U. of I. Extension, the sponsor of a new federally funded program teaching small-scale farmers to think bigger, is starting to see the fruits of its labor – figuratively speaking.
With some hard work and favorable weather, ultimate success will be measured literally by the bushel by the participating farmer-students and the Illinois communities they serve.
“The goal is to create new farmers – someone who will produce food beyond just the needs of their family,” said Rick Weinzierl, a crop sciences professor who is administering the grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Called “Preparing a New Generation of Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers,” the program is a yearlong academic foray into farming, with classes offered on a variety of farming practices and techniques at three locations – Urbana, St. Charles and Dixon Springs.
The full-day classes held monthly on a Saturday in Urbana have attracted 150 students ranging in ages from 24 to 72 in its first year – all of them looking to expand their small or fledgling operations and to help create a sustainable local food chain. Applications for the second year of classes will be reviewed July 1, with the sessions starting in November.
“These are people who really want to farm, who really want to make a difference,” Weinzierl said. “Some of them don’t know exactly how to start and they need some help. They’re all there because they want to be.”
The class curriculum, prepared by U. of I. Extension educators, crop sciences staff members and others, including nonprofits and government agencies such as the Farm Services Administration, is not for the fainthearted.
Students are immersed in daylong sessions that cover everything a startup farmer needs to know. That includes the science of judging soil and picking the right crop to grow, irrigation, pest management and a variety of field-working techniques.
In addition to class work, each session includes in-field demonstrations by experts. Class notes are available online and students are given a wheelbarrow load of materials to read.
Local students also are offered use of a 1/2-acre “incubator” plot for up to two years to supplement or start up their operations, all of which vary in size from student to student.
“We didn’t get too many conventional farmers,” Weinzierl said. “Our students typically have an interest in farming, but they know that they don’t know as much as they would like. It’s a lot of information and a little intimidating; you have to be committed to get through it.”
So far, 20 percent of the students are planning organic operations, while the rest say they will adopt sustainable techniques being taught in the program.
“We help the organic producers with their practices and we help everyone produce in ways as sustainable as possible,” he said. “Our intent is to facilitate local and regional food systems.”
Next year, through a partnership with the Illinois Migrant Council, classes at all locations will be offered in Spanish as well as English.
Having a strong and locally sustainable food system has many benefits, said Mary Hosier, the project manager for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s Professional Development Program and a campus facilitator for the New Farmer program.
Hosier said the benefits include knowing where the food on your plate comes from and how it was grown – considering that most grocery store produce has been “homogenized” to the point that variety, quality and taste all have diminished over time. She said there also are concerns about the carbon footprint of food shipped in from locations around the world.
All of those factors have led a growing number of consumers, including schools, residential facilities, restaurants and even grocery stores, to seek out more locally grown produce.
“I think people are starting to ask questions about where their food is coming from because they’re realizing that they don’t know anything about it,” Hosier said. “And they know fresh food tastes better and is healthier.”
The smaller operations won’t likely ever replace the global food system, but they can serve a niche that includes specialized produce varieties or those based on regional tastes. Smaller growers also are more likely to experiment with new varieties.
With the average age of an Illinois farmer near 60 years, and the fact that most operations are of a larger scale and not centered on produce, Weinzierl said the classes are needed to replenish the state’s agricultural base.
Weinzierl said a successful small-scale produce farm can operate successfully on 10 acres. Having more land than that becomes less profitable as labor input costs become prohibitive.
“Despite the fact that farming is such demanding work, many of them are looking at it as a second career,” Hosier said. “These students are not afraid to get their hands dirty.”
Students plot to strengthen local food chain
By Mike Helenthal
Last year Ann Swanson, a chef for Hendrick House, a university-certified student housing provider, had a deliciously simple idea: Instead of just cooking the food, why not grow it too?
"My background is in the culinary arts, so I've never done the growing before," she said. "I wasn't sure where to start."
To remedy that, Swanson enrolled in the opening class of the New Farmer program, sponsored by U. of I. Extension and offered at three locations in Illinois, including Urbana.
Now she can hardly wait until harvest time.
"We're going to have a lot of produce this year," said Swanson, who is managing a half-acre plot that was offered through the sustainable farming class. She also manages Hendrick's already established rooftop herb garden.
The class has been informative, but she says the personal connections so far have been the most valuable part of the experience. She's picked up tips and other assistance from long-time growers, making the move to sustainable farming a little easier.
"I keep finding better ways to do things and I've gotten lots of great advice " in the classroom and out," she said. "It's neat because everybody in the class has a different background. Everyone kind of has their own take and their own experiences to share."
Sue Dawson, Hendrick House food service director, said the owners of Hendrick House, who manage more than 30 other campus dining sites, have for years sought to provide the freshest food possible in the more than 2,000 meals they serve each day.
"The owners have been environmentally conscious before it was the cool thing to do," said Dawson, noting the rooftop herb garden and a host of energy-saving upgrades made at the facility at Lincoln Avenue and Green Street in 2009.
"And Ann really got behind the locally grown food movement and has pushed it to the next level," Dawson said. "She really just jumped right into it."
Last year, 11 percent of the food used in Hendrick House meals came from sustainable farming operations within a 100-mile radius. Dawson said managers have worked with local farmers, contracting with them for bulk produce purchases to bring down the price – which can be double or triple store prices.
With the incubator plot, the percentage of locally grown food is expected to increase. If the plot is successful, the owners have discussed purchasing a few acres to build a greenhouse and to greater expand the farming side of their food service business.
Dawson said Swanson now has had "farmer" added to her job description – thanks to the countless hours she has devoted to the class and spent at the garden, where she has planted some 500 tomato plants and other regularly used produce such as lettuce.
"I didn't really realize how big a half-acre was until I started tilling it," Swanson said. "This whole experience has gotten me more invested in the food I handle."
Dawson said there are still questions that need to be answered before Hendrick's owners expand the farming operation. In addition to the costs associated with the growing process, managers have to also consider the other steps involved, which include washing, preparation and storage of anything harvested.
"You have to have all the steps in place for it to work," Dawson said.
Sola Gratia Farm
Tod Satterthwaite knows more than most that for every time there is a season.
He has been gardening for much of his adult life, but he wasn't quite ready for the shock of taking over the Sola Gratia Farm, a 4-acre community-supported farm run by volunteers at Urbana's St. Matthew Lutheran Church.
"I've been interested in environmental concerns and sustainability for years," he said. "I had been working on Sola Gratia and thought I needed some knowledge so I could fill in in a pinch."
When the regular farm manager stepped down last year, "suddenly I was thrust into the role of interim farmer."
Satterthwaite knew he needed some extra help and enrolled in the New Farmers program last year.
"When you're a backyard gardener you know a little bit," he said. "But when you're working something this big, every season presents its own unique challenge."
Under the Sola Gratia model, anyone who buys a share benefits by receiving a large variety of produce throughout the course of the year. Each week's selection is based on what's being harvested at that particular time.
"Sometimes you have really short windows of opportunity," he said. "It really makes members more aware of the seasonality of vegetables."
He said the U. of I. Extension class has helped him in a variety of ways, including understanding that size really does matter when it comes to small-scale farming. Once land gets to near the 10-acre level, heavier equipment has to be employed to keep the work moving on time.
"They've done a remarkable job to pack all of that information into each session," he said. "There are entire college courses on some of these things, but they've hit the highlights really well. Maybe I don't qualify as a young farmer, but there's a lot of excitement and enthusiasm in the class. They all want to provide local food."
The Sola Gratia effort is part of the church's Faith in Place initiative, which highlights environmental issues and the church's responsibility to respond to them. Prior to Sola Gratia, the church was leasing its land to a larger-scale farmer.
"There are a lot of churches that have land," he said, "and we know it's better for the environment to grow our food locally. It just seemed like a natural thing to do."
At least 10 percent of the food grown goes to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, and the church has plans to make the operation as organically based as possible (it takes three years for a farm to become certified organic). Last year, the managers added bee hives for honey and plant pollination.
He said local food chains are more important than ever as the current food-delivery system depends on far-flung locations to deliver produce.
"It's a chain of events that makes a good vegetable farm," he said. "If any link is broken you can end up with a failed crop. This work isn't for everybody. It's quite a bit of hard work and you can't do it from your armchair."