The year 2016 has ushered in changes. I'll be stepping out of my comfort zone, doing a lot of traveling over the next few months. Meeting new people, breaking misconceptions. Over time I'll be blogging about my travels. As an author, I'm taking notes, researching, fleshing out new books. Strap your seatbelt on, I'm taking you on my journey!
From January 7-10, 2016, I traveled to Orlando, Florida, to participate in the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture's Authors On the Farm Experience. Twelve children's authors were selected to attend, I being one of them. I have So, So much to say about my experience I plan on writing about it over time in a series of blogs. This is my first.
"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz. Okay, it wasn't Kansas I left behind, it was freezing cold - snow on the ground - Boston, MA. And it was JetBlue that deposited me safely to my destination - not a raging tornado. Never the less, my heart was pounding like young Dorothy's. I had never been to Orlando, FL. Cheery blossoming flowers, swaying palm trees, fields of green grass greeted me… it felt surreal, it felt like I'd landed in Oz.
The first day I met my fellow children's authors. I already knew Loreen Leedy of Florida through our PBAA connection. We hadn't met face-to-face, and it was a real pleasure getting to do so. Joining me and Loreen were: Lisl Detlefsen, WI; Susan Grigsby, MO; Katie Irk, IN; Lela Nargi, NY; Eric Ode, WA; Albert Monreal Quihuis, AZ; Lizzy Rockwell, CT; Michael Spradlin, MI; Peggy Thomas, NY; Sandra Neil Wallace, NH. I was honored to be among these wonderful authors.
Our second day, Friday January 8, we took a bus to tour Buckhead Beef, a meat processing plant. I should start by saying what I had expected to see. As a young child back in the '60s my mother shopped at the local grocery store, First National. The front of the store had canned and boxed groceries, the rear was a glass wall. This glass wall was a fishbowl, of sorts, peering into the world of the stained white lab coated butcher. Dead cows hung from hooks, the butcher chopped and packaged the meat, I in awe would stare transfixed from the other side. More amazing to me was how my mother transformed all these marbled pink and red pieces into our sumputous Sunday dinners. Rather archaic and bloody was the butcher in the fishbowl. That is what I had expected to see at Buckhead Beef. Boy, was I in for a surprise. Buckhead Beef is a large facility, Florida's #1 purveyor of Certified Angus branded products. No glassed in walls, just doors to hold in the very cold temperatures. Hair netted and clean lab coated, we basically walked into an enormous refrigerator/freezer. The chilly temperatures keep the meat fresh. Some of my fellow authors donned offered jackets to wear under our lab coats, I having just come from FREEZING COLD BOSTON went in sans jacket. Just giving you some tactile imagery here - honestly we were also wearing gloves and we not allowed to touch anything. But in the freezer section the cold did bite into the skin a bit. Nothing different than the city I flew out of, only in Florida one doesn't expect to shiver.
Once inside, I did not see bloody butchers with huge butcher knives. I didn't see blood, I saw raw meat and very hardworking employees - some on the floor for 19-20 years. The building was immaculate and clean. Workers had cutting knives like you might see a fine chef using. They wore safety gloves to protect their hands from cuts. These men and women were amazing at their jobs, trimming, cutting, preparing, packaging Angus beef for Buckhead's clients. State of the art machinery measured fat content in ground beef, conveyor belts has scales built into them, weighing pieces as they passed by. X-ray machines looked for foreign objects. This plant was amazing. The food that leaves its doors is top notch. I feel honored to have toured the facility.
After lunch our bus brought us to our next destination, Country Oaks Angus Ranch. Here we were greeted by the Freel family. Bill and Megan Freel, and their family, daughters Erin and Molly, son-in-laws, and granddaughters Reagan, 9, and Riley, 14. We had already met Erin, she was part of our overall group as she videotaped our author experience. (She is an amazing woman who really inspired me, but I'll save that for a later blog post.) Bill Freel, D.V.M., is a large animal veterinarian. The photos above are Angus cows and calves from his 200 acre ranch.
Here I need to explain the different names for cattle. Though this gets more detailed, basically a COW is a female who has had a CALF. A CALF is a baby, regardless of sex. A HEIFER is a female who hasn't had a calf, yet. A neutered male is a STEER. An un-neutered male is a BULL.
Molly Rowe, her husband, and daughters live in the adjoining property with cattle of their own. A hayride brought us authors easily through both properties, stopping at both while the Freels/Rowes answered all our questions. These people live on their farm and work it, everyday of the year. One quote we were told was, "The cows don't know it's Christmas." Gift opening took a backseat to morning routines of feeding cattle. Everything we saw, heard and experienced was grand, but the highlight of our farm visit was meeting Riley and Reagan. These young girls were amazing. Highly intelligent, caring and committed, the future of farming in America is bright with youth such as these two girls. They raise show animals for 4-H and were proud to share them with us. For each animal they keep records, describing the animal, keeping track of expenses, depreciation of equipment - these bound folders were organized and put together comparable to a college thesis. These girls were truly amazing, and I'm proud to have met them.
Our third day, Saturday, January 9, 2016. This was the day we had lunch with a farmer. I happened to be the fortunate author who had two farmers. Honestly, I feel I was blessed. The first one I met was Emily Edmondson from Virginia. Emily quickly broke a couple misconceptions - first she was a woman farmer, and second she introduced herself as an Episcopal Priest. Emily had brought along Norm Hyde from the Farm Bureau of Virginia. Norm was there to share a video of Emily's farm, and to document the author event with photography. Okay, so I'm from Boston - the land of Red Sox baseball caps. My other farmer had me grin from ear to ear when he introduced himself. Wearing a marvelous cowboy hat was Jim Strickland from Southern Florida. Here's where I was blessed. My fellow authors had one-on-one lunches with a farmer. I had two - from very different locations. Emily's ranch is seated in the rolling green mountains of Virginia, down near Tennessee. She has her share of cold, snowy days. Her farm sustains itself by growing grass in the summer, mowed and gathered in the fall, and fed to her cattle in the winter. Jim's farm is down in Southern Florida - his cattle don't know snow. They graze alongside his orange trees and honeybees. Wildflower honey. I'm told the best kind there is! Where the Freel ranch has 200 acres in central Florida, Jim has 20,000 acres at the bottom of the state. My brain was quickly trying to visualize and compare. Each farmer I met had similarities, and differences. They all have to work hard 365 days a year tending to their cattle. But they all faced different challenges in their day to day ranching.
Farming is not an easy life one takes. Many of the farmers come from a long line of farmer families. Fourth and even fifth generations. All the farmers I met were highly educated, hard working, compassionate people. They care about each and every animal they raise. They raise healthy, strong animals. They grieve if one dies. These farmers want to raise the best, healthiest food possible. They don't just raise it for slaughter and send it off, they consume it and feed it to their families. They take pride in feeding America, and even exporting to the world. By 2050 the world population is expected to increase to 9 billion people. We are asking our farmers to keep feeding us the highest quality food, all while their farmland is diminishing. Farmers are the Original Environmentalists. They need to take extremely good care of their land so it can sustain their crops, their cattle, their families. I was humbled to have met with the Freels, Rowes, Emily Edmondson, and Jim Strickland.
Us authors started our fourth day, Sunday, January 10, 2016, with an early (farmers' time) breakfast at the Convention Center. This was part of the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show. Fifteen hundred farmers were in attendance. Here, while those 1,500 people ate flapjacks, the twelve of us were introduced onstage. Farmers from Massachusetts later found me and introduced themselves. I'll be mentioning them in a later blog post. Really, though, the highlight of the morning was introducing the American Farm Bureau Book of the Year. Each farmer was given a copy. Fellow author, and now friend, Susan Grigsby was the author of the book, First Peas to the Table. The serendipitous thing about her book was it was illustrated by Nicole Tadgell - Nicole lives in Massachusetts and I've known her for years. We used to meet at the same critique group. Upon arriving home, I was delighted to tell Nicole about the award.
I leave this post coming back to how I started my journey - being the author of Achoo! Why Pollen Counts. Pollen is that smallest of male gamete which spreads, fertilizes, and starts all plant life. Plants to feed humans and animals. No matter how much it makes us sneeze, or covers our cars, or annoys us, it's what gives us food in crops, shelter from trees, honey from bees - and snow! http://www.noaa.gov/features/02_monitoring/snowflakes_2013.html Thank you for reading this post, come back later as I continue my 2016 author/illustrator researching and adventures.
My heartfelt thanks to Angela, Craig, Autumn, Julia, Julie, Kevin, and all else who put Authors On the Farm together.