Archive for April, 2015


It was a Friday afternoon in very early spring, and I was driving home from college. Two or three of my friends were along for a weekend visit to my home in rural northern Illinois.

As the buildings and pavement of Bloomington-Normal gave way to as-yet-to-be-planted farmland, the chronic unsettled feeling of living in town gave way to calm. I sighed in relief, saying out loud, “Ahhhh… fields.” From the back seat, my friend Amy giggled. “Ahhh,” she imitated, “… dirt.”

I don’t remember the conversation that followed, but I do vividly recall the little explosion that happened in my mind as the difference between how I saw the world and how my friend saw the same world was so starkly expressed. I saw fields. She saw dirt. I was raised in a rural area surrounded by farmland; seeing open fields made me feel at home. She was raised in the city; the sight of open fields meant something entirely different to her.

Following that short exchange, I probably protested, trying to explain the importance of farms and farmland. I know my friend wasn’t being intentionally insensitive; she just didn’t “get” what I felt, any more than I could understand how the hustle and bustle of city life was meaningful for her.

I started teaching my daughter about soil at about 15 months of age. She thought my gardening gloves were fascinating, too.

I started teaching my daughter about soil at 15 months of age. (She thought my gardening gloves were fascinating, too.)

Twenty-some years have passed since that “dirt” moment. In that time, I graduated, earned a teaching certificate, and worked a few odd jobs while I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. One job found me on my hands and knees in a plowed field during chilly spring mornings, planting strawberry seedlings. Another was at an agricultural research facility, photographing test plots and entering data into the computer. Yet another found me writing service tickets at a car dealership. After that I spent a few years as an environmental educator, and finally, I landed where I am now, teaching and promoting agricultural literacy. In that journey, I discovered that the most meaningful work for me involves staying connected to—and helping others appreciate—what my friend had referred to as “dirt.”

In some ways, I think I’ve been protesting her dismissive characterization of farmland ever since that moment in the car. “It’s not just dirt,” I cry out, internally… “It’s meaning… it’s our foundation… it’s life!” Maybe that instance was a pivotal moment in the shaping of my destiny to teach about the importance of farming and the natural resources it depends on.

Definitions vary, but I’m either approaching or in my middle-age. Whichever it is, lately I’ve found myself reflecting frequently about what I have done and have yet to accomplish in my life. For 17 years, my job has been to help people understand why agriculture is so important. Have I made a difference? Are there more people in DeKalb County who look at farmland and think “fields” instead of “dirt” because of something I’ve done?

I honestly don’t know. So I just keep trying. And in the meantime I hang on to words like these from teachers who have attended Summer Ag Institutes:

“I gained knowledge and… a new appreciation for those that farm and are involved in this terribly important industry.”

“I came into this class with no ag background…. I will not look at a farm field in the same way. I hope by gaining this better overall understanding of farming I can better inform my students….”

Words like these give me hope that perhaps I am indeed making a small difference.

Oh, and to my friend Amy… it’s not dirt. It’s SOIL.


This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April/May 2015 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.


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