IL Farm Families

Personalizing Food Choices

In 1991, I moved to DeKalb, Illinois, to teach in a small farming community 17 miles southwest of DeKalb. In the years since then, it’s been easy to see that farmland is disappearing. New housing developments have cropped up around DeKalb and more strip malls are being built. The Chicago suburbs are expanding farther and farther west. Is this progress? Perhaps. Yet all these outlet malls, auto marts, and huge new houses are swallowing up some of the richest farmland in the world. The flat farm fields of Illinois may not look like much to the naked eye, but farmers will tell you that the dark rich soil of Northern Illinois is perfect for growing crops.

Disappearing farmland should be a concern to all of us. When the year 2050 comes around, we’ll need to feed 9 billion people on approximately the same amount or less farmland we currently have. This is more important than the fight between organic and conventional foods. There isn’t just one solution. By using a variety of farming techniques, including organic and conventional farming, we can succeed in feeding the world.

Monsanto greenhouse corn
A Monsanto greenhouse

The conversation about food is difficult. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Among suburban moms, it is “fashionable” to buy only organic foods. We are making the topic of food choices too personal. I have been told (not by a doctor) that I should eat only grass fed beef because of my medical history. When I wrote on Facebook that I was was going to visit Monsanto, one person unfriended me. When my husband became interested in what Monsanto does and liked their Facebook page, a member of the family asked him, “You don’t really like Monsanto, do you?” Social media has done a good job of spreading fear and mistrust of GMOs and the companies that produce them. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that one of Monsanto’s executives agrees with using organic and GMOs to help feed the world. It can’t just be one or the other.

The farming community is opening their doors to City Moms. Farmers are talking about why they farm the way they do. They are open to discussing GMOs, use of pesticides, and how they treat their livestock. They have many choices, and Monsanto seed is only one of their choices. They also have the responsibility of providing enough food for everyone as our population keeps growing. It takes courage for the City Moms to have open minds and to listen to what they are telling us, even when our friends are telling us not to listen.

Monsanto greenhouse
City Moms learning about growing GM corn.

I had no idea when I became a City Mom that I would be learning so much about agriculture and the food we eat. I didn’t know I would develop a passion to learn more. I also didn’t realize that I would not only be learning about the food on my dinner table, but also about feeding billions of people in the future. I now read farm blogs and agricultural reports, along with scientific articles about our food supplies. I’m personalizing my food choices by learning more about my food.

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As a Field Mom Ambassador, I am compensated to write this post. All opinions are my own.

Deep Freeze

The sun is shining today and it looks beautiful outside. However, all that sunshine is deceptive. We woke up this morning to a temperature of -7° F and closed schools.

snow

A day like this, however, is perfect for defrosting our chest freezer! A couple of weeks ago when temperatures dipped into single digits, I emptied the contents of my freezer into a cooler and put it on the porch. Our frozen food stayed quite frozen except for one item; an Easter ham that I bought on sale last year. This ham went into the refrigerator instead, and after having a hearty ham dinner on a cold winter night, we had ham leftovers. I love ham leftovers! I cube the ham and make casseroles. One of my favorites is the Country Club Breakfast casserole. Another favorite recipe is Split Pea and Ham soup, which uses the ham bone.

This time, I made scalloped potatoes with my ham leftovers. I used Idaho Russet Potatoes, scrubbed them well and kept the skins on the potatoes for a more rustic casserole. I wasn’t sure my daughters would like that extra texture the skins provided, but they cleaned their plates!

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes
Click the photo to print the recipe.

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes and Ham

About 4 large potatoes, sliced
¼ cup chopped onion
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 cup diced baked ham
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove minced garlic
1½ cups milk
1½ tablespoons cornstarch
⅛ teaspoon pepper

Preheat oven to 350° F. Arrange half the potatoes in a greased 9 x 13 baking dish. Top with
half the onion, cheese and ham. Make a second layer of potatoes, onion, cheese and ham. Melt
butter and cook garlic in medium saucepan for 1 minute or until you smell the garlic. Blend
milk, cornstarch and pepper in a medium bowl. Pour milk mixture into saucepan with the butter
and garlic; cook and stir until thickened. Pour over potatoes.

Bake covered for 50 minutes. Uncover and bake for 10 more minutes or until potatoes are
tender.

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How Being a Field Mom Made Me a Better Preschool Teacher

One of the first words many parents teach their children are animal sounds. What does a sheep say? What does a cow say? Most of the animals are farm animals, although I was known to sneak an elephant in, complete with swinging my arm up in the air for a trunk!

My preschool (as many preschools do) teaches a farm theme unit to our students. This theme goes beyond teaching animal sounds and delves into the sources of the food we eat. We talk a lot about the farmer helping the animals and planting crops, but I wondered; does the farmer still exist? We hear the term “factory farm” tossed around so often in conversations about food that I began to doubt that farms really were farmer owned, but rather owned by corporations.

Old MacDonald Really Does Have a Farm

Okay, so I really didn’t meet Old MacDonald. But after visiting numerous farms and meeting several farmers face-to-face, I now know that family farms still do exist. In fact, 96% of farms in Illinois are family farms, not corporate owned at all. So while I didn’t meet a farmer named MacDonald, I met the Goulds, who own a hog farm, the Martz family, who grow corn, soybeans, and finish cattle, and the Drendels, who own a dairy farm. And let me tell you, women are also farmers.

Field Mom Natasha Nicholes with cattle farmer Mike Martz
Field Mom Natasha Nicholes with Mike Martz

What Do Cows Really Eat?

The easy answer is hay. The more complex answer depends on the type of cow. Farmers often consult with nutritionists to give their animals a nutritious diet. Beef cattle are started on grass, and then finished with a nutritious blend of hay and grain. At the Larson farm, they use a mix of grain, byproducts from corn used in ethanol, silage, which is chopped up corn plant, and hay. Dairy cows, however, have different nutrition needs since they bear young and produce milk. Dairy farmers such as the Drendels account for this difference in the feed that they use, which is slightly different from the food beef cattle eat.

Nothing Goes to Waste on the Farm

Farmers collect the manure from their livestock and spread it on their fields as fertilizer. Beef cattle can eat a byproduct of ethanol, and dairy cows use the nutrition of a byproduct from cotton bolls. All of these are great examples of how the farming community finds a use for “leftovers.”

Larson-infographic_in_green1200

Tractors Are Cool!

Not only do farmers use GPS to help them guide their combines, they also use it to map out the yields their crops are getting acre by acre. These results show them where to place more fertilizer or less fertilizer and how much seed to plant. This makes tractors even cooler!

Preschoolers Are Curious

The four and five year olds that I teach are very inquisitive. They want to know about the world around them, and agriculture is an important part of that world. During my experiences as a Field Mom, I became better equipped to teach my students about agriculture and to help them learn through their curiosity. Just as I like to give my students “hands-on” learning experiences, visiting farms with Illinois Farm Families gave me an up close and “hands-on” learning experience!
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From Farm to Table: Milk’s Journey

Did you know that it only takes 48 hours for milk to get from the cow to the store?

calf with Ginny
A calf, licking my fingers!

This fall, I was able to see the entire process of how milk travels from the farm to the store. We always grab a gallon of milk when we are grocery shopping. I love drinking milk! As a milk drinker, this farm tour was fascinating! I visited with Dale and Linda Drendel in Northern Illinois and was able to see the whole milking process.

Holstein cow waiting to go into the milking parlor.
Holstein cow waiting to go into the milking parlor.

The Drendels have dairy farming in their blood; both of their families have been farming for generations. Their dairy farm, Lindale Holsteins, has mostly Holstein cows. They are the black and white cows you may think of when you think of a dairy cow. A cow needs to have a calf before she is a milking cow. Her milk production peaks 40 to 60 days after a calf is born, and then her milk production slowly decreases.

Milking

The Drendels milk their cows twice a day; early in the morning, and then at about 4:00 in the afternoon. The cows are trained to go into the milking parlor. They line up outside the door, quietly waiting their turn to be milked. Once the cows walk to their spot in the milking parlor, the farmers clean the cows’ udders, and then place a milking machine on the cows’ teats. Dale had me put my thumb in one of the milkers; the suction was very gentle on my thumb. The milk is collected in large glass containers and sent to a cooler through stainless steel pipes to be cooled down to 38 degrees as quickly as possible.

cow being milked
The cow’s milk goes directly into a glass jar in the milking parlor.
milking cows
Dale Drendel removing the milking machine from the cow. Each cow produces about 8 gallons of milk a day!

A refrigerated tanker truck picks up the milk from the cooler and takes it to the milk processing plant. At the plant, the milk goes through several tests before it is even allowed to leave the truck. These tests include screening for bacteria and antibiotics. The milk is then put into a refrigerated raw milk silo. I was lucky enough to be able to visit a Dean’s processing plant in Huntley, Illinois, to see milk being prepared for its trip to the grocery store. (I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures inside the plant, due to security reasons.)

Pasteurization

At the processing plant, several things happen to the milk. A very important step is pasteurization. There are several different forms of pasteurization, and most of the milk we see in the store is heated to 168 degrees for 25 seconds. This kills harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. Think about that temperature for a second. I steam my vegetables at a higher temperature and for longer than 25 seconds, and yet I don’t lose all of the nutritional value vegetables have to offer. Most of the nutrients in milk are not affected by the pasteurization process. One vitamin that is affected by pasteurization is Vitamin C. However, milk is not a good source of Vitamin C anyway. Milk provides plenty of other nutrients that are important for our bodies. Not only does milk provide calcium, it also provides Vitamin D, riboflavin, phosphorus, protein, potassium, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, and niacin. The milk is also fortified with extra Vitamin A and Vitamin D.

Homogenization

During the homogenization process, the milk fat is broken up into tiny particles and spread evenly throughout the milk. Homogenization keeps the cream from rising to the top of the milk as it sits in your refrigerator, and does not affect the nutritional value of milk.

Packaging

At the Dean’s processing plant, they make the plastic jugs right on the premises. After the milk is put into the gallon jugs, it is trucked directly to stores such as Jewel and Walmart. Milk has a short shelf life of about 16-20 days, and so the sooner it is on the shelves, the better it is for us as consumers.

drinking milk

We love to have milk in our cereal or to drink it out of a glass. I use milk for cooking and baking, and one of my favorite snacks is popcorn and milk! Does your family drink milk? What part of the milking process would you like to know more about?

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From Farm to Plate: Should We Save the Turkeys?

This past November, we sang Thanksgiving songs at the preschool where I teach. One song goes like this (to the melody of Frere Jacques):

Mr. Turkey, Mr. Turkey,
Run away, run away.
If you are not careful
You will be a mouthful
Thanksgiving Day, Thanksgiving Day.

On social media people were sharing cute cartoons show turkeys running away from the farmer so that they won’t end up on the dining room table. Save the turkeys!

But do we really want to save the turkeys? I like eating turkey, especially on Thanksgiving!

Sometimes the reality of what farmers provide for us is hard to take. During our preschool field trip to Wagner Farm in Glenview, IL, a little four-year-old girl asked our guide, “Is that Wilbur?” as we were looking at the pigs.

Our leader gently told her that they didn’t name the pigs because they were going to be used for food. She then talked about all the kinds of food that pigs give us.

As adults visiting farms as part of the Field Mom program, we are very similar to that four-year-old girl. After we visited the pig farm, I heard from a couple of the field moms that they had a difficult time eating pork. It was just so hard to see those adorable baby pigs and then think of them being dinner.

holding piglet

At the dairy farm, it was upsetting for us as moms to see calves taken away from their mothers as soon as they were born. Farming is a business, explained our hostess, Linda Drendal. It’s just not wise to give the cows human characteristics and emotions. The cows’ job is to provide milk and other dairy products for us, and so the calves are taken away and bucket fed. But as I watched Linda interact with the calves, I could tell she wanted what was best for them as well.

Yes, farming is a business and the animals do end up on our plates. Farmers usually do not name their animals for a reason. However, at all the farms I went to, every farmer I met showed a love for animals and cared deeply for the welfare of their animals.

It would be very easy to be cynical and think that healthy animals bring good market prices, and that’s why a farmer make sure his animals are healthy. It’s so much more than that. The farmers I talked with know what make an animal stressed; they know how to make the animals comfortable and content. They constantly research ways to make their animals’ lives better. One farm is in the process of putting up rolling curtains to provide airflow and shelter when needed. Another farm was using sand as soft bedding for their herd. These farmers take on a huge responsibility when it comes to the health and welfare of their animals.

About a year ago, I was at the cattle finishing farm, waiting to see how the ultrasound worked. The ultrasound looks at back fat and marbling to determine if a steer is ready for market. In order to make sure that all the Field Moms saw the ultrasound, there were three steers waiting to go into the ultrasound machine. Using just one steer would have made the animal too stressed to be in the ultrasound machine for three groups of Field Moms. One of the steers waiting in the chute kept mooing and looking uneasy. One of the farmers placed his gloved hand at the top of the chute for the steer to sniff, and the steer was calmed.

That made an impression on me. That little gesture, hardly noticeable, showed how well the farmers know their animals.

When I sit down to my turkey or ham dinner during the holidays, I’ll be grateful that the business of farming helped put my dinner on my plate.

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As a Field Mom Ambassador, I am compensated to write this post. All opinions are my own.

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