As a critical care nurse in Orland Park, Ill., Janet McCabe isn’t exactly working in a low-stress field. It’s no surprise that, come weekend, she’s ready for a break. But Janet’s version of working for the weekend isn’t working all week so she can take a break — it’s working all week so she can farm.

JM 9

“My husband, Joe, and I, along with our son, Kevin, farm about 500 acres in Cook and northern Will Counties,” Janet said. “We plant corn, soybeans, and wheat, and bale about 100 acres of hay, as well as the straw from the wheat. All three of us work full-time, so during the seasons, our days are long, as farming gets done after work and on the weekends.”


Janet, who takes care of paperwork, running for parts, raking and baling hay, as well as deliveries of hay and straw, grew up in a northwest suburb of Chicago and “didn’t even cut the grass” when she was growing up. But, that all changed when she met Joe in her second year of college at Northern Illinois University.

“We got married in 1985 and moved to Orland Park because, by then, Joe was already farming part-time with his Dad,” Janet said. “He grew up in Orland Park on 80 acres that has been in his father’s family for generations. So, I guess I got involved in agriculture because I feel in love with a farmer, but then I grew to love it as well.”

JM 7

In her spare time Janet also enjoys serving on the Cook County Farm Bureau board and working on their Public Policy and Public Relations team.

“I’m a member of our Speakers Bureau and really enjoy speaking to people and groups about farming,” Janet said. “It’s amazing how many people are eager for the information and really have no prior experience with agriculture or only know agriculture from the ‘sound bites’ they get on the news.”

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:


Not necessarily more land or a bigger farm. In the case of Kirk and Stephanie Liefer, of Randolph County, it means bigger family.

Kirk and Stephanie Liefer have been farming with Kirk’s parents for almost 16 years years, since the pair graduated college. Kirk’s younger brother, Kent, and his wife, Karen, also work on the family farm, operating the Pioneer seed dealership. And Kirk’s youngest brother, Kristopher, came back to the farm just a year and a half ago to work with the family. That’s one farm supporting four families and the Liefers wouldn’t have it any other way.

1-Our Family 9-Kevin Kirk  kids

“It’s been a challenge, expanding the farm to support everyone,” said Kirk. “The seed dealership allowed Kent to come back to the farm. And we’re still trying to build Kristopher into the farm. He’s not married yet, but we don’t think it’s too far in the future. To do it, we always have to look for ways to diversify.”

The Liefers farm corn, soybeans, wheat and grain sorghum on their operation, in addition to selling Pioneer seed. When I asked them how they plan to keep folding family members in, Kirk said the opportunity hadn’t presented itself yet, but when it did, they would jump at it.

“It’s hard to answer how you plan to diversify,” Kirk said. “You never know what that opportunity is until it gets here. If something is there, we’ll look at it. We’re always open to anything that can help us out. I would never put livestock out of the picture, or crop diversification. As opportunities present themselves, we’ll keep our minds open.”

Like many young farmers, Kirk and Stephanie are part husband and wife, part coworkers and part tag-team experts.

“Luckily for them, I don’t have to drive any machinery,” Stephanie said when I asked her what her role is on the farm. “But I publish the newsletter for the farm, and have done similar work for Pioneer. I get parts on occasion, too.”

4-Family Meal8-kids

But Kirk was quick to add without Stephanie’s help — and help from the rest of the Liefer ladies — he and his dad and brothers would be stranded.

“There’s a lot of running behind the scenes that the wives do to help us out,” Kirk added. “Sometimes it seems like it goes unnoticed, but there’s a lot of stuff they’re doing behind the scenes.”

Kirk and Stephanie’s connection to the food on your table isn’t a hard connection to trace. Being farmers of corn, soybeans, wheat and grain sorghum means you’re seeing the food they raise in the meat on your table and in other regular cupboard staples. And being able to grow food for their family and yours is something the pair is extremely proud of.

“Everything we do grow is safe and healthy,” Stephanie said. “I don’t want other moms to feel they have to give into buying more expensive organic or natural foods just because. Those are buzz words. I want them to feel comfortable in our food supply. We’re lucky because we aren’t a nation that’s limited by our own growing season — we’re very fortunate.”

“We’re fortunate to live in a country where food is abundant and we can even have these discussions,” Kirk added. “In another county with food insecurity, we wouldn’t even be having these discussions.”

In a nutshell, for the Liefers, who are also parents to five young farmers-to-be, farming is an honor.

7-Karson 6-kids 5-kids

“I love the fact that our farm is a family-run operation,” Stephanie said. “We get to work with each other every day. It’s not always easy, but it’s usually flexible. Our kids can be involved in it, experience it, and have an understanding of it.”

“It’s just a privilege,” Kirk said.

2-Kirk  Kevin

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:

For Eddie Hornbostel of Randolph County, the key to success is one simple word: Diversification.

What started as a few enjoyable 4-H projects on his grandfather’s farm has now blossomed into a full-fledged farming operation, complete with dairy cattle, soybeans, alfalfa and corn.

Like many farmers today, Eddie has chosen to diversify his operation as much as possible to take advantage of every possible market and sector. But he doesn’t just do it because it makes good business sense — he’s chosen to diversify because he loves it.

“For me, the diversification is very enjoyable,” Eddie said. “You never know what you might be doing. I like the diversification because it throws some excitement into your day. And I like doing the dairy and livestock stuff. There aren’t as many of us out there anymore. Driving through our county, I remember several farmers who used to milk, now there’s only nine dairies left in our county. And there are very few beef and hog operations, too. I guess I like it because there are not as many of us so folks depend on us.”

And depend on him, we do. In 2013, Illinois dairy farmers produced 1.879 billion pounds of milk. And Eddie does everything he can to ensure the milk that leaves his farm is safe and ready for consumers.

“Our milk is tested every day or every other day,” Eddie said. “Our milk goes from the milk tank to the dairy every other day. We really have to watch our Ps and Qs because, if we screw up and feed something to the cow, like an antibiotic, and it ruins a tank of milk, it costs me and it costs the dairy. Some people think I can just do anything I want, but if I put anything in that cow, it’s going to show up in the milk tank. Our milk is as safe as it can get. In fact, I wouldn’t want my food to come from any other country.”

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:

Ron Frieders, from DeKalb County, didn’t just decide to start farming one day. For Ron and his family, it was more like a calling, passed down from generation to generation.

It all started when Ron’s grandfather moved to the farm they currently operate in 1915. In 1926, Ron’s dad was born on the farm. And in 1952, Ron himself was born on the farm and grew up there. In other words, next year, Ron and his family will celebrate 100 years of farming the same ground, continuously.

“When my grandparents died, the farm had to be sold to pay the inheritance tax,” Ron said. “But, luckily, we were able to rent it back. We’re still working part of that farm in DuPage County today. Part of it has been developed, but part of it still remains.”

Ron and his wife, Denise, and son, Ryan, operate a true family farm, with each family member helping in the decision-making and workload. In fact, when Ron and Denise married in 1972, Denise didn’t waste any time jumping into the already thriving family farm.

Frieders family

“She stared working with my dad and myself,” Ron said. “First she would pull wagons back to the farm in the fall. After a couple of years, she started operating the combine. She’s run the combine every year since 1974 or 1975. And my son, Ryan — he went to a junior college so he could be close to home and help farm after my dad had a stroke. He finished his four year degree at North Central College, then got his master’s degree at the U of I in agronomy. He’s been here every year helping, and this year, he did all the combining and my wife ran the grain cart. I ran the truck and the grain drying system. For me to keep up with them is a pretty good challenge because they’re pretty fast.”

Ryan has helped so much over the last few years, plans are in place for Ryan and his wife, Deanne, to take over the operation once Ron and Denise decide it’s time to retire.

“Ryan has become an excellent operator,” Ron said. “He’s very good. He and my wife do all the ordering of seed and chemicals and fertilizer. His degree in agronomy helps immensely because we don’t have to rely on other people telling us which chemicals to buy. And Ryan has the support of his wife. Behind every successful farm operation is a woman who is just as much a part of it as her husband.”


For Ron, farming is more than just a job — it’s a way of life. And it’s something that is always changing and challenging.

“We’ve always been farmers,” Ron said. “We farm corn, soybeans and some wheat. And we’ve raised some organic crops in the past, as well as seed beans for many different companies and even non-GMO crops over the years. We really try to optimize our operation and we’re not afraid to try different things.”

Frieders family 2

And it’s those different things that Ron said have helped change the way he farms and make things better for not only him and his family, but also consumers buying the food he produces.

“One of the things people seem to be really stressed about today is GMO crops,” Ron said. “We’ve been around GMO crops since they first came out and have ever seen any scientific tests done anywhere in the world where they’ve caused a problem for anyone or anything. When we’re planting our crops, if they’re not GMO seeds, we have to apply pesticides to kill the insects or they would attack the crops and destroy the seeds while they’re in the ground. To not have to apply so much insecticide and herbicide is a huge benefit for our own safety and the good of the the ground. When my grandfather was farming, 60-70 bushels per acre yields were huge. When my dad was farming and broke 100 bushels per acre, it was big. Now, especially here in DeKalb County, if you’re not getting 200 bushels per acre, it’s not good. We couldn’t feed the world or have abundant, affordable food without GMOs.”

Want to learn more about the Frieders family? Check out their website at www.friedersfarm.com. 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:

Justin Rickard was never really interested in higher education. Still, despite his initial reluctance to further his education, he’s now a professor in the ag department at Illinois State University.

“My plan was to work at home on the farm, but my parents are believers in education and it was through their encouragement that I went to community college,” Justin said. “I transferred to ISU and ag seemed like a good fit. Then, in undergrad, I met a professor and loved him. He was relatable, still actively involved in farming where he was from in Missouri, and raising livestock. After my bachelor’s degree, I took a few years off, but my professor, Bryon Wiegand encouraged me to come back and get a Masters degree.”

Halfway through his master’s degree, Justin’s professor had the opportunity to move home and teach at Missouri. When he went back, Just followed him to Missouri and got a degree in meat science. That’s when he received a call from ISU wanting to know if he would be interested in doing some part-time teaching.

“It was a really good opportunity for me to come back home,” Justin said. “I started part time, then started full time in the ag department. Once I got into academia, and saw what an affect one professor can have, well, it was a pretty emotional experience for me. Hopefully I can do the same thing for students that was done for me.”

meats lab 1

At Illinois State University, Justin teaches ag classes focusing mostly on meat science. It also led him to start a program that is the first of its kind.

“My production background carrying into my teaching is what led myself and grad student to start something that students refer to as steer contest,” Justin said. “Students purchase pens of steers at ISU and make decisions all the way through market. Then, we bring carcasses back and they learn how to fabricate them. It’s the only program that I know of that does that. Students choose what they’re going to be fed, they choose to implant and choose how market.”

On top of Justin’s teaching, he owns and operates Rickard Farms, LLC, and Rickard’s Premium Meats. Having grown up on a farm east of Heyworth, where his folks still farm, Justin operates his business out of buildings and land his father leases him.

“Right now, I sell beef, lamb and chicken with plans to expand into pork,” Justin said. “I sell whole, half and a quarter of beef. I have a broker’s license which enables me to sell individual packages. I buy calves from father and partner and feed them out. The boilers I get when they’re a day old and feed them out and I just buy weaned lambs and feed them. The interesting thing about being able to feed calves that I get from home is I can trace everything back. One with a particularly good carcass, you know what the breeding was.”

For Justin, the great thing about his full-time job and his part-time job is that they intertwine easily.

“I can interact with students, produces and industry people,” Justin said. “I can tell stories from my home business and those real world stories give me more opportunity to give more real world example in class. Teaching changes the way I look at stuff at home. Many of my students don’t come from traditional farming backgrounds. Of those that come from traditional ag, even fewer come from livestock. That changes the way you approach things and teach. You have students who need those real world examples and experiences.”meats lab

More than anything, Justin’s work with his personal business and his teaching career means he has the opportunity to interact with today’s consumers and answer the questions they have about food and food production.

“In the U.S., we have what I consider the safest food supply, globally,” Justin said. “I try to remind people that there’s a difference between the words safe, wholesome, and quality. Safe is food safety. Wholesome is whether or not something is nutritious. Quality is in the eye of the beholder. We can provide food to multiple markets and provide it at less cost than other places.”

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:

For Ruth Zeldenrust, her love of farming took root at an early age. She grew up on her family’s vegetable farm in Chicago Heights, and after college, decided go back to the farm, taking over her father’s farming operation and upgrading it to include greenhouses for flowers and a burgeoning honeybee population.

RZ 9 RZ 8

“I decided to get back to the farm after college, realizing that I did not like working in an office,” Ruth said. “I wanted to exit the rat race and get back to the earth that calls me every day. At an early age, I found the need to grow plants and enjoy the fruits of my labor, and that brought me home to the farm.”

According to Ruth, there can’t be too many people around Chicago Heights that love flowers, honey and vegetables, so from May to November, Ruth and her family go to farmers’ markets all around Chicagoland to sell what is appropriate for the season.

“In the spring and early summer, we sell mostly hanging baskets of flowers and other types of flower pots,” Ruth said. “In the summer and fall, we start picking vegetables from our fields and bring that homegrown produce to the farmers’ markets. What I like most about farmers’ markets is getting to know the customers on a personal level. I have many regular customers that I have grown to love over the years, and they always expect me to sell them the best product. I also have a direct line of communication with the customers as consumers, and I get a firsthand look at what is important to them and what is ‘trending.’”

RZ 5 RZ 4 RZ 2

What’s more, working at the farmers’ markets keeps her honest, said Ruth.

“It really keeps me working hard all year to satisfy my loyal customers,” Ruth said. “My customers even give feedback on what is important to them, like pesticides, or types of seeds, or vegetables they think are the best tasting, or how to cook the vegetables to promote the best flavor. My customers have really come to trust me.”

RZ 1 RZ 3

For Ruth, it all of the hard work boils down to keeping the customer happy and helping them understand what farmers do on a daily basis.

“If I could tell consumers one thing about myself, it would be that I am a steward of the land and that I produce safe and healthy food for them,” Ruth said. “Instead of looking to the internet for information, go out and find a farmer and have a conversation.”

RZ 7

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 this case, I don’t mean, “using what you’ve got,” or “starting from scratch.” I actually mean a farmer’s crop has to start somewhere — generally a seed — and that’s exactly where Heather Spray comes in.


Heather, who hails from Edwards County, is a Quality Management System Manager for AgReliant Genetics in West Salem, Ill. As the third largest seed company in the U.S., AgReliant Genetics relies on Heather to do, well, a whole lot.

Not only does she ensure that quality processes are in place throughout the entire seed chain, beginning with research and development of genetic lines and ending when the seed arrives on customers’ farms, she oversees training and auditing of quality processes.

“There are a lot of processes that take place to ensure our customers receive a high quality product,” Heather said. “I also oversee our Customer Call Database, which means I work with our brands to ensure that when a customer has an issue with one of our products, all of our departments are working together, behind the scenes, to ensure the issue has been corrected.”

And how does all of that tied back to the food on your plate?

“I make sure that all processes are functioning behind the scenes properly so that our farmer customers are receiving a high quality seed product.”

Heather’s work with AgReliant wasn’t a big step, considering Heather grew up on a grain farm where her family still grows corn and soybeans and she and her husband currently help. She and her husband even picked up some of their own acreage for next spring. Plus, said Heather, she just loves agriculture.

“I love being part of an industry that impacts everyone’s lives,” Heather said. “I enjoyed the time spent on the farm as a kid and I loved science and my ag classes in school. I love the seasons of agriculture — it’s constantly changing, which make my life and my job interesting! Plus, I have two sons, J.J., who is 2 1/2 and loves being on the farm, and Emmitt, who is 3 months old.”


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:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,059 other followers