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Through My

By Danielle McGrew


Family Farms in Southern Illinois 1


Through My Lens: Family Farms in Southern Illinois By Danielle McGrew


Thank you... This book is the result of the combined effort and generosity of many people. A huge thank you to... Mark Dolan, who served as my advisor for this project. His guidance and advice were vital throughout editing, design, and publishing processes. All the families who welcomed me onto their farms to complete this project: the Keysers, the Kitleys, the Lambriches, and the McGrews. Meg Martin and the Office of Research Development and Administration, who awarded me the grant to fund this documentary project. Laurie Bell, Pam Gwaltney, and Ricky Williams, for giving me the confidence and knowledge to apply for the grant to complete this documentary project.

Eric Ginnard, for always being on-call as an InDesign guru.

Jennie Wieseman and Emily Hitchens, my proofreading team.

My family, especially my parents, for supporting me in this and all my endeavors. I love you!


For my father... Who gave me his love of farming And taught me the value of hard work.



basic idea for this project was conceived after watching a segment of photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier’s Driftless: Stories from Iowa multimedia piece. Driftless is about the struggles of rural Iowa in the midst of an “enormous cultural change.” As the graph reads, “The thriving Midwestern family farm is no longer, having been choked by industrialized agriculture and replanted with subdivisions. A shifting economy, combined with an old-fashioned lifestyle that doesn’t translate from generation to generation, is forever altering the landscape.” The ‘Family Farm’ chapter in Frazier’s story focuses on an aging couple’s farm, their severe financial struggles, and the emotional toll of not knowing if one of their nine children would take over the farm. Though the piece is a powerful one that tugs at the heartstrings of a small town farm girl,


the picture painted by the black-and-white photos was a foreign one to me. In southern Illinois, most of our neighbors raised corn and soybeans, with the occasional addition of wheat or milo. These grain farmers were doing well; in fact, as grain prices soared, farmers saw their profits increase accordingly, in stark contrast to the 1980s, when many family farms were foreclosed. Admittedly, these rising grain prices led to problems for those who raise livestock: cattle are generally finished on a diet high in starch and energy, such as corn, because it decreased the amount of time needed to fatten them. Naturally, as the price of grain rose, it became more expensive for farmers to raise livestock. Yes, the high cost of land and seed, chemicals and machinery require a massive amount of capital to begin a farm. Yes, farming is expensive to continue. But this does not always ruin the family

“I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world” -George Washington

farm, though it does change its definition. The ‘family farm’ that exists in the stories of my father’s childhood (or the stories passed down from his father or my mother’s father) of horse-drawn plows, four-row planters, and picking corn by hand no longer can be easily found in rural America. The ‘family farm’ comprised of several generations or a group of siblings’ families is not uncommon. Even when they do not operate under the same business name, every county has its share of well-known ‘farm families.’ This is the landscape on which I grew up: rows of dark green corn yielding golden brown harvests and tiny yellow blossoms giving way to plump red tomatoes. Combines and cows, grain bins and greenhouses, the things I had always thought of as common as a car or camera, were mysteries to many of my friends when I moved to college. Much to my surprise, some had only a

vague idea of where and how food is produced. The combination of these experiences has given me the desire to produce this book. I want to share the simple beauty of rural southern Illinois, to educate those who didn’t grow up on a farm about how we feed the world, and to show the reality of farming in this region: the juxtaposition of technology with the ancient occupation, the hardworking dedication as well as the jack-of-alltrades knowledge necessary to farming, and the pure, simple love these families have for what they do. This isn’t a book about exceptional struggles and hardships, but rather about the ‘typical’ farmer: the average yet extraordinary person who has found his niche in raising grain or cattle. It is true that the number of family farms are decreasing, but they still live on in a beautiful way in these men and women.







lanting processes for both corn and soybeans are very similar. Both involve loading seeds into a planter, which is pulled across the field. Rotating disks dig a small trench in the ground, seeds are dropped through a chute at specified intervals, and wheels push the soil back on top of the planted seeds. Soybeans, as illustrated in this chapter, are generally planted one to one-and-a-half inches deep, depending on the soil moisture level. Rows are usually spaced more narrowly than corn fields, and soybean density should usually be between 150,000 and 175,000 per acre. In contrast, field corn is generally planted approximately two inches deep, depending on the soil, in 30-inch rows, and population density should range between 28,000 to 32,000 plants per acre. Farmers usually practice a technique called


crop rotation, in which they alternate growing corn and soybeans in a field, as corn uses the nitrogen the soybeans put into the soil. After harvest, most farmers will leave the bottom portion of the stalks in the ground, where the roots prevent erosion and water runoff. This is particularly useful with corn, as it has stronger roots. This soil conservation technique may be continued throughout the entire year, and seeds will be planted alongside the last year’s plant remains, called no-till planting. However, some farmers prefer to disk the soil prior to planting, turning the soil and chopping the crop residue from the previous year. In recent decades, seed companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer, and DuPont have made strides in biotechnology and breeding plants for the best possible yields. With more than seven billion people on the planet, this has become more important than ever; the

“When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.� - Daniel Webster

World Summit on Food Security declared in 2009 that by 2050, approximately 70% more food will need to be produced. While technological and biotechnological improvements have led to a steady increase of more than 35 million tons per year, agriculturalists will need to increase production even more. Modifications to achieve this goal include breeding plants at the molecular level to unlock the potential in their own genes. Though the idea of crossbreeding different varieties of plants has been popular for millennia, genetic engineers are now able to work at the molecular level to enhance or suppress certain genes once scientists have been able to determine which markers affect which properties. One popular modification is Roundup-Ready crops, which protects the plant from the herbicide Roundup. This allows the farmer to spray Roundup

after the seeds have been planted to eliminate weeds without harming the crops. Fertilizers are also an important part of helping crops to grow successfully. Many fertilizers are a combination of the nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and may be applied around the same time as planting. Due to time constraints, this process is not illustrated in this book. The most common methods of applying fertilizers are broadcasting, which evenly covers the entire field; placement, which covers bands near the plants; or foliar application, which utilizes a sprayer to cover the plants. Different methods are used depending on the type of crop and fertilizer, as well as the weather. This job may be hired out, or the farmer may choose to apply for a certification to apply them after taking an exam demonstrating knowledge of fertilizer practices.


Joe McGrew watches as he lowers the ends of his McFarlane Reel Disk before disking part of a field. Farmers differ on whether or not disking (tilling) the soil prior to planting raises yields enough to cover the cost of fuel burned during the process, if at all. McGrew is conducting his own experiment by disking part of this field before planting soybeans. Disking utilizes a system of steel blades and rakes that stir the soil and slice crop residue to prepare it for planting. This practice loosens and levels the soil, as well as removes clods, leaving the area flat with the previous year’s residue covering it for mulching and soil conservation purposes.




A planter consists of spinning steel disks that dig a small trench at a specified depth, distribute seeds, and cover the trench in one pass. It can be adjusted to different depths and distances between seeds for certain conditions. The same planter can be used for both corn and soybeans. Here, Joe McGrew fills the holding tanks, called hoppers of his planter with soybeans. These Roundup-Ready seeds will allow the herbicide Roundup to be sprayed after planting for weed control without damaging the soybean plant.


No-till farming has become more popular in recent years. In order to combat soil erosion and water runoff, farmers may opt to leave crop residue in the ground to keep the soil in place. The next year’s seeds are then planted directly over this residue. McGrew is experimenting by disking part of his field and practicing no-till on the rest to determine if there is much difference in the yield.


Soybeans are planted approximately one to one-and-a-half inches deep and about two inches apart. The planter then covers the seeds, but this section was uncovered for illustration purposes.



Mature soybeans wait to be harvested after growing for about four months. These fuzzy pods contain two or three soybeans. Uniquely, soybeans contain all eight amino acids humans need, which is why it has become such a valuable food source. Soybeans may be ground into meal for cattle or used to make oils, tofu, or other food products.


Corn plants, which stand between 7 and 10 feet tall in this region, consist of a stalk with 16 to 22 leaves. Each individual plant contains both the male and female parts necessary for reproduction: the tassel, which is pictured above, and the ear, which is pictured at the right. The tassels release pollen, which fertilizes the silks, illustrated at top right. Each silk is paired with an egg which, when fertilized, develops into a kernel of grain. A single cob may have between 500 and 1000 kernels. The ears are protected by a tight covering of leaves known as the husk. The husks have been shucked from the ears in the photograph opposite to reveal the structure of the mature ears.



Joe McGrew compares a soybean planted the previous day (left) to an unplanted bean (right.) The planted seed has since swelled by absorbing moisture from the soil, a process called imbibition, and a small tendril has sprouted. This is the root, which will shoot downward, forcing the rest of the bean out of the ground. Once it reaches the sunlight, it will begin to produce chlorophyll. This differs from most plants, where the seed germinates underground and sends a stem towards the surface.


Newly sprouted soybean plants stand amid corn residue from the previous year. After about a week, they have emerged and begun photosynthesis. The leaves pictured above are called cotyledons and were originally in the seed; soon, regular leaves will form and the cotyledons will fall off. Now only about an inch tall, the soybean plant will grow to be two to three feet tall with 100 to 150 pods (see following pages.)








arvest is the process by which crops are removed from the field and the grain is separated from the rest of the plant, which is done using a combine to prepare grain to be sold. The machine found its name due to its ability to combine reaping, threshing, and winnowing, or cleaning. The combine was invented in 1834 by MichiganWisconsin inventor Hiram Moore. Patented in 1836, the machine was pulled by a team of sixteen to twenty horses. A story written by James Fenimore Cooper, who witnessed the machine at work, explained how the grain was cut and separated before the clean grain fell into a bag hanging under a bin. Men followed alongside the combine with a wagon to switch out the full bags


for empty ones. It was able to cut a swath 4.6 meters in width. Inventions to facilitate harvest continued throughout the decades, including Cyrus McCormick’s horse-drawn mechanical reaper, patented in 1834. In 1918, the small prairie-type combine with an auxiliary engine was introduced. This allowed the combine to be pulled behind a steam-powered tractor or horses and was powered by a separate steam engine. However, more common than these was a stationary threshing machine powered by steam. The grain would be reaped by hand and brought to the thresher, which separated the grain from the stalks and chaff with machine cylinders. It could either have an

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. –Thomas Jefferson

elevator to deposit the grain into a wagon, or simply let the grain be deposited into bags. The leftover straw was blown out the rear of the machine to create a haystack. Today, harvest season is much different. However, the basic steps remain the same: reap, thresh, winnow. The process is detailed throughout the chapter. After grain has been harvested, it is either sold immediately or stored to be sold at a later time. The price is determined by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which includes commodities such as food, fiber, cotton, and coffee. Much of the grain for the world is traded through the Exchange, usually by way of contracts stating that a certain amount of a commodity will be sold at a point in the future. Farmers may haul their own grain to an elevator,

where grain is weighed and purchased, or they may hire a trucker. While some farmers haul in grain trucks, others acquire a commercial driver’s license in order to haul grain in a semi truck without hiring a trucker. Grain is measured in bushels to be sold. Originally equalling eight dry gallons, bushels are now determined by weight. For soybeans, a bushel equals 60 pounds, and 56 pounds equals one bushel of corn. How much grain this requires depends on the size of the kernels, but also the moisture content. For this reason, farmers prefer to harvest grain before it is too dry; however, it cannot have a high moisture content, because heaters and fans must be used to dry the grain in order to prevent rotting.


A corn head, which is attached to the combine, harvests ears of corn with the use of gathering chains and snapping rollers, which pull the stalks into the head, forcing the ears to snap from the stalk. They are then brought to a cross auger set horizontally to the corn head and transported to the feeder house chain. The grain eventually enters the combine to be cleaned.


Modern combines use hydraulic power to raise or lower the head and other parts as needed. A combine has multiple gears and controllers for the head, inner workings, and auger. Most modern combines are driven by hydrostatic transmission, allowing a virtually infinite choice of speeds.


Unlike a corn head, a bean head consists of a reel and cutter bar. The reel gently sweeps the bean stalks toward the cutter bar. Beneath the cutter bar are sensors that maintain a constant cutting height.


After being cut, an auger transports the crop to a threshing cylinder. The plant material is condensed into a smaller area the width of the cylinder. Bars on the rapidly rotating cylinder rub the stalks, forcing the grain out, where it then falls through a grate and begins the cleaning process using uplifting air and varying widths of sieve openings. The air pressure is maintained so that lighter material, such as the plant stalks, float while the heavier grain falls through the sieves. The top sieve does the majority of the cleaning, while the lower sieve completes the process, resulting in a relatively clean grain sample.


After threshing and cleaning, the grain is transported to a holding tank called a hopper. At this point, only the grain remains.

Unwanted material, called chaff, is expelled from the back of the combine via a conveyor known as a straw walker. The chaff can be used for hay bales or left on the ground to decompose.


Bill Wilkin of Mt. Erie types a message on his BlackBerry to employer Greg Keyser, for whom Wilkin has worked for ten years. Improvements in technology have been implemented in various ways on family farms, including replacing Citizns Band radio (or CB radio) units with cell phones for communication. Bill Kitley’s CommandCenter display offers productivity data such as the yield and moisture content, as well as diagnostics if a problem occurs.



Harvesting is not as simple as driving a combine through a field, letting the machine do all the work. Sometimes Mother Nature— wind, in this case— complicates the process. A summer windstorm resulted in areas of downed corn, forcing Joe McGrew to manually assist his combine in the harvesting process, as the machine could not gather the stalks laying on the ground. 37

Bill Kitley examines the bean head of his combine. During harvest, the header encountered a dense mud clod, which broke off several fingers used to pull the plant material into the thresher. Without replacement parts, Kitley was forced to quit harvesting that day, as the local tractor supply store was out of stock.


A mass of plant material and soil is pulled from Kitley’s bean head after detaching it from the combine.


Grain is unloaded from the hopper into a wagon via an auger. Usually folded against the side of the combine, the auger can be swung out and positioned for this purpose.


Joe McGrew grins after harvesting two wagons of corn. His wife, Barbara, will drive the tractor pulling the wagons to their grain bins.


Soybeans are unloaded into a semi owned by Austin Lambrich, who hauls grain for Greg Keyser. Most semi trucks hold about 850 bushels of grain.


Lambrich rolls the cover over the top of his semi truck before departing to haul the soybeans to the local elevator.


Bill Kitley pours soybeans into a moisture tester, resulting in a reading of 9.6 percent moisture content. An optimum reading would have been between 12 to 14 percent. Grain stores longer when at a lower moisture level, but farmers avoid overdry grain because the lost weight results in a lower income, as they are paid by the weight of grain.


Joe McGrew tests corn in a handheld moisture tester. For corn, the ideal content is between 13.5 and 14.5 percent. This reading of 20.8 indicated McGrew will have to dry the grain using an LP gas heater and drying fans. Different types of dryers have drastically different time frames in which they can dry grain. McGrew’s setup will take a few days, depending on weather conditions and the grain bin’s fullness.


Bill Kitley gets out of his semi truck after parking it to unload beans.

Beans fall from the semi truck hopper to the auger underneath before being transported via auger to the grain bin (right.)



Joe McGrew checks to ensure the auger is aimed at the grain bin as he prepares to unload corn into the storage unit. McGrew uses a 1974 Oliver tractor 48 to power his auger.


Austin Lambrich drives his semi truck full of Keyer’s grain to a nearby elevator to be sold.


Lambrich releases the gate of a hopper-bottom trailer, allowing the soybeans to flow out into a pit to be moved via auger to a larger grain bin. The truck is weighed before and after unloading to determine the weight of the grain. The farmer is paid per bushel, a unit of measurement that equals 60 pounds of beans. Bushel measurements vary by grain type.

Lambrich holds a receipt as he chats with workers in the office of the grain elevator. Grain prices, like stocks, change continuously throughout the day, and they are determined by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Farmers have the option of hauling grain to the elevator and selling it for the price offered at that time or calling the elevator and selling a certain amount of grain, arranging for delivery. A contract is then mailed to the farmer, stating how many bushels have been sold for that price; grain can be priced months or even years in advance. Grain can also be stored at the elevator for a fee and sold later.






here are different aspects of raising cattle: breeding and raising, milk production and beef production, and not all are illustrated in this book. Dairy farms are not common in southeastern Illinois, so the focus is instead on cattle raised for meat. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 35% of farms are beef cattle operations, a higher percentage than any other type of farm operation. Since cattle have multiple stomachs, they are able to digest food sources that humans and most other animals cannot. Their value lies in the fact they convert their food sources into protein-rich meat for human consumption. Cattle rations should include high-fiber roughages— such as grass, hay, and straw— as well


as high-protein/high-nutrient concentrates, such as grains, soybean meal, or wheat bran. Cattle of different ages have different nutritional needs, so they are often separated according to their ration. For example, calves, heifers pregnant with their first calf, and lactating cows should be given the highest-quality roughages. Finishing cattle are given a high-protein ration as they are prepared to be sold to market, Cattle are hardy animals that do not need special shelter, except for weaned calves and cows that are calving (giving birth) during the winter months. Even then, an open shed suffices to provide the necessary shelter. When a calf is born, it weights between 60 and

“Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.” -Thomas Jefferson

100 pounds. After six to 10 months of consuming its mother’s milk, the calf is separated from its mother and begins eating roughages. At this stage, the calf is 450 to 700 pounds. It will spend the next three to nine months grazing and maturing. Throughout this phase, known as the stocker phase, cattle are generally sold at auctions, leaving only about a third of the original stock’s heifers at the farm to breed. The majority of cattle are moved to a feedyard, as illustrated in this chapter by Austin Lambrich’s farm. Here, their rations are carefully managed to gain weight and produce quality beef. After four to six months, they should weigh between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds and are sent to a processing facility.

To ensure the health and safety of both the other cattle and those working with them, horned breeds of cattle are dehorned and cattle are often given vaccinations. Male calves are castrated; this is necessary to produce meat that satisfies USDA requirements. Cattle, along with other types of livestock, are sometimes exhibited at livestock shows, ranging from the North American International Livestock Exposition in Lousiville, Ky., to small county fairs in which 4-H youth and local farmers show their best livestock examples. Livestock are judged according to the breed standards. This gives breeders the opportunity to see how their stock compare to others’, as well as lets attendees view trends.



Cattle rest, walk, and eat in their pen at Austin Lambrich’s feedlot in Mt. Erie. 57

Austin Lambrich scoops a handful of corn skin, an ethanol by-product, which is mixed with ground corn leftover from Azteca tortilla production and rice. The cattle consume three semi truck loads each week. By using by-products such as these, Lambrich is able to strike a balance between keeping his costs low while still providing his cattle with a balanced ration. He gets cattle from across the US to grow and finish before selling them.


High-fiber roughages such as hay or silage are fed especially to young cattle, who need to grow at a slower rate so their frame can develop. Once cattle have completed that early growth stage, they are fed a higher protein diet to gain weight, called finishing. Their rations must be carefully balanced to include all the necessary nutrients.



Bill Kitley cares for his grandson’s prizewinning Gelbvieh by checking its food and water supply. Unlike most of his beef cattle, who spend their days in the pasture, show cattle are kept in a barn before the 61 exhibitions.


evolution of farming has certainly changed the way food is planted, grown, and harvested, but it certainly does not change its importance, both to the consumers and the producers. One American farmer, on average, feeds 150 people, and this does not include other uses for corn and soybeans, such as biofuel, plastics, inks, or any of the innovative new ideas for grain use. I remember the stories my father told me from his father’s childhood on the farm, when red top was grown and harvested to feed cattle. My grandfather would spend the long summer days working to harvest and thresh the grass with a


steam-powered thresher. His family raised animals and were effectively subsistence farmers, raising almost all their own food. The Green Revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s changed the scene as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and specially bred grain varieties allowed for increased yields to feed a rapidly growing world population. The farming scene­— both how grain is produced and how farms are structured— continues to evolve with technology and economic changes, and it still thrives in a unique way. I recall the FFA Creed that I once recited at events throughout my high school years. The Creed was written and adopted in 1930, yet it rings just as true today:

A lone sunflower still faces the sun in Dave Burt’s field in Flora near harvest time. I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds— achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years. I believe that to live and work on a good farm, or to be engaged in other agricultural pursuits, is pleasant as well as challenging; for I know the joys and discomforts of agricultural life and hold an inborn fondness for those associations which, even in hours of discouragement, I cannot deny. I believe in leadership from ourselves and respect from others. I believe in my own ability to work efficiently and think clearly, with such knowledge and

skill as I can secure, and in the ability of progressive agriculturists to serve our own and the public interest in producing and marketing the product of our toil. I believe in less dependence on begging and more power in bargaining; in the life abundant and enough honest wealth to help make it so--for others as well as myself; in less need for charity and more of it when needed; in being happy myself and playing square with those whose happiness depends upon me. I believe that American agriculture can and will hold true to the best traditions of our national life and that I can exert an influence in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task. -By E.M. Tiffany


Greg Keyser watches as hired man Bill Wilkin harvests soybeans 64 on his Mt. Erie farm.


Sources Adams County Extension. (2008, August 08). Raising livestock. Retrieved from http://www.colostate.edu/Dept/ CoopExt/Adams/sa/livestock.htm Cattlemen’s Beef Board. (2010). Raising cattle for beef production and beef safety. Retrieved from http://www. explorebeef.org/raisingbeef.aspx.htm Diwarkar. (2004, August 30). Methods of application of fertilizers. Retrieved from http://vasat.icrisat.org/crops/ MN/OrganicFAQs/appli_fertilizer.htm Farnham, D. (n.d.). Corn planting guide. Retrieved from www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1885.pdf Illinois Soybean Association. (n.d.). Production tips. Retrieved from http://www.ilsoy.org/index.cfm?pageID=265 Nasoya. (n.d.). Soy bits. Retrieved from http://www.nasoya.com/nasoya-chat/soy-bits.html National Soybean Research Laboratory. (2012, May 25). About soy: Soybean production. Retrieved from http:// www.nsrl.uiuc.edu/aboutsoy/production02.html Shurtleff, W., & Aoyagi, A. (2007). The soybean plant: Botany, nomenclature, taxonomy, domestication, and dis semination. Retrieved from http://www.soyinfocenter.com Tester, M., & Langridge, P. (2010). Breeding technologies to increase crop production in a changing world. Science, 327(5967), 818-822. doi: 10.1126/science.1183700 Voosen, P. (2009, December 21). Molecular breeding makes crops hardier and more nutritious. Scientific Americ can, Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=molecular-breeding-crops-genetics- rice-soy-corn-wheat Interview subjects: Joe McGrew, Bill Kitley, Greg Keyser, and Austin Lambrich.



Profile for Danielle McGrew

Though my Lens: Family Farms in Southern Illinois  

by Danielle McGrew © 2012

Though my Lens: Family Farms in Southern Illinois  

by Danielle McGrew © 2012


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