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Guest farmers

By Staff | Sep 9, 2011

GRACE CONTURSO, 8, and her brother, John Jr., hold turkey poults at the Paul Hill farm near Ellsworth.

ELLSWORTH – The daily realities of a Midwest farm family and a suburban New Jersey family appear to be worlds apart. But an unforgettable trip to Iowa showed John and Nancy Conturso just how much common ground exists between rural and urban residents.

“I can’t think of anything more opposite than what we’re used to, but we had a great time in Iowa and have made good friends here,” said Nancy Conturso, 39, of Wayne, N.J, who won the “Be Our Guest, Be A Farmer” contest sponsored by the Iowa Food & Family Project.

“The fact that farming is about family has been such an eye opener,”?Conturso said. “It’s nice to see generations of families here working together.”

The inaugural “Be Our Guest, Be A Farmer” contest invited people from around the country to register for a chance to win a four-day trip to Iowa in late August to renew their connection to food origins, experience the best of Iowa agriculture and meet Iowa farm families.

Conturso, who makes a 16-mile, 75-minute daily commute to her job at MetLife in Manhattan, saw an advertisement for the contest in Times Square, which is a block from her office.

Nathan Hill, left, and his father, Paul Hill, right, explained modern turkey production to John Conturso, who runs a food market and catering business in New Jersey.

She entered and was selected from more than 100 contestants originating from 31 states.

“We didn’t know what the interest level would be and didn’t have a large budget to promote the contest, but we wanted to find a unique way to connect consumers with farmers,” said Aaron Putze, director of external relations and coordinator of the Iowa Food & Family Project for the IowaSoybean Association.

The Contursos were a perfect fit for the “Be Our Guest, Be A Farmer” contest, added Putze, who noted that John Conturso is a trained chef who runs his own food market and catering business in suburban New Jersey.

“Where food comes from matters to the Contursos,”?Putze said, “and they wanted to experience Iowa farming first-hand.

“As they get food- and farm-related questions from consumers, they can provide more accurate answers.”

Grace Conturso, 8, and her brother, John Jr., had fun learning more about corn production in Iowa.

Ag from the ground up

The Contursos were accompanied on their trip to Iowa by two of their three children – John Jr., 9, and Grace, 8.The family visited Kevin and Julie Van Manen’s corn, soybean, cattle and hog farm near Kellogg, as well as a turkey farm near Ellsworth that has been in the Hill family since 1947.

“There are approximately 45 growers in our turkey cooperative, and it’s all family owned,” said Paul Hill, who joined his son, Nathan, to provide the Contursos a tour of the family’s turkey barns.

He noted that his family raises 850,000 birds per year, which are processed in Iowa to provide deli meat for customers across the nation, including SUBWAY.

“We take pride in what we do,” Hill said.

The Conturso family visited turkey farms near Ellsworth that have been in the Hill family since 1947.

As the Contursos toured the family’s farm, Hill explained how confinement barns provide a safe, climate-controlled environment that protects turkeys from the elements and predators.

“Just like you have to keep a baby warm and comfortable, we do the same thing for the poults we get from a hatchery in Minnesota,” said Hill, who also highlighted the many ways that producers ensure animal well-being, from providing an ample supply of fresh drinking water to judiciously using antibiotics.

The Contursos were interested to learn that farmers check on the turkeys every day. “The tour of the farm helped me better understand the difference between free-range and other production systems, so I can explain it to my customers,” added John Conturso, 40, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has worked in the food industry for 25 years.

Farming as a science

During the “Be Our Guest, Be A Farmer” trip, which included a tour of the John Deere Des Moines Works, REG in Newton, Channel’s Circle of Science near Huxley, Living History Farms and a visit to the Iowa State Fair, the Contursos also had the opportunity to learn about how technology is helping America’s farmers produce more food, fuel and fiber while protecting soil and water quality.

“I never really gave much thought about what goes into farming, but learning where our food comes from has been incredible,” said Nancy Conturso. “What impressed me was how farmers have food production down to a science, from the way they they feed their livestock to how they raise corn and soybeans.”

Based on the success of the “Be Our Guest, Be A Farmer” event, the Iowa Food & Family Project is thinking about offering the contest to Iowans, Putze said.

“Seventy percent of Iowans admit that they know little or nothing about where their food comes from, and yet 85 percent say they want to know more,” he said.

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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