Sunday, December 14, 2014
We're looking for a few good farmers
According to the government, the average age of farmers in this country is almost 60. That's absurd for an average working age! That is the average age of retirement for many professions. Yet I know plenty of farmers in their 70s. Since we moved out here in 2002, we have seen many farm houses torn down -- at least one every year or two -- along the roads that we travel most commonly between our house and the Interstate, which is only 12 miles away. That's actually a very high percentage of the houses being torn down because there wasn't more than one house every half a mile or so. Now there are even less. Because most of Illinois has been turned into corn and soybean country, a single farmer can farm a couple thousand acres, so the number of farmers keeps shrinking.
But the problem is that we don't eat corn and soybeans. Although some of the corn and soybeans are used for livestock feed, a lot of it is sent to a lab and turned into non-edible things, such as ethanol and styrofoam packing peanuts (corn) and biodiesel (soybeans), as well as non-nutritive food additives, such as corn syrup, corn starch, soy lecithin, and things you can't pronounce like sodium carboxymethylcellulose. Back in the 1950s, Illinois was the fifth largest vegetable producing state in the nation. Today we import 95% of our food from other states and other countries. We have some of the best, most fertile land in the country, yet if something happened to our transportation system tomorrow, most of the state would be starving within days. Even if that never happens, the cost of transportation is going to keep climbing, and someday it will be considered absurd to eat lettuce from California or asparagus from South America. This food system is not sustainable.
Illinois needs people to grow food for people living in Illinois. The problem is that getting started in farming traditionally has not been like getting started in any other profession. You had to inherit a farm. And with today's land prices, that isn't going to change any time soon. But there is an alternative. Incubator farms are starting to pop up for those who want to farm but don't have the cash to buy their own land. I've actually been thinking about this for a few years. Why don't we form a partnership with people who want to farm? We'll provide the land, equipment, tools, etc, and they provide the labor, and we split the profits. I didn't actually do anything to find potential incubator farmers, though, because I didn't have any faith in my idea. I thought, who'd want to do that? Well, as it turns out, lots of people want to do that!
Fields of Farmers, Joel Salatin said he is doing exactly that. The reason that his farm has grown so large in recent years is because he has former interns staying on at Polyface as partners. Joel now rents several farms within a 30 minute radius of his farm so that new farmers can work them. When I attended the Acres USA conference last December in Springfield, IL, there was another farmer there who was also doing the same thing. He did a session on the nuts and bolts of having new farmer-partners working on his farm.
With our children grown and no longer living at home, we have 32 acres here (and another 67 acres that I need to tell you about soon) that is too much for us to utilize to its fullest potential. It seems wasteful and somewhat stingy to simply use this as my oversized park when it could be used to grow organic food for people while giving new farmers the experience they need to be able to eventually go to a bank to get a business loan to buy their own farm.
So, that's the plan for 2015 and moving forward. Earlier this year, we created Antiquity Oaks LLC, and our main goal moving forward is to be a farm that educates new and aspiring farmers, whether they want to have a market garden, grow mushrooms, produce honey or maple syrup, or raise animals for meat, milk, or fiber. In addition to having classes and internship programs, we will have partnership opportunities for those with education and experience who want to start their own farming business.
If you know anyone who is looking for that type of opportunity, feel free to give them our contact information!