What’s Your Why?

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Agriculturists meeting to represent my company, and one of the speakers, Monsanto’s Vance Crowe, talked about the challenges we face in agriculture with so much negative and frankly, incorrect, information being spread about our industry.

He showed images that he had seen on social media, being shared by millions of people, that portray modern agriculture in a frightening light. Things like tomatoes being injected with mystery fluids from syringes – never mind that (1.) there are no commercially available GMO tomatoes and (2.) syringes are not used in genetic engineering. Images like these are designed to speak to our emotions, provoking fear and distrust without saying a single word.

He said, “All you have to do for people to question modern agriculture is to sow doubt.” Regardless of the facts and the science and the layers of regulation behind everything we do, one misguided image can cause irreparable damage.

Then today, back at work, I sat down to work on some homework for a leadership class I’m part of. Our assignment was to watch this TED Talk by Simon Sinek:

It’s about 20 minutes long and worth the watch, but if you don’t have time, I’ll summarize. He describes the “golden circle,” three concentric rings with “why” in the middle, “how” next, and “what” on the outside. Normally, we try to explain things from the outside in – what we do, how we do them, and why. He says that in order to get people to make an emotional connection that can lead to a change in behavior, we need to start from the inside out – WHY we do what we do, how we do it, and then what the benefits and opportunities are.

He goes on to explain that our brains are designed to respond to these questions. Our neocortex is where rational thought and language are processed, the “what.” That’s where we can absorb facts and figures, weigh out pros and cons. Our limbic brain, however, responds to “why” and “how” – that’s where we make our decisions and experience things like trust and loyalty, but does not process language. That’s why we make “gut decisions” or say something “didn’t feel right,” he says, “because we don’t have the words to describe it otherwise.”

And then it hit me.

In agriculture, we are awesome about the “what” and even the “how.” We grow the safest, most abundant, most affordable food in the world. We have the technology to grow more than ever before on less than ever before. We have facts and figures that show how much we’ve increased soil quality, decreased the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and improved animal health and production. It’s truly amazing.

But people don’t care about those things until you can show them “why.”

The message with the emotion is the message we remember. That’s why Crowe’s example of the tomato picture elicited such a negative response without a single word. People made an involuntary connection that colored their view of any facts that may have come behind it.

We must begin making those deep connections, showing our “why” when we reach out to those who may have questions about agriculture. Food is such a personal thing to all of us, but only 2 percent of Americans are currently involved in growing it. I believe that most people are genuinely interested in why we do what we do in agriculture, and want to be reassured that we’re doing the very best we can to continue to provide safe, affordable options for their supper table, but starting the conversation with science and statistics won’t open that door.

The “why” will.

Here’s mine:


What’s yours?




A Harvest Prayer

Nine years ago I received one of those phone calls that no wife wants to hear:

“Hey, honey, I’m okay but I had a little accident at work today…”

While transferring grain, Big C was using an extension cord to power a small electric motor. There was a problem with the cord, and it began to shock him. The electricity caused his hand muscles to tighten around the cord, leaving him unable to let go. He fell down and that’s what alerted our neighbor, who was helping at the farm that day, to see what was going on. He quickly realized what was happening and unplugged the cord, preventing any further injury.

My heart’s pounding right now as I write this, remembering that conversation.

He ended up with deep burns on his hand, but no other serious injuries. He was very fortunate that day. It wouldn’t have taken much for me to have received a very different phone call.


Farming is a dangerous business, consistently ranking in the top ten deadliest occupations in America, along with loggers, commercial fishermen, construction workers, and truck drivers. Farmers operate heavy machinery, work with animals, spend time outdoors in all types of weather conditions, climb tall structures and crawl into tight spaces, work long hours, and handle hazardous materials. And much of this work is done miles away from medical facilities, in places where cell phone service is sometimes spotty at best, adding precious seconds to response time in critical situations.

Not only do farmers have to be aware of their own activities, they also must watch out for people who don’t understand just how slowly large equipment moves down the road or how much time it takes to stop a loaded semi. Every year, I see people impatient to pass on narrow country roads, or crowding intersections where trucks need to make wide turns. According to the University of Illinois Extension, a car traveling at 55 mph when 400 feet behind a tractor traveling 15 mph only takes seven seconds to reach the tractor. Seven seconds. That’s not much time to avoid a collision.

Every year there are tragic stories of farm lives ended too soon, and even more near misses, whether realized at the time or not.

Technology has certainly made farming much safer today than it was a century ago. Our machinery is safer, with features like warning lights, system monitoring computers, and autosteer. Personal protective equipment like gloves, goggles, and respirators are used when handling fertilizer, herbicide, and manure. Remote cameras can be used to monitor grain bins and livestock barns. But farmers still incur a significant amount of risk every single day.

Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, coined the slogan “Safety Third” on the show, after realizing that if safety was purely the top priority, very little work would actually get done. He writes: “Risk is everywhere. It can be understood and managed, but never eliminated. Risk is first. Getting the job done is second.”

And that puts safety a very near and very important, third.



Every morning I pray for farmers, especially mine and especially during planting and harvest, to work hard and think clearly, to react appropriately and with safety (even third) in mind. I pray that others they interact with also show good judgement and respect in their actions, and that my evening prayer can be one of thanksgiving, for another day when everyone goes home in one piece to their families, even if that day really ends in the wee hours of the next one.


…My hands to larger service…

“I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

The 4-H pledge is one of those things that is buried in the deep corners of my brain, along with my childhood address (Rural Route 2, Box 17), how to ride a bike (at least I hope that’s still in there), and the words to “Jesus Loves Me.” I attended a club meeting last winter to talk about my job in agriculture, and even though I hadn’t been to one in more than a decade, I still knew every word.

I’m a proud Happy Hustler with a 10-year 4-H career that began at age 8 (well, 4-H age 8) and ended after my senior year of high school. I took nearly every project offered in Woodford County with the exception of showing any kind of livestock, rocketry, and woodworking. I made Jackpot Drop cookies, nine-patch pillows, chalk/carbon/pigment art, simple circuits, and bookmarks. I researched foreign countries, collected stamps, took pictures, and explained how to test toys for safety. I looked at every school assignment through the lens of “can this go to the fair?” (Sixth grade bug collection, I’m looking at you!) and spent summers putting the finishing touches on all my projects, reading and re-reading the fair book to make sure I had every detail right.

4-H taught me about leadership, citizenship, and parliamentary procedure. I gave my first public speeches in front of my club, explaining various things about the projects I was working on. I served on committees, then in officer roles, then as a county ambassador for a year. I learned how to look a judge in the eye and confidently tell them about what I created. I met other 4-Hers, some older ones who I looked up to and learned from, and some younger ones who I hope I was able to help along the way.

You could say it’s a family tradition. My grandpa was a long time club leader and helped run the fair’s food stand for years. My mother showed sheep, among other things, and was our county’s fair queen. She became a leader when I started my 4-H career and served for 20 years while my brother and I were involved. I hope Little C will choose to be in 4-H, and when she does, I plan to volunteer my time as a leader as well. It’s a small way to give back to an organization that survives through volunteers and their efforts.

For the last five years, Big C and I have served on our county’s food stand committee – just like my grandpa did many years ago. We have a much nicer, more modern building than he had, but the menu is still almost identical. You can’t come to our fair without trying a homemade lemon shake-up or a Pronto Pup (which most people call a corn dog).




Early in the day, before we got too sweaty – but we were still smiling 14 hours later when we got home!

We manage all aspects of the stand for one day of the fair, everything from coordinating volunteers, cooking food, and maintaining health department standards. It’s always hot, always tiring, and always a good day knowing our efforts help keep the fair going another year.

You see, our fair is a true 4-H fair. We don’t have a carnival, we don’t have an open show, and we don’t charge admission. It’s held in a beautiful park with mature shade trees perfect for escaping from the late July sun. All the items on display were made by 4-H members in our county, and their accomplishments are celebrated with ribbons and plaques. Most judges are local people who volunteer their time to evaluate projects and provide constructive feedback.

It’s the kind of thing that only works because of people who care. We’re not the biggest or the most entertaining, but when it comes down to what matters – helping young people develop skills they can use for a lifetime – I’d say we come out on top.



That Darn Cat!

Like many rural dwellers, we have our fair share of creatures that make it onto our property. Some are on purpose (pigs, chickens, dogs), and some (raccoons, skunks, and possums) most definitely are not.

Barn cats have always been in that gray area between the two. While I like having a few cats around to help with mouse patrol, we haven’t actively introduced any to our place in quite a few years. They just seem to appear, and usually aren’t very tame – but never seem to turn down the bowl of cheap cat food I try to keep filled.

Growing up, I remember spending hours in the barn, searching out newly-born kittens and taming them into pets. My favorite cat, Purrfecta (I know, I was awesome at names), followed me around the yard and put up with a lot. I clearly remember the day I thought it would be a good idea to put her in the mailbox – I’m sure our mailman remembered that day for a long time, too.


imageAfter losing two dogs last year in close succession (one to old age and one hit on the road), we’ve been without a pet for the longest stretch in our marriage. Big C and I have been talking about some kind of pet for Little C to grow up with, but hadn’t made any decisions.

Last Saturday, that decision seems to have been made for us.

After taking a walk to get the mail, Little C and I decided to go check out the new batch of feeder pigs that just came home the day before. After counting them (there are seven), she exclaimed, “Mommy, look, a kitty!”

Thinking it was one of the usual barn cats, I turned around to see this pretty orange striped cat walking toward us. She was instantly smitten, and I was sure it would turn tail and run once it saw a three-year-old headed its way.

I was wrong.

Purring audibly, the cat came closer and allowed me to pick it up. Little C and I sat down and I let her scratch his (yes, his!) head and rub his belly. This cat has obviously been around people, specifically children, because I have never seen such a good-natured cat, let alone a tomcat.

It followed us up to the house and and allowed Little C to cuddle, carry, and have a one-sided conversation about how cu-ute he was and look at his little ears, Mommy!

imageThis also happened. It looks like he’s trying to escape, but no, he’s just limp.

It’s been four days now and the cat’s still around. I told Little C that sometimes cats on farms don’t always stay because they like to go see their other cat friends, but maybe this one’s decided to make our place his home base.


I guess that means he needs a name. Considering his patience, I’m pulling for Job.

Little C? She likes Snowball.



My blue corduroy time machine

If you’re not aware, this week is celebrated as National FFA Week. Always held in February to coincide with George Washington’s Birthday, FFA chapters across the country are finding creative ways to celebrate – driving tractors to school, dressing up in official dress, or educating younger students about agriculture were all popular when I was in school, and still are today.

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, my workplace is encouraging employees who are former FFA members to bring in their FFA jackets this week and hang them at their desks. I’m really looking forward to seeing the office covered in blue corduroy tomorrow!

I wore the blue jacket for five years (high school plus my freshman year of college, serving as a section president), and pulling it out of my closet this morning brought back a rush of memories.


I remember the very first contest I ever participated in. It was Parliamentary Procedue – the correct way to run a meeting. I was a freshman in high school, had only attended a couple chapter meetings, and I was recruited to serve as the team secretary. We met before and after school for weeks, learning the correct process and determining how we would work together to complete all the necessary motions. We were a well-oiled machine, and we took first place in that event.

That was followed by many, many other contests (or Career Development Events, as they are properly called) over the next four years, some of which we won, some of which we lost, but in all of which we learned something about agriculture, ourselves, and life in general. Rows of shiny pins line the inside of my jacket, awarded for most every activity I participated in. I’ve kept them all.

I credit much of my adult success to my years in 4-H and FFA. The skills I learned from both organizations are things I call upon daily. Public speaking. Record keeping. Developing a plan and carrying it through to completion. Teamwork. Networking. Confidence. Professionalism. All developed while wearing blue corduroy.

In the pockets were various items collected over those years. Programs from banquets. Pens from random hotels and career fairs. A little red arrow, given to me by a good friend for luck before a big election. A few photographs and notes, handwritten in the days before Facebook and texting (now I feel really old… I only predate Facebook by a couple years!).

And that’s where my best memories of FFA lie – in the people I met and remain friends with today.

During my four years of high school, I attended many statewide conferences, contests, and conventions, where I met other FFA members from across the state. Friendships and friendly rivalries developed, and many of those men and women remain my friends today. When I left my small high school (graduating class of 55) for the University of Illinois, I was much less nervous about the transition because I was rooming with several girls I knew from FFA and had FFA friends in many of my classes. And even today, I still run into people at work events who I first met back in high school. Agriculture is a big industry, but truly a small world.

So tonight, I want to say thanks to my trusty blue jacket. Thanks for helping me make so many great memories that will stay with me forever. Thanks for being my suit of armor when I was nervous. Thanks for opening doors to a small town girl and showing me my place in the big, wide, world.

Thanks for helping make me who I am today.



Just a knife?

To you, this knife may not look like much. It may look old, rusty, worn out.

To me, though, it’s so much more.


Look closely and you’ll see the initials “RH” carved into the handle, put there years ago by a man I never met. He was Big C’s great-grandfather, a man he never met either.

I’m not sure how we came to own the knife, but it, like several other pieces of butchering equipment, now belongs to us and is used around this time of year – in fact, just yesterday.

While I certainly enjoy filling my freezer with homegrown pork, days like this satisfy more than just a physical need. They make me feel connected to my family, and agriculture, in a way not much else can.

As I said, we use several pieces of equipment, both large and small, that were used by past generations. Just knowing our grandparents and great-grandparents used the very same tools to do the very same tasks is fascinating to me. It’s also a testament to the quality of the products that were used much more frequently back then because of need, not novelty.

Using a sausage seasoning recipe in my grandpa’s handwriting, that calls for “a little salt,” “a good amount of pepper,” and “sage to taste” makes me think about how he knew exactly what that meant, and makes me wonder if our version tastes like his did.

As I try some freshly-cooked sausage, I think about how it’s truly “farm to fork” and how many farm families were local food before local food was cool. I know the animals we cared for on our farm will help feed not only my family, but families of others as well.

I also think about the fact that butchering is a social activity. There are many jobs to do, but there’s never a shortage of help. Family and friends come together to get the job done and enjoy each other’s company while doing it. While I’m definitely in favor of technology, I do feel that sometimes it causes us to lose the camaraderie of working together for a common goal, something agriculture, and families, are built upon.

So even though it’s old, that knife still has value. It’s still able to be sharpened for use, and a testament to the fact that even though many things have changed and are going to keep changing, there are still valuable lessons to learn from the past.

More or Less

When I became pregnant, I knew motherhood would change me – more or less.

Now that I’ve been a mom for two years, I’ve realized just how much that was true.

I know more about the characters and general storylines of “Sofia the First” and “Doc McStuffins.”

I can survive on less sleep.

We own more pairs of sparkly shoes and choosing which pair to wear on any given day is serious business.

While I still like to look my best, I’ve modified my routine to spend less time getting ready and more time enjoying morning snuggles.

I care less about having an immaculate house and more about whether Little C’s enjoying her books and toys and not being afraid to make a little mess once in awhile. (But let’s be honest, I never cared too much about having a perfectly clean house.)

I think more about spending quality time together, and wonder if the quanitity is enough, too.

Sitting down to a hot meal happens less, after cutting up chicken nuggets and picking up dropped forks and refilling empty milk glasses.

I worry more about the things that matter and less about the things that don’t.

I’ve listened to more renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and the silly made-up songs she invents in the car.

I have more patience…except for the days I have less.

I pray more – for her, for me, for the world in which she’ll live and grow and, hopefully, make a better place.

I appreciate my own parents more. Much, much more.

I’ve fallen more in love watching Big C as a daddy and sharing this journey of parenthood with him.

I spend less money on myself, but I have found many more riches than I ever imagined.

My days are filled with more laughter, more peace, more joy, and more love than I thought possible.

So, has motherhood changed me? More or less.Two Days Old