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Farm Moms Discuss Hot-Button Issues

Lisa Prater Updated: 05/22/2014 @ 3:00pm

This week, a group of five regional and national winners of Monsanto's "America's Farmers Mom of the Year" award visited Successful Farming magazine's headquarters in Des Moines. The moms talked with our editors about many issues affecting them and their farms, and also took part in a round-table discussion with food editors from other Meredith publications, including Better Homes & Gardens. They explained the farm-to-table process, and touched on hot-button issues like GMOs and animal welfare.

Being a woman in ag

Debbie Lyons-Blythe and her family live on the Kansas cattle ranch her husband's family homesteaded. She has been blogging about her farm and family since 2009, and was named the 2012 National Farm Mom of the Year. When it comes to gender roles on the ranch, she says, "It really doesn't matter if you're a guy or a gal. In our world, the cows still need fed."

DeeDee Darden is the 2012 Southeast Region Farm Mom. She and her husband raise cattle and grow peanuts, cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans, and pumpkins on their Tennessee farm. They also run a country store where they cure and sell hams, and they welcome school children to their farm for educational tours. Darden is very involved in the community, and says, "You can learn a lot more about farming on the fence row than you can in the field. That means get involved and talk to people."

Tackling the GMO issue

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are definitely a hot-button issue, and one that many farmers feel is misunderstood by consumers.

"Do your homework," Darden advises. "GMOs are an advancement in technology, like a smartphone or an iPad. I can't imagine farming without them. Without GMOs, we would starve to death as a nation."

Kristen Nickerson is the 2014 Northeast Region Winner. She is a sixth-generation farmer, and works with her brother and sister on their Maryland grain and swine operation. "Farmers are scientists at heart," she says. "That's what makes us feel so comfortable growing GMO foods."

"I'm feeding my kids the same thing I'm growing. I'm very confident," Lyons-Blythe says. "It's all about choices. For certain fields, I appreciate being able to grow alfalfa I can spray to kill all the weeds."

Sarah Peterson is the 2012 Northeast Region Winner. She and her family grow corn and soybeans and raise cattle on their farm in southwest Michigan. "I think of GMOs as protection for the consumer," she says. "If a disease or pest comes along, the food supply is secure. They also lower the cost of food because we can produce more food per acre. The more food we can get off a set amount of land means kids and parents trying to feed them have an easier time of it. And it's good, wholesome food."

In July of 2012, Peterson's soybean crop was so affected by drought that she says the plants looked like you could just blow on them and they would disintegrate. They finally got rain in August, and the plants came back and produced 30 bushels per acre. "That happened because we had planted GMO drought-tolerant soybeans," she says.

No matter how much research is presented, some consumers will never feel comfortable with the idea of GMOs, Lyons-Blythe says. "I do think there's a market for organics and natural foods," she says. "I'm not against it at all, but it's going to be higher priced."

The business of farming

Carol Cowan is the 2010 National Farm Mom of the Year. She and her family raise cattle and grow wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, and some corn on their Oklahoma farm. She says many consumers don't understand the expenses farmers must take on in order to produce food. "Our biggest expense is machinery," she says. "One combine costs between $250,000 and $300,000, and we run three or four combines for two to three weeks a year. They sit in the barn the rest of the year. But when you need a piece of machinery, you've got to have it." The fuel to run those combines and tractors is also a major expense. Everyday consumers feel the pinch at the gas pump, but farmers spending $1,000 to fill up a combine really feel it, she says.

Peterson says her farm's highest expenses are labor, machinery repair, seed, and fertilizer. "People ask me what color of machinery we use," she says. "My favorite color is rust because that means it's paid for."

Conservation ties closely with the business of farming, and farmers must be conservationists if they want to stay in business. "Protecting the land is the number one thing we need to do to continue farming," Nickerson says. "They don't make any more of it, and it's getting eaten up by development."

Animal welfare

Taking good care of livestock means better financial returns, but the farm moms say it's more than that to them, and to most farmers, despite what some smear campaigns try to tell the public.

"The animals on my farm are my number one priority. They aren't a dollar sign," Nickerson says. "I take care of them because I care about them."

Peterson agrees. "I wish the public could see my father-in-law and brother-in-law on their hands and knees doing everything they can to save a calf," she says. "It's not because that one calf means that much money to our operation. It's because they care."

Photo by Jason Donnelly. From left: Nickerson, Darden, Cowan, Lyons-Blythe, and Peterson discuss agricultural issues with editors at Meredith Corporation.

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