The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Corn and Soybeans

Corn and Soybeans

From the Farmer's Tractor

October 29, 2013

Andy and Katie Pratt, 35, grow 5,500 acres of commercial corn, soybeans and seed corn with Andy's parents and his brother and wife. All three families are supported by Grand Prairie Farms – their family farm operation. The Pratts are 7th generation farmers. We talked to Katie about the joys and challenges of life on the farm.

How did you get into farming? 

I grew up just down the road from our current farmstead on a livestock/crop farm. My father raised hogs for 40 years and my parents still care for a small herd of crossbred beef cattle. We farmed ~1,500 acres of row crops and hay. My husband has the same family history. Farming has been in his family for generations. We both graduated from college. My husband returned to the farm immediately. I worked for the National FFA Organization before meeting and marrying my husband. . . and the rest is history.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

While we feel the basic tenets of raising a crop, caring for soil and water, etc. have NOT changed, farming has definitely seen its share of the technology boom. The technology in our equipment – GPS, VRT, RTK – in the form of alphabet soup is allowing us to increase our efficiency factor dramatically. It used to be that soil fertility maps, yield maps, and so on had to be printed and compared at the dining room table, but now we move the computer chip from this tractor to that sprayer to the combine and then to the tillage equipment. Suddenly all our information is there on the computer screen right in front of us as we are cultivating, planting, applying inputs and harvesting. We can vary our plant population on the go based on the soil fertility information. We can vary our application of fertilizers (based on soil fertility) or pesticides (based on observed weed, insect, and disease pressures) on the go. While harvesting, we can compare our yield with the other information we've gathered throughout the year, all right in the combine. 

How will farming evolve in the next five years?

Beyond the constant flow of information and new technologies, I think we'll see buzz around conservation of soil, water and soil nutrients. Already the use of cover crops (we are trialing some on small areas of certain fields) is a hot topic. The push to produce more with less will only continue to drive the creation of new technologies. In addition, I think we'll see increased numbers of young men and women returning to the farm. This is happening in our area, with several neighbors welcoming home the next generation and making plans to support more families on the farm. 

What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?

For us, in our little piece of the world, we talk about sustainability. There are three members of the next generation toddling around and if one day they would like to return, how do we make this farm a place to care for more families? How do we sustain our soil and water resources? Do we take on additional acres? Do we adopt this production practice? Do we purchase this technology? Will this make us sustainable? Those are the challenges.

Outside the farm, our greatest challenge and opportunity is this amazing need to know about food. Where did it come from? How was it raised? Who raised it? When, Why??? The opportunity is folks are paying attention to farming, to the country, to rural America and taking an interest in the life we've forged here. The challenge is reconciling the prevalent romantic idyllic images with how we farm and raise food. The challenge is communicating our use of technology, our knowledge of soil, plants, genes, and DNA with the picture of a simple man slaving away on a gray worn down farmstead. More than once, I've been asked, "You went to college? And you farm?" Yes and yes.  

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

As commodity growers, we really do not have that direct tie to retailers. Instead we deal with grain handlers who sell to the folks who make decisions about food, feed, fuel, energy and exports. 

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

This year we are trialing cover crops – field radishes and a variety of grasses. On our seed corn acres we destroy the sterile end rows in July to make way for detasseling crews. By the time harvest arrives, those areas are nothing but bare ground. We've noticed some washing and erosion with spring rains, and decided we need to add some organic matter to the soil in these areas to hold the soil in place and capture the water. Thus radishes and grasses. Each crop is coming up very nice. We'll just till that back into the ground and evaluate next spring. We also maintain waterways in almost every field. 

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person? 

My favorite reaction came from the mother of a student whose class I had been pen-paling with through Illinois' Adopt-A-Classroom program. The class was able to come out to our farm for a field trip. I greeted the group as they came off the bus, and introduced myself to the parent chaperones. One mother was looking at me quite confused and I asked if she had a question. "Well, no," she blushed. "It's just that when my daughter would come home and talk about Katie the Farm Lady I had pictured an older woman with gray hair pulled up in a bun wearing coveralls and a red plaid shirt. You aren't that!"