Katie Pratt, one of the new “Faces of Farming and Ranching,” talks about her new position as a spokesperson for American agriculture and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Pratt, who farms with her husband, Andy, and his family on their rural Lee County grain farm, was one of four farmers chosen to tour the country during the next year and talk about modern agriculture to diverse non-farm audiences.
Katie Pratt, one of the new “Faces of Farming and Ranching,” talks about her new position as a spokesperson for American agriculture and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Pratt, who farms with her husband, Andy, and his family on their rural Lee County grain farm, was one of four farmers chosen to tour the country during the next year and talk about modern agriculture to diverse non-farm audiences.

DIXON, Ill. — Katie Pratt knows that sometimes all it takes is some mussel to initiate a conversation about farming.

Katie’s father, Gail Dallam, and her mom, Jan, were on vacation recently in Florida when a remark about seafood led to some farm talk.

“The restaurant was not serving a certain type of mussel because there was a type of algae in the water. The algae comes around every year at the same time, and they don’t serve the mussels during that time. When it’s gone, they go back to serving the mussels. But my dad and mom heard the person at the next table say, ‘Oh, is that because of those farmers up north and what they put on their fields?” Pratt said.

“My mom told me my dad took a deep breath, turned around and introduced himself as one of those farmers up north. He asked where they’d heard that about the farmers up north. My mom and dad ended up joining the couple for dinner, having a great conversation, finding out it was just something they heard, they really didn’t know the details. When they left the restaurant, they left as friends.”

Those types of conversations can happen easily, but it’s the conversations on the national stage — with the people who influence shoppers across the nation — that Pratt has started having as one of the “Faces of Farming and Ranching” of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

Pratt, whose parents are grain and livestock farmers in rural Amboy, was selected as one of four “Faces of Farming and Ranching” out of a field of some 100 entrants.

“I was shocked. I really was shocked. I had to put it out of my mind, and I thought I’m not going to think about it until it’s announced. It seemed very surreal,” said Pratt, who is the Lee County Ag in the Classroom coordinator.

She and her husband, Andy, celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary this year. They have two children, son Ethan, 7, and daughter Natalie, 5.

Andy, his brother, Peter, and their father, Mike, make up the farming partnership that is Grand Prairie Farms. The Pratts raise corn, soybeans and seed corn.

Both the Dallam farm and the farm where Katie and Andy live have hosted guests and tours, from visitors from Japan when Gail Dallam constructed a farrowing house for his pigs in the early days of moving pork production indoors to Katie and Andy hosting the Summer Ag Institute tour of teachers from the area.

The other “Faces” are Chris Chinn, who with her husband, Kevin, and his parents and brother are livestock and grain farmers in Missouri; dairy farmer Will Gilmer, who with his father owns and operates a dairy farm in Sulligent, Ala.; and Bo Stone, who with his wife, Missy, and Bo’s parents owns P&S Farms, growing row crops, pigs, sweet corn and strawberries, in Rowland, N.C.

With the Pratt farm’s direct connection to the biotechnology and GMO side of agriculture, Pratt said she wants that story to be part of her message as she travels to different events.

“For a while, that was taboo. You just didn’t bring it up. You didn’t talk about it unless someone broached the subject because you didn’t want to enter into that discussion. I think now, ‘This is a part of our farm. This is a tool we use to be successful as farmers,’” she said. “I’m not ashamed of that, and I’m not ashamed of what we do on the farm.”

She also plans to talk about the decision-making process that goes into using new technology, whether on the seed side or the equipment side of farming.

“It’s all about telling stories of continuous improvement. I talk about the use of technology on our farm, in our seed and in our equipment. It’s not a decision we just take lightly. It takes time, it takes research, it takes study,” she said. “Andy and Peter and their dad, Mike, talk to a lot of people. They read a lot of studies. We take these decisions seriously.”

The daughter of a livestock farmer, Pratt said she is grateful that the USFRA has brought everyone to the same table.

“I think, for a very long time, we’ve been very good about talking to ourselves and even then, we weren’t really talking to ourselves either. Corn farmers talked to corn farmers talked to corn farmers, and beef cattle farmers talked to beef cattle farmers. So we’ve finally come together around the table. I feel like that’s the first obstacle the USFRA has accomplished — bringing together the different sectors of agriculture around the table,” she said.

The practical side of spending the next year representing American farming and ranching means a potentially busy travel schedule for Pratt.

She was in Phoenix in January and then traveled to New York City for a media tour, where she appeared with Chef Danny Boome from the Food Network show “Rescue Chef.”

Pratt said she doesn’t expect the travel schedule to be too difficult.

“Andy’s reaction was OK. His mantra since we got involved with the Illinois Farm Families project and the tours was that he doesn’t mind — but he says, ‘Don’t make me talk.’ He said, ‘I’ll farm and you do the talking,’ and he’s been a wonderful support for it,” she said. “We both said, ‘It’s for a year. If the travel gets overwhelming, it’s just for a year,’ but I don’t think it’s going to be overwhelming.”

She said she’s excited to be a pioneer in this new venture for American agriculture.

“Agriculture has never put people out there to the national audience and said, ‘Here’s a farmer,’ so who knows what the reaction is going to be?” she said.

She’s also been learning as she’s been teaching. She is an Illinois Farm Families volunteer, and she blogs and is active on Facebook. But Twitter, the world of 140-character messages, is something new for Pratt.

“I’m on Twitter now (@KatiePratt4) and trying to figure it out. It’s a whole new language!” said Pratt, who said she is “tiptoeing” into Twitter by devoting 15 minutes each day to social media.

Pratt said she hopes, by talking to the “influencers,” to reach the “average Joe” consumers — those who shop in the Walmarts, the Jewel-Osco and the County Market stores.

“I think there’s a large group of non-farming consumers who are middle-of-the-road, average Joe, very busy. They go into a grocery store. They get in. They get out. That’s the way I am. But then they come home and they turn on the TV. Dr. Oz is on, and he’s got an expert and the expert says, ‘Don’t eat this food.’ So that consumer just went to the grocery store. They look and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, maybe I shouldn’t have bought that,’ without giving it a lot of thought or having the time to research and really find out the details behind it,” she said.

“Is there a good way to reach that audience? I don’t know because I know, for me, until it affects me directly, there are a lot of things I just push off to the side.”

Pratt said the group hopes to be able to talk to the influencers, including the dietitians, the doctors, the food company executives and buyers, and celebrities such as Boome, who, in turn, can have major influence over consumer food choices.

“I think our targets are influencers. The people who, when they say something, other people listen to them,” she said.

Pratt said she knows people have questions, including consumers who are close to home.

“I sit down with my family, and I have family members who have questions over family dinner or in the church parking lot or at the local chili supper. Those are all opportunities to take ‘Well, I heard this’ and say something,” she said

When asked why she wanted to embark on the yearlong project, Pratt nodded toward her living room where son Ethan was playing. Ethan and Natalie are in 4-H Cloverbuds, the kindergarten through third-grade precursor program to 4-H.

In Cloverbuds, children do a group project instead of the individual projects they will do later in 4-H. But Ethan already has plans.

“He wants to plant his own corn patch. He wants to plant sweet corn and Indian corn and popcorn and different kinds of corn and sell it. He’s got a map all drawn out, and he’s talking to his grandpa about where this is going to go and how he’s going to do it. To not encourage that — I know he’s only 7 and a lot can happen — but I feel like part of this speaking and talking and listening, that’s preparing the future for them to hopefully make it a more friendly future for them to be farmers,” Pratt said.

She said that she hopes everyone will participate, from those who speak in front of audiences to those who “walk the walk” by making the best management decisions for their farms, families and communities.

“I think we can all have a hand in it, whether we are standing in front of a crowd of people or whether we are just in the tractor planting the drop and doing what needs to be done,” she said.