Celebrate National History Month!

31 01 2011

Today officially kicks off National History Month and there is a lot to celebrate! A few generations back, in 1930, my family could provide for 10 people (according to Crop Life Ambassador Network) and today my dad could feed 130 people (I’m not sure how many cows that equals). However, this month is not just about celebrating where we are today but celebrating where we come from.

I come from Benjaminville, Illinois-founded by my great-great-great grandfather John R. Benjamin. While Benjaminville, known today as Bentown, is an important part of my family’s history-it does not define our history.

My family’s history is defined by their beliefs. Benjaminville was founded as a Quaker Community. Quakers do not believe in war. They also believe in equality for different races and women, even at a time when this was a rarity. Therefore, black people lived in Bentown because they knew they would be treated well. Women were respected leaders within the Quaker church. These are important values that my family has preserved to pass down to me.

My family’s history is defined by kindness. A poor gypsy family buried their son on our land because they could not afford a burial plot at the cemetery. My great-grandfather would adopt an orphan boy from the community. My grandmother would call a widower across the way each morning to keep him company and have him over for Sunday dinner each week.

Ingenuity is also an important part of my agrarian heritage. John R. Benjamin, the founder of Benjaminville-regardless of what Wikipedia says, once got lost coming home in the sea of prairie grass (or perhaps it was just dark). He found his way home by following the familiar bark of his dog and later would plow a “road” to Bloomington, Ill. so that it wouldn’t happen again…. as family legend goes t this was essentially the Oakland Ave. Bloomington knows and loves today. Also, my grandfather was an early adapter of terraces and contour plowing. My dad can remember the USDA hosting a tour from Washington DC to see his farming practices.

And yes, my family even has small claims to fame: John R. hired a German immigrant to work for him and in return gave him a tract of land. One day this land would be farmed by his nephew-George J. Mecherle, founder of State Farm. John R’s brother, Rubin, was given his bar exam (to practice law in Illinois after the family relocated) by none other than Abraham Lincoln! The local history museum states that Rubin Benjamin was instrumental to antitrust legislation that limited the power of railroads. Bentown also was home to a semi-pro baseball player at one time.

This list is just a small cross section of the values and stories that make me proud of my family’s agrarian history. I also posted some of the pictures of the last two generations of Benjaminville. I hope to post other pictures throughout the month as well.

This is a picture of my dad, George Benjamin, in front of our old combine. It might not be the newest or shiniest but it gets the job done and there is something to be said for that. There is also something to be said for worn out blue jeans and dirty shirts that represent a hard days work.

This is our tractor, in the back you can see some of our outbuildings on the original farm. We call the red building pictured the shop building. My brother and I used to explore it to see what family treasures we could find, including an old fashioned horse drawn sleigh!

Two generations of Benjamin siblings at Napa Valley.


A Once Deadly Ice Cream Topping…

27 01 2011

The almond enjoyed today atop ice cream sundaes and amidst trail mix is a far cry from its bitter, fatal roots. The two billion almond industry (I contribute to the Almond Joy sector) of today is made possible by a genetic variation that made domestication of almonds possible. Before domestication, eating only a few dozen of the nuts would be lethal…

The lethal effect is due to the presence of glucoside amygdalin which becomes deadly prussic acid  if the nut is crushed or chewed. And the by-product of prussic acid…. cyanide! Due to the genetic variation the domesticated almond is sweet, instead of bitter, and lacks the ability to produce to the deadly prussic acid. Who knew almond  trees had such a nasty trick up their sleeves branches! Not only does this glucoside amygdalin protect the almond tree from potential predators (including us!) but it also safely attracts pollinating insects and harms potential predators… does anyone else detect a biotech innovation?

The ideal characteristics of the almond are made possible through a single recessive mutation in a gene that blocks the production of amygdalin. The simplicity of the difference between the two means genetic variation amongst wild and domesticated varieties continues today where a handful of individual trees will produce the opposite type of nut.

Almonds have been around awhile now, some 3200 years bp (in case you haven’t heard of bp that means before present and present = the 1950s when carbon dating came in vogue… I learn something new every day!) according to archaeological finds in Numeria, Jordan that included the remains of almond shells alongside other domesticated foods: wheat, barely, and parched grapes.

Almonds were ideal candidates for domestication because a tree is able to grow from the seed alone even before the invention of grafting practices. It’s funny how I am so far removed from horticultural practices that I never think of that as a problem, like people who are far removed from the farm don’t mind if it doesn’t rain hardly at all in the summer.

By domesticating the wild almond a new food source was established that would one day become a major agricultural product (and sundae topping!) we know and love today.

Women Changing the Face of Agriculture… and vice versa

26 01 2011

It’s no secret that women are constantly changing the face of agriculture in a myriad of ways and for me, this statement has always held a certain sentiment. For thirteen years I watched my mom work alongside my dad on the family farm. Most mothers came to pick their kids up from school in business suits with perfectly applied makeup… mine came covered head to toe in dirt, grime and less than perfectly applied sunscreen-and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I can remember riding around with her in the tractor cab sitting on her lunch-box or sprawled across the extremely cramped back window. Like any farmer-wagon-hauling-tractor-driving-mom knows, she would hold my head or warn me whenever a big bump was coming up so my head wouldn’t tap the window accidentally. I always felt extreme pride pulling up to the elevator alongside her, she was my Rosie the Riveter.

But its not just women in the tractor cab that are changing the face of agriculture, many are doing just as much in business suits and perfectly applied makeup. To find out more, attend the  “Women Changing the Face of Agriculture” conference, held March 4th, 2011, at the Bone Student Center – Illinois State University Campus – in Normal from 9:30 to 3:15, with lunch included. This conference showcases just what all women can and are doing for agriculture. Learn more than what careers are available in agriculture, learn what a difference agriculture can make in your life. I know that my farming background has given me an appreciation for my food, clothing and the land and people that provides it. Women don’t just make a difference for agriculture, agriculture makes a difference to us as well.

In lieu of this conference, I wanted to make one more non-makeup reference and suggestion. For those of you who are changing agriculture outside of a 9-5 office environment check out this website. Red Ants Pants is a company devoted to helping chance the… pants of the working women work force. They are specially designed to fit women and put up with the hard work on day to day basis (not to mention they have a great pants-less marketing campaign!).

So here here to all the women who are changing the face of agriculture! And let’s have a special toast to (not that I’m bias or anything) my mom, who showed me the difference that I can make in agriculture too and guiding me towards that noble path.

Here is a picture of my mom and I on a very, very cold Wisconsin weekend trip.

WANTED: Barn Owls

24 01 2011

Has anyone seen the common barn owl recently? If the name “Common Barn Owl” doesn’t register with you, it also goes by: White Owl, Silver Owl, Demon Owl, Ghost Owl, Death Owl, Night Owl, Rat Owl, Church Owl, Cave Owl, Stone Owl, Monkey-faced Owl, Hissing Owl, Hobgoblin or Hobby Owl, Dobby Owl, Golden Owl, Scritch Owl, Screech Owl, Straw Owl, Barnyard Owl and Delicate Owl, as stated by everyone’s favorite encyclodia, wikipedia. My own barn experiences have never included a barn owl and thus my knowledge of the elusive creature was minimal. However, several helpful articles changed all that.

Anna Brendle, for National Geographic news, states that the barn owl does not have the quint essential “hoot,” rather it communicates through raspy screeches and hissing. I figure the whole nocturnal thing would make that characteristic more appealing to barn owners seeking new residents, which is exactly what this species needs. Not to mention the fact that a barn owl’s resume includes pest control! According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division, a single family of two adults and six young can consume more than 1,000 rodents (including detested rats) during a typical three-month nesting period, which is turn means less mice in your pantry or winter clothes storage.
Brendle goes on to say that Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin all consider this animal to be threatened or endangered. The culprit: modernization and urbanization. The Morton buildings mentioned in my previous article devoid the Common Barn Owl of nesting options, forcing it to seek refuge elsewhere. Brendle writes, “In the Florida Everglades, pump houses dotted along the networks of canals that weave through sugarcane fields were long popular as nesting sites. But these pump houses are disappearing now that canal irrigation is automated.” This is an enormous problem considering that these creatures do not construct nests like other birds but are instead dependent on existing resources. A mother will incubate the egg as soon it is laid and those thereafter. Thus, the birth of offspring is staggered, as illustrated in this charming photo provided bt the Sky Hunters Environmental Education website:
If you live in McLean County (Illinois) there are people you can contact to help barn owl offspring like these! The necessary criteria include: wooden buildings like barns or cribs, 2-3 acres of grassland habitat within 1.25 miles of the structure, and a willingness to help! Some articles state that the best option is to put a nesting box on a pole in the middle of a grassland area. Please contact Anna Groves at 630.276.8679/agroves@iwu.edu or Given Harper at 309.556.3056/gharper@iwu.edu for more information about what you can do to help the Common Barn Owl help YOU!
For more information visit the quotes National Geographic article at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/10/1030_021030_BarnOwls.html

Flashback Fridays: Winter Wonderlands

21 01 2011

So I thought Friday was the perfect day of the week to relax the content of this blog and just share some of my personal rural flashbacks (I got the idea from this great blog). Yesterday was a winter wonderland in Central Illinois… and I was one of the lucky few who did not wipe out on the ice. But it got me thinking about some of the times that I had unfortunately fallen on the ice.

There is nothing like ice-booting on a frozen pond with a life jacket on. Ice-booting is the four-year-old version of ice skating where one wears snow boots to slide around on the ice instead of skates. Which makes me wonder what is the smallest size of ice skates one could get? Life jackets are not only a summer necessity but also a winter one in case the ice isn’t thick enough to support you. Luckily, we never had any incidents of falling through the ice but I’m sure my entire extended family looked pretty silly out there on the ice with out life jackets on (better safe than sorry!). Unfortunately, my ice-booting experience never prepared me for ice skating because I am terrible at legitimate ice skating to this day.

My other favorite winter activity is sledding. I still go every single year. Last year was incredible after an ice storm struck and covered our road in two-three inches of ice. To get to the intersection over a mile away (our stretch of road is two miles long) one simply had to put the car in neutral and it would literally slide the whole way there! While it may not be ideal driving conditions, it is ideal sledding conditions! My dad wets down the metal runners of our sled, that is probably older than both of us, and lets the water freeze so we have ice to ice contact. We begin at the top of our short, steep driveway that is perpendicular to the road and try to make the hard turn onto the road keeping up our momentum…. and then continue all the way down the road as far as possible. Our part of Central Illinois doesn’t have amazing hills to sled on so we resort to using the road.

One interesting impact on our sledding has been the installation of wind turbines in the area. They removed the road that couldn’t support the weight of the turbines and put down gravel during the installation process. However, when they repaved the road they leveled it out at some point so our little hill is even less of a hill today. We still make the best out of it though and I can’t wait for all the sledding years (and ice-booting years) ahead of my family and I.


EPA seeks to regulate… dust??

19 01 2011

We are all becoming accustomed to more and more regulations imposed by the government. Some make perfect sense (like no texting and driving, ever.), some are logical but annoying (like no talking on a cell phone in school zones or construction zones), and some are just plain stupid (like in Champaign, IL-home of UofI-one may not pee in his neighbor’s mouth….wondering how that got implemented??).

As ridiculous as that last one was, I can at least see (barely) how one could plea that the act was not aggression and may have slipped through some political loophole… and at least it is trying to prevent an unpleasant situation. But what about dust? It doesn’t exactly top my list of legislation priorities… In fact, one may wonder why it would be placed onto any priority list at all. The EPA feels differently and wants to enforce stricter dust regulations, including fines.

To me, dust is an unavoidable part of life. If its in your home, sure, take care of it… get a swiffer and a feather duster… it its outside, I’m afraid we are all just going to have to deal with it. Am I the only one who gets excited about dust devils? Do we really want to deprive future generations of them?!

But in all seriousness, this is an unnecessary and burdensome regulation. Dust occurs when children play baseball/softball, when cattle run across a dry field, when farmers harvest… the implications could be endless, that is if anyone could take such ridiculous legislation serious. And believe it or not, a number of senators are on the side of production agriculturalists (and little leaguers!).

So I guess I am left with the feeling that if dust can regulated, what will they regulate next… and should I  be worried about how much more ridiculous it will be? Because let’s be honest, it probably will be.

The best memory is that which forgets nothing, but injuries. Write kindness in marble and write injuries in the dust” (Persian Parable). I guess Persian Americans will have to find some other substance to use…. However, I find I am already struggling not to write about this injury to agriculture.

[Share your own comments/concerns bellow!]

Natural and Artificial Wonders

17 01 2011

It never ceases to amaze me how corn can fuel our cars, how one pig can provide for so many piglets, or how a feline can run as fast a car can drive…and the list goes on and on! However, one wonder on my personal list is parthenogenesis. Wondering what in the world this six-syllable word means? I was too. Parthenogenesis is the phenomenon of virgin birth. And here I thought Mary was the only one who didn’t a male to procreate!

Parthenogenesis was discovered (on accident) in turkeys by Olsen and Marsden. Just how many Turkey eggs did they find don’t have to be fertilized to hatch into poults (poult = baby turkey)? Answer: a shocking 14% of Beltsville Small White (BSW) turkeys. Problems with this research: conducted by one scientist on one noncommercial strand of turkey. Today’s research estimates about 4% of broilers are parthenogenic. However, this isn’t a form of reproduction sweeping the poultry world. Most all parthenogenic turkey eggs do not survive past the first three days of incubation because development is unorganized (it has been linked to problems with the imprinting of genes). And because I’m not the expert on this topic, more information on turkey/chicken parthenogenesis can be found here.

Furthermore, it seems animals from other parts of the animal kingdom are even more successful at procreating without males…including some types of fish, several insect varieties, and a handful of frogs/lizards. If you are a scientist, you can make mice successful parthenogenic reproducers too!

For some it is the only method of reproduction and for some parthenogenesis is purely circumstantial. Aphids use it to reproduce rapidly in the spring when food sources are abundant. Komodo dragons refer to this method when sources of males are not abundant…luckily all of their offspring are male which might help future generations of komodo mothers. Also, some species of wasp are forced to reproduce a generation of females in this manner due to a bacterial infection that passes on its own genes through eggs, making male wasps unnecessary and unwanted… at least to the bacteria!

So there you have it, the wonders of nature and what man can do with it is astounding. The same solution benefits species in times of plenty and in times of difficulty. And while there may be a lesson or a solution amongst these facts, one thing is certain: taking males out the equation completely is not always the answer!

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