With my final day (July 31) at The Land Connection fast approaching, I thought it fitting to take a moment to reflect on these three years of hard work, learning, and growth. I came to TLC in July 2016, and though only a short three years have passed, it feels much longer. So many wonderful and challenging things have transpired in that time.
Achievements and Milestones
I have had the privilege to work with so many dedicated, intelligent, creative, and hard working people through my role at TLC. Fellow staff members, farmer advisors, and colleagues at other organizations have helped build our program. Together, we have grown the reach of the Farmer Training Program tremendously, roughly 250% in the time I have been here. Since July 2016, we have organized and delivered 78 training sessions reaching 2138 people!
The Farmer Training Program’s approach to building a sustainable food system in central Illinois has been to improve the financial viability of family farms through business and marketing training (economic), strengthen community ties and reduce social isolation through network building (social), and enhance farm ecosystems through training in resilient, restorative farming practices (environmental). Our programming topics and audience have been very diverse; offering beginning farmer business training; risk management workshops for both specialty crop and organic grain farmers on financial, legal, and marketing topics; and production training focused on regenerative practices. And, we always seek guidance and input from those we serve. We have built our offerings by asking our farmers what they need and adjusting our programs to match.
The Farmer Training Program serves two distinct populations of farmers: specialty crop producers and organic grain producers. The needs of these groups are very different and it has required considerable attention and dedication to craft meaningful and impactful training for each group. Below, I will take you on a journey of highlights from the most recent three years of development of The Land Connection’s Farmer Training Program. It is a journey full of challenges, successes, hope, and innovation. At all points, this program has been shaped by those we serve, our farmers.
Specialty Crop Programming
The Land Connection’s focus has evolved quite a bit over its 18 year history. Originally founded in 2001 with the objective of saving a parcel of prime farmland from development, TLC aimed to connect sustainable farmers with agricultural land. TLC used this parcel to incubate six farm businesses over a three year period. Quickly, the organization realized that there was a deep unmet need for training farmers in resilient and restorative techniques and for creating new farmers to replace the rapidly aging farmer population. By 2005, TLC had launched Central Illinois Farm Beginnings (CIFB), eventually becoming a founding member of the National Farm Beginnings Collaborative. This program became the anchor of the Farmer Training annual calendar and set the objectives for much of the organization’s work – to recruit and train small farmers who grow nourishing food in a sustainable way.
Central Illinois Farm Beginnings
By the time I came to TLC in 2016, 183 new farmers had graduated from Central Illinois Farm Beginnings (CIFB) over 11 cycles of the course. It was structured as a year-long business planning program for farmers who had 0-2 years farming experience. From October to March, students would commit to attending nine, day-long intensive sessions on business planning, financial management, and marketing. Each student was matched with a farmer mentor to guide them through their next season farming. The student’s objective was to write a comprehensive business plan for their new farm business and present this plan to their fellow classmates and their mentor. Then, from March through October, they would launch their business and meet regularly with their mentor.
The CIFB program historically had a 75% success rate, with ¾ of CIFB graduates farming three years after graduation. This is a phenomenal rate – but by the time I became the facilitator, student enrollment was declining. The 12th and 13th cycles struggled to recruit enough students to make a class. So, I conducted a survey of graduates and former applicants to attempt to uncover why this was happening, and what I learned is that the program needed an update in order to be useful and attractive to the new farmers who had grown up in the internet age. Committing to nine, day-long Saturday classes and traveling upwards of 2.5 hours one-way, was more than these busy potential students could muster. And so, I undertook an overhaul of the program, distilling it down to its most important and fundamental parts – reducing the classroom time to 5 sessions, increasing the emphasis on the one-on-one mentoring component, building distance learning supplementary materials, and putting the course on a biennial schedule.
The 2019-2020 cycle will be held outside of Champaign for the first time in over 7 years. It will also be the first where whole portions of the course will be online for the students to accomplish at their own pace. The remaining in-person portions will now be used for group discussion and activities that allow for deeper learning and more interaction. My hope is that this model will be more meaningful and attractive to prospective students.
Farm Finances Webinar Series
In response to feedback from our farmer advisory councils and on farmer surveys, we developed a series of webinars on financial literacy for farmers. So many farmers have second jobs off of the farm and their time is increasingly drawn thin. Distance learning tools like webinars offer excellent content with fewer barriers to accessing the training – like access to transportation, lengthy drive times, and expensive registration fees. This webinar series walked farmers through the Big Three Financial Statements (profit & loss statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement) and wraped it all up with a tutorial on using QuickBooks for farm financial management. It was a great success with 249 farmers joining the live broadcast and 677 views of the series on YouTube.
Mastering the Farmers Market Series
As TLC built-up the Champaign Farmers Market, we aimed to improve the experience and financial outcomes of farmers who sell at both our market and other markets throughout central Illinois. For three years, we offered in-person trainings on marketing and booth design, and managing your booth for profit. These workshops struggled with enrollment, much like CIFB, and so we decided to build on the success of our farm finances webinar series and expanded our webinar offerings to include marketing and finances for farmers market vendors and farm employee legal issues. We are also building an online course platform on our website that will house modules with exercises, quizzes, and resources that builds off of the work begun with these series of webinars.
Women Who Farm Field Days
While analyzing attendance data from past farmer training events, I discovered that over 60% of our attendees were women. Many women farmers expressed frustration at being taken seriously as a farmer, reporting being called a “hobby farmer” or being mistaken for the “farmer’s wife” rather than a farmer in her own right. And so, in 2017, I set out to challenge these perceptions and elevate the amazing work of central Illinois’ women farmers. I designed and launched the Women Who Farm Field Day Series hosted by female farmers at their working farms. Participants toured eight women-run operations over two summers. They saw the complexity of these operations, participated in a hands-on activity, enjoyed nourishing seasonal refreshments, and partook in fellowship with each other. 200 people came to these women-run farms and saw first-hand the power of a woman farmer.
Mechanical Weed Control Field Day
Last summer, TLC co-hosted the 2nd annual Mechanical Weed Control Field Day, held at PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, IL. This event is the Midwest’s largest field day dedicated to mechanical weed control. Six companies demonstrated tractor drawn equipment for weed cultivation in fields planted specially for the event. Over twenty companies and organizations had exhibit booths where farmers could get a first-hand look at their offerings and get their individual questions answered. 157 farmers came from across the Midwest for this stellar event. This summer, TLC is again co-hosting, with the 3rd annual Mechanical Weed Control Field Day scheduled for September 18 in Waukesha, WI.
Organic Grains Programming
In 2015, my predecessor Jeff Hake and then Executive Director Cara Cummings realized that the specialty crop work that TLC had become known for was impacting only a small acreage in the vastness of central Illinois. With the predominant use of land dedicated to conventional corn and soybean production, TLC was missing an opportunity to influence the use of one of the largest sources of pollution and environmental damage in our region – conventional row crop agriculture. They held two very successful workshops on transitioning to organic production which proved there was an audience for work in this space. And so, they applied for a grant aimed at helping transitioning and certified organic grain farmers become more stable and secure through better managing their risks.
Risk Management in Organic Grain Farming Series
The Risk Management in Organic Grain Farming Series was launched the same month I was hired by TLC. It was a series of four workshops addressing production, marketing, financial, and industry risks for organic grain farmers. The workshops were filmed and these videos can be found on TLC’s YouTube channel. The final workshop, Beyond Production: Growing the Organic Grains Industry, was a watershed moment in my time as Farmer Training Manager. It was the start of what would become the Organic Grain Conference and it was here that the formation of the Idea Farm Network was announced. Jeff Moyer, Executive Director of the Rodale Institute and organic original and pioneer of the roller crimper tool delivered a rousing keynote address that moved the community to action. From this moment, my passion for organic grains was ignited and I saw my direction clearly laid out before me.
174 farmers attended these four workshops, 22 videos were made totalling 15.5 hours of content with approximately 1,700 views to date. The series was funded by North Central Extension Risk Management Education (ERME) and in 2019 received the Outstanding Project Award at the national ERME conference.
Organic Grain Conference
The Organic Grain Conference – my heartsong! Founding and building this convening space and place of learning is my proudest achievement. The conference has run for three years. Its humble beginnings described above, and each year it has grown tremendously. Starting in 2017 with 95 attendees gathering for one-day of general session presentations, growing to 145 attendees with a half-day of breakout sessions and a small trade show in 2018, to the highlight of my career at TLC in 2019 where the trade show doubled in size, the meetings expanded to two full-days, and 241 people across both days learned, networked, and built community.
The standout moment came at the 2019 pre-conference workshop on organic certification. A good friend and organic grain farmer Will Glazik came up to me and asked how many of the 35+ people in the room I knew. I looked around and realized that I knew only four, him, his brother, myself, and one other farmer. He replied that he, too, only knew those four. Anyone who knows Will Glazik can attest that this is unheard of! Will is well connected in the grain farming community of central Illinois. The presenter then asked the 35+ people in the room to show their hands – “Who is 1 year away from certification?” 2-3 people. “Who is 2 years away from certification?” Another 3-4 people. “Who is 3 years or more away from certification?” The remaining 20-25 people raised their hand. We had drawn a crowd who was completely new to certified organic grain farming! This was evidence that the years of work were paying off. We were reaching new farmers and helping them improve their growing practices and access new markets. I could not be more proud!
Idea Farm Network
Some months before the first Organic Grain Conference in 2017, Dr. Adam Davis (then researcher and now chair of Crop Sciences at UIUC) began talks with a group of organizations and individuals (who eventually formed Regenerate Illinois, more on that later) about starting a learning community for conservation minded farmers. He hoped to gather farmers who were interested in sharing their experiences and participating in on-farm research trials, linking the academic world with farmers on the ground. Together with farmer Will Glazik, Adam launched the IDEA Farm Network and recruited their first members at the Organic Grain Conference. Since then, the IFN has grown to over 350 members who meet monthly on farms across the state. They share ideas, ask probing questions, and provide guidance to each other. The network helps farmers connect with like-minded peers, reducing social isolation for those with a conservation focus. The group operates a listserv where conversations are frequent and lively. Researchers at several universities have connected with and learned directly from farmers in the IFN, which has informed the questions they ask as part of their research and provided them with real-world examples of their research being applied. TLC has hosted and organized many IFN events over the past two years, including a two-part series this past winter on diversifying crop rotations with small grains.
Organic Agronomy Training Series
One of the most frequent comments we hear from organic grain farmers is a cry for specific, individual advice. Unlike the conventional grain sector, where trained agronomists and crop consultants are abundant, organic grain farmers must dig and prod and search for answers to their questions. Organic farmers have more diverse crop rotations, fewer options for purchased fertility and pest control products, and they rely on a complex system of decisions to mitigate production risk. Each farmer’s system is unique to their soil, weather, and market. These farmers are craving individual technical support. And so, in 2018, the Organic Agronomy Training Service (OATS), a consortium of nonprofits, university researchers, and industry leaders, came together to build a program to address this need. The consortium has built a professional development training on organic grain production for agronomists, technical service providers, and crop consultants. On July 24-25 in Crawfordsville, IN, TLC is hosting one of three pilot trainings offered this summer throughout the Midwest. The greater aim is that OATS will grow into a permanent training program that supplies organic grain farmers with trained technical service providers who will provide them with the individual guidance they desperately need.
TLC is but one, small organization tackling a massive mission to revolutionize our local food system. There is no way we can achieve our lofty goals without forming strong partnerships with the wider ecosystem of nonprofits, universities, corporations, and individuals working toward these same ends. During my time here, I have formed many partnerships, both small and large, short and long, to help move the needle on regenerative agriculture. Among them I have served on the advisory councils for the Illinois Farmer Veteran Alliance and National Farm Viability Conference, participated in the Routes to Farm Collaborative and the new Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, attended countless meetings such as the Pasture Project’s regenerative grazing meeting and MOSES’ Organic 2051, just to name a few.
I have also served as an organizational representative to the policy committee of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA). There, I have provided guidance and feedback to the association for the development of policy positions that represent the needs, concerns, and the will of the nation’s organic farmers.
By far the most intensive collaboration I have been involved in has been as TLC’s representative to the Regenerate Illinois Collaborative (RI). RI is a group of like-minded and passionate thought leaders who are working to bring about a regenerative revolution in Illinois agriculture. It is a space where 15 partner organizations and individuals align their vision and plan of work, set a north star to aim for, and strategize about ways we can be most effective in creating a more regenerative agriculture system in Illinois.
Lessons Along the Way
In navigating the work described here, and the mountains of work left out of this reflection, I have learned some important lessons that I wish to share with those that come after me.
- Evaluation is the cornerstone of program development. As our former office manager Birgit would often say, “garbage in, garbage out!” Evaluating program performance and the needs of the program’s constituency is the foundation for building robust and impactful programming. Ask what is working, what isn’t, and why, OFTEN.
- Have a plan and stick to it. Whether its evaluation, building out a new training, or hosting a conference, planning and meeting commitments makes everything run more smoothly, and everyone involved much happier.
- It’s a lonely world out there. Farming regeneratively in a sea of conventional production and amidst a rural culture that values conformity is incredibly isolating. Creating spaces for sharing, networking, and building community is vital to regenerative agriculture taking hold in the Midwest.
- Don’t forget the middle. Oh that middle. We best remember beginnings and endings, but the middle is where the work happens, and it is where we often feel the most lost. Keep heart and push through. Look out for those around you who are deep in the middle and extend them an encouraging hand. It’s never as difficult the next time around.
- Collaboration is hard. In this competitive world we inhabit, where we compete with ourselves and “winning” is a core value, true and deep collaboration is a shock to the system. We must push through the discomfort, challenge our preconceptions, acknowledge our personal and social programming, and try. Because, it is only through collaboration that we will be the change we want to see in the world.
I am deeply grateful for the people I have had the privilege to get to know and to work with over these three years. Thank you for the lessons, the encouragement, the collaboration, and for sharing the load of driving change.
To all my coworkers at TLC, you are my people! We have done so much, braved so much, lifted SO MUCH, together. Thank you for being there, everyday, doing the work with me.
To the TLC Board of Directors, your faith, confidence, and dedication are deeply appreciated. I wish you continued energy in stewarding TLC into an impactful future.
To my partners in organizations across the country, you have given me inspiration, encouragement, and vision. Thank you for being a shining light. This is only the beginning of what we will do together.
To the farmers who are doing the good work, thank you for the nourishment you provide. The nourishment of the body with the food you produce. The nourishment of the mind with your vigor and ideas. The nourishment of the spirit with your hope and passion. You are building the future we are all striving for. Thank you.
What Lays on the Other Side
Though the configuration is changing, our journey together is not over. In my new role, I will be working in the organic and regenerative agriculture industry, helping to expand the adoption of these practices. With a portion of my time, I will be working with the Pasture Project, organizing around regenerative grazing in Illinois. I will be collaborating with Regenerate Illinois and the Idea Farm Network on that project. With the majority of my time, I will be working in a position that will advance the organic industry. This position isn’t quite ready for public announcement. More details to come. Be on the lookout for a press release in the next couple of weeks.
These three years at TLC have been a wild ride, but it is only the beginning of things to come. There is much more work ahead for us all.