Organic Broadcaster

Organic cropland taking root in Illinois

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Of the 20 million acres of cropland in Illinois, only 0.15 percent (41,000 acres) are certified organic (USDA 2014 Organic Agriculture Census). But, the trend toward organic is growing, with 2,471 acres listed in transition in the 2014 census. And, attitudes around the state are slowly changing.

“There seem to be a lot of farmers just waiting to see what happens,” said John Reeder, who is guiding a transition to organic on his family’s 250-acre farm in Clinton, Ill. “I have a cousin that will try it if we succeed.”

Extension agent Bill Davison, University of Illinois-Bloomington, sees peer pressure and a steep learning curve as the biggest hurdles to organic transition. Davison also sees a generational shift among Illinois farmers.

“Younger farmers are coming back to the farms, and bringing change,” he said. “An increasing number see where things are heading (with consumer support for organic) and are willing to reconsider.”

Reeder, a resident of Arlington, Va., inherited the management of his grandfather’s crop farm along with his five sisters about 10 years ago when their father passed away. Following common practice in the area, his forbears created a family trust to hold the farm. While it meant that this productive land would be available to grow crops into the foreseeable future, it created responsibilities for the current generation of Reeders, none of whom live in the state.

Reeder is a committed environmentalist, who is steady in his belief of the benefits to land and water of organic production. But, before he could transition the family farm to organic, he needed to convince his sisters that this was the best course for the farm—a process that took more than four years. A few thought organic was too risky—“chasing after moonbeams…not a viable business proposition,” the sisters argued. He did a lot of homework and sent them educational materials, including those from MOSES and ATTRA, to make his case.

In May 2012, students in a soil class taught by Michelle Wander at the University of Illinois projected that the 5-year average net return at the Reeder farm could move from $47.21 per acre for the traditional corn-soy rotation to $291.95 per acre for an organic rotation of corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa. Reeder used the report to help convince his sisters that a conversion to organic was the way to go.

With his family in agreement, Reeder faced another hurdle: finding a company willing to manage a farm going through organic transition.

“I’d say that about half the land in this part of Illinois is held by absentee owners,” Reeder claimed. He went on to explain that most of these farms are held in trusts like his family has, and that they are managed by farm management companies through local banks.

With so many farms in the area operated through trusts, there are numerous management companies that oversee the farm businesses for absentee landowners. Reeder had to talk to several before he found one that was willing to take on an organic transition.

“Banks don’t want to manage organic. They think it’s too risky, too suspicious,” Reeder explained. “But I told the fourth banker I talked to that, if he wanted our business, he’d have to take on organic. And, he said ‘yes.’” The bank currently manages 30 properties; the Reeder farm is the only one that is an organic operation.

On Reeder’s advice, his banker attended the MOSES Organic Farming Conference a few years ago. Reeder continues to send him materials to support the validity of organic production, knowing that the farm’s successful transition will bring more organic business to this banker’s door.

Finding a farmer to work the land was the next big hurdle for the Reeder farm transition. The farmer who had managed the farm since the father passed on was not at all interested in organic. Reeder explored many options, but had little success finding anyone for several years until the Extension agent who’d been advising him decided to retire. The agent, Pat Toohill, agreed to take on the management of the Reeder Farm with the help of his brother. “Pat sells natural beef, and though their land isn’t organic, they were willing to learn how to manage ours,” Reeder said.

Reeder found that figuring out a fair compensation package for organic management was challenging as well. For now, he and Toohill have agreed on 50/50, but there is some talk of bringing on livestock to contribute manure, and that would change the equation. “Livestock work is more complex, and so harder to value,” Reeder explained.

Organic crop production requires dedicated or cleaned equipment, and so distance matters. It is open and isolated land in central Illinois, and there is no housing on the Reeder farm. Hired organic farmers must travel and bring equipment potentially long distances. While there is a concentration of organic farms about an hour south of Clinton, the Reeder farm is a pioneer in the area. Reeder hopes that his groundwork, and expected success with organic transition, will encourage and support others nearby.

“I want to create better income opportunities for tenant farmers,” he said. “The higher incomes from organic will help this.”

Market Alternatives
Reeder feels confident about markets for his organic grain through a good network of commodity dealers. About an hour north of the Reeder farm, Davison, the Extension agent, is working on projects that support locally developed varieties and local markets for small grains in Illinois and beyond. He is excited about his grain breeding work and making connections between breeders, farmers, millers, chefs, bakers and consumers.

“Farmers think you can’t grow wheat in Illinois, and make good bread from it,” Davison said. “But, we are showing that you can grow hard wheat, and make really good local bread.” Davison facilitated the development of the Grand Prairie Grain Guild, based on east and west coast models, where everyone from breeders to chefs and bakers exchange ideas, discuss industry updates, plan research and explore alternatives to commodity markets. Davison is thrilled by the exchanges in the first year of the project, and invites anyone interested to join the 165-member private discussion group on Facebook.

“There is a huge opportunity for farmers to market regional grain varieties to chefs and bakers in Chicago, and in smaller communities across the state,” Davison exclaimed. “We have famous Chicago chefs trialing products made from locally produced grains.” He sees this link between Illinois grain farmers and restaurants and bakeries as a win-win, and very profitable for the farmers, especially those with smaller-scale operations.

“I ran a diversified vegetable farm, and know how much work it is,” he said. “Putting a few, or 20 acres, into a local grain variety that you can sell direct to chefs or consumers can be the core, money-making part of your business. It is easy to custom hire the field work. Then you can diversify your operation by adding vegetables and other value-added enterprises.”

With numerous interesting projects in the works, Davison is working on a plan to get 15 percent of the flour used by farmers’ market vendors in Chicago to be local, following New York City’s model. He is also exploring the possibilities of a local Illinois malting facility for local grains used in local breweries, and is percolating ideas about starting a “Bread Lab” at the University of Illinois, which would support the breeding of local wheat for flavor, and develop and analyze regional bread dough and recipes. Along with advocating the purchase of small-scale mills, Davison also is working on the development of open-pollinated corn varieties, and has done work on ancient grains, including spelt, emmer, einkorn and Chapalote corn.

He sees organic grain production as a growing opportunity in central Illinois—“It is getting easier for farmers here to add organic to their operations.” However, he cautions that competition from imported European organic grain has become a challenge. “They can buy imported for less than we can produce it here,” he said.

“My impression of the situation in Illinois right now is that we are in the midst of rapid changes in awareness and acceptance of organic farming,” Davison continued. He thinks low conventional commodity prices are going to make more farmers look for ways to add value to their operation, and believes that organic is one of the best ways to do it.

“I think from this point forward fewer people will have to work as hard and as long as John did to facilitate a transition to organic farming,” Davison noted.

There are numerous resources available to those interested in organic production in Illinois. Davison recommends that a good first point of contact for anyone in Reeder’s position would be the nearest local food system educator with University of Illinois Extension.

“There are 14 of us across the state, so there should be someone, with the knowledge and connections that John developed, in place to help out,” he explained. The Extension website lists local food system educators and the counties served. Davison can be reached at wdavison@illinois.edu.

Resources:

Clarkson Grain Company, Cerro Gordo, Ill.
www.clarksongrain.com

Illinois Organic Growers Association
illinoisorganicgrowers.org

University of Illinois Extension Organic Resources
web.extension.illinois.edu/smallfarm/organic.html

The Land Connection
thelandconnection.org

The Illinois Stewardship Alliance
www.ilstewards.org

Illinois Specialty Growers Conference
www.specialtygrowers.org

MOSES website on field crops includes fact sheets on marketing organic grains and transitioning to organic crop production:
mosesorganic.org/farming/farming-topics/field-crops

 

 

Jody Padgham is the financial director for MOSES.

From the January | February 2016 Issue

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