Illinois Corn is part of the “Illinois Farm Families” group – a coalition of farmers and farm groups that want to re-introduce ourselves to the non-farming public. One of our programs to help us accomplish this goal is the “Field Mom” program. You can read more about it here, but the gist is that we chose some Chicago moms that were interested in where their food came from and we are taking them out to the farm to actually learn more information from the farmers that grow their food.
The follow is one of the Field Mom’s thoughts about her recent trip to the country. Thank you Farrah for your thoughts and for the opportunity to learn more about what is important to you and what farmers can do better to help you feel confident in the food supply we are providing.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- I feel so fortunate to have been one of the inaugural members of the Field Moms program with the IL Farm Bureau. What an incredible experience this has been! Getting to talk with and ask questions of the people at the source of farming and food production in this country is an invaluable opportunity and one that I don’t at all take for granted. We had our third and final farm tour on June 9th and once again I am left with so much gratitude and awe but also some tough questions and things I need to think through. This tour was in western IL, right near the Mississippi River and the Iowa border. Such pretty country!! We had a lovely dinner with some local farmers and their wives on Friday night then headed to the hotel to get some sleep for a full day of farm touring on Saturday. (sidenote: although I didn’t get to sleep very long, I DID get to sleep in a dark quiet room in a hotel bed all by myself… heavenly!)
Our first stop on Saturday was the Twomey Company/CGB Enterprises. They are a company that farmers hire to provide chemical fertilizers and herbicides and spray them in the farmers’ fields. The fertilizer they make is a mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) which are all elements found in soil naturally. Twomey just adds stabilizers to keep the nutrients in the soil longer and mixes them at precise concentrations depending on the needs of the specific farmer and his soil. I know that “chemical “is a trigger word for most of us. It is for me. I am leery of any chemicals that are sprayed on my food or the soil my food is grown in as I don’t want them to end up in my body or my children’s. But these are the same ingredients in any manure a farmer may use as fertilizer, just a little more precise and specialized. They do use anhydrous ammonia during the production of the chemicals which is a little concerning to me. I’m not thrilled about something that is potentially harmful to your skin, eyes, mucous membrances, etc.. if you are exposed being used to fertilize the food we are eating. But Twomeyand the farmers promise that it is safely metabolized by the plant during the growing process and is no longer present in any final food product of the plant. I believe them, truly. But I need to sit with this one for a little more before feeling totally secure.
Before moving to the next part of our day, they drove us to their barge loading facility (where grain corn gets shipped to all over the country and the world) on the Mississippi River and it was just beautiful. For reasons I am not totally sure of, seeing the river made me miss the beach. Part two was a visit to Ron and Deb Moore’s farm in Roseville, IL. There they grow corn and soybeans and raise some cattle. We got to see our “Field Moms Acre” of soybeans which they are documenting and using to teach us all about the process of growing and harvesting soybeans. The biggest take-away lesson for me from the Moore’s farm was learning about all their soil conservation efforts. They have built tow wall structures to prevent erosion and improve water quality. On a hay wagon tour around their property, we learned about the grass waterways and filler strips and other major projects they built with some cost-sharing assistance from the government conservation reserve program. All these things are intended to preserve the land they love and create improved homes and water quality for all the wildlife in the area and the human residents too. It was truly impressive and inspiring to see how much effort/time/money they have put into giving back to land that is their source of life and income.
After an amazing lunch of ribeye steaks (you don’t get much fresher than eating a delicious grilled steak on site at a cattle farm!), we headed off to the Monsanto Learning Center and research fields and Monmouth,IL. We have all heard of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and probably have strong opinions either way. I tried to go in with an open mind, anxious to hear what they had to say and to learn about their role in this whole picture of where my food comes from. At Monsanto, they specialize in hybrid breeding of seeds. They call it “genomics”- genetic marker assisted breeding in order to increase crop yield and crop quality. Their goal is to be able to produce the same amount of food using less land and less resources and less water. And they do this by creating plants that can withstand stress better: insects, drought, wind, etc… They are using scientific knowledge gained through research to help the farmers in the fields grow better, stronger crops so that they in turn can produce healthy, high-yield crops used to feed America and people around the globe.
A specific example of their work: the Monsanto researchers have taken BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bacteria found in soil that is toxic to the root worm, a common pest to corn plants, and found a way to incorporate this bacteria into the corn plant itself. This “GMO” corn is now resistant to this pest and can grow stronger and healthier in the field. According to them, BT is non-toxic to mammals due to our acidic stomach so any amount (which they say is minimal) that we ingest when eating this corn is insignificant. They are doing things like this with almost any crop you can think of- improving they way the seeds grow and use resources so that the farmer can get higher yields and we can get better food.
I get what they are doing. And I even get why they are doing it. The folks at Monsanto, along with EVERY OTHER PERSON I have met during this Field Moms gig, are very concerned with the task before them to provide enough food to feed 9billion people by the year 2050. The average farm today feeds 155people for a year compared to 26people/year in 1950. But that’s not enough. They have to do more, and often times be able to produce more with less resources. The farmers and everyone involved in the business of agriculture are always busy at trying to improve their processes, increase their gains, produce more food using less resources. All with this goal in mind of being able to keep up with the growing global population. They are mindful growers, not just farmers. No one is simply throwing some seed on a field and hoping for the best. They are analyzing every step to see how they can improve and do what they do better and safer and more economical. And you cannot help but look at all that goes into farming (soil, seed, animals, research, business, …) and be amazed at the passion and skill with which they do their jobs. It is awe-inspiring and everyone needs to know how lucky we are that we have them behind the scenes doing all that they do.
But the other side of the story is this- while I am deeply grateful for how mindfully they grow/produce food for my family and for the world, I too am mindful. I am very mindful of what I eat and where it comes from. And there are things that people are afraid of because they don’t know about them and there are things that we should genuinely be concerned about. And in all honesty, I am not 100% sure where this whole GMO thing lands on that spectrum. I think I can truthfully listen to the folks that make the fertilizers and herbicides that are sprayed on the crops and be a little concerned but mostly feel content with their explanation of the needs of a healthy plant and why what they do is both best for the plant AND safe for my family. I can listen to the presentation by the researchers at Monsanto and understand both the heart and the goal of what they do and appreciate both for their sincerity. They are good people with good goals. But at the end of the day, I have to mindfully consider all I have heard and make the best choice for my family. And I am not sure exactly what that is yet, but being willing to hear without judgement is the first step.
That is what this program has been all about. It has been my opportunity to take my questions about hormones and chemicals and GMOs to the source- to the farmers and researchers themselves- and give them the chance to answer honestly and dispel any myths that may be running rampant amongst us non-agricultural people. And then it is my job to bring what I have learned back to my community and tell honestly the truth that I learned and my reaction to it. We should not be afraid simply because we don’t know. And we should never let rumor or one person’s side make up our mind on anything. We have to give the farming community back their voice in all this debate over the safety of our food. And from what I have seen this year, our food is not just safe. It is amazing. And these farmers are amazing. Do I still have some questions and reservations about different things?? Yes. But if this Field Moms program has taught me anything, it has taught me that being a mindful eater means finding out the truth from the source and not listening to hype. I am a mindful eater who appreciates the hard work and the fruits of the efforts of the mindful growers that I have been blessed to spend time with.
Farrah Brown, Field Mom