Organic Broadcaster

2017 MOSES Organic Farmers of Year find diversity helps their farm thrive

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Hans, Dave, Graham, and Katie Bishop accept the award for the 2017 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year at the recent MOSES Conference.
Photo by Laurie Schneider

Two generations of farmers at PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, Illinois were honored recently as the 2017 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year. This award recognizes organic farmers who practice outstanding land stewardship, innovation, and outreach. Dave Bishop, sons Graham and Hans, and Hans’ wife, Katie, received this award recently at the 2017 MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

Identified as a “visionary farmer” in the award nomination, Dave is committed to ongoing improvement of the soil and increasing diversity of crops, income streams, and production practices. Providing the sole income for two farm families and five full-time employees, as well as several part-time employees, PrairiErth Farm in central Illinois thrives under the mission of “working to develop sustainable life systems on the farm.”

This 300-acre farm has been certified organic since 2004 (currently by EcoCert). Dave, his sons, and daughter-in-law Katie are all integral to the farm’s success. Dave’s daughter, Kristen, is an elementary school teacher in Chicago.

The farm is highly diverse, producing corn, soybeans, oats, forages, vegetables, grass-fed beef and pork, as well as eggs and honey. They also have orchards with peaches, apples, and pears. Markets are diverse, too, with direct sales of beef and pork, a CSA, and marketing to stores, restaurants and through farmers’ markets.

The Bishops try to have two or three crops in each field each year, with rotations including row crops, numerous cover crops, pasture for the beef, hogs, laying hens, and the diversified vegetables sold through the CSA.

“We are working to find the most profitable and sustainable use of each acre on the farm, while building the soil—in my opinion, this requires a diverse mix of both plants and animals,” Dave explained. Dave is passionate about long-term soil building, balancing the quick mineralization offered by cover crops with the nutrient and long-term humic benefits of manure, spread by grazing animals or as compost.

“I believe a diverse mix of plants and animals is the foundation of a sustainable farm, and the emerging global local food system the best and, perhaps ultimately, the only real path into a food-secure future,” explained Dave. The Bishops might plant a field to small grains in the fall, then frost seed in a legume, such as red clover. After the grain comes off the field, the land is used for grazing. The nitrogen generated by the legume and livestock lays down fertility for the following year’s corn or soybean crops.

Organic matter on the farm has risen from 1.7 percent in 2004 when first certified to 3.5 percent, and while sandier than that of surrounding farms, fields produce equal or superior corn yields than the area non-organic average.

Hans and Katie Bishop run the vegetable operation for PrairiErth Farm, which includes running the farmers’ market stand.
Photo submitted

When Hans and Katie decided to join the farm in 2010, they created a separate vegetable enterprise so each family could manage their own business. However, the diverse vegetable crops share most of the acreage with the other crops and livestock, and make up an important part of the regular rotations. Beef, poultry and/or hogs graze fields previously in vegetables, adding fertility, breaking up pest cycles and giving the land a rest from intensive vegetable production.

The Bishops are strong advocates for organic production. “Having farmed conventionally, we’ve seen firsthand the detrimental effects on the soil and to the farm and rural communities,” Dave said. “It’s our goal to play a part in limiting our ecological footprint by caring for the earth, not just for us, but for future generations.”

The Bishops’ interest in learning and sharing has expanded to include numerous on-farm research projects with various nearby universities. A 2012 grant supported the development of a Food Forest project, creating a permaculture system of vertically layered crops, including flowering bushes, brambles, fruit trees, vegetables and strawberries. With a goal of exploring how little land is needed to make a living or produce food, this long-term project has discovered that providing fertility to this concentrated system is a key challenge.

Along with being organic, the farm follows several Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation practices, including protected riparian areas, and restored prairies and forestland. The pasture fences and watering systems are powered by solar.

The farm has hosted numerous field days and workshops, including a series of risk management classes, as well as beginning farmer classes though The Land Connection. PrairiErth regularly conducts student tours, from kindergarten to high school and college to homeschool groups, and in 2016 hosted two groups of specialists from Russia, one soil scientists and the other looking into technology of new grain cleaning equipment.

The entire Bishop family is passionate about enhancing local food systems, and participates locally, regionally and nationally in community activism. As the president of the Illinois Local Foods, Farms and Jobs Council, in 2016 Dave helped develop three pieces of legislation signed by the Governor. These ranged from laws making it easier to develop local food infrastructure to protection for seed libraries and help for SNAP (food stamp) clients buying at farmers’ markets. Hans serves on the advisory board for the Downtown Bloomington Farmers’ Market and Artist Alley, and on the board of the Illinois Grower’s Association. Katie teaches workshops on marketing and social media at farming conferences, and is also the author of PrairieErth Farm Cookbook.

Dave is excited to be collaborating with area farmers, researchers and chefs through the Grand Prairie Grain Guild, a project to encourage local infrastructure for small grains, focusing on food grade grain production for local artisan bakers. He also readily shares information with other farmers on how to manage marketing risks through diversified markets, and adding value through branding, processing and contracting with buyers.

Seeing interest and need for more organic acres, Dave works hard to help others succeed with organic. But, he also understands the challenges.

“Those new to organic must understand how the organic system works,” he said. He pointed out that this can be harder for those coming from conventional ag, as they need to learn new habits. They must learn a new way of looking at farming, considering the whole system rather than input substitution. He recommended that a good plan to start is setting up a two-year Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) tied to organic transition, and putting the land into cover crops. This will build soil health while bringing in some income to cover basic costs. If no prohibited substances were used, it’s possible that an organic crop could be harvested in the fall of the third year.

“I want to avoid organic becoming just another commodity,” Dave said, and sees this as critical in keeping farmers and farming viable. This is a personal issue, as well, as PrairiErth sustains as a viable economic enterprise for the long-term future, with Hans taking over more farming activities.

“At PrairiErth, we want to restore diversity to the countryside, and build relationships between rural and urban through a local food system,” Dave said. “Our national culture needs healing, and this can help.”

Learn more about this award and how to nominate deserving farmers.

Jody Padgham is the finance director for MOSES and co-author of Fearless Farm Finances, now available in an updated edition at mosesorganic.net.

From the March | April 2017 Issue

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