A FARMING FAMILY

I was walking into my final CHEM 102 lecture on Cloud Nine. The class which caused me so much stress and many late nights was almost over. Apparently, this attitude was noticeable as someone I’d never met chose the seat next to mine. I began making small talk when she suddenly stopped me, “What do you mean a family farm? Aren’t farms owned by huge corporations?” Her question caught me off guard. I always mention my upbringing when I introduce myself, so I don’t think about it much. To address her confusion, I began to tell stories of growing up on the farm. To her, the idea of a family farm is a strange one. This prompted me to reflect on family farms and the following three questions:

  1. How many farms are family farms?
  2. How does farming work as a business?
  3. Why do people pursue this lifestyle?

How many farms are family farms?

Today, it can seem most of our food is the result of science experiments and the profit invested interests of large companies. However, when we look at farms from a family perspective we find that conventional truths may not be very true.

To begin with, large companies have a very small stake in the production of food. While many companies who buy and sell agricultural products may be quite large, the actual growing of food is a family experience. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, only 4% of all farmland is not owned by family farmers. Even more surprising is 45% of farmland is owned by small family farms. The remainder is owned by mid-sized to large family operations. The apparent follow-up question seems to be who makes up that 4%? Well, we find that most of that farmland is owned by universities and companies for research purposes. More information on this topic can be found here.

How does farming work as a business?

At their core, all farms are businesses. A farmer’s most basic goal is the same as an accountant or nurse, to establish a means of providing for themselves and their family. However, unlike an accountant or nurse, family farms involve more than just adults working. In my household, everyone was wholly invested in providing a living for our family. However, when it comes to farming the way this living is made is quite unique.

One of the most difficult concepts of farming to understand is the markets. When referencing the markets, we often are discussing the factors which dictate the price at which farmers sell their crops. To fully understand the markets and all the nuances one would need to study this area for most of their life. To keep things simple let’s just briefly discuss two overarching concepts, the futures and cash prices. The futures market is where individuals exchange contracts of commodities for sale at a future date at a set price. Cash prices are what a farmer could get right now for the grain he currently has in storage. The dollar amounts of both futures and cash prices are constantly changing. This means is a farmer never knows how much money they will earn. As a business farming is one of the most turbulent. Imagine you work at grocery store and at the end of your first 40-hour week, your boss pays you $600, or $15 an hour. But the next week consumers decide to stop buying bananas, so your boss pays you $360, or $9 an hour, for your second 40-hour week because of the loss of profits. Due to factors beyond your control, you got paid $240 less than you expected. That is like the stress farmers feel as they watch the grain prices fluctuate daily.

Why do people pursue this lifestyle?

It’s hard to explain the way farmers work. It takes a unique person to want to submit themselves to this lifestyle. So unique, that only 2% of the U.S. population finds work as farmers. This 2 % provide enough food and resources for the U.S. and a large portion of the globe. However, if you ask them, there isn’t anything else these people would rather be doing. They serve the world by raising the best crop they can. Despite the highs and lows of the markets, the turbulence of everyday farm work, or the potential troubles looming on the horizon, our farmers continue to labor producing the safest and highest quality crop they can because they know your family depends on it.

J.C. Campbell
IL Corn Legislative Intern

TOP TEN FARM CHORES I LOVE TO HATE

TOP TEN FARM CHORES I LOVE TO HATE

Let’s face it – no one enjoys chores. Whether it’s taking out the trash, cleaning dirty dishes, or finding matches to the ever-growing pile of socks, we all have at least one chore we dread doing. Think about living on a farm, where chores are an everyday occurrence… could you handle it? From someone who grew up in a suburban neighborhood to now living on a farm, I’ll be the first to say that farm life was quite an adjustment. However, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Without further ado, here’s the top ten list of farm chores I love to hate:

Filling up Water Troughs: While this may seem easy and painless, dragging the hose from one pasture to another, attaching it to the hydrant, and waiting for each 100-gallon trough to fill can be a struggle. But, seeing the animals stare at me, then snort and run away (because as we all know, hoses are VERY scary) always leads to a good chuckle.

Cleaning Stalls: A daily chore that is easier on some days compared to others, it isn’t the chore to “stop and smell the roses”. At my house, my sister and I clean stalls together. So while some may dread it, that’s the time my sister and I share our days with each other. That sister bonding time means the world to me, even if we are surrounded by “brown roses”.

Unloading Feed/Bedding: This chore isn’t bad, but when the weather is not in our favor, such as this recent spring, it can be dreadful. Good news is, this isn’t a daily chore – once we unload the truck, we are stocked for over a week!

Washing Animals: Animals, like humans, can be moody. So some animals may be a challenge, but I love the smell of the shampoo and the refreshing feeling of water spraying back at me on a hot summer day!

Cleaning Show Equipment: Before and after shows, such as the county fair, it is important to clean all the equipment we take. This is much more fun when there are siblings around to chat with, it makes time fly by!

Holding Animals for the Vet: This can be tough, especially when we can’t just tell an animal to “hold still”. I’ve learned to love this chore because I always learn something new!

Filling Hay Feeders: This one doesn’t take long, but let’s be honest: bales of hay aren’t easy to carry. Once we make our way over to the feeder and hoist the bale up into the feeder, the job is done. The best part about this is when the hungry animals come walking over, they are always happy to see the person bringing them more food!

Clipping Animals: Most of us have that specific haircut we prefer. Animals have certain haircuts too, especially in preparation for a show. This is the perfect opportunity to play hairdresser and treat the animals to a fresh haircut!

Fixing Fences: Depending on the size of the farm, this can go really quick or really slow. However, it’s always a bad day when you see a cow walking down the road. So, fixing fences is a chore to prevent those bad days!

Stacking Hay: My number one chore I love to hate. In the summer heat, unloading hundreds of hay bales weighing about 50 lbs. each, this is not appealing to the average Joe. But, this is a GREAT way to get a workout! Go ahead and skip the gym after stacking hay, you deserve it!

Farm life may be filled with chores, but from personal experience, I can say I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is always something to be done, keeping me occupied and entertained 24/7!

Susie Thompson
Illinois State University

PLANTING IS OVER, WHAT’S NEXT?

As many of us have seen this spring, farm machinery is moving all around. Farmers are busy planting the fields during this time of year. Depending on the time of year, most farmers can have their fields planted by end of May or early June. Of course, everything depends on the weather too. Some of us in northern Illinois saw snow on Easter Sunday, which fell on April 1st. A cold spring makes for less than ideal conditions to plant in the field, as farmers must wait until the ground is thawed for good. In the fall, growers are fully occupied harvesting their fields and finishing for the season, hopefully before the winter weather arrives. So, what do farmers do in between planting and harvest? Let’s dive a little deeper!

After the seeds are in the ground, a farmer’s job is not done. The period between planting and harvest is a great time to get farm machinery into tip-top shape. By taking time during the summer to ensure all equipment is cared for and ready to operate, it allows the farmers to have a smooth transition into harvest when the crops are ready.

Another task farmers often face between planting and harvest is plant care. Just as we take care of our pets, crop farmers must care for their plants. If there are pests infesting a portion of the field, or a fungus invading some of the plants, it is up to the farmer to solve those problems. A farmer walks through each field and checks on the plants periodically through the growing season, also known as crop scouting. The health of the plant plays a big role in the harvest yield in the fall. The healthier the plants, the higher quantity of crops that will be produced. The farmer also must care for the soil. Just as many of us take vitamins to ensure we receive key nutrients, it is the grower’s responsibility to make sure the soil is getting the proper nutrients too. With a healthy soil foundation, a farmer is setting up for a fruitful harvest.

Growers are also tasked with the responsibility of planning for the future. Just like any other business, these operators are looking ahead and making decisions to better their farm for the following year. Important choices include types of crops to plant, what soil treatments should be applied, any machinery that should be fixed or purchased, and many more. The countless choices that go into each decision can be daunting to non-farmers. However, with experience and resources from experts, farmers can make the best-educated decisions for their farm and their family.

Farmers are some of the most hardworking individuals. They work year-round to ensure the best quality crops for a bountiful harvest, and to keep feeding us, the consumers.

Susie Thompson
Illinois State University

HOW MY INTERNSHIP EXPANDED MY KNOWLEDGE OF FOOD

Throughout this semester, I have been exposed to a new perspective on food. I have always been interested in the health aspect of it, as well as what goes on inside our bodies after we ingest it, but this internship influenced me to focus more on the source of it, as well as the work behind the entire process.

While I had a decent understanding of common misconceptions, such as people being against biotechnology and food that is inorganic, I began to learn that many of us do not truly understand the reasoning behind making these food choices. Throughout the internship, I would talk to some of my friends, or catch them in moments at the grocery store when they would say “wait, but choose the organic one,” and after asking why, it typically resulted in an answer along the lines of  “it’s healthier” or “I don’t know, it’s better for you.” There have been many examples of consumers purchasing an item merely because it contains the words “vegan, organic or gluten-free.”

My very first post on the Instagram Gate2Plate highlighted the craze about GMO-free water. After reading a few articles, it became evident that companies try to take advantage of the knowledge gap between consumers and their willingness to pay a higher price for a “premium” product. While the water bottle does look fancier and more official, in the end, there is no true difference in the quality or safety of that water, but there is in the price. Gate2plate contains a multitude of fun photos that include facts, tasty meals, artsy recipes, and more, and it has helped me and many others expand our knowledge of all the different realms of food.

Through my experience with this internship, I learned about food insecurity and programs created to fight it, such as Food Corps. I have also learned that there are so many fun food holidays, and they are almost every single day! I have also learned the details that go into many of the intricate processes of creating certain foods, such as whey protein, beef, and coffee. While I have always followed basic trends of eating in season, I learned a lot about why it’s important, such as more flavor and nutrition, the fact that it helps you save money since the food is at the peak of its supply, and it is also better for the planet because eating within the seasons helps reduce the number of miles our food has traveled, hence reducing amount of fuel used to get it to us! Overall, I have learned that the process that comes before our food reaches our plate involves so much dedication, knowledge, patience, and hard work, and it is a step in the process that should be known and recognized by everyone because we would be nowhere without it.

Sammy Gorlovetsky
University of Illinois

APRIL SHOWERS BRING UNIQUE FARMER SUPERPOWERS

April showers bring May flowers – a saying we have all heard at least once in our lives. This spring we have certainly had plenty of showers, both rain, and snow! With all this spring rain, it is important to consider the impact all this excess water may have on our fields. Let’s chat about some of the best management practices farmers use to counteract the spring rain overload.

First up, we’ve got nutrient loss prevention. Just like our bodies require certain nutrients to grow and thrive, soil also has specific needs in order to best support our crops.

There are three main nutrients found in soil: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. A unique combination of all three creates a recipe for success to have a fruitful harvest. Too much rain causes these nutrients to become depleted from the soil, and often times can run into bodies of water. To prevent nutrient loss and water contamination, farmers utilize strategies such as monitoring critical bodies of water, as well as using research and improved technology advancements to minimize the impact. In Illinois specifically, we mainly work to reduce the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus from our fields.

Another management strategy our farmers use is reduced tillage for erosion control. Let’s start by defining soil erosion: it is the natural degrading of the physical top layer of soil, which can happen from wind, water, etc. Why is this bad? Because as we discussed earlier, the soil has a very specific balance of nutrients. By removing the top layer of soil, it has a large impact on the quality of soil and results in decreased yields per acre. Some techniques farmers utilize include various machinery that moves less soil and results in less chance of soil erosion. Using less invasive equipment while still properly caring for the fields helps farmers avoid soil erosion.

Finally, let’s talk about cover crops. What exactly is a cover crop? It is an off-season planting of a different type of crop. For example, in the summer we typically see corn and soybeans grown in Illinois. After fall harvest, many farmers may plant crops such as oats or wheat. Why plant more after just finishing a tedious summer harvest? Because planting different species in the same field will help return those vital nutrients to the soil, and help the field prepare for the next spring planting.

These management practices are just some of many that agriculturalists use all over the world. The next time we have an April shower, as we put on our rain boots, let’s remember how it impacts our fields, and what our farmers are doing to best manage our land.

Susie Thompson
Illinois State University

THE LIVESTOCK LIFECYCLE

In our fast-paced society where options are plentiful, time is sparse, and the day-to-day grind can really wear a person out, there’s one daily constant that brings me some amount of joy — or at very least, satisfaction… Food. Luckily for me, life on the farm, in conjunction with my career in corn/agriculture advocacy surrounds me with opportunities to think about where food comes from and what we can do with it. Follow along throughout the spring, summer, and fall as I share my food-related thoughts here on Corn Corps.

Let me start by saying: I love GOOD food. Specifically: fresh, flavorful, home-grown, made-with-love, not-always-healthy, much-anticipated, home-cookin’! Though I grew up surrounded by farming in Northwest Illinois, I’ve only lived on a farm for about 7 years. In that time, I’ve come to understand why March is a love-hate time of year for My Farmer. Depending on the weather (a phrase that’s thrown around A LOT at my house) there are a plethora of things that could go on in March. If the fields are still frozen, cow manure can be spread. If the frost is out, you can think about applying ammonia. We’re likely still expecting the last few baby calves to be born, and in just a few weeks we’ll begin artificially inseminating next year’s calf herd. The numerous babies that have already been born will be exploring the area between their barns and pretty soon they’ll be turned out to pasture for the first time. For me, it’s a genuine springtime feeling of new beginnings! For My Farmer, it’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants work schedule.

For my kids, between afternoon visits to the barn to see the new babies, and suppertime around the table, we have some pretty frank conversations. Our four-year-old understands that the meat we’re eating is beef. Beef comes from cattle. The cattle right outside. Every so often we load a couple cattle into our trailer and take them to the butcher. (–Insert gray area here–) …And the beef comes back home and we cook it and eat it for supper. So far, there haven’t been any questions about what exactly happens at the butcher – but when he asks, I’ll explain it to him. We have similar conversations about vegetables. I’m no gardener, but we have a few vegetable plants outside. He watches those grow over the summer and helps harvest the produce. My little guy understands that what we buy in the store comes from a farmer somewhere. Last week I asked my little guy “where did this potato come from?” to which he shrugged and responded, “a farmer market – like both a farmer and a store”. Technically, he was right, despite the fact that I bought it at Walmart. He actually grasps the idea that numerous people worked hard for those mashed potatoes to end up on his plate. I like to think that this framework we’ve laid will result in a lifelong appreciation of both food and the effort it takes to produce it.

The lifecycle of our livestock truly makes a full circle, and that’s one of the coolest parts of farming. We grow corn, in part, to feed our livestock. We breed our livestock to have more livestock. We care for them by keeping them fed, doctored, safe both in the pasture and the barns, and then use their manure to fertilize the fields which will grow to feed them later. At some point along the way, some of them leave us only to return a few weeks later wrapped in white paper, ready to feed our family, which allows us to keep doin’ what we do!

This spring, as you feel the days grow longer and observe life coming back to the land, I hope you enjoy some fresh fruit and vegetables, along with a big, juicy, well-marbled, steak, and feel gratitude for the numerous hands it took to prepare it!

Ashley Deal
IL Corn Membership Assistant

THE IMPACT OF NAFTA ON FARMERS

For the past decade, the United States has had a trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that has helped shape our economy today. A lot of people are reading the word NAFTA and wonder what does this even mean? Will it affect me?  NAFTA stands for North American Free Trade Agreement and was implemented on January 1, 1994, between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. NAFTA’s purpose is to encourage economic activity between the three major economic powers of North America. Let’s break down what exactly is a part of this trade deal and why it matters. About one-fourth of all U.S imports, such as crude oil, vehicles, fresh produce, livestock and processed foods, originate from Canada and Mexico. The U.S exports about one-third of products in machinery, vehicle parts and plastics, which are destined for Canada and Mexico. See the trend of our partnerships together with these Countries?

Recently our President has had some concerns with the current trade deal of NAFTA and would like to renegotiate in May on them. With this possibility, it would change not only the current economy but also prices on products involved in this deal. We currently have had a successful trade agreement with Canada and Mexico and many are afraid this negotiation might jeopardize that. We are currently a part of the world’s largest free trade agreement, which is something other countries would like to be a part of. This has given our farmers a way to sell their products on their terms, which keeps the cost of the goods reasonable for consumers.

The current United States Economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, almost 30 percent. When we started this deal in 1994 from then to 2007 US exports grew 156 percent, which is a great thing for us. Products like corn have no tariff currently in this trade deal. An example of the use of a tariff is in cars, which is 10 percent of the levied based value on an item. Having a tariff on products such as corn can hurt domestic consumers since the lack of competition tends to push up prices. This opened a way of an increase in income for families to have a wider range of places to sell. Only so many farmers can sell to supply places such as Walmart and Aldi, this opened a market for all farmers. Thinking of the impact of NAFTA today we have seen a rise in the economic growth in all countries involved in this deal, also an increase in higher wages to people in the industries affected by this.

If you live in a state that a majority of your economy is from agriculture, it will be hurting you the most. Over 13 million jobs depend on NAFTA in the U.S currently which means this could put a lot of people out of work and would hurt many families across the U.S.

Alison Heard
Southern Illinois University