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.