Illinois Farm Families Blog

Jun 19 2014

Farmers Are Geeks Like Me!

I really enjoyed touring the Jeschke's farm in May. It was a gorgeous beautiful day, full of insightful discussion among farmers, agricultural advocates and fellow moms. Even knowing how much technology has developed over the years, I was still surprised by the integrated use of technology on the Jeschke's farm, from GIS, GPS, and even Drones!  

Programming the Planter

In undergrad and grad school, I also took classes on GIS (Geographical Information Systems), which used layers of data maps to study the socio-economics of urban areas. Combining different layers of data can give you insight into a geographical area. 

I saw Tyson demonstrate how farmers are utilizing the GIS technology on their crops. Farmers use soil borings to determine the nutrient levels in the crops after harvesting. They need to determine how and where to replenish the nutrients in the soil. By overlaying this data with 2 or 3 years of crop yield data, the program will derive a map detailing how many seeds should be planted in which areas, thus providing the best information. The final map looks like this: 

The green areas of the map show where they will plant the highest number of seeds. The red areas show the lowest, yellow the middle range. Where you see the green and orange squares, those are test plots for comparison. 

They transfer this data to the Planter, which uses an automated system to distribute the pre-determined amount of seeds throughout the crop. The planter uses GPS for guidance and to plant the correct amount of seed. They may plant 35,000 seeds in one area and 25,000 seeds in another area that has been predicted to produce a lower yield. 

GPS Crop Management

Paul Jeschke demonstrated how the Sprayer uses GPS software to control the amount of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides distributed on crops. The program tracks the location and amount of chemicals that have been sprayed, which minimizes over spraying, or double spraying. The sprayer has 5 zones which are controlled separately, and can be shut on or off to control where the chemical is being applied. 


We were able to see a demonstration of a drone, otherwise known as, unmanned aircraft. These are fitted with a video camera. Matt Boucher showed us how farmers can use them to fly over their fields and capture a bird's eye view. It shows them areas of the farm, which they could only see if they walked the entire farm. And really shows them more, because it's hard to see walking through a corn field. This allows them to target very specific areas of concern, further cut down use of sprays, lower costs, and improve yield, which can be a big help to the farmer and the environment. 

It is easy to see these farmers, Paul, Tyson, and Matt, get excited about the technology they use. Just like we want the latest in smart technology to help improve our lives, they want the best for their farms. 

I wonder how farmers can benefit from all this data being collected? What could happen if they all shared the data collected on their farms?

What is next for farming technology? Can farmers utilize new solar roadways that are currently being tested and developed?  

You  can follow me at: 
Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest: @mdesmpa

Mysi DeSantis
Crystal Lake, Illinois

Mysi is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field 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 12 2014

Why GMOs Aren't the Enemy

Prior to visting the Jeschke's farm for our 3rd Field Mom trip, I thought it best to do a bit of research in advance of our outing. You see, the Jeschke family are farmers that grow both corn and soybean crops, both of which make up two of the largest crops grown in the US and both of which use Genetically Engineered (GE) seeds. As a new mom and conscious consumer, I have always prided myself on researching the food I feed myself & my family. One area, however, that has always been "grey" to me is GE foods and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). So, I Googled. I went on the internet, typed in GMOs and read what I could on both sides of the coin so I could be in a better position to ask pointed questions once I visited the farm. I was mostly interested in the articles that touted GMOs as "the enemy"; I wanted to know why the better part of society felt they were so terrible.  

For those who don't know, GMOs are organisms whose genetic material, or DNA, has been altered by using Genetic Engineering (GE) techniques. The aim is typically introduce a new trait which does not occur naturally in the species. The reasons for doing this are a bit more varied; resistance to pests, disease, or environmental conditions just to name a few. Prior to my involvement in the program, my knowledge on GMOs in general was limited, but what I did "know" from everything I saw on TV and read online, was that they should be avoided at all costs. That finding products that are "GMO free" is the best way to ensure your family's continued good health. Why this should be done was a bit less clear, only that they should be avoided at all costs. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the list of commercially available GM products on the market today was much shorter than what I had been previously led to believe. To date, that list consists of:  corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, squash & papaya. Based on my own internet research on the subject, much of the controversy over GMOs in our food stems from claims of negative long-term health issues such as allergies, GI disorders, accelerated aging, and even cancer. So, what gives?

It's a lot to take in, and prior to my involvement in the Field Mom program, the data and information I thought was legitimate and valid, now gave me pause. If nothing else, it has taught me not only to obtain information from reliable sources (and how to find it), but to also read through some of the more questionable articles with a more critical eye. One thing I did notice was that in every single article posted touting the negative effects of GMOs and why they should be avoided, when listing the reasons, always included terms like "could possibly lead to," "can" and "may.” And the use of inductive reasoning in so many of these articles didn't sit right with me, either. One of the worst examples I found was a website claiming because the rate of autoimmune diseases has gone up since the 90's, which was also the same time GM products were introduced in our grocery stores, then GMOs must be the cause of this. Really?  Do people seriously believe this stuff? You bet they do, and I used to be one of them.

So, what did I walk away from the Jeschke’s having learned and what is the bottom line? Well, the answers are still unclear, at least to me anyway. But there are a few things I do know for sure and things that, once I discovered, were true "Aha" moments for me. While the list of commercially available GM products is short, one thing that is in many of the foods available to the public is corn. And corn or corn products (corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, etc) is found in the vast majority of the processed foods that line our shelves, and in many cases, our pantries. 

From all the research and studies done (and not by corporations that have "something to gain" by declaring them safe) GMOs pose no greater risk to human health than non GM products. From what I can garner, no one has ever died from eating too many fruits, vegetables, or wholesome foods in their true, whole form. What I do know is that many people have died from eating too many high fat, high sugar and heavily processed foods. So, perhaps instead of putting so much focus on whether the cookies, mac & cheese or chips we're feeding our families are "non-GMO", we should be more focused on feeding our families more nutritious and healthful foods. Maybe the link to the many illnesses like heart disease, obesity and GI issues has more to do with the high fat, high sodium and countless preservatives found in these items and less to do with the fact they're made with GM seeds.  

What I also learned was that the main reason the US has not opted to label foods containing GMOs is that in doing so will lead to an insinuation to consumers that products containing GMOs should be avoided and are ultimately bad. While I can't say that I know for certain there are no negative effects that can stem from GMOs, I also haven't found sufficient or reliable evidence that says it is. What I can say is that, while my intentions were good, I feel duped into believing I should buy a certain way (organic, GMO-free) without understanding why I was doing so, or was misinformed about what the terms really mean. Labeling our foods in this way will only continue to feed into a misinformed culture. It made me angry and I vowed that I would make it my business to be a smarter consumer, if nothing else.

And lastly, but absolutely most important in my particular situation, is the use of GM crops in medicine. At the age of 7 I was diagnosed with Type 1 (or Juvenile) Diabetes. For the last 26 years I have relied on synthetic insulin to keep me alive, first through injections and now through an artificial organ known as an insulin pump. I am now 33 years old and I am proud to say I am in fantastic health. In my case anyway, the constant use of synthetic insulin over the last 27 years has done nothing but benefit me. So, while many may still be on the fence as to whether GMOs are safe, whether they're a threat, or they are sitting somewhere in between, I know for this family anyway, our focus will certainly lie elsewhere.

Suzanne Batch
Des Plaines, Illinois

Suzanne is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field 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 10 2014

The GMO Conundrum

These days it is hard not to hear about Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. The label appears in nutrition books, blog articles, grocery store shelves and may even pop up on your child’s school lunch menu.  

So what is the deal with GMOs and where do we primarily find them? Corn and Soybeans are found in virtually every aisle of the grocery store as well as in many non-edible items like cosmetics, insecticides, paints, pharmaceuticals and candles to name a few. These seeds are at the center of the GMO v. non-GMO debate. I have many questions and mixed emotions about the dangers, use of and reasons for GMOs and that was my primary interest when visiting the Jeschke Family Corn and Soybean farm earlier this month.  

Donna and Paul Jeschke welcomed a group of about 20 IL Field Moms to spend a day touring their family farm. Immediately, I could sense their excitement and passion for a business that has supported generations as far back as the early 1900s in their families. We saw the size and investment today’s farmers make in high-tech machinery such as this $160,000 sprayer.

I was also surprised to learn that a large majority of the corn and soybeans grown on this farm, and most of Illinois farms, are exported to Europe and China. This is because of the close proximity to the IL River, which ultimately flows to the Gulf of Mexico and allows for cost-effective shipment overseas. Both of these factors play a huge role in the farmer’s decision to plant GMO or non-GMO seeds.  

First, let’s back up a step, what exactly does GMO mean? As described by Tim Newcomb, a sales manager for Beck’s Hybrids, a seed becomes genetically modified if at least one component of the DNA has been altered. The reason for altering the seed DNA is to create a new germination with superior traits. The ultimate goal is to create a seed that will produce highest yielding crop. However, I had no idea the extent of modifications that are made. Tim told us that each year his company may create up to 20,000 GMO varieties for trial and only 6-8 of those are seed types that actually go to market. The different seeds try to balance disparity of soil, insecticide and herbicide issues as well as increased water utilization (drought resistance).

My hesitation about GMO crops has been driven primarily from a health perspective. In particular, I am concerned about the toxicity of so-called “Bt corn” which carries a gene Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to break open the stomach of insects and kill them. Another GMO product is the “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans with a key ingredient of glyphosate. These toxins have been shown to have damaging effects particularly on the human digestive system and healthy gut bacteria which doctors are now beginning to understand have a tremendous impact on immune function. Many Americans experience any number of chronic health issues such as cancer, autoimmune diseases, mental disorders, allergies, etc. The list goes on and unfortunately, it is not a simple 1+1=2 equation, but much of my research comes back to the same principle of ineffective immune function at the root of the problem.  

During my day at the Jeschke farm I was fortunate to have a very candid and honest conversation with Paul Jeschke, the owner and father of the family business. I was interested to know if he understood my direct health concern about GMO seeds and what his thoughts were. He stated that he appreciates hearing from the consumers as it gives him a market focus perspective and that while he stays up-to-date with the latest information released from the Food and Drug Administration about product safety, he does not have a deep understanding of the relationship between the immune issues I discussed above and GMO seeds. He shared his perspective about why they choose to grow GMO seeds. First, the GMO corn and soybeans enable the farmer to spray less pesticides and herbicides on their crop. Remember that $160,000 sprayer pictured above…that means the farm is able to save money on the amount of liquid sprayed, number of times it is sprayed and overall places less wear and tear on expensive machinery. Another reason is because of the increasing world demand for his crop. As I mentioned, most of their corn and soybeans are exported to Europe and South Asia. As world population increases, so does the need for food. His very straight forward example was that mothers in China that have children to feed do not care whether the seed was GMO or not, they simply need something to put into their bellies. When faced with the moral dilemma it is clearly a tough choice. 


Like most things in life, decisions are complex and varied depending on the goal in mind. For my family, we will continue to lean towards non-GMO products when given the opportunity. However, considering roughly 90% of the crop grown in the U.S. is GMO versus only 10% non-GMO, it is important to me to balance the cost of unnecessary stress and financial impact of striving for 100% compliance to the cause. 


Amanda Hinman
Mt. Prospect, Illinois

Amanda is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field 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 07 2014

Using Innovation to be Good Stewards of the Land

When the Field Moms visited the Jeschke Family Farm to learn about corn and soy, I was surprised by all of the information that we learned.  There was quite a lot to take in. We moms visited 8 different stations set up around the farm to learn about farming operations, and corn/soy products. One of my questions / concerns for this visit was GMOs: genetically modified organisms. I had heard mainly negative things about these products, so I was interested in seeing the farmers’ point of view.

I really enjoyed learning about the technology that is involved in modern farming. Who knew that a tractor and planter cost more than my house? (way more…) Or that they can run on autopilot to follow a pre-set course that makes the most use of soil and land available? Or that fertilizers and pesticides are used sparingly and variably on fields according to soil samples? Not I!   

There is much more to 21st century farming than haphazardly planting seeds, and following that with chemical usage. Farmers use soil samples, GPS, and photos / video of their crops taken by small flying cameras to make informed decisions about their planting seeds and tending crops. Farmers study the soil to determine which fertilizers to apply, and how much. You can have a sub-plot on the field that needs nothing, next to one that lacks nitrogen or potash. With these samples, farms apply fewer fertilizers to the ground.

Pesticides (both herbicides and insecticides) are also applied in smaller quantities than in the past. Farmers use technology to see where the needs are – back to those flying cameras, coupled with walks through the fields to inspect. Once that is determined, they can use modern equipment to apply only in areas in need, and close to the soil to avoid airborne spreading.  

Farmers also use technology to decide when to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Obviously they want to avoid doing it right before a rain, but they also want to avoid wind to prevent any unnecessary spreading of these chemicals. High-tech farm equipment and meteorology tools allow farmers to make these decisions.

Now, how do GMOs play into this? Well, the development of new strains of seeds has allowed farmers to use fewer fertilizers and especially pesticides. Also, crops can be more resistant to extreme weather, which allows for a more successful harvest. How does this work? Scientists can take the strengths of some varieties of plants (corn, for example) and pass those qualities on to a new seed type. This can produce a crop that is better able to fight off grubs, or requires less water, or is successful in poorer soils. The biggest benefit here is lowered use of pesticides. If the seed and plant can fend off a certain disease on its own, there is no need to spray to fight that scourge off. Sounds pretty good….right?

So after the tour I looked online to compare what I knew from before about GMOs with what I had seen and heard on the farm. Do you know how sometimes an internet search is a bad idea? This seemed like one of those times. So much, frankly, scary information out there! But I am thinking of what the Jeschke’s said: that farmers have always moved ahead with technology, just like other careers. I am a teacher – how many slides rules have I seen in the building? Exactly 1 – it belongs to the calculus teacher and she shows students how to use it so they stop complaining. Do I keep all paper records and have to add up grades and percents? Years ago I did, but now report cards are all computerized. At home, I have a washer and dryer; no fear of crushing my hand in the hand-cranked rollers of what is now an antique. So it stands to reason that farmers are moving ahead. Illinois farmers do not use horses or oxen to plow, or pull wagons of seeds to plant. They have high-tech tractors and planters that follow GPS directions for straight and even rows. If there are seeds that tolerate drought, or resist disease, it stands to reason that farmers will choose to use those as they create a healthier growing environment.  

People cross breed dogs and cats to be hypoallergenic and shed less. Granted I don’t plan to eat a ‘schnoodle,’ but should it be called a “Frankendog” as many GMO foods are labeled? I read an article about GMOs in Hawaii, and there was discussion of banning the use of GMO seeds. However, the act would “grandfather” in the so-called “Rainbow papaya” that resisted a type of fungus. So a plant that had already been modified was acceptable, but new changes are not? I can relate to Mr. Ilagen in the article as he struggled to find the truth about these methods.

I believe that I understand more about GMOs now. Before the visit, I was not sure why farmers would want to grow something that was modified – why not leave well enough alone? But it turns out that well enough may not have been so after all. I paraphrase Mr. Jeschke when he said that there will always be a farmer willing to produce “organic” as there will always be consumers ready to pay the increased price to do so. (even though “organic” does not always  mean 100% pesticide free, but that is another topic).  He also spoke of our obligations as comfortable and fortunate first world citizens. While most of us may worry over what to fix for dinner, we are lucky not to have to worry if there will be dinner to fix. Increases in crop production allow us to feed more people, especially the vulnerable who need our attention the most.

Thank you so much to the Jeschke family! They are using innovation to be good stewards of their land, and to look at how their actions can benefit others in our world. I thank you for sharing your field with us by providing the “Field Moms’ Acre.” I can’t wait to see how our crops of corn and soy fare this year as we continue to learn about farming throughout the growing and harvesting seasons.

Samantha Godden-Chmielowicz
Chicago, Illinois

Samantha is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field 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 05 2014

The Labels at my Table

I’ll admit it. Visiting a farm was the last thing I wanted to do on May 17, when it had just snowed the day before. I was having one of those “Why do I live in Illinois?” sort of mornings, digging through my winter clothes again. After a second cup of coffee, I met up with my fellow Field Moms, Kathy Goers and Sarah Decker for our drive to the Jeschke corn and soybean farm in Mazon, Illinois. Fortunately, the friendly conversation kept my mind on things besides the stack of laundry waiting for me at home, or the mess I was sure to find in my kitchen after a whole day away. Labels like “total chaos” and “disastrous mess” rang through my head. And then there was the ever present mom-mantra: “What are we going to have for dinner?” 


These thoughts aside, I committed myself to learn about corn and soybean farming in Illinois. It was a sunny day on the farm. I learned about how corn and soybeans are grown, the types of technology used and the advances in seed development that require less pesticides to be applied to crops. We heard from the Jeschkes about the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) used on their farm equipment to help plant, fertilize, and harvest, and even saw a drone demonstration – a remote control flying camera that allows farmers to monitor fields without damaging crops. We also talked about the genetically modified seeds used on the farm (GMO’s), why they’re used and what the implications are for the labeling of GMO’s in the marketplace.  

As we learned on our Ultra Foods Tour in February, there are A LOT of confusing labels in the grocery store. Most of them only serve to freak us out. For example, marketers have discovered that putting “NO (insert ingredient here)“ on a label makes consumers more likely to think that a competing product containing that ingredient is bad. So… sometimes when we see a label that says “Non-GMO,” we think that all the other varieties must contain GMO’s and should be avoided – even if it means paying more. No wonder major cereal manufacturers can promote their products as “Non-GMO” -- genetically modified wheat and oat seeds don’t even exist!

The truth is that the genetically modified corn and soybean seeds used on the Jeschke farm produce a crop perfectly suited to our brutal Illinois climate while allowing them to use less insecticides than ever before. Not only is their harvest sold in Illinois, it is also shipped down the Illinois River to the Mississippi and through the Panama Canal to populations whose land is not as fertile as the Prairie State. In fact, according to Amy Roady of the Illinois Soybean Association, 50% of all soybeans produced in the US are exported to China. So, as Paul Jeschke said, “Farmers in Illinois are truly feeding the masses.”

Heading home, I had a new-found appreciation for our state, as well as a better perspective about my next trip to the grocery store. As I rounded the corner to my house, well into the dinner hour, I made a conscious decision to ignore the labels in my head screaming “disastrous mess” and “total chaos” and focus instead on what I knew to be true. I scampered around the muddy cleats in the garage, through the cluttered laundry room where my terrier slept on a massive pile of clothes, through a kitchen full of dirty dishes, to arrive at my dining room table where three fun-loving kids and one (really) handsome guy stared up at me -- eating cereal for dinner . . . And they even saved me a bowl.

Genevieve O'Keefe
Grayslake, Illinois

Genevieve is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field 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 03 2014

Field Moms Talk One-on-One to Farmers

This past weekend, the 2014 Field Moms met in Mazon, Illinois, at the Jeschke Farm, about 70 miles southwest of Chicago, to learn about their corn and soybean farm. We were met there by enough Illinois farmers to field a baseball team. One of the great things, and there are many, about this program is that Illinois Farm Families makes an effort to show us, not just tell us, what farming in Illinois looks like. While time permits us to go to just one farm each Saturday, on that day we meet many more Illinois farmers just like the ones who own the farm we visit. We talk to them, in small groups, and we ask a lot of questions about the stories you see and hear in the news (or on your front porch). We aren’t just taking the word of one person or one farm. We are seeing that the group, Illinois Farm Families, which was formed with the intent to educate Chicago-area consumers via moms, is made up of farmers that represent the family farms that make up 94% of farms in Illinois. To date, we've toured two farms and a grocery store (where we talked about food labeling), and so far, in total, we've talked with more than 20 different farmers!

While the farmers we meet are independent of each other, they are often connected in some way. Many of the younger ones we met last week (in their 30’s to 40’s) grew up showing animals together at 4H events or county fairs. We learned that many of them knew each other at college (U of I). If they didn’t know each other growing up or through their education, they come to know each other through the Illinois agricultural community, which seems big when looking at the land area and quantity of food produced, but in the scheme of things is a relatively small group of people. 

And that small group of people, especially the younger generation that I mentioned, is college educated. Most have a bachelor’s degree and several that we've met have a master’s degree in a specialized field, such as dairy cattle or swine. Many, in fact, left their family farms to “see the world” and later returned to farm. When you talk one-on-one with someone, you have the opportunity to have a meaningful dialog. These folks know organic chemistry. They know animal science. They know technology. They know botany. They are active in their communities. Every single one of them we have met is passionate about what they do. They are also modest and humble and don’t claim to know everything and look forward to improvements in all of the above and more.

Perhaps our consumer perception of the American farmer is off the mark. I can’t speak for everyone, but when an Illinois consumer action group comes knocking on my door, as it did last night, and paints a picture of farmers as a group who are irresponsibly handling animal antibiotics, if I didn't know better because of what I've learned on our hog farm tour, what am I to think? Do farmers completely understand the consequences of their actions, like spraying pesticides or giving their animals antibiotics, for example? The farmers we have met are mostly from two generations, the new generation of farmers (in their mid 30’s and 40’s) and their parents’ generation. Whether they have a college degree or not, they really do know what they are doing, they are constantly improving, and more to the point, they can talk about it. 

As I gave the gentleman at my door last night some of the facts I've learned first-hand as a field mom, it knocked him off of his rehearsed spiel and the depth of his pitch became transparent. He politely left my porch after telling me I’m misinformed and handed me his pamphlet so that I could read more about it. He probably won’t go to Illinois Farm Families website to validate what I was talking about, but then again, maybe he will.

The longer we sit and talk with a farmer on our tours, the more detailed information we receive. It’s not rehearsed or scripted or designed to move us emotionally or persuade us. I would challenge anybody to think about talking to a group of consumers about what you do in your profession and what that entails. The farmers we are talking to have a lot of knowledge about a lot of different things, they are in tune with our world, and they’re sharing what they do, and why, with us field moms hoping that we’ll, in turn, share it with others. I hope I do them justice.

More on that baseball team of farmers we met at the Jeschke Farm in my next post.

Heather Guido
Oak Park, Illinois

Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.

May 30 2014

Defending Agriculture on Chicago Streets

Saturday morning dawned bright, clear and cool as we loaded onto a bus in a Chicago suburb with nearly two dozen Chicago moms. The moms were part of Illinois Farm Families Field Moms program, chosen for their interest in food production. They've been on a couple tours already, to a grocery store and to the Gould family hog farm.

This tour, however, took us to Paul and Donna Jeschke's picture-perfect farm at Mazon, Ill. No kidding, the sky was blue and full of high, fluffy clouds, the farm was shined up and looking great. It really made me want to go home and do something about my dandelions. Another day, I suppose.

I have come to expect a handful of things from these tours. One, that I will meet some really fun, really thoughtful women. Two, there will be good, deep conversation. And three, we'll all find each other on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter later on and become actual friends.

This tour was no different and I have to share a story from Sara McGuire. Sarah lives in the city and I loved talking with her. We didn’t agree on everything and that's ok; her comments made me think about my position and I can only hope mine did the same for her. But I love this story.

Early in our conversation, she mentioned how her trip to the hog farm changed everything for her. Then she told of being stopped in the street by an activist who was trying to raise money for something that had to do with agricultural runoff.

"He's showing me these pictures and this was right after we visited the hog farm," she said, adding that he was referring to the pictures of "big ag."

Sara asked, "'Did you know 94% of farms are family owned?' And he said, ' I did not know that.'

She had a response. "Well, you should probably do some more research before you stop people in the street and tell them this stuff."

It was at that point that he began pointing at his flyer and suggesting she call them and tell them what she knows. 
It gets better.

"They're really responsible about the fertilizer and the fertilizer is manure, not a chemical," Sara told me. "And it's injected in the ground. It's not like it's laying there and they're hoping the rain doesn't wash it off.

"It was interesting; I was like, 'NO! You're wrong!' Usually I would be the one signing the petition: 'OK, Greenpeace, yes!'"

As I have reflected on the day, I believe this might be the actual perfect scenario. Sara is a very thoughtful, educated young woman who took time from her life to come to the farm and learn about what we do and how it affects her family. She was not swayed by every argument; she's still uncomfortable with some aspects of genetic modification. I respect that. She's learned the facts and she's walked our fields (and barns).

She's taken our plight to heart, even to the point of defending us on the streets of Chicago. I'll take that. Every day. I'll take that. 

Originally posted on Prairie Farmer.

Holly Spangler
Marietta, Illinois

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois growing crops and producing cattle as well as raising their three children. Holly is an associate editor for Prairie Farmer magazine, a publication dedicated to sharing information about farm life and farm business. Read more from Holly on the Prairie Farmer blog.

May 29 2014

The Bees Knees

When I walked onto the corn and soybean farm run by the Jeschke Family on a fine May day, the last thing I expected to be thinking about was bees. I’d had the usual week of craziness at home between my full time job, my girl scout troop’s service project,  my two beautiful daughters, my theatre company’s upcoming showcase, my husband graduating from his master’s program and a visit from my mother-in-law, I was a bit distracted. 

Slowly as we worked our way toward the farm, the landscape changed from urban to suburban to rural, and I began to breathe and think. I wasn’t really thinking about bees. 

I saw the plants coming up in the fields, finally showing signs of spring after a long and difficult winter. I saw the kind faces of the Jeschke’s, and their love for their farm and each other. They practically oozed kindness. I think this is a lot of what we miss when we talk about farming and the policies and procedures large (note large not factory) farms adhere to, we miss the human element. 

As my partner and I moved from station to station – 8 in all, I began to think about Bees. According to a paper issued by the National Resources Defense Council, cross-pollination helps at least 30% of the world’s crops and 90 percent of wild plants to thrive. We need the bees. A condition now known as Colony Collapse Disorder is causing the bee population to plummet both here in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. But what causes the disorder is still greatly argued. According to many and multiple sources: It’s definitely pesticides, it is definitely the bad winter, it is definitely the use of GMO seed, it is definitely the isolation of crops, it is definitely the lack of flowering plants. 

You can see where a mom could be confused. I want to help the bees, and the farmers and I want good food on my table for my kids. 

Paul Jeschke told me this, “The bees are definitely important. And we do use a pesticide that can hurt them. We follow the instructions on the label. The hives run by the guy on my land are doing fine despite all of this.” Mr. Jeschke regularly talks to his neighbors and the people keeping hives on his farmland to make sure that the bees are thriving and that they are reducing the amount of insecticide they use every year. 

At the end of the day I am assured that individual farmers are doing the best that they can to reduce the devastation. What is so good about this is that individual family farms make up 94% of all farms in Illinois. If every farmer has the heart of the Jeschke’s, we will continue to build knowledge. I am coming to believe through my experience with the Illinois Farm Families that indeed, they do. 

In my humble bumble under-educated opinion, we need to do more than just save the bees; we need to think like them. A hive mind produces intelligence unequaled by any single bee. If we could stop arguing the points for a minute, and stop talking in dollars, and start talking to each other – then perhaps we could find a solution.


Sara McGuire
Chicago, Illinois

Sara is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field 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 27 2014

Today’s Corn is Not Just for Food Consumption

When I think of a corn farm and its many corn stalks I’m thinking it’s there for food and for people to eat, plus it’s great to eat a delicious corn on the cob in the summer time. Well, I can honestly say that I had a lot to learn about corn. I feel very lucky and privileged to be a field mom and just recently last week we took a trip to a corn and soybean farm. Even though it’s still early in the corn season we learned a lot and I was very surprised by the facts I learned. I thought majority of the corn crops that we see on the farms will more likely be for human consumption and boy was I wrong. Can you believe that only 1.6% of today’s corn harvest actually go towards the production of cereals, canned corn, popcorn, and other food items! Yes, 1.6% of it – which made me think, where does the rest of the 98.4% go to?  

So here we are, as a field mom I just had to know, if we’re only using 1.6% for human food consumption where is the rest going? Being part of the field moms group we were very happy to visit Jeschke Farm who specializes in corn and soybeans. There are so many aspects of growing corn and soybeans, it’s not just about planting the seed and watching it grow but rather many different processes and factors that go into it. Not all corn is the same – well, I only thought there were the sweet yummy corn and the other kind that isn’t so tasty and goes to animal feed. Did you know there are actually 41 varieties of corn and the type of corn seed selected by the farmer determines the use(s) for the corn crop. And speaking about animal feed, did you know that 40% of today’s corn crop goes towards animal feed – yep almost half! I was aware that the US grows more corn than any other country in the world, what I was shocked to find out was the amount of corn that is actually exported out of the US for other countries. It’s estimated that about 11% of today’s corn crop is exported out of this country with Japan, Mexico, and China among the 3 major importers of today’s corn. 

You might not see an ethanol fueling station as often as you see the usual gasoline stations, but you might be surprised that 30% of the US corn crop goes into ethanol production. It is a cleaner fuel and today’s world is certainly in need of cleaner and efficient alternatives than the standard gasoline made from crude oil. The use of technology has greatly increased the use of corn for many other products such as paints, candles, cosmetics, plastics, soaps, textiles, fiberglass and so much more. It’s even getting used for pharmaceutical products such as antibiotics. If you take a look around your home, chances are corn was used in many of the items we all use in our daily lives.

So next time you take a road trip and you pass by a corn farm, don’t just think it’s growing there for food but realize all the great uses and products that corn has given us and the potential for so much more in the future. Let’s not forget our farmers and technology, if it wasn’t for the great collaboration of them we wouldn’t have such an amazing and wonderful crop we call corn. Hail the mighty and magical corn! 

Veronica Ortega
Berwyn, Illinois

Veronica is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field 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 16 2014

Dairy Sustainability Made Me Rethink Being Vegan

My decision to become vegan was not taken lightly. It was after much soul searching and research that over two years ago I chose to vote with my fork for sustainable agriculture, health, and animal care. I am currently a dietetics student, finishing up school and preparing to take the dietetics exam. While I don’t preach veganism to my patients/clients, for the last two years, I have personally followed this lifestyle and made those choices.

But late last year, one of my internship rotations was with the Dairy Council of Utah/Nevada. While all of my rotations were wonderful, the Dairy Council was by far the most fun and creative. It was also the most influential to me personally. During my two-week stint, I had the opportunity to visit two dairy farms. Watching the process of milk production on a dairy farm was an eye-opening opportunity. I have seen many horror films depicting animal cruelty in ‘factory farms’ across the nation, and before my initial farm visit, I thought that the tour was set up well in advance in order to prepare the farmers to be on their best behavior and to sanitize the environment from their normal practices. When I left the farm that day, I was confused. This large dairy was a family run business, it didn’t seem like a “factory” at all. I was stunned by how easy-going the workers were and even more amazed as I watched the cows calmly go through their daily routine. This occasion of showing their livelihood to the public did not seem staged in the slightest. The second farm tour confirmed my suspicions. Dairy farming is a family affair.

Sustainable agriculture practices are deeply important to me and one of the primary reasons I chose a vegan lifestyle. In a lot of ways I wish we could go back to the days of small farms where the farm to fork principal works in everyone’s backyard, but in today’s world of 7 billion people (that is quickly growing!) we have a food security issue and need modern agriculture in order to produce enough food. Therefore, we must move forward with larger farms, and help fine-tune their processes to create a greener environment. I was under the impression that animal protein production was not very sustainable, but I had the opportunity to learn first-hand how the dairy industry is a leader in this area.

Here are some of the things I learned:
  • Milk is a local food. From the time the cows’ milk is stored in a cooling tank, it is typically just 48-72 hours before it is on a shelf at your LOCAL grocery store.
  • Any type of energy waste is money lost on the farm and to the producers of dairy, every dollar counts to these families. Farming is a tough industry, one that is barely breaking even every year. Efficiency is essential and good business for dairy farmers. I witnessed farms using the natural heat from the milk to heat the milk parlor in order to create a warmer, comfortable environment for the cows during the cold winter months, and I heard about how water is recycled and used multiple times on the dairy for cleaning, cooling, irrigation…
  • When people would ask me why I was vegan, I would sometimes say I would rather feed humans than animals. By not consuming animal products, I felt I was taking a stand on world hunger. I worried about a large portion of our grain crop going to feed animals instead of humans. But on my tour I had the chance to learn more about what cows actually eat. Much of what goes into a cow’s 100lb per day food ration are actuallybyproducts that humans cannot ingest. Cows, due to their powerful stomachs, are able to produce nutrient dense milk by eating crops that would otherwise be useless to humans. This realization was my tipping point…thoughts of milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream started flooding my mind.

Animal care was another important motive for my choice to be vegan. While attending different dairy farms in Utah I was impressed at the still, quietness of the cows and calves. Could they possibly be content or even happy with their lives? If not, I was fooled.

After my rotation with the Dairy Council, my mind was consumed with thoughts making a big lifestyle change for me and becoming vegetarian.  At first, the thought of this transition frightened me. I do not view myself as an easily persuaded person nor one who makes rash decisions. Being vegan was a big part of my life. It ade me feel connected to nature, animals, and the Earth in a more personal way, but after viewing the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into dairy farming with clean, healthy practices and love for the animals, I had a new perspective that fundamentally challenged some of my core beliefs. No one likes to be told they were wrong, but by being open-minded I was able to learn and even change my dietary habits.

So about 3 weeks after my time with the Dairy Council and many hours of health related research on dairy, I bought my first yogurt in almost two years!

By Kayla Thomas – Utah State University Dietetics Student

Originally posted April 22, 2014 on The Cow Locale.

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