture.  Specifically grain farming, harness racing and raising cattle. Be jealous!  I was never told I had to like it.  I was never told I had to have fun doing "ag" things.  I was never told I had to join 4-H and show livestock.  I was never told I had to take agriculture classes in high school.  I was never told I had to join FFA.  I was never told I had to go to college.  I was never told I had to major in agriculture.  I was never told that I had to own my own herd of cattle. Some of these things I did and some I did not. 

As the first grandchild I attended more Illinois county fairs by the age of 2 than some people do in a lifetime.  Again, be jealous! During the summer months, my entire family (literally, the entire family) traveled across the state to county fairs on the Mid-Western Illinois Racing Association circuit to race Standardbred horses.  Thanks to our little Thompson Stables crew, I learned very early on the value of a quick bath in a bucket in the horse stall, how to "pop a squat" and to never turn down a big chug of ice cold well water out of the jug!  I was too young to specifically recall, but I've been told my first word was not "Dada" or "Mama", but "horse".  Rightfully so!  As I got older, my love for agriculture continued.  4-H was a MAJOR part of my childhood and upbringing.  North Side Ag 4-H Club for life!!  I showed pigs and cattle.  I was always told I had to work hard for the things I wanted.  If I wanted to win, I had to walk my pigs and take good care of them.  If I wanted to go somewhere with my friends on a Saturday night, I had to get up early and help clean the barn.  If I wanted to play softball - a spring sport in high school, I had to give up showing cattle.  In the words of my Dad, "you can't devote enough time to taking care of your show calves if you play softball."  Needless to say, I chose showing cattle.  Big surprise! 

I am a proud graduate of Western Illinois University Department of Agriculture.  The picture below was taken on the day I graduated from Western.  My Dad is very outspoken when it comes to his opinions, but very quiet when it comes to his emotions.  This may describe your Dad to a T!  I have several friends who could say that is a true statement about their Dad as well.  Must be a Dad thing!  He never told me how proud he was of me that day, but I knew.  I knew that he was very happy for me and proud to tell people that I was going to be an agriculture education teacher & FFA advisor.  I was happy to make him proud and still am to this day.

I love to sit and talk to my grandparents!  My Grandpa Bud has some of the best stories.  Some may be true, some may be a little spiced up for conversation!  That is what Grandpas are good for - stories!  He is my biggest role model.  I have always been very proud to call him Grandpa.  Growing up I LOVED following him around and helping harness the horses.  In the early 1990's we moved our horses to the Illinois State Fairgrounds and began to train there. I didn't watch cartoons on Saturday mornings, I left home at 5:00 in the morning to go to Springfield with my grandparents!  Those Saturdays were the best times of my life.  From scooping manure and cleaning stalls to cleaning harness, I was their right hand gal.  I longed for the day, my Grandpa would let me lead a horse around in the grass behind the barn after a good training mile.  As I got older, our direct involvement in harness racing got less and less.  My Grandpa was offered a job at the Illinois Department of Agriculture and therefore was unable to own, train or drive any racehorses.  I was just old enough to start doing really fun things at the barn like lead the horses around all the time...without help and give them a bath and walk them out to the track before their morning jogging workout!  Like I said, really really fun things!  Needless to say, I was disappointed. I was also happy for him.  He was a BIG deal in my eyes and I was proud of him and his accomplishments!  In the years that followed, my family still had an active role in harness racing.  I find myself saying to people, "agriculture is in my blood".  Harness racing was no different.  As many times as I find myself telling people that agriculture is in my blood, I also get emotional.  Weird?  Yes, it is! Haha.  My passion for agriculture is because of my parents and grandparents, specifically my Dad and Grandpa - the farmers!

This may be just like all the other "farmer Dad" stories you have read that seem to surface around Father's Day every year. I think mine is different.  I was highly influenced to become the person I am today.  Few words were spoken and I was never told I had to do this or had to do terms of my life goals.  Let's be honest, I was told to make my bed, wash the dishes, clean my room, etc., etc. plenty of times growing up!

In addition to my Dad and Grandpa, I must also mention my husband and my father-in-law as well as the handful of male influences in my life that served as "pseudo Dads"!  I love them all dearly and appreciate them more than they will ever know.  

I love watching my Dad and Grandpa around my two children!  I feel very fortunate that my Grandpa has the opportunity to be an active part of their lives.  He feels the same.  My Dad can entertain my kids for hours and you will never hear "Papa" sound so sweet as it does coming out of my two year old son's mouth!

I love pictures, so I thought I would share some of my favorites!  

Thanks Dad for never telling me I HAD to do these things - I figured them out on my own and I hope I have made you proud!  

Happy Father's Day.  Enjoy it with all the fathers in your life - I know I will!

Originally posted on Outside the Ag Room.

Alison McGrew
Good Hope, IL

Alison was born and raised on a grain and livestock farm in Central Illinois and now resides on a farm where she, her husband and their two children raise beef cattle. Alison and her husband both have full-time jobs off the farm that are directly related to agriculture. Alison is a former high school agriculture teacher, as well. You can learn more about their farm on Alison's blog Outside the Ag Room.

Jun 18 2015

Adventures of a City Mom


Early this spring I became a participant in a unique Illinois Farm Bureau program. Developed to introduce non-rural families to agriculture and educate them about farming practices in Illinois, urban and suburban dwelling moms are recruited to participate and have the opportunity to tour several Illinois farms over the course of the season to see firsthand how crops and livestock are raised. Sponsored and coordinated by the Illinois Farm Bureau and Illinois Farm Families, tours are hosted by Illinois farmers and include presentations by a variety of agricultural professionals.

Previously referred to as ‘field moms’, participants have been given the new and appropriate title of 'city moms' this year. When I was contacted with acceptance into the program I was delighted. I was also a bit surprised by my new title. Despite having lived all of my life in cities or suburbs, I've never really considered a city label for myself. Something about growing up in Nebraska just one generation removed from the farm, I suppose. So even my initial acceptance and participant title in the program has had me re-evaluating some of my own views; despite my love of and desire for more time in the country, I am a life-long city dweller. 

As one of the "city moms" I have the privilege of touring Illinois farms with the group. During each tour we are presented with information regarding the farm itself, what products are produced there and given an overview of farming practices and techniques that are employed in the production of food by the hosting farm family. Each tour has included information presented by the farm family members and by other professionals involved in the agriculture industry.  Presenters have included; dieticians, farm bureau representatives, industry representatives and most meaningfully, Illinois farmers themselves.

We have been given an abundance of information and food for thought.  It is clear that there is a lot more going into every decision and practice that occurs on each farm than can be communicated in a short sound bite or one blog post. 

A few of the facts about farming in Illinois that have stood out to me include: 

  • 97% of farms in Illinois are family owned.
  • Many are incorporated like other family owned business'  for legal purposes but continue to be family owned, farmed and operated, often with many extended family members joining in. 
  • Cook County has a farm bureau. 
  • This was really a surprise to me. Cook County itself actually has 8,499 acres being farmed on 127 farms.
  • Illinois is a major producer of pumpkins. 
  • I love knowing the ingredients for my favorite fall recipes are locally grown.

Other general farming information new to me:

  • USDA certified organic does not mean raised completely pesticide and chemical free.
  • The use of GMO seeds reduces the need for the use of pesticides by the grower, actually improving the health of the soil and safety for the farmer and consumer.
  • Farmers continue to produce what the market demands. 
  • Farmers have a wide variety of choices about the practices employed on their farms.

Nick Saathoff, 4th generation family farmer and ‘city moms’ tour host, farms the Meyer- Saathoff farm with his wife, Missy, three children and extended family members. They gave examples from their farm.  Nick plants both GMO and non GMO corn.  He also plants both sweet corn and feed corn. He explained his use of GMO seed and some of the benefits of using it, including the reduced need for pesticides on the GMO crops. He has no reservations about using GMOs but he is making the extra effort to plant non GMO corn, which adds to his many farming considerations, including keeping those crops separated. He plants both because there is a market demand for both crops. Farmers, like any family business, respond to the market to continue to be an economically viable enterprise.

Farmers choose viable (reproducible and sustainable) options for making a living and continuing to do so.  
The farmers we’ve met have communicated their deep concern for the land.  They care about the land and the soil. They have to consider the costs of production and maintaining the means of that production. They cannot use chemicals indiscriminately on their crops because they depend on the continued health of their fields for production. They have to consider the costs to themselves and their land to stay in business.  

Farmers use advanced technology to assist them in food production. Despite at times, having a bit of a techno phobia myself, and despite believing myself to have an excellent sense of direction, I love my GPS. Living in a large urban area it is nearly impossible to know the names of all of the surrounding suburbs, finding ones way to new locations sometimes requires an extensive atlas. Enter GPS technology - I can find my way to a new destination more quickly and so much more safely. Farmers take the use of this technology a few steps further. They use GPS systems for soil evaluation and planting. Theirs GPS system provides details about their fields and landscape equivalent to us having a system that could inform us of a newly developed pot hole on the streets of our daily commute. Smart farming.

Farming is a unique business with only 2% of the population still farming nationally, farmers are unique business people with a myriad of concerns and considerations.  A farm family in 2015 has to consider; soil health, technique choices, advanced technology and market demands.  Along with all of these practical considerations there are the intangibles.

As Nick puts it, "The farm is more than land and crops.  It is our family heritage and future."

The Illinois farm families hosting the city moms program are communicating that sentiment. They are sharing their concern for that heritage and allowing us, the ‘city moms’ to see firsthand how that concern influences their livelihood.  Regardless of the number of generations we are removed from the farm, we all continue to be connected to the land by the food we eat. We are developing a deeper understanding of the work and the heritage, our connection to it and each other.

Brookfield, IL

Angie 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.

Jun 08 2015

McGrew Farm: A day in the life.

Beautiful view this spring (2015) from our pasture!  iPhone photo at that :)
Our cows & their calves were happy to be at the pasture - as was I!

Originally posted on Outside the Ag Room.

Good Hope, IL

Alison was born and raised on a grain and livestock farm in Central Illinois and now resides on a farm where she, her husband and their two children raise beef cattle. Alison and her husband both have full-time jobs off the farm that are directly related to agriculture. Alison is a former high school agriculture teacher, as well. You can learn more about their farm on Alison's blog Outside the Ag Room.

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