Ag literacy books

You won’t find any loquacious cows, silly donkeys or Old McDonald farmers in the children’s picture books published by Feeding Minds Press, an arm of the American Farm Bureau Foundation.

Instead you’ll find a boy named Chuck whose “dairy godmother” takes him to a dairy farm to see all the hard work that goes into producing his favorite treat – ice cream.

Or you’ll find a young girl in polka-dot work boots feeding calves and cats with her father in their barn before the sun rises.

The idea, said Julia Recko, director of the foundation’s education outreach, is to create children’s books that provide a glimpse into real, modern farming while engaging young readers in a creative story.

“So many children’s books show antiquated farms, stereotypes of farming life, talking animals or ducks that get together to take over the farm,” Recko said. “We looked for books that focused on modern farming practices and when we didn’t see them, we decided to publish them ourselves.”

The foundation, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was established to build awareness and understanding of agriculture through education, so publishing picture books about real-world agriculture that shows children where their food comes from fits in nicely.

The idea took root in 2017 and the first book – “Right This Very Minute: A Table-to-Farm Book About Food and Farming” – was published in 2019. That was followed by “My Family’s Soybean Farm,” “Tales of the Dairy Godmother: Chuck’s Ice Cream Wish” and the newly published “Barn at Night.”

Feeding Minds purchases manuscripts from submitted stories, then hires an illustrator and works with a professional children’s book editor and an art director. Books are printed in the United States and sold on the foundation’s website as well as through Amazon, private bookstores, Target and other retailers.

“We’re very selective about our manuscripts because it’s so expensive to publish a book, but we’re constantly looking for submissions,” Recko said. “Anything that’s super creative gets our attention, with the focus on a child and on discovery.”

Once books are published – usually two a year – Feeding Minds promotes them for a year, including creating opportunities for authors to speak at Farm Bureau events. Recko said they’ve been well received and popular, creating a niche market, particularly among the agriculture community.

Newest book is from Ohio author Michelle Houts
Michelle Houts
Michelle Houts (Photo courtesy of Cheri Hall)

The latest Feeding Minds author is Ohio Farm Bureau member Michelle Houts of Celina. She wrote “Barn at Night” 20 years ago while watching her three children grow up on a 2,000-acre family farm in Mercer County.

“Chores were part of everyday life, but I realized that what was mundane during the day ended up being magical at night, especially in winter, and that’s the atmosphere I wanted to create in the book,” Houts said. “I’d be standing in the kitchen looking out at the barn at night, and I know from watching my kids that there was something really special about going out to feed the animals with their dad.”

Houts was just beginning her career as a children’s author when she wrote the original version of “Barn at Night,” and it was rejected by publisher after publisher. She put it aside and, having learned a great deal about writing children’s books over the years, rewrote it and submitted it to Feeding Minds last year.

“It’s a very quiet book,” she said. “The little girl and the father are getting up very early in the morning and she has her own chores every day – feeding the calves and playing with the barn cats. And in the last third of the book she and her dad go out earlier than normal and a foal is born.”

Barn at Night bookHouts has published 12 books for young readers including her debut novel, “The Beef Princess of Practical County,” about a young girl raising a steer to show at her county fair and her growing realization that the animals will be slaughtered after the competition. She said her publisher originally balked at the steer’s fate, but finally agreed to the ending.

“These kinds of books fill a need for children who don’t have access to farms and agriculture – this gives a true-to-life sense at a time when a lot of kids grow up now without a connection to a family farm,” Houts said. “We learn about cultures and lifestyles different from our own by the books we read.”

Future books from Feeding Minds Press

Recko said Feeding Minds will publish its first book for middle-school-age children next year, but expects to primarily stick to picture books. And it will continue to offer educational information about agriculture on the foundation’s website for all ages, including for educators, students and parents.

She said the revenue generated by Feeding Minds is rolled into the next publication or helps keep many of the foundation’s educational offerings free.

“There’s definitely a market for these books,” she said. “There are so many passionate farmers and ranchers who want to help others learn about where their food comes from.”

Houts wins award

Michelle Houts “Barn at Night,” with art by Jen Betton, and published by Feeding Minds Press (a project of the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture), has won SILVER in the Picture Book for age 4-8 category of the Moonbeam Books Awards. The Moonbeam Awards celebrate youthful curiosity and discovery through books and reading.

The Moonbeam contest began in 2006 to open up awards in children’s publishing to all types of publishers and genres. By developing a contest that would recognize winners in each of the nuanced categories of children’s publishing, it hoped to bring attention to the under-sung children’s books and their creators who fell between the cracks in larger, more general contests.

You can order a copy of “Barn at Night” anywhere books are sold, or you can find the book and educator guide on the Farm Bureau store site.

Labor has always been an issue, mainly because we are a seasonal operation. So that's a challenge finding somebody who only wants to work three months out of a year, sometimes up to six months.
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