Farming is more about who we are rather than what we do.

Illinois Farm Families Blog

Jun 11 2015

Five Things That I Leaned About Farming & Technology

I garden.

And what I do is small potatoes compared to some.

I have a plot of land that is 20x30 in my back yard that we grow vegetables in.  It's banked by a few mulberry bushes and some "wild" (as in we did not plant them) black cap raspberries.

My goal, every year, is to grow, harvest and preserve what we will have on our Thanksgiving table and can enough tomatoes to last us one full year.  Some years are better than others.  Last year sucked. 

So, when I had the opportunity to experience how a real farmer plants for production, I jumped at the opportunity.  Because - technology, and COOL! and...wait, I get to sit in a tractor?  SCORE.

My perception of the area farmer, who literally lives about 15 minutes south of me, has been that of lacking technology and rural.  So, yeah, that's my profiling in a nutshell. 

I got to spend the day at the Meyer & Saathoff Family Farm in Manteno.  They are a 1200 acre corn & soybean farm.  This specific farm has been operating, in some fashion, for over 100 years.  Here are some things that I learned regarding farming and technology. 

1) GPS

They are using GPS to plot out their planting, taking into account the soil types and land topography to determine what, if anything, should be planted to guarantee a better crop yield.  Overall this equates to lower food prices.  If field corn is more efficiently grown, then anything that requires it will be cheaper.  We live in the bread basket of the world and food is so accessible and cheap, advanced technology being used in agricultural is one reason why. 

So, picture a football field.  Lets pretend that we are going to plant some corn on it.  But wait, there is a water shed area that runs through the field.  That's not a great place to plant corn, the water will wash the seed away or expose it for an animal to eat it.  But, we don't want to leave it bear.  We will loose all of the top soil.  Ah, lets plant some grass there.  It'll keep the top soil intact and slow the water run off when it rains. 
The GPS devise on the tractor can take that into consideration and then plant the corn seeds for maximum yield.

2) Isolation

The farm that we visited planted soybean and field corn for use in animal feed.  I got to touch the seeds and see them in the planting hoppers on the back of the tractor. Visually, I likened the colorful seeds to comparing a regular aspirin to one that is coated to not hurt while it's dissolving.  It's coated with "stuff" for a reason.  By coating the seeds prior to planting farmers are managing their crop for the whole season.  They are encapsulated with fertilizer and nutrients, and pest and weed prevention is done at the planting level, not across the field by randomly spraying.

The process of crop production starts 18 months in advance of planting.  What will be planted and which seeds will be used.  The goal of the farm we visited was for 250 bushels of corn to be produced per acre.   

By taking care of the soil health on the farm crop production can be managed through genetics and technology.  Application of anything to the plant is specific and isolated.  This allows less chemicals being applied to the soil for GMO crop production. 

3) Precision

Taking the soil makeup into consideration (is it too loose here, a little harder here) the seeds are planted at exactly the right depth around April 15th so that harvest can happen around Labor Day. Root production and plant growth are taken into consideration when doing this.

This precision can also be seen by the fact that soil samples are taken to produce a "report card of the soil" for effective production of crop and application of nutrients and fertilizer.
Again, this idea of a farmer being sloppy, ignorant or haphazard in spray application is being nullified for me. 

4) GMOs (why?)

Well, at this specific farm the farmer, Nick, said "Farmers have the weather and the stock market left to chance.  GMO sees are "insured" with propagation rate to guarantee a crop."

We learned that GMO seeds are being produced not just for pest resistance, but for crop production through environmental issues (think drought). 

It's this specific topic, about GMO seeds, where I kind of hit a wall.  I understand everything that I'm learning about GMO's, but I still question - just because you can, should you?   ...and, I don't know.

I do know this, though. There are currently only 8 crops commercially grown from GMO seeds in the US: corn (field & sweet), soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash. 
*amending to note that I was informed that there are two additional crops that are also grown from GMO seeds, Arctic Apples and Innate Potatoes (5/28/15)*

Now, I want you to pause for a moment, you know all those labels at the grocery store that are saying they are GMO free?  Weren't they to begin with?  This is not as an extensive of a list as I thought.  Is what you and I are seeing in the grocery store advertising or nutritional information? 

5) Advanced Technology

So, farming went from feeding the farm, or back when the Constitution was written you needed something like 19 farmers to feed their families plus one more person. To a time when farming and ranching is at about 2% of the population, and it's now a global market.  Obviously, technology has played a real role in this progress. 
There is a real need for passion in the field of technology and wanting to help farmers utilize it.  Nick had mentioned how cool it would be to use drones in agricultural.  Not only to monitor crop production, but also to spot apply nutrients and pesticides.  The ability to micro manage the fields is being sought. 

What I left with after this tour was a desire to learn more about the need for agricultural technology and how important technology is in farming.  The fact that farmers are using IPads and GPS to help them better manage their fields totally shoots my idea of some guy in overalls reading the Farmer's Almanac to figure out the right time to plant. 

It was a very educational and enlightening experience. It was interesting to really see how many "hats" a farmer wears and what really goes into managing a farm.  But, at the root of it all that "(this) farm is more than land and crops.  It is our family heritage and future."  There is something comforting to me in this statement.

Originally posted on Stephanie's blog, Educational Anarchy.

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 04 2015

Cultivating Work Ethic

Our corn and soybean tour was on a cloudy, humid, warm day in early May. We visited the Meyer and Saathoff Farm and were greeted by several members of the extended farm family, including Nick and Missy Saathoff, the owners, both of their sets of parents, Missy’s brother, his wife and their children. In their introductions I was surprised to hear that everyone had jobs outside of their farm work. Nate is also a representative for a seed company, Missy is a teacher, her brother is a banker, and his wife works in a laboratory. Everyone in the family was taking on so many ‘additional’ farm responsibilities on top of their ‘day’ jobs. This work ethic and motivation was also clearly seen in the children of this farming family. 

While the farm is primarily corn, soybean, and wheat they maintain a small number of cattle, both beef and dairy as a ‘hobby’ to help with grazing of pasture and development of fertilizer for the fields. The beef cattle and heifers are show animals which are cared for primarily by the children. They take on a great deal of responsibility in maintaining these animals. As one of the girls, who was 16 years old, was telling me about her heifer, it was obvious that she takes a huge amount of pride in her work. They show these animals and auction them for a fair amount of money. Even the younger children have some sheep that they help take care of so that they can learn before they move on to the larger animals as they get older. 

I was impressed at the level of independence and responsibility that the children I met on the farm tour demonstrated. Farming is more than food production; it is developing a strong work ethic in the next generations.  

Jyotsna Jagai
Grove, IL

Jyotsna 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 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 18 2015

What I saw on a hog farm

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the Gould Family Farm with The Illinois Farm Families’ City Moms Tour.  The Gould Family’s farm is considered a farrow to wean hog farm, which means they care for sows during pregnancy, birth, and through the piglets weaning period.  The Gould’s care for about 750 sows that produce 16,000-17,000 piglets a year!  

Going into the tour, my greatest concern was the idea of the gestational stall.  A gestational stall is the method in which a sow is kept during the farrowing (birthing) and nursing period.  The sow is kept fairly stationary without the ability to turn and 100% indoors.  I was very concerned as to whether this is a humane way to keep the animal.  I was pretty sure I was going to be upset with the living arrangements that I was about to encounter, but I was wrong.  To be very honest, I did not even notice the gestational stalls at first.  What I did notice was the incredible size of these sows!  They are huge, and their babies are small, and their litters are large.  Together this make for a menacing problem, the sows can smash the babies.  When I saw the function of the stall, which allows the sows to lie down and nurse their litters without the risk of overlaying, I was relieved.  These stalls suddenly seemed humane, as opposed to inhumane.  The sows did not behave as though they were stressed and the piglets sure seemed happy.  The Gould Family discussed a bit about the history of hog farming and why their animals are kept indoors.  It is in the best interest of the hog.  The sows are given all the nutrition they need, carefully looked over, and protected from the elements.

I left the Gould Family Farm feeling better about hog farming than before.  After watching their interaction with the animals, and listening to their story, I know that their animals are being raised respectfully and humanely.  

Vicky Webb
Des Plaines, IL

Vicky 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 14 2015

Curiosity Turns Into Knowledge on the Hog Farm

I wasn’t really sure what to expect for my day on the hog farm tour as a City Mom with Illinois Farm Families but I was very curious. As I thought about it, I realized about the only thing I knew about pigs were that I liked pork and the slogan out there that calls it  “ the other white meat”, I also realized I had images of Charlotte’s Web in my mind and secretly hoped I got to hold a baby pig!

The Gould Family Farm that we visited raises about 16,000 piglets annually and specializes in the breeding, pregnancy and birthing of piglets. As the day progressed my curiosity turned into knowledge that I am so thankful for. I learned so many things it would be hard to fit it into one blog post but my biggest take away from this day was how passionate these farmers are about the health, care and comfort of their hogs as well as the safety of our food supply.

I had never heard the word biosecurity before this tour but learned that it is a protocol to follow to prevent the spread of disease among the herds.  Before we could enter the barn, we had to put on special coveralls, hair nets and plastic boots and upon entering the barn stepped into a disinfecting boot bath. This prevents the herd from be exposed to anything we might bring into the barn.   

The pigs are housed inside in a climate controlled environment, which even has a back-up generator so the pigs are always comfortable, even in the event of a power outage. Pigs that are outside are susceptible to predators, disease and the elements. On this farm, pigs are housed in gestational stalls where they have constant access to clean food and water, are safe and their health can be individually monitored. Just before a sow gives birth she is moved to a farrowing stall which helps prevents her little piglets from being accidentally crushed and gives the piglets access to extra warmth.

The only time a pig is given an antibiotic is when it is sick and needs it to get better. A pig that has been given an antibiotic will not go to market until that antibiotic is clear of it’s system.

I was also impressed by the fact that a company like Hormel actually does studies and implements protocols to make the process of going to market as stress free as possible for the pigs.

So I walked away that day with a new appreciation for and understanding of all that a hog farmer does to ensure we have healthy, high-quality pork. And if you were curious, yes, I did get to hold an adorable baby pig!

Anita Mann
Naperville, IL

Anita 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.
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 11 2015

Family Run Hog Farm is Producer of Choice Pork

There’s something about a farm that is just so calming and relaxing. I had the opportunity to spend a recent Saturday with a group of fellow City Mom bloggers on a farm tour. The sun was shining brightly in a clear, blue sky as a cool breeze flowed across the fields. It was a serene scene as our bus pulled in for our visit to Gould Farms in Maple Park, Illinois.

Our introduction to pork production came from Chris Gould, a member of the third generation of Goulds to work at the breeding and farrowing facility that houses about 750 sows. He explained the size of their operation, the gestational timeline from inseminating to weaning and what types of food products result from their efforts.

Having toured a large scale pig farm last year, I had a bit of an understanding of the process of the pigs being artificially inseminated, giving birth in gestational crates and being kept in an indoor facility. While there are critics of the method in favor of hogs living a free-range environment, the benefits and advantages of such an operation are clear. An indoor climate-controlled environment creates cleaner, safer, less-stressed animals, which, in turn, leads to a better product. Many of the piglets born at their farm become tenderloin and other choice cuts.

With my previous pig farm tour being a big operation, I was pleasantly surprised that this one, which Gould's father, Eldon, described as a "medium sized" pig farm is a family operation and one in which the Goulds take great pride in. Over 3,000 acres of the farm are also used for growing corn, balance soybeans and wheat, as well. A fourth generation of the Gould family is now working there and everyone has their niche (i.e. Gould's sister is a veterinarian who helps to provide care to the animals and his mother works in the office tracking each sow and piglet on paper.)

The family was so welcoming and accommodating, opening their home to us, serving up homemade goodies after lunch and even giving us a parting gift of hand made soap using goat's milk from a neighboring farm. 

Although the day was all about pork and how it gets from a farm to our table - and everything in between - my biggest takeaway of the day was the notion that behind the food products we purchase in grocery stores, there are still family farms run by good people like the Goulds that are alive and well and thriving.

Originally posted on Chicago Foodie Sisters.

Carrie Steinweg
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.

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 16 2015

My Day at Goulds Pig Farm

We were bused off to the Gould Family Farm near DeKalb, Illinois  where Three generations of the Gould family generously opened their home and farm business to help educate the City Moms about pigs and farming. 

The Gould’s farm grows corn, soybeans and wheat, in addition to the  750 sows (female pigs) that they care for. Their farm focuses on the breeding, gestation, and farrowing (birthing) of piglets. They raise 16,000 piglets annually to be sent on to finishing farms. These pigs are owned by corporations and contracted to finishing farms where, when the piglets are weened from their mother and ready to eat solid food (18 days), they are grown to market weight of about 280 pounds each. Then they are sold to Harvesters (slaughter houses, in my day) who process and package the meat to be sold in the markets and grocery stores. 

The Goulds use the “gestation crate” method at their farm. There  are rows and rows of sow mammas in “hog slats” that had litters of 10-12 piglets text to them under heat lamps (piglets like it hot - 85 degrees). The moms could stand up, lie face forward, but barely lie on their sides and could not turn around or move around anywhere in the “crate”. This seemed so uncomfortable.

It was explained, by the Goulds, that these crates were the safest for the piglets. The piglets could not get squished by mom , Gould could implement proper feeding portions for each sow, health status conditions could be constantly monitored (they had personal chart cards for each animal they owned), and they could secure the general safety of the sows from other sows, - no fights. 

But this raises the question - IS IT HUMANE? I believe that this  comes down to personal choice. None of the animals were dirty, didn't look “unhappy” and were very safe and secure. I believe that, if enough people choose not to purchase and eat pork that has been raised in a gestation crate, it will force the farms to transition which will come with a price to the farmers and then eventually to the consumer. It will cost more for the farmers to group the sows into gestation groups according to what they eat, their behavior, etc. You can read more about this at look under the Management to Control Aggression in Group Housing article. 

Everyone wants to feel that they are purchasing pork that has been  raised as “Happy Pigs”. But really - how is it possible to be “happy” when a sows whole life’s purpose is to mass produce piglets? Let’s face it, these animals are raised for food, they are not our pets. It’s choice of how we feel would be the best environment. For the Goulds, they choose gestation crates because they feel that is the most cost effective, clean, safe controlled environment that they can create in order to do THEIR Job of producing piglets. 

Europe has banned the use of gestation stalls since 2013. Public pressure is the driving force behind outlawing the crates. Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, harvesters, are encouraging farmers to transition away from the use of crates due to this pressure. 

Therefore, like I said, it all comes down to personal choice. Farmers and Harvester and Producers of pork are doing what they feel is the “right” choice to produce the best product they can. Their families rely on their business to raise their families and supply food. 

Personal Choice - I didn't eat the pork for lunch - did you? (The rest  of the family loves Ham!!)

Kyle Cooper Rogel
Gurnee, IL

Kyle 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.