Each Earth Day, internet memes pop up all over the place proclaiming farmers the original conservationists.

Earth Day

And it’s true. Farmers have been caring for the earth and their land for generations. And they’ll continue to do so for generations to come in order to ensure their families will be able to keep farming and raising animals on the same ground they have used for years.

But, with so much modern technology at their fingertips, what are farmers and ranchers doing today to conserve and preserve the land?

For starters, Illinois farmers sought significant changes to the Illinois Fertilizer Act to establish the Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC). NREC serves as a sustainable funding mechanism for nutrient research and educational programs. For each ton of bulk fertilizer sold in the state, $.75 cents is used to support projects and programs that address the role of nutrients in enhancing Illinois crop production while minimizing the environmental impact.

Additionally, 20 percent of NREC funds must be dedicated to on-farm research and demonstration projects that address water quality issues. And with annual funding between $2 and $2.5 million, that means plenty of research into keeping water safe and clean. In 2014, 15 projects will be funded, totaling more than $2.55 million.

Illinois farmers also are a part of the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP). Their Keep it for the Crop (KIC) program is aimed at reducing nutrient losses, educating suppliers and farmers, and dedicating resources toward research to reduce nutrient losses and enhance nutrient efficiency. Additionally, the program has focused on water quality and nitrate load in eight priority watersheds within the state.

The KIC program works with farmers and fertilizer dealers to establish on-farm nitrogen rate trials in order to provide farmers with a reliable, defensible nitrogen rate for their own, individual fields.

Illinois farmers have helped to lay the groundwork for a new era of research and education. The funding provided by NREC helps make substantial progress in farmers’ efforts to minimize environmental impact, optimize harvest yield and maximize nutrient utilization. What’s more, these efforts aren’t dependent upon state or federal funding, but rather on the support of farmers themselves each time they buy nutrients for their fields.

The bottom line is this: Farmers and their families are drinking the same water you’re drinking. In many cases, they’re on the front lines, living closest to their fields. Clean, safe water is just as important to them as it is to you. Their efforts to keep water safe and conserve land helps farmers retain the ‘original conservationist’ title.



Today’s post comes from McHenry County Farm Bureau president and farmer Michele Aavang. Michele raises beef cattle on her farm just north of Woodstock, Ill., where cattle graze on pasture land that has been in the family since the 1840s. To find out more about Michele and her family, head to her Facebook page, Willow Lea Stock Farm.

By Michele Aavang, President, McHenry County Farm Bureau

By Michele Aavang, President, McHenry County Farm Bureau

Recently a woman who I like and respect quite a bit posted a rather lengthy Facebook status. Tammy and I met several years ago at the farmers’ market where I’m a vendor and she is a regular customer. She’s a mom of two and is making all of the food choices for her family.

Her post centered around her feelings of being torn between “seemingly opposing sides” of the “local, heirloom, organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, sustainable, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range” farmers and those who farm using conventional methods.

Tammy, you don’t have to choose a side. The recent round of fear-based marketing, most prominently displayed by Chipotle’s new advertising campaign, will have you believe that there is only one correct choice and that it must be the one with the most adjectives attached.

It’s beyond annoying to me when one method of production is misrepresented and put down to make another look good. This tactic is being used not only by major food retailers like the burrito purveyor, but by farmers against one another.

I would suggest that there is room for all types of production methods in today’s agriculture and that they can peacefully coexist. The reality is there are plenty of markets for farmers today.

Consumers have a variety of desires and demands, from budget to niche related. We also can’t overlook the fact that we’re facing a very real global population explosion. It will take all farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, doing what they do best, to feed it.

A farmer makes the decision on what kind of crop to grow and how to grow it based on a multitude of factors, which include location, facilities, resources, market opportunities, availability of labor, personal preference, etc.

Here we have a herd of 60 beef cows. It’s that size because of the amount of land and the quality of land we have available.

Cow 1 Cows Winter Cows

The decision about how to market our beef, which is directly to consumers, was made based on the fact that we’re physically located in a fairly populous and prosperous area between two major population centers, Chicago and Rockford.

I have friends who raise cattle in North Dakota in a remote rural area literally 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks and 80 miles from a McDonald’s. Marketing direct to consumers is not an option for them.

They also have about 10 times the number of cows I have because they have more land and more labor available. It’s not better or worse than what we’re doing here.

I choose not to use growth promotants in my beef because my customers tell me they want it that way. My cattle grow a little slower and require more feed. The cost of that feed is passed along to the consumer.

Bull Calves Cow and calf 2

I’m very aware there are people who can’t afford my beef. That’s OK and I’m happy there is more affordable beef in large retail stores available to them. I would never suggest that there’s anything wrong with the less expensive beef raised in a different manner.

The bottom line is that I have found a market for my beef, while other farmers have a market for less expensive, efficiently-raised beef. Yet another group finds buyers who are willing to pay extra for the organic label. We find what works best for our own farms.

Bull 2

I also market my beef as “natural.” I’m able to fit my production methods to the demands of my clientele. They tell me that “local” and “natural” are important to them; they don’t have strong feelings about “organic.”

They do like to know the money they’re spending is staying in the county. They want to have a relationship with their farmer and to know how and where their food is raised. I’m happy to comply.

If things change and price or something else should become the priority, I will have to adapt my production methods accordingly.

To consumers who are struggling with food choices, I say pick whatever works best for YOU. Buy what you want given your own budget and preferences.

I start my day the same way farmers and ranchers all across the country do. Getting up and checking our animals, making sure they’re comfortable and secure with plenty of feed, water and a dry place to rest.

Our livestock comes first no matter the adjectives attached to the label. No choice there.

Michele’s article was originally printed in the March 24 edition of FarmWeek.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the marshmallow farmers of North Carolina.


Happy April Fools Day!


Almost two months later and we’re still talking about it. It took more than two years to get the darn thing passed, and even after it passes, we’re still talking about how good or bad it is.

That’s right, I’m talking about the farm bill.

Even after it finally cleared the House and Senate, open season on the 2014 farm bill continued, with letters to the editor, horribly lopsided political cartoons and talking heads bashing the bill on every channel.

Mostly, they’re complaining that the bill still isn’t good enough and will cost more than originally projected.

According to the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI), the farm bill’s Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program and Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program will cost more than the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted before the farm bill became law. And that report has everyone talking.

FAPRI’s figures are based on their predicted drop in commodity prices over the next ten years. FAPRI predicts PLC payments will increase in the coming years while ARC payments will start larger, but drop significantly after the first few years, leading to an $11 billion gap in the CBO’s projected cost and FAPRI’s.

Still, if the 2008 farm bill had been continued rather than a new farm bill being implemented, costs could be even higher due to payments based on old farm programs with the same falling commodity prices and an overall drop in net farm income.

In fact, the 2014 farm bill contains many reforms including the elimination of direct payments to farmers, which will save taxpayers $24 billion over the next ten years. The bill does not change program eligibility for nutrition assistance. Nor does the bill cut the current level of nutrition benefits for the approximately two million men, women and children in Illinois who need such assistance.

And it’s important to consider one more important factor: we can guess all we want, but no one knows for sure what commodity prices will be this year, let alone in ten years.

Bottom line, the farm bill helps farmers plan for the future and provides consumers with stable food prices. That’s something we should all be able to get behind.


Well, it’s that time of year, again — it’s time to celebrate National FFA Week!

I’ve talked a lot about FFA here on our blog. I’ve talked about my experiences in the organization and how it benefited me. But I’m a farm kid — FFA was made for me, right?


Well, yes…kind of. I was the target audience, especially when the organization was founded back in 1928. But over the years, things have definitely changed. Fewer and fewer kids made plans to go back to the farm itself, but wanted to stay active in agriculture. Which is why, in 1988, the organization changed its name from Future Farmers of America to simply the National FFA Organization.

FFA Week

What does that means for kids today? You don’t have to be going back to the farm to join FFA. You don’t even have to be from a farm to join FFA. Heck, you might not even have plans (yet) to be in some agriculture-related profession after school.

What am I getting at here? The FFA isn’t just for farm kids like me — it’s for everyone and benefits everyone.

From leadership and public speaking skills to responsibility and ambition, FFA members gain more than their fair share of life lessons and accomplishments. No matter their background, or where they’re going, FFA can offer the world to students.

It offered the world to me.

FFA Week 3


This is what I think of EVERY. STINKIN’. TIME.


The things you can find on Facebook...

The things you can find on Facebook…


What can I say? Even with the Olympics in full swing, I can’t get ag off the brain.

Well, Chipotle is at it again. And I’m tired of writing my two cents worth – the same two cents – all of the time. So this time, we’re tossing it to a special guest post from our friends at the Truth About Trade and Technology. This post comes from farmer Ted Sheely. Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, onions, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He volunteers as a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology. For more information, visit www.truthabouttrade.org.

chipotle 2

In the boardrooms of Madison Avenue, they call it “values branding”: a marketing strategy in which a company tries to instill a feeling of righteousness in the customers who buy its products.

But what kind of values would inspire a corporation to wage a smear campaign against America’s farmers?

That’s the question I asked after learning about the latest ploy of Chipotle Mexican Grill: a series of four 30-minute videos, scheduled to debut next week on Hulu, the online television service. Called “Farmed and Dangerous,” it is, in the words of the New York Times, “a full-throated attack on ‘industrial agriculture,’ complete with a Dr. Strangelove-like scientist inventing eight-winged chickens.”

Apparently the show also features exploding cows.

Maybe it’s funny, if you enjoy that sort of thing. Like a Super Bowl commercial with a laugh-out-loud gag, however, the point is not simply to earn a chuckle. Chipotle wants to boost its sales. “Farmed and Dangerous” is an expensive scheme to suggest that the act of buying burritos and tacos at Chipotle is morally superior to the act of buying them elsewhere.

As a business decision, it may make sense. But let’s not forget what this really is: propaganda. And it is intended to mock and discredit the honest work of farmers like me.

That’s rich, coming from a corporation that owns more than 1,500 restaurants and boasts a stock-market value of more than $15 billion. Its shares currently trade at about $550 apiece.

Chipotle was once a small fast-food restaurant chain in Colorado. Then, in the 1990s, McDonald’s became a major investor and Chipotle experienced super-sized growth. By the time McDonald’s sold its stake, Chipotle was a fast-food success story.

For the last few years, Chipotle has tried to brand itself as a source of “natural” and “sustainable” food. Steve Ells, its CEO, recently wrote about Chipotle’s “commitment to remove GMOs from our food to the fullest extent possible.” He added that “there is an active debate” over the safety of foods with GMO ingredients.

That’s true, in the sense that there was once an “active debate” over whether the earth is round or flat. Every responsible organization that has studied the safety of GMOs has come down squarely on their side, from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization. The only people who dispute these findings are modern-day flat-earthers.

Not only are GMOs a proven source of good nutrition, they’re also good for the environment. They help farmers conserve soil and let us grow more food on less land. Mainstream foods with GMO ingredients can and do exist side-by-side with organic foods and other options. That’s what happens on my farm in California, where I raise GMO cotton alongside organic onions.

As a practical matter, Chipotle is going to have a tough time keeping its food-sourcing promises. I once did business with a major retailer that considered moving its entire line of t-shirts and underwear to all-organic cotton. It quickly became obvious that there wasn’t enough organic cotton in the world to meet this demand. Organic crops are niche products, hard to grow and expensive to sell.

The same rules apply to Chipotle. The fast-food chain is almost certain to hike its prices this year, according to accounts in the business media. Perhaps consumers are willing to open their wallets. And who am I to say they shouldn’t? Choices are good, and Chipotle is free to try to persuade people to pay a premium for their food.

Yet Chipotle’s customers should think twice about their options. Last year, the progressive magazine Mother Jones took a close look at the corporation’s claims and offered this advice: “If … you want to eat organic, avoid GMOs, and get food that’s locally sourced—your best bet is to go to a grocery store.”

As a farmer, I welcome an open dialogue and discussion about how I grow the food my family and yours eats. It’s a great story and I’m very proud of what I do.  Sarcasm, however, is not a productive route to building that type of conversation.

“Farmed and Dangerous” shows that Chipotle is not content to promote a positive image of itself, or to achieve a peaceful coexistence with American farmers who participate in modern agriculture. Instead, it wants to build itself up by tearing others down, rejecting the famous observation of Irwin Himmel: “No one has ever made himself great by showing how small someone else is.”


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