From Farm Dream to Reality

Jumpstarting a Sustainable Farm Business
by Stevie Zvereva
photography by David Vernon

Have dreams of starting a sustainable farm? A rise in regional programming provides support to give dreamers a leg up.

We all have dreams. Big or small, they straddle that cusp of reality—just out of reach, but attainable with a good stretch. Without them, we waver; with them, we strive.

Nine years ago, one such dream led Brooke Barnabe, a Bradley University graduate with a computer science degree, from one internship to the next, gaining experience at help desks, in development and as a system administrator. With no connections to the industry, she worked hard to obtain her dream position assisting with “all things data.” Today, as a database administrator, she’s found the IT world both fun and challenging. But where dreams have roots, their branches evolve.

“The minute I tell someone about it—even strangers—they’re just so supportive, and their faces light up,” Barnabe says of her latest dream. “I know it won’t be easy, but a lot of people really enjoy it.” This new dream? To start a sustainable fruit and medicinal herb farm.

Barnabe is a recent graduate of The Land Connection’s Central Illinois Farm Beginnings (CIFB) program. The Land Connection (TLC), a not-for-profit based in Champaign, serves to preserve and protect farmland and to help train prospective farmers. Among other endeavors, its year-long CIFB program encompasses a series of business planning seminars, field days and one-on-one mentorships to help new farmers articulate their values into viable mission statements, identify short- and long-term goals, and introduce critical farm management skills such as financing and marketing strategy. In addition, the TLC assists newcomers in overcoming one of their largest potential hurdles—accessing opportunities for land and equipment use.

For Barnabe, the program offered a chance to once again dive into a field in which she had no prior experience, and truly gauge the reality of her dream. “I like my job, but I’m looking for something that can have a bigger impact on the problems in the world,” she explains. “Sustainable farming really spoke to me.” While it might seem a major leap from computer science, Barnabe hardly stands alone in her desire for such a career switch. In fact, hers is part of a growing movement of farm dreams in central Illinois.

More Farmers, More Education
The University of Illinois Extension recognizes this small farmer movement, and as client interest grows, so does its programming and staff. In fact, yet another specialist in local food systems and small farms will soon join the ranks of the 16 educators already working at the Extension to provide information, training and tools to farmers across the state.

“We’re working in partnership with three nonprofits—the Illinois Organic Growers Association, Spence Farm Foundation and The Land Connection,” says Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, an experienced Extension educator based in Springfield, describing how the Extension’s classes, in tandem with other organizations’ course offerings, cover a wide territory. “We all have a similar client base, so it didn’t make sense to try to do events that weren’t collaborative... So, we got together last winter, and we’re in the process of getting everything finalized.”

“It’s a tiered system,” she continues. “For example, The Land Connection offers a class called ‘Farm Dreams’ as a first, initial self-assessment.” TLC founder Terra Brockman, a long-time advocate for sustainable farming, calls the three-hour Farm Dreams workshop and Q&A panel a “reality check.”

“We take them through the exercises… and ask, ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘What are you thinking about?’” she explains. “We clarify what they have in place already and what they would need to get in place if they wanted to start their farm business.”

The second tier of courses consist of longer-term opportunities—programs like TLC’s Central Illinois Farm Beginnings and the University of Illinois’ federally-funded “Preparing a New Generation of Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers” program, offered at three sites: St. Charles, Champaign and Dixon Springs, Illinois. The program stemmed from a realization that the average fruit grower in Illinois is over 55 years old, and new farmers will be needed to meet future demand. Now in its second year, it has seen great success, with 74 graduates the first year and more than 100 participants in the second.

The program covers topics not unlike those offered by TLC’s Central Illinois Farm Beginnings: business planning, production, pest management, harvesting and post-harvest handling, food safety, risk management and marketing. Meanwhile, the Spence Farm Foundation’s Small Farm Development Initiative also teaches a range of practical farming skills, from small equipment to beekeeping to marketing. All this overlap is not an oversight, but a strategy to get as many new farmers farming as possible. While each of these organizations is dependent on its own grants and respective clients, they have collectively identified a number of areas for collaboration and co-marketing.

A third tier of courses is geared toward recently established farmers. “What you need for training in year one or two is very different than what you need in year six or seven,” explains Cavanaugh-Grant. Specialized topics, such as on-site composting and social media strategy for farmers, are covered in these workshops, which allow farmers to hone their skills and keep their businesses competitive and relevant.

The Central Illinois Sustainable Farming Network is another effort to reach out to existing farmers by providing opportunities to engage one another through on-site events. Katie Kenney, a 2012 graduate of TLC’s Central Illinois Farm Beginnings program, is a network member, and well fits this category of established grower.

Keys to Success
“It’s been a busy week with everyone suddenly having their babies all at once,” Kenney laughs, answering her phone from a goat pen, where she’s tending to multiple sets of twin kids.

The owner of Stone Court Farm in Mahomet, Illinois, Kenney has her hands full, selling as much as she can produce on the 3.8-acre sustainable fruit and livestock operation she founded three years ago. Though small, her farm is bustling, something Kenney attributes to its strategic size. During the CIFB course, she determined she would not only start small, but remain small. Kenney's business cornerstone is sustainability; above all, she’s dedicated to ethical growing and sustainable harvesting practices. In strategically sizing her operations, she was able to remain true to this mantra, while avoiding the pitfalls of “growing too big, too quickly.”

Kenney’s farm specializes in perennial plants—fruit trees, berry bushes, asparagus and rhubarb, in addition to the pork, lamb and broiler chicken she sells direct to consumers. Like Barnabe, she had no previous farming background, but her farm dream has evolved, guided by her innate love for animals. “I could envision everything about taking care of animals and growing plants,” she explains. “But I was really daunted by the business planning side of it.”

Barnabe can relate. “The farmer has to market, transport, do all the financial and employee planning… They have to do everything,” she says. “That’s what really surprised me—the amount of organization and planning behind everything. They’re not just growing food anymore.”

“Until you’ve actually farmed, you don’t know how all-consuming it can be,” Brockman adds. “And if you’ve only had regular nine-to-five jobs and plenty of time to do other things—relax with your friends or go out to a movie…” she trails off, laughing. “I’ve heard some people say they didn’t know until they jumped in how all-consuming it would be—especially in the first years.”

For Kenney, the business topics covered by TLC were most valuable—“being forced to sit down and create those enterprise budgets and a business plan and to really just have it all demystified.” Guided by this planning process, she’s carved herself a niche in the local food market, catering to a growing demand for fruit at the Champaign-Urbana farmers market. Despite finding her niche, Kenney remains constantly open to new ideas, which she deems key to success.

“In the middle of Illinois, you can look around and think, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone here is a conventional corn and soybean farmer—how am I ever going to meet anyone else who does what I do?’” she says. “But as soon as you scratch the surface, you realize there are small sustainable farmers all over the place… I learn so much every time I have a conversation with another farmer, every time I go to conference, every time I read a book. All kinds of things are out there that you can benefit from, if you make those connections and keep your eyes and ears open.”

Kenney makes it sound easy. But Brockman describes success in sustainable farming as a weighty endeavor: more than mere career achievement, it requires a total lifestyle transition. “The people who are getting into [sustainable farming] are partially looking at it as a job, but they’re also looking at it as a lifestyle,” she explains. “They want to live in the country, they want to raise their kids out there, they want independence and to not have a boss looking over their shoulder. Even though you may be working sun up to sundown on some days, often people say, ‘I would not rather be doing anything else.’”

It Takes a Community
Such a lifestyle shift is part of the impetus behind the growing farm dream contingent and local food movement. Recent trends indicate a shift in farming practices and consumer demand that presents an opportunity for the Greater Peoria region to capitalize on a growing economic sector.

The 2013 Seeds to Success report, a feasibility study exploring the opportunity to convert an abandoned prison facility in Hanna City into a small farm incubator, demonstration center and food hub—an aggregation, storage, processing and distribution site—suggests sustainable local food systems have the potential to balance economic prosperity, environmental preservation and public health while moving agricultural products from farmer to consumer. In short, it found an opportunity for expanded direct-to-consumer sales through additional farmer markets, mobile markets and the establishment of community-supported agriculture subscriptions in the Peoria region. Such initiatives could enhance the efficiency of sales and distribution in the local food market by diversifying sales venues for farmers to come to market. This diversification is key to success in planning a sustainable farm, as new farmers must always keep in mind their target markets.

Peoria County Board Vice Chairperson Mary Ardapple would love to see the commitment to healthy, local food spread throughout the community. After two years working with the County Board on a plan for the Hanna City site, she’s convinced that the need for a government-led conversation around the development of a local food economy has never been greater. “What we have discovered is twofold. One, we actually have a variety of locations that could fit as a food hub as we’ve learned more about what that deliverable could be,” Ardapple explains. “At the same time… the Hanna City project and the development of an aggregation site and food hub have become a catalyst for a larger sustainability plan for our region.”

This extended conversation was in full gear at the Greater Peoria Regional Food Summit in March. Sponsored by an extensive list of local groups ranging from state and local government to higher education, the event was the first of its kind in Peoria—a real attempt at a collaborative conversation on local food.

The summit featured three keynote speakers from Minneapolis, a city that’s far ahead of Peoria in developing its local food economy. Julie Ristau, former co-chair of Homegrown Minneapolis, Gayle Prest, sustainability director for the City of Minneapolis, and Kristine Igo, associate director of the Healthy Food, Healthy Lives Institute at the University of Minnesota, led the discussion on best practices and strategies to strengthen local food economies. The event offered an open forum for ideas and laid valuable groundwork for defining next action steps, harnessing the energy needed to move forward.

“We talk a lot about diversity in agriculture,” explained State Senator Dave Koehler in the opening remarks. “There’s going to be a lot of corn and soybeans grown in Illinois, but there’s going to be a lot of other things grown and raised in Illinois as well, and I think that’s an emerging market that’s exciting and good for consumers and… for the business of agriculture. So we need to learn to co-exist and do this right.”

But the development of a strong local food economy takes time, as the panelists reiterated all morning as they walked attendees through the dismantling of barriers such as rigid city ordinances, zoning issues, strict health department codes and food access disparities. “Our friends from Minneapolis have outlined that there needs to be structure, and there needs to be process if we want to be successful,” Ardapple concluded.

“The work that we’ve done toward driving economic development and a local food economy has been a benchmark for success for the future of our area,” she adds. “It takes several years to get these projects off the ground and really get the momentum… to be successful.”

This need for patience mirrors that required by new farmers like Barnabe. “My passion wants me to just jump right into it, but I think realistically, over the next five to 10 years, I will slowly transition,” she schemes. “I’m building up capital now… and I’ll start growing for myself and my family and friends, and then eventually for market.

“That was one of the biggest things I’ve learned from talking to farmers: to be very organized and to do it slowly. It’s easy to just jump into it, but the more you observe, the more you organize, the more successful you’ll be.” iBi

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