Jennifer Sturtevant shows the Field Moms’ Pen, three litters of pigs that she and husband Brian, a former district director in the Illinois Pork Producers Association, are raising as part of the Illinois Farm Families  Field Moms’ project. Sturtevant is documenting the progress of the pigs via videotaping, blogging and emails.
Jennifer Sturtevant shows the Field Moms’ Pen, three litters of pigs that she and husband Brian, a former district director in the Illinois Pork Producers Association, are raising as part of the Illinois Farm Families Field Moms’ project. Sturtevant is documenting the progress of the pigs via videotaping, blogging and emails.

LANARK, Ill. — For Jennifer Sturtevant, getting involved with the Illinois Farm Families Field Moms’ program was as easy as opening the doors.

“We’re putting it all out there,” said Sturtevant of her participation with the Field Moms’ Pen, a way to interactively involve the group of suburban Chicago women in the actual day-to-day operations of an Illinois hog farm.

Sturtevant is happy to show a guest around the beautifully-decorated and remodeled farmhouse she shares with her husband of almost 16 years, Brian, a fourth-generation livestock and grain farmer, and their two sons, Bryson, 11, and Jaxson, 9.

It’s that same hospitality that led her to get involved with the Field Moms’ program.

The Field Moms’ project is an effort by Illinois Farm Families to educate suburban Chicago women on production agriculture in their own state. The program uses farm visits, blogs, video and photos to connect the Field Moms, who have to apply and be selected to participate in the program, to a cross-section of Illinois farmers.

The women tour a variety of farms that have included hog farms, cattle farms and grain farms. The Field Moms’ Pen connects them with pork production over the course of the time it takes to raise a pig from birth to processing.

For the Sturtevants, it’s meant throwing the barn doors wide open to a group of strangers.

“The idea behind it is to have the group actually follow a pen of pigs from the time that they’re born until we take them to market. They have 35 pigs in a pen of 100 that they’re following,” Jennifer Sturtevant said.

The Sturtevants own shares in a sow center in Sycamore. Jennifer and Brian were at the sow center and able to tour it and document the birth of some of the pigs in the Field Moms’ Pen.

When the pigs were 21 days old, they were transported to one of the nursery buildings that make up the Sturtevants’ hog operation.

Brian farms with his father, Denny, and his brother, Mark, on the wean-to-finish hog operation. Brian farms with his uncles and cousins on the grain side of the farm, where they grow corn, soybeans and wheat.

The family’s hog operation includes 14 barns at different locations, including the 800-head finisher that is a stone’s throw from the house where Jennifer, Brian and their sons live.

Jennifer said the most important thing she and the Field Moms have in common is motherhood. She has used that common bond to translate the information about everyday practices on the farm.

“I try and relate it a lot to our kids. All of us have kids, so the best way for a mom to relate to a mom is to talk to them as a mother and about how we handle our kids,” she said.

“Separation anxiety was one of those things. They were worried about the separation anxiety of a sow to the piglets, do they cry? I said no, pigs are very social animals. If they’re with another group, they mingle in and mix together.”

Sturtevant also relates to the Field Moms — and they to her — with her ability to juggle multiple tasks at once.

She is a stay-at-home mom and helps out in the farm in various capacities, from delivering parts and lunch during fieldwork to helping load and move hogs. In addition, she operates a home-based business, volunteers and is a substitute teacher.

She also recently was elected to the Eastland School District board, which encompasses the Lanark and Shannon schools.

“As our boys have gotten older, I’m able to do a lot more,” she said.

Sturtevant handles the questions from the Field Moms as they come. The group stays in touch with her and she with them via a weekly conference call, as well as blog she writes on the Illinois Farm Families Website — www.watchusgrow.org — and through photos and video that she has posted so the moms can keep up with the progress of their pigs.

That progress has been a surprise for the Field Moms, Sturtevant said.

“When we got them, they were between 12 to 15 pounds. The week after that, I took another picture and they were already 20 pounds, so they’re gaining weight rapidly. When I go in to take the next picture, the moms aren’t going to believe how much bigger the pigs are and how much less cute,” she said.

Some of the topics have been difficult, but Sturtevant said she is determined to address all of the topics about pork production and their farm’s practices. She also includes the farm’s employees, six full-time and five seasonal workers, in her information.

“They had questions about castration. I said it’s like when you have a baby boy, you circumcise them. They were worried about the incisions, and they were worried about infections,” she said.

One of the challenges has been to communicate the idea that the farm also is the family business and has to be run as the business it is to support the families involved and their employees.

“That’s been one of the things that’s been hard to get across is that this is a business. We run this farm as a business. This is how we make our living,” Sturtevant said.

Other queries include questions about medication and antibiotics, the breeding and life cycle of the sows, pork processing and GMOs.

“They want to know about GMOs, and that’s hard because you can tell them until you’re blue in the face what you believe in and what you know, but the minute they read an article, they’re right back on the wagon again of not believing and not understanding,” Sturtevant said. “That’s why it’s so important that they keep on with this program, so they can see the final product.”

While some of the questions have been tougher — Sturtevant said that every question posed by the Field Moms gets an answer from her, Brian or Tim Maiers, director of public relations for the Illinois Pork Producers Association.

“Any of the questions that the Field Moms have had, we’ve never been really stumped. Someone has been able to answer them,” Sturtevant said.

Donna Jeschke, who farms with her husband, Paul, near Mazon, is hosting the Field Moms’ Acre as Sturtevant hosts the Field Moms’ Pen. Jeschke is documenting the progress of an acre of corn and an acre of soybeans for the Field Moms.

While she takes photos and video, when possible, of the farm practices, Sturtevant said it’s difficult to know what to post and how the posts will be received.

The family was harassed by activists a number of years ago when a nursery barn owned by Brian’s brother Mike burned to the ground a day after the barn had been filled with pigs.

Sturtevant answers every question that the moms have, and she is determined to make sure the Field Moms get the correct information.

“As a farmer, I feel that they need to know this is how it goes and this is how we look at it,” she said.

Brian served as a district director on the board of the Illinois Pork Producers Association and serves as a resource for his wife as she participates in the conference calls or relays information.

“Brian usually sits right beside me when I’m on the call, so if I have any questions, I can ask him,” she said.

She admits that while she was more nervous about going in front of the camera for the project, Brian’s concern was in a different direction — fueled by the experience with the nursery barn fire.

“He did hesitate at the very beginning when I told him I was going to take video and I was going to take pictures and they were going to be up on a website. He said I don’t know if we want to put ourselves on the chopping block like that,” she said.

Jennifer, who grew up on a cattle and hog farm in rural Carroll County, was firm.

“I said if you stand behind your convictions and you believe in what you are doing, than you are not doing anything wrong. I said we are one of the most conservative and conscientious farms, I think, out there. We want to preserve and conserve the land. We want our kids to farm and their kids to farm,” she said.

The lives that she and her family lead on the farm also are a topic for the Field Moms, with the farm work ethic and her sons’ life on the farm being a big point of interest.

“They are very interested in what our morals and values are for our kids,” said Sturtevant, who said that one impression was that farm kids live most of their lives outside.

“My kids do not live outside all the time. They play video games just like any other kids. When they’re asked to do something or to go help do something, their boots are on before I can get the rest of the sentence out. To them, it’s not work. It’s being part of something and helping out the family,” said Sturtevant, who emphasizes that her kids can be just like any other kids in any other setting. “My kids can be naughty, too.”

Sturtevant is a true believer in the Field Moms program and its mission of getting information out to the non-farm public.

“I think this is a bold stand, and it addresses a lot of touchy issues,” she said.