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.
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.