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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.

Titus Family

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.”

Conrady Family

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:

Since 1946, Renee Sheaffer Koster’s farm has been a traditional dairy farm. Her grandfather started milking those cows after he came home from the war and her father continued to milk them after that. But in the ’90s, the decision was made to sell the milking herd.

At the time, Renee was in elementary school and didn’t play a big role in the family farm. But by the time she moved into middle and high school, she was ready to get back into farming.

“I always liked the dairy and I wanted to raise some calves, so I started buying bottle calves,” Renee said. “When I got into high school, I joined 4-H and started showing the dairy cattle. My dad kept growing corn and beans and we started milking a couple of cows and selling the raw milk.”

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Today, Renee has more milk than she can sell, so she’s started to raise additional bucket calves to feed out and sell for meat she markets as locally grown, pasture raised and custom cut. Her customers continue to ask for additional products so Renee also has started raising eggs, pigs and sheep to sell, as well.

“We went from conventionally-raised milk that we were selling in the dairy market to having a much smaller her and getting into more specialty or niche markets where we could have smaller numbers but still make it work,” Renee said.

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For Renee, turning a traditional farm into a not so traditional farm meant doing the things she loves most: taking care of livestock, being outside and making her own decisions. Plus, providing her customers with a product she loves and they love, too.

“We live on the farm and we eat what we’re raising,” Renee said. “We wouldn’t sell something to our customers that we wouldn’t eat ourselves. It’s one of the main things that people can relate to — just knowing that you care about the animals and you care about the product and you’re consuming what you’re producing.”

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To learn more about Renee’s farm, check out her 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:

Greg and Mariah Anderson didn’t start out as farmers. Greg grew up in northern Illinois, Mariah in southern Illinois and they both grew up in FFA — in fact, that’s where the two met, while serving as Section FFA Presidents. After school and marriage, the two decided to start their own farm, Triple M Farm, in central Illinois.

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“We bought a farm house with some acreage just east of Clinton,” Mariah said. “At the time, we both had full time jobs, but we knew we wanted to have some kind of farming operation. Our neighbors just happened to own a pumpkin farm and, in the fall of 2008, we offered to start growing fall mums for their pumpkin farm.”

Greg and Mariah readily admit they had no clue what they were getting into, but after some research, and pure faith and determination, they planted their first crop of 300 mums in 2009. Each year, they increased their mum operation as the awareness of their mums increased in the community.

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“What makes us unique is that we grow several specialty varieties of mums that you might not see in the box stores,” Mariah said. “We put a lot of emphasis on the quality of our plants and spend a lot of time taking notes during the growing stages and again in the fall. We have really got it down to a science on the best varieties for our operation. This past year, we grew 8,000 mum for four pumpkin farms, our local IGA grocery store, and wholesale and retail customers.”

In addition to planting thousands of mums this year, Greg and Mariah also decided to expand their operation and venture into fruits and vegetables, cut flowers and bedding plants.

10514509_10152922445196521_4695270311970126930_n 10303375_10152789217741521_190676530747205606_n“This time we weren’t completely unaware of what we were getting into because Greg grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm,” Mariah said. “In our first year, we also decided to offer a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. For over 25 years, CSAs have been a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.”

In a CSA, farmers offer a certain number of shares to the public. Typically, the share consists of a box or basket of vegetables. A family or individual will purchase a share and, in return, receive a basket of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. Greg and Mariah are the first farm in DeWitt County to offer a CSA and, with their shares, their members receive a basket of produce, an email newsletter and three to four recipes to complement their basket.

This year, Greg and Mariah have plans to put up an additional high tunnel to increase vegetable production. They’re also planning to open their farm to the public for more farm visits and educational experiences, as well as a farm to fork appreciation dinner at the end of the CSA season. 10533259_10152938166456521_4412576115399169277_n

“We operate our farm through viable agriculture practices and we will be transparent from end to end,” Mariah said. “Our philosophy, along with farm families across the U.S., is to be ethically responsible, resourceful, good stewards of the land, and grow healthy and safe products. The American food supply is the safest in the world, thanks to the diligence of American farmers. We only use treatments to address and prevent issues, if needed. It is just like when you or your child gets sick or gets an infection. You treat what is necessary for getting better. Chemicals are expensive, so farmers are not going to want to abuse them due to cost. There is no economic incentive for a farmer to over apply. The amount of treatment we use, if needed, is very little.”

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In the end, Mariah said knowing all you need to know about your food is very simple.

“When you know your farmer, you get to learn about where your food comes from and exactly how it is grown,” she said.

Want to know more? Check out the Triple M Facebook page and Greg and Mariah’s website. 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:

Lindsey White, Vice President and co-owner of Torkelson Cheese Company in Lena, Ill., has been in the cheese business, well, forever.

“I didn’t grow up on a farm, I grew up in a cheese factory,” Lindsey said. “My parents actually brought me home from the hospital to a place they live in which was directly above a cheese factory, so I guess you can say I have been in the cheese business, literally, since day one.”

Lindsey and her husband, Jamie, are partners with Duane and Cheryl Torkelson and between the four of them, they manage every aspect of the business. Lindsey maintains the day-to-day financials of the business, including accounts payable, accounts receivable, banking and employee payroll.

Lindsey also serves as the quality director, which means she manages all outside third party, state and federal inspections, as well as all employee food safety training. She also handles all of Torkelson’s cheese, protein, cream and lactose buyers and works with farmers on their paperwork, de-lactose permeate feed schedules, quality issues, or any other issue of questions they may have.

Plus, she oversees all lab personnel, procedures and results.With Lucy

“I love getting new lab equipment to play with,” Lindsey said. “For some reason I just like to see the data on our products. I have been told our labs are a bit overkill for our size plant, but hey, I think ensuring quality and consistency is what makes us great.”

Last year, Torkelson Cheese decided to expand their business to build a lactose drying facility. Lactose can be used in all kinds of confections, bakery products, infant formula and even for animal feed.

“In the dairy business, for all of us, margins are getting thinner and thinner,” Lindsey said. “We generally operate on the principal that if you are not growing, you are dying. For a cheese manufacturing facility our size, we know we need to take advantage of every potential income source leaving our plant.”

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For Lindsey, the biggest reward is the quality product she and her employees produce everyday.

“At Torkelson Cheese quality really is our biggest concern,” Lindsey said. “I have two small children at home and we eat our cheese on a daily basis. I would never put something onto the market that I would not feed my own family. I do get offers from ingredient companies with all kind of crazy things that will boost yield, moisture, etc. But Torkelson Cheese uses all 100 percent natural ingredients. Could we make more money adding chemicals and preservatives? Yes, but who would want to eat that? I think, in the end, we know we are doing the absolute best that we can for our consumer. I understand that people work hard to earn their money. When they choose to spend it on dairy products that come from our plant, I’m elated. Those people that trust our cheese at their dinner table deserve the best possible quality that we can provide.”

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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:

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