Working with Illinois Farm Families

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By Emily Paster

Today I am announcing a new partnership on West of the Loop with Illinois Farm Families.

I have had many fun and enriching experiences as a result of writing this blog.  One of the best has been the chance to meet and connect with farmers and people who work in agriculture. As someone who grew up in a city and has spent her whole life in urban and suburban areas, I used to know very little about how my food was produced. But as my interest in cooking grew, I naturally began to take an interest in where the ingredients I used came from.  I began to read and seek out information on issues relating to food, like organic versus conventional farming, antibiotic use in livestock and the environmental impact of farming. Like so many others, I was overwhelmed and confused by the contradictory information I found in the media.

Through blogging, I have had opportunities that most urban and suburban consumers do not. I have been able to tour farms and put my questions about how my food is produced directly to the men and women who produce it. I have also had a chance to represent the concerned consumer at agriculture industry events and be part of an honest and productive dialogue between consumers and producers. These experiences have permanently changed the way I feel about food production in this country and I am grateful for them.  There is no substitute for seeing what is happening on the farm and talking to the people who make their living on the land, especially when there is so much conflicting information in the media about food safety, animal welfare and other important issues.

For several years now, I have worked with Illinois Farm Families to help raise awareness about the organization and its Field Moms program. Illinois Farm Families is a joint effort between the Illinois Farm Bureau, the Illinois Beef Association, the Illinois Pork Producers, the Illinois Soybean Association, the Midwest Dairy Association and the Illinois Corn Marketing Board intended to connect agricultural producers in Illinois to their consumers. As part of this effort, in 2011, Illinois Farm Families created a program designed to give Chicago-area parents an opportunity to visit family-owned Illinois farms — some big, some small — and ask their toughest questions of the farmers themselves. The Field Moms program, as it was called, enabled a group of urban and suburban moms to take trips to different kinds of farms to speak to the farmers and other people who work in agriculture. The Field Moms then shared their experiences through social media, print and video as a way to allow other parents who were not part of the program to participate. I even got to go on one of the trips and it was a fun and informative experience. The Field Moms program continues today and Illinois Farm Families is seeking applicants for the 2014 program.

I will be very candid with you: I have been criticized by readers and others for working with Illinois Farm Families. These critics say that I am espousing the party line of conventional agriculture. How can I, a food blogger who loves the farmers' market and small artisanal food producers, do such a thing, they ask.  Conventional agriculture or "big agriculture" as it is sometimes called, is often demonized in the press for emphasizing technology over safety or profits over sustainability. While I still have many questions and concerns about how most food is produced in this country, I do not believe that it is productive to demonize anyone. I especially do not find it productive to demonize the men and women who own and work on farms in Illinois – people who work very hard in a challenging profession and who take very seriously their responsibility to feed this country.

What I want most, as a consumer and a blogger, is to understand the complex issues around food production in America. I want to know what food tastes the best, what is the safest way to produce food, what kind of farming is best for the planet, how we can make healthy food affordable for all, and how we can raise food in an ethical manner. For years, I have been struggling to find the answers to these questions. I have sought to strike a balance between issues of taste, nutrition, price and ethics that works for my family. But I know perfectly well that the balance I strike is not the same as the balance that another parent would strike. And I respect that.

I am quite sure that the people at Illinois Farm Families and I do not see eye-to-eye on every issue regarding food production. But we both want the same thing: to create a dialogue between the producer and the consumer in the hope of having a candid, productive, and realistic discussion about the issues surrounding farming and food production.  That is why I will be serving as a Brand Ambassador for Illinois Farm Families in the coming months. Through this partnership, I hope to bring my readers reliable, trustworthy information that addresses their questions and concerns about how our food is raised. I can assure you that I will not espouse anyone's party line but I will continue to ask tough questions — my own or ones that you give me — and draw my own conclusions.

Full disclosure time: In my role as a Brand Ambassador for Illinois Farm Families, I am being compensated for my time and writing. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

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