Saturday, October 24, 2015

Down Syndrome Awareness Month!

During one of Alaina's Target shoots, one of the employees was trying to get different expressions out of her by asking her questions. She was asking about her brother and sister, how old she was, etc. At one point, she started asking about letters and colors. As she was answering the woman, I overheard the photographer remark several times how surprised he was that she knew the color red. The letter T. That she knew what sound T made and that tractor started with T. This in no way reflects on Target or their commitment to using diversity in their advertising. I know this person's comments were harmless, but I was still taken aback that he didn't expect my almost 7 year old, soon to be 1st grader, to know colors or letters or the sounds they make. Really? Is that the perception he has of children with Down syndrome? I have had tons of different thoughts swirling around in my head about this since that day. I wonder if that interaction with her will change his thoughts on other children with Down syndrome in the future.

Alaina did turn 7 a month ago. To say I'm a different person - and keep changing - as each day, month and year with her in our lives goes by, is an understatement. We're always learning, trying, doing and adjusting.

October is Down Syndrome Awareness month. All month long, I have seen post after post in my newsfeed that show pictures, facts, figures, stories and videos of people with Down syndrome doing extraordinary, and also every day, things. Most of these things make my heart feel warm, some make me tear up and some make me smile.

I used to do that. I used to share about everything I came across because I felt I was doing a service to Alaina to make sure people saw what all these other children and adults were doing and accomplishing. But I've backed off considerably.....and I have almost purposefully avoided more than a post or two about it so far this month, even though I know it is important. I can't quite put my finger on why.

I feel like I shouldn't have to convince people that Alaina's life with worth living. I shouldn't have to tell people what she might be capable of, or what she struggles with, all the time. I don't want people to like my daughter because of her diagnosis - she's not anyone's mascot. I don't want people to say "those children are always so happy and smiling." I widely swing back and forth between loving and hating all the stories of young women and men becoming homecoming queen or king, or prom king or queen. Why is this news any more? If these kids truly believe their friend is deserving of being queen or king, why does it always need to be viral nation wide news? Who is that attention truly for? I am NOT saying that these kids don't have the absolute very best of intentions in their hearts, love their classmates, and appreciate the perspective they have brought to so many lives, but the more we keep making this big news, the more it continues to be an "out of the ordinary" thing.

Alaina was chosen to be 1st grad attendant for homecoming. I'm glad it was never mentioned it was because she has Down syndrome. It was just because she's Alaina!

So how do I raise awareness and acceptance? I feel like the best way to help Alaina and other kids and adults with Down syndrome is to share ALAINA with the world. Not the facts and figures, or how people should treat someone with Down syndrome. I share that my daughter, despite her challenges, is reading. And rocking spelling tests. And wanting to have friends over for birthday parties.

Just a couple of her friends she was so excited to invite to her birthday party!

And if I'm going to share Alaina with the world, I'm also not going to sugar coat what life can be like. My daughter is many, many times more likely to develop leukemia than a typically developing child is. We do our blood counts every year - and even though the thought crosses my mind often - waiting for those results feels like torture - life can change unexpectedly in an instant. Alaina was almost 7 before we accomplished toilet training...and we still have struggles with it. Every time we go somewhere I have to think through an entire trip, packing extra clothes, planning bathroom stops. Can we really plan on being somewhere late? She gets tired and overstimulated easily. Will somewhere be too loud or too much for her? She gets very quiet, withdraws, and sometimes very upset when she can't take the noise or is uncomfortable. Is this the end of the world? No. But it is upsetting to her. Do we go or make her stay somewhere where she is genuinely uncomfortable or nervous?

It is such a slippery slope to me - this advocating thing. If someone is talking to Alaina or myself and calls her a Downs child....I often freeze. What do I do? This is obviously not the people first language we prefer to hear. She is not a Downs child...she just a child. Who has Down syndrome. But I don't want to be preachy and unapproachable. Does that mean that I let A LOT of things go that I hear people say? Absolutely. To me it's about picking my battles. Do I focus my energy on my daughter or on changing everyone else? It's a balance thing for sure. If I never speak up and say something, it will never change. But I also can't go around being the PC police and demanding things of people. Some people will never change and the fact of the matter is, for most, their language is not meant to be offensive. I have had to put a lot of perspective on that. Is it better to not always jump in and correct someone and give them the chance to get to know Alaina? If I promptly correct their language...will that end the interaction? Sometimes I think it does create a wall. But staying silent and allowing them to know her will incite REAL change. Real change inside someone - instead of just correcting language. All is important, but exposing people to who Alaina is I feel will do more than all the sharing, correcting and policing that I could expend my energy on. That is not to say I still won't share things from time to time, or language doesn't still hurt, but the overall net effect for me is energy goes to my child instead of the rest of the world on this topic. I choose to give people, most who I truly feel have good intentions, grace. I don't want there to be a PC barrier, that prevents them from asking about or talking to Alaina, that keeps them at a distance.

Advocating for herself the best way possible - by just being Alaina!

I am sure there are people out there that disagree with my...lack?...of advocacy. There are those that have just enough tact to work that into the conversation without creating a barrier. Maybe I don't have that talent! :) But what will I do when someone calls Alaina a name, or she over hears someone using a hurtful word, and she understands it's hurtful or offensive? We will deal with it. She will be resilient-I'm sure of it. All of us continue to deal with hurtful, sometimes offensive, things in our lives no matter what our situation may be. All I can do is instill in my kids that they are loved by us and to always, above all else, try to be kind. And when they run into the person who, intentionally or unintentionally, uses unkind words, they know they can come to someone who loves them and we will work through it. My hope is to instill in Alaina, and my other children, how they are perfect just the way they are. And nothing anyone says or does changes that. It will hurt, sure, but it doesn't not have to define them.

Unknowingly advocating for herself by showing she can complete her schoolwork all by herself!

I share things about Alaina from time to time not necessarily to promote awareness, but simply because I am proud of her and I am immensely grateful. Most don't understand the time and work that we put into that simple spelling test or potty training. How many hours of therapy and work were invested for years to allow her to be able to complete a spelling test - at a desk in a typical classroom - like her peers. That is something I NEVER take for granted. Not for one second. (This is a good place to give a "little" BIG shout out to the parents who have come before us, paving the way for our children to have the chance to be included in typical settings. They fought a tough battle. Some are still fighting.)

These are things that 7 years ago, we had no idea if the day would ever come. Like I have said before, this diagnosis has brought a clearer perspective of what really matters in life. How every milestone is worth celebrating - and we celebrated with all our kids knowing that the things they accomplish are not to be taken lightly. We were given that gift from day 1 with our first child and got to benefit from it with all of our children. No matter how difficult or easy those milestones have been.
Proud grandma and grandpa

Auntie, Uncle and cousin love

I consider this advocating. If someone is unsure about Alaina, how can you not witness the love between her and her family and not realize how wonderful it is?? That she is totally and completely loved the way she is.

7 years into this journey, I feel like I'm back to square one on how I want to advocate for my daughter, if I'm being honest. Where my priorities lie in what I feel is important in her life now and into the future. I have some ideas in my mind of the things I would like to focus on, but I'm not sure on the path forward yet. But while I think and stew and attempt to figure it out, there is still advocating being done. So I choose not to focus on one specific month, but we make it an every day thing. And for now, I feel confident that Alaina's got it covered by just being Alaina! ;)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Strip tilling, cover crops and Soil Health Field Day

I look at my kids daily and often my mind wonders about who they will be when they are grown. Who they will be, what they will do with their life. I had the good fortune of growing up on a family farm, as did Bryan. So when I look at my kids, I wonder...will they want to continue farming? How might farming look 10-15 years down the road given the changes that have already happened in the past 10 years and all that could be, given research and technology, in the years to come. Part of a family farm is working, building and even preserving something for the next generation. There comes  a time when the reins are handed over, and even though change is uncertain and maybe uncomfortable, change is good. It helps us grow and we almost always wonder "Why didn't we do this sooner?" So what if Wesley, or even Aubrey or Alaina, wants to take over the reins from us some day? We feel an obligation to grow, learn, change and adapt and do the best we can, with information we have, to make sure there is something here for them to come back to, take over and let them take the reins, if they so choose. How do we feel we can best be sustainable for future generations?

About 4 or 5 years ago, Bryan started looking into some different options of managing the soil on the ground we farm. After a few heavy rains in short periods of time, the water erosion we were seeing in our fields was a little disheartening. And seeing drifts of black dirt in the snow from wind in the winter was hard to see too. We knew we wanted to do something different. After lots (and lots and lots) or reading and research, he landed on strip tilling and vertical tillage. Not long after making the switch, he also decided to add the use of cover crops to the mix.

Some of you may know what strip tilling is, some may not. Just as the name implies, we use a strip till bar to till strips into our fields, instead of doing full field tillage. There are numerous advantages to this change we have made.

  • Reduced soil erosion - Disturbing less of the soil and leaving some of the residue from the previous crop in the field leaves our valuable top soil less susceptible to wind and water erosion. The times we do get those rains or super windy days, we don't have lots of loose top soil to wash or blow away. 
    Field on the right side of the picture with conventional tillage - our field on the left. You can see the washing of the soil to the right of the grass strip - there is a large gully washed out. You can see some debris washed away on the left, but our soil stayed intact very well. This was a 4" rain in spring of 2015.
  • Restoring natural soil structure - strip tilling allows our fields to start re-establising more of a natural soil structure which in turn helps immensely with our water infiltration - the rate at which the soil can absorb water from rainfall or irrigation. The more you leave soil alone, the better the water channels in the soil will be - aided by an increased population of earthworms. When you till an entire field you make the soil almost like powder....and what happens when you mix water with a powder? Think cement. So when it rains, the dirt has a tendency to crust over and greatly slow the soil's absorption of water. So when we restore that structure, our fields tend to absorb water better - which allows our fields to dry out faster after heavy rains. 
    Good soil structure should be quite coarse and chunky - think more like coffee ground instead of real fine and powdery. You can see in some of the larger chunks lots of holes from earthworms also. That's a great sign! 
  • Lower input costs - just tilling a strip to prepare a seed bed allows us to save on fertilizer costs. We apply these inputs only in the strip where the seed will be planted. It allows the seed greater access to those nutrients and allows us to use less since we are applying to such a specific area and not across an entire field. We make more efficient trips across the field which saves on machinery wear and tear and fuel. 
    This is planting corn right into the strips we made last fall. Can still see bean stubble left in the field.
  • Build organic matter - leaving more of the residue from the previous crop in the field allows the soil to break down that residue and helps build organic matter and nutrients in the soil for crops in years following.  
    Strips are harder to see in field where we are planting beans into corn stalks. Easier to see at the bottom of the picture. But there is a lot of residue that protects our soil and eventually goes back into our soil.

Along with adding strip tilling, we have also incorporated cover cropping into our operation. This summer we purchased a highboy Hagie sprayer to use for spraying, but then can be converted to apply cover crops with a Gandy box and lots of tubing and engineering! We also use it to do custom work for other farmers in the area. So far, in our use of cover crops, we generally plant these in later summer - around mid August - September - into standing crops of corn and beans. Some of the great benefits of cover crops are:

  • Again...erosion control. Since the cover crops grow in the fall and stay in place over the winter, they do a wonderful job of keeping soil in it's place with the strong, harsh winter winds we get - on ground that isn't covered by snow. 
  • Helps build organic matter - when you have a nice establishment of cover crops you have all kinds of roots and other plant material that stays in your soil and is broken down for the benefit of future crops. 
  • Scavenge nutrients - cover crops in the field uptake many nutrients that are in the soil and keep them there instead of possibly leaching away with snow thaw or first spring rains. When the cover crops die, the plant goes back into the soil and those nutrients are available to growing crops. 
  • Break up compaction - there are different blends of cover crops that can help achieve a little different results. Some mixes can help break up soil compaction from machinery passes through the fields. Helps with compaction when you don't want to do tillage. 
Crop crops in our end rows that will stay through winter to help control wind erosion.

Last winter, Bryan stumbled across an initiative through National Corn Growers Association called Soil Health Partnership. It's a study to collect data on how some of these different practices affect our soils and crops from year to year.  Along with cooperating on data collection, one requirement was that he do a field day. Bryan had planned to try to do a field day with a local business that sells strip till units for doing demos of some assembled machines. We were lucky enough to be able to combine the two and have a morning of presentations, lunch and then some demos in the afternoon. It was a great day with a bigger crowd than expected! Great to see such interest in some of these conservation methods.

Had the Hagie out.

Different strip till bars were there for attendants to check out.

Strip til demo

This just touches some of the main reasons and the advantages we've seen from the switch. There has been much research, time and thought that has gone into this change. It's a tad scary to think about investing a lot of money into the equipment and totally changing the management style. But no one system is 100% correct, but we keep learning and adjusting what we do as we go. We make mistakes and we have some great successes. But just like any situation in life, change is good. You try to make a plan and even though we might have some questions and aren't totally sure of every step of the path, we know we will just make the best of it and keep moving forward and trying to improve. Change is what makes us grow, learn and experience. And we've found all these changes to be a wonderful thing. Ones that we hope will help sustain our soils and fields for the next generation and beyond....just in case one of these little farmers takes an interest! :)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Forewarned.....this is just a good ol' fashioned rant

I opened Facebook this morning and had a notification of a posting from a woman in a private group I belong to for women in ag. I read it and my heart hurt and I was just instantly pissed off all at the same time. This woman was asking for help on how to respond to over 20 comments she had overnight on an educational video she made that were rude, mean and just downright disrespectful. I know....we put ourselves out there so we leave ourselves subject to the mercy of the internet public, but just because you disagree with someone does not give you the right to be down right rude - or even threaten people - as is happening lately.

I know you are supposed to go by the old saying of you catch more flies with honey, but you know, it feels like all we are attracting are some seriously pissed off honeybees, wasps or hornets. Women in ag have become more vocal and active on farms the past 5-10 years and are taking a leading role in attempting to educate our population about agriculture. We take time away from our kids, husbands and other family duties to do nothing more than bring awareness to those who have no connection to a farm. We put our heart and soul into this - this is personal to us. I guess it's our choice, but many times we show our kids, our homes - personal details about our life that some just don't even deserve to know. But it is for a cause....and a good one.

I would guess 50 years ago if you did a poll and asked what some of the most respected occupations in our country - or the world - were, I wouldn't have been surprised if farmers ranked right near the top. Now where would they rank? What is it that people are just so darn scared of? Is it because you really know nothing about it? It is the fact that we use the words "science" and "technology"? Is that something you don't equate with food? I find it ironic that technology is so easily and widely accepted when its your tablet/iPad or your fancy new phone, but when our profession tries to use it with food, apparently it's ok to get threatened, called names - a shill, a liar, uneducated....just to name a few. I would challenge anyone to come to our house and meet my husband, my father, my father in law - about anyone in our rural communities and tell me that they are nothing more than pawns and equated to slimy snake oil salesmen.....cause that's how farmers are being portrayed by a louder and louder voice in our country. I would love to see you go up against any of these men and women on a number of issues and see how "uneducated" you think they are. Farmers are some of the damn smartest people you will ever meet.

It's pretty easy to be a really good farmer from your comfy, quiet house in your suburban neighborhood or downtown apartment. I would challenge any of you who oppose conventional agriculture to actually LEARN what farming is and is about and then tell me how much you know. It's getting worse lately, but the funny thing haven't generally fought with each other over these issues in the past! They have too much respect for the job to bicker over who's doing it "right" and who's doing it "wrong", and quite frankly they are too busy. Farmers know there is a place for a huge spectrum of different types of farming. So why are you fighting with farmers about it? I would really like to know what people actually are afraid of or opposed to. And I could give a hoot less about all your recycled Food Babe-Dr Mercola-Natrual News-blah, blah, blah talking points. If you can't have an intelligent, informed opinion on why what we are doing is so wrong, frankly today, I don't care what you have to say. I know I'm not supposed to say that, but we are to a point of what else are we supposed to say?

For some reason, farmers are not viewed as credible, reliable source about agriculture. What??? How can that even be? Said it once, say it a thousand go to a doctor or nurse if you are sick. You take your car to a mechanic. You go to a lawyer if you need legal advice. Why don't you go to a farmer when you have questions about food production? I don't get it. There are thousands on Facebook, twitter, etc that are accessible and so open to answering your questions. You want to show me an example of a "bad" farmer? That's fine - I'm sure you can find many examples. But we could also go through and find "bad eggs" - as my grandpa would call them - in every single darn profession that exists in the world. Get over it.... Recently, one ignorant comment was made about nurses on a national TV show and the world about blew up. Why aren't people jumping to the defense of farmers on such a broad level when they are being even more blatantly attacked? Both are extremely noble professions.

I am mad today because people refuse to attempt to understand what we do and why. I have a burning desire to educate anyone on what WE do....not because it is the 100% correct or the only way - but it's because it's our way of doing what we love best. And other farmers you meet will be happy to share why they do what they do. No two people probably have the same philosophy on how to clean your why is farming supposed to be a one-way-is-the-only-way from people who have no idea what they are talking about?

It's a hard pill to swallow when people don't respect you. My husband comes home every night tired, dirty and exhausted most of the time. And it's all for a too many people who have no respect for what he does. How is that right? I shoulder many responsibilities and tasks for a good 3-4 months of the year because we really hardly see my husband. I have 3 little kids who cry when they go to bed because dad's not there - because he's still working. And cry when they get up at 6:30 in the morning because dad's not there - he's already left to go to work for the day. Do you think that's fun? No....but we do it and we get through it just fine, because this is what we do. For too many people who have no respect for it-once again. It's hard to always keep your cool when you get slapped in the face time and time again about something that means so much to you. This is where I came from. This is where my husband came from. And this is where our kids are going to come from. And unlike many people these days, we will teach our kids to respect other people and their opinions and professions - so they don't end up like too many "expert farmers" out there on the internet and at their March against Monsanto groups, etc.

I'd like to say I'm sorry for anything I've typed, and maybe some day, or today, I will regret putting this out there. But at this moment I'm not. It's time for farmers and agriculture to speak up and fight back instead of always having to be so polite and kind and take the high road. Sometimes I think it needs to be ok to tell people they are using completely false information and have no idea what they are talking about. You are given respect when you give it to someone else. I'm tired of seeing well intentioned men and women being called names and treated like dirt when they are trying to educate and help.

So now what? Once I take a deep breath, we'll just continue doing what we do. I am hoping to help get a program started in our local school to help teach about agriculture at all grade levels. It's desperately needed - and I'm so hopeful it will actually come to be. It's what I can try to do. But how do we move forward with these conversations? What is it that all these people are really so unsure/scared/mad about? What you want - safe food for your family - is exactly what we want too. We want the land to be well cared for to pass down to future generations too.  If you are a supporter of all farmers, thanks for that support! If you really support farmers, be vocal about it! If you appreciate what all farmers do, no matter what productions methods they choose to use, let people know!

I don't encourage behavior like many people practice online, but at some point, agriculture has to stop being as polite as we've been raised to be, and fight back a little. If we don't, this noisy group might some day dictate what we do on our farm. And that would be bad news for everyone. Educate yourselves - and don't bite the hands that feeds you...pun intended.