12 tremendous ways to make a difference for a family with a child on the autism spectrum

Do you know a family living with autism? Have you thought about helping them, but you’re just not sure what they might need and how you could help? Here’s a quick list of 12 ways you can help a family with a child on the autism spectrum.

  1. Gather friends and organize a fix-it day to help with home repairs. Some children on the autism spectrum can be destructive. I know our children have scratched doors, put small holes in walls, and ripped window screens during a sensory meltdown. Personally, it’s hard to schedule home repairs because (depending on the day) we may need to have our full attention on the kids. A small crew of handy friends plowing through a family’s home repair list would be a wonderful way to make a huge difference.
  2. Offer to play with a child while parents take a break. Sometimes, a small break to get a haircut, get groceries, or go sit at a coffee shop alone is all parents may need. If it were my kids, you could color, craft, build with Legos, play outside, or watch a movie. You may even enjoy it!
  3. Give a gift card for copying expenses. If you’re not in the special needs community, you may not realize the shocking, staggering amount of paperwork that often accompanies an autism diagnosis. I’m always needing to make copies of lengthy documents to have on hand for doctor appointments, therapists, and school. The paper costs really add up so a gift card would be unexpected and welcome.
  4. If you’re the type that likes to bring over meals to help a family with an illness or a new baby, put a family with autism on your food rotation list. Once or twice a year ask for a convenient time to drop off a meal. Even if the child has a special diet, the parents may love a hot meal they don’t have to cook.
  1. Offer to take notes at an IEP meeting. IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. If the child is school-age, chances are there are regular IEP meetings at school. They can be confusing and emotional, so offering to attend an IEP as moral support or to take notes would be extremely helpful.
  2. Ask if they need an extra person for a dentist or doctor appointment. Dentist appointments can be especially anxiety-producing for a child on the spectrum—bright lights, sharp instruments, unpleasant sounds. You could go along to help communicate with the medical team while the parent comforts the child.
  1. Similarly, you can offer to watch other children during medical or therapy appointments. It can be very challenging to take a typical child along to every appointment for a child with autism. Watching a sibling could let the parent focus completely on the special needs child at the already stressful appointments.
  1. Invite a child with autism to your child’s birthday party, or accept an invitation to a birthday party for a child with autism. This is a big one. By it’s very nature, autism creates communication difficulties, making friendships difficult. Some children on the spectrum struggle with friendships and may not get invited to many birthday parties. If the child is young, they may not understand why they’re not invited or why friends don’t come to their birthday parties. Getting more birthday party invitations could make a big difference in a young life. Chances are, a parent will likely stay at the party with the child with autism to help smooth over confusing social interactions.
  1. Check-in often with a text, phone call, or email. And repeat. Please don’t take offense if the parent doesn’t reply or takes awhile to reply. Autism can be isolating for the child and the family. Sending a short message to ask how everyone is doing is a nice touch and appreciated more than you know.
  1. Building off of #9, keep inviting a family with autism to your gatherings. Even if they decline most of the time, inviting them could make them feel less isolated. And please don’t take it personally when they can’t attend—it could be for reasons out of their control.
  1. If you have a talent for organization, ask if you can help them sort through and file paperwork. Or perhaps they need help switching out closets during season changes or organizing the pantry. These stubborn chores take more concentration than they may have on a typical day, so any help you can provide will be deeply appreciated.
  1. If you have a cabin or vacation home, give the family a free or discounted stay at a time when you won’t be using it or can’t rent it out. Treatments for autism can be very expensive leaving less discretionary money available for fun vacations.

 

This is just a short list. Comment below with any additional ideas. One parent in my support group suggested following the “see a need, fill a need” adage. And think of ways you can use your talents and things you already like doing to lend a hand. More than anything, the family will be deeply grateful for you thinking of them and entering into their world even in a small way

Thank you for reading. Wishing you all peace and love,

Amy

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Autism Awareness Month: 7 Insights from a Parent

This April marks a year since we received our younger daughter’s autism diagnosis. A few months later, the same team of specialists diagnosed our older daughter with autism. Several friends with children on the spectrum guided me through the first few months after the diagnoses. I was grateful for their help and advice. So as our nation celebrates Autism Awareness Month, I’ll share our family’s journey with autism as a way of paying it forward.

The Autism Society describes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a “complex developmental disability, typically appearing during childhood and affecting a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.” This means an individual with autism may have language delays, repetitive behaviors like rocking or hand flapping, or difficulty making eye contact, among many other behaviors associated with the disability. The CDC estimates 1 in 68 children—1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls—are on the autism spectrum.

The good news is, early diagnosis and therapeutic services can improve the quality of life for children on the spectrum. The tough news is, there’s currently no cure for autism so the symptoms my daughters experience may last throughout their lives. During the ups and downs of the last year, here are seven  things I’ve learned about autism.

  1. “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” After our daughters’ diagnoses, I read this quote by Dr. Stephen Shore. The autism spectrum is just that—a range of symptoms and behaviors. Our daughters are verbal, make eye contact (generally), and play creatively. When it comes to symptoms, our daughters are fairly different. Our older daughter is sensitive to certain smells and textures, doesn’t like to be touched, often struggles with new social situations and friendships, and is rarely aggressive.  Her younger sister reacts strongly to loud noises and bright lights, can hit or bite when scared, has trouble adapting to changes in routine, and repeats phrases when she’s overwhelmed. Like our daughters, each individual with autism in unique. The CDC has good information on signs and symptoms across the spectrum.
  2. It’s considerate and respectful to use people-first language. Focusing on the person first and the diagnosis or disability second places more emphasis on the individual as a valued member of our society. Rather than refer to a child as autistic, many (though not all) in the autism community prefer to instead say child with autism.
  3. “I am different, not less.” This quote is from Dr. Temple Grandin, an adult with autism and a leading animal science expert. Nonverbal until she was three, she eventually found a successful career based on her ability to see patterns. Using her strengths, she develops unique designs for livestock equipment. While an autism diagnosis can bring helpful resources to set a child on a supportive path, it can also bring labels that might be limiting or damaging. For our daughters, we do our best to try to talk to them like we did before the diagnosis. We say “you can do anything you work toward.” Their futures may be uncertain, but we hope our daughters will be able to have strong relationships and fulfilling careers.
  4. Books can only take you so far. I lost count of the number of books I’ve read on autism. Some were helpful, a few were confusing, and others were downright maddening. At a certain point, I needed to talk to other parents. I joined a support group and discovered an incredibly kind and compassionate network of parents ready to offer advice or a listening ear. I now have close friends in that group. When we meet, it’s a relief to talk to parents who just get it—how much we care for our kids, the exhaustion from daily struggles, and the exhilaration of reaching milestones that seemed so distant.
  5. Caregiver fatigue is real. I can’t think of any parent who isn’t legitimately tired. But for caregivers of children on the autism spectrum, the level of exhaustion can be serious and chronic. The daily tension of anticipating or preventing sensory meltdowns, frequent calls to and from school or therapy providers, multiple weekly therapy appointments, extensive paperwork, and regular doctor visits for medication checks are just a few reasons for my fatigue.  Breaks are rare, but necessary. I’m incredibly appreciative of the talented professionals who help our daughters, my patient husband, and our supportive extended family who help us take a vacation to recharge.
  6. Autism may be invisible, but the associated behaviors aren’t. There are no physical characteristics that set individuals with autism apart from other people. My daughters look typical, but can act in atypical ways—like loud screeching at a mall, throwing shoes while waiting in line, or rocking back and forth with ears covered in a loud restaurant. In that moment when strangers may be silently or overtly judging my parenting, I struggle to ignore insensitive comments or looks. This is why autism awareness is important. Shining a light on invisible disabilities can help build empathy and understanding. Watch this video from Australia on the importance of accepting difference. Elaine Hall from The Miracle Project explains, “It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a child with autism to raise the consciousness of the village.”
  1. Pink looks different than blue on the spectrum. A majority of autism research has centered on boys. That means many of the early signs of autism—not making eye contact, withdrawing from touch, no spoken words—may be more indicative of boys than girls on the spectrum. Diagnostic tools based on boys with the disorder can lead to late or misdiagnoses in girls. Recent research on girls with autism indicate higher levels of social interaction, fewer rigid interests, and less obvious behavior problems. I can personally share that these differences likely contributed to our daughters’ relatively late diagnoses at ages six and eight, rather than the average age of four. When we have more research on girls, we can develop better diagnostic tools. And when both boys and girls are diagnosed earlier, they can receive therapies that may reduce the severity or costs of the disorder over a lifetime.

A year into our family’s journey with autism, I can share that while I know more than I did,  I still have a lot more to learn. Together, we’ve accomplished a lot. We now have several physicians and therapists we know and trust, a small circle of friends in the autism community, and better tools to manage confusing social expectations. I want to emphasize that while autism challenges our family, our lives are far from bleak. We love our daughters unconditionally and they bring us joy in their own quirky ways. Thank you for reading about our family and learning more about autism. It’s certainly a complex disorder with rapidly evolving research findings. If you would like to learn more, consider these resources:

The Autism Society of America

Center for Disease Control evidence based information on autism

The Center for the Study of Autism

Feel free to reach out to me if you would like to know more about our family’s experience with autism. And if you know a family with autism, consider asking the parents if they need a break, help with home repairs, or even a listening ear–a little empathy can have an enormous difference.

 

 

No Drama Guide to Choosing Books for Book Club

NoDramaBooks

Picture this: you’re at book club, the book discussion is winding down, you and your friends are on a second (or third) glass of wine, and your belly is full of bruschetta and mini key lime tarts. Then someone notices the time. Now you need to wrap up the evening and pick the next book. Depending on your group, this could go down smoothly (like the wine bottles you just drained) or cause trouble. As a veteran book-clubber I can suggest a few ways to pick books without wrecking the vibe.

Pick a pleasing process

Book club isn’t just about the books, ambience, and conversation. A well-run book club is organized with easy to understand rules. One cornerstone is how you pick the books. You have several options:

  1. The host or organizer of each meeting chooses the book. Some book clubs like to link the book with the host. On a positive note, this cuts down on debate because what the host decides wins. However, not everyone likes the pressure of suggesting the next book. Often this method involves scheduling the hosts for the next six to 12 months. Each host is responsible for sending their pick to the group in advance.
  1. Like a fantasy draft, pick a year’s worth of books all at once. This is my favorite method. Everyone comes to the meeting with two to three book suggestions with summaries. The group gets to weigh in on all the selections and choose the next eight to 12 books. Often, this means everyone gets at least one of their picks in the lineup. Plus, when you select a batch of books in one sitting it’s easier to mix up the genres. Do you really want to read three slavery novels in a row? Could you stomach more than two dystopias a year? You don’t have to be too methodical, but it’s nice to balance the choices. And picking books in advance can be cost effective because you’ll have plenty of time to reserve books through the library. Or you’ll have time to swap books. On the negative side, it’s hard to integrate new members. And, if a great book comes along you’ll have to wait several months to add it to the list. Still, I prefer the all-at-once approach because the book selection discussion is concentrated in one meeting and the rest of the year just flows.
  1. Select the next host and book at the end of meeting. If you prefer to go with the flow and be open to new releases, you might like selecting books one or two at a time. When you wrap up the current book you can move right into discussing what you want to read next. You get a lively open discussion and any member can suggest the next book with consensus or a loose vote deciding the next books. This works well if you all have similar tastes or don’t mind a little back-and-forth debate. If you choose this method, the leader may want to interject every now and then to make sure some of the quieter members get heard. And be prepared with a quick summary and rating to back up your suggestions.

Other rules—frequency, spoilers, hosts, and meeting spots

You’ll need to decide how often you meet—usually every four to six weeks works well for most groups. I’ll say that my first group of single ladies enjoyed meeting once a month and rarely had problems finishing books. Once babies entered the picture, we met less often so that we had more time to read the last chapter. So, consider your group dynamics when setting up the meetings.

On a related note, it’s a good idea to set up a ground rule on spoilers. I personally like a general guideline of not requiring everyone to finish the book as long as they don’t mind when the discussion turns to plot spoilers and the ending.

Now, who will host and when? If you don’t link the hosts to the books (see above) then the easiest way is to set the host schedule six months to a year in advance.

Where will you meet? It’s up to your group to decide if you want to meet in homes, at restaurants or bars, coffee shops, or public spaces like libraries or community centers. Hosting at homes is often more convenient as long as roommates, kids, and partners can find safe places to hide from raucous voices and hooting laughs. It’s also a good idea to be clear about the hosting expectations. In my first book club everyone (including the hostess) brought either a beverage or a dish to share. Often, most brought a bottle of wine and an appetizer. Another approach that also works well is for the host to provide the beverages and guests bring an appetizer or dessert.

Bars, restaurants, and coffee shops are decent alternatives to meeting in homes. It’s good to get out of the house, and even better to avoid cleaning your house. But this depends on your group’s budget. Not everyone can afford to go out on a regular basis. If budgets are a concern, consider coffee shops. Check the seating options and noise level. Of the three, I think coffee shops with meeting rooms are the best. Restaurants and bars can get noisy and may not have a good space for discussion—it’s hard to engage everyone in a discussion at a long table.

Not necessarily by the book

Here’s the deal. There are so many ways to run your book club. In the end, you’ll know what works well for the group. If your meetings start to thin out or it feels stale, try mixing up how you pick the books or find a new place to meet. And, consider following authors on social media channels—some are willing to Skype with book clubs.

In the end, it’s all about the books and friendship—and the snacks. We just finished People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and the Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Next on my reading list are Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert (scheduled for publication February 2016) and Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.

What’s next on your reading list?

Five reasons why I’m killing my blog

If blog neglect were a crime, I’d be guilty. I confess it’s been almost a year since my last post. In three years I published over 100 posts and today I trashed many of them.

I'm (mostly) killing my blog

I’m killing my blog—most of it. Here’s why:

  1. Posts were all over the place. When I started blogging four years ago, I didn’t know what I was doing and, worse, I didn’t have a goal in mind. An avid cook, a new parent, a bookworm, and a crafter, I blogged about any subject I knew well. Within weeks, I was regularly posting recipes, sharing baby pictures, and writing about crafts and baby products. My blog didn’t have a clear focus. Eventually, I found a niche as a food blogger. Then I’d ruin my flow by inserting a DIY tutu-dress tutorial post between recipes. It was a mish-mash, like the junk drawer in my kitchen.
  2. The photography sucked. In the beginning, I didn’t understand the importance of illustrating posts and recipes with images. I learned quickly that adding a photo would boost clicks and comments. Plus, in the early days I discovered the magic of easy Wordless Wednesday photo posts. But not all photographs are created equal and my pictures varied between mediocre to dreadful. A picture doesn’t say 1,000 words if it’s overexposed or blurry. It didn’t take me long to realize that words are my forte, not pictures.
  3. Blogging is hard. Keeping a blog updated, focused, and relevant to followers is a major commitment. Hats off to the bloggers who can maintain a steady stream of topics, find time to post, write compelling content, take decent pictures, watermark the pictures, troubleshoot any glitches, and promote the content on social channels. If you add contests, giveaways, and chats on top of that you’re talking serious effort and a significant chunk of time.
  4. Food blogging is harder. So take a typical blog and then add in time, talent, and energy to chef up original recipes. I discovered early on that food blogging isn’t merely recipe sharing—it’s critically important to give proper credit to recipes adapted from or inspired by other published authors. Content scraping in general isn’t cool, and that’s true in food blogging too. The Food Blog Alliance summarizes the landmines of recipe attribution well. So, at a basic level, keeping a food blog on the up and up is challenging. Then you have to invent, test, cook, photograph, and write up your creations. Great food bloggers take time to photograph the ingredients, each major step, and the finished dish—extra points for adding flair, like an artfully arranged napkin and a distressed table as a backdrop. Don’t forget to add time for cleanup and photo editing. So many food bloggers make it look easy. I think it’s hard as hell. Be sure to give your favorite food bloggers high praise for repeatedly serving up killer content.
  5. My blog clashed with my family. When I blog, there’s literally a very long laundry list of things I’m not getting done. For starters, there’s the dirty laundry. And, the house doesn’t clean itself. But most importantly, my favorite people were getting a raw deal. I felt personal pride in publishing a cool post, but it meant nothing when I realized I was missing moments I could have been cherishing. Occasionally sitting on a couch and blogging while my kids play—fine. Regularly paying more attention to my laptop than my daughters was not acceptable. I calculated that the time it would take me to take my mediocre blog to a much better level would be time I wouldn’t get back with my family.

There you have it—five excellent reasons to kill my blog. Except, I’m not ready to pull the plug. Over the last year, it occurred to me that I could delete the pathetic posts, refocus the content, and keep Amy On The Prairie going. Essentially, I’m giving my blog makeover. For all the reasons why my blog sucked, I can think of four reasons why I need to keep the blog going.

  1. It’s mine. Blogging is my time to myself. Of all the demands on my time as a wife, mother, copywriter, daughter, friend, and even Sunday school teacher, blogging is just for me.
  2. I owe my blog a lot. Blogging helped me build a writing portfolio that ultimately helped me prove my ability to write for a living as a copywriter. And, my fledgling blog taught me how to find my voice and the importance of building a blogging network. The bloggers I met on Twitter and in real life at blogger events turned into friends and a richer professional network.
  3. There’s still more to learn. From headline writing, to social media promotion and engagement, to learning WordPress and SEO, blogging was an excellent practical teacher. I write benefit-driven copy every day for work, but unfettered writing is a rich source of creativity and sometimes loosens up any writer’s block when the muse forgets to visit my keyboard.
  4. I finally have a clear focus. Over the past year of not blogging at all, I had time to think about my strengths and a good reason to keep the blog alive. It occurred to me that my passions of reading books and cookbooks (yes, I read cookbooks and sometimes I cook from them) will be a tidy, purposeful niche for my blog. Soon, you should see posts from me on how to pick books for your book club, must-have cookbooks, and so on.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll be hearing more from me—of cooks and books—very soon.

 

I Found my Dream Job by Blogging

If I tell you how I found my dream job, will it help you get yours? Maybe not.

Job hunting isn’t like following a recipe. What worked for me may not work for you. That said, I want to share my job search story because it’s a little unusual and it has a happy ending. Just for giggles, let’s pretend it was a recipe. If my job hunt was like baking a cake it would go a little something like this:

Ingredients:

– Free time punctuated by bursts of consulting and childcare

– Twitter handle

– WordPress site

– Copious blog entries on casseroles, soups, and cakes

– Massive network expansion and new friends

Directions:

1. Quit great project management job with a lovely organization in order to spend more time with young children.

2. Spend time contemplating the gnawing feeling that past wonderful jobs and winding career track (biologist to budget analyst to public affairs to project manager) were somehow not fulfilling work.

3. Hang a shingle out as a consultant and start to define what fulfilling work would look like.

4. Cast a wide net for new assignments in, well, anything – project management, writing, scientific communications, copywriting, food safety, communications, public relations, etc. etc.

5. Learn Twitter, wrestle with WordPress, network through LinkedIn, dip a toe into SEO, and dabble in Facebook.

6. Take self-indulgent detours in posting recipes and family pictures.

7. Begin to identify as a food blogger, meet fellow food bloggers, and become totally inspired by all things food.

8. Mystify husband by diving into social media, gluing butt to couch, and calling it “job hunting.”

9. Have an epiphany that fulfilling work and dream job is to write for a firm on the full continuum of food from farm to fork.

10. Shout the new, detailed dream job to close friends, former colleagues, strangers, and the @world.

11. Start fielding offers on several possible positions that look very much like the dream job.

11. Two weeks later, walk into a party, get introduced as a freelance food writer, and get asked, “Hey, are you interested in a full-time job writing about food for a Fortune 500 firm 3 miles from your house?”

12. Accept dream job position and count blessings for the time to dream and friends willing to open doors and network.

As you can see, my job search was not linear. It involved six months of quasi-tortuous self-reflection and relentless networking.

If I can share any advice on what worked for me, it’s this: I allowed myself time to focus on what I really wanted to do with my life, I built up my confidence through blogging that I could write about food for a living, I found my niche and what made me happy, and then I doggedly worked to make my dream job a reality.

I will also add the notion that while it looks like “I” found my dream job, I believe that by listening, questioning, dwelling, dabbling, sharing, creating, and helping others that the larger community found me my dream job.

Farm to Fork: Oink Outing

This is the second in a series of posts about food from farm to fork, dirt to dinner, field to table, or however you think food gets into your kitchen. 

Where does bacon come from? Let’s ask Lisa and Homer Simpson.

Lisa: I’m going to become a vegetarian

Homer: Does that mean you’re not going to eat any pork?

Lisa: Yes.

Homer: Bacon?

Lisa: Yes, Dad.

Homer: Ham?

Lisa: Dad, all those meats come from the same animal.

Homer: Right, Lisa, some wonderful, magical animal!

Minnesota Pork is betting that many of us may not quite understand just how pigs on a farm become bacon on our breakfast plate. They organize Oink Outings and bring city folks to pig farms with a mission to demonstrate how farmers care for and raise pigs. Why would they do this? Well, farmers want to tell their part of the story.

“Oink Outings connect you with the Minnesota farmers who help ensure chefs and families can put healthy, nutritious pork on the dinner plate. We give you a behind-the-scenes look at Minnesota pig farms and pass along mouth-watering recipes from renowned local chefs.”

Our tour group and Wakefield Pork staff

Driving in the Minnesota countryside, neat and leafy fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and sugar beets are commonplace. How high is the corn? A short drive can tell you. It’s also easy to see cows and even bison grazing. But, where are the pigs?

I think that’s one of the reasons Minnesota Pork is taking the trouble to bring groups to pig farms – visibility. How can we get a better understanding of how pigs are raised when we can’t even see them. Pigs are usually raised in contained, temperature-controlled facilities to protect the pigs from diseases like the PRRS virus and keep the animals comfortable during hot summers and bitterly cold winters.

Here is a post, Questions Galore, from the Oink Outing I attended in July. I don’t want to seem big-headed, but I’m pretty sure my nearly endless stream of questions are the inspiration for the post title. I asked questions about absolutely everything.  I know a decent amount about our food supply, but my actual experience on a farm is extremely scant. It’s unlikely that I’ll get another chance to set foot on a pig farm, so I wanted to make the most of my time on the farm.

My group visited Wakefield Pork in southern Minnesota. I sincerely appreciate the Langhorsts for touring us around their pig operation and answering all my questions.  At 2,500 sows, their operation is one of the 25 largest pig farms in the nation. And yet, my overall impression is the pigs get individual care.

Previously, my only experience with pig farming was last summer when I visited a large farm near Redwood Falls, MN. This farmer raised pigs for Chipotle. He no longer raises pigs for them because he disagreed with the required practices. From what I read, the requirements intend to provide more humane care for the animals, including large open pens for more contact between animals and restricting antibiotic use. Unfortunately, he found that sows sometimes crushed their babies by rolling over on them and bigger animals picked on smaller ones by biting tails. The tails would often get infected and he was unable to treat the infections with antibiotics. In his opinion, the standards are misguided in some areas and do not provide the best care for the animals. I stood at the fence to the pig pen and thought it was messy and hot. The pigs were not running around excitedly, they were laying down in the shade, possibly to try to keep cool. I add this last part, because it contrasts starkly to what I witnessed on my Oink Outing.

Mary and Lincoln Langhurst of Wakefield Pork invited me, three
other moms, and a chef to tour their pig farming operation in southern
Minnesota. Minnesota Pork supports the Oink Outings to give city folks a chance
to see a pig farm, ask questions, and hopefully grow more confident about how
the animals are raised. Moms are a target audience because they know moms are
often the primary decision makers in grocery shopping and meal planning. That
is certainly true in my house.

My friend, Hydee, and I happily cuddling newborn piglets

Briefly, here are my impressions of their pig operation:

  • The grounds surrounding the barns are extremely neat and the air smells fine thanks to filtering the air through wood chips and corn cobs.
  • They maintain strict visitor regulations to comply with biosecurity provisions. This protects the pigs against any random diseases we may bring in on our clothing or shoes.
  • The barns are clearly working areas, but the concrete floors are clean as are the animal areas.
  • All the workers we met were extremely jazzed to work there. They walked around with a smile on their faces and passionately answered questions about raising the pigs. It surprised me, but several employees said they are happier with the biosecurity requirements because the pigs are healthier and severe disease outbreaks that can often mean massive casualties are now nonexistent.
  • The sows and newborn piglets are in the same pen for weeks. Staff monitor the babies to make sure they are getting the nutrition they need and to make sure the sows don’t accidentally roll over on their piglets.

Newborn piglets and Sow

  • The baby pigs squealed. All. The. Time. They weren’t mistreated, they just squeal. They squeal if they can’t reach the milk. They squeal if a sibling steps on them. They just squeal.
  • Staff do snip their tails when they are a few days old to prevent tail biting and subsequent infection.
  • The barn temperature is fairly warm and the pigs seemed extremely comfortable.
  • The pigs eat and sleep in pens. They seem to like the comfort of their own space. The staff we talked to explained that pigs are very territorial and enjoy having an area to call their own.

Happy pig in a pen

I’ll conclude by saying that I am very happy that I took the time to visit a pig farm. I believe the animals are treated humanely and I am extremely impressed by Wakefield Pork’s animal and land stewardship. I am very confident in the quality of pork produced and I continue to buy conventionally raised pork for my family.

Cuddly piglet just two days old

Whew! That was a long post. Please comment! Share your stories, feelings, and thoughts on the subject. Just please keep responses kind, even if you disagree with my impressions.

Farm to Fork: I Think Our Food Supply is Safe

This is the first in a series of posts about food from farm to fork, dirt to dinner, field to table, or however you think food gets into your kitchen. Look for an upcoming post on my experience on a modern pig farm in southern Minnesota.

I am not a farm girl. I live comfortably in the suburbs. I buy our groceries at the local grocery store or a farmer’s market. I do not know how to drive a tractor and I have never mucked out a barn, milked a cow, gathered eggs, or fed pigs.

Why is it then that I get upset when I read or hear criticism about our country’s farmers? I don’t have a strong connection to agriculture, but I do know where my food comes from. I also know the vast majority of food companies take their job of producing safe food very seriously; their reputation depends on it.  And when I think about agriculture in the U.S., I have a positive feeling about farms and farmers. I believe most farmers–conventional or organic–are hard-working people who care about the land and the animals they raise. I struggled writing this post, because I think I am in the minority.

Minnesota Farmland

Local, organic farms are trending strong in Minneapolis and I think in many cities around the country. Terms like “family farms” are in favor and conventional or modern agriculture has been labeled as “factory farming.”  Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the movie, “Food, Inc.” are getting a lot of airtime about the benefits of local foods and organic farming, but I don’t think they tell the whole story.

I support local farms in theory, and in practice when I can, because I definitely see the benefit of reducing food miles and sourcing food locally.  I majored in ecology and environmental studies in college and I understand the impact of farm runoff in our waters and biodiversity. But, I also know the reality of our world’s food shortages. Small farms will not be able to meet global food needs. In my opinion, conventional farming still has an important role in producing food. And I do not think it is productive to polarize the discussion by labeling modern agriculture as “bad” and family farms as “good.” Pitting farmers against each other does not help move the conversation forward.

Our family of four is on a budget and I buy food we can afford.  Most of the food we buy is a product of conventional agriculture. That means our produce was grown with the aid of fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds to increase yields. And our meat is typically from larger farms where animals are raised in large facilities with the aid of technology and interventions like antibiotics.  I feel comfortable eating this food and serving this food to my family.

I’ll risk getting some hate mail, but this is what I think about food:

1. I think our food supply is safe.

2. I think most farmers use pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics judiciously.

3. I will eat food grown from GMO seeds. I am pro-biotechnology and I don’t have concerns about eating GMO corn or wheat.  I think our regulatory system is fair and monitors producers and seed companies well. That said, I am concerned about pollen drift from GMOs creating random hybrids with wild type plants, and I see inequities in the economics of biotech crops that could and should be improved.

4. I do not believe in labeling a modern farm as a “factory farm” just because they use technology or have a large operation. In my opinion, advancements in agriculture are generally good for farmers and for increasing yields.

5. I was vegetarian for over a decade, but I eat meat now. I was a bad vegetarian and was not eating a balanced diet. By adding meat and more vegetables into my diet, I’m eating far fewer processed grains and I feel healthier. I buy conventionally raised meat and vegetables for our family and I feel good about it.

6. I believe the majority of animal producers treat their animals humanely and care about the animals on their farms.

7. I do think some aspects of farming can be improved and would love to see more efforts to control non-point-source pollution and agricultural run-off.

8. I have read extensive reports on our world food supply, and I do believe we need large-scale farming operations using the best technology available to feed our planet. I think local and organic foods have a place in our food system, just as traditional crops are important. I do not think small, local farms can exclusively meet our world’s food needs.

9.  Our family joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for one season and it was not for us. We do not regularly cook with sunchokes, black radishes, kale, fennel, and sorrel. That said, I did appreciate the parsnips, basil, garlic scapes, and eggplant. I would join a CSA again in a heartbeat if we could get more of the items I am accustomed to preparing: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, zucchini, squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, corn, and carrots. We visit local farmers markets when we can and happily buy items in season that I can’t find at the grocery store, like big bunches of fresh mint and basil.

10. I worry about childhood obesity and I am trying to teach my daughters how to cook and how to have a good relationship with food. We eat our meals together at the kitchen table and most meals include fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and meat. I want to give my daughters a clear message to eat healthy food and I worry about muddying the waters by adding “but only if it’s local, sustainable, grass-fed, free-range, organic.”  I want to first encourage them to know how food is grown and raised and then we’ll cover the finer points.

I want to be clear that I have a “to each their own” philosophy on most things and do not want readers to think I am disparaging local, organic foods or encouraging people not to support those products. I’m not. I just think conventional foods have a place in our food system too, and at the moment they fit in our tight grocery budget better.

Our country is in economic turmoil and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Many families are likely on a food budget and unable to afford local or organic foods that are generally more expensive.  I decided to share my perspective on our food supply in case there is someone else out there that feels the way I do. I don’t feel bad about buying conventional foods for my family and I hope others don’t either. Mostly, I am grateful that we have plenty of food on our table and enough to share with others in need.

Amy is Amy On The Prairie, a working mom of two young daughters, wife to a really tall engineer, provider to two rescue cats, comfort foodie, food writer, and former world traveler. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.