By Joanie Stiers
Visits to Illinois farms have debunked a Chicago-area mom’s storybook notions of farms and instilled in her the confidence to question some food marketing tactics.
“Being on this side – a consumer living in the big city – there is so much I don’t know,” says Amy Hansmann of River Forest, nine miles west of downtown Chicago. “It’s making me ask smarter questions about what I’m eating.” (Related: A Dairy Farmer Answers: Hormones, Antibiotics and Cow-Tipping)
Hansmann, a wife and mother of two boys, ages 4 and 1, understandably has lots of questions about food and modern agriculture. She’s a concerned mom and has limited farm knowledge. Her closest connection to the farm was a childhood family friend and her travels to college on Interstates 80 and 88 through farm country. That’s why the field moms program through Illinois Farm Families (IFF) spoke to her. She applied and became one of nine moms in the inaugural class last year.
City Meets Farm
The field moms program is a developing success story of the IFF coalition. The program gives city moms the opportunity to visit Illinois farms, make observations and ask questions about food and farming directly to the farmer, says Carla Mudd, manager of consumer communications for the Illinois Farm Bureau. In the course of a year, the field moms will visit multiple farms, encompassing beef, dairy, pork, corn, soybeans and specialty crops. They take pictures and videos and then post them. They form their own opinions and state them, often through personal blogs and at the field moms hub, www.watchusgrow.org.
The idea is that whatever these nine moms think about is probably what most moms think about, Mudd says, so sharing that message is important.
For example, Hansmann used to look at labels in her grocer’s milk cooler weekly and wonder which gallons would be best for her family. She questioned a jug’s contents and the variety of prices and wondered if higher prices meant better milk. That confusion ended after visiting Dale and Linda Drendel’s family dairy farm in Northern Illinois. She learned that regardless of labels and prices, milk has the same health and nutritional value, and that all milk, by law, is free of antibiotics.
“These people are producing the milk on their farm, and they are going to the store and buying the same milk I’m drinking,” she says. “I took comfort in that.”
Farmers Welcome Moms
Farm mom and seventh-generation farmer Linda Drendel last fall was among the first Illinois farmers to host the field moms. The Drendels and their farm’s veterinarian fielded questions about growth hormones, antibiotics, calf care, calf vaccinations, the milking process and simply how it feels to be a farmer. The moms appreciated the tour and the opportunity to hear from the farmers, who provided honest answers in an era of conflicting information from TV shows, magazines and online sources.
Through it all, Drendel learned that consumers are eager to listen. She also became more aware of how people are often many generations removed from farms, solidifying the need to open their farm to consumers.
“Now we realize the consumers – rightly so – are asking questions,” Drendel says. “We are more than willing and wanting to put our message out there that all milk is safe, healthy and nutritious for families.”
Through these field moms farm tours and “Mom Meet-Ups,” where city moms and farm moms come together simply for conversation, the quantity of information the field moms have absorbed is apparent, Mudd says. They are asking more detailed, intense questions. In fact, Hansmann is poised to ask more specific questions about subsidies and artificial growth hormones.
“When I started with this program, I was really interested in learning details of how my food is produced and wanting to know what is going into my food, such as hormones, antibiotics, preservatives or pesticides,” Hansmann says. “After being involved in this program I am asking different questions, including what is influencing my buying decisions.
“The path from farm to store seems a lot more crowded than I ever realized,” she says.
About Illinois Farm Families
Illinois Farm Families is a coalition made up of farmers from Illinois Farm Bureau and Illinois Beef, Corn, Pork and Soybean Associations. They are opening their farms, having conversations with consumers and answering tough questions about food while also exposing consumers to farm lifestyles and other aspects of the modern-day farm.