Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Illinois Harvest Dinner 2017


Hey, blog's been a while.

A lot has happened, and maybe some day I'll get into all that, but today is not that day. Because last week, I attended an amazing event, and I have to share all about it!

Somehow, in the vast sea of karma that I ride in life, I have been blessed with the opportunity to get to know people in many areas of the food industry, and in particular, farmers. One of those people that I am so thankful to have gotten to know better, Mary Faber, a dairy and grain farmer in central Illinois, invited me to attend the Illinois Harvest Dinner last week. The Illinois Harvest Dinner is a fantastic event that brings together crop and animal farmers, food industry workers, people in the health industry, educators, government officials, and consumers and invites them to have an open and free-flowing discussion about, well, whatever the night brings up.

The Pratt family, a family who grows corn and soybeans in north central Illinois, opened up their farm for this event to be held, and there couldn't have been a more perfect setting.

We enjoyed appetizers that were served to us out in the yard, as two gorgeous cows grazed peacefully right next to us. The skeleton of a new building being constructed set a backdrop, as did the corn field and the surrounding equipment, which we were encouraged to explore.

The food for the event was catered by Cracked Pepper, a catering company out of Peoria, Illinois (which happens to be the area in which I now I said, stories for another day), and was focused on showcasing the delicious local foods that we have available to us here in the Midwest. I was drawn in by the cheeses, of course, but I fell in love with a blueberry dried cherry chutney and these amazing ground corn crackers made by the chef. Not to mention the platters of local veggies, which included pickled beans, beets, and fire roasted shishito peppers. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that an appetizer of a chicken salad was topped with one of my family's favorite garden oddities, ground cherries! 

We were invited to help ourselves to a selection of Prairie Farms beverages, which made me smile because Mary's family's farm produces milk for Prairie Farms. In fact, my kids get a kick out of looking for the number code on milk bottles in the store that signifies that it comes from the Peoria packaging facility where their milk is sent. There was milk of all sorts, along with lemonade, iced tea, beer, and water. There was also a great selection of wines, all from local wineries here in Illinois. For those of you who scoff at the idea that Illinois could have good wine, I would happily challenge you on that, but that's a whole different post as well.

As guests of the dinner, we were permitted to climb up in the combine and tractors, explore inside the grain bins, and absorb all the information that the subtly placed signs provided about local agriculture and our food system. I feel like I'm generally well-educated about local agriculture, but I'm always finding new surprises, like the fact that Illinois is one of the world's largest sources of horseradish!

There were several young people circulating to also help build discussion. Members of the Future Farmers of America were doing a great job of leading guests in and then answering questions about the displays or agriculture in general. I had a nice discussion with an Illinois FFA student leader about her plans for college and her hopes to be the future of her family's farm in the coming years. The Pratt family kids were also on hand, and I was especially impressed with how their daughter, who is, I believe, only 10, was able to tell us all about popcorn. Different types, what they're used for, how it differs from other types of corn, and more. You see, on their farm, the kids help to grow, harvest, dry, strip, package, take to market, and sell the popcorn, and they get to keep some of the profits in their own accounts, so they have a real invested interest in the popcorn. I think it's a fantastic way to build responsibility at a young age, and everyone listening was impressed with her enthusiasm and ease of speaking with a large group of adults. She even told us about broom corn and how it used to be used as actual brooms, and then walked guests back to the field where they could see it growing.

As the sun dropped lower in the sky and the night started to take on an early fall-like chill, we were gathered to the tables for dinner. 

Each table had a reserved chair for a featured farmer, but then guests were invited to sit wherever they'd like. My table's featured farmer was Dr. Lynda Gould, a veterinarian, whose family I had met a couple of years back on a trip to their hog farm with Illinois Farm Families and the City Moms. Also sitting at my table were a pair of professors from Northern Illinois University who taught and studied in areas of nutrition and health, and a husband and wife farming couple from northern Illinois. 

There was a short introduction of the chefs and the hosts of the event, and a quick thank you for attending, but after that, we were allowed complete freedom in wherever the conversations at our tables took us. As we enjoyed the delicious dinner, we talked about everything from kids to gardening tips to nutritional issues facing Americans to recipes to the way the media changes the way food is presented and produced. I really wish that everyone had the opportunity to have such great conversations with the people involved in putting food on our tables.

And really, the conversations need to be happening more, all over, not just at events like this one. Food is something that is in our lives several times every day. It's unavoidable, yet so many people don't really think about how it is made, or what it goes through before it gets to them, and they don't really know anything about the people who help get it to them. It's not hard to start these conversations. Farmers are more than happy to talk about what they do, even invite you into their operations so that you can really get a feel for what they do. You can talk to farmers at your local farmers markets, or use social media to connect with farms of products that you enjoy or are curious about. Contact your local farm bureau (really, they are all over, even if you don't think that you live by farms). Once you start looking for opportunities to connect with people, I'm betting that you will find them more and more easy to discover.

As night wound down on the Illinois Farm Dinner, guests helped themselves to a sundae bar provided by Culvers, and the evening was crowned with a full moon rising up over the fields to light our ways home. It was one of those times where I was fully immersed in how amazing the world and life can be, and I'll be honest, I didn't take as many pictures as I normally would, because I was completely in the moment.

Many thanks to Mary Faber and Katie Pratt for putting on this wonderful event, for opening up your farms and your lives to us, and for providing this forum for people to openly communicate about what's going on with our food. I hope that many, many others will follow your lead.

New recipes on the blog will be coming soon, I hope, and you can keep up with me on social media on FacebookPinterest, Instagram and Twitter

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