Thursday, July 24, 2014

A good thing

I was a first generation 4-H’er.

My parents grew up in the north-end of working-town St. Joseph, Missouri.  My dad was a jock.  He played competitive sports year-round, and spent his free time rounding up the neighborhood boys for a few innings on the sandlot.  Weekends were spent on his grandparent’s farm in Kansas.  4-H simply wasn’t on his radar. 

My mom, eager to escape a childhood riddled with painful memories, found security and stability in my dad.  She wanted her own family, her own home.  She wanted her turn at building a lifetime of happy memories.  4-H wasn’t on her radar, either.

They married at 19.  My dad finished up college, wrapped up a college sports career, and five short years later, bought a farm and moved his wife and three – soon to be four – babes to an 80 acre paradise in northeast Kansas.

4-H was suddenly on their radar.  A wholesome, fun, family-oriented experience perfect for a new-to-the-farm family.

I joined the Circle B 4-H Club.  We bought a pen full of market hogs and picked up a Hereford bucket calf at the Atchison Sale Barn.  I sewed a calico-print skirt with help from my Grandma, and made cookies and a craft project with my momma. 

The summer of 1988 marked our first Doniphan County Fair. 

This summer, while standing in the barn of the Ellsworth County Fair – looking over Noah and Tucker’s bucket calves – my Dad reminded me of why 4-H was just the right fit for our family.

On a sweltering evening at the market hog show, late July 1988, the competition was heating up in the swine showmanship class.  At eight-years-old, I was oblivious to it all, trying to keep track of a fast-moving hog and wiping the sweat from my brow with a bristle brush intended for my pig.  (Actually, I think my brother did that, but it adds a nice touch, doesn’t it?)  The oldest daughter of a more-seasoned 4-H family and member of our club, was a show-woman to be reckoned with.  She was in the running for Grand Champion, but when the judge passed her up and gave the nod to another showman, her mom threw a camera across the bleachers in disgust at the judge’s decision.

While the crowd looked on in disbelief, my dad stood under the eaves of the hog barn, smiled and thought to himself, “This 4-H thing is gonna be good.”

We went on to enjoy about 15 more summers of wholesome, fun, family-oriented county fairs.  And 15 summers of heated competition in the show ring.  There are boxes of trophies and ribbons filling closets at my parent’s house.  And enough wonderful memories and treasured friendships for us to cherish forever. 

The Circle B 4-H club boasted 40-plus members at its peak in the mid 90’s.  We had solid exhibitors and competitors in nearly every project.  We vied for the herdsmanship award every summer under the watchful eye of our club leaders.  By the time my youngest sister, Molly, was in high school, there just weren’t enough kids left to keep the club going.  Last fall – ten years later – my brother, and a number of the kids who were a part of the better days of Circle B, reinstated the club.

Our kids are now 4th generation Kansas 4-H’ers; thanks to a long 4-H legacy in the Goss and Dechant families participating in the Finney County 4-H Fair.  As members of the Elkhorn 4-H Club – they're part of a group of hard-working, no frills kids who can have as much fun at a big city water park as they can in a barn.  And a group of kids who pay attention to the youngest among them – this momma of young un’s loves that.

This 4-H thing is good for our family for reasons no different than the reasons my dad discovered many summers ago in that hog barn.  It brings our family together through meaningful work.  It allows our children to channel their interests and passions.  It provides opportunities to lead; and to work as a team.  And it puts our children into a nurturing, yet competitive, environment.  Because after all, the world doesn’t give everyone a ribbon for just showing up.

I sometimes wonder if we’ve pushed our family into a 4-H and farm lifestyle because that’s where Brent and I are most comfortable.  But when I see Noah blossoming in the show ring, Tucker tackling chores with a very grown-up sense of responsibility, Nell whispering to the chickens, and Britta hungry to just keep up with her siblings, my mind rests.  The Goss and 4-H just go together.

Brent's dad, Larry, in 1964.  Obviously.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bridging the Gap

Every year in early summer, upwards of 10,000 women descend upon the Overland Park Convention Center to attend the Just for Her Expo.  They come with their moms, sisters, daughters, aunts, neighbors, and best gal pals for a few hours of girl time.

They come to shop for purses, boutique clothing, house cleaning gadgets and luxurious bathrooms renovations.  They come to sample chocolates and wine.  They come to listen to live music.  They come for mini spa treatments.

It’s everything a girl could ask for.  It’s everything this farm girl loves to escape to the big city for.

This year marked my first trip to Just for Her.  And instead of shopping and massages, I was parked behind a booth, alongside another Central Kansas farm gal, volunteering for a farm women’s advocacy group called Common Ground.  And we were charged with the task of doing just that – striking common ground between farm girls and our suburban counterparts.

The goal was to engage in conversations about food.  The draw was bold questions printed across the booth’s backdrop: Have questions about where your food comes from?  Concerned about hormones in your food?  What’s all the worry about GMO’s?  The giveaways included a flexible cutting board and a notepad for grocery lists.  The results were, err, well, interesting.

I thought GMO’s were a bug.

I buy raw goat’s milk for my family from a farmer near Kansas City.

I’m worried about losing the family farm.

I just started juicing.

There aren’t hormones in poultry?  Really?

I remember visiting my grandparent’s farm, but I don’t think my teenage son has ever seen a farm.

I don’t like that they give all the animals antibiotics.

So, you’re saying organic production uses products to control weeds and pests, too?

I don’t have a vegetable garden.

Do you work for Monsanto? (Followed by an over-exaggerated wink.)

I began each conversation the same way: “I’m volunteering on behalf of Kansas farm women, and we’re here to provide information about your food from its source.”  Where the conversations went from there was not always what I expected.

Beyond cute purses and wine tasting, there simply wasn’t much common ground.  The gap between Central Kansas farm women and Johnson County women is much greater than the 208 miles between us. 

Sure, there were some positive conversations.  I made contact with an eager young gal who writes a newsletter for KC Metro moms.  She said she’d love to have articles about food contributed from Common Ground.  Another go-getter ran a women’s executive club, and we chatted about exchanging business leadership training for education about food production.

But the vast majority of conversations were riddled with misinformation and rampant with fear.  Some wanted to listen and were eager to learn more; others ruffled their feathers and moved on.

In each short encounter, I did my best to leave the conversation with this, “No matter where you fall on the food purchasing spectrum – from local and organic to modern and conventional – it’s important you get the information about your food from the farmer.”  Then, I handed them a flexible cutting board and flashed my most sincere, Kansas farm girl smile.

Bridging the information gap between producers and consumers is a marathon – not a sprint.  It doesn’t happen quickly.  And the road to the finish will take us to places farmers have never been before – the halls of an Overland Park Convention Center, the pages of an urban mom publication, the offices of suburban executive women. 

Common Ground and it’s supporters – the Kansas Soybean Commission and the Kansas Corn Commission – get it.  They understand that one conversation at a time, we can reconnect consumers with the faces behind their food.   And if that means meeting suburban consumers on their turf – in the shopping and dining mecca of our state – twist my arm, I’ll be there.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On repeat

It was 8:11am on Holy Saturday.  We were headed southwest in Brent's farm truck.  A 13 year old, ruddy-orange, extended cab Chevy pick-up with rusty fenders and 128,753 miles of memories.

The extended cab was full.  Six family members equals two booster seats, a toddler chair, an eight-year-old squeezed between mom and dad and their coffee mugs and smart phones, and a homemade livestock crate strapped down in the back.

Our destination was Garden City - birthplace and hometown of my true love. 165 miles to get there.  And home again.   (384 miles from my own hometown, by the way.  Love knows no boundaries.)

Our goal was to return with a 4H pig in that crate.  And, to make the most of a quick trip, have an Easter lunch with Brent's family - pork burgers, baked beans and all the fixins at the farm, arrange an Easter egg hunt for the kids and their cousins, and swing thru Target for a pair of nice sandals for the next day's Mass.

About 30 miles down the road, Brent inquired about the goings-on of my Dad and his farm.

"I'm not sure what he's up to today.  Let's call him and see."

My smart phone tracked him down 249 miles in the opposite direction.  He was headed out the door to check cows and work on his planter.  I gave him a full update on our adventure.  He laughed out loud as he envisioned the sight of us heading down the highway.

"All you really need to complete the look," he said, "are a few old tires and an opened bag of feed in the back and a round of slur-pees for all the kids."  He could barely get the word slur-pee out before the hilarity of his creativity consumed him. 

It's only so hilarious because he's been there.  The only difference - I was the eight-year-old riding shotgun, my seven-year-old brother beside me, stock-racks in the back of a '79 Chevy pick-up hauling our 4H pigs to town for the county fair.  My mom and younger sisters had to stay behind.  No extended cab pick-up.  And no smart phones to text them we'd stopped for an ice cream cone and would be home a little late.

So many moments of my adult life are repeating the days of my childhood.

Finishing up chores with just enough daylight to get in some batting practice.  Been there.

Getting by on used equipment and hand-me-down supplies.  Done that.

Taking a small farm in need of lots of attention and slowly working into something to be proud of.  Doin' it tomorrow.  (And the next day, and the next day...)

These deja-vu moments are frequent.

When I set out to make my own path, I certainly didn't expect to end up on the same road as my parents.  Sure, I shared my dad's love for the farm and my mom's passion for family.  Yet, the merger of two has yielded more nostalgia than I ever expected.

I read once that the goal of Generation X (Brent and I) is to reach the same standard of living as achieved by their Baby Boomer parents.  I'd say we're slowly, but surely, on our way.

By early evening on Holy Saturday, we were headed Northeast.  Two - not just one - pigs in the homemade crate.  Four tired and dirty kids with bags of Easter goodies stashed beneath the seats.  A pair of sandals for church.  About a dozen bags of groceries crammed in front of the pig crate for the next day's Easter dinner.  And two parents who, on most days, feel like staying one step ahead of this crazy life is all they'll ever accomplish.

And we'll be doin' it again tomorrow.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sweet corn and sweet Ruthie

My brother called yesterday afternoon.  He was outside.  Working on his planter.  And his spirits were good.

He said he had some sweet corn seed he was sending our way.  He said Ruthie was doing far better than he had expected.  He said he'd be in his tractor seat, planting corn in the next few days.

How 'bout an amen?

The week of Ruthie's diagnosis was like a tail spin.  (And I'm just the Aunt.  I still can't comprehend the pain Nathan and Adrienne felt.)  There was a mass.  It's cancer.  It's stage 3.  It's inoperable.  Chemo starts right away.

But then there was some good news.  The cancer was contained in one area - it had not spread anywhere else.  They called her diagnosis Intermediate Risk - which gives her an excellent chance at surviving this thing.  And she's been a fighter through her first round of chemo.

Ruthie was able to come home from the hospital last week.  She goes back and forth frequently to keep a close eye on everything.  They are fortunate to live just an hour away from Children's Mercy Hospital.  Yet, in the ten days they have been home, they have made a trip almost every day to see Ruthie's doctors and monitor her condition.  All of this has forced Adrienne to take a leave from her job as a first grade teacher at Troy Elementary School.

There are so many of you praying for Ruthie.  So many of you offering your help and support to Nathan and Adrienne.  For all of that, we are so grateful.  While it can be hard to accept help, we all know Nathan would be among the first to offer his help should it be any of us that fall on hard times.

The road ahead is long for sweet Ruthie.  Three more rounds of chemo with the hope to operate in the summer to remove the tumor. 

Please keep praying for Ruthie.  And her Daddy and Mommy.  (And her big brother, Henry, and her big sister, Elliette.)

Let's lift them up and walk beside them.  Let's hope next spring is just another dusty, dirty, stressful, eighteen-hours-a-day-in-the-tractor-seat, normal planting season.

Ruthie during a height check - wearing her Super Girl cape and her very own stethoscope.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In the tractor seat

My brother, Nathan, is one of my favorite farmers.  Always has been.

I helped him haul in letter-block hay bales in our preschool days.  I saddled up beside him on the arms of the couch as we rode over the prairie, checking our herd.

He was born to be a farmer and rancher.  The hat, the jeans, the pliers pouch, the dirty boots - they suit him.  He's smart, savvy with machinery, gentle with his cattle.

Yesterday was National Ag Day.  Nathan should have been in his tractor seat, having a working celebration as he prepared fields and put on fertilizer getting ready for planting season.

Instead, he spent the day in a living hell at Children's Mercy Hospital.  His baby girl, 14-month-old Ruthie Jane, was diagnosed with cancer.

What was thought to be a tummy-ache or appendicitis, turned out to be a mass near her bladder.  As of right now, it's inoperable, and plans are being made to treat it with chemotherapy.

Four days earlier, Ruthie, and my Britta, were running laps through Grandma's house and giggling as Grandpa gave them a bath.

I've always heard about the horrors of cancer.  But until you've been jerked from your tractor seat on a Monday morning and thrown face down in the dirt of God's uncertainty, you don't really get it.

We have more questions than answers about sweet Ruthie Jane.  But we have faith, we have each other, and we have you, dear friends, to lean on. 

It may be awhile before Nathan gets back in the tractor seat.  Yet just like long ago, I, and so many of you, will saddle up beside him and offer our grit, our faith, and our muscle to see Ruthie Jane through this.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Getting noticed

National FFA week was a couple weeks ago.

Maybe you noticed.

Maybe your news feed blew up with #tbt pictures of your friends rocking the ‘90s in a corduroy jacket.

Or, maybe you didn’t even notice.

Maybe you’re not really sure why anyone would wear a corduroy jacket.

I made a choice – nearly 20 years ago – to wear one of those corduroy jackets.  And when I look back on all the choices I made as a teenager, this stands out as the one I’m most proud of. 

It certainly wasn’t the most popular thing to do in my high school.  But it wasn’t the worst thing either.  We had a handful of students enrolled in our chapter.  Enough to muster up teams for contests, and fill a short bus to go to events and conferences.

I didn’t post a #tbt picture.  That’s fine if you did.  It’s most certainly fine if you posted a picture of yourself in a corduroy jacket with a former US President.  I just wasn’t that cool in 1995.

Truth be told, I like to focus on what FFA can do for the next generation of young people.  Not re-live the 90’s. 

So, I drug my band of young’uns to two events during National FFA Week at our local high school.  First, we headed to town a little early and ate breakfast in the ag shop for the FFA appreciation breakfast.  Eggs, bacon, pancakes, hashbrowns, coffee and juice were prepared and served up by FFA members who took the time to say hello and help out my little people.  I love that.

The next evening, we traipsed to town for the FFA Chili Feed and Work Auction.  Members serve up a chili supper, and then auction themselves off for 8 hours of labor.  Proceeds fund trips and activities for the chapter.  The students usually go for more than my charity budget allows these days, so I opt for buying some left-over rolls or chili at the end of the auction.  

Just before the end of the auction, Miss Hobbs, the young and hard-working teacher and advisor, cornered me.  She had promised to be auctioned-off if the students each brought a minimum price.  They were just about to reach the goal, and Miss Hobbs' brother had offered to spend up to $500 to buy 8 hours of labor from his teaching and advising little sister.  She gave me his bidder number, and the permission to spend every dollar.

The bidding for Miss Hobbs began.  And the bidding was hot.  I jumped in around the $100 mark and hung in there until $500.  

Noah turned to me quizzically, 

Mom, what are you doing?  

Heads around the room were turning to see who was doing the bidding.

Wow, things must be good for the Goss these days.

It was $525 to me, and I turned it down.  Miss Hobbs went for $525.  Sold to local dentist and school board member, Dr. Mark Herzog.  

Conversation buzzed after the auction.

I don't ever recall him coming to the auction before.

Were you bidding for someone else?  

Wow, I'm so glad he came.

Dr. Herzog made quite an impression that night.  While he serves on the school board, he doesn't have a student enrolled in the program.  He isn't employed by the ag industry.  I can't say for sure, but I doubt he ever wore a corduroy jacket.

I'm going to be a bit presumptuous here, but I think Dr. Herzog sees FFA as I do: a solid program for young people that builds leadership and career skills for lifetime of work and service to the industry that feeds us.  A program that's building self-confidence, public-speaking skills, guiding students towards careers in mechanics, science and business, and establishing leaders for the future of our community.

I'm so grateful he noticed National FFA Week.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wearing Red

It's hard for me to wear the color red.

I like the color when it comes to decorating my house.

But to pull the color on over my head reminds me of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  It was a big deal to despise Nebraska during football season until they departed the Big 12.

Red reminds me of the KU Jayhawks.  It's still a big deal to loathe the Jayhawks during every, single sports season.

Red reminds of the Wathena Wildcats.  My high school's nemesis.  As a school, the Wathena Wildcats have long been consolidated with another small northeast Kansas town.  But I still detest them and their red Wildcats.

So putting on red to cheer for our town and our team - the Ellsworth Bearcats - pains me.

But a red, $4, clearance rack t-shirt caught my eye the other day.  A self-to-self pep talk ensued.

Okay, for $4 I can give it a try.  It'll be okay.

Not so long ago, I would have walked away from that $4 t-shirt.  Not so long ago, I still wasn't convinced I wanted to put down roots in the middle of Kansas.

Brent and I moved to Ellsworth after college because it fit our career choices.  He took the job as the Agriculture Extension Agent, and I tried my hand at economic development work.  We like to say we took the only two jobs open in town.

We saw the move as a good start to our life together.  And beyond getting married and getting out of our lousy rentals, we didn't have much of a plan.

A few years passed.  We were baptized into the working world - realizing how much we still had to learn.  We got married.  Got out of our lousy rentals.  Bought a home and brought home our first baby girl.  And we still didn't have a plan.

But sitting in the nursery, rocking my baby girl, I realized we needed a plan.

Maybe it was the hormones.  Maybe it was because it seemed like every other new momma had their own momma nearby to help.  Maybe it was my dad's encouragement to come home and help revive my flailing hometown.  Maybe it was because my brother had just moved home.

Whatever it was, I knew I wanted my family to be closer.  I wanted what I had growing up: Grandma and Grandpa at my ball games and 4H events, my aunts and uncles at birthday parties, an extended family close enough to call on when I needed help.

But the man I married, didn't feel the same pull.  He liked our compromise of living in the middle.

The battle of location lingered.  The "plan" never materialized.  Angst and tension settled in.

Three more babies came along.  Noah started school as part of the largest Kindergarten class to hit the district in years.  We lived in a neighborhood full of young families.  We had a network of friends, neighbors and co-workers that supported us whenever we asked for help.  We witnessed a rural revival of sorts - investments in jobs and new businesses unlike anything the town had seen in recent history.  We had opportunities for the kids to play soccer, and t-ball and take ballet lessons - without driving out of town.  We had everything we ever wanted for ourselves and for our young family - except having our own families nearby.

In the summer of 2012, the lack of a plan finally caught up with us.

Britta had just been born.  The county fair was days away from starting.  Brent's dad - a lifelong southwest Kansas farmer - was battling some health issues, facing retirement from the work he loved, and was asking for Brent's help.  And "that perfect little place in the country" went on the market.

I guess you could say it was time for a plan.

There was a lot of talking.  A lot of tears.  (Mine, of course.)  A lot of time spent analyzing the negatives and the positives of every option.

In the end, we chose us.  We chose our family.  We chose the middle.  The compromise.  That perfect little place in the country.

And I think we got it right.  In fact, I know we got it right.  I know it by the way I've watched the kids play and run on the farm.  I know it by the way I feel happier, settled, invested.  I know it because less than a year after our move, Brent had the opportunity to make a fantastic career change that let him have a home office and offer his expertise to a wider range of Kansas farmers.  I know it because we convinced my sister, Mary, to move here, too.  (Well, a charming cowboy maybe had something to do with that one.)  Still, I know we got it right.

I wore that red t-shirt the other day.  It wasn't quite the fit I was hoping for, but for $4, I'll make it work.  Maybe, just maybe, I can get comfortable wearing the color red.

The fam - from inside the barn shortly after our move to the farm.