The Stray Kernels blog has moved! With the launch of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s new CONNECTIONS website, Stray Kernels can now be found at http://cultivateconnections.org/stray-kernels/ Come on over to read more random musings and kernels of wisdom!


Facts Don’t Matter


I like being right, and it irritates people sometimes. (Just ask my husband.)

If I hear a factual inaccuracy on a topic I know well, I have to bite my tongue not to correct it. Maybe it’s because I’m an educator at my core. I want folks to base their beliefs and behaviors on facts.

But facts—things that are known, proven, and verifiable—don’t really matter.

Are you bristling right now? Are you thinking, “You’re wrong. They matter to me!” Hear me out.

How we feel always triumphs over the facts with which we are presented. Don’t believe me? How do you feel about GMOs? Vaccines? Climate change? Immigration? Breast feeding vs. formula? Nuclear energy? Motorcycle helmets? Pesticides? Politics? Have I hit any of your hot buttons yet? What’s running through your mind right now? Is your blood pressure more elevated than when you started reading this paragraph? How do you feel?

Now, pick a topic listed above that you feel strongly about. Search for websites you would recommend to others wishing to learn about it. What did you find? Did what you found support what you believe? Did you start reading a site and quickly close it because you knew it was wrong? How did you know it was wrong? Did you find a site that changed your mind?

Recently I had a long, heated discussion with a friend. Let’s call him Ken. Our conversation started on the topic of vaccines and quickly veered into agriculture. We talked late into the night, until I was trembling from the effort of balancing facts, feelings, and friendship.

Ken believes farmers are powerless victims of corporate control and ownership. He believes one seed company controls the government agencies that regulate our food supply. He thinks livestock are “crammed together” and treated cruelly for profit. He believes farmers grow corn to receive subsidies but he feels it’s not nutritious so they should grow something else instead.

My friend is intelligent and passionate, and like most people in our country, far removed from production agriculture. As we talked, the words “Facts don’t matter; feelings do” kept running through my mind, along with “Ken and his wife are our friends, and I want them to remain so after this dialog.”

It was like I was having two separate conversations. One out loud with Ken, and one internally, with myself. I reminded myself that Ken is a Marine, and—like my own husband—a disabled veteran. As we talked about the credibility of the CDC, FDA, and EPA, I remembered that many veterans have justifiable reasons to distrust government agencies as a result of their experiences with the DoD and VA.

I remembered the “backfire effect,” a recent research finding which revealed that people with strongly-held beliefs tend to cling to them even more tightly when presented with evidence to the contrary. I counseled myself to ask thoughtful questions about Ken’s beliefs instead of launching facts at him to “prove him wrong.”

At many points in the conversation, I thought of simply cutting it short by telling Ken I was tired and ready for bed. I was tempted to give up and write him off as misinformed and crazy. But, while he may have absorbed misinformation, he’s not crazy. I knew that to shrug him off as such would just widen the division we’re all experiencing now.

When the conversation ended, he thanked me for opening his eyes to new things to think about. I thanked him for challenging me.

In the end, I’m not sure I convinced him of anything. If I truly did open his eyes to new information, it wasn’t because I hurled facts at him. Hopefully it was because I tried to show how I felt, and that I cared about his beliefs even when I didn’t agree with them.

When I say facts don’t matter, what I really mean is facts don’t matter unless you acknowledge feelings first. If you skip that step, facts really don’t matter, because they won’t make a difference in what people believe.

As the saying goes: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the September-October 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Rho in woods

I constantly long to be connected to nature.

When was the last time you sat in the soil, strolled through a forest, or splashed in a stream? How many birds have you taken the time to listen to today?

If you’re like me, you long to do these things but rarely have time. Days go by when my feet touch only asphalt, concrete, or flooring, and my ears note only engines, voices, and HVAC systems. We’ve structured our human lives to mostly separate ourselves from nature; from dirt, discomfort, and inconvenience. In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the often-unrecognized disconnect—the unanswered longing to experience nature—that results.

When farmers lament, “Kids these days just don’t know where their food comes from,” I believe they are describing a consequence of this disconnect. After all, what is agriculture but the intersection of humans and nature to produce food? Those who engage in food production are closer to nature on a daily basis than most of us. Outside of agriculture, kids (and many adults) these days don’t know where their food comes from.


Is this “natural” ketchup safer or healthier than other brands?

I believe that another symptom of this disconnect is our insatiable drive for “natural” things. Walk the aisles of a grocery store, browse personal care items on Amazon, or scroll through posts on Facebook and you’ll see hundreds of examples. It’s as though we know deep down we need to stay connected to nature, so instead of a walk on the prairie we don’t have time for, we reach for Nature Made® Echinacea supplements.

Nature is beautiful. Nature is essential. Nature is necessary for our survival.


Repeat after me: “Natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.”

I used to say I’d rather consume a substance produced by a plant than one developed in a lab. I remember the pleasurable little rush of self-righteousness I got from saying so out loud. “Natural” meant green plants waving their leaves against a sunny blue sky, not unidentifiable people wearing lab coats and goggles against a backdrop of fluorescent lights and stainless steel.

Then I started following credible science and agriculture organizations online. Whether discussing food ingredients, crop production, or medical advances, the topic of whether “natural” equates to “safe” comes up repeatedly. And what the science keeps pointing out is that “natural” things are often very dangerous.

Take apricot seed kernels. Aside from the fact that they are rock-hard and not very tasty, there’s a doggone good reason we don’t eat cherry, peach, or apricot pits. They contain a chemical compound called amygdalin, which, when eaten, releases cyanide—a poison. Search online for apricot kernels, though, and you’ll find dozens of retailers selling them and many articles touting their use as a cancer treatment. Supposedly, cyanide kills cancer cells. Maybe it does, but in doing so it may kill you as well. Nevertheless, because it grew on a tree and is “natural,” it must be safer (some think) than chemotherapy, which seems decidedly unnatural. Scientific evidence shows that apricot kernels are not safe, but the belief persists.

The quest for apricot kernels is an extreme example of a logical fallacy known as “appeal to nature,” or the argument that “natural” things are good, therefore “unnatural” things are bad. It is so convincing that we see it constantly in product marketing. Food manufacturers advertise the replacement of “artificial” flavorings and colorings with “natural” ones. Genetic modification is perceived as unnatural, so the Non-GMO Project seal now appears on thousands of products from cinnamon to sea salt despite there being only ten commercially-available GMO crops. Organic production prohibits the use of most synthetic fertilizers and crop protectants, so consumers assume foods labeled “organic” are natural and thus safer. It’s increasingly difficult to find a package label that doesn’t include the word “natural” or “nature.”

And yet (repeat after me), “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.” Whether or not something is natural is irrelevant to its safety. Many natural things are amazing, even life-saving. Some will kill you. The same is true of synthetic, “unnatural” things. Toilets, toothbrushes, and trucks are not natural, yet they improve our lives. Safety hinges not on whether a substance is natural or synthetic, but on how much of the substance you are exposed to. Drinking too much clean, pure (natural) water can kill you. So can a truck.

By all means, get back to nature. But remember, “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.” Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the August 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

What if?

I’ve been thinking.

What if there was a thing that could be produced not just for food, but for hundreds of other products, too?

What if that thing could be easily propagated and collected? What if it didn’t spoil easily so it could be stored for long periods of time and shipped around the country or around the world with no refrigeration and minimum waste? What if the size, shape, and density of that thing made it easy to design efficient containers and conveyances to store and move it?

What if, at a moment’s notice, that thing could be used for food or renewable energy, depending on what was needed most? Better yet, what if it could be used for both simultaneously? What if you could break that thing into various components and thus make food for protein-producing livestock and clean-burning fuel for cars at the same time?

What if that thing were a plant? What if it could be adapted to be grown almost anywhere, in a wide range of soils and climates? What if scientists could continuously tweak this plant so it could yield more on less land with less water, less fertilizer, and fewer pesticides?

What if, while it was growing, the plant would produce ample amounts of oxygen while removing tons of carbon dioxide from the air? What if farmers could experiment with their growing techniques for this plant to minimize soil erosion, water pollution, fuel use, and emissions?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

What if I told you this thing—this plant—already exists? It does, and chances are that if you live in the U.S., there’s a field of it within a few miles of where you’re sitting. It’s the #1 crop grown in our state and our nation. It’s corn.

So, what was it that got me thinking so hard about corn?

Every year, one day of the National Ag in the Classroom Conference features tours of agricultural sites. This is usually my favorite part of the conference, because I get to experience facets of U.S. agriculture I’ve never seen in person. I’ve sweated in the hot sun of a sugar cane field in Louisiana, inhaled the fruity aroma inside a tart cherry processing facility in Utah, and squinted across the dusty pens of a sheep feedlot in Colorado.

This year’s conference was in Kansas City, Missouri. Of the seven tour choices offered, I settled on the one named “Corn is King!” Practically every ag literacy program I coordinate touches on corn in some way, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about it.

Ingredion process

It was incredible to see the engineering behind how starches are derived from corn.

The tour was of an Ingredion processing facility where they make several kinds of modified starch. You’ve probably seen “modified cornstarch” or “modified food starch” in the ingredients lists of various food products. (The term “modified” refers to the starch having been physically or chemically treated to enhance its properties as a thickener, emulsifier, or other use.) When you run across modified starch it was probably made in the facility I visited, as it produces about 70% of the modified starch used in the U.S.

The Ingredion facility reminded me of an enormous boiler room, with its huge steel tanks, labyrinth of pipes, hissing steam, rumbling machines, and random puddles on the cement floor. I’ve always hated boiler rooms. So as I tried to hear our tour guide while ignoring the hissing and rumbling, I thought deeply about corn.

Ingredion products

This is just a tiny sampling of products containing modified starches to improve stability and texture.

You’ve probably heard from critics who say that corn’s dominating presence in our grocery stores is a bad thing. That it’s part of a giant, greedy conspiracy whose players include farmers, food manufacturers, and the government. I’m anything but an expert on the incentives and economics that play into corn production and use. But my feeling is that for all the reasons I listed in my “what ifs” earlier, corn is amazing. Rather than disturbing me, I find it miraculous that within just a few hours of my day, corn fuels my car, makes my paper smooth, keeps my pudding creamy, and feeds the pigs that make my bacon.

Corn IS king!

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the July 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

These words have been running through my head for a few days, for a variety of unrelated reasons. One is that I’ve been practicing a version of a song by that title with our church choir. Another is that the early signs of spring remind me that the warmer, greener days of our annual circle around the sun are quickly approaching.

Yet another reason I’ve been pondering these words is that I recently attended the visitation of a friend’s mother. If you know the hymn’s lyrics (can you hear it in your mind in Johnny Cash’s voice?), you might remember that it’s about sorrow at a mother’s death.

But the main reason these words have relevance to me lately seems unrelated to death and loss. In this case, it’s about the circle of people who help us each year with our Ag in the Classroom program. As I was conducting the volunteer training back in January, it dawned on me that today we have volunteers who experienced the Ag in the Classroom presentations when they were in elementary school. Now they’re back as young adults, sharing with elementary students the experiences they themselves had in school.


Travis Hughes remembers Ag in the Classroom volunteers visiting his elementary school classroom when he was younger. This year he paid it forward by volunteering himself.

Travis Hughes is one of those. It’s probably no surprise that making ice cream in second grade is the Ag in the Classroom experience he remembers best. He remembers how excited he was to receive his certificate of participation, and how the volunteer presenter made him and his classmates feel special and appreciated. This year, Travis was paying it forward as he delivered fourth grade “Mapping Illinois Agriculture” presentations in three classrooms. After his presentations, he shared with me how much he enjoyed it, and how he “gets” the kids who were a little unruly during his lessons, because he knows there were times he was like that, too.

To me, what’s striking about “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is that the lyrics are sad, but the song isn’t. The song, when sung, is hopeful. The answer is yes, the circle will stay intact. Spring will come back after the dark days of winter. Mothers and fathers will grow old and pass on but their children will grow up and have children of their own. Elementary school kids will experience Ag in the Classroom lessons and some will become Ag in the Classroom volunteers themselves.

When I asked if he could remember who visited his second grade classroom to give the Ag in the Classroom presentation, Travis said he couldn’t. Considering he was only 7 or 8 at the time, I cut him some slack. But I was curious, so I looked it up in my files. Travis was in second grade in 2003, and he says his teacher at Davenport Elementary was Mrs. Sue Finney. That year, Genoa-area farmer Don Bray conducted the “From Cow to Ice Cream” lesson in Mrs. Finney’s room.

2010 placemat pic crop

Genoa-area farmer Don Bray (center) was an Ag in the Classroom volunteer and Ag Literacy Committee member for many years.

Don presented dozens of “From Cow to Ice Cream” lessons over many years, all the way up to February of 2011. In the summer of that same year, Don died. Today, Travis Hughes still remembers that he learned about dairy farming and made ice cream in second grade. He still recalls how special that Ag in the Classroom volunteer—Don Bray—made him feel.

Thanks to people like Don, Travis, and well over 100 individuals who volunteer for Ag in the Classroom in our county each year, the circle is indeed unbroken.

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the March 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Sounds of spring

It has begun!

I realized recently that it’s not the sights of spring that make me happiest. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the bursting buds, greening grass, or dancing daffodils. I do. But it’s the sounds that make my heart really sing in the spring.

It’s usually a chilly, gray morning sometime in March when I first hear “kronk-a-REEEEE!” I’ll look around in surprise, and there he will be, high in a tree—a red-winged blackbird. The males migrate first, I learned as a child. They start staking out territories as they wait for soon-to-arrive females. If you’re traveling the interstate, watch the grassy roadsides and you’ll see one male here on a fence post, and an eighth of a mile or so later, another one there in a small tree.  And then another, and another. Roll down the window as you pass and you’ll hear them informing all passers-by of their territorial boundaries. “Kronk-a-REEEEE!”

As the mornings begin to brighten earlier, I notice a sound upon waking that’s difficult to hear, muffled by still-closed windows. But robins are persistent and loud, and their early morning voices penetrate glass. “Cheerio-cheerio-cheep-a-cheep-cheerio…” (Later in the season, the robins and other birds will create an impossible-to-ignore 4 a.m. cacophony.) Robins may be the most well-known herald of spring in our latitude, but my bird expert friends tell me some robins stick around all winter, foraging for berries in wandering flocks which stay mostly hidden from human view.

Thunder is a spring sound, too. I think of it as mostly an evening and nighttime sound. It may seem fanciful, but I’m convinced I can feel thunder well before it can actually be heard. Stormy spring evenings just seem to vibrate long before they rumble and flash. Of course, thunder is eventually accompanied by the racket of rain and wind, too. And you really know it’s a doozy of a spring storm when hail clatters against the windows and roof.

When spring storms leave ponds in patches of woodland and edges of fields, another bunch of critters makes themselves heard. The first time I hear them each year, it stops me in my tracks in delight. “Spring peepers!” I will exclaim out loud, even if I am alone. (I probably look a little bit batty when I do this.) For a creature about as big around as a quarter, a spring peeper can make an enormous noise. Its call is a piercingly high-pitched “preep, preep, preep,” but I’ve almost never heard just one at a time. Spring peepers are a species of chorus frog, thus they sing in deafening gangs. Stand near a swampy spot in early April, and the peepers will make your eardrums throb. Move too quickly or loudly, however, and they all fall silent.

Later in spring, when it’s warm enough to leave a bedroom window open overnight, yet another animal makes its presence known. Yipping and yowling, coyotes call across the open fields. After lifting my head from the pillow to confirm that our two dogs are, in fact, safely in the house, I relax and listen until the coyote concert ends. While I know many a 4-H poultry project comes to an untimely end in the jaws of these pesky predators, I can’t help but enjoy their wild, brief serenade.

planting snip

Photo © DeKalb County Farm Bureau

Open-window, dry spring days bring another auditory treat I treasure. Caused by neither a creature nor a weather phenomenon, this sound nevertheless seems to belong to the natural landscape of northern Illinois. It’s the sound of a distant tractor as it pulls a planter across the field. When the weather is right, the hum of planting continues through the day and into the night, when I fall asleep listening to the sound of another growing season beginning.

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April-May 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

img_2567“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” ~ Unknown 

This wisdom has been running through my mind a lot lately. And not just because of our currently heated national conversation on what kind of a country we want to live in. It’s also because of something that’s been taking place right here at DeKalb County Farm Bureau, something that takes place every year at this time.

That “something” is our Ag in the Classroom program for first through fourth grades. As I write this, I’m in the midst of an ongoing give-and-take with dozens of volunteers—people who are “voting” right now about the kind of community in which they want to live. By volunteering to deliver Ag in the Classroom presentations, I believe they are voting for DeKalb County to be the kind of community where:

  • Students and teachers understand why farming matters.
  • Farmers and others who work in agriculture are valued for their contribution to society.
  • Consumers can go to the grocery store and feel a personal connection to someone who produces the food they buy.
  • The agricultural community cares about the education and well-being of all our children.

img_2336It’s not just the classroom volunteers who are voting to shape our community. It’s the retired Ag Literacy Committee members who call me to say, “What can I do?”—and then spend an entire afternoon in my office labeling teacher thank-you gifts and gift bags. It’s the Ag Literacy Committee spending an evening counting, bundling, stuffing, and labeling—all while discussing other ways to increase agricultural understanding in our county and beyond. And it’s also the teachers who reserve precious classroom time to focus on agriculture.

I never feel as though I adequately thank these individuals for the time and energy they devote to Ag in the Classroom. I try, though. I love it when I can catch volunteers returning supplies after their presentations. That’s when I can say “thank you” in person, and hear stories about their classroom visits.

I often hear that both students AND teachers learn surprising new facts from the lessons. “The kids thought the ear of popcorn was Indian corn,” volunteers will say, or “The teacher said she hadn’t realized that hand sanitizer is made with ethanol from corn.”

By the end of this month, over 100 people in our county will exercise democracy by volunteering for Ag in the Classroom. I know they’re busy, but they step forward and take the time to do so anyway. For that, I am grateful.

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”  ~ Elizabeth Andrew

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the February 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.