Last night a woman who I like and respect quite a bit posted a rather lengthy Facebook status.  Tammy and I met several years ago at the farmers market where I’m a vendor and she is a regular customer.  Her status bothered me so much that it’s now 3:00 AM, about 5 hours after I read the post, and I’ve given up trying to sleep, gotten out of bed, and am at the computer in our farm office, trying to regurgitate the thoughts I’ve had since the initial read.

She’s a mom of two, and is making all of the food choices for her family.  Her post centered around her feelings of being torn between “seemingly opposing sides” of the “local, heirloom, organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, sustainable, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range” farmers and those who farm using conventional methods.

I’ve left the comfort of my warm bed to try to explain that, Tammy, you don’t have to choose a side.

The recent round of fear-based marketing, most prominently displayed by Chipotle’s new advertising campaign introduced this week, will have you believe that there is only one correct choice and that it must be the one with the most adjectives attached.  I’m troubled by the increasing prevalence of emotionally charged fear mongering in food marketing and am especially bothered by how it’s affecting people like Tammy.  It’s beyond annoying to me when one method of production is misrepresented and put down to make another look good.  This tactic is being used not only by major food retailers like the burrito purveyor, but by farmers against one another.  It is this particular practice that makes me saddest, as the rift is non-productive and dangerous.  I would suggest that there is room for all types of production methods in today’s agriculture and that they can peacefully co-exist.  The reality is that there are plenty of markets for farmers today.  Consumers have a variety of desires and demands, from budget to niche related.  We also can’t overlook the fact that we’re facing a very real global population explosion and it will take all farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, doing what they do best, to feed it.

Winter Cow

A farmer makes the decision on what kind of crop to grow and how to grow it based on a multitude of factors, which include location, facilities, resources, market opportunities, availability of labor, personal preference, etc.  I’ll give some examples beginning with my own farm.  Here we have a herd of 60 beef cows.  It’s that size because of the amount of land, and the quality of land, that we have available.  The land where my cattle graze during the spring, summer and fall has been in my husband’s family since the 1840’s.  Because of the soil type and terrain (gravel in some spots, too wet in others) it’s not really suitable for growing a crop but makes a great pasture.  That reason, coupled with the fact that both my husband and I enjoy working with cattle, is the reason that we raise beef, and are the size that we are.  If there was more of the same type of land available we might choose to increase our herd size, but would have to consider other factors such as the need to hire more help to care for the additional animals.  Sixty cows is the size that works for us.

The decision about how to market our beef, which is directly to consumers, was made based on the fact that here in McHenry County we’re physically located in a fairly populous and prosperous area between two major population centers, Chicago and Rockford.  Because of that proximity we can market our products direct, or choose to sell through traditional markets.  I have friends who raise cattle in North Dakota.  They’re in a remote rural area literally 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks and 80 miles from a McDonalds.  Marketing direct to consumers is not an option for them simply because the population is not there to draw from, the market simply doesn’t exist for them.  They also have about ten times the number of cows that I have.  They are that size because they have more land and more labor available; there are actually 3 generations of their family working together.  That’s the size that works for them.  It’s not better or worse than what we’re doing here.

I choose to not use growth promotants in my beef.  It’s because my customers tell me that they want it that way.  As a consequence of that choice, my cattle grow a little slower than cattle from herds where they are used, so mine will require more feed.  The cost of that feed is passed along to the consumer, thus my beef is more expensive than the more efficiently raised alternative.  I’m very aware that there are people who can’t afford my beef.  That’s OK and I’m happy that there is more affordable beef in large retail stores available to them since I believe that beef is a terrific source of necessary protein (not to mention iron and zinc), and it’s great tasting, too!  I would never suggest that there’s anything wrong with the less expensive beef that is raised in a different manner.  Growth promotants have been used for decades and are completely safe.  I personally would not hesitate to buy beef from the grocery store if I did not have my own home-grown supply.  Similarly, I do not have a problem feeding my own beef to my family or selling it to others even though it does not carry the “organic” certification.  The bottom line is that I have found a market for my beef, while other farmers have a market for less expensive, efficiently-raised beef, and yet another group finds buyers who are willing to pay extra for the organic label.  We find what works best for our own farms.

I also market my beef as “natural”.  This term on a label means (by USDA definition) that it’s minimally processed with no artificial additives.  There are no preservatives or food coloring in my beef.  Again, I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with either of these, just going along with the preferences of my customers.  In fact, the absence or presence of a growth promotant, a preservative, or food coloring has absolutely no effect on the nutritional value, taste, or safety of beef.  And remember that all beef, regardless of the number of adjectives used to describe it, must always be handled and cooked properly.  A person can become ill from improperly prepared food, whether it’s organic, sustainable, free-range or not.   Getting back to the customer…I’m able to fit my production methods to the demands of my clientele.  These days, they tell me that “local” and “natural” are important to them, they don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about “organic”. They do like know that the money they’re spending is staying in the county.  They want to have a relationship with their farmer and know how and where their food is raised.  I’m happy to comply.  If things change and price, or something else, should become the priority, I will have to adapt my production methods accordingly.

Summer Cows

I have neighbors who grow vegetables.  Their farm is located on a state highway, perfect for a farm stand, given the amount of traffic in our suburban county.  They can market a large amount of a wide variety of their vegetables directly to consumers right from home.  I have other friends who also grow vegetables but their farm is off the beaten path, actually on a gravel road.  A farm stand at home is not an option for them (they like their quiet location, and admit that they would not enjoy hosting the public at their home on a daily basis as others do), so they’ve chosen to load a truck several times a week during the growing season and sell at farmers markets, or sell to the wholesale market in Chicago.  Another friend from the farmers market has a very small amount of acreage and grows heirloom (and other varieties of veggies that you don’t see everywhere) using organic methods.  She chooses this because it’s what her customers want; the “organic” label is important to them and they are willing to pay for it.  She’s able to comply because her small scale is manageable for her without much extra help.  Her veggies do cost more due to the cost of organic certification and market expenses, but she’s found a niche for herself and gets a premium for her products.  The neighbors with the farm stand have a large amount of land with fertile soil types.  They choose to raise their veggies using conventional methods and fairly large equipment.  They don’t believe there’s anything wrong with organic, but their choice is based on the fact that organic production requires more labor which is not readily available to them, and more importantly, their customers are happy with the variety, quality, and quantity of what they produce.  It’s the size and method that works for them.  Each has chosen what works best, not necessarily “a side”.

So for Tammy, and other consumers who are struggling with food choices amidst overwhelming labels, adjectives, and headline-grabbing, myth-based marketing campaigns, I say pick whatever works best for YOU.  Don’t be mislead by fear-mongers and unjustified guilt.  Ask questions of those who are actually growing the food, and discount the opinions of those who must tear down someone else’s choice to make theirs look most appealing.  Buy what you want given your own budget and preferences.  And remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing; there is no rule against buying conventional one day and organic the next.  Whether you’re buying food for your family at a small farm stand, the local farmers market, Jewel, Trader Joe’s, Target, or Costco – with no adjectives or a list of adjectives as long as your arm – know that there’s a farmer at the other end who made choices too.  There’s no wrong answer.

Okay, glad I’ve gotten that off my chest.  The day is now beginning, time to start my day the same way farmers and ranchers all across the country do, regardless of the number of acres they own, animals in their care, or method of production they’ve chosen for their farm.  We’re all getting up and checking our animals; making sure they’re comfortable and secure, that they have plenty of feed, water, and a dry place to rest.  Our livestock comes first no matter the adjectives attached to the label.  No choice there.

Sunset Combine

Frankly, I’m amazed that I was able to post something every day for thirty days in a row! I’ll admit to cutting corners, taking advantage of each “Wordless Wednesday”, “Throwback Thursday”, and “Flashback Friday” whenever possible to avoid time consuming creativity. The majority of my writing was consisted of little more than glorified Facebook posts.

But in light of all that was happening this month, and reviewing the daily blog posts provides a reminder of the craziness, I’m OK with my inconsistent output. My excuses include the pressures and time constraints of harvest, a family medical emergency, the destructive storms, calving, holidays, etc.

Having said that, I’d like to thank Holly Spangler for providing the challenge of daily blogging. This month, I tried to read as many posts as possible from the other bloggers taking part, and discovered some great new blogs to enjoy. I still have a list of potential blog topics, I just need to find time to get them written. Taking part in the challenge was an interesting experience and I feel relieved and happy to be at the finish line.

Interested in learning who else participated in the 30 days blog challenge this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

Gary & Andrew

Here’s a cute one for Flashback Friday…going all the way back to the fall of 1965. Yes, my husband’s family had a donkey on the farm at that time, a gift from the children’s grandparents. The donkey was not stupid, apparently it would frequently take the rider to an area with trees with particularly low branches, just low enough to knock off whomever was atop!

As is the case with so many of these old photos, one has to wonder what’s the “rest of the story”. Why is my husband at the “wrong” end of the donkey, and why is Cousin Andrew riding high in style? Will JoAnn be able to pedal away in time? Are those guns loaded, Gary? I also get the feeling that something unpleasant was about to happen, something that might quickly wipe that squinty smile from my future husband’s face (and possible dirty those clean clothes)! The possible captions to this one are endless!

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog challenge or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

Family Picnic (3)

Most of what I’ve read this week falls under the theme of gratitude. And on this Thanksgiving Day people everywhere are especially thoughtful and expressive. Here are my two cents:

Once all of the chores are completed this morning, we’ll be traveling about a mile to my in-laws for the annual get-together at their farm. There will be a houseful of extended relations and friends, and an incredible home-cooked feast. I’ll get to spend time with some of my favorite people. It will be a very pleasant, fun, and relaxing day. Tomorrow we’ll be venturing a little farther away to a gathering of my dad’s family. It will be wonderful to see everyone, some are travelling here from South Dakota and Kansas. I’m looking forward to catching up with those we don’t see often enough and a chance to marvel at how much the kids have grown. There are no “drunk uncles” or drama at either place; we manage to keep it light and avoid any controversial conversations. Yes, it’s somewhat predictable. And I like it that way.

My family and friends are right at the top of the incredibly long list of things for which I am most grateful. The picture to accompany this post is not exactly a traditional Thanksgiving photo, but to me it expresses “family”. The people in the image are my father’s maternal side of our family, circa 1930-something. I never knew them – my grandmother died when I was very small (she’s the one at the farthest right) – but they look like people I would have gotten along with well. They seem to be having a great time and enjoying each others company. I will think about them today and will try to carry on the tradition on this Thanksgiving Day.

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog challenge or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

farm sunset

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It’s another cold, frosty morning so I thought It would be good to post a photo from a warmer, sunnier time this past summer. We’re also recovering from corn harvest here (while many friends and neighbors are still working to finish up), the harvest season dragging on because of the cold and rainy weather, so I’m ready to look at something other than corn. We haven’t seen much blue sky lately either, so here ya go.

This is one of our wheat fields – I took the photo in early June. This crop was harvested in late July. Next spring it will be planted to corn. We have 3 main crops here; corn, soybeans, and wheat. Corn and beans are planted in the Spring and harvested in the Fall, however, the variety of wheat that we grow here is Soft Red Winter Wheat; it’s planted in the Fall and harvested in Summer. Many of the fields that were planted to soybeans this year now have wheat growing there. Right now the wheat is short and green, the fields almost resemble a lawn.

Rotating the crops is just one way that we take care of the land. Everything is a cycle here. I know the cold weather has only just begun, but I’m already looking forward to Spring, and the warmer part of that cycle!

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog challenge or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

If you know me, you know that I’m all about sharing what’s happening on our farm and I enjoy connecting people with little or no agriculture background to those directly involved in growing or raising our food, fuel and fiber. Illinois Farm Bureau helps run a program that makes this happen, it’s called “Illinois Farm Families“. This program facilitates conversations between farmers and consumers, provides opportunities for non-farm folks to have their questions answered about food, farmers and farming, and also shares the reality of what actually happens on today’s Illinois family farms.

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I was fortunate to be asked to accompany the current group of the Illinois Farm Families’ “Field Moms” on an outing a couple of weeks ago. This was the final tour for this group of Chicago-area mothers that has been meeting periodically for the past year. We met in the morning at a large grocery store in Wheaton for a back-of-the-house tour, and an enlightening discussion about retail food marketing with store management.

We then spent the afternoon at the Northern Illinois Food Bank in St. Charles, volunteering our time to sort and package food for the hungry. Last year, The Food Bank fed 500,000 people in 13 counties by distributing 50 million pounds of food. Our group was assigned to the meat department. My task was to inspect the donated packages to make sure that there were no rips, holes, or tears in the packaging, then send the meat on to other volunteers for labeling and sorting. Pallet after pallet of beef, pork, poultry, lamb and fish products were brought from the freezer warehouse, reassembled into 20 lb. boxes, to be distributed to food pantries, schools, and shelters. At the end of the day, our group was responsible for getting about 8,000 lbs. of meat ready to go. The Food Bank is a huge structure and on this particular Saturday was bustling with volunteers working to help those less fortunate. It was great to be a part of such a worthwhile group effort. I really enjoyed meeting the “Field Moms”, too, and having a chance to get to know a few of them as we worked side by side.

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The Field Moms have visited a variety of Illinois family farms over the past year. The farm tours are planned for Saturdays in March, May, October and November; timed to show the cycle from planting to harvest. They have seen farms of all types and sizes, and have met farmers who raise crops like corn and soybeans, as well as those who make a living raising livestock such as dairy cows, beef cattle and hogs. The Field Moms share their firsthand accounts by submitting photos and a short blog about their experiences.

As the 2013 Field Moms wrap up their year of interaction and learning, plans are being made for 2014. A new group will be selected soon. If the program sounds interesting, I’d encourage you to apply at http://www.WatchUsGrow.org – applications are due by December 15. Let me know if you have any questions.

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog challenge or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

chicken
I recently read an article about the consequences of the waning “back-yard chicken” movement. To me, it’s rather sad, and I have to say that I saw it coming. A few years ago, urban and suburban folks, lured by romantic images of farm life, the “local foods” craze, and in pursuit of fresh eggs, decided that it would be a good idea to keep chickens in their residential back yards. A few municipalities in our area debated allowing chickens in non-agricultural areas. Those against the idea brought up practical reasons why poultry should be limited to farms, such as noise (often very early) from roosters crowing, the problem of waste disposal, associated human health risks, and the hazard the birds can cause when not confined by proper fencing.

Those in favor prevailed in some cases, and ordinances were passed allowing poultry in non-agricultural areas. Designer coops were erected and exotic breeds of poultry purchased. The trend went along for a while, but now as reality sets in, unwanted chickens are being turned in to pet shelters, and specialty rescue organizations are being formed. Especially now, as cold weather approaches, many owners are seeking new homes for their birds. Winter means additional expenses and chores: heating coops, providing fresh, unfrozen water, extra feed, and more frequent shoveling and cleaning of the coops. Many first time chicken owners are unprepared for, or grow tired of, the winter requirements.

Another factor in winter is the lack of natural light. Hens very often will quit laying eggs as the days grow shorter. Artificial lighting can be manipulated to keep the hens laying eggs but that requires electric service and a timer. Hens will quit laying when they are 2 to 4 years old, but can live 10 to 12 years, which brings up another problem: what to do when the “pet” chicken is no longer productive. In commercial settings, these birds are used for meat, i.e. stewing hens. Many city people form pet-like attachments to their birds and can’t bear to part with them, or are simply unprepared for the long-term commitment. It’s one more reason why poultry shelters, like “Chicken Run Rescue” have come into existence. In the article that I read by Kim Palmer in the November 8 edition of The Beacon, Mary Britton Clouse, founder of the rescue, says that last year she had nearly 500 surrender requests. “All the other sanctuaries and shelters have noticed an increase. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion”, she says of the abandoned and neglected chickens that she sees.

There are also health risks to both humans and poultry associated with keeping the birds in urban areas, that most new owners are completely unaware of. Most of them do little or no research, and report getting their information from the Internet. There are some capitalizing on the trend, like Al Bourgeois of suburban Minneapolis, aka “The Chicken Enthusiast” who, according to the article, has taught classes on urban chicken-keeping for the past four years. His curriculum includes a pragmatic “cautionary section” to “deter those with unrealistic expections”. Unfortunately, there are too many who ignore the warnings and proceed with their pursuit.

My fear is that the number of unwanted birds will continue to grow until the fad completely flames out. The reported neglect and abandonments is not fair to the birds. There’s a reason why livestock are raised on farms. Let’s leave the farm animals on farms, and in the care of farmers.

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog challenge or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

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I took this picture earlier this fall. It’s one of my favorites because it shows the cow in her most essential role, as a mother. And as a mother myself, I can relate.

Sure, the machinery and crop production is very important, but it’s the cattle that really come first. It’s our priority each and every day to provide the best possible care to our herd. Before we feed ourselves, we feed our cattle. Before we move on to the other tasks on our lists, we make sure that the needs of our cattle are met. Before we go to sleep at night, no matter how long or tiring the day has been, we check to ensure that cattle have everything they need. It’s all about the cattle!

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog challenge or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

Grant with Betty

This photo is one of my favorites, it’s from the Fall of 2001. My son, Grant, is now 22 years old and a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He still loves cattle and is planning to milk cows after he graduates in May with his Animal Science degree. And the heifer calf he’s with in the photo is still around. She’s now a cow named “Betty”. I’d like to think that the lessons Grant learned growing up around livestock helped shape him into the responsible young man he is today. He’s not perfect, but I couldn’t be more proud of him.

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog challenge or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

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