This past Saturday, I spent a beautiful fall day in the Indiana countryside. There were a lot of pigs; a lot of cows; well-designed exhibits as impressive as a museum, I kid you not; several info-packed lectures; delicious, locally grown food; horses (I rode my first!); and, mostly, very kind, very passionate people who have made farming their livelihood, their enjoyment, their pastime and who could not have been more gracious.
When we arrived in Indiana, to an area just a short 75-minute drive from Chicago, our first stop was the Belstra Family Pig Farm, which is fitting, given that this whole thing was made possible for me by the National Pork Board. They sent me, with my friend Alicia, to join the ChicaGourmets group that was going Saturday.
So at the pig farm: we hopped on tractor-pulled hayrides that looped around the barns, stopping at spots for us to see pigs milling around, a nursery with babies eating, sow stalls where the artificial insemination is done (yes, we watched it happen). Malcolm DeKryger, vice president of Belstra Milling/Belstra Group pig production, was the leader on my ride, explaining how workers have to shower before even entering the barns and how animal waste is filtered out into pools in back, repurposed into fertilizer, and how much he absolutely loves this whole life of farming.
All this, despite the fact that media treatment of “swine flu” hurt the pork industry terribly (25%/$1 million loss, at this farm alone). And pigs were only the beginning.
Next was a quick ride down the street to Fair Oaks Farms, one of the largest dairies in the country, which is owned by five families, including Dr. Mike and Sue McCloskey. Mike talked about the dairy industry while we ate grilled cheese sandwiches made with cheese from their own dairy, and then continued as he guided us through exhibits like a 4-D movie and a simulated forest with interactive features, showing what Indiana land originally looked like. (I am telling you, this place would be such a cool field trip for kids.)
Like Malcolm, Mike had an obvious passion for farming — in the space of a few hours, he lectured, took us through the milking parlor where cows come three times a day to be milked, helped deliver a calf in the birthing barn (yes, I watched this, too), rode horses (and helped me get on one for the first time) and talked about other farms he owns in Oregon and Wisconsin.
In fact, everywhere we went, with everyone we talked to at the different farms, there’s this strong sense of pride you see in the people — they are invested, physically and mentally and emotionally, in both the way they are doing business and the products they are putting out. Visiting there totally changes the way you see your food and the respect you have for those making it.
Did you know something like less than 1.5% of the world’s population is involved in its agriculture? I think that’s crazy.
Oh and it’s about time I told you all we ate! No photos of the grilled cheese — let’s just say touring farms makes you hungry, and you eat fast!
But above is part of our taco feast, and below is my ohmygoshsogood ice cream and flourless chocolate tart. We also enjoyed lots of cheese and crackers, amazing smoked salmon made in an on-site smoke house and fresh vegetables from one of the organic gardens.
Also, for what it’s worth, having visited these farms, I am newly convinced that the Midwest has something to offer the rest of the country, and you know I questioned that. Big thanks to the Pork Board, big thanks to the inspiring farmers who hosted us but mostly, big thanks to you, for stopping over here and reading sometimes, sitting down at the table and eating with me, enough to make people besides me notice that you’re people worth reaching.
About Shanna Mallon
Shanna holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her mantra? Restoring order and celebrating beauty through creative content, photography, and food. Shanna's work has been featured in Bon Appetit, The Kitchn, MSN.com, Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Houzz.com, Food News Journal, Food52, Zeit Magazine, Chew the World, Mom.me, Babble, Delish.com, Parade, Foodista, Entrepreneur and Ragan PR.