While this blog covers a wide range of topics related to the Midwest, from culture and history to food and fun, I do seem to keep being drawn back to farmers–largely because my experience of farmers (both in person and via Internet) has been so different from what a lot of people (non-farmers that is) expect. They are generally educated, often multi-talented, warm, wonderful, enthusiastic, and they rejoice in their ability to grow things and feed people. If you go back through my posts, you’ll find plenty of evidence of this. But I’ve just come across a new farmer who adds a new dimension — cute, bouncy, young. This video is more than a year old and a more recent one relates that Nebraska farmer Laura is now nearing the end of her business degree. But in case you need more proof that farmers are not homely old hayseeds, here it is.
You may know, especially if you’ve heard me speak or read my books Midwest Maize or Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs, that getting corn to market was most commonly handled one of two ways. It could be fed to pigs, which could then walk to market. (This led to pigs being referred to as “cornfields on legs.”) Or it could be converted to whiskey. Of course, in addition to getting the corn to market, albeit in an altered state, the advantage of both of these approaches was that it gave those growing the corn both meat and drink.
For those who might be interested in how corn got converted to whiskey back in the 1700s, here’s a video from Townsends demonstrating the entire process. What was being created on farms of the time would not generally be elegant, aged whiskey, but rather a strong, clear, “white” whiskey. So not necessarily good whiskey, but it got the job done.
I find that advertising is a pretty good barometer of how little most consumers know about some things. Like food.
Of course, advertising rarely does anything to help inform consumers. In fact, the claims being made often contribute to confusion.
One example is the demonizing of by-products. Whether it’s food for our dogs and cats or what is being fed to chickens, by-products are always held up as things you don’t want. Bone meal and fat (by-products) are held up as evil additions to whatever animal food is under discussion. But do you know what these animals eat naturally?
Chickens, for example, are omnivores. That means they eat plants and meat. The only way to have a chicken that has never eaten bone or blood is to make sure you never eat a free-range chicken. There are dozens of examples of chickens catching and eating things on the Internet, but this video has long been a favorite.
So bones, fat, blood, and whatever the mouse ate that day are all part of what that chicken is digesting.
I have no problem with chickens being raised on vegetarian feed—this accomplishes different things than the more natural, free-range omnivore diet, including more consistent taste and, in some cases, a certain degree of safety. Or, in the case of egg-laying chickens, eggs from chickens on vegetarian diets have less cholesterol. So there is a difference—but not the difference implied by the ads.
I do want to emphasize that ads that say by-products are not used in a specific product are true—those products truly do not use by-products. It’s the subtle implication that by-products are evil that is problematic.
Same with dog food and cat food. While we’re not raising these animals for consistency of flavor, we are still urged by advertisers to avoid by-products. The word “by-products” simply refers to things other than meat, such as bone meal and fat. Omnivores and carnivores that live outdoors are eating “by-products” all the time.
The nutrients in such by-products as bone meal (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus) are vital to the animals eating the food and have to be replaced with supplements —which is a major reason that feed without by-products costs more. You can’t just take out the by-products and not add back what they provide.
Ultimately, it is the choice of the consumer which to buy, but do know that using by-products is not some evil plot. It’s just a really good way to reduce waste (because you have to throw out all the by-products if you don’t use them) and to reduce costs (not having to purchase the nutrients elsewhere). But it’s good to make choices from a position of knowledge rather than being led by advertisers.
Just a couple more examples advertising that annoys me.
Ham and pork ads almost always now say “no hormones added.” This is true—but unlike by-products, it does not represent a difference in anything. No pork products have added hormones. Pigs have never been given hormones. A pig grows at a stunning rate of speed without any help. A newborn piglet will put on 150 pounds and reach sexual maturity, ready to breed, in just five months. There is no reason in the world to go to the expense and trouble of trying to speed that up by using hormones. I do understand that advertisers mention hormones because they know that’s a hot-button issue with consumers—but you can relax about pork. None of it has hormones.
And final pet peeve (today): ads that make it look like our food is being raised in industrial complexes of some sort. Today, more than 80% of all crops are grown on family farms (the USDA keeps track of this sort of thing). Some of those are big farms (when so few people are willing to do the hard work of farming, the people who are still doing it have to take up the slack). But they are still family owned and family worked. So if you’re eating, thank a farmer.
Roughly six years ago (February 18, 2015, to be exact) I posted about how dangerous farmings is—second only to coal mining. In that post, I focused on the dangers faced in grain bins filled with corn. If you’re not familiar with what can happen, you might want to go back and read/watch that post. For those who are already aware of the dangers, here is an encouraging video about training volunteer firefighters in farming communities to rescue people who have become trapped. Because if no one rescues you, you die. This video was created by the MN Millennial Farmer, whom I’ve featured here in the past. Hope this makes you a little more appreciative of what goes into getting you your corn chips. And hope the project it represents saves a lot of lives.
The Peterson brothers created a video a few years back that when viral – Farmer Style. As a result, I interviewed Greg Peterson, the oldest of the three brothers, for my book, Midwest Maize, because it reflected the attitude of younger farmers—the folks who will be feeding us in the future.
Then, in my book, Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs, I feature the National FFA, which is an organization that offers great opportunities to students, both in rural areas and cities.
So when the Peterson brothers came out with a new video that, if shared, will benefit the National FFA—supported by Pioneer, which also gets a mention in Midwest Maize book—I could hardly fail to respond to the offer. So here is the video. If you choose to share it, future generations will benefit.
Having traveled around much of the Midwest, interviewing farmers for my food history books and articles, I have come to admire and love them. I also love the values they represent. In my book Midwest Maize, I included a story about one Nebraska farmer who shared with me how she benefited from the openness and generosity of other farmers. She also related that it was common for people in the area helped each other out, and suggested one reason why. It is part of the ethos, of course, but looking after each other is, in remote areas, a way to survive.
Relying on each other makes one kinder and more grateful. I’m sure there is also an element of farming itself, doing something that is “real” and that so clearly benefits others, contributes to the strength and character of the people who farm. So when this video popped up, while I was touched, I was not really surprised at the kindness and solidarity expressed.
Last week, a massive, fast-moving wind storm known as a derecho swept across the Midwest, destroying property and crops in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Winds exceeding 100 mph ripped up trees and tore off roofs in both rural and urban settings. The news stories give the statistics, can tell you where the storm hit, and give general details, but it’s important to remember that this involves people. My brother, who lives in Chicago, took this photo of the trees that came down and blocked his street (and cut in half cars parked along the streets). The derecho actually became a tornado in this section of Rogers Park and became a waterspout when it hit the lake, a block to the east.
The video below examines the impact on one farm in Iowa — the farm of an enthusiastic youngster who is determined to not let it get him down, even though the financial loss will be horrendous. The video begins with his plans for his home, but by about 5.40, the storm kicks in. The thing that might not be clear for those not familiar with farming: even if farmers manage to harvest some of their corn (because not all was destroyed), the destruction of so many of the grain bins means there is no place to store the grain, which creates big problems for farmers–and for everyone who relies on that grain.
Important to remember that things can change in a few minutes. Be grateful for every good day. My sympathy to all affected by the storms, in town and out in the country.
Beck’s Hybrids is a seed company that serves much of the Midwest, plus Kentucky and Tennessee. I’ve seen their signs at the sides of fields as I’ve driven around the Midwest, doing research for various books. But it was on YouTube that I really came to love them. A few years ago, they started a series of videos titled “Why I Farm,” featuring farmers in the region they cover—they actually sent someone out on the road to do interviews and record images—and the videos are wonderful. They are remarkably well made, with beautiful images and heartwarming stories of families who have been on the land for many generations, making sure the rest of us have enough to eat. Thought I’d share a couple here, but then you can just go to YouTube, search for Why I Farm, and see some of the others. I’m grateful to Beck’s for their having made these videos. We need to know farmers and appreciate them. And for what it’s worth, my experience with farmers as I’ve traveled around the region matches what is shown in these videos—solid, hard-working, loving, generous, open, creative, smart, God-fearing people who see themselves as stewards of the land and cherish what they do. Perhaps it is my own experience with farmers that makes these videos resonate. But I’m hoping they’ll appeal to others, as well.
Of the two I picked, the first one is very short, just to get you started—you can pick longer ones if you enjoy these as much as I do. The second one I included because it’s fun—a seventh-generation farm family that also makes great music, in this case, a song they wrote as response to the Why I Farm project. Because farmers can do a lot more than till the soil. Oh—and all the photos they show in the music video are from the family of those who are singing. Because they are real farmers.
No –not pigs that talk — just me talking about pigs, and about my book Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest. A while back, Brian O’Keefe at WDCB radio in Wheaton, IL, talked to me about my corn book. Happily, he thought that went well enough to warrant a discussion of my new book. So here’s the interview.
I have long enjoyed the video channel “Smarter Every Day.” It offers insights into how a lot of things work. However, host Destin has now truly endeared himself to me by focusing on farmers — and pointing out just how much farmers need to know to make things work. I already knew about the bins (I cover the invention of corn bins and drying equipment in my book <em>Midwest Maize), and I knew farmers were smart (and most of the farmers I know have multiple degrees, in subjects ranging from monogastric nutrition to economics to agricultural communication), but it’s lovely to see someone else enthusiastic about everything that goes into keeping a farm going — and us fed. What you see here goes on all over the country, with bins filled with corn, beans, wheat, lentils, peas, garbanzos, barley, and more.
Oh — and that “danger” element Destin mentions — farming is considered second only to coal mining, as far as danger. So no one is farming because it’s easy. It can be hard to make a profit, but most of the farmers I know love the land–and love knowing that they are feeding people.
This blog will relate discoveries made as I explore and study the Midwest. It will feature places I visited in pursuit of tales for my books but will also follow other threads of history, travel, and culture in the Heartland. For the remarkable tales of corn and its importance in the world and U.S., check out the book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. For the fascinating tale of our earliest domesticated food animal, check out Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Bagonfest. I hope you’ll consider buying them. (And stay tuned for future titles.)
Eric Hoffer Award Winner
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association selection