In the mid-1800s, the invention of the grain elevator made it possible for the Midwest to feed the world. Tons of grain could be moved with the push of a button (or perhaps it was the turn of a crank). As with all things, timing was important. During the American Civil War, the grain elevator was the game changer. The Midwest supplied a high percentage of volunteers during the war, dramatically reducing the number of people available for farm work, while at the same time, the war increased the demand for food. Grain elevators solved both problems—but had a surprising side effect. The grain elevator was the start of separating people from the source of their food. Instead of buying a bag of grain from Farmer Jones, urban merchants were bidding for slips of paper at the newly formed Chicago Board of Trade.
As people in growing cities began to disconnect from the work of farming, what people knew about farming diminished rapidly. I see this most often today in conversations and news stories that bandy about comments about corporate takeovers and bemoan the demise of the family farm. In fact, in Illinois today, ninety-six percent of all farms are family owned. That’s roughly 70,000 family-owned farms, of which nearly 9,000 have been in the same family for more than a century. And Illinois is not alone in this. Granted, some farms today are large, because with only about one percent of the population willing to do the hard work of farming, someone has to take up the slack. But the vast majority of our food is still raised by two or three family members working on the family’s farm, often with at least some of the work made manageable by impressive machines. That is not to say that there aren’t threats to family farms, but they aren’t corporations; they’re growing suburbs. In fact, most Midwestern states have laws protecting family farms from corporate takeovers—but not from urban sprawl and eminent domain.
As a result of this disconnect, farming is, for most Americans, both mysterious and under-appreciated. Statements are made, stories are published that demonstrate that agriculture is rarely understood and just as rarely respected. “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field,” President Dwight Eisenhower wrote. But it seems that people are beginning to awaken to the potential problem of this knowledge gap. Just this year, the Illinois legislature passed a law that puts agricultural pursuits for students on a similar footing to STEM projects. And there are organizations that recognized the need much earlier and have been working for years to make knowledge of farming readily available, from entertaining options that offer insights to hands-on opportunities.
You can start learning about and connecting with farmers without leaving the city, thanks to Green City Market. Mandy Moody, executive director of Green City Market, relates (enthusiastically) that Green City focuses on education, for kids and adults. On Wednesdays, during the summer market season, they offer a Farm to Market Field Trip, taking preschool through high school kids to the Lincoln Park Farm in the Zoo, where Green City has a 5,000-square-foot urban edible garden that students can explore. “We teach seasonality, explain what local means, and show them what the plants and animals look like in the farm setting,” Moody says. “Then we walk across the street to the market, where kids can see vegetables, fruit, eggs, chickens transformed. It helps them make connections.”
In addition, Club Sprouts encourages students to learn about the farmers. Students are given a coupon and allowed to use it to buy something in the market, free at both the Lincoln Park and West Loop locations. For adults, Green City offers a “Sustainable Supper Series,” with four dinners per year. This is a ticketed event, where farmers join visitors for a meal and a talk about farming. “At the market, we often have 15,000 people come to shop on a Saturday, so you don’t really get to talk to the farmers,” Moody says. “But at these dinners, you can get up close and learn about the real-life experience of farming. We want consumers to be aware that our food comes from somewhere—and from someone. Farming is hard work and it deserves honor and respect.”
Katrina Milton, director of Ag Literacy for the Cook County Farm Bureau, shares both information about farming in the state and details of how the bureau works to expand awareness of agriculture. The bureau offers free, one-hour Ag in the Classroom programs for fourth grade students in Cook County, as well as, on their website, teacher resources and activities for kids. For adults, “Farm Crawls,” visits to farms across Cook County, introduce visitors to both farms and farmers. The bureau finds ways of highlighting the diversity of farming in Illinois (it’s not all corn and soybeans). Illinois is the nation’s top grower of pumpkins, so the Farm Bureau hosts a Giant Pumpkin Contest in the fall, where farmers can show off their biggest pumpkins and highlight locally raised honey. “Illinois is also the nation’s top grower of horseradish,” Milton adds, “It is the third largest grower of popcorn and is in the top ten for asparagus, cauliflower, fresh-cut herbs, green peas, lima beans, mustard greens and snap peas.” And let’s not forget GoldRush apples, the state fruit of Illinois.
For those who want to learn more, the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) offers education in plant and animal sciences, as well as agricultural business. Created by the Chicago Board of Education in 1984, this college-prep magnet school draws students from across the city. The school, the only one of its kind in the Midwest, was created in response to fears triggered by the decline in agricultural education. At CHSAS, the curriculum gives students skills that will be valuable anywhere they go. Even if you’re not ready to enroll, it underscores how important ag is, even in the big city.
For a fun day out, a visit to Wagner Farm in Glenview can be another great way to be introduced to—and reconnected with—farming. And it’s free. The farm, operated by the Glenview Park District, is a historic working farm that was rescued in 2000, so that people could see both crops and farm animals up close and learn about both the past and present of food production. Fields, gardens, enclosures and buildings offer a view into the past, with enough hands-on activities to keep kids occupied. Depending on the season, you can also buy vegetables and eggs, and you might even see a cow being milked.
If you can’t get to these places, go online to the Illinois Farm Families website. It offers both information about farming today and, more importantly, an introduction to the families that own the farms. Click on “We are the 96” to see highlights of some of the thousands of families farming in Illinois (including a few who encourage visitors), or select “Meet the People,” to connect to biographies and blogs from farmers across the state.
It’s not just ignorance of farmers that leads to misdirected concern, but also ignorance of animals. Chickens, for example, are omnivores and they will kill and eat anything they can catch. So, if you value eggs from vegetarian-fed chickens, you need to have chickens raised in a controlled environment. The danger of bird flu, which regularly wipes out thousands of chickens, is also a concern. In addition, as coyotes and birds of prey grow more numerous, life outdoors is not nearly as good for young animals as one might hope. One farmer I know related that even raccoons are a problem, as they will snatch newborn piglets born outdoors. But animal husbandry is a whole other discussion. Start with getting to know the farmers—they are the reason you eat well—or, when you get right down to it, why you eat at all.