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My autumnal paradox

Fall isn’t my favorite season.

There. I said it.

Many people proclaim their fondness for fall. I get it. There is much to appreciate: lower humidity, gorgeous colors, crisp mornings and even crisper apples. Of course autumn also brings the grandeur of harvest. On sunny fall afternoons, golden leaves dance in the air and combines roar across dusty fields. I yearn to stay outside, lifting my face to the sun, breathing deeply, soaking it in.

My perpetual struggle with fall is that no matter how glorious it is, I know how it ends.

It’s impossible to ignore the signs. Just outside my window is a bird’s nest. Last spring, I watched the endeavors of a motherly robin carrying grass and twigs to build it. As the tree’s leaves grew denser, I caught glimpses of Mama Robin as she nestled in, warming her eggs. By the time the eggs presumably hatched, fully-grown leaves obscured my view. Now that it is fall, the tree is nearly naked. There clings the empty nest, ragged and forlorn.

Parenting a young child involves a number of obligatory seasonal traditions to which one must adhere. In fall, that includes visiting a pumpkin patch, playing in leaves, and picking apples. To skip these activities is to ensure a nagging sense of guilt that you are shunning your parental duties.

img_8290Thus, one windy October Saturday found our little family in the midst of a friend’s enormous pumpkin patch. It was a struggle just getting there. Neither my husband nor my daughter felt well and consequently both were crabby. But I knew it was a now-or-never moment: If we didn’t go then, our schedules or the weather would prevent us from going at all. No pumpkin picking would mean no pumpkins, no pumpkins would mean no Jack-o-lantern carving—another skipped tradition. So we went.

It turned into a joyful treasure hunt. Nestled among shriveled vines was an assortment of pumpkin varieties, ranging from adorable orange fruits that fit in the palm of my hand to good-sized pumpkins our 3 year-old could barely move, much less carry. The three of us tramped to and fro, tripping over vines as we carried our treasures. Naya liked the “baby” pumpkins. I picked several medium-sized pumpkins to decorate our front steps. My husband chose some larger ones for carving.

Our next stop was to surprise my parents by scattering decorative pumpkins around their property: on their front porch, near the mailbox, at the base of a tree. After lunch, we checked off another fall ritual by picking apples in the orchard behind their old barn. Later, I would make homemade applesauce.

After 46 years, I’m still trying to come to grips with fall. On one hand, it saddens me because it signifies the end of so many things I love, like listening to katydids through open windows at night or reading on the front porch swing on sultry summer days. It’s the end of relaxing into warmth instead of bracing for cold, the end of wearing t-shirts and flip flops.

On the other hand, fall marks the magnificent culmination of another growing season. It’s the time when fields and forests yield their bountiful crops and beautiful leaves so that they may rest. I’ve often mused that the brightly-colored leaves of fall are God’s way of blasting us with beauty to carry us through the long, dark winter.

Despite the paradox that autumn presents, my heart knows it should be celebrated. Celebrations, after all, make difficult things bearable. Maybe that’s why seasonal traditions matter, even if at first we do them out of guilt. Picking pumpkins was a way of compelling myself to embrace and enjoy this season. Eating homemade applesauce from our freezer will remind me of fall’s bounty for months to come. For all of us, our Thanksgiving gatherings will be celebrations of another growing season, successful harvest, and family.

Besides, if there were no autumn and subsequent winter, there would be no spring.

And when spring returns, my robin will build another nest.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the November 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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She’s only 3½ years old. But my daughter is at the “why” stage and actively soaking up any and all information we have the patience to share with her. This, coupled with my job in ag literacy, prompted me to think about what I want her to know about agriculture at this age.

So here goes. Here are six things I want my child to learn about food and farming while she’s still young, and how I will explain each (if I haven’t already).

  1. Food doesn’t come from the grocery store. It comes from farms. I’ve explained to Naya that before food gets to the grocery store, farmers grow or raise it on farms. Then some things–like bread, applesauce, and bacon–go to processing plants to be made into the foods we eat. They are then shipped to the grocery store where we buy them to take home and eat.
  2. Farms are places where plants are grown or animals are raised for all of us to eat. It doesn’t make sense to say food comes from farms and not explain what a farm is. We also point out farms as we travel and talk about what might be grown or raised at each one.
  3. Farmers are the people who raise our food. I want my child to know that farmers are essential to our lives. Why? Because without them we would all have to grow our own food. Most of us don’t have the time, knowledge, or space to produce everything we eat.
  4. The fields around us aren’t just scenery; they are our food. I often call my daughter’s attention to the beauty around us. Our rural landscape of corn and soybeans is peaceful, open, and pretty. It’s also where some of our food comes from. I will explain to her that the plants growing in farmers’ fields are called crops.

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    My daughter, exploring a cornfield at the age of two. I want her to know that the field around us provide some of our food.

  5. Animals that farmers raise for food are called livestock. They are not pets. I want Naya to understand that pets and livestock serve different purposes. Pets like our two dogs are meant to be our companions, and livestock provide us with food. However, just because farm animals aren’t pets doesn’t mean humans don’t have a responsibility to keep them safe, healthy, and comfortable. Farmers provide their animals with special food, special places to live, and even special doctors–called veterinarians–just like we do for our pets. When the right moments arise, we will help her understand that everything living, people included, relies on other living things to survive. (One such moment recently presented itself when she caught a fish which hours later appeared as a fried filet on a plate. “Daddy,” she questioned, “where’d his head go?”)
  6. Chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows. I don’t know why adults persist in saying this. Some must think it’s funny, and a few apparently think it’s true. Either way, if you tell a little kid that chocolate milk comes from brown cows and don’t quickly explain that you’re just being silly, they will believe you. Unless they live on a dairy farm or someone has already told them otherwise, they don’t know any better. I want my daughter to know better. She doesn’t yet seem interested in chocolate milk, but when she is, we will explain that all cows give white milk, and humans add the chocolate later on.

As Naya continues to grow and ask “Why?” the information we can share with her will obviously become more complex and in-depth. But this seems like a good place to start.

What do YOU think a preschooler should know about agriculture?


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the Sept.-Oct. 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Nothing makes my hair stand on end like the words “I can’t.” In my years of conducting lessons, I’ve encountered more than a few children who, when faced with a simple task, too quickly drop it in frustration and say, “I can’t do it.”

I also have a three-year old who’s learning how to put on her own clothes. I hear “I can’t” a lot. Usually the words “I can’t” are tinged with a whine. Sigh.

She’s only three. I get that there are truly some things she isn’t yet capable of doing. As a parent, it’s my job to help her find the line between “I can’t” and “I can” and keep moving it forward. Take socks, for example. It’s much faster to simply put a toddler’s socks on for her and call it good. Some days, that’s all I have the time or patience for. But every time I do it is one less opportunity for her to develop the skill and confidence to do it herself.

Naya shoes

Shoes and pants are complicated for 3-year-olds to put on. Our rule is to say “I can try” instead of “I can’t.”

So when we have time, we talk it through. “Here’s the heel of your sock. Where’s your heel? Here’s the toe of your sock. Where are your toes? Okay, so when you put your sock on, your toes need to end up in the toe of the sock, and your heel in the heel of the sock. Remember, ALL of your toes have to go into the sock, otherwise it’s not going to work. Yay, Naya! You did it!” And she’ll do it again, and again, proving she can.

Invariably, a few days later, she will halfheartedly try to put on one sock, snag a toe in the opening, then whine, “I can’t do it!” And no amount of “Yes, you can,” and “Remember, you showed me you could do it yesterday” will overcome her self-defeat.

Recently, I found inspiration to try a fresh tactic. It was a Facebook meme of the words “I can’t” written in crayon, then transformed with a different color to read “I can try.” A lightbulb popped on in my brain. I decided to try something new.

I first tried my new approach at bedtime. Naya got frustrated while trying to put on her nightgown and wailed, “I can’t do it!” “Wait,” I said. “It bothers me when you say you can’t do something. Let’s try this. Instead of saying, ‘I can’t,’ I want you to say, ‘I can try.’ If you try and still need help, say, ‘Mommy, will you please help me?’”

By golly, it works! (Some of the time.) Now, when she says “I can’t,” I give her my “Oh, really?” look and she’ll correct herself, saying, “I can try.” She knows that “I can try” means she has to actually try. Quite often, she succeeds on her own or with just a little help. Parenting win!

Sometimes, though, “I can’t” really means “I don’t want to.” This is a harder nut to crack. I’ve noticed this is as true for adults as it is for toddlers. But adults are savvier. To avoid saying, “I can’t” or “I don’t want to,” they invent reasons why they don’t need to learn new skills, new technology, or new information. They attack the thing itself, as in, “We all got along just fine before smartphones and they don’t work as well as regular phones.” Some go further yet, disparaging users of new tools as lazy or stupid. “In my day, we didn’t need GPS because we knew how to read maps.” It’s a bit like if my toddler threw down her sock and said, “Socks are silly, and people who wear them are, too.”

naya strider

My daughter had her balance bike for a year before she finally said, “I can try” and ventured to ride it.

I’m not arguing that we all must learn every new thing that comes along. But I believe we should recognize and admit whether we can’t or don’t want to learn something, and not disparage the thing or those who do learn it. Figure out, for example, if you find social media frustrating because you struggle to learn it (can’t), or because you simply would rather not deal with it (don’t want to). If you realize you can’t, you recognize your limitations. If you acknowledge you don’t want to, you choose to limit yourself. Either is okay. Just don’t try and disguise those limitations by expressing disdain towards the thing or the people who use it.

Besides, whether you can’t or don’t want to do, there’s no harm in saying “I can try,” and “Can you help me, please?” You might surprise yourself.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the June 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Waste not?

The crisper drawer in my refrigerator is mislabeled. It reads “Fruits and Vegetables” on the front, but it should say, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In our household, there ain’t nothin’ coming out of there alive, or shall I say, edible.

The other evening, in a burst of unexpected ambition, I decided to clean out the fridge. There was a little bit of room left in the dishwasher, and I recalled seeing a couple containers of leftovers of dubious vintage in the refrigerator. If I threw those leftovers away, I reasoned, there was just enough room in the dishwasher for the empty containers.

Several smelly containers and a bottle of moldy apple juice later, I was still feeling energetic and decided to tackle the crisper drawer. I knew there was a package of aged celery in there that was probably ready to hit the compost pile. I pulled open the drawer and was abruptly faced with several weeks of good intentions gone horribly wrong.

There were two packages of baby Portabella mushrooms, one still unopened, both exhibiting impressive growths of furry white mold. (Reflect on that for a moment: fungus, growing on another fungus.) I had purchased them on sale with the vague idea of using some in omelets and the rest for an as-yet-to-be discovered recipe on Pinterest.

There was a shriveled orange still in its woven nylon bag, and no fewer than four plastic produce bags containing two to four wrinkled apples each. There was a half a bag of sprouting baby carrots. There was a large green pepper turning grayish and pitted with age (also intended for the omelets I never made).

There were several restaurant-issued, single-serve condiment pouches. (Why these were in the crisper drawer, I have no idea.) The unopened package of celery I had first thought of was there, the stalk ends turning yellowish-brown.

And on the very bottom of the drawer, partially flattened under apples and oozing a greenish, pinkish, brownish slime, was another produce bag containing something I could neither recall nor identify. Yuck!

I hate wasting anything, especially food. I hate having wasted the money spent purchasing it, and I hate that while others go hungry, food is going uneaten in my fridge due to my bad planning.

Recently, my food waste frustration intensified when I joined a Facebook group called My Job Depends on Ag. Founded by farmers in California, many of the group’s members are produce growers. Now my social media feed includes glimpses into the work of growing, picking, packing, processing, and shipping products like cherries, watermelons, or tomatoes.

It’s one thing to know that growing food is challenging and labor-intensive. It’s quite another to actually see it happening. I find it humbling to see the passion that farmers, farmworkers, truckers, and others have for their work to bring us food. Now, when a half-eaten bag of sweet cherries goes bad in my refrigerator, I am ashamed. I’ve seen the labor, time, energy, and resources that went into getting those cherries into my hands, and I feel like I’ve squandered it.

wasted food2

Wasted food that I discovered in my fridge. I took this photo in August of 2016, meaning the item on the left had been in my refrigerator for TWELVE YEARS.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, “In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten.” That’s nearly a third of our food! And the lion’s share of that—21 percent—happens at the consumer level. Yikes, that’s me. Me, my slimy forgotten carrots, and that leaky can of tomato sauce that expired seven years before my daughter was born.

Food waste is obviously a bigger issue than what happens in the far reaches of my refrigerator. But I can be a part of the solution. We all can. For my part, I plan to try these things: 1) have specific meals planned before deciding what groceries to buy, 2) take inventory of what is already in the fridge, freezer, and cabinets and use those items first, 3) buy less than what I think we need, and 4) stop purchasing perishable items with only vague ideas of how I might use them.

I need to clean out the freezer. Does anyone have a recipe for freezer-burnt fish?

 


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

If you want to push one of my hot buttons, just make a spiteful comment about how teachers have it easy because they only work for nine months and get summers off. It will get me going every single time.

Although I’m trained as an educator, my last experience with formal classroom teaching was 24 years ago, when I spent a semester student teaching a multiage first and second grade classroom in central Illinois. Those few months left me with empathy for teachers that will never, ever, leave me.

Here’s what I learned about the life of an elementary teacher.

First, I discovered that teaching is physically tiring. During the school day, the constant instructing, standing, and moving combined with the bombardment of need from 20-some little people is draining. And it doesn’t stop when they leave the classroom. I’ll never forget the late nights reviewing that day’s student work and trying to create engaging, hands-on lessons for the next day. It felt like I never got enough sleep before it was time to gather all my supplies and head back to the classroom.

I found that teaching is also mentally and emotionally exhausting. Every lesson, every interaction with a student is fraught with possibilities and pitfalls. I remember a highly-involved lesson that went so well I felt giddy afterwards. I also vividly recall too-harshly reprimanding a child and watching his face crumple into tears. Whether positive or negative, teachers will tell you that experiences like these are emotionally demanding.

Like the physical toll, I learned the emotional toll doesn’t end when the kids leave. One evening, I enlisted the help of a friend to decipher a sentence scrawled by a first-grade boy. After several minutes of scrutiny, we interpreted these words: “It scares me when my mom and dad yell at each other.” My heart ached for this child, whom I had previously only viewed as a classroom mischief-maker. Ask any teacher and they will tell you similar stories of students whose circumstances kept them awake at night with worry.

As demanding as it was, my student teaching experience still didn’t include many additional stressors that today’s classroom teacher contends with. I didn’t have to administer standardized tests, for example, nor was I required to interact with school administrators or parents.

So. Those summers off after the school year ends? After all the long days, late nights, and weekends of preparation, grading, and worrying, I believe teachers urgently need and richly deserve time to relax and recharge before the next school year begins.

IMG_0331

Teachers on their summer “break,” participating in our 18th annual Summer Ag Institute, a 40-hour NIU graduate course.

As soon as school was out this spring, however, 13 local teachers spent several long days of their “break” time attending our Summer Ag Institute (SAI), exploring ways to inject food, farming, and career information into their classroom teaching. They joined many colleagues who ended their school year only to begin courses or attend conferences to further their professional development.

A week later while I was attending the National Ag in the Classroom conference, the previous week’s SAI participants still weren’t resting. They were working on their course assignments. Every day I received a barrage of emails with lesson plans, journals, and papers attached. In the meantime, most of my fellow conference attendees were—you guessed it—teachers on summer break. What is this “summer break” people speak of? When do these teachers rest?

From what I can tell, the answer is: Teachers do rest and recharge in the summer… but not for the three months non-educators may imagine. Many teachers spend early summer taking professional development classes and workshops, mid-summer squeezing in a family vacation, and the final weeks of break preparing for the new school year. Some also teach summer school or work part-time jobs.

Even addressing health challenges often waits until the school year ends.  A fourth grade teacher friend of mine had knee replacement surgery within days after school let out. She’ll be having the other knee replaced yet this summer, allowing enough healing time so that she can be on her feet to teach again in August. Summer “break?” Yikes.

As is true for most working adults, I don’t get a summer break. But I still don’t begrudge teachers theirs.

And to the 220 area teachers over the past 18 years who have spent the first part of their summer break with me, participating in the Summer Ag Institute, thank you. Thank you for devoting so many hours of your “break” time to continue learning so that you may enhance your teaching.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the July 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

I think my husband heartily regrets the day he surprised me with my first smartphone. Why? I enjoy reading about science, and I quickly discovered that a world of knowledge was Literally. At. My. Fingertips.

There was a day when I would readily lose myself in a book or a magazine article. Not so much anymore. Now I have my phone, or my tablet! I can still shut out the rest of the world within moments by stumbling across an interesting article posted on Facebook by Science News, Biofortified, or dozens of other science or ag organizations.

Science on social media

Links to thought-provoking science and ag-focused articles abound on social media, but the comments can be caustic.

The pitfall of following science news sources online, though, is the comments sections. Back in the day, if you read an article about a new science discovery in a paper magazine, you might discuss what you just read with someone nearby. But that was pretty much it.

 

But now! We have the ability to comment immediately, online, about everything! See a headline that grabs your attention? Click! Read! Comment! Oh wait… I know what I think just by the headline; I don’t need to read the whole story. In fact, I’m going to post a comment expressing what I think [types feverishly…]. There.

Have you ever furtively Googled a texting/commenting abbreviation because you didn’t know what it stood for? Yeah, me too. Last week I looked up this one: tl;dr. If you’re old like me (I’m in my mid-40s, which feels dang old if you spend any time in the social media world), you may not have known that one. I’ll save you looking it up. It means, “too long; didn’t read.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted a comment on an article you didn’t read all the way through, or (ahem) didn’t read at all. Go on, raise that hand, no one’s watching you. (Seriously—they’re all looking at their devices.)

I’ve actually caught myself gauging whether or not I want to take the time to read an article by perusing the comments first. I’m not sure this is a healthy habit, and I have yet to discern what it is about the comments that help me make up my mind. Whatever it is, reading online comments is an interesting and often depressing foray into human nature.

Judging by what I read in online comments, a whole bunch of people’s moms must have told them as children, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Unless you’re online, then you may type whatever the #%&! you want.” The mean stuff bothers me, of course. I remind myself that there just SEEMS to be a lot of hateful trolls, but (hopefully) they are a small minority of folks who make a lot of racket.

The commenters who irritate me most, however, aren’t the trolls who simply thrive on poking people to get emotional reactions. No, it’s the people who casually make snide comments who really disappoint me.

Want to fall into a comment abyss? Read the comments regarding a topic like pesticides or GMOs. Along with outright hateful statements, you’ll run into stuff like this: “Know anything about how toxicology works?” And, “Science, much?” I think the reason these more subtle jabs irk me so much is that they often come from people who otherwise share valuable, credible information. Then they ruin it by being snide. It’s as though they care more about being right than about advancing the conversation.

Here’s something to keep in mind if you’re commenting online. The people “listening” aren’t just the ones commenting. A whole bunch of folks like me are reading quietly, taking in information, and deciding for themselves who and what to believe. And they won’t say (type) a word.

Relationship researcher John Gottman found that contempt is a key predictor of whether or not a marriage will last. I believe this is also true of the often invisible interactions that take place online. It doesn’t matter how much valuable information you can share; if you present it with even the tiniest bit of scorn, readers will “divorce” you and stop listening.

If you really want to maintain a happy “marriage” between your ideas and the people you hope to share them with, online or IRL (in real life), restrain yourself from being sarcastic. Truly. Just be nice. I’m listening.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April/May 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Years after my grandparents got out of the egg business, the area just inside the back door of their farmhouse still smelled faintly of chickens.

That’s where they hung their “chicken clothes”—the overalls, coats, and hats they would wear when doing chores like collecting, cleaning, grading, and packing eggs.

It wasn’t an offensive odor, unlike the chicken houses themselves which smelled strongly enough to make my eyes water on the rare occasion I stepped into them. No, the smell of that small passageway was always a welcoming reminder that I had arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Throughout my childhood, their farm was place I loved to be. I played outside. I sang along to Grandma’s records. I followed Grandpa around. And I learned a whole lot about eggs.

In the summers, I often stayed the night. Many a morning would find Grandpa and me in the kitchen, he standing at the stove making breakfast, me at my usual spot at the table as sunlight streamed through the screen door. Naturally, breakfast was usually eggs. Grandpa liked to experiment with spices, and would often make each of us a uniquely-seasoned one-egg omelet.

While we ate, we would talk. It was over those breakfasts when I learned that very young hens were most likely to lay odd-sized eggs or eggs with a membrane but no shell. Grandpa taught me how to divide a Julian date by 30 to figure out approximately when a carton of eggs was packed. If he happened to have recently collected particularly tiny egg, known as a “peewee,” it was at breakfast time when he or Grandma would wrap it in a paper towel and place it in an empty margarine container for me to take home.

 

After breakfast it would be time to head out to work. To me, the most interesting activity took place in the small egg packing room located on one end of one of the long, low chicken houses. Here, Grandpa dunked wire baskets of eggs into cleaning solution, Grandma perched on a metal stool candling eggs, and an automatic egg grader clattered rhythmically as it sorted eggs by weight. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Grandma carefully rotating eggs in front of the bright bulb on the end of the grading machine, looking for cracks in each shell or blood spots on each yolk.

 

Grandma and Grandpa’s egg delivery route included restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses, mostly in the Rochelle area but also in Rockford. One of my favorite childhood memories is of the day their blue “egg van” pulled up to the rear entrance of Kings School while I was outside at recess. I streaked across the playground in excitement to see them, bursting with pride. MY grandparents provided all the eggs we ate at MY school!

A year or so before he died, Grandpa told me about Pearl Valley Eggs, a modern Illinois egg farm he had recently visited. He was very impressed by it, and said he would like to take me there sometime for a tour. By then, I was working here at Farm Bureau and intrigued by any new farm experiences I could take in. But it wasn’t until some years after he passed that I finally got a chance to visit that farm.

In 2009 and again in 2012 I took groups of teachers to Pearl Valley Eggs during our Summer Ag Institute. Each time, I could imagine Grandpa being there with me, taking in the sheer size of the hen houses, the freshness of the air within them, and the clean, healthy birds in their cages. I could picture him shaking his head in bemused amazement at how many tasks are now automated, including collecting, cleaning, and candling the eggs. I could especially envision him marveling at the robotic egg packing process.

I’ve been told that Grandpa was known by many as “the Egg Man.” I wish he was still here, so we could talk some more about eggs.

Note: Julian date = day of the year. A Julian date of 094 on an egg carton means the eggs were packed on the 94th day of the year, or around April 4, because 94 ÷ 30 = 3 months plus 4 days (where an average month is 30 days long).

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the March 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.