Conversations

Farmer Perspectives: Ladies Who Grow Your Lunch

By Frances Graves, CommonGround Kansas volunteer farmer

Frances and Kris Graves and their daughters represent the fifth and sixth generations on their Bartlett, KS, ranch.

Frances and her husband, Kris, raise beef cattle — and their three daughters — in Bartlett, Kansas.

I never dreamed I’d be a “farm wife.” Growing up in the city, I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I wasn’t interested. My women’s studies courses earned at a liberal arts university ended up preparing me to raise three little women on a cattle ranch.

It was a trial-by-fire education when my husband and I made the decision to join his family’s farm in southeastern Kansas. At our farm, the words “husband” and “wife” mean partner. As a partner in a growing business, you simply do whatever needs to be done.

Now, I see that’s how other farm families operate as well. We all contribute to the farm in our own way. Our children’s grandparents also are our business partners. My father-in-law is an amazing engineer, and can fix most anything on the farm. It’s a fantastic skill that keeps us reusing equipment better than many recycling centers. My mother-in-law is an excellent bookkeeper and helps make sure our business is sustainable.

We chip in to get the job done for our farm, for our business and for each other.

 

Seasonal solo parenting

My main job right now is to raise our 8-year-old, 6-year-old and 3-year-old girls. My city friends often talk about “solo parenting” for a night or two while their spouse is away on business. In farm life, we can go seasons of late nights and early mornings. For young moms, it can leave you feeling isolated.

Now that our kids are a little older, the best solution is for our girls to ride along with their dad in the feed truck or tractor. We leave our summer mealtimes and bedtimes flexible so the whole troop can bring a meal to the field. These little doses of family time help us make it through the wide swaths of time alone.

 

Continuing education

Growing up in the city, I’ve had to start from the basics to learn about our farm, and I’ve also made a point to learn about the way other people farm as well.

I’ve attended our state’s Women Managing the Farm Conference and listened to women who raised children, created their own side businesses and worked as farmers alongside (or without) their spouse — and sometimes all of the above! I’ve become more active in our Farm Bureau organization and recently completed the Kansas Agriculture and Rural Leadership (KARL) program dedicated to growing rural leaders.

In these groups, I’ve met women from 20 to 70 years old who are immediately unified by the common goal of keeping our wits about us while we carry on the business and contribute to a safe and plentiful food supply.

Living in rural America, I can tell you that we do not expect less of women in farming: We expect more. There is a long history and tradition of sisterhood in agriculture. I’m proud have my girls be a part of it.

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Farmer Perspectives: Prove It

By Jenny Burgess, CommonGround Kansas volunteer farmer

Jenny and her husband Geoff are a first-generation farm family farming near Sterling, KS.

Jenny and her husband are first-generation farmers. You can find them raising wheat, corn and grain sorghum with their two children around Sterling, Kansas.

To farm today requires guts and money. It takes capital to get land and equipment. Then, farmers pay for inputs like seed and fertilizer upfront, and we accept the market price when the crop is ready to harvest. In fact, that price can be lower than what it costs to grow the crop.

On the other hand, the average bakery (that uses flour made from our wheat) can always just charge more for a muffin if the price of rent, butter or sugar goes up.

The inability to set our final market price, and sometimes operating at a loss, makes it challenging to stay afloat. In addition to market forces, we also risk the business impacts of weather. A storm can bring timely rains or flood your entire field. All this can create extra strain on the business — and the family running it.

 

Starting history

As new farmers, we’re acutely aware of our profit margin. My family hasn’t accumulated acres of land with each passing generation — but someone is always the first. That’s why we rely on proven agricultural techniques to make our farm as profitable as possible.

We were presented with an opportunity to lease farm ground shortly after getting married. My husband is an immigrant from England, and I’m from a family of hobby farmers. My parents both held down full-time jobs, and we used antique tractors to harvest our hay.

My husband and I knew enough about farming to realize we’d be operating on a tight budget. On the other hand, we’d be our own bosses. We’d be partners in family and farming.

I like to say we started with a borrowed pickup truck and zero dollars, and now we own the pickup truck and have zero dollars. Most often, farming pays in assets rather than cash, and assets are only worth something if you’re willing to sell them. On the other hand, not owning the pickup truck means we can’t drive to our fields or drop off our kids at school.

Our children see the value of money firsthand. They see the actual sweat (and sometimes tears) that goes into our farming business. There is a clear difference between want and need. My husband and I hope these lessons carry on into adulthood.

Like most businesses, we have a budget we adhere to. The budget affects our farm and family life. In farming, the “income” side of our budget happens once a year at harvest. In other businesses, there may be a steady stream of income from year-round customers. For farmers, harvest is a one-time sale. Then, you see how much money is left to live on.

 

Proven to work

When we invest, it’s got to work. For example, we introduced cover crops to help reduce weed pressure and wind erosion of the topsoil. We still incorporate regular tillage, but it’s not like the deep plows shown in history books.

We’ve tried other technologies too. We experimented with no-till farming — where the straw and plant matter is left in the field after harvest. This method can be great for increasing natural organic matter in soil, but it also required more herbicides. High chemical costs made no-till the wrong fit for most of our fields.

As first-generation farmers, we can’t be early adopters of all technology. We just want the right kind. We evaluate research on each seed, piece of equipment, fertilizer and herbicide. We’re looking for technology and improved methods that can help make our land productive today and for future generations. Yes, we want a profit this year. Yet, we also want to protect our most important long-term asset: the land.

Despite the challenges, farmers are an optimistic bunch. Like life, farming throws everything at you. Our love for the family business keeps us going.

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Farmer Perspectives: Creating Happy Heifers

By Aly McClure, CommonGround Kansas volunteer farmer

Originally from Ohio, Aly moved to western Kansas where she met her now husband, TJ. Together, they raise 11,000 dairy heifers and try to keep up with their toddler and dogs.

My oldest child recently started school. His first years have taught us a lot. Just like any parent, I want my son to get off to the best start possible. The same goes with our calves.

The first two years of a dairy heifer’s life can start her off for a healthy and productive future. That’s what my husband and I do for 11,000 calves. Along with our four business partners, we started Circle Heifer Development in 2009. In many ways, we’re like a pre-school. Heifers come here at about 6 months old and stay for two years. Then, we send them to dairies in Michigan or Ohio. Many of these dairies have been milking cows for generations. It’s a hand-off from one farm family to another.

Let me tell you a little bit about how it works, and how it’s not that different from raising kids.

 

Arriving at ‘school’

Dairy farmers can raise their own calves on their farm, or they can send them to a heifer development facility like ours. It’s similar to the choice between home school and private school. Farmers can raise their own heifers, but it takes a significant amount of time and resources they may not have available. Like young children, young calves require a lot of time and attention.

We typically raise Holstein cattle, which is a breed meant to produce a lot of milk. Holsteins are also well-suited to the hotter, drier climate in our part of Kansas.

Our No. 1 job is to keep the calves safe and healthy. We watch each animal closely to make sure they are comfortable. This also helps us spot illness right away. Calves are only treated with antibiotics if they are sick, but quick action helps keep problems manageable.

 

Professional help

Any illness during this important time can result in decreases in milk production later in life, or worse, animals that are chronically ill. Our veterinarian visits once a week to check the health of pregnant heifers and oversee the health program for the entire herd. Rain or shine, he’s there every week until the heifer is ready to leave our farm.

To inspect the animals, we slowly and calmly walk through each pen. Not in a truck or a 4-wheeler. Not even on horseback. We walk alongside the cattle. These animals are going to be around people their entire life. It’s important they aren’t frightened of us.

We also have a nutritionist that visits our farm once a week to ensure our feed is of good quality and balanced according to the needs of the animal. For example, a young calf needs a different meal than a pregnant heifer.

Our business partners grow much of the feed we give our heifers. We typically feed triticale silage. Triticale is a crop similar to corn, but it uses less water and provides the right nutrition for the types of animals we raise. We also use wet distillers grains, which is corn that is cooked down as a byproduct of a nearby ethanol plant.

 

Making the love connection

At our ranch, we also supervise breeding when the animal is old enough. Heifers will leave our farm between 7 and 8 months pregnant. The length of a cow’s gestation is similar to a human’s — about 9 months.

Almost all the heifers we care for are bred with artificial insemination (AI). The animals are matched to a bull with specific traits like a nice temperament. One of the most important is calving ease. We want to make sure heifers have an easy labor and delivery.

From the very beginning, we work closely with our customers to make sure they have a healthy, happy cow. While we don’t milk the cows or deliver the milk to your door, we are a part of a chain of people working hard — every day, in any kind of weather — to ensure we all have safe and affordable food.

It’s milk that I’m proud will be on my son’s lunch table both at school and at home.

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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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