WIUM Tristates Public Radio

My Farm Roots - An Evening of Farm Stories

Dec 21, 2015

Joel Gruver stood in front of a packed house at the Western Illinois Museum and talked about apprenticing with an old farmer in the hilly countryside of rural Maryland, where he grew up. He stretched his arms wide to illustrate how steep the hill was that he ran down one afternoon in hot pursuit of the farmer’s runaway antique tractor. The audience gasped and then laughed as Joel described catching up with the machine only to have a wheel pop off and bounce over the fence.

Joel was one of six storytellers to perform at My Farm Roots, a live storytelling event that I hosted in Macomb, Illinois, a small university town surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of farmland. The event, put on in collaboration with Tri States Public Radio, Western Illinois Museum, and Harvest Public Media, drew an estimated 80 people. It was a diverse crowd, including locals who grew up in Macomb, professors and students from the university, conventional row crop farmers, small market gardeners, retired folks, and kids.

After the six storytellers finished, I invited members of the audience to come up to the mic and tell their own farming tales. Five people did, sharing experiences of farming accidents, aggressive chickens, and the consequences of setting hay bale traps. The community talked and listened to each other for more than three hours.

By all accounts, it was a successful night.

My theory for why is rooted in the power of storytelling, which can catapult us over our wall-like opinions and beliefs into the land of someone else’s experiences. George Hennenfent, a storyteller at the event who grew up on a farm in western Illinois, put it like this:

“All of us become "barn blind" - we think the cattle in our barn are better than all of the other cattle because we see them all the time. We think what we are most familiar with is the best or normal,” George wrote in an email. “An event like [My Farm Roots] brings to light many other perspectives and viewpoints. It is a great antidote to barn blindness.”  

I don’t think I was ever “barn blind.” But, not having grown up on a farm, I was perhaps “barn oblivious.”

That changed when I became the Harvest Public Media farm reporter for Tri States Public Radio, two organizations committed to telling stories about agriculture in the Midwest. In the past fifteen months, I’ve experienced the monotony of harvesting endless rows of corn, grimaced through the bloody C-section of a calf birth, and taken a long, cold walk with a veteran suffering from PTSD who has finally found comfort and purpose in farming. I’ve had the privilege of sharing these stories with Harvest’s large, and ever growing, audience.

Now, I’m off to a new adventure to work as an associate producer for Invisibilia at NPR in Washington, D.C.

When I miss Harvest and wearing carhartts to the office and smelling the hog truck, I’ll think back to the crowded room the night so many residents of Macomb came together to help each other see.

As for Joel’s story, he searched the creek bed on the other side of the fence for days, but never found the tire. Now, he told the audience, that farmland has been chunked up and sold off for housing. He still wonders if someday kids will dig it up like an artifact from a lost agrarian past.

Guest Storytellers

Jane Carlson

Jane Carlson grew up near Rio, Illinois, in northern Knox County. She is the director of Tri States Public Radio's audio information service for the visually impaired and a freelance writer and photographer.

Joel Gruver

Joel Gruver discovered his love of soil and plants on his family's small diversified farm in rural Maryland. He has been a professor in the School of Agriculture since January 2007.
Credit Rich Egger

Barbara Harroun

Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University where she teaches composition and creative writing. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack.
Credit Rich Egger

George Hennenfent 

George Hennenfent grew up in Smithshire, Illinois. George is a lawyer by profession, but in the fall, he serves as the announcer for the Illinois State Corn Husking contest.
Credit Rich Egger

Randy Solenberger

Randy Sollenberger is a farm boy, WIU alum, father, grandfather, teacher, writer, storyteller and humorist living in Macomb, Illinois.
Credit Rich Egger

Terri VanMeenen-Misfeldt

Terri VanMeenen-Misfeldt grew up in Geneseo and has been a full-time resident of the Macomb community for the past decade.
Credit Rich Egger

Abby Wendle

Abby Wendle is the farm reporter for Tri States Public Radio.
Credit Rich Egger

Open Mic Storytellers

Gil Belles

Gil Belles.
Credit Rich Egger

John Lane

John Lane.
Credit Rich Egger

Marcia Moulden

Marcia Moulden
Credit Rich Egger

Sydney Null

Sydney Null.
Credit Rich Egger

Wilma Ren

Wilma Ren.
Credit Rich Egger