Illinois Farm Families: Helping You Make Decisions About Your Food

Illinois Farm Families: Helping You Make Decisions About Your Food

The Illinois Farm Families organization can help you make decisions about your food, where it comes from and how it’s grown.

Face it: We, as parents, are often judged by what we feed our children.  I can’t count how many times I inadvertently have been pulled into a conversation with another parent about the benefits of buying organic this or non-GMO that.  Tired of trying to determine fact from fiction and wondering if our food really came from a farm or a large factory, I found a group that is dedicated to providing education about farming in Illinois to urban parents like me: the  Illinois Farm Families.

 

Visiting the Larson Farms

Visiting the Larson Farms

Illinois Farm Families hosts moms from the Chicago area (and surrounding suburbs) on tours of family-run farms.  The programs lasts for a year and I was able to tour at least 4 different types of farms including those that concentrated on hogs, cattle, corn and soy as well as a dairy farm.  At the end of the tour of the farms, we also explored a grocery store to learn how food is transported from the farm to the processor and finally to the store.  I spent much of the year redefining my erroneous views of how our food is grown, processed and sold.  Most importantly, I gained a better understanding of what it means to have GMO and non-GMO grown food.  When my friends asked me what I got out of the program I  always said the same thing: “I learned so much that I think you should apply to be a Field Mom too.”  In other words, don’t take my word for it, go out and meet the people who are growing and caring for your food!

Grain Feed

Grain Feed

The mission of the group isn’t to sell the Field Moms on why we should buy one type of product over another;  it is to get the word out about Illinois Farms and get rid of the mystery (and stereotypes) of what it means to be a farmer and live on a farm. The Field Moms met with farmers and other agricultural representatives from both the pro-organic and pro-GMO sides of the farming industry.  Both sides were passionate about their beliefs and were willing to answer some of our (okay my) outrageous questions.  We learned that not all farmers are alike. For a growing portion of the Illinois family owned farms,  women are considered the “head” farmer  or at the very least equal partners with their male relatives.  Running a successful farm is less about manually planting the seeds and more about using the latest and greatest technology to ensure a successful harvest.  For instance, all of the farms that we visited used GPS guided planters to maximize their acreage and plant the best seed for a particular type of soil.

 

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That’s me, climbing in the a state-of-the-art tracker. I was truly wondering how I was going to get out of it!

 


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Finally, we had the opportunity to volunteer at a food bank. I have to be honest, although I was looking forward to spending time with many of the women with whom I made lasting friendships, I was not too excited to spend a precious Saturday throwing meat and stuffing boxes of dried goods.  Once again, I was wrong!  This was a wonderful experience.  It made me appreciate how much food is actually wasted in this country and what I could do to help others gain access to healthy, non-processed meals.  In fact, when I became a Federally Licensed Health Navigator later that year, I often referred my Medicaid eligible clients to the Northern Illinois Food Bank.  I cannot wait to have another chance to volunteer at this very needed and dynamic facility.

My experience with Illinois Farm Families didn’t end with the volunteer work at the Northern Illinois Food Bank.  I was invited to speak at the Illinois Soybean Growers Conference about my experience as a Field Mom.  My experiences truly influenced my perceptions about the modern farming industry and where our food comes from.  More importantly, I had the chance to meet women, who are very much like me: Mothers, Business Women, Wives, Pet Owners and Dynamic.  What was once a seemingly insurmountable difference between these women and me; that they lived on a farm and I, in a city, seemed irrelevant by the end of my year.

The 2013 Field Moms

The 2013 Field Moms

If you would like to learn more, or even apply to be a part of this years city moms touring farms, then I suggest you check out the application HERE.  Deadline to apply is November 15, 2014.  Trust me, you will be glad that you applied.

 

IL Farm Families: Know Your Food

IL Farm Families: Know Your Food

When it comes to food, I want to be well informed.  And I don’t want to buy food that could harm the health of my family. Like most concerned parents, I have researched the differences between organic and conventional food to help figure out what is the best food. Recently, I decided that research alone was not going to get me the answers that I longed for.  I wanted to meet the people responsible for growing our food.

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Enter Illinois Farm Families, an organization committed to introducing urban moms to the people responsible for growing our food.  Four times a year, Illinois farm families invite a group of “Field Moms” to visit their farms, take pictures, and in my case, ask questions about farming.

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The 2013 Field Moms

Visiting the Larson Farms

Visiting the Larson Farms

Last month, we visited the Larson Family Farms, which specializes in cattle management or “finishing.”  I learned that most cattle are raised on range or pasture land for at least a year.  They are then transported to a feedlot where the animals are fed a grain ration. As I had never been to this type of farm, I came armed with a host of questions and got some great answers:

 

Cows!

Cows!

  • Why are most cattle in the US grain fed instead of field or grass fed?

Michael Martz, head livestock operator, explained that grain-fed beef tastes better than grass-fed.  In fact, most Americans prefer the tenderness and a rich flavor of grain-fed beef. Economics also plays a huge role in a rancher deciding how to finish the cattle.  Right now, there is an abundance of feed corn in the United States.   Thus the cost of turning it into grain is minimal. Also, it takes longer for an animal to reach market weight if they are grass-fed.  Therefore the cost of finishing grass-fed cattle is much higher.

Mike Martz showing the make-up of cattle feed

Mike Martz showing the make-up of cattle feed

 

  • Why are cattle given antibiotics and hormones?

 

Antibiotics are used for disease management: both to prevent disease and to treat it.  The human GI tract naturally produces antibiotics every day.  After all, an antibiotic is a natural bacterial self-defense mechanism.  We need to differentiate between an antibiotic and a probiotic.  Antibiotics are “bad” because they kill bacteria and probiotics are “good” because they favor certain bacteria. Both are needed by animals (including humans) to stay healthy.

Mike told me that when an animal is ill and requires medication, it is removed from the herd (to prevent disease from spreading,) treated and cannot be sold for processing for a specific amount of time (the medication must pass through the animal’s system.) The FDA has strict guidelines regarding both milk and meat withdrawal after treatment of any medicine.  Milk and meat are both extensively tested to ensure guidelines are followed.  Violators lose their ability to sell milk or meat.  One need only look on the FDA website to see a list of violators.  Clearly, this is not a list on which any livestock producer wants his name associated.

Mike answered specific questions about how added hormones aid in processing the meat.  He noted that 98 percent of cattle are given “growth promoting” products that contain hormones like estrogen, which is naturally occurring and found in both plants and animals. In fact, these hormones are produced by the human body in amounts hundreds of thousands of times greater than that used for growth promotion in cattle.

 

  • Are antibiotics administered to animals that aren’t sick?  Many proponents of organic farming state that they are to promote growth and food absorption.  Is that accurate?  How do antibiotics help?  Or are they only given to animals that are sick?

Yes, sometimes antibiotics are administered to improve overall well being or to make the production system more efficient. Farmers are committed to having healthy animals.  After all, for Mike Martz, a livestock operator, healthy cows are at the heart of his family’s business. Animals in confinement are well treated because their health is an economic advantage to the owner.

Pens where the animals stay during the finishing process

Pens where the animals stay during the finishing process

 

  • Let’s talk manure.  There’s a lot of it.  You can’t possibly be using it all on your fields.  So, where does it go?

The Larson Family Farm is a great example of effective recycling through farming.  Manure is typically applied to the fields, absorbed by the soil and then used to grow a crop.  The crop is sold for processing, and the cows eat the feed, make manure and then the manure spread on field to grow feed and the process continues.  Of course, with large feedlots, like the Larson’s farm, there is always some concern about the over-abundance of manure.  Interestingly, state regulations and soil nutrient levels define even the over-application.  These levels are actually well-regulated.

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Over the past few weeks, I have given the cattle processing tour some thoughts.  I have learned a number of terms like CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,) Smart Stacks and test weight.  I have spoken with the “organic” farmers about why they chose to farm using organic methods.  And, of course, I have spent plenty of time speaking with those who successfully farm more conventionally. Despite what many proponents in the organic food industry have declared, neither farming technique has been proven more superior.

That's me.  We're discussing the benefits and disadvantages to organic farming.

That’s me. We’re discussing the benefits and disadvantages to organic farming.

 

Now, after spending so much time considering questions about food production, I feel that I have actually gone full circle in my opinions about what is the best food to buy for my family.  Sure, I am better informed about where my food comes from and how it is grown, but I don’t think that my purchasing decisions have changed: I am going to buy both “organic” and “gmo-based” food.  Why will I buy organic food?  To be honest, because it makes me “feel better.”

There I said it.  But I also know that just because I am willing to buy organic and support my local farmer does not necessarily mean that I am helping society and the world (i.e. the environment) be a better place.  If my organic food is coming from 2000 miles away, for instance, then I haven’t helped the environment.  To be a conscientious consumer, it is important to consider and support growing methods that will continue to efficiently feed the rapidly growing global population.   It is myopic to simply concentrate on the wants and needs of the local community when there is so much want in the world. I guess it really is time to “Think Locally and Act Globally” to make sure that everyone, not just my family, has access to good food.  And that makes me feel even better.