Illinois Farm Families Blog

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
Jan 12 2015

From Farm to Table: Milk’s Journey

Did you know that it only takes 48 hours for milk to get from the cow to the store?

This fall, I was able to see the entire process of how milk travels from the farm to the store. We always grab a gallon of milk when we are grocery shopping. I love drinking milk! As a milk drinker, this farm tour was fascinating! I visited with Dale and Linda Drendel in Northern Illinois and was able to see the whole milking process.

The Drendels have dairy farming in their blood; both of their families have been farming for generations. Their dairy farm, Lindale Holsteins, has mostly Holstein cows. They are the black and white cows you may think of when you think of a dairy cow. A cow needs to have a calf before she is a milking cow. Her milk production peaks 40 to 60 days after a calf is born, and then her milk production slowly decreases.


The Drendels milk their cows twice a day; early in the morning, and then at about 4:00 in the afternoon. The cows are trained to go into the milking parlor. They line up outside the door, quietly waiting their turn to be milked. Once the cows walk to their spot in the milking parlor, the farmers clean the cows’ udders, and then place a milking machine on the cows’ teats. Dale had me put my thumb in one of the milkers; the suction was very gentle on my thumb. The milk is collected in large glass containers and sent to a cooler through stainless steel pipes to be cooled down to 38 degrees as quickly as possible.

A refrigerated tanker truck picks up the milk from the cooler and takes it to the milk processing plant. At the plant, the milk goes through several tests before it is even allowed to leave the truck. These tests include screening for bacteria and antibiotics. The milk is then put into a refrigerated raw milk silo. I was lucky enough to be able to visit a Dean’s processing plant in Huntley, Illinois, to see milk being prepared for its trip to the grocery store. (I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures inside the plant, due to security reasons.


At the processing plant, several things happen to the milk. A very important step is pasteurization. There are several different forms of pasteurization, and most of the milk we see in the store is heated to 168 degrees for 25 seconds. This kills harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. Think about that temperature for a second. I steam my vegetables at a higher temperature and for longer than 25 seconds, and yet I don’t lose all of the nutritional value vegetables have to offer. Most of the nutrients in milk are not affected by the pasteurization process. One vitamin that is affected by pasteurization is Vitamin C. However, milk is not a good source of Vitamin C anyway. Milk provides plenty of other nutrients that are important for our bodies. Not only does milk provide calcium, it also provides Vitamin D, riboflavin, phosphorus, protein, potassium, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, and niacin. The milk is also fortified with extra Vitamin A and Vitamin D.


During the homogenization process, the milk fat is broken up into tiny particles and spread evenly throughout the milk. Homogenization keeps the cream from rising to the top of the milk as it sits in your refrigerator, and does not affect the nutritional value of milk.


At the Dean’s processing plant, they make the plastic jugs right on the premises. After the milk is put into the gallon jugs, it is trucked directly to stores such as Jewel and Walmart. Milk has a short shelf life of about 16-20 days, and so the sooner it is on the shelves, the better it is for us as consumers.

We love to have milk in our cereal or to drink it out of a glass. I use milk for cooking and baking, and one of my favorite snacks is popcorn and milk! Does your family drink milk? What part of the milking process would you like to know more about?

Originally posted on Lemon Drop Pie.

Christa Grabske
Mount Prospect, Illinois

Christa was part of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Mom class. Throughout the year she visited Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers. Read more from Christa on her blog, Lemon Drop Pie.

Jan 05 2015

That Christmas Ham You’re Going to Eat; What do you Know About It?

Last year, I did something that I never imagined I would do in my adult life. I volunteered to go to a pig farm to see where all of the wonderful pork that the Houseful loves to consume comes from. It was definitely something that I think every person who does consume meat products to do. Whatever way you fall after visiting is totally on you. Either way, it was educational, and even a lot more enjoyable than I anticipated.

Boy did I get an eye AND nose full! It was definitely a sensory overload in the olfactory, auditory, and visual sense. I’m glad that I went though, and was able to learn so much about the forms of pork that I do eat. Getting to know the pork farmers wasn’t half bad either. Their penchant for hog farming was strong. The love of it radiated from the dad all the way down to the smallest farm baby.

As part of my participation in the Illinois Farm Families, I visited the hog farm of Steve Ward and his family in Sycamore, Illinois. I wasn’t entirely sure of what we were in for, but I was open to the fact that I would learn something. You always should be, correct? I’m eternally grateful to Steve and his family, including his very gracious father and mother, for opening up their farm to us.

On the bus to the farm, we were given a talk by a couple of the farmers who were along with us on general farming concepts. Acreage (did you know that an acre is roughly the same size of a football field?) and the massive amounts that lot of farmers have. We’re talking 1200 acres of land to take care of on a daily basis. I think that I would faint with just one acre of land, and these families are taking care of 1200. Steve even let us know that if he worked from sun up to sun down during planting season, he would be able to get through one hundred acres of land. Catch me now as I faint from exhaustion. I did get to pretend to drive a tractor. The thing is massive. Literally. One wheel is taller than I am, and the cabin is so far off the ground that those of us who are a little afraid of heights may not deal well, but we pretend and take a photo anyway.

The learning process started immediately. We were told that Steve’s farm was a wean to to finish hog farm (meaning, they get pigs that have been weaned from their mothers and raise them until it’s time for them to be processed.) for Illini Farms. He has four hog houses – two for the smaller pigs, and two for pigs that are about 75 pounds and over. If you should ever get to this farm, as they do tours and the such, make sure you ask Steve how to wrangle a pig. It’s quite an art. It kind of reminds me of the way that I wrestle one of my children who has just been bathed and been told that it is now time for bed. Yeah, that.

One thing that most city people would not really be prepared for would be the smell. It hits you before you even step foot in the door, however when you enter, you wonder where it’s coming from since the pens are literally spotless. Well thanks to modern innovation, the pens all have slotted flooring, so that all urine and fecal matter can drop into an 8 foot pit and not contaminate any of the pigs food. If you’re thinking that they shouldn't care about the food being contaminated since it’s all slop anyway, you would be wrong my bacon-loving friends. The food is delivered in a timing system, and consists of grains such as corn, soy and wheat. They eat from stainless steel troughs and they are quite happy with it. The smell did stay with me for a few days. From my biology class memory, I know this is because the scents had embedded themselves into my lipids. When we asked Steve about this, and his wife, they both stated that it’s not really that noticeable to them. However, if she is away from him all day, she can certainly notice a scent.

I do remember learning when I was younger that pigs were social animals. I found out that my teacher did indeed know what they were talking about. As soon as our group walked through the doors, the pigs were pretty excited to come and interact with us. They also followed Steve around as he walked through the pens randomly petting or checking them. He did inform us that they are very careful not to refer to the pigs as pets, because then a connection is created that’s pretty tough to break once they have to go and be processed. While we’re talking about processing pigs, I was as relieved as can be by the actual processing process if you will. You don’t want any of the meat that you are going to ingest to go through any levels of stress when being slaughtered (the real word for processing) since it will toughen it up and make it nearly impossible to sell. I remember my aunt in Mississippi explaining that to me back in the day when she let me know that some ham hocks that I was enjoying came from the pig that I had just seen last year. She told me that you don’t want those pigs frightened, otherwise you have to wait a day or two until they calm down so that their meat can be tender for eating.

So when you’re picking out that ham for your Christmas dinner this year, know that it was processed by hardworking men and women getting up at the crack of dawn to make sure that everything is perfect. While I know that I’m a bacon lover, and pork chops, and heck – pork shoulder butt, I’ll be thinking the same thing.

The things that I really enjoyed learning were:

  • The pigs are kept in climate controlled housing instead of outside to fare in the very random Illinois weather.
  • Pigs are fed a diet that consists of grains and not random slop
  • Pig pens are not messy in the least. They are formatted to make sure that the pigs have sanitary areas to eat, sleep and live in.
  • Overcrowding is not an issue on this farm. All pens have more than enough room to allow the pigs to roam around as necessary.
  • The “processing” of the pigs are done with as little stress as possible. No electricity and no knives (which is what I always thought.)
  • Farmers realize that food must come from somewhere, and everyone is not going to be a vegetarian. They want to make sure that those who do consume pork products, are given the best product that they can find.
  • Pig scent stays with you for a couple of days. I know that Mr. Houseful loves me, because he kissed me BEFORE telling me that I was smelly.
Natasha Nicholes
Chicago, IL

This blog originally appeared in Natasha's blog, Houseful of Nicholes, on
Dec 20, 2014.

Jan 02 2015

New Year, More Food-Conscience

As the holidays wind down and the pace slows a bit, I find this time of year to always be one of detox and self-reflection. As the calendar prepares to turn over to the next year, we all try to think more mindfully about our goals for the year ahead and how we can best make those happen. One of the ways that my husband and I have decided to tackle our 2015 goals is to be more conscientious about our food choices. Not just in what we ingest, but to learn more about the process and how the food gets to our table. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be an Illinois Field Mom, but the education and learning doesn't stop there and I’m hoping to tackle some of the tough questions in 2015.

As a mom of these two little misters and a husband who’s focused on his own health after discovering a history of health problems, we know that we have to fill these bodies up with food that fuels them and making health a priority for us in 2015 is key. Here are a few of the things that we are planning to focus on this year:

How can we support farmers and their families this upcoming year?

What are some great recipes I can share with my family and others using farm-grown ingredients with as little processing as possible?

How can we become involved in a local CASA or other homegrown support for farmers through our produce purchases? Think Farmer’s Markets.

How can I feature a farm family on my blog and give them a forum for questions to be answered?

If you had questions for the farming community, what would they be? Share in the comments and I’ll see what I can do about getting the answers to those!

We are looking forward to a wonderful Happy New Year in 2015 and taking some much needed steps to make sure our health and wellness stays on track! What are your hopes and dreams for 2015?

Samantha Schultz
Indian Head Park

Dec 01 2014

Christmas Traditions from the Prescott Family

For our family the holidays are definitely catered around food, family and fun and when December rolls around it is hard to determine who is the most excited about the holiday season in our home. We talk about all things Christmas and make sure our children embrace the reason for the season. In addition to numerous days of decorating the house we also take advantage of baking as much as we can or in my children's case, getting the kitchen as dirty as they can. That is how real memories are made, right?

Some of my favorite childhood memories consist of the hours we spent in the kitchen as a family decorating and eating cookies. Each year after all the baking was finished there was also such an excitement we had about delivering a plate of cookies to someone special. I am so happy to make these memories with my children now because there really is no better smell during the holidays than that of fresh baked cookies and no better feeling than to give to others.  

We especially love the smell of cinnamon, so gingerbread houses are one of the traditions we all take part in each year. It is hard to go wrong with a tradition that includes cookies, frosting and candy. As my girls get a little older each year we add more candy to our houses and a few less pieces to our mouths, and in my mind that is pure progress and a tradition that will continue on for years to come!

Sara Prescott, Springfield, IL

Nov 04 2014

Top Farming Myths According to this City Mom

Back in 2013 the Illinois Farm Families team accepted applications for City Moms (formerly called Field Moms.) The City Moms project took city and suburban moms from Chicago to local farms to learn about farming. From the first until my last tour this past weekend, I collected common farming myths.  Below are the most common myths either I had or learned from others.     

Myth: The family farm is dead. 

Nationwide, 93% of farms are family owned - individuals, family partnerships or family corporations.  Source: USDA.   

Myth: Seed corporations dictate what farmers grow.  

Farmers run their farm like any other profitable business. Farmers research, ask questions and made an informed decision on what seeds will thrive in their fields. The seed companies ultimately works for the farmer since they must prove how their product performs. The signs alongside the field advertise to other farmers what seed company's product were planted in that acre.

Myth: Farmers are rich since they own lots of land.

Every farmer I asked rented most of their land. To stay competitive and support a growing family business farmers are forced to expand by renting land from neighbors. Farmland is very expensive and some portions of the country face losing precious farmland to development. 

Myth: GMOs are not safe.

Do you know what are GMOs?  If not, you are not alone.  GMOs stand for Genetically Modified Organisms.  The USDA and FDA support their use with over 20 years of scientific research of GMOs in our food supply. The FDA states they are safe from "unreasonable risks of harm to human health or the environment." 

I have not made up my mind on GMOs. What I do know is they are safer for farmers and the family members who live near fields where GMOs are planted. A great video where two farmers and a seed salesman talk about why they chose GMOs can be found here. (I am in the closing shot of this video in the blue shirt.)   

Myth: All meat is filled with hormones making girls develop early.

The USDA has very strictest regulation on our meat supply. When was the last time you heard of a nationwide meat recall? Before any animal can enter the food supply, the farm's paperwork must prove any antibiotics given the animal have cleared the meat. Veterinarians and farmers work closely to ensure if any antibiotics were given that the correct withdraw period has passed. Evidence shows America's growing waistline is the cause for girls to develop early not the meat supply. There is no scientific research linking meat and girls development.      

Myth: Farming and farmers have not changed since the invention of the tractor.   

Farming has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Today, farmers use technology to grow more food on less land. A few examples include: GPS in the tractor for precise planting, iPads to gauge the immediate moisture content of a harvested crop in real time, soil testing for precise fertilizer spread, drones to monitor field development and many other advances.  A view of what a farmer's day in the near future according to John Deer.  Farmers are also a highly educated group. A record number of Ag-related undergraduate and master degrees are growing. There is also a strong movement of young farmers starting their own business after a few years off their family farms.   

Myth: Farmers are greedy. 

They do not care about their animals or land. Farmers need to be good stewards to the land and the animals they manage. If an animal is not cared for properly a cow will not give milk or grow large enough to bring to market. When the land is neglected or polluted, crops do not grow to the optimum yield.  It is good business to be good stewards.   

Fact: The US Food supply is the safest, abundant, affordable food supply the world has ever known.

Heard a myth about farming and want to know the facts? Ask away.  I can have the right person respond. 

Sharon Blau, Des Plaines

Sharon 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 experience on these farms, including five things they found most interesting. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers.

Sep 12 2014

Waiting for harvest

Photo courtesy of Karen Kenny-Oles, Dixon

We are currently getting ready for harvest. The crop “is what it is” at this point and no amount of crop protectants, fertilizer or scouting will make any additional difference at this point. 

This “lull” after late-August through mid-September is a good time to prepare for harvest, catch-up on “honey-do’s” and do the projects that are important but not imminent like most seasonal work on the farm (think planting or scouting—you do that when Mother Nature tells you, other important projects that aren’t weather sensitive get pushed to this time of year).  It’s also a great time to start initial plans for the next crop year, thinking about purchasing inputs (if you haven’t already) and preparing a plan of attack.  It’s early, but as Eisenhower once said “Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.”

As we prepare for harvest, we have equipment to maintain.  Big jobs are already done, but oil changes, lubrication, and wear item inspections are performed.  And calibrations for sensors and computers are needed too so that in-season, our data during harvest is accurate.  We have a scale on our auger cart (this is a special wagon that moves grain from the combine—which harvests our crop in the field—to the truck for transportation).  Last year we performed calibrations, but didn’t verify them against certified scales.  We were subsequently halfway through harvest before we realized that we were had a 7% scale error.  It was easy to fix, but it’s much EASIER to get it right the first time!  We have a semi-tractor and trailer, tractor and auger cart, combine with corn and soybean “heads” for cutting the crops, tandem truck, tractor and wagon, auger and 200,000 bushels of grain storage to prepare.  This is a common setup for corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest, with an infinite number of variations in size and types of equipment.  We also will lease out a strip-till fertilizer applicator so it will be prepared for us.  Strip till means that we are injecting the fertilizer in a band 4-7” deep in the soil.  It means that the fertilizer stays where the crop roots are, rather than following rain runoff into streams.  It also means that we’re only tilling the soil in a narrow band 8” wide.  So most of our fields aren’t exposed for soil erosion.  It’s a more expensive process, but one that is ultimately better for the farm economically and environmentally—win-win.  This year, we’re also for the first time experimenting with cover crops.  Cover crops are grown to simply cover the soil when it’s not being used by the cash crops.  Think of it this way—a cover crop “covers” the soil so that it doesn’t erode.  They also increase the organic matter of the soil, create a healthy environment for earthworms and beneficial bacteria and fungi, and suppress many weeds we fight on the farm.  Lastly, they sequester (ie. Gather up) excess nutrients that the cash crop couldn’t fully utilize.  This dramatically reduces runoff into our streams.  We are excited about this new process and hope it works out on our farm!

But this “lull” is also great for the projects that don’t get addressed during the busy crop season.  For us, we’re going to spend more time on our specialty hull-less popcorn venture.  Check us out at  We will be thinking about automation and facility construction—capital investments that will make us more cost competitive by letting us scale up production AND preserving our focus on quality.  These are fun projects because, when I’m walking corn fields, I don’t have time to just sit and think.  And investments like this require lots of planning—but it means a good return on investment AND a deeper sense of meaning (I enjoy the fact that projects like these make my farm better for my son and family).  While this is certainly unique to most Midwestern farmers, the fact that we’re in “project-mode” this time of year is quite common.  It’s where a summer of research starts to be addressed by more deliberate thought and action.

Finally, I’m also thinking about next crop year.  Given the dramatic decline in corn and soybean prices of the past year (and especially last two years), there could be opportunities for young farmers if older farmers consider retirement.  But the margins are also dramatically lower—with the opportunity to grow comes the risk of failure.  So, it’s good to be considering what our inputs will cost—will nitrogen fertilizer go up or down?  Will corn seed stay the same—do I need all the features in that bag?  Is my equipment portfolio large and modern enough if someone retires?  These are the preparations that need to be considered—not necessarily finalized (most retailers won’t give firm prices to lock in completely on all inputs anyway).  Once the combine starts harvesting, it’s very easy to NOT take time to check emails and watch markets—you just get into your zone and go.  As I type this, a few weeks ahead of when it will be posted, this is one of my goals in the next two weeks—have a plan that’s flexible enough for me to change, but firm enough for me to be structured to “go with the flow” during harvest!

So as you’re still getting your kids into the rhythm of the new school year, I’ll be preparing for harvest, planning my next crop, and working on special projects.  There really isn’t a down-time on the farm—just times when the work can be pushed back a day or two and Mother Nature isn’t making your schedule.  

Andrew Bowman
Oneida, Illinois

Andrew is a fifth generation Illinois farmer. He and his wife Karlie have one son, Ryker, and farm with Andrew’s parents, Lynn and Sally Bowman, in addition to serving farmers through insurance and consulting enterprises.

Aug 31 2014

Food For Thought: Farming Is in Our Genes

Do you have questions about food and farming? Check out our FAQ page to learn more, or Ask a Question of your own. And for more Food for Thought posts, visit this section.

Aug 25 2014

Show Mom Diaries: The Empty Halter

Oh, you never forget that moment.

That moment your first steer is loaded onto the semi, and you’re handed that empty halter.

That dreaded, empty halter.

Maybe he was a sweetheart. Maybe he was a knot head. But as you carry that empty halter back to your stalls – now missing that animal once part of your barn for months – things are different.

And you’re forever changed.

No matter how many years pass, you always remember that first steer.

For me, it was Tremor the Angus steer. I was 8. For months, we worked together in our Hillsboro, Texas, barn. We grew together and with each show we attended, I learned a bit more about what it took to be a showman.

I was young. Everything was new. And my 8-year-old self never fully grasped what we had accomplished during our final show of the year – capturing the Champion Angus Steer title at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and showing in the Astrodome during a rodeo break for grand champion honors.

We weren’t named grand champion. But Tremor was the champion of champions to me.

Mom and dad prepared me as best they could for what was to come, and Tremor sold in the sale of champions.

The buyers were generous. And the experience was incredible.

But then it was time for Tremor to be loaded onto the semi. And dad returned with that empty halter.

And I wasn’t as prepared as I had thought.

I cried myself to sleep for several nights. And finally, dad sat me down for a chat. He said he knew it was tough. But showing steers would always result in that end. And if I wanted to continue, I’d have to come to terms with that fact.

So I did.

Oh, I cried a bit every year. But I never allowed myself to get quite as attached to another steer after that first year.

Waylon and Lightning learned from each other during Waylon's first year of 4-H.

Our son, Waylon, reached 4-H age this year. And when he and my husband, Craig, found “the one” in an online sale, we purchased him. And Waylon’s first steer, Lightning, entered the barn.

Craig and I knew we needed to be proactive.

We had many talks with him and little brother, Nolan, about the role steers play in feeding the world. That we must take the best care possible of these animals while they’re in our care. And when it’s time, we must say good-bye, knowing it’s their time to fulfill their greater purpose.

Waylon and Lightning made the trip together to local and state shows, and to the Junior National Hereford Expo in Harrisburg, PA. Each show, growing and learning from each other. Each show, improving.

And finally, we ventured to our county fair – Lightning’s final outing.

They had a great final show, with Lightning capturing Champion Hereford Steer honors. He and Waylon worked as a team.

Then sale day arrived. Oh, that dreaded sale day.

Waylon, our often-rational child, handled it very matter-of-factly. To him, this was simply the way it worked. This is why we had a steer, and it was his time. (He gets that rational side from his dad. No doubt.)

But Nolan had many questions about where Lightning was headed and how the process worked. And Craig and I did our best to answer the questions honestly and with care.

So Waylon entered the sale ring with Lightning. And when the auctioneer’s chant was finished, Lightning was sold.

Craig led Lightning to the trailer destined for the sale barn, and the boys said their good-byes.

Two entered the trailer. And Craig exited – with the empty halter in hand.

Cattle teach our children so many incredible life lessons. Some more difficult than others.

But the greatest lesson Lightning taught our boys? That even at the young ages of 9 and 6, our boys can help feed the world. And they emerged proud to play a small role in that enormous responsibility.

They’re already making plans for next year’s steer. And they’re ready to do it again.

Without a doubt, though, they’ll always remember Lightning.

You just never forget that first steer.

Originally posted August 14, 2014, on Drovers Cattle Network.

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