Archive for July, 2015

A Good Group

IMG_1131crop“Got a good group this year?” A few people always ask me that question after the Summer Ag Institute (SAI) begins.

My answer is always some variation of “yes,” and it’s always true. I don’t think it’s merely because I’m a positive, upbeat person by nature. And it’s not just because I’m being nice. I always feel pretty good about the SAI participants. They’re teachers, after all.

In the 17 years DeKalb County Farm Bureau and Northern Illinois University have been cooperating to offer the Summer Ag Institute as a graduate-level course, well over 200 area educators have taken it.

Each year that I instruct the course, the more amazed I am by these teachers. They devote 40+ hours of their summer learning about agriculture and thinking about how to apply what they learned in a meaningful way in their classrooms. And, through their required journal reflections, lesson plans, and class discussions, I learn quite a bit about what’s going through their minds. What I discover tends to fall along certain themes.

IMG_3996The first of these themes is dedication. Teachers never stop thinking about how best to reach their students. They are continuously reaching out for and excited by new ideas to enliven what they are required to teach. This journal comment is one of many that shows what I mean: “I would love to see a simulation…to let students experience what a farmer goes through…the hardships, the positives, and the money that can be made or lost in the process.”

Another theme I encounter is surprise. SAI participants are often surprised by what they learn about farming and the larger ag industry. They’re surprised by the extensive use of cutting-edge technology, by the sheer expense and risks involved in farming, and by the number and diversity of careers available. By way of illustration, here’s another journal excerpt: “Knowing what the farm equipment looks like and costs helps me appreciate the equipment and technology…. Tractors with GPS systems have revolutionized the planting and spraying process not just to improve yields but to help the environment.”

IMG_4210Probably my favorite theme gleaned from teachers’ assignments is that of respect. SAI teachers gain a new appreciation for farmers and others who work in agriculture. Again, I’ll let the teachers speak for themselves: “I was most impressed with their knowledge, professionalism, being so tech-savvy, and most of all the down-to-earth friendliness they extended to us,” says one teacher. Notes another, “The panel discussion once again reminded me how educated, knowledgeable, passionate, and well-spoken people in the agricultural industry are today.” And finally, “I have such a deep respect for the people that work in the industry now that I know a little bit about their professions.”

Teachers can participate in our DeKalb County SAI more than once if course content changes. Therefore, from year to year I arrange different tours, speakers, and activities. Not only does this guarantee the teachers experience something new each year, it ensures that I continue to learn more every summer.

Along with all the agricultural knowledge I gain, I’ve also discovered this: Teachers and farmers have a lot in common. Both are professions that are lifestyles, not just jobs. Both are often misunderstood and under-appreciated, even though society depends on them immensely. Finally, all the teachers and farmers I know are incredibly dedicated to their chosen professions, striving constantly to improve and to grow, not just for themselves, but out of a sense of duty to a larger mission: teaching and feeding others.


Teachers and farmers: they’re not just a good group to work with. They’re amazing.

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

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“Tack-ta! Big tack-ta, Mommy!”

My eyes are fixed on the road ahead. My mind is on the unfinished work project I left back at the office, tangled with thoughts of what I’m going to throw together for supper. I’m only half-hearing my two-year-old’s mostly unintelligible chatter emanating from the child safety seat behind me.

Then it registers. “Mommy. Big tack-ta, Mommy! Big tack-ta!”

Have you ever noticed how toddlers repeat some things over and over again? I think I’ve figured out a couple of the reasons why. One is that sometimes we just aren’t listening. Another is that often when we ARE listening, we can’t decipher what the heck they’re saying. So they become repetitive as a survival mechanism. They want to be HEARD, doggone it.

I can’t decide who is more excited when I finally hear and comprehend what my daughter is talking about, her or me. When “big tack-ta” finally clicks in my brain, it’s almost behind us. “Oh!” I exclaim, “You’re right, Naya—there’s a big tractor!” Her pleasure and relief at finally being heard are palpable. “Yeahhhh!”

mad toddlerIt reminds me of “conversations” regarding food and agriculture. Consumers have concerns and questions about food safety, animal welfare, environmental well-being, and more. Farmers (who are also consumers!) are concerned about those exact same issues, with the added and overriding facet of profitability. (No profit? No farm—making the other issues moot.) But often it seems that consumers and farmers are talking past each other, repeating themselves over and over again like toddlers without pausing to listen to what the others are saying.

Sometimes it’s just as hard to get our toddler to hear and understand what we are telling her as it is for her to get through to us. If she’s really upset, or we are talking in terms she can’t understand, no amount of talking seems to sink in.

So, too, does this happen in dialogues about farming and food. Some folks are troubled by what they hear about agriculture, but not too upset to thoughtfully consider new data. Others are so angry about what they’ve learned that they are no longer able to take in new information. Some of the farmers who participate in such discussions are frustrated, but able to stay calm and respectful as they listen to consumer concerns and share their own stories. Others are so fed up with being misunderstand and maligned that they seem to stop truly hearing the concerns consumers are expressing.

My husband taught me a technique for sharing information with Naya that sometimes works. If she is upset about something and beginning to escalate from whining to howling, he gently takes her by the shoulders, looks her in the eye, and says something like, “Naya, listen. Wait. Listen to Daddy. I know you want to see sheep. We can’t go see sheep right now. Mommy is cooking supper and it’s raining outside. We might be able to go see some sheep tomorrow. Okay?”

Can this technique work between consumers and farmers? Maybe.

It only works with our toddler if she hasn’t already slipped over that subtle line between upset and inconsolable. If she’s just slightly distressed, she can be calmed. If she’s beyond that, it doesn’t matter what you say to her—a high-decibel crying outburst is coming.

No matter what, if we want her to listen, we have to acknowledge whatever is on her mind first. She has to know she has been heard before she can truly listen.

I know that comparing the conversations between parents and toddlers with those between consumers and farmers makes for an imperfect analogy. But sometimes I think we all react more like irrational toddlers than we’d like to admit.

Before we can be heard, we must be willing to listen. Who’s gonna go first?

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

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