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.

Could I Be The New Dwight Schrute, Famous Beet Farmer?

Could I Be The New Dwight Schrute, Famous Beet Farmer?

Digging in the Dirt for Beets

 The gardening magazines are piling up on my desk.  Looking out my office window, I catch a glimpse of my sparse garden and romanticize what, in a few short months, could be growing: strawberries, arugula, sugar snap peas, cucumbers, various herbs, tomatoes, basil and yes, beets.  My garden will be divided in two sections: a cornucopia of veggies and fruits and beets.

Growing up in Baltimore, I clearly remember being “forced” to eat beets at my grandparent’s house.  As a child I reasoned that cold red beet soup and sour cream must have been good for old people and thus the reason that my grandparents consumed it almost daily.  I hated beets–all beets, no exception.  The mere mention of the word drove me into fits of mock hysteria complete with gagging sounds and fake vomiting.  (Hey Mom?  Remember the time I fake puked in front of your Danish friends?  That was a scene, wasn’t it?) 

Leave it to my husband to re-introduce beets into my diet.  (It helps to live with a semi-gourmet cook.)  But every now and then I flat out refuse to eat something that he has cooked.  Baked beets were one of those dishes.  Serve me up some Kohlrabi and I am your girl.  I’ll even try a bit of broccolini before condemning it.  But beets?  Forget it.  Eventually, when my (then) 2 year old daughter gobbled them up like they were candy, I decided to try beets again.  And I loved them!  The secret was in the baking with olive oil and not serving them as a cold soup.  Now I can’t get enough beets and cherish opportunities to find different varieties to cook and serve with various parings.

Thus the Dwight Schrute reference.

When we moved to the Chicago suburbs six years ago, my husband and I were jazzed to have our own “bit of earth” and converted part of our minuscule lawn into the organic garden of our dreams.  (That’s right, no pesticides, chemicals or sprays on our food. Just me fighting the bunnies, deer and bugs.)  At first he was really involved in charting the progression of tilled earth to seedling to plant and harvest.  But after a few years, my husband lost some interest in the whole gardening experience and concentrated his efforts solely on the seasonal tomato and basil production.  I was left to my own devices in the rest of the garden and we discovered that there was one less thing that we had in common. Left to my own devices, I have a BLACK thumb.   At first I planted and tried to grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables:

  • Cantaloupe: Horrible disaster and rather messy. Who knew that you were supposed to let them grow on the ground?
  • Carrots: Did not appear OR the rabbits ate them before I could protect them
  • Thyme and Lavender: Over-run by my husband’s chive (aka: garden grass) plants
  • Cucumbers: Usually get one monster cucumber that turns cannibal and eats the baby cukes. (Scary, I know.)
  • Strawberries: Yeah, uh….we prefer not to discuss the patch of strawberry “weeds” we cannot get rid of in the middle of the garden.  We never did finesse a “berry” out of that patch.
  • Sugar Snap Peas:  Well, I got them to grow but then forgot about them and they dried up on the vine.  Plus, the vines sort of attack you when you’re not looking.
Over the years, only one plant has remained faithful and low maintenance: The Beet.  Color is irrelevant; I grow ’em all.  The weeds are so scared of our industrial strength and uber-disease resistant beets that they don’t bother targeting that part of the garden.  And each year we have a bumper crop of beets which we are forced to distribute (free of charge) to our neighbors who bask in the miracle that is our tiny beet farm.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the photo we captured last summer of one of our prize vegetables:

We are set in beets for at least three or four months–assuming we don’t take a break from the daily beet consumption feasts.  I never thought that I would get sensitive whenever someone made jokes about beet farming until I realized that I AM A BEET FARMER!  And while hubbie checks out the awesome tomato variations and selections in the gardening catalogues and magazines, guess what?  I have dog eared all of the sections pertaining to beet growth. I may not be a great gardener but I am a darn good BEET Farmer!

Thanks Dwight Schrute for being the Beet Industry’s Spokesperson!  You make us Proud!

This post was graciously sponsored by Alan’s Factory Outlet  whose awesome Amish sheds have been used for storing gardening supplies, tools, and even beet seeds. Please check out the site!