Would you like to liven up your next gathering of people who eat food? Ag people, city folk, it doesn't matter, just so they eat real food on at least a semi-regular basis? Invite Debbie Lyons-Blythe to stop by and talk. If you check into her blog, Kids, Cows and Grass, you'll understand her calling as a rancher with a mission: explaining the joys of life in rural America.
Pour a cup of coffee and listen. Her point-of-view comes from a lifetime of living and cattle ranching in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Talking with ag people is easy and fun for her; talking with people whose closest brush with farm life is watching reruns of The Waltons is something she enjoys, too.
It's that passion to communicate that led to a singular honor. In 2012, she was named America's Farmer's Mom of the Year. The nominations - there were two - come from her children - there are five - and her aunt.
Consuelo Madere, spokesperson for America's Farmers Mom of the Year, said, "Debbie Lyons-Blythe has a work ethic and a passion for agriculture that is truly inspirational. She devotes time and energy to teaching consumers the source of their food, and she does it while raising five children, participating in key industry organizations and running a successful business."
Now, three years later, the children are raised but she continues to work with those industry organizations as well as with consumers, teaching them about the agricultural lifestyle as well as learning more about how ag folks live. What she does can best be described as a dialogue, a conversation between people; not a monologue, so often a one way street that leads no where.
So let's begin a 'Dialogue with Debbie' and ask about the things that are important to her and her life.
Q. Let's start at the beginning. You and your husband both grew up on farms and, after you were married, decided to stick with it even though you already knew it meant a lot of hard work and sacrifice. You both could have chosen other pursuits. What were the top five reasons for staying with agriculture?
A. Kids these days haven’t ever really seen difficult times in agriculture. Duane and I both finished college in the ‘80s and knew how rough it could be to begin farming at that time. Frankly, we did choose a different path than the one we are on today. We both took full time jobs and took care of the ranch on weekends and evenings.
Duane works at a bank managing the trust and wealth management department. I was the local County Extension Agriculture Agent. But when I got pregnant we decided it would work best if I could stay home and take care of the kids and we enlarged the cow herd at that time. So the kids grew up beside me in the pickup checking cows, in the tractor baling hay and playing in the barnyard while we vaccinated calves--until they were old enough to help!
It has taught them responsibility, respect for the land and animals as well as a work ethic that can’t be matched! Ranching isn’t just a way to make a living, it is a way of life! So what are my top five reasons to stay in agriculture? 1. Meghan 2. Allie 3. Trent 4. Tyler 5. Eric. It is a great way to raise a family!
Q. You introduced five children into the ranching life. Tell me about them. Will they follow the family tradition? Is attendance at K-State mandatory?
A. Yes, each of our kids is a Kansas State University graduate or current student. That was never mandatory, but it just made good sense. Why would you go anywhere else when you have such an amazing agriculture school in your backyard?
They have all had great experiences and support at K-state! They are actually the 4th generation to attend K-state. Of course, Duane and I met at K-state, but Duane’s grandfather and father were K-staters and my mom got her master’s degree at K-state! (Editor's note: OK, not mandatory but definitely an 'EPD')
The kids each have a different major and, frankly, each of them would be excellent assets to the ranch. They are all part owners in our LLC and one day will be the majority owners. But we also have created a culture in which they are free to make their own decisions on their future. So far, four of them have expressed an interest in eventually returning to the farm. But White City is a tiny town that is 30 miles from any major town, so we have told them they need to “see the world” before they willingly come home. You have to CHOOSE small town living. It is unique and has its own challenges. I love it, but I can see how others may feel trapped.
Q. May I ask about another of your life's passions - organ donation? A lot of people followed your son Tyler's illness and recovery. How did it effect the family and how is he doing now?
A. Yes, we learned about the need for organ donation advocacy the hard way. Our son was diagnosed with a fairly rare autoimmune disease last summer and it ruined his liver bile ducts very quickly. It had probably been working on him his entire life. Once diagnosed, he was immediately placed on the transplant list at #1 in our area. Soon after that, he took a turn for the worse and had to be admitted to the hospital to await transplant.
Finally after waiting for nearly 3 weeks total, he received a liver from a deceased donor on August 28, 2014. His life was saved by a family who was going through unimaginable grief, yet chose to give life to multiple people. We haven’t met the donor’s family yet, but we call their loved one our “Superman” and I often write of them in my blog. (Editor's note: Click here to read Dear Surgeon, a letter that tells what organ donation can mean to a family)
I believe that more people would donate their organs if they knew the kind of people they are helping. One donor can save the lives of 8 people through major organ donation and improve the life of 100 others because of tissue and eye donation. I hope it gives the donor’s family some comfort to know that Tyler is very healthy and has a normal life again! He started college just one semester later than his twin brother and is doing great!
I will continue to spread the word about organ donation. I believe that people are generous and kind, but they often just don’t know how much it means to people like Tyler to have a new chance at life! So go to organdonor.gov and register your own wishes to be an organ donor. I know of at least 3 people who have donated loved one’s organs because of Tyler’s story.
Q. Your blog, "Kids, Cows and Grass," advocates for life as you know and love it and I know you're a guest speaker at many events where cattle people gather. Do you speak to non-ag groups, too? What is your message?
A. I love talking to ag people, but I’d rather spend more time talking to non-ag groups! I do actively cultivate non-ag followers and speaking opportunities. My message is that it is people like me and my family raising the food for their tables, as well as our own tables. I want them to feel comfortable walking into a grocery store knowing that all the food in there is safe.
I think it is interesting what the Internet has done to our society. We are very skeptical, but mostly of “the establishment” and we would rather take advice from someone just like ourselves. So they trust the latest mommy blogger on what kind of milk they should buy instead of the dairy farmers who are the ones really doing the work or the nutritional scientist who say milk is an important source of nutrition!
I try to encourage more farmers and ranchers to talk to people around them about what they do so that they can become the source of information instead of Dr. Oz or Oprah. Bottom line in the American population, if there are less than 2% of us involved in ag, I believe there is also less than 2% who are activists and actively distributing misinformation. That leaves 96% of the people who truly don’t know what happens on a farm or ranch and are just trying to make good decisions and feed their families the best way they can. We have to make sure they know that we are doing the same thing and that we have more in common with them than not.
Q. Not so long ago, you enjoyed what had to be a fascinating dinner. Your Facebook post said, "Dinner last night was so much fun--we tagged along when John Stika (a Lincolnville, Ks native and president of Certified Angus Beef) took Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" and "Somebody's Gotta Do It," and Kevin & Lydia Yon out to dinner! Nearly 4 hours of 'dirty' stories and laughing as well as some farm stories in between as well as some amazing CAB steak!" Stika and Rowe are great raconteurs and you're pretty good at story-telling, too. Would you share some of the things you discussed at the table?
A. That was a really fun dinner—seven of us sitting around the table, telling “dirty” stories and enjoying an amazing Certified Angus Beef meal. Mike Rowe told all kinds of stories that you can see on his show, as well as some of the back stories. But what most intrigued me most was his foundation “Mike Rowe Works Foundation.” He said that our society has done a disservice to kids by telling them that they must get a college degree. He said that too many kids go to college with no idea what they want to do when they get out. So they graduate with a degree, lots of debt and no job, while the jobs that include “getting dirty” are available all over the country!
He said we have high unemployment, but plenty of good jobs available for people who are willing to work. So he is helping to encourage kids to consider a trade. He said we need to “Work Smart and Hard,” and be willing to get our hands dirty. That really resonated with me. We have encouraged our kids to go to college, but they do have goals of learning what they need to come back to the ranch. But so many kids feel it is beneath them to do physical work.
According to Mike, that has impacted every part of our society in a negative way. Mike is also a good listener and he really understands the impact of agriculture and the people of agriculture on the success of our society. And…he loved the steak! That in itself made me really like him!
Q. There is an old saying I've heard from a few of my ag friends, ”Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”. They're usually talking about equipment, not houses. Take me back 20 years and tell me, "What on Earth were you thinking!"
A. That was definitely our daily mantra when we took over the ranch in the ‘80s. Then along came five little kids and we really didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend. So we were living in a 2-bedroom farm house—about 900 square feet. So many people--we were busting out the seams! We couldn’t afford a new house, and still wanted to live on the land where we worked. So we moved an old house to a hilltop where we already had a water well and electricity for cattle.
We plunked an old house down in the middle of a pasture and worked on it ourselves and with the help of neighbors for about 6 months. Finally we moved in and even though things weren’t quite finished, we filled that house!
Today, as empty-nesters, the house is pretty quiet, but when everyone is home on the weekends that we have cattle work planned, it is filled to the rafters again with noise, mess and laughter! We made it work years ago, and today our house has “character” because we did it ourselves. I still have a bit of woodwork that needs varnished and a closet that has never been painted, but I figure I still have about 70 years left to live here. I’ll eventually get to it!!
Q. Last question: Thousands of people read Drovers CattleNetwork every day. What would you like to say to them?
A. I would tell them that we need to look at the current movement of food awareness as an opportunity to talk about the things we love! People really want to know what we do! So instead of getting defensive or avoiding conversations about why we use antibiotics for livestock, or plant round-up ready soybeans, we need to just be honest and tell people our reasons.
I don’t like to use the term “consumers” because it puts us in an adversarial position: consumers vs. producers. But we are consumers too! I’ve struggled with another term, but my sister may have hit upon the best one: “other people!” They are people, too, and they just want to buy safe, nutritious food for their family—just like me!
I recently spoke at a meeting filled with chefs and food service people. They were thrilled to hear what I do every day. But I learned as much from them about how they handle my product and the passion they have for their own job! So the next time you hear someone asking questions or talking about food, step up and take part in their conversation. Answer their questions based on your experiences. It takes many people, talking to “other people” on social media and face-to-face to show them who grows their food.
There is no right or wrong way. Just take a few minutes and ask someone at the meat counter in the grocery store how they plan to cook the cut of meat they just selected. Call your local school and ask a teacher if you could visit their classroom to read a book to the kids and then take a farm book. Talk to other people at the PTO meeting about what you put in the Crockpot to feed your family after the ballgame. Post a picture on Facebook of your family working side by side on the farm. You don’t have to be a perfectly trained advocate to get involved! Just talk to the people around you.