Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
This is part two of a two-part series highlighting CommonGround, a program supported by Minnesota’s corn and soybean farmers. Click here to read part one.
From steak to seafood, farmers to foodies; GrillFest celebrates all things cooked over an open flame and the people who grow and eat it. This popular Minneapolis summertime event attracts more than 5,000 attendees each year and is one of Rachel Gray’s favorite CommonGround volunteer activities.
“At GrillFest I felt like I was connecting with people who are not as familiar with farming,” said Gray, who raises beef cattle in northern Minnesota. “They were eager to ask questions. They were curious. Many people had never even met a farmer before.”
CommonGround volunteers connect with other women, answer questions about food and farming, share what they do on their own farms and talk about some of the science and research behind it.
In a world where ‘spin’ and misinformation has made consumers increasingly cynical, Gray and other CommonGround volunteer’s hope open dialogues, like those had at the GrillFest event, will help consumers feel confident in the work that farmers and ranchers are doing.
“There are people who say CommonGround is just publicity, people trying to make agriculture look good, but that’s not the case,” said corn and soybean farmer and CommonGround volunteer Kristie Swenson. “We are farm women. We live and work on farms. Some of us have children and some have grandchildren. We love our families. We love our farms. We wouldn’t choose any other lifestyle. We are so blessed, and honored, to do what we do. We just want people to understand our perspective. And, at the same time, we want to understand their questions too.”
Looking ahead, there are 18 CommonGround events on the calendar for the coming year, as well as ongoing outreach efforts through social media and volunteer blogs. From farm tours to women’s expos, volunteers are striking up conversations about food and farming across Minnesota and the U.S.
And while CommonGround is funded by corn and soybean farmers, the conversations don’t stop with those two commodities. Wheat, barley, sunflowers, grapes, alfalfa, poultry, dairy cattle, hogs and sheep are just a few of the other crops and livestock grown and raised by the volunteers on both conventional and organic farms.
“CommonGround is a nationwide program. It isn’t just a Minnesota thing,” says Swenson. “One of the things that I love about the program: if I get a question about poultry, or livestock or some other crop that I don’t raise, I have this whole network of other women I can turn to, and I can say, ‘hey, I’m getting a question about this…can somebody help me out here?’ It’s such a wonderful resource and a great way to connect with other farm women, but also it helps me better answer consumers’ questions.”
In addition to answering consumer questions about food and farming, Swenson and Gray also find themselves answering questions from what could be the next generation of farmers. (Albeit, these questions are a little more light-hearted.)
“Our three-year-old son asks, ‘Mommy do you know how to drive the combine? Mommy do you know how to drive the semis? Mommy do you know how to drive this tractor?’ and I tell him, ‘Yes, I do,’” says Swenson.
With a new baby at home, Swenson has taken on the still-essential farm tasks of bookwork and management decisions, and has had to leave the field work to her parents and husband for the time being.
“Having a baby, I haven’t had time to get out and drive any of the equipment this fall. It’s something that I do miss,” Swenson said. “I have been actively involved in farming since I was six years old. My first job in the summer was picking rocks. I still hate that job, but it’s a job we do every single year. Even this summer my husband and I were out in the bean field pulling weeds a week before my due date. My dad was asking, ‘Are you sure you should be doing that?’”
Meanwhile on Gray’s farm, she has 25 heifers she will sell next month, mostly by word of mouth. It’s a family affair, especially now that her nineteen-year-old son, Nick, has decided to spend the year after high school graduation working at her farm.
“Nick said to me, ‘Mom I just want to stay home and farm a year,’” says Gray, who is a former teacher. “I wasn’t really sure about that, but he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, you quit teaching to live this dream. And I want to see if it’s for me.’ How could I say no to that?”
CommonGround is funded by America’s corn and soybean farmers and their checkoffs through the United Soybean Board and National Corn Growers Association. The program is also supported by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.