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For Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) Business Development and Compliance Manager Cynthia Haskins, helping farmers direct-market their produce isn’t something that she just happened into when she began working for IFB. In fact, it’s in her blood.

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“I grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm in Henderson, Ill., where our family marketed direct-to-consumer and through grocery stores,” Cynthia said. “We had our own retail stand. I remember customers would line up down the street to buy our sweet corn, tomatoes and strawberries. We grew more than that, but those were our traffic builders. My father still farms for farmer’s markets because that’s where he is most happy — growing.”

Today, Cynthia helps develop and implement programs and projects to assist Farm Bureau members and industry with local and regional food business development to grocery and specialty retailers, wholesalers, foodservice, schools and other farm to market outlets such as farmers’ markets, CSAs and roadside stands.

Cynthia also helps make available information and resources regarding marketing, distribution, food hubs, alternative farming practices, and governmental regulation of food safety, labeling, nutrition, and packaging of local and regional food.

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“I try my best to ‘meet people where they’re at,'” Cynthia said. “If they are a grocery store that hasn’t purchased from a smaller farmer, they may need assistance in looking at their merchandising plans again. If a farmer has never sold to a grocery store or a restaurant, they may need help in understanding how to sort, grade and pack their product.”

More than anything, Cynthia makes things happen. And nothing is better than that.

“Whether a farmer is a beginning farmer or a seasoned farmer, one thing is for certain, food comes from farmers,” Cynthia said. “The best part of my job is to introduce farmers to buyers and then let them tell the farmer story, whether it is on a display sign in the grocery store or highlighting their name on a menu, or watching someone load up on fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market.”

In the end, when it comes to food, Cynthia hopes consumers remember one thing: it’s okay to eat it.

“We have a safe food system in America,” Cynthia said. “There are so many steps between the time a product is planted and raised to the time it reaches our fork, and yet, it arrives safely. It doesn’t matter whether it was picked down the street or 1,500 miles away, the actual process is pretty much the same. Just remember, as we bow our heads and give thanks for our food, take a moment and thank God for the farmer, too.”

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Don’t forget to check out all the awesome blogs happening this month over at Prairie Farmer.

For the full Faces Behind Your Food Series, check out the links below:

Todd Verheecke started working for John Deere’s experimental shop right after graduating from Iowa State University and, in the ten years since, has steadily moved up the ladder. Now, as a senior marketing representative for harvester works, he has the opportunity to talk to customers at farm shows and dealerships, putting the feedback he gets on the John Deere combines he works with into practice.

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“I make sure that what they’re seeing in their combines is good and there are no issues,” Todd said. “And, I get feedback on what they want in the future. I just make sure everything is going well and put that feedback into future plans.”

And, just to be sure, Todd does his own quality control on his own farm and his family’s farm.

“I still help on my family’s farm,” Todd said. “And I have my own operation, too — just 100 to 120 acres. But I still help my dad with his livestock and corn and soybeans. And doing that helps me keep my hand in everything and stay involved. When I go to farm shows and am out in the community, knowing what’s going on and having my finger on the pulse helps me speak one-on-one with the customers and helps me speak their language. And it helps them trust me.”

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After working with John Deere implements and in the agriculture industry for ten years, Todd said he knows there are some misconceptions when it comes to farming and farming practices.

“Most farmers are just like your average person,” Todd said. “They’re just a little more tuned in to the country. But it’s important to remember that today’s farming equipment is just as advanced as your car. There are a lot of computers and electronics that can help monitor the combine itself and what’s going on. Farmers are really technologically advanced.

“And, we do our best to grow the safest food for our families and the rest of the population,” Todd added. “We wouldn’t do anything to hurt the food supply because we want safe food that everyone can consume.”

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Don’t forget to check out all the awesome blogs happening this month over at Prairie Farmer.

For the full Faces Behind Your Food Series, check out the links below:

We’re in the homestretch of our 30 day series, Faces Behind Your Food, and have highlighted a bunch of interesting people. From truck drivers and ag lenders, to farmers, seed dealers, farm bureau managers and everything in between, all of these folks either decided to stay involved in agriculture, or follow a career path into agriculture. And in many cases, they made those choices because of ag teachers just like my friend, DeAnna Thomas.

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DeAnna is a first year agriculture education teacher at Midwest Central High School in Manito, Ill., and is on the front line of helping future consumers gain an understanding of where their food comes from.

“Every day I strive to teach students the importance of agriculture through engaging, hands-on learning,” DeAnna said. “It is challenging, yet very rewarding.  Although Manito is a small, rural community, a majority of the students I teach do not live on a farm.  It is my hope after taking an ag class, my students have a thorough knowledge of where their food comes from and how it gets from family farms to their dinner forks.”

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To say DeAnna has had an interesting career path is an understatement. In fact, DeAnna has truly done it all when it comes to agriculture communications, from starting her career as a farm broadcaster, to working as a marketing representative for a seed company. Oh, and she also works as a farm wife to her husband, Braden, helping out on their farm in the Spring Lake bottoms, where they farm commercial corn and soybeans and also raise popcorn, green beans and peas.

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“My career path has been full of unique and remarkable opportunities,” DeAnna said. “I have had the opportunity to serve the public and agriculture community as a local farm broadcaster, serve farmers as a marketing coordinator for a seed company, and now, I’m serving my community and future generations as an agriculture education teacher.”

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Even after all of that, DeAnna says her role in each job is pretty much the same — answering questions and making sure consumers, even future ones, know exactly where their food comes from.

“It is my hope that the students who leave my classroom know and understand the importance of the work farmers do each and every day to ensure there is enough food for people all over the world to eat,” DeAnna said. “I always used to close out my broadcasts saying, ‘Agriculture is more than food, feed, and fuel, it is the foundation of our future.’  At the end of each day, it is my hope I have done all I can to teach my students that.

“I really believe the biggest threat facing agriculture is the lack of agriculture education,” DeAnna added. “So many people today take the food that is in their cabinets for granted. Whether it was in my former role as an agriculture communicator or in my current role as an agriculture educator, I truly feel a sense of responsibility to inform the general public about the importance of agriculture. The impact it has on Mason County, the state of Illinois, the USA, even the world, is immense and needs to be shared with as many people as possible.”

Don’t forget to check out all the awesome blogs happening this month over at Prairie Farmer.

For the full Faces Behind Your Food Series, check out the links below:

Thomas Titus’ heart has always been in production agriculture. He grew up in Douglas County on a family farm where his father worked, and still does, with 4-H kids to provide them with pigs for their livestock projects and his mom went to high schools and different civic organizations teaching them about how farmers raise pigs.

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Thomas himself worked on the family farm, then for Cargill in pork procurement, before moving back to his wife’s family farm. Thomas’ heart has always been in production agriculture.

“Three years ago, we transferred back to my wife’s farm,” Thomas said. “They have a 750 head farrow to finish operation, and we also raise some cows, goats and chickens. And we raise corn and soybeans — and of course, kids. There’s no better way to raise kids. We wanted to raise our kids in a similar setting that we were both brought up in. Being able to provide our own kids the opportunity to learn those core character values you can’t get anywhere else than on the farm is extremely rewarding.”

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Now that he’s back on a family farm, Thomas is working with his brother-in-law and father-in-law and five employees. Oh, and he just got a lot busier because his wife, Breann, added another daughter to the family just eight weeks ago and, shortly after, Thomas was named as one of four Faces of Farming Ranching for the United States Farmer and Rancher Alliance.

Thomas said he decided to apply for the position because of his involvement in various pork producers organizations and early involvement in agricultural advocacy.

“I understand the importance of helping consumers understand what we do on the farm,” Thomas said. “It’s important to me to talk about what we do on our farm and build that trust with consumers again, because there are a lot of questions and misconceptions and we get so consumed with our day-to-day and don’t step out of our comfort zones to tell people what we’re doing. Google any type of farming practice and a number of pages will pop up, whether they’re wrong or right. Consumers have questions and it’s great being able to reassure them we’re doing the right things because we’re consumers just like they are. We’re purchasing the same ham steaks and milk that they are.”

Don’t forget to check out all the awesome blogs happening this month over at Prairie Farmer.

For the full Faces Behind Your Food Series, check out the links below:

Day 21: 24/7

What do you do if you love to eat and you have a thing for science? If you ask Rachel Smith from Lawrence County, the answer is easy: you starting working in the food industry.

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“I love to eat and I love food science, so getting to combine the two every day is pretty awesome,” Rachel said. “It is also really neat to see products that I developed on store shelves. It makes me want to randomly drop them into people’s carts!”

In her current role as a food scientist with Ameriqual Foods, Rachel works on product development of new food products, ranging from soups and sauces to pureed baby foods.

“Typically, I start with a target gold standard product to match which could be a homemade recipe or a competitor’s item already in the market,” Rachel said. “I then determine what ingredients to use and develop a formula, or recipe, to make that item. I start by making a small batch and make tweaks based on what flavor, texture, appearance, etc., the customer is looking for.”

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Rachel monitors costs, government regulations, production restraints and more to keep the project on track. Once the recipe is ready to go, she works in the production plant to ensure the formula can be made on a larger scale.

After growing up on her family’s grain and livestock farm, Rachel knew she wanted to stay involved in agriculture.

“As a kid, I loved working with all of the animals and livestock on our farm, but I believed that the only way to be involved in animal agriculture was to be a veterinarian,” Rachel said. “I set off to college with that goal in mind, and I discovered there are a lot of opportunities in animal agriculture that don’t require spending your life in college! I became involved in meats judging at the University of Illinois and that really was the starting pint of my career. I learned a lot about the meat industry which was a part of agriculture I had never really thought about. There really isn’t any better field to be in than food production. Everyone has to eat and that’s not going to change. And I take pride in knowing where my food comes from, and producing quality, safe food for not only my family, but yours, too.”

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Being one of the last stops in the food chain before it reaches someone’s table, Rachel relies on farmers to produce high quality, affordable ingredients so that she can further process them into consumer goods. And farmers rely on her to create a demand and add value to their products.

“I always tell people that I have never seen anything in a food or meat plant that has caused me to stop eating any particular food,” Rachel said. “Food and meat plants are not scary, dirty places. They aren’t like the Chipotle commercials where they show toxic chemicals being pumped into the food. The equipment, ingredients, packaging and processes have been tested and retested and tested again to ensure they are safe. We are thinking about food safety and food quality 24/7 so that consumers don’t have to.”

Don’t forget to check out all the awesome blogs happening this month over at Prairie Farmer.

For the full Faces Behind Your Food Series, check out the links below:

Mitch Heisler grew up on a corn, soybean and cattle farm in Warsaw, Ill. While his brother is back on the family farm, Mitch wanted to stay involved in agriculture in a different way which is why joining Wyffels Hybrids after college was a no brainer for him.

“My brother is on the farm and my dad retired a few years ago,” Mitch said. “There wasn’t enough room for me to come back to the farm, but I had an interest in doing other things anyway. I had worked for Wyffels as an intern in sales during college. After college, I came to work as a district sales manager, direct selling to farmers and helping manage seed reps in Henry and Bureau Counties. I joined the marketing department in February of 2013.”

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In his current job, Mitch helps provide agronomic information to customers, Wyffels employees and sales representatives to use on new technologies. Mitch follows current agronomic topics, writes a newsletter for Wyffels customers and works with performance data and analyzes that data to distribute the information in the fall.

And with all of that information, Mitch knows the ins and outs of how seed is developed, sold and marketed. And he also knows that not everyone is privy to the same information he has, which is where concerns can develop.

“First and foremost, any new technology or new advancement in the ag industry and crop protection has to go through a lot of testing, and for multiple years, both by the company developing the product and by independent entities,” Mitch said. “Another thing that consumers need to know — and it’s hard for a seed company to promote — farmers are good stewards of the technology. They’re not going to use it in a way that is not intended. There are a lot of requirements for GMO seeds, a lot of rules that we work with farmers to make sure they follow. The motivation there is to make sure it’s safe and protects the environment.”

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And working with farmers is one of the things Mitch enjoys most about his job.

“Farmers are faced with a lot of decisions throughout the growing season,” Mitch said. “No year is the same. There are new challenged or diseases or pests. What I try to do in my job is provide farmers with information that they need to make the best decisions possible for their farms. Doing that makes our customers more successful and allows them to produce more food. It helps them head off the challenges.”

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Don’t forget to check out all the awesome blogs happening this month over at Prairie Farmer.

For the full Faces Behind Your Food Series, check out the links below:

In 1883, first generation German immigrants Ferdinand and Anna Nagel bought 100 acres of farm ground in DuPage County and named it Oakwood Farm. In 1914, the farm was passed down to the Nagel’s only son, Edward, and his wife Elizabeth.

Edward and Elizabeth raised five daughters on the farm and, in 1941, one of those daughters, Ramona, married Victor Feltes and the couple began producing and direct marketing seasonal produce form a small roadside table.

They also renamed the farm to Sonny Acres after Victor and Ramona had their seventh of eight sons and on daughter.

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“From those early roots, we turned into one of the largest agritourism destinations in northern Illinois,” said Tom Feltes, who currently manages the farm. “We have a greenhouse operation to grow fresh produce for the summer, and then we have our largest attraction, our fall festival. We’re also going into the Christmas tree business with trees we have important from Michigan.”

Tom and his family sell tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers, gourds, ten varieties of squash, 30 varieties of pumpkins and Christmas trees.

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After all that time and growth of the business, Sonny Acres farm is still a family-run farm.

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“We are a corporation,” Tom said. “I’m one of the managers. Another brother helps with the business and the rest of the brothers sit on the board of directors. But the main decisions are made at the kitchen table. The kitchen table is still the board room.”

For Tom, working with family is just one of the perks of his decision to stay in agriculture.

“I enjoy that I’m not in a typical office environment,” Tom said. “I’m outdoors and I’ve got my fingers in the soil. I’m growing and harvesting and I enjoy that. Plus, I’m in business for myself. I’m not working for someone else and I’m my own boss, which can be very rewarding. And I’m involved in a family operation.”

“I really like to interact with my customers,” Tom added. “Businesses are built on repeat customers. You want them to come back again and again, so it’s important they see your face. I try to give my customers a good product at a good price so there’s value. I offer a product which is locally grown because a lot of consumers now, they could go to Jewell, but Jewell doesn’t have the kind of pumpkins I grow. People want to shop more locally versus going to the big box stores and that’s where my competitive advantage is — service and offering them a better product.”

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To learn more about Sonny Acres Farm, check out their website and Facebook page! And don’t forget to check out all the awesome blogs happening this month over at Prairie Farmer.

For the full Faces Behind Your Food Series, check out the links below:

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