Sustainable Farming Brings Producers, Customers Together
By Jim Browne
Consumers are becoming very savvy when it comes to their food. They want to know about the origins of food, chemicals that may have come in contact, and the level of freshness. This interest in more information has resulted in a growing interest in locally grown food from a type of consumers known as “locavores.”
At Bloomington’s downtown Farmer’s Market, Hans Bishop and his father David sell goods that they produce on their farm. The Bishops decided they would pursue what is known as a niche in agriculture, in part to break away from chemically dependent practices.
"My dad bought it in the early, '80's, and, uh just kinda wanted to find a way to make a smaller acreage farm work," Hans Bishop said.
On the farm, Hans turns on a 60-year-old tractor hitched to a flat trailer upon which he and the other farmhands are tossing garlic pulled from a weedy section of the 300 acres of land. The Bishops also grow wheat, alfalfa, and soybeans along with other crops, many of which are destined for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
CSA members buy shares of crops for delivery at harvest. A one year CSA costs $450.
The Bishops originally used traditional farming methods, but Hans said they became disenchanted with the toll those practices were taking on the land.
"That's why we diversified, and became organic," he said.
Hans Bishop proudly waves toward weeds amidst the garlic, saying the unwanted plants prove the operation's organic.
The Bishops also market their organic produce at farmer's markets. Another way of cultivating money from smaller farms is also showing up, according to John Scholl, the president of the American Farmland Trust.
Scholl grew up on a farm in McLean County. He said small acre operations, like Prairie Erth Farms, are becoming more common.
"I have seen, you know, a lot of operations that have converted to into, you know, direct consumption markets, providing food and our fruits and vegetables to institutions, hospitals, schools, that sort of thing. Uhm, as well as getting into things like agritourism," Scholl said.
Agritourism opens up farms to city folk who are willing to pay money to spend a day, or sometimes a weekend, living, and occasionally working, on a small farm.
For people who otherwise would not have a real connection with the earth, Scholl said it provides an opportunity to get back to the land.
Heather Wilkins is with the Land of Lincoln Regional Tourism Development Office. She said most eco-tourists like to travel an hour or so from home to experience rural life. For some, Wilkins said, such farm visits are traditions.
"Taking pictures every year as their child gets older picking the grand pumpkin that's going to be on the front porch, it could be the outings going to the winery every year, especially in southern Illinois, Shawnee wine trail,” Wilkins said. “They have beautiful accommodations, ranging from cabins to bed and breakfasts."
A key to sustainable agriculture is financial as well as ecological viability.
Scholl said all farmers have to balance the bottom line with environmental concerns, especially growing mono culture crops of corn and soybeans. However, Scholl said organic and agritourist operations also have a place. As cities expand, he said, smaller niche farms spring up in newly developed areas.
"If you look at where land conversion is taking place, in other words land taken out of agriculture and put into housing development, or roads, or whatever,” Scholl said. “That quite often is on an urban edge, where you have, quite often smaller parcels.”
Hans Bishop of Prairie Erth Farms hedges his bets on organic farming through Community Supported Agriculture.
Prairie Erth Farms has a sizable group of 64 CSA's who make things a bit more predictable, according to Bishop
"Kinda helps us through the wintertime, when we're not able to grow as much stuff,” Bishop said. “And just helps us you know, pay the bills that are coming for the next season."
Sustainability and diversification could be the keys to smaller farms in the future.
A sampling of visitors to the Bloomington Farmer's Market shows an increased awareness and demand for organic and other locally grown crops.
Andy Ziel of Prairie Erth Farms said people are very interested in where the food comes from and how it is produced, and most importantly, the taste.
"People can shop for you know, other reasons, but if it doesn't taste better than what you get at WalMart, then it's not going to last," Ziel said.
Just a half block away from the Bloomington Farmer's Market is an information booth for Green Top Grocery, which hopes to open up in the Bloomington-Normal area selling locally grown products. The future of sustainable agriculture may well look like its past with small family owned farms selling food to people who live in the area.