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Part 2: Who will speak up for modern agriculture
Several weeks ago I wrote a column decrying the lack of books on modern agriculture. I demonstrated how there were plenty of books in print that focused on the alleged problems with modern farming but very few that told the other side of the story. I asked readers to tell me if they found any such books; few did. There was, however, one very notable exception.

Jan Tribbett of O’Fallon, Ill. not only e-mailed to tell me of a good book, she sent me a copy; it was her book. Called “Fainting Goats and Malted Milk,” it is a fascinating little book of agricultural trivia or, more actually, trivial facts about agriculture. In this book, you will learn that horses do not vomit and that the squeal of a pig is louder than a jet plane.

Jan works for the Illinois Cooperative Extension in the Agriculture Literacy Program in St. Clair County. She travels to schools in her area to teach students about agriculture.

“You cannot imagine the kind of blank slate I come into,” she told me speaking on the ag literacy level of the students she meets. “These are kids that do not know that bread is made from flour and that flour comes from wheat.”

Hold on here - we are not talking about Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or other alien planets - these kids are growing up in the Corn Belt just a few miles from corn and soybean fields.

“These kids make no connection between the soybean fields they drive by on the way to school and anything in their world,” she added.

Much of the trivia in the book came from her experience with these students. That is why you will find “A cow poops 15 times a day” as one of the facts listed in her book.

“If you can make something interesting, you are half way home,” she said.

The book is interesting even to someone like me who makes his living knowing lots of agricultural facts. “On a day with a light breeze a cow can smell things six miles away.” Compare this to the housewife in the new housing development next to the cow’s field who claims she can smell the cow when the wind is blowing in the opposite direction.

The book covers horses, cows, pigs, poultry, sheep and goats. It also contains facts about grains, oilseeds, and fruits and veggies. Tribbett also covers trivia about some of the common parts of speech that come from our agrarian heritage. For example, “The word husband originally meant a man who has land and livestock.” Today of course it means man who has land, livestock and debt.

Other common phrases that have their roots in agriculture include, “let the cat out of the bag, open sesame, and long in the tooth.”

Tribbett said textbooks used in schools today have an appalling lack of information about agriculture. She noted that some texts will tell the story of George Washington Carver inventing more than 300 uses for the peanut, but never go into why.

“They don’t cover the fact that these alternative crops were planted to replenish the soil that had been depleted by continuous cotton planting,” she said.

She points out that history books will talk about oxen going west with the settlers, but never describe what an ox is.

While both Jan and I agree that a comprehensive book on modern agriculture for non-ag people is needed, her book fills the void until then. As she says, “Whether you’re a farmer or a pavement dweller, you will learn something.”

I highly recommend you get a copy of this book. Just think how smart you will sound at the next Farm Bureau meeting spouting off little known agricultural facts. Since this is the season of giving, why not get a few for your friends, family, and favorite politician. Perhaps you could donate a copy to your school or public library. To order a copy of “Fainting Goats and Malted Milk,” call Jan at 618-622-3058 or e-mail her at

Published in the December 14, 2005 issue of Farm World.