Illinois Farm Families Blog

Dec 02 2013

Farming is a Family Affair

As a field mom for the Western Illinois Farm Families, this past month, the Thomas Family welcomed us onto their family farm to show us around, educate us about crop production, answer any and all questions and give us a true hands-on experience!

The Thomas farm, like so many other farms across Illinois, is truly a family affair. John and Debbie Thomas farm the 5,000+ acre farm with their two sons. Their sons, Jeremy and Jason, live on the adjacent land with their families. I love how John said each day starts with a morning meeting over a cup of his house, of course! Here, I found a farming family who was focused on providing the safest, best quality product possible.


One of my favorite parts of the tour was when I was given the opportunity to drive the combine! It was a little intimidating. This machinery was not only massive in size, but also full of technology. This technology provides the farmers with all kinds of information, like the moisture of the crops, so they can harvest at the optimal time for optimal results. Meeting the farmers and getting a glimpse of the hard work that they do was a wonderful experience!

I have already learned so much from these tours. It's a great opportunity, and I'm excited about being further involved!

Jessica Moon
Quincy, Illinois

Nov 27 2013

Quincy Mom Learns About Today's Hog Farms

As a field mom for the Western Illinois Farm Families, I recently had the opportunity to take a farm tour to a hog farm in Carthage, Illinois to learn about pork production. Our hog farm tour was nothing like I a good way! On the farm, I saw first-hand the care the farmers give to the farrowing sow and the piglets. Before even stepping onto the property we had to wear protective booties and then had to shower in before entering the facility where the sows are giving birth. Health and safety were high on their priority list and seeing that just assured me that the pork I feed my family is of good quality.

Jessica Moon
Quincy, Illinois

Oct 26 2013

Larson Tour Recap: Learning About Different Farming Perspectives

The Fields of Choice

Along the edge of route 88 lies a corn field in Maple Park. Down the road from that corn field is a house. In that house are some farmers. One day those farmers made a choice. The choice was to comfortably grow their crops using GMO seeds. Their names are Mike and Lynn Martz.

In a town called Malta roughly 19 miles west of the Martz Family is another field. Down the road from that field is another house. In that house are some farmers. One day those farmers made a choice. The choice was to comfortably grow their crops organically. Their names are Randy and Louise Willrett.

Randy and Louise and their 6 children changed their method of farming in the early 90’s. “I don’t believe GMO‘s were tested the way it should have been. We as a nation have consumed GMO crops in the last 10 years.” According to Randy, when he started the organic farm in the early 90’s he thought everyone would catch on. “It just didn’t work out this way.”

The Trade Off

GMO Farming uses less fuel per acre. The farm is worked only once before planting and fertilizer and GMO seeds are used. 

Organic Farming uses more fuel per acre. The farm has to be worked 2-3 times before planting. No fertilizers or GMO seeds are used. The ground is less compacted (fluffy like walking on a mattress). An Organic Farm can take more rain and erosions are can be less of an issue. The expenses for running an Organic Farm are higher. 

That's No Bull

Mike and Lynn have what is called a custom feed yard. Mike and Lynn get paid to take care of other farmers cattle. The cows are a year old or 700 lbs. when they come to the Larson Farm. The facility must be full to keep Mike and his family running. According to Mike there is a waiting list. Only steers and heifers are accepted and not the bulls. Mike jokes that he doesn't want the attitude. Once the cattle have reached an ideal weight Mike will have 2-3 buyers and the negotiation process begins.

Less Back Fat…….Sounds Ideal

Mike showed us a variety of packages of steaks. Mike explained that when the back fat of a cow gets really thick it is an automatic discount and the farmer will get less for that carcass. Ideally there should be very little back fat and a lot of marbling. Mike said according to Dominick’s, they supply the consumer with the best beef you can buy…Select. “To me Select means you will get 1 out of 10 steaks that you are going to enjoy and the other 9 will eat like leather.” Mike joked that the grocery store will label their meat USDA inspected. He laughs, “They are all USDA inspected.” Mike compared this to the chicken commercial that their chickens were all vegetarian. “All chickens are on a vegetarian diet. It kind of gets me because it insults our intelligence.” 

Ultrasound for Cattle

An ultrasound for Mike’s cattle is just one of the extra steps he takes. The USDA grades according to the ultrasound. From the ultra sound premiums and discounts is setup for the different grades of meat. The ultra sound can find out the average weight for Mike’s group of cattle, the cost of gain and the projected price at the end of the feeding period. All the data then goes into a program. The image of the rib eye is captured and the computer will then analyze that image and measure the back fat thickness (see how much marbling is in the rib eye). Next those two measurements along with what the animal weighs will run through the computer program and it will determine how much longer Mike would need to feed that particular cow to get him to his most profitable point. In addition, cattle are weighed. Cattle that are overweight are then discounted since that means the cattle’s loin is too big. Mike explained that restaurants want loin to be smaller making it easier to chew. Mike has a nutritionist check his cattle every other month. If one of Mike’s cattle gets ill, antibiotics are given. Two weeks later the USDA tests those cattle and sets withdrawal standards. Mike says the USDA are testing his cattle all the time so if there was any trace of antibiotics they would find it. According to Mike if he gave his cattle penicillin it would show up in the cattle’s skull when it’s processed. Mike added, “First thing is they’d be back to Larson Farms and we’d be under scrutiny.”

Five Take Aways

1. When buying meat, US Choice Meat will have more flecks of flavor and cost a little more.
2. It’s good to know your butcher.
3. 98 percent of beef farmers with cattle in feed yards use hormones.
4. There is 4.3 million gallons of manure in Illinois.
5. Fat and fillers in hamburgers are what cause shrinking once they are grilled.


Christina Lee
LaGrange Park, Illinois

Christina is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share 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.

Oct 17 2013

Where's The Beef?

When told that we would be attending a cattle farm as one of our farm tours, I was really excited. I mean, how could one go about creating controversy about cattle?

Was I in for a rude awakening.

As part of our tour, the Illinois Farm Families invited organic farmer Randy Willrett and George Kalogridis, an organic certification specialist to come and speak to us about best practices when it came to organic farming in direct correlation to conventional farming. The presentation was going well until we were hit with the subject of CAFO's. I didn't realize what a HUGE elephant in the room this small acronym would be.

According to Kalogridis CAFO's are Confined Animal Feeding Operations - operations that he likened to concentration camps for four legged animals.

According to our host farm family, the Martz's and some of the farm mom's with us it stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and the Martz's qualify as being a CAFO. 

Since most of you reading this probably weren't privileged enough to be on the tour with us, I'll give you a break down from someone who isn't really on either side of the organic/GMO issue. Opinions are prevalent, and they are strong. When the subject of CAFO's came up, the room came alive at the sudden admission from Martz that HE was a CAFO because he had 1000+ head of cattle. We then kind of waited for some sort of talk back from Kalogridis which came in a form of him stating that his definition of CAFO's didn't include the Martz's farm. 

I was confused, and I kind of felt bad for this guy who was obviously between a rock and a hard place. He started painting a picture for us, and then kind of paused mid-stroke when Martz admitted to being a part of the picture he was trying to create. It was all very uncomfortable, and most of why it's so important for the conversations to continue so we don't have all of this hearsay flying everywhere.

I don't like being scared about purchasing food, and I'm sure that others don't like being made to feel that they are zealots. It's not fair. 

After the excitement died down, we did learn about ways to purchase the best cuts of meat - ribeyes being the favorite hands down, and we saw corn being harvested. Even got to ride in a combine. It was a marvelous day, even if we had some bumps. 

The five things that I took away were: 

  1. Lean beef is not always the best. SOME fat is needed (called marbling) to give the best flavor. If you're cutting off loads of fat from the ends, you're buying the wrong cuts.
  2. Corn needs to be at a 15% moisture level in order to make harvesting it the most energy efficient. Otherwise, you spend too much money drying it out.
  3. A bushel of corn only nets a little over $4
  4. Cattle are very mucus-y animals. Chewing cud and having four stomachs will do that to an animal.
  5. Temple Grandin is a genuis. I mean, I knew it from learning about her before, but seeing some of her work in person was amazing.

Natasha Nicholes
Chicago, Illinois

Natasha is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share 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.

Oct 15 2013

A Tough Career

I had the privilege to be a part of the Farm Families Field Moms Tour for a second time. We were headed for a modern cattle processing facility, Larson Farms, in Maple Park. Our bus soon pulled onto the property, and a handful of friendly people were there to greet us including Mike Martz, a partner in the company. Then began our tour of their property. Mike and his wife Lynn were both very open and knowledgeable about their cattle business. They spoke often about the safety and care that their animals received as well as the environment. 

Many topics were discussed including: how their specialized equipment provided a safe way for the cattle to exit the cattle truck and enter their pen, a padded floor their cattle could comfortably stand on, cattle ultrasounds (which I had never heard of before), the corn grown on their property, the use of manure, a fly larvae eating natural pest control, and good stewardship of the land they own. 

We had the opportunity to be up close and personal to three of the cattle whose fate was going to be determined through an ultrasound by viewing the amount and type of fat in the muscle tissue.  As the technology was being explained step by step, I couldn’t help but focus on the three large cattle in front of me. They were smelly, clumsy, yet strong and interesting animals. I then realized that they had needs similar to my own pet at home, and how time consuming it must be to take care of all of them and to keep them healthy!

The cattle, although close together, seemed happy.  Their farm was considered a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) because of the amount of cattle contained in a single space. The cattle’s structure consisted of a roof with exposed sides, a soft floor with a design that manure could be collected and then removed and used for fertilizer. The cattle had enough space to all lie down at once. I witnessed this right before we left the farm.

So, the perception I received on Larson farms was overall positive. I decided that this was not the career path that I personally would like to choose, but it was good to see that the farmers were there because they wanted to be. I also admired the way the farmers were very aware of the needs of their cattle, such as noticing if an animal was ill and then caring for them immediately. The health and safety of each of their cattle was in their best business interest.  In the end, the healthy cattle would help bring in a paycheck to feed the farmer’s own families.

A great thank you to all family owned farm business, such as Larson Farms, whose lives are devoted towards their work!

Valerie Johnson
Elgin, Illinois

Valerie is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share 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.

Oct 12 2013

Why Consumers Can't Have the iPhone 5, Sprawling Suburbs and the Pitchforked Farmer Too

The iPhone 5s was just released a few days ago, excited consumers across the nation eagerly waited hours (even overnight) for Apple stores to open in anticipation of getting their hands on the newest Apple technology. The iPhone 5s now boasts a larger screen, Touch ID, a faster operating system and enhanced camera features. Technology in communication is widely embraced, new inventions are encouraged, and consumers are eager to evolve with the changing times. That said, I think it's safe to say that I would be an anomaly if I walked down the street with a vintage phone...


or a cell phone circa 1983..

So why is it that the same eagerness to evolve with the changing times, which is so apparent in the communications industry, not exhibited for the agricultural industry? In a recent visit to the Larson Farm, Farmer Mike Martz made mention that he felt as though society wanted him to "farm like how his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had farmed in years passed." But with an increasing population, more urban sprawl (which leads to less farmland), and fewer farms to spread the labor (as future generations of farmers opt out of the family business), why are Americans unwilling to let farming evolve with the times?

While I haven't got the answers to why some folks are so unyielding to the evolution of agriculture, I can only address the 5 fears that I once touted as the big WHY. And it goes a little something like this...

1. No Feedlots Please, I prefer my cattle roaming and grazing

As a Midwest city girl I always assumed that land outside of the city lights (and suburban sprawl) was sufficient enough to raise tons of cattle for grazing and roaming. But with the growing population and constant building outside of the city limits we're encroaching upon farmland and animal habitats. Even coyotes have decided that since they can't beat our burgeoning population that they're going to join us here in the city. So when it comes to raising enough cattle to feed a large population, cattle feedlots are in response to the need for more livestock within a smaller farm area.

2. I don't want my family consuming extra hormones; I'm already portly AND I want my kids to look like kids!

Sure, hormones are implanted into the ear of cattle to increase their size during their last few months of life, but according to the FDA, "all approved implant products have a zero day withdrawal. This means that the meat from the animal farm is safe for humans to eat at any time after the animal is treated." In addition, the ears are discarded before the animal is slaughtered.

Furthermore, because I'm a believer in the power of statistical information, here's a couple stats to give you some perspective on hormone use in cattle:

  • Organic Beef = 1.4 nanograms of estrogen hormone per 3 oz of meat
  • Conventional Beef = 1.9 nanograms of estrogen hormone per 3 oz of meat
  • Potatoes = 225 nanograms of estrogen hormone (occurring naturally) per average sized potato
  • Birth Control Pills (at the lowest dose) = 20,000 nanograms per pill 

3. I don't want to consume antibiotics when I'm not even sick!

Well, if you've followed my farming posts thus far, then you've got an idea on what I've learned about antibiotics. If you haven't, check it out a here! But suffice it to say that at the Larson Farm, sick cattle are tagged, removed and then tested. The sick cattle are then kept 2 weeks later than when they are "technically" safe to sell as an added precaution. Antibiotics are not permitted on the meat market.

4. All feedlot farms (especially CAFO's) are inhumane and mistreating their cattle

Just a bit of clarification here. A feedlot is an area or building where livestock are fed or fattened up. A CAFO is a concentrated animal "production process that concentrates large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined spaces, and that substitutes structures and equipment (for feeding, temperature controls and manure management) for land and labor." The Larson Farm is considered a CAFO (due to the number of cattle housed) and as a result, the farm undergoes a required certification every 3 years by the EPA.

While visiting the Larson Farm I didn't witness any signs of animal abuse (no excessive mooing, cow bullying-yes it happens amongst cattle too, and no fear of people). I don't believe anyone these days is naive to the mistreatment of animals in the farming industry, but what I can attest to is that not ALL farmers treat their animals cruelly. In fact, cruelty is not a matter of size or conventional versus organic. It's a matter of the moral fiber of the farmer raising the animal. Which brings me to my next point...

5. I don't want my food coming off of an assembly line!

Since when did being organized get a bad rap?!?! In fact, it's when systems are not in place where all good intentions go to hell. Ever heard of Temple Grandin?

Temple Grandin is an autistic woman who transformed the livestock industry by inventing improvements to the animal handling systems found on ranches, farms and meat plants. She is most known for the center-track restraint system that is widely used across North America.

Her invention decreases and eliminates the fear and pain animals experience when they are being handled and eventually slaughtered. You see, the successful management of large numbers of animals requires advanced engineering and forethought to prevent falls, crippling injuries and untimely death. Kudos to Larson Farms for incorporating this ingenious system into their farming processes. By the's composed entirely of scrap metal!  

As our world continues to evolve, our food industry has to adapt alongside of it. In practical terms, with millions more people on the earth, the days of free roaming animals that eat off of the land, and farmers driving horse-drawn plows... are gone. With farmers being charged with feeding more than just their family and their town, and with less space to do it, farmers (although still good stewards of the land) are seeking efficient and effective ways to raise livestock and cultivate the land within the changing times. Everything must evolve, just as the iPhone 5s will soon give way to the iPhone 6...'s just a matter of time.

Are you still envisioning the pitch-forked farmers of the past? Do you believe that the agricultural industry should evolve with the times?

Originally posted October 3, 2013 on Momma Mina
Reposted with permission.



Amina Nevels
Chicago, Illinois

Amina is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share 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. Read more from Amina on her blog, Momma Mina.

Oct 10 2013

Larson Tour Recap: Meeting the People Who Bring Food to Our Table

Oh what a great tour…this was such an action packed day-we heard from numerous great farmers. This tour kept us on our toes-the beef cows were great to see and the farm we went to do a great job of bringing all of the learning together. So many key parts of the day that was very interesting. The farmer took very good care of the cows, buildings, machinery and land-this was truly a family friendly operation but it shows that they enjoy what they do plus they want to pass it down to future generations. The family cares about the animals and designed building so that it would protect the well-being for the cows and they also have the technology within the building to make sure the cows are getting what they need to be with the correct industry standards via the ultra-sound machine. This ultra-sound machine was different than the machine we saw for the dairy cattle and it served numerous other tasks and they were key tasks in focus to a farmer. 

The farmer also kept close contact on the cows diet like all of the other farms we attended and he also had a specialist involved in this processes because weight and marbling is a key commitment in his business for price and brings return business from customers. 

This farmer was a finishing operation-he would get the cows from another location to where they needed to be for the butchering process. He did an amazing job. 

He also raises 5600 acres cash crop- corn, soybeans and wheat. They did an amazing job of keeping on top of their crops with the involvement of key staff. They analyzed each field and had a great understanding of the soil, each field’s layout and needs.

Also on this tour we heard from an organic farmer.  We heard the pros and cons of farming this way. It is my understanding that they really spend a lot more time in the field via plowing and moving the dirt before planting and then pulling weeds. Their crop is considered a premium to consumers but they have to hire more staff and they spend more on gasoline.  

After hearing from both farmers I am not sure the direction of organic farming; it seems like it is not the greatest for the soil and the breakdown of the environment in that way, plus how much soil do we bring up when they pull weeds? Also hearing how they raise organic cows just seems way too long and I’m not sure of if that is good for humans or the animal. So many questions about things??

Overall the information about the hormones was great and just amazing how real and factual it was. I can’t believe how much society blows this way too out focus. The media needs to leave farmers alone and just let them be and just give them a little praise. They are the people that bring the food to our table.    


Janelle Floerke
Orland Park, Illinois

Janelle is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share 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.

Oct 08 2013

Suburban Mom Finds Answers on the Larson Farm Tour

When I got off of the bus, I was accosted by the scent of cattle.  Well, to be more specific: cow manure.  There was no hiding the fact that the Larson farms specialize in cattle management, specifically, “finishing” animals. There would be no glimpses of mother cows and their young calves grazing idly in a field that day.  Instead we would get a glimpse of how cows are received, given an ultrasound to determine how much time is needed before each cow reaches the optimal weight for sale, tagged and housed. 

To a suburban mom, who is used to seeing her meat uniformly cut and pre-packaged, I originally thought that glimpsing the cows that, in less than 5 months would be sent for “processing,” was going to freak me out. Yes, there are those people who embrace the whole idea of seeing where their food comes from prior to consuming it, but that has never been me when it comes to a juicy steak.  But, to my surprise, I wasn’t “freaked out,” I was totally intrigued by the finishing process.

Prior to visiting the farm, I was full of questions like: which is better, a grass or grain fed animal? Mike Martz responded by throwing the question back to the group: “Well, it’s a matter of taste? Which do you prefer?” In the organic food and holistic health industry, it seems that grass fed cattle has always been identified as the better choice because it is less fatty. But rarely does someone mention the taste.  Usually it’s described as “chewy and tough.” Let’s be honest, I prefer the taste of cattle that are finished conventionally: eating mostly a mix of grain and straw.  In my conversation with Mike (and others working in the cattle industry) it’s clear should market demand change and consumers suddenly prefer to buy grass-fed meat, farmers would adjust to meet the need. 

We also had a chance to meet a certified “Organic” farmer as well as an inspector who ensures that organic farms are, indeed, organic. A lot has been said about this small but growing niche of the farming industry.  I was most interested in how they control for pests (Answer: crop rotation,) how long it takes for a farm to be considered as “Organic” (three growing seasons) and whether or not organic farmers think that they can feed the general public on a long-term basis.  The last question is a pretty common.  I appreciated, Randy, the organic farmer’s response: “Conventional agriculture has done a good job of raising the quantity of the food but there is not enough nutrition in the food we eat.” Yes, his farm produces 90% of what conventional farms grow and he may actually be more efficient.

(Note: I asked a lot of questions during the Larson Farms tour.  To see a greater list of these inquiries, the subsequent responses from the Martz, Larsons and other industry professionals as well as my final conclusions, please check out my post on A Windy City Momma, Know Your Food). I've given this tour a lot of thought over the past few days. As a person concerned with the overall public’s health and as a self-declared “Foodie,” how (and where) our food is provided, butchered and served is of utmost importance to me.  Clearly cattle steering is not an easy way to earn a living. I was impressed with the family’s candor and openness when faced with tough questions. What impressed me most about Mike, Lynn, Norm and the other partners, was their willingness to admit that whether a farmer chooses conventional or organic farming, either method has its advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, it's the market that will drive how agriculture evolves in the future.

Five Key Learnings

1. Rotational farming is one method of protecting pastures and the community’s watershed.
2. Temple Grandin helped Michael Martz design the processing building, specifically the loading shoot.  
3. It takes 3 years to transition a farm from conventional to organic. (Cannot sell product as “organic” until the farm has existed 36+ months without “prohibitive” inputs.)
4. Crop Scouts: A profession that I didn’t know existed.  Professionals, usually young adults, college trained, who walk the crop each week to determine if the farmer needs to do additional work to yield the greatest output from the fields.  The Scout knows the history of the crop and confirms everything that the farmer does.
5. The farm is relatively self sustaining and has a "circle of life:"
      -Lynn and team crop and harvest the crop which is then sold to the ethanol plant
      -The farm purchases the by-product as feed for the animals
      -The animals' manure is shipped to the fields and injected into the ground
      -When planted, the crops receive the necessary nutrients (came from manure)



Renee Keats
Highland Park, Illinois

Renee is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share 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. Read more from Renee on her blog, A Windy City Momma.

Oct 04 2013

Knowledge is Power: A Field Mom's Response to Chipotle


So…….I watched the SCARECROW ad that Chipotle recently released, and I'll be honest with you….at first, I just didn't get it. Were they for the farmer ? Were they against the farmer? I truly wasn't sure. So, I took a poll. I asked some friends who had never seen the ad, to watch it and tell me what THEY thought it was about. And guess what ?? Every person thought it was about something different. I decided that I needed to watch it again, and that is exactly what I did. And again, and again, and again. I admit it, I liked the music and the nostalgic feel of the animation, it did in fact, have a Frank Baum quality about it. But what I didn't like, was the general assumption that EVERY farmer behaves in that fashion. They pump their chickens full of hormones, they hide their cows and lock them in tiny boxes, and they JUST DON'T CARE about the consumer.

I have visited 4 farms now, and I can tell you, this is not a representation of the hardworking farmers I have had the pleasure of meeting. These farmers dedicate their lives to producing food for not only your family, but their own.They want to provide the safest, healthiest and most nutritious food possible. They change with the times, they have to, in order to compete in a current day market.

Wouldn't we ALL just love farming to be like it was back when the big red farmhouse, and the milking parlor were the center of every farm? It would, but let's be realistic, it simply can't happen. They have to use what they can to their advantage. Let me clarify, these farmers are not factory farmers, but they are modern day farmers. They use technology to get a higher yield, to use fertilizer only where it is needed, and they use GMO seed so they can STOP applying pesticides.

They aren't mad scientists, they aren't hiding ANYTHING. I can speak to that with certainty. We have become so detached from our plate and from what we put on it, that we tend to believe anything that is laid out before us. But as it has been said many times, don't believe the hype. Ask, listen, learn. There are plenty of farmers who will answer your questions, there are plenty of people who will talk to you about what they know, and this website is a GREAT place to start. But don't just do it because I told you to, do it because YOU WANT TO KNOW. Get acquainted with your plate and your food; take a journey from farm to table. Knowledge is power.


Katie Grossart
Chicago, Illinois

Katie is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share 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.

Oct 03 2013

Visiting the Larson Farm: A two-for-one Adventure

The latest farm tour was a two-for-one adventure. On the Martz/Larson Farm in Maple Park, IL they finish cattle and raise crops. This farm can hold over 3,000 head of cattle along with 6,500 acres of farmland. The first eye opener was realizing that cattle do not always stay at the farm where they were born. Cattle typically move from their “birth farm” to a “finishing farm.” A finishing farm is where cattle spend their last 165 to 170 days before slaughter. On the finishing farm, the cattle can either be: grain-finished, grass-finished with additional labeling of naturally raised or certified organic. The titles are self-explanatory except naturally raised means never received antibiotics or growth hormones. While organic cattle eat 100% organic feed and never receive antibiotics or growth hormones.


The Martz/Larson farm is a CAFO facility. The title sounds scary, but basically it is a farm that contains the animals in a housing unit and the feed is delivered to the animals, as opposed to grazing in a field. Contrary to the scare tactics by the food extremists, this CAFO farm was mighty nice in my book. The cows had plenty of room to stand, lay down, access to fresh water and freshly mixed feed. They were not standing in their waste and only cattle were in the sheds. Mike Martz, farm partner, explained the shed protects the animals from the elements and wild animals. This particular farm has all four sides open so the wind can travel through the several sheds and is positioned at the right direction to capture the smallest of breezes and shade from the rising sun. During the cold months shades are lowered to protect the cows from the cold, snow and ice.  Since cattle are docile, slow moving animals, they need protection from coyotes or wolves. These wild animals can decimate a herd in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, Mike Martz spoke from experience. 

The Larson/Martz Farm takes their environmental stewardship serious. A few examples include installing concrete barriers on the pens closest to the road. This protects the road and surrounding area from the occasional manure run off.  Speaking of manure, I did not realize this waste product was so valuable. This farm has the cows stand on a rubber surface that allows the waste to fall to the basement of each shed. The manure is augured out to a truck and then based on certain EPA standards is spread across the field as fertilizer for crops. Who knew? This past weekend at a truck stop in Wisconsin I saw they were selling a large bag of cow manure for $12.95.  Looks like this waste product has a strong market after all!

The second portion of the tour was seeing Martz/Larson farm harvest field corn. It was a bit early but they were kind enough to show us the process. Typically farms harvest when it drops to 28% moisture content and this day it was at 33%. I strapped on my big girl pants and hopped into the HUGE green combine – all John Deere. It was the most amazing experience to see the large stalks of corn quickly chopped down. The corn quickly piled up behind my seat. The stalks were turbo chopped and spread across the field behind us. After a few passes, the corn was emptied into a secondary cart, and ultimately driven to the farm by semi trucks.

Five Take Aways

  1. Cattle are social animals with a pack mentality. Bulling does exist in the cattle world.
  2. Cattle have the dreaded “back fat.” The only difference is humans can work it off with exercise. For cattle they are doomed due to genetics. Cattle farmers work to reduce this through breeding and complete nutrition.
  3. Cattle farms use ultrasound technology just like dairy farms. A cattle farm uses this technology to determine the best time to take to market.  
  4. At the packing facility cattle are tested to ensure the meat is antibiotic free.
  5. Ear tags are not cattle jewelry instead used to keep track of the animal’s health, history and feed.



Sharon Blau
Des Plaines, Illinois 

Sharon is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share 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. Read more from Sharon on her blog, Mayor of Crazyville.

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