Illinois Farm Families Blog

Nov 17 2014

I Visited a Beef Farm and Still Wanted a Steak

There they were. Hundreds of them, in roomy pens, air moving freely. They milled, they chewed, the lay down and took rests. All getting ready to be beef, which I enjoy on my plate on occasion.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Larson Farm in mid-October and met four generations of family farmers. Together they manage 6,300 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and 2,500 head of cattle. Lynn, member of Generation 2 and daughter to the 1st Generation was in charge of the fields while her husband Mike managed the cattle operation. They work together and separately, making a life for their son and his children. They have four full time employees (also a family affair) and one part-timer to help them out. What I gathered that they have most of, is each other.

There are some facts that I really want to share with you that are fascinating.

Hormones – yes, there is estrogen used in the rearing of these all-male beef cattle There are 1.9 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef that was treated with growth promotants compared to 1.3 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef from an untreated steer.  There are 225 anagrams of estrogen naturally occurring in the baked potato you set next to that steak.

Antibiotics – yes, there are antibiotics in the feed. These antibiotics are to prevent cows from developing blood in their stool; these antibiotics do not exist on the human side. Antibiotics are given to sick animals that DO exist on the human side. There is a strict regimen followed including a “withdrawal” period, which most farmers will extend out. These do not show in the meat we eat and help keep the animals from sickness.re1.9 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef that was treated with growth promotants compared to 1.3 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef from an untreated steer. There are 225 anagrams of estrogen naturally occurring in the baked potato you set next to that steak.

Corn – they eat it. Their food consists of mother’s milk until they are six months old and then a mix of corn, hay, a glutinous mixture of sticky goodness that is the byproduct of processing corn for ethanol or cornstarch, and a small additive in pellet form which contains the antibiotic and a protein supplement.

Meat Grade – this was super cool. Mike ultrasounds the steer between the 12th and 13th rib. From this ultrasound they can detect the fat layer on the back and the marbling of fat in the muscle. They do this ultrasound to determine how many more days they can feed the cow until they go to market, and what the expected grade might be. This is all determined by complex equations calculated in seconds by a specialized computer program. There is nothing they can do to improve the grade other than feeding the cow and they are very careful to ensure the cow is at a healthy, manageable weight – sometimes sacrificing grade.

All of that talk about marbling made me hungry for steak, even after seeing the cows in the pens,

 seeing the feed, and looking around what is known as a CAFO or a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation; AKA the devil.

Here is what I can tell you.

The family cares about the welfare of the animals. They care about their use of manure, they monitor their water usage for runoff, and they want the best for us and for the animals. I came away with some questions about how it could be better.

Could the operations be smaller? Lynn tells me that the smaller operations, say 300 head of cattle, are not regulated in the same way, all livestock operations are regulated, but the bigger they are the tighter focused the microscope gets.

Could the pens be bigger, and could the cows roam? They could. I can pay more for that at the grocery store and if enough of us do, then things will change. Farmers are always responding to the fluctuations in consumer preference. If we, the consumers, want cattle to be treated or raised in a different way then we argue that point with our checkbooks, and we will pay for it. This is our choice and the farmers are ready to accommodate.

But what I am trying to tell you is that these animals looked good and healthy to me, in this large operation in my home state. I trust that they are not only safe to eat, but that the farmers are being responsible about their overall health management, the environmental conditions an operation like this produces, and the desires of the consumer.

Am I comfortable eating meat? Yes, I was before and I am now. I feel like I know a little more about antibiotics and hormones and I cannot wait for steak night.

Sara McGuire,
Chicago, IL

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.

Oct 23 2014

Talkin’ About Field Meals

Yesterday, before heading to teach class at ISU, I stopped by the grocery store on my way into campus to pick up a few last minute ingredients for the field meal I planned to make later in the day for our farmers. I had twenty minutes to grab the things I needed and head to class. While I was in the dairy section, an older gentleman re-stocking the shelves talked to me about the beautiful weather we were having and how it was going to be short lived because of the harsh winter we are predicted to have according to the Farmer’s Almanac. “I always follow that Farmer’s Almanac because every year it seems to be right,” he said. Then he added, “I just heard on the radio that someone said this warm fall weather we are having is a prediction that it’s going to be a mild winter this year. But I don’t know. I think I still believe that Farmer’s Almanac!” I proceeded to tell him that my husband is a farmer and says it’s going to be a harsh winter again this year, and that actually I was picking up food to make dinner for the farmers tonight. And yes, the weather yesterday was just beautiful and I hope we got more of it this week. He asked me if they were picking beans, I told them that this week was a big bean week and that tonight I’d be finding them in one of their bean fields. I wished him a nice day and went off to finish shopping.

At check-out, I asked the ladies to keep the cold items together since I’d be putting them into a cooler in my car. They seemed a bit confused, but I didn’t want to explain. The same gentleman saw me as I checked out, and announced, “This lady is headed straight to the bean field with a delivery.”

I added, “Actually, tonight I’m making our farmers dinner and bringing it to the field later. That’s why I need some of the food to stay cold since I won’t be home for a while before I start cooking.” They seemed amused, asked me a few questions about bringing them dinner, and made more small talk about the tractors they’ve seen harvesting recently.

I went on my way, packed my cold items in the cooler I brought with me, and drove to class. As I walked into my building, a graduate organization was having a bake sale in the entry. Knowing that I should probably deliver my field meal with dessert, I scoped out the selection on the table. I asked if they had a bag because I wanted eight of the peanut butter rice krispies treats. “Whoa,” someone said, “that’s a lot of dessert! Make sure you don’t eat them all at once!” I then explained that I was going to be feeding some hungry farmers dinner tonight, and of course, I needed to bring them dessert.

A colleague working the bake sale added, “Gotcha! One less thing you need to make tonight!”

“Exactly my thoughts!” I said smiling. “I just hope they are yummy!”

I took my bag of desserts to class and proceeded to make my students a bit jealous (and hungry) when they saw my bag. One student asked hopefully, “What are you doing with all those treats? Are they for us?!” I then explained that no, I they weren’t for them, but that I was making dinner for our farmers tonight and that this was going to be their dessert.

Within a hour, I explained making field meals to over three groups people, totaling over 30 individuals. Even though we may see farmers harvesting this time of year, many of us don’t think just how those farmers eat throughout the day and into the late hours. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, it wasn’t something I ever considered when I would drive on the interstate through Illinois on my way to/from college when I’d see the bright tractor lights in the fields at night.

Growing up, I always heard that farmers work from sun-up to sun-down. However, many work until the very late hours of the night if the conditions are right. When do they stop? There are a number of reasons: 1) If the dew comes in, the crop and soil gets wet, so farming becomes much more difficult, 2) They finish a field and are at a good stopping point for the night, 3) Equipment breaks down and requires either new parts and/or a lot of work, and/or 4) They are just plain tired. So, our farmers need to eat to keep their minds and body alert and awake while many of us are tucked into our beds at night.

Last night, my kids and I brought our farmers a field meal that was warm and right out of the oven. (I even made a bit extra to drop at my neighbor’s house who is due to have a baby next week and proceeded to tell her that I was headed out to the field to bring our farmers dinner. Her family enjoyed my field meal in their own home.) A few weeks ago, I stopped at Subway and delivered a field meal consisting of sub sandwiches, chips, and brownies because that’s all I could manage with the time I had. Most nights, my mother-in-law with the help of my sister-in-law take turns feeding our farmers. My field meal last night was a success, the rice krispies treats were delicious (thanks to the ISU classmate who made them), and we got to spend a little bit of time with my husband while he sat in our car to eat with us. There were no tractor or combine rides last night, which disappointed my son, but we assured him that tonight when Grandma takes him to the farm while I’m at a night class, he would get a ride while bringing our farmers another dinner. What a lucky kid, and what well-fed farmers we have!

Kristen Strom
Brimfield, IL

Kristen is a city-turned-country girl after marrying her farmer husband, Grant. You can find her tales of country living at

Jul 03 2014

Getting the Buzz About Agriculture

Despite living my entire life in a county comprised of nearly 90 percent farmland and driving past miles of crop fields each day on my drive to work, I know very little about what is growing on the land around me.

As a full-time nurse and mother to three young children, I've heard a lot of buzz about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), farming pesticides and organic versus non-organic foods. In terms of what’s best for my family, I didn't want to rely on the opinions of others.

On May 16, I had the privilege of visiting Dan and Pam Kelley’s farm as part of the Field Mom program through Illinois Farm Families. The program takes moms like me who are interested in learning more about where their food comes from and gives them a firsthand look at the farming process from spring planting to fall harvest.

On this tour, Mr. Kelley spent three hours talking about their 3,500-acre corn and soybean farm. He enlisted the help of various specialists, including a seed expert to discuss the process of bringing GMO seed to market, an agronomist to talk about the importance of quality soil and a farm equipment representative to talk about technology used in farming practices today.

I was looking to the experience for reassurance that the food I was providing to my family was safe and of good quality. The thing that surprised me the most was the extensive process it takes to bring GMO seed to market from start to finish. We learned from GROWMARK Seed Corn Product Manager Matt Free that all new GMO seed varieties require regulatory approval through the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and USDA -- an up to 13-year process! This means there is more regulation in place for GMO crops than organic crops. GMO crops allow farmers the efficiency of providing larger quantities of affordable, sustainable food to meet the demand of our growing global population.

I also learned that farmers have nothing to hide. They are parents and consumers just like us. Seeing their farming practices firsthand gave me the reassurance I needed in order to be confident that the crops being produced on our local farmland is not only safe for my family, but protective of the environment we are leaving for future generations. I’m grateful to be a part of the Field Mom program and look forward to the next farm tour where we learn about livestock and fall harvest.

Devon Flamming

Devon Flammang is a Field Mom from central Illinois who, like Chicago moms, is visiting farms to see firsthand how food is raised.

Jul 01 2014

What About The Good Things?

The media loves to focus on the negative. I guess it grabs our attention more than the happy stories. But sometimes it would be nice to hear just the positive facts once in awhile!  I’m referring specifically to the GMO debate and whether or not they should be allowed here in the US or banned entirely.  There’s so much media buzz these days about the negatives of GMOs that it's overwhelming to me. Are they safe? Do they do more harm than good? Should I be scared of them?

Well, instead of relying solely on what I hear through the media (even though it MUST be true if it’s on the internet right?), I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the 2014 Field Moms through Illinois Farm Families. What a great experience so far! We have the pleasure of visiting farms and actually talking to the farmers that are growing our food to ask them how things really work! Not speculation from some random person who may or may not have ever stepped foot on a food producing farm in their life, but we're talking to the actual farmers who are out there educating themselves on this subject and trying to keep all of us fed - which is no easy task!

In May, we were able to visit with Paul and Donna Jeschke in Mazon, IL and see their corn and soybean farm in action. They are absolutely lovely people who would have let us stay for days and days if we had been able to, answering each and every one of our questions. We touched on GMOs and I was able to learn a lot of interesting things that I won't be able to completely cover here, but let me touch on the main ideas that resonated with me.

1) GMOs use less pesticides. That's right - GMOs are more resistant to insects therefore needing less pesticide in the fields which keeps it off of our food.
2) GMOs are more weed resistant. This one was big to me because more weed resistance means less need for herbicides (again, keeping those harsh chemicals away from our food) and less need for tillage in the fields which also means less soil erosion.
3) GMOs are more drought resistant. Need I say more? This feature also helps conserve water in general and I think we all like that idea whether we have drought-like conditions or not!

After this visit, I agree with Paul Jeschke when he said that people should have a choice in what they are eating. If you feel more comfortable avoiding GMOs entirely, then so be it. But I don't think that ALL GMOs should be outright banned without people being educated on the positives and negatives of these products. So, go talk to a farmer if you have the chance and get educated on the subject. There's a lot more to know than these three little points. Farmers are happy to talk and you might learn a thing or two in the process. And being educated before jumping to a conclusion is never a bad thing.

Jill Thurmond
Deer Park, Illinois

Jill 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 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.

May 15 2014

Ag in the Bag: Fun & Free Agriculture Classroom Presentations

“Do I look like a farmer?” Diane Merrion, agriculture literacy coordinator with the Cook County Farm Bureau, asked the forty children, ages 3-5, in my son’s preschool class. They studied her black pants and red sweater quizzically.

“I bet you thought I’d be wearing overalls and boots,” she said. That was just the first myth she was there to dispel.  

Kids these days, especially those living in big cities like us, can be pretty far removed from farming and its impact on their everyday lives.  I wanted my son to not only know what was on Old McDonald’s farm, but also what it provided us. That’s why I asked Ag in the Classroom to come to his Chicago Public School preschool for a presentation on food, fiber and fuel.

Although Diane typically does in-school field trips for fourth graders, she was fabulous with the youngsters, quickly pulling real agriculture products out of her bag for the children to touch and feel. The first was a long, golden stem of wheat. 

“Wow!” the kids all murmured.

One student and a teacher got to touch it, noting how it felt “smooth like hair.” After rubbing the wheat in the other direction, the teacher scrunched her nose. Her students guessed it must have felt “prickly like a porcupine.

Diane showed the children samples from Illinois crops, like dent, sweet and popping corn. Did you know that popcorn is the Illinois state snack? She also pulled source components, like soybeans, out of a cracker box to demonstrate what goes into the foods kids love. For example, soybean oil is used to make Wheat Thins.

“What does a cow have that’s different than us?” Diane asked.

“More tummies,” a four-year-old quickly piped in, reminding me of a fact I had forgotten.

As the kids called out the differing parts between a cow and a human, Diane dressed up a volunteer. There were four balloons for the stomachs and a fly swatter for the tail, along with hooves and a scratchy tongue. The furry brown outfit was adorable and helped the kids visualize the total differences.

Diane showed innovations like packing peanuts made from corn, which dissolve in water. She then asked which corn product babies use every day. We were all stumped. My son volunteered to stir a mixture of water and cornstarch, which demonstrated the product she was referring to. 

“It’s frozen!” the kids gasped, mystified by the thick goo.

“Is it your water?” Diane joked. “No, this is a corn product, used in diapers.”

“Yuck!” hollered the children; but we parents, we’re grateful. The hydrosorb material in diapers, paper towels and napkins soak up a lot of messes. 

Diane talked about the jobs the kids could do when they grow up related to agriculture-- like being a food scientist, pilot or farmer. She also explained things pigs give us. The children seemed to understand that bacon and sausage came from hogs; but when she said “heart valve transplants,” I thought it might go over the preschoolers’ heads. However, the next morning at breakfast, I was delighted to hear my son talk about the “heart tubes pigs give us.” Kids absorb more than you might expect. 

Diane ended her session at the preschool with a funny farm-to-fork book, “The Cow in Patrick O’Shanahan’s Kitchen” by Diana Prichard. The kids loved the pig and cow paper plate crafts she brought for them. Did you know that cows’ ear tags are stamped with their birthdates?

Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) is a national program with activities in every state. The mission of Cook County AITC is “to expand students' awareness and appreciation for the importance of agriculture everywhere.” They offer free 4th grade “in-school field trips,” 3rd grade ag days, ag magazines and curriculum kits as well as low-cost teacher workshops and summer agriculture institutes.  Last year Cook County Farm Bureau’s AITC team visited over 300 classrooms and reached 21,000 4th grade students. They can also be available for career days and presentations on topics like nutrition, biotechnology, environmental impacts of farming and sanitation.

If you have students in Cook County, teachers can sign up now for presentations, which are given September through May. 

Contact Diane Merrion, Agriculture Literacy Coordinator
Phone 708-354-3276

They’ve got ag in the bag, bringing fun and informative presentations to classrooms, often for free.

Cortney Fries
Chicago, Illinois

Cortney 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 02 2014

Spring Brings New Life and Renewed Optimism

We’ve had five days over the past few weeks—two of them this past weekend—where we could finally bring Ryker, our four-month-old son, outside to see the world.  It’s crazy to think that, being born in November, he really hasn’t experienced good weather yet! So, spring is also FINALLY coming. And with it, as also felt by anxious children looking out classroom windows and backyard-grilling aficionados, the anticipation of warm weather and greener landscapes. 

For me on the farm, it’s the sense of new life and renewed optimism that makes spring so special. Technically, the corn and soybean seed we plant has no greater yield potential than when it’s in the bag sitting in our shop--Mother Nature keeps us humble and thus prevents “100% efficiency.” This week, I’ve moved our planter out of storage and into the shop. Most neighbors have long since done this, but we put our planter away ready to go last summer—it only needs hooked up, dusted off, and calibrated. We’ve been receiving our seed too—this year our corn products will come from Dekalb (Monsanto), Wyffels (Private Family), Pioneer (DuPont), Funk (Syngenta) and Beck’s (Private Family). That’s a bit too many, admittedly, but we are trying small lots of the last three to build relationships and see how their products perform. And for soybean, we will plant seed soybean, likely a Channel brand (Monsanto)--we know everything about these seed soybeans, except what commercial name and brand it’s sold under. Finally, we will grow eMerge seed (Private Family) for our non-GMO food grade lot. 

While the theoretical yields of these seeds drops as Mother Nature asserts her dominance over our carefully concocted winter plans, the optimism that comes with this anticipation is one of the key drivers as we prepare for spring. It reminds us why—to quote Eisenhower, “Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.” We have a mix that would be analogous to the portfolio theory financial advisors profess: some hybrids are stronger in yield, but weaker in drought tolerance. Some are taller, some shorter, some have a longer flowering and grain fill time period, others are quicker and mature faster. Some are disease prone but yield more—a so-called “racehorse”—while others are steady and less volatile but yield less—a so-called “workhorse.” Some have genetically engineered traits, some don’t. 

When we make our plans, we believe in a mix to have resiliency on our farm, both agronomically and financially. These are the thoughts that enter a farmers’ mind as he receives his seed and gets ready for a crazy two-week to two-month planting window (Mother Nature, again, determines how long this planting window is!). I enjoy looking at the bags in our shed and envisioning a good season and plentiful harvest ahead.

We hope to begin basic fieldwork this week if the soils warm and dry a tad. We practice no-tillage on our farm—meaning that, other than injecting fertilizer and planting, the soil is left undisturbed. It’s cheaper to employ on our farm and better for the environment. But there are places where the rain washes even no-tilled soils into small “rills” (think about a very, very small gully—or what could grow into a gully or ditch). So, we take a soil finisher (other farmers may use a disk or field cultivator) to level those small rills out. Many farmers chose to till their fields completely—some soils need that type of mixing action to bring oxygen into the profile and dry things out for planting. We’re fortunate that it’s not necessary on our farm.

This will be a special spring for us. As I envision what this season might hold, I now need to rig up a car seat into the buddy seat of our tractor.  This will be the first year I farm as a father.  The symbolism of planting seeds to bring a new season of life while holding new life in my arms at night has not been overlooked. I’m preparing to do what my previous four ancestors did. And as I look to the future—as they did this time of year—I can include visions of Ryker helping me in the future. Spring is in the air; so is optimism on our family farm. Enjoy the season!

Andrew, Karlie and Ryker Bowman
Oneida, Illinois

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

Apr 17 2014

Hog Farm, Chapter 2: Meet the Farmers!

Meet the Gould family! Eldon and Sandy Gould have two adult children, Chris and Lynda. Lynda is a mixed animal veterinarian and married to a farmer. On the day of our farm tour, Lynda had a busy day at work caring for dogs, cats and even a horse, so she wasn’t able to join us until the very end of the afternoon. Chris and his wife, Dana, have two teenage children, a boy and a girl. Chris has joined his parents to run their family business, the Gould Family Farm, which is just 50 miles west of downtown Chicago.

Chris, Eldon, and Sandy graciously opened their doors to us and welcomed us onto their farm and into their family for the day to give us a first-hand account of their hog farm operation, our first farm tour of the year. They showed us historical photos of their farm, displaying how it has physically changed over the years with barns being added and a manure lagoon being filled in. Eldon shared with us how pig farming has changed since he was a teen in the 50’s and 60’s.Sandy has a degree in education and was a kindergarten teacher for some time before raising her family, and she clearly has a passion for teaching us moms about what they do on the farm. She keeps the records on all of the pigs, entering the data for each sow and litter of piglets. She has also successfully passed on her chocolate chip cookie baking skills to her grand-daughter; thank you, they were delicious! Chris thoroughly, yet succinctly, explained to us how the crops are managed and how they are related to the swine operation. We had an excellent overview of their operation before heading out into the barns to see the sows and piglets.

Ninety-four percent of Illinois farms are family farms, like the Goulds. Chris emphasized a point to us - that we should not define the farm as land and buildings; instead, the farm is defined as the business, the family business. It was an interesting point and I was glad he made it, because I had not considered that distinction.

Eldon grew up on a rented farm. In 1966, he and his father bought a neighboring farm that happened to come up for sale. Chris and his parents have expanded that farm operation and had an opportunity to purchase land several years ago during the real-estate market crash, but their crop land is primarily leased. Chris manages the crop side of the farm where they grow 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and winter wheat. His father manages the livestock side where they care for 650-750 sows and raise market piglets (16,000 annually) in a "farrow-to-wean" operation. They are contracted with Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, where their market pigs are sold.

I’m learning what the big mid-west agricultural universities are and the University of Illinois is a big one around Chicago. This family seems to have a U of I legacy going! Eldon graduated from U of I in 1963 with a degree in Animal Science. Chris graduated from U of I with a degree in Agricultural Engineering with a focus in Mechanical Engineering.

I was surprised to learn that the Gould farm employs six full-time employees; three on the crop-side, two on the swine side, and one trucker. They employ at least one high-school student who works on weekends and occasionally additional help during pig weaning. They also have a farm veterinarian who works with about 24 area farms. The Gould family members on this farm are largely farm managers; meaning they do all of the record-keeping, attend seminars, and manage day-to-day workings from their office full-time. I had an image in my head of the family running the farm and doing all of the physical labor themselves, but this farm is different than others I’ve been learning about.

Every one of the Gould family members we met cares about the welfare of their animals and also the welfare of the land they are farming. Chris proudly regards Illinois soil as the “best” soil. He said it is fertile and very good soil; and acknowledged that farmers in Iowa and other mid-west locations probably consider their soil the best. He explained that his interests are to manage that fertility and maintain it to the best of their ability utilizing the most current technology available to them.

To describe their character in a list of words from the few hours we spent with them, I would use diligent, deliberate, thoughtful, honest, and respectful. They seem diligent when it comes to following regulations, striving to always improve, and being responsible neighbors. They seem deliberate about how they operate the farm. Every action has a reason and a purpose. They are thoughtful people. Their actions are thought-out. They collect data, analyze it, and then use it to move forward in a positive direction. They appeared to be very open and honest with us moms about how their farm business is run. We asked a lot of questions and they were all answered openly. They seem respectful of each other, the people that work for them, their animals, and the land they cultivate.

It was a privilege to be with the Gould family and learn about their life and work.

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.

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