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Thursday, May 15, 2014
I help teach a class for aspiring fruit and vegetable growers once a month at the University of Illinois. Interestingly, the bulk of the students in the class did not grow up on farms. They are either from the city or a suburb. Clearly, everyone who wants to farm should be able to learn how to do it. However, it does raise the question: Where are the farm kids? As more opportunities open up for smaller scale and more diversified farm operations, I believe that we need to reach out to the young people on our Central Illinois farms.
People raised on a farm are often in a much better position to pursue a career in farming than people from a non-farming background. The demand for local food is increasing, and I find myself talking to more and more people from farm families who want to learn about how they can take advantage of these new marketing opportunities. As soon as you become aware of this trend, you see it everywhere you look. In fact, the January issue of Farm Journal Magazine had an article entitled "Time to Diversify?" The article addresses the prospects for $4 a bushel corn and the fact that diversification can mitigate risk and increase net returns over time. Adding different direct marketed crops can also help the next generation farmers stay engaged with farming and make more money on less acreage.
There are so many interesting enterprises that can be added to an existing farm. Adding pasture and livestock has great potential for increasing a farm's resilience and profitability. There are also new opportunities opening up for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. For example, a new local food distributer just opened in Chicago, and they are buying large quantities of fruits and vegetables from growers in central Illinois. Many local restaurants, schools, and businesses are also looking for more local food. This represents a tremendous opportunity for the right enterprising farmer. Every indication is that the demand for local food will continue to increase in the future. This means more farmers can grow these crops on a larger scale using the tractors, implements, and skills that they are already using for row crops.
This is not to diminish the importance of new farmers who didn't grow up on a farm, nor does it suggest that they can't succeed. It's just that they face an additional set of daunting challenges that farm kids may not. They need access to land, equipment, capital, and the skills and knowledge it takes to run a farm, all or most of which may be completely unfamiliar. These students often end up as interns on farms in central Illinois.
I talked to a man who farms near Atlanta, Illinois who has several interns every year, and he relayed a story about how he learned how much "urban" interns don't know about life on a farm. He said "I saw my interns walking through the pasture near my cows looking nervous as the cows approached them with great curiosity and speed. The interns decided to quickly move away from the cows, and I realized then that they did not know they are supposed to talk to the cows."
When I was growing and selling fruit and vegetables on my farm in Woodford County, I had 3-4 urban interns every year and I was amazed at some of the things they did not know. One spring I got three of my interns started weeding a bed of head lettuce and I told them to finish that bed and I would be back in 30 minutes. When I came back I noticed that one of them had moved over to an adjacent bed of potatoes and was busy weeding the young potato plants. When I asked why he had starting weeding the potatoes, he said he thought "it was a different kind of lettuce." I gave much more detailed instructions after that.
These stories highlight the fact that we have a significant opportunity to engage farm kids in growing local food for local people. Helping the next generation of farmers take advantage of the increased interest in local food can keep young people on the farm will help strengthen our economy and rural communities. Anyone interested in learning more can contact me or look for future Local Food System and Small Farm programs designed to help farmers take advantage of new markets and educational opportunities.