I grew up with a love of being outside and the natural world. My parents lovingly humored my eclectic Christmas lists, buying rock tumblers, bug habitats, crystal growing kits, my first microscope, butterfly nets, and more. I was never discouraged as I carefully observed, recorded, and catalogued my world.
My siblings and I lived for summertime when nags of “no going in and out” meant the majority of our time was spent outside in the pastures, gardens, and barn. Buried in notebooks in my parents attic, are “field notes” on all the birds’ nests I could find on our farm. Scaling the trees and climbing the rafters in the barn, I would record how many eggs were in each nest and what they looked like. With close monitoring I would keep track of how many eggs hatched, chicks fledged, etc. One of my most memorable discoveries was a nest in which I observed a new egg added. The egg looked different, but only slightly, from the other three eggs in the nest. Much to my confusion I saw that this egg not only hatched first but the hatchling grew quicker and soon dwarfed its nestmates. After weeks of research (I could only use the internet when no one was expecting a phone call), I put the pieces together and realized I was observing a cowbird, a nest parasite that lays its eggs in other species’ nests and successfully tricks the host species into raising its young. The cowbird nestlings often outcompete their nestmates for food causing decreased survivability in the host bird’s own chicks. Cowbirds are more common on forest edges, meaning that songbirds are often safe deep inside unfragmented forest. Learning about the cowbird, was my first indication that the acres of corn surrounding our home, that I could see stretching for miles from my “study sites” high in the trees, may be less than advantageous for many of the organisms that inhabited my world. Though there were small patches of trees around waterways in the fields, I couldn’t think of a single area of “unfragmented forest” near our farm.
After my long days of “field work”, I would come inside for supper that my parents had usually prepared straight from the garden. Our food miles were around 20 feet, and you could taste the sunshine in the tomatoes. Growing and keeping a garden not only kept us fed, but also introduced us to new foods. It’s hard to refuse to try something when you picked it out of a seed catalogue in cold february.
I grew up and studied for a degree in biology. I was in disbelief that people could make careers studying and learning about so many cool things. It became a tradition, much to the aggravation of my parents, that on Sunday afternoons, I would often show up at the house with a carload of hungry soccer teammates. Many of them were from large cities, and away from home for the first time. After weeks of eating college diet staples like Ramen and tuna sandwiches, a home cooked meal was a highlight of our week. Through these friends I learned that access to real food was a privilege. I remember watching them try okra for the first time, and how much they loved seeing the garden and picking green beans.
I began to become interested in farming, and how agriculture and conservation could fit together. I was working at the Illinois River Biological Station studying fish communities when I found out about Illinois Stewardship Alliance. I interned there in the spring of 2015 and was amazed at how the work of one organization could so seamlessly blend all of my interests; habitat conservation, food security, local food system advocacy, etc. After my internship I joined the staff as outreach coordinator and have had the privilege of working on projects in every area of my interest.
The project I’m most proud of this year is managing the Old Capitol Farmers Market. The management of the market was a much bigger job than I expected, but I learned much about our local farmers and how a successful market operates. We had over 80 vendors this year and thousands of customers who helped to stimulate a vibrant local food system and put money directly in the pockets of those who grow their food. One of the coolest things about our market is that we are able to accept SNAP sales at our market booth and even offer a matching fund that gives SNAP recipients more buying power when they choose to spend their dollars at the market. This means a SNAP recipient who spends $10 at our Market will receive an additional $10 for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables only, for a total of $20. One in five children relies on SNAP funding, so being able to provide this matching fund not only gives limited income families extra dollars to purchase fresh, healthy products, but it also keeps money in the pockets of our farmers instead of big box stores. Please consider a donation to our SNAP support fund which helps make wholesome local produce accessible to everyone in our community, or give to any of the other great programs listed below!