Conversations

Farmer Perspectives: Trial By Fire

By Janna Splitter, CommonGround Kansas Volunteer Farmer

 Janna and her husband met in 4-H as kids growing up in the Lyons, Kansas, area. Now, they are carrying on the fifth-generation family farm while raising their two daughters.

My husband and I have farming in our blood. We were both raised on a farm and earned agricultural degrees in college. Yet, taking on a farm business is a big undertaking. In fact, many farmers take years — even decades — to fully hand-over the reins.

My husband, Matt, and I were sole owners of a fifth-generation family farm by the ages of 25 and 23, respectively. Even with our background and education, the transition was abrupt. Our personal heartbreak also dramatically affected our career plans when we lost my father-in-law to cancer in March 2010.

 

Our village

Due to the increasing average age of farmers nationwide, some experts estimate almost 10 percent of America’s farmland will change hands in the next five years. We’re part of that trend.

Despite the abrupt start to our farming career, we’ve been able to grow our farm, in part, by providing custom-farming services. In a custom-farming arrangement, we agree to plant and harvest a crop in exchange for a set fee or rate. We grow wheat, corn, soybeans and grain sorghum on our own land and our clients’ fields.

We’ve been fortunate my own father farms close to us and has been a great sounding board for advice. We’ve also surrounded ourselves with people who support our farm, from our crop insurance agent to our local banker.

 

Banking and insurance

Today, I’m the full-time bookkeeper for our farm and chief kid wrangler for our two daughters. Like most people my age, it took a little time to find my footing as our long-term plans to join the family farm became more immediate.

In fact, I had two “off-the-farm” jobs before finally settling in as a full-time employee of our business. My first job was as a program technician for our local branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA).

It was a temporary position helping certify crop acres, which means I would help verify what crop was being grown and on what specific fields. I also helped with crop insurance programs. These programs are vital to helping ensure farmers can confidently farm each year. Just like car insurance, farmers only use crop insurance if there is a wreck. This can be a hail storm that wipes out a crop. The insurance is designed to almost cover enough expenses that farmers can try again next season.

One bad storm should not wipe out years of effort in building a farm. Plus, it helps our country develop a safe, dependable food supply when we can rely on farmers being in business year after year.

I’ve seen farming from all sides — as a mother purchasing farm-grown food in the grocery store, as a government employee helping steady the impact of Mother Nature on farm businesses and as a new farmer myself.

With every bite of food, I’m reminded of all the people it takes to ensure my food is safe, affordable and can be counted on, rain or shine.

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Restorative Yoga on the Farm Offers Relaxation and Opportunity to Meet Farmers

A sunset yoga session offered about 50 guests an opportunity for complete relaxation during CommonGround Kansas’s second Yoga on the Farm event on Saturday, Sept. 23, on the Neitzel and Nunemaker family farm.

In a beautiful green pasture just east of Lawrence, guests gathered for a restorative yoga practice led by instructor Cherish Wood. The practice involved holding gentle poses designed to restore the body and soul. Ticket sales benefited Just Food, Douglas County’s primary food bank. Guests also donated more than 128 pounds of non-perishable foods to the organization, helping community members who don’t enjoy the same freedom of choice in their food and simply struggle to provide the most basic needs.

As the sun was setting, the yoga session concluded and guests heard from CommonGround farmer volunteers Kim Baldwin, Frances Graves, Kelsey Pagel and Krystale Neitzel, whose family raises cattle in the pasture where the event was held. Each farmer described their family farms and the most common questions they’re asked about how they raise food.

Afterward, the group descended the hill following a tiki torch-lit path to a pond-side reception area where they enjoyed post-yoga wine, hors d’oeuvres and conversation with farmers and other guests. Just moments earlier, about a dozen cattle had quietly taken a dip in the pond while the group watched from the hilltop.

“It was really neat to experience conversations with complete strangers who had different backgrounds and life experiences, but could still connect through our shared interests,” said farmer volunteer Kim Baldwin, who farms and ranches with her family near McPherson. She and guests discussed raising bees and popcorn on their central Kansas farm.

“As a mom and farmer, life is pretty busy for me right now with fall harvest and school in full swing,” Baldwin added. “Attending the yoga session allowed me some precious “me time” while also having the opportunity to share my farm with them.”

Farmer volunteer Frances Graves, who farms and ranches with her husband’s family near Bartlett, said most of the guests she spoke with were from Johnson County.

“We discussed the urban/rural divide between producers and consumers,” she said. “I was surprised to hear how much they remembered details of ag operations surrounding the urban area that were developed now, or knew of working farms that still existed near Johnson County. We seemed to share a common sense of pride as Kansans, knowing how much of our state produced the food we eat, even if it wasn’t a part of their daily life in urban Kansas City.”

Graves, who studied at the University of Kansas, spent the weekend in Lawrence and said she was struck by how many restaurants promoted having local ingredients and using only local meat, meaning raised in Kansas or a surrounding state.

“Most of the people I met with were used to this type of labeling and believed it added to their restaurant experience,” she said. “I think events like our Yoga on the Farm help remind consumers that our local farmers are providing the food that they buy at the grocery stores too, even if it’s not labeled as a specialty item.”

Special thanks to the Neitzel and Nunemaker families, who operate Bismarck Farms/Gardens, for hosting us on their beautiful ranch land.

Events like Yoga on the Farm bring farmers and consumers together to discuss farming and food and build relationships to help folks feel more confident in their food choices. Have a question? CommonGround farmer volunteers are here to help! Send us a message or visit findourcommonground.com to learn more.

 

 

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Feast on the Fe brings together farmers and foodies

Farmer volunteer Jenny Burgess visits with guests at Feast on the Fe, Sept. 15, in Salina, KS

CommonGround Kansas sponsored the second annual Feast on the Fe on Sept. 15, a celebration of local food and entertainment bringing a diverse subset of the Salina community to one table. The farm-to-fork dinner served 160 guests with five courses, each from a local chef, in an outdoor meal along Santa Fe street near the Masonic Center.

The event showcased the Salina community through local farmers, chefs, entertainers and a collaboration of local businesses and nonprofit organizations. Proceeds benefited Prairieland Market, a local non-profit cooperative.

Participating chefs for the event included Tony Dong, owner of Martinelli’s Little Italy; Eric Shelton and Michael Styers of the Salina Country Club; Tyler Gallagher, owner of Seraphim Bread; Shana Everhart of the Swedish Crown restaurant and Renaissance Cafe; and Laura Lungstrom, head cook at Soderstrom Elementary School in Lindsborg.

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Each place setting included a CommonGround pint glass

Musicians Dex Umekubo with Dean Kranzler performed for the pre-dinner social hour, and the Pale Fire Kings from Kansas City were featured after the feast.

“The Feast on the Fe provided great food and wonderful conversation,” said Melissa Reed, dairy farmer and volunteer from Abilene, KS. “It was easy to get to know the people around you as they all smiled from the delicious five-course meal that was presented.”

Each place setting included a CommonGround pint glass that guests could take home. Three CommonGround Kansas volunteer farm women, including Reed, Kim Baldwin and Jenny Burgess, took a seat at the table to converse with community members about how food is raised and answer questions about their farms. They also gave a brief introduction about their farms during the event’s opening remarks.

Guests enjoyed a five-course meal and live entertainment

“Chefs from around the Salina area pulled out all the stops and brought forth their best for this event,” Reed added. “Each dish used Kansas grown or raised, produce, meat and dairy highlighting the excellence in Kansas agriculture. With music in the background and the sun behind clouds, it made for a beautiful evening.”

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Farmers Share Tasty Bites With Bloggers

Farmer Kim Baldwin joined in virtually to share about her farm in central Kansas

The digital worlds of bloggers and farmers collided in a hip office space in Kansas City’s Crossroads District on Thursday, May 4, for a dinner hosted by GBS Influence. This exclusive event allowed small selection of invited bloggers an opportunity to meet the farm women growing food, while enjoying great discussion about farming and food over a beautiful meal.

The event was a partnership between GBS Influence, formerly of the GoBlogSocial conference, and the volunteer farm women of CommonGround. The evening began with mingling and introductions before guests were treated to a gorgeous antipasto and charcuterie spread, a kale, apple and chicken salad, and gluten-free cookies with l0cal milk from Hildebrand Farms Dairy.

After the meal, guests took a few moments to complete a discussion guide, carefully considering the information they use to make food choices. Then, the group joined in a discussion about farming and food, with questions answered by CommonGround volunteers LaVell Winsor and Kim Baldwin, who joined us virtually from her farm.

Guests also received a booklet detailing each volunteer’s background, contact information and a recipe, as well as a CommonGround branded kitchen pack, including a spatula, measuring cup, cutting mat and towel.

One blogger and their guest will win a private tour of Kansas farms. The winner will be announced May 19. We can’t wait to see who it is! 

Thanks to GBS Influence and Shining Star Catering in making the night very Instagram-worthy!

We especially want to thank all the bloggers who joined us for a productive discussion about farming and food!

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Panel Discusses Farming & Food with Nutrition Professionals

Nutrition professionals joined farmers and researchers for a panel discussion prior to the Kansas Nutrition Council annual meeting.

About 50 nutrition professionals gathered Wednesday, Apr. 26, for conversation over drinks and hors d’oeuvres prior to the Kansas Nutrition Council annual meeting at the DoubleTree in Overland Park, KS. The event featured a panel discussion with farmers and researchers about how food is raised. The panel featured Dr. Dan Thomson, K-State Veterinary Medicine; Scott Thelman, Juniper Hill Farms, Lawrence, KS; LaVell Winsor, farmer, Grantville, KS; and Dr. Tom Clemente, University of Nebraska Plant Science.

CommonGround Kansas partnered with Kansas Pork and Kansas Farm Bureau to host the event. Guests were able to view a model pig barn and also use virtual reality glasses to see the inside of a pig barn. They also were able to talk one-on-one with farmers from around Kansas. 

Visit our Facebook page to watch the replay of the panel discussion via Facebook Live.

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Conversation Flows at “Dinner on the Farm”

dinner on the farm

by Laura Handke, CommonGround Kansas volunteer

Handke

Laura and Chris Handke, with daughter Audrey Ann, are proud to represent the fourth generation on Chris’ family farm near Atchison, KS.

Grain finished beef brisket, fresh-from-the-garden green beans, butter yourself (and lots of it, please) homegrown sweet corn and homemade dinner rolls preceded a perfectly crusted, vanilla ice cream topped peach cobbler—is your mouth watering yet—all from the farm and all the main topic of conversation at the Dinner on the Farm evening hosted by Bismarck Gardens, Lawrence, KS, on July 9.  It was a made-to-order event: a nice breeze beat the heat, the location was picture perfect and great conversation flowed throughout the event. It was a perfect evening!

Both the owners and employees who make Bismarck Gardens so successful, in cooperation with Kansas Corn, made sure that the evening was all about mingling, food, fun and lots of conversation! Farm owner Patrick Ross addressed the group right after the meal to talk about the farm, the dinner we had all just enjoyed and to thank everyone for coming and sharing in the evening.

I sat by a fun-loving couple from Shawnee Mission: she manages the produce department at HyVee and he is an Uber driver; a lively pair of BFFs in their eighties; and a young entrepreneurial couple from Arkansas who moved to Lawrence to grow their business of helping foreign students acclimate to a new environment, both academically and socially.  I couldn’t have hand-picked better conversations! We talked about the advantages of grain fed beef, nutrition, sweet corn versus field corn and how field corn is used, and the incredible feats agriculture technology has achieved in the past decade. We shared childhood stories of growing up on the farm — we all had farm roots, but most had long-since pursued lives in town.

As events go, I would have to say that this has been my favorite to participate in as a CommonGround volunteer. I was excited to have been invited to participate and even more excited by the thought of similar events in the future! These are the events that spark those touchy conversations that ignite interest, but with a farmer on hand to meet that interest with correct, factual and current resources and information. Way to go, Bismarck Farms and Kansas Corn, you hit the nail on the head with this event!

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“Farmland” documentary sparks questions on food, farming with dietitians

KSAND panel

Dr. Dan Thomson answers a question during the panel session following a viewing of the documentary “Farmland”

“Farmland” was the featured film during a special event held prior to the Kansas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual meeting in Topeka Thursday, Apr. 14. Approximately 50 registered dietitians gathered to view the documentary, followed by drinks, hors d’oeuvres and a panel discussion featuring farmers and researchers.

Dietitian’s questions focused on GMOs, antibiotics, hormones, animal welfare and sustainability. Panelists shared real-life examples and research on these controversial topics to help equip the nutrition professionals with facts and resources to discuss the topics with their clients.

Panelists included:

  • Scotty Thelman owns Juniper Hill farms in Lawrence. He’s a young, first-generation farmer who grows organic and conventional crops. He also was recently featured in Kansas Living magazine.
  • Debbie Lyons-Blythe is a rancher from Morris County and mother of five. She began blogging in 2009 sharing what happens on her ranch and answering questions about her passions: “Kids, Cows and Grass!”
  • Dr. Dan Thomson is a professor in Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Beef Cattle Institute. He is active on committees like McDonald’s Beef Health and Welfare Committee and Animal Welfare Advisory Board of the Food Marketing Institute.
  • Dr. Tom Clemente is a professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. He runs the Clemente Lab studying functional genomics and using genetic engineering to create value added and disease control traits.
From left, Lana Barkman and Melissa Reed discussed their farming operations with dietitians during the event

From left, Lana Barkman and Melissa Reed discussed their farming operations with dietitians during the event

CommonGround volunteers Lana Barkman and Melissa Reed mingled with dietitians throughout the evening, discussing their own farming operations. Melissa’s family operates Hildebrand Dairy, which bottles and sells milk across northeast Kansas. Lana’s background is in beef cattle, horses, poultry and greenhouse production.

The event was hosted by the Kansas Farm Food Connection, a group of farmers and ranchers who bring delicious Kansas-grown food to your table. The KFFC includes Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Pork Association, Kansas Wheat, Midwest Dairy, Kansas Livestock Association, Kansas Soybean Commission, Kansas Grain Sorghum and Kansas Corn. CommonGround also lends support to the KFFC.

Attendees went home with a reusable grocery bag from CommonGround filled with goodies from the KFFC partners.

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Bloggers meet farmers at Go Blog Social

Volunteers LaVell Winsor (left) and Laura Handke (right) chat with guests at the "Sip and Shop" event during Go Blog Social Apr. 3.

Volunteers LaVell Winsor (left) and Laura Handke (right) chat with guests at the “Sip and Shop” event during Go Blog Social Apr. 3.

Fashion and food brought new friends together at the Go Blog Social “Sip and Shop” event on Friday, Apr. 3. After a day of soaking up blogging tips, lifestyle bloggers from across the Midwest enjoyed an opportunity relax and sip on signature cocktails at the hip Berg Event Space near downtown Kansas City.

Attendees took a break from shopping and visiting with health and wellness professionals to ask their food and farming questions at the CommonGround Kansas table. Questions such as “Is grass-fed beef better?”, “Are there antibiotics in my meat?” and “Are hormones used in chicken?” were popular among attendees. Volunteers LaVell Winsor, Grantville, and Laura Handke, Atchinson, shared experiences from their farms and sent bloggers home with flexible cutting mats with food safety tips, as well as links to find science-based facts to help guide food choices.

This marks CommonGround Kansas’ second year attending the popular Go Blog Social conference, which helps attendees grow their blog and social media knowledge, connect with businesses and socialize with like-minded bloggers. Attendees had ample opportunities to learn about food and farming, as women from Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Farm Food Connection also supported the event.

 

 

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Campus conversations focus on food & farming

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Volunteers from CommonGround, the Kansas Pork Association and K-State’s Food for Thought organization handed out free bacon and spoke with students and faculty in the Kansas Memorial Union on Apr. 1.

Bacon and buzzwords enticed curious visitors to pause at the University of Kansas on Wednesday, Apr. 1, to learn how Kansas farmers raise their food.

The Kansas Memorial Union lobby hummed with conversation as students, faculty and staff sampled free bacon and posed their questions on modern farming practices to volunteers from Kansas State University’s Food for Thought organization, the Kansas Pork Association and CommonGround Kansas. Some visitors posted their questions publicly to receive a “baconologist” or “baconista” T-shirt from the Kansas Pork Association.

Events connecting food buyers with farmers are becoming more common as interest in food production practices grows. Many consumers find they have more questions than answers.

“We’re faced with more choices than ever, which can be very overwhelming. Our goal is to forge connections where shoppers can feel comfortable asking tough questions of the folks growing their food,” said Shannon Krueger, CommonGround Kansas coordinator. “Everyone deserves to have the information they need to be confident in their food choices.”

Common questions addressed concerns with biotechnology, animal welfare and organic foods. Visitors learned about pig farming while viewing a model barn and received information with links to research on common food concerns.

Connor Needham, sophomore from Dallas, Texas, said making smart food decisions became more challenging once he started college.

“I grew up in a family that emphasized healthy food choices,” he said. “When I’m grocery shopping, I’ll call my mom for advice.”

Many shoppers find it difficult to find trustworthy sources for food information. In an increasingly noisy online space, it can be tedious to decipher which sources are based on sound science. In addition, few consumers personally know a farmer they can ask about production practices.

The widening communication gap requires cooperation from both sides.

“It is vital that farmers create opportunities to connect with consumers and listen to their concerns. It’s equally important that consumers seek out factual information to help guide food choices,” said Jacob Hagenmaier, Food for Thought outreach coordinator.

The event’s sponsoring organizations have a shared mission to connect grocery shoppers with the farmers who grow their food.

Visitors had the opportunity to share their questions publicly and received a "Baconista" or "Baconologist" T-shirt from the Kansas Pork Association. The responses filled two sides of our white board.

Visitors had the opportunity to share their questions publicly and received a “Baconista” or “Baconologist” T-shirt from the Kansas Pork Association. The responses filled two sides of our white board.

“We enjoy connecting with folks who are passionate and want to learn more about their food,” said Jodi Oleen, director of consumer outreach for the Kansas Pork Association. “Partnering with Food for Thought and CommonGround allows us to offer a wide variety of perspectives and information to our visitors.”

Volunteers included, from Food for Thought: Chance Hunley, Riverton; Lindi Bilberry, Garden City; Jacob Hagenmaier, Randolph; Bruce Figger, Hudson; Karly Frederick, Alden; from the Kansas Pork Association: Jodi Oleen, Manhattan; from CommonGround Kansas: Karra James, Clay Center; Laura Handke, Atchison; and Shannon Krueger, Abilene.

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Why Food Day “Facts” Aren’t So Factual

Oct. 24 is Food Day, which celebrates healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food. It sounds like a pretty great cause to get behind, right?

As farmers and moms, we support the movement to get Americans to eat healthier and move more. But what really concerns us is pushing out loads of misinformation behind what seems to be fairly noble cause.

Do we agree we should spend less time in the drive-through and more time as a family at the dinner table? Absolutely!

Do we agree that we should strive to eat more balanced diets with fruits and vegetables instead of cartons of greasy fried foods, gooey pastas and sugary desserts? You bet!

But here’s where we simply need to set the record straight:

Food Day urges folks to cut back on “fatty, factory-farmed meats.”

What exactly is a factory farm, anyway? Take a good look around at the 2.2 million U.S. farms. We are hard-working families, not factories. We devote our lives to giving our animals the best care possible, often putting their needs above our own. In any weather and at any time of day, we’re there to ensure our farm animals have the food, water, shelter, space and medical care they need.

We also want our critics to know that cattle spend the majority of their lives in pastures eating grass. When mature, cattle are sold or moved to feedlots where they typically spend 4-6 months. Feedlots allow ranchers to raise beef more efficiently with fewer natural resources like land, feed and water. Feedlot cattle live in fenced areas that give them plenty of food, fresh water and room to move around. Veterinarians, nutritionists and cattlemen work together to look after each animal every day.

And labeling all meats as fatty? Well, that’s just not accurate. In fact, there are 29 cuts of lean beef and six cuts of lean pork that meet the USDA’s guidelines for lean, heart-healthy meats with less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. The trend of avoiding meat because it’s generally “unhealthy” is simply unfounded. Why can’t we all just adopt the attitude of “everything in moderation,” park a little farther from the store and talk a walk more often?

Food Day advocates say “a meat-heavy diet takes a terrible toll on the environment.”

Farmers are the original environmentalists. For generations, we have cared for the land so we can pass it on to our children and grandchildren. We care about what goes into the soil and the air, and we work tirelessly to do more with less inputs and land every day.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, livestock production accounts for 3.12% of total emissions, far from the claim that cows are worse than cars. In addition, modern farming continues to implement sustainable practices that significantly reduce the amount of fuel and chemicals required for food production. There’s an old saying that “You can’t make any more land.” That’s why we work hard to protect what we have.

Food Day activists “are united by a vision of food that is healthy, affordable, and produced with care for the environment, farm animals, and the people who grow, harvest, and serve it.”

Hey, wait! That sounds a lot like our vision as farmers and ranchers. Like any successful professionals, we want to do our jobs better. We are constantly finding new ways to grow safe, affordable food on less land and with fewer resources. If we didn’t care for our animals and our land, we couldn’t stay in business. And if we can’t stay in the business of growing food and fiber for a booming world population, it won’t be long before we’ll have some very serious issues on a global scale.

We are farmers. We are moms. We commit our lives to producing safe, healthy food — the same food we feed our families. To infer that hard-working American farmers and ranchers aren’t producing food with care? Well, we invite you to look again. That’s what we do, day in and day out.

Have a question about your food? Ask us! We’re always happy to share openly about how we grow crops and raise livestock on our Kansas farms. We’ll never tell you what to eat, we’ll just answer your questions so you can make the most informed choices for your family.

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