ORGANIC VS CONVENTIONAL FARMING – WHAT’S THE SAME, WHAT’S DIFFERENT?

[Republished from Illinois Farm Families]

Organic versus conventional – it’s a highly debated topic. As a farmer who has employed both methods, perhaps I can offer a valuable point of view to help you make the best choice for you and your family.

What’s the same?

  • Pesticides – There are pesticides approved for use in both types of farming. Farmers use these to protect their crops from bugs and disease.
  • Soil health – Farmers use a variety of tools and practices to maintain soil and water health on farms of every shape and size.
  • Sustainability – All farmers think about sustainability. The tools farmers can use vary slightly between conventional and organic, but the desired result is the same.
  • Farmers care – We all care about growing safe food for our families and preserving our land for years to come.
  • Safety – Whether or not you’re reaching for an “organic” label at the store, the food you’re eating is safe. Furthermore, research shows very little difference between the nutritional value of organic and conventionally grown foods.

What’s different?

  • Pesticides – While there are approved pesticides for use in both types of farming, pesticides used on organic farms must be naturally derived whereas conventional farms can use synthetic pesticides.
  • GMOs – Genetically modified crops are not allowed in organic farming. GMOs can be grown in our conventional fields and help us avoid using pesticides among other benefits.
  • Cost – But you already knew that. Generally speaking, certified organic food costs more.
  • So, yes, there are some differences between conventional and organic farming, but there isn’t necessarily a “right” and a “wrong” way to farm. It all comes down to what is best for each individual farmer and their land. In my case, I’m comfortable growing both and I feed both to my family. I’m making what I believe are the best choices and I encourage you to do the same..

TRENT SANDERSON

Trent farms with his family in northern Illinois. He also enjoys learning and educating other farmers about the environmental benefits of cover crops. He lives on the farm with his wife, Elizabeth, and their son Owen. 

WHERE DOES ILLINOIS CORN GO?

If you’ve driven through Illinois, you’ll remember fields and fields of corn along our (sometimes dilapidated) scenic interstates and highways.  It’s true, corn is a very popular crop in our state and one that supports the Illinois economy in many ways.

For a moment, let’s review that the corn you see growing in Illinois is not sweet corn.  Sweet corn, bred for its sugar content, is the corn you enjoy off the grill, out of a can, or frozen from the grocery store.  But this corn makes up less than 1% of the corn grown in Illinois.  Most of the corn is field corn or dent corn, bred for its starch content, and used to make corn meal (rarely), to feed livestock, and to fuel our vehicles.

So where does all this corn grown in Illinois go?

Well, according to the best available data we have on the 2016 crop – data from the 2017 crop isn’t finalized yet – most of that corn is exported out of Illinois and likely used to feed livestock.

To be fair, we can’t know exactly what the corn is used for once it leaves our state, but we do know that 41% of the corn grown in Illinois is exported.

Why is export the largest market in our state?  Because we have a unique position on the Illinois and Mississippi River that gives us very competitive access to transportation to get that corn out of the country.  Buyers and get our corn delivered to them more cheaply, so they tend to buy from us instead of from other states.

If a semi load of corn in Illinois isn’t leaving the state, it’s probably being used for ethanol production.  Thirty-one percent of the corn grown in 2016 ended up at an ethanol plant and became the cleanest burning fuel option American’s have.

Interesting to note, much of the ethanol produced in Illinois also leaves the state for other countries.  Those rivers, man!  They are a BIG advantage.

The rest of the corn is used for processing (23 percent) and livestock feed (5 percent).  Livestock feed is an easy one to understand.  Five percent of the corn grown in Illinois is fed to livestock living in Illinois.

But this 23 percent processing number is more complex.  It basically includes everything else that we use corn for.  This is where the human food use for field corn is (cornmeal, tortillas), but also where all the industrial uses are lumped.  Corn is used to make diapers, gum, lollypops, crayons, and many, many more products!  So many that 23 percent of Illinois corn goes into those markets.

Here’s the shocker though – fifteen percent of the corn harvest in Illinois is sitting unused in a pile or in a bin somewhere.  We grow more corn than we can use!  This is why we are always looking for innovative ways to incorporate corn into our lifestyles to make our products better.  And this extremely versatile crop delivers!!

Lindsay Mitchel
ICMB/ICGA Marketing Director

#TBT: LESSONS LEARNED IN A BLUE JACKET

Originally published on KellyMRivard.com by Kelly Rivard, previously published here on February 22, 2011

It’s National FFA Week, which means that I HAVE to write a post about one of my favorite youth organizations!

I only spent one year in FFA. In many ways, I consider that year one of the best I’ve lived so far. I know that isn’t saying much, as I’m only 20. However, the lessons I took away from that FFA chapter are ones that you don’t readily forget.

Our chapter was brand new. I served as the President in its founding year. It was a wonderful, stressful, exhausting, amazing experience. It was a million different things, but it will never be something I regret.

So what lessons did I take away from my short stint in a blue jacket?

Responsibility. I had my job cut out for me, forging the way for a brand new chapter. Our advisor ran under the principle that the students should do most of the work, and learn from it. That meant I spent a lot of time dealing with adults to make things happen. Whether it was planning for trips, organizing banquets, or fundraising, we had to be on the ball. We had to be mature, because it was the only way things would get done.

Teamwork. Our chapter was a combination of three schools, all ran by one teacher. My local 4-H friends were easy to work with, but integrating a new group of kids I’d never met before, across different backgrounds, ages, and maturity levels, meant that we all had to put a little extra work into cooperating. Here’s a picture of our officer team and advisor at our first ever River Valley FFA Awards banquet.

Organization. Record books for projects, homework for class, paperwork for trips, minutes for meetings…we had to be organized.

Confidence. Nothing will boost a kid’s self-confidence like achieving something on their own. Whether it’s by successfully orchestrating an awards banquet or placing at agronomy contests, success helps shape young minds into strong leaders for tomorrow.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ll take with me from my time in a blue jacket. There are many, many more lessons that I could never possibly put into words. I could never possibly phrase them into something that means as much as they deserve. My FFA advisor is one of my heroes, and continues to be a role model for me, even well into my college career. My FFA memories will always be fond ones.

Now, rather than a blue jacket, I proudly wear a blue polo, that says “River Valley FFA Alumni.”

Kelly Rivard
Former IL Corn Intern

LET’S TALK ABOUT WHAT’S ON YOUR TABLE

As farmers, we get a lot of questions about our passion. Consumers like you are taking a new interest in food and we absolutely love that! We get asked a range of questions almost daily and so our friends at Illinois Farm Families put together FAQs and answers to some of the more frequent questions we get. Use these as a starting point your education!

Are most farms today factory or corporate farms?

Today, the vast majority of farms are still family owned.  In Illinois 97 percent are owned by individuals, family partnerships or family corporations. For these family farms, being stewards of the land and caretakers of their animals truly runs in their blood.

Get to know some Illinois farm families by checking out our Meet the People page.

Should I worry about antibiotics in my meat and milk?

The USDA requires all beef, pork, poultry or milk destined for grocery stores or restaurants be tested and inspected by the Food Safety Inspection Service to ensure there are no antibiotic residues. Farmers also are required to follow strict withdrawal periods for animals given antibiotics.

Read this post from a farmer who breaks down how farmers use antibiotics and how they ensure your food is free of all residue.

Are hormones in food making girls develop early?

There is no science-based research linking food to early development. Higher body weight has been suggested as a contributing factor. You might not realize it, but all living things contain hormones. Watch this video as Illinois farmers talk about hormones in dairy and meat compared to other food items.

Are GMOs safe?

The World Health Association, Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and American Medical Association, to name a few, have all deemed ingredients derived from a genetically modified crop as safe as ingredients derived from crops raised using other methods.

In this video, Paul Jeschke talks about the benefits of using GMO seeds in his fields.

What’s the difference between grass fed and grain fed beef?

  • Grain-finished – Cattle spend most of their lives grazing on pasture, and then spend four to six months in a feedyard where they eat a mix of grasses and grains
  • Grass-finished – Cattle spend their entire lives grazing on pasture

Check out this infographic on today’s beef choices.

Where can I find out more about what labels mean?

Read what this Chicago mom with a Master’s in Public Health learned food labels, or visit the USDA’s website to learn more about label requirements.

Is buying organic worth the extra cost?

While organic and non-organic foods are produced using different farming methods, nutritionally they are no different.

In this blog post, a Chicago mom discovers some of the differences, and similarities, between organic and traditionally grown produce.

Why do farmers use chemicals?

Plants use nutrients in the soil to grow. Fertilizers are natural compounds from the earth including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that give growing plants the nutrients they need. When farmers need to control a pest or weed problem, they use products judiciously to help protect the plants.

Get perspectives about chemical use from different local farmers here.

Do animals on small farms receive better care than on large farms?

The livelihood of livestock producers – whether large or small – depends on the health and well-being of their animals. Regardless of the size of the farm, caring for animals is a 24/7 job that requires knowledge, patience and the utmost devotion.

Read this blog post from a Chicago mom who toured local farms to witness animal care for herself.

Do farmers have a choice in what they plant on their farms?

Yes, just like consumers have choices in what they buy at the store, farmers choose what they want to plant in their fields. They spend a lot of time researching, reading, meeting and listening to industry experts to determine what’s best for their farms.

Get to know Paul Taylor, an Illinois farmer who grows both GM and non-GM crops and can share his perspective on both.

 What makes food local?

There is no set definition for “local” when it comes to marketing products. Many Illinois farmers sell their products directly to the public and others sell to brands such as DelMonte, Dean’s and Farmland that can be found in grocery stores throughout the state.

What’s the truth behind cow tipping?

The legend of cow tipping is mainly just that – a legend. In this video, Linda Drendel gives ones of many reasons as to why tipping a cow over would be quite the challenge.

This obviously doesn’t even scratch the surface of questions people ask. So to get more answers to your questions, check out Illinois Farm Families.

MY WEEKEND AT REEVERT’S FARMS

Does anyone remember learning in junior high science classes that heat rises? Well, I rediscovered that lesson this past September after spending a few hours at Reevert’s farms, the home of the Illinois FFA State Reporter, working in the hay mow.

Not growing up on a farm, I was extremely excited for that weekend feeding calves, hogs, and sheep. At the time, Ryan told me I was going to be putting hay in the mow. I originally thought this meant mowing hay in the field, but in reality, it was putting hay up in the mow. For those that don’t know, the mow is an upper section of the barn where hay is stored. Once we got to the farm, Ryan told me that I was not going to be mowing hay in the field, like I thought. Instead, I was going to be manually moving hay in a hot, sweaty, and cramped environment. Luckily, Ryan’s dad came in to save the day for me and told Ryan that was no way to treat his guest. He told Ryan, “You go up in the mow! Joey didn’t even have a clue what was going on! Don’t be rude!”

In the picture below, you can see Ryan, his dad, and me all posing for a picture. As you can tell, Ryan seems to be more tired than me. That’s because he spent over forty-five minutes in the mow moving hay while my job was putting it on the conveyer belt. Needless to say, I was having the time of my life putting hay in the mow, and so far, my first impressions of daily farm chores were very good.

I learned two lessons from that experience. First don’t trust Ryan and volunteering for farm work, and second, always bring an extra t-shirt.

After that tremendous experience, Ryan told his dad, “go back home! You’re being too easy on the boy! He needs some real work.” Once Ryan’s dad left, we walked over to the pig pen to feed the hogs. Ryan told me, “Get on in there Birrittier. Distract the hogs from the feeder while I fill their feed.”

One thing that Ryan forgot to mention is that his female pigs like to come up and smell the people around them. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t even like it when my dog comes up and smells me, let alone a pig! I suddenly became very scared as these two dark eyes start coming to me closer and closer. Now mind you, it’s dark out now, so all I can see are these two eyes coming right for me. I pin myself into the corner yelling out Ryan’s name. I’m screaming louder and louder until Ryan finally hears me.  He yells back at me, “Quit screaming! You’re going to scare the pigs!” “Scare the pigs!” I replied, “They’re the ones scaring me! Look how close this one is! Help me!” All Ryan could say was, “That’s just Beulah. She just wants to smell you. Relax you wimp.”

Five months later, I still get grief from the Reevert’s family about my experiences with pigs. In my defense, how else would a person react if their first up-close encounter with a pig was it smelling your face?

Although I might have embarrassed myself multiple times, the memories I made that night will last me a lifetime. Not only did I learn to always bring an extra t-shirt to the farm and never overreact when a pig smells your face; I also learned the hard work and dedication it takes day-in and day-out on the farm.

I have a huge admiration for farmers and their families now because of the memories I made at Reevert’s farms.

Joseph Birrittier
Illinois Association FFA President

#TBT: LINCOLN’S AGRICULTURAL LEGACY

[Originally published by USDA and previously published by us on February 17, 2015]

‘Tis the week to celebrate our Presidents … and their famous acts and laws that changed the face of agriculture forever!  Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862 and 153 years later we’re still benefiting from an agency that acts with agriculture’s best interests in mind.

This article originally posted here.  Enjoy!

On May 15, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act of Congress establishing “at the seat of Government of the United States a Department of Agriculture.” Two and one-half years later, in what was to be his last annual message to the Congress, Lincoln said: “The Agricultural Department, under the supervision of its present energetic and faithful head, is rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance. It is precisely the people’s Department, in which they feel more directly concerned that in any other. I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress.”lincoln USDA

Lincoln’s own background was the pioneer farming and rural life typical of the outer edge of America’s westward-moving frontier.

His early years were spent on farms characterized by pioneer exploitation rather than by settled cultivation. The 300-acre tract in central Kentucky on which his log-hut birthplace stood was too poor to be called a farm. As a boy, he lived on a 30-acre farm. Because of hills and gullies only 14 acres could be cultivated.

In 1816, the Lincoln family moved to southern Indiana to 160 acres of marshy land. After 7 years, Lincoln’s father had 10 acres of corn, 5 of wheat, and 2 of oats in cultivation. The young boy was hired out to do general farm work, to split rails, and to work on a ferry boat. In 1830, the family moved to land along the Sangamon River in Illinois. Soon afterward, Lincoln left the family and began life for himself.

This farm background, on what was then the western frontier, and his years as a country lawyer made Lincoln, during the 1850’s, a representative of the frontier, the farmer, and small town democracy.

On September 30, 1859, Lincoln addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society at its annual fair in Milwaukee. This was the only extended discussion of agriculture he ever made. He began by praising agricultural fairs as a means of bringing people together. However, the main purpose of the fair was to aid in improving agriculture.

Lincoln spoke of the desirability of substituting horse-drawn machines for hand power, and the potential usefulness of steam plows. He urged more intensive cultivation in order to increase production to the full capacity of the soil. This would require the better use of available labor. Lincoln contrasted “mud sill” and free labor, identifying “mud sill” laborers as slaves or hired laborers who were fixed in that situation. Free laborers, who had the opportunity to become landowners, were more productive than the “mud sill” workers.

Free labor could achieve its highest potential if workers were educated. As Lincoln put it: “…no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.”

His endorsement of education and his belief that farmers’ interests were of primary importance indicated Lincoln’s interest in agricultural reform. After saying that farmers were neither better nor worse than other people, Lincoln continued: “But farmers, being the most numerous class, it follows that their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated — that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield.”

When the Republican Party nominated Lincoln in 1860, two of the planks in the party platform were in accordance with ideas that had been advocated by westerners for many years. The first was the demand for a homestead measure. The second was advocacy of Federal aid for construction of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean. Two other proposals which had been advocated for many years — grants of Federal land for founding of colleges to teach agriculture and engineering and the establishment of a federal Department of Agriculture — were not mentioned in the platform. However, all four of the proposals were enacted into law in 1862.

Lincoln quote about USDAThe first of the measures to become law established the Department of Agriculture. In his first annual message to Congress on December 3, 1861, Lincoln said: “Agriculture, confessedly the largest interest of the nation, has not a department nor a bureau, but a clerkship only, assigned to it in the Government. While it is fortunate that this great interest is so independent in its nature as to not have demanded and extorted more from the Government, I respectfully ask Congress to consider whether something more can not be given voluntarily with general advantage…. While I make no suggestions as to details, I venture the opinion that an agricultural and statistical bureau might profitably be organized.” Instead of a bureau, Congress established a Department to be headed by a Commissioner. The act was so broadly conceived that it has remained the basic authority for the Department to the present time.

The Homestead Act, approved by the President on May 20, 1862, provided for giving 160 acres of the public domain to any American or prospective citizen who was the head of a family or over 21 years of age. Title to the land was issued after the settler had resided on it for five years and made improvements on it. The settler could also gain title by residing on the claim for six months, improving the land, and paying $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act did not achieve all that its proponents had hoped, but it stood as a symbol of American democracy and opportunity to native-born and immigrant alike.

The act granting western land and making payments for the construction of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific railroad was signed by Lincoln on July 1, 1862. The two sections of the railroad joined at Promontory Summit, thirty-two miles west of Brigham City, Utah, on May 10, 1869. This completed a rail connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific and opened new areas of the West to settlement.

The Morrill Land Grant College Act, donating public land to the States for colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts, became law on July 2, 1862. Every State accepted the terms of the act and established one or more such institutions.

After President Lincoln signed the bill establishing the Department of Agriculture on May 15, 1862, he received much unsolicited advice, particularly in the columns of the farm press, on the appointment of the first Commissioner of Agriculture. Some urged the appointment of a distinguished scientist, others an outstanding “practical” man. A few periodical editors were certain that one of their number would be the best choice. However, Lincoln turned to Isaac Newton, a farmer who had served as chief of the agricultural section of the Patent Office since August 1861.

Newton was born in Burlington County, New Jersey. He grew up on a farm, and after completing his common-school education, became a farmer in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Newton was a successful, progressive manager, whose farms were regarded as models. He also developed a pioneer dairy lunch in Philadelphia and a select butter trade as outlets for his farm products. Newton sent butter each week to the White House; and he and his family maintained a close friendship with the Lincolns. Subsequently, Lincoln gave him full support in managing the Department.

In his first annual report, Newton outlined objectives for the Department. These were: (1) Collecting, arranging, and publishing statistical and other useful agricultural information; (2) Introducing valuable plants and animals; (3) Answering inquiries of farmers regarding agriculture; (4) Testing agricultural implements; (5) Conducting chemical analyses of soils, grains, fruits, plants, vegetables, and manures; (6) Establishing a professorship of botany and entomology; and (7) Establishing an agricultural library and museum. These objectives were similar to the charges given the Department by the Congress in its legislation establishing the new agency.

Newton, during the nearly five years he served as Commissioner, made progress in achieving these objectives. The basis for a library existed in the book and journal collection of the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office. This collection, comprising about 1,000 volumes, was transferred to the new Department. Appropriations for library material began in 1864. The first librarian of record was Aaron Burt Grosh, a clergyman. Little is known of his library work. He is best remembered as one of the founders of the National Grange.

Although Lincoln’s primary problem during his Presidency was preserving the Union, the agricultural legislation that he signed was to transform American farming.

By Wayne D. Rasmussen
Chief, Agricultural History Branch (retired 1986)
United States Department of Agriculture

NOT ALL FARMS HAVE LIVESTOCK

When many of us encounter someone who lives on a farm, the first question that tends to pop into our minds is, “What kind of animals do you have?” To the surprise of many, not all farms raise livestock. Not every farmer is comparable to Old McDonald.

Let’s dive into history for a minute and take a look at farms existing about 100 years ago: the year 1918. Many more farms existed because each operator had less land to tend and care for. Because of this, more farms had livestock and were able to be more diversified. However, fast forward to present day, in order for farms to be successful, farmers must pick and choose specialties to focus on for their operation. For example, when students select what major they would like to pursue at a college or university, they likely combine their interests and career goals to choose a career path. By combining interests with job outlook in a certain career area, students are essentially specializing their education to best fit their desired job. Farmers have a similar process; they select one or two specialties for the sake of best-combining resources to meet production needs.

So what kinds of farms do we have here in Illinois? I’m glad you asked. According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), a farm is classified as an operation that makes $1,000+ each year. Taking this classification into account, in 2016 Illinois reported having 72,200 farming operations. Illinois had 11.6 million acres of planted in 2016. That’s more than any other commodity grown in our state. The runner-up to corn was soybeans, coming in at 10.1 million acres planted. Those two grains were on more farms than all other commodities combined.

Now, just because many of our operations have grain does not mean no livestock exist. We had over 300,000 beef cattle (used for meat production) and over 5 million hogs as well. But aside from grain and livestock, we have some really unique farms in Illinois that stand out from the norm. For instance, Illinois had 1,200 acres of peaches, 45,000 acres of oats and 7,000 acres of potatoes planted in 2016.

This goes to show we are really diversified here in this mid-Western state. While many of us may not realize it, Illinois features a wide array of farms that bring great significance to our agriculture diversity. So the next time we bump into someone that owns or operates a farm, strike up a conversation with him or her. But before we ask more details about what the farm’s specialty is, remember: not all farms have livestock.

Susie Thompson
Illinois State University