Local Food Frontier Follow the growing local movement in central Illinois from field to fork Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/rss.xml And the Golden Beet goes too… https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_12231/ Thu, 02 Feb 2017 16:07:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_12231/ University of Illinois Extension-Livingston, McLean & Woodford Local Foods & Small Farms Educator, Bill Davison is a 2016 recipient of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance's Golden Beet Award for Local Food Innovators.

According to the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, "The Golden Beet Awards, now in their 6th year, are awarded by the Alliance to highlight progressive local food practices and recognize the people who are pushing the local food movement forward in Illinois." They mention that the award recipients are innovative farmers and working to build sustainable local food and farm systems.

"Illinois is well-known for its corn and soybean production, but what people often don't realize is that there is a vibrant and growing local food scene here in Illinois," says Molly Gleason, Illinois Stewardship Alliance Communications Director.

Bill's work is summed up by the Alliance as Scaling Up: Bill Davison of the Grand Prairie Grain Guild:

Bill Davison has been with Extension since 2013 as a Local Food Systems Educator. In his first three years, he has developed and delivered impactful and relevant programs that are helping to create viable local food systems in Illinois. His work has primarily focused on helping farmers adapt conventional farming practices to a sustainable model that both meets growing consumer demand for more healthful food and generates more on-farm income that can keep the next generation on the farm. His largest program in this area is the Grand Prairie Grain Guild (GPGG). Started by Bill in 2014, the guild is a network of farmers, millers, chefs, bakers, and consumers interested in creating and expanding markets for organic grains. The Grain Guild recently harvested 42,000 bushels of organic, food-grade grain to be milled and sold into the Chicago market. In addition, the Guild was instrumental in initiating the building of a new flour mill by a farmer in north-central Illinois and connecting chefs, bakers, and farmers who are now selling local flour into the Chicago area. Bill also helped the U of I Food Pilot Plant secure funding to upgrade their equipment so they can mill and process grains to be used in the dining hall.

In addition to the Grand Prairie Grain Guild, Bill has been active in connecting his community with local food production and consumption. In 2015 he spearheaded two projects, the Refuge Food Forest, a one-acre, organic food forest that is the first of its kind in a public park in Illinois, and the Normal Seed Library, which makes seed access more available and familiarizes the public with the act of saving seeds.

Bill says, "On average, every person in the Midwest could be fed by food grown within 13 miles of where they live. We have the ability to feed ourselves and doing so would address many of the most pressing challenges that we face today."

"The Golden Beet Awards are our way of drawing attention to not only the hard-working farmers, but community volunteers, school teachers, chefs, bloggers, and many other passionate individuals from across the state who are finding unique ways to bring people together around local food," says Gleason. "These individuals are building their communities through local food systems, and they deserve recognition for their efforts."

Additional winners listed below. For more information about the Golden Beet Awards, visit: http://www.ilstewards.org/local-food-promotion/golden-beet-award/.

Congrats, Bill. Keep up the great work! You can find out more information on this and more at go.illinois.edu/lmw.

University of Illinois Extension provides equal opportunities in programs and employment. If you need a reasonable accommodation to participate in this program, please call (309) 663-8306.

Photo Credits to Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

Seeds from Soldiers' and Sailors' Days https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_12170/ Thu, 12 Jan 2017 09:45:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_12170/ BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – On a blustery, spitting day in November, volunteers were completing winter preparation work at the Refuge Food Forest at One Normal Plaza Park. The day's plan called for caging and wrapping young trees, but dropping temperatures made the nimble work difficult. Instead, volunteers donned gloves and weeded beds, and in turn, made a surprising discovery.

The food forest was planted on the grounds of the former Illinois Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's School (ISSCS) in May of 2015. The primary crop includes 500 berry canes and 300 nut shrubs. The installation also includes rhubarb, asparagus, and herbs; plus apple, pear, peach, fig, persimmon, and paw paw trees, along with countless other native prairie plants.

These are perennial food producing crops for the public to enjoy year-after-year. Therefore, it came as a surprise when turnip seed heads were discovered in a bed of black currants. The seeds likely lay dormant for decades, according to U of I Extension Local Foods System and Small Farms Educator, Bill Davison. Other "volunteer" plants had previously indicated that there might have been a garden, or perhaps the ISSCS farm, on the site now occupied by the Food Forest, though construction debris has also periodically turned up in the site's rich, black soil.

Davison will grow out the seeds in test plots and at the Unity Community Center in the 2017 season, and then distribute additional seed to libraries in Normal and Eureka and curious growers. Of particular interest, says Davison, is whether the variety is one that is no longer commercially available.

According to Ruthie Cobb, of the ISSCS Historical Society, in an interview on WGLT Radio, the ISSCS was the first publicly funded child welfare institution in the state of Illinois and operated from the 1860s to 1970s. The Refuge Food Forest site is in fact not, far from where the ISSCS farms and 4-H garden space were located. The children at the home helped harvest and prepare the crops to feed up to 700 residents in the 1930s.

In 2017, the site will be an inviting space for community members to harvest and experience flavors of fresh fruit from a sustainably managed plot for free. Though most of the produce is not yet harvestable until June, this year mushroom logs will be available on the site for early spring harvest.

The Refuge Food Forest was co-funded by the Town of Normal and University of Illinois Extension. To volunteer at the Refuge Food Forest and keep up to date on what is ready for harvest, join the discussion group on Facebook, or contact Reid Young, University of Illinois Extension Program Coordinator, Master Naturalists, and Local Foods and Small Farms at (309) 663-8306 or by email ryoun@illinois.edu.


Participatory Plant Breeding for Organic Staple Crops in Illinois https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_12169/ Thu, 15 Dec 2016 09:45:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_12169/ Participatory Plant Breeding for Organic Staple Crops in Illinois

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – A diverse coalition is working to rebuild a viable regional food system for staple crops in Illinois. The Grand Prairie Grain Guild began as a Facebook group sharing ideas about growing diverse varieties of small grains. Soon the members, comprised of University researchers and Extension Educators, farmers, non-profit organizations, chefs, and bakers, shifted towards boots-on-the-ground plant breeding.

The Grain Guild is applying for funding to create an organic staple crop seed system for the Midwest. If this $2-million-dollar Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant is funded, the project will use winter nurseries, modern plant breeding techniques and modern genetics improved over time through traditional plant breeding to create the system.

The practice of participatory plant breeding for organic grains and beans has emerged as a key part of this project. The goal is to breed resilient varieties that meet the needs of organic farmers for diverse crop rotations, which will lead to more profitable farms. These varieties offer farmers a chance to add value to their crops, and in some cases, these varieties outperform commercial standards. An example is Lexi II wheat, created by Steve Jones, a wheat breeder with The Bread Lab at Washington State University. Jones used a diverse gene pool by crossing wheat varieties and providing seed to farmers who performed in-field selection over a period of three years. The improved variety had the highest yield in a trial against 59 other commercial varieties.

The Grain Guild small grains trial includes plots planted on the research farm at the University of Illinois and a replicated plot on an organic farm in Iroquois County. The corn and bean trials are planted in small blocks or strips on farms across Illinois. Plots are planted with a cone planter and harvested with small plot combines.

The biggest agronomic challenge for the project so far has been excessive rainfall and saturated soils the past two summers, which led to Fusarium infection in small grains, and poor performance of dry beans. A few varieties performed well despite the weather, including Rebellion corn, and Warthog and Banatka hard red winter wheat. Banatka is a cross between landraces from the Republic of Georgia, and research indicates it is among the most Fusarium-resistant varieties of wheat in the world. In 2016, Illinois farmers harvested 7,000 bushels of organic, food grade Warthog wheat with 11.5% protein, good falling numbers (indicative of good elasticity for baking) and other metrics that are important for bakers. Glenn hard red spring wheat has also performed well and typically has protein levels of 13-15%. These two varieties are being blended in the bin to create a consistent all-purpose flour that can be sold into local markets.

Another goal of the project is to determine the extent to which corn can be selected for resilience and nutritional density, and if nutrient-dense corn can succeed in the marketplace. Consumers are indeed asking for nutritious food grown sustainably, and farmers can produce; the challenge then becomes to simultaneously develop these varieties and the markets and infrastructure to support them.

Educating consumers and building markets is the most challenging and important aspect of the project. It requires their thoughts about agriculture and food systems to be re-framed. Members of the GPGG have begun the process of identifying core values for effectively presenting those ideas to people in ways that will resonate with them. Consequently, this project also focuses on cooking classes, taste tests, and testing new recipes that use local grain. Kendall College in Chicago is helping with this work by opening a Bread Lab for testing and evaluating different grains, beans, and oilseeds. Their work will educate students, consumers, chefs and bakers about the potential for using local grain.

Harold Wilken is one example of a Central Illinois farmer who is embracing this movement toward a regional, organic staple crop economy. Harold is building a mill and plans to sell flour into wholesale accounts in Chicago. "Coming from a conventional background I have found a new and profound excitement in being an organic farmer," Wilken said. "I am energized by participating in research and breeding new varieties of corn, beans, and small grains for direct human consumption."

One of the benefits of participatory plant breeding is that it takes a holistic approach, and while this is slow and difficult, it has tremendous value because it addresses root causes and offers a new vision for sustainable food systems based on the values of diversity, nurturing, cooperation, independence, and sharing. Grains as a fresh whole food can provide nutrition to people that counter the trend toward a population that is overfed and undernourished. That is ground zero for the local food movement and a place where farmers who want to add value to their crops can engage consumers. The relationships that are needed to support viable regional food systems will also be able to provide a living wage to farmers and create resilient, thriving farms.

The GPGG currently has 285 members from 9 states, and it represents a valuable resource for learning more about innovative practices that are overcoming the longstanding barriers to developing local food systems.

Join the group at http://go.illinois.edu/GPGG.


More Illinois Farmers See Organic Production as a Way to Add Value https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_11215/ Wed, 13 Apr 2016 08:54:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_11215/ With more than $2 million in infrastructure development and investments, and in collaboration with researchers and professional corn breeders, the Grand Prairie Grain Guild is helping farmers in Illinois adopt more sustainable practices. A project of University of Illinois Extension, Local Food Systems Educator, Bill Davison, sees a variety of factors are coming together that will break through the long-standing barriers that have prevented a significant number of farmers switch to organic production.

Clarkson Grain in Beardstown, IL, and The Scully Land Trust, are playing key roles in this transformation. Clarkson Grain is helping the USDA formulate an organic transition label, a plan that will pay farmers an intermediate price for crops produced during the transition period. That improves the economics and the risk of making the transition. The farm managers and young tenant farmers with The Scully Land Trust see this as an opportunity for improved profitability.

A large and growing body of research has shown that our current industrial food system cannot be sustained over the long-term because the hidden and direct costs are too high. Some of those costs are being brought into sharp relief by the current economics of conventional high-input production. There is no apparent path to profitability in the current conventional commodity market and as a result, some farmers cannot get their operating loans renewed. This reveals that banks are finding the standard approach to commodity crop production to be too risky, driving more farmers' interest in a more viable alternative.

The Grand Prairie Grain Guild's diverse variety trials and increased capacity to breed crops for organic systems will improve the consistency and resilience of new varieties of small grains, corn, and beans that are ideally suited to low-input systems. Most of these varieties will be available for farmers to save seed, and will be sold by local seed companies for significantly lower prices than conventional seeds. This will allow farmers to lower their input costs while adding value to their crops. For farmers looking to break out of the commodity crop cycle, which more often than not produces a negative income based on crop sales according to USDA data, this is one way to do it.

The economics of organic, low-input production offers a path to profitability. Consider this scenario from a certified organic farmer in central Illinois: Improved varieties of open pollinated corn sell for $100 per 50-lb bag and are planted at a population of 24,000 – 28,000 per acre. That results in a per acre seed cost of $30. When these seeds are planted in healthy soil and are part of a diverse crop rotation that includes cover crops, the farmer's skills and knowledge are substituted for chemical inputs and further reduces costs. After taking into account standard operating costs and the cost of manure, cultivation, and cover crop seed, this low input scenario has the potential to generate hundreds of dollars of net income per acre. A relatively small amount of additional work for value-adding and direct marketing can generate thousands of dollars of net profit per acre.

Organic farmers find that when they go through transition, they enter into a positive feedback loop where the increases in soil health provide many benefits that allow further reductions in inputs. It typically takes 3-5 years to begin to restore the life and health of soil. After that period, the soil can have stable or increasing organic matter which results in better drainage and water holding capacity and in better nutrient retention and cycling. Recent advances in soil science have shown that a healthy soil microbiome is the foundation of a more resilient farm. Diverse populations of bacteria, fungi, and other forms of soil life make farming easier and result in healthy plants that are more resistant to insects and disease. When healthy soil is combined with a diverse crop rotation, including full season cover crops, the advantages increase even further.

Seed companies already offer a diverse selection of organic seed, open-pollinated corn that have recorded yields of 160-190 bushels per acre. The Grain Guild intends to further improve these varieties by working with researchers and breeders to develop varieties that are adapted to the soils and conditions experienced on Illinois farms. Stephen Gray with Gray Research in Ashkum is an experienced corn breeder who sees great potential in this approach. He currently breeds hybrid corn for major seed companies and Stephen says "they ask me to breed for three things: yield, yield, and yield." It is this narrow focus on yield at all cost that drives a high-input production model that has become too costly to maintain. Stephen's work for the Grain Guild will be driven by new standards that seek to put the farmer first: resilience and net profitability.

One promising new variety that will be grown across Illinois for the first time this season is called Rebellion. This is an "Organic Ready" variety bred by Frank Kutka that will be evaluated for its ability to reduce cross-pollination from genetically modified plants. If successful, this will increase the probability that organic farmers will receive a premium for their crops. This variety is also part of a new open-source movement in the seed industry, wherein farmers can save seed for re-planting.

The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) currently consists of twenty-three companies and hundreds of varieties on an ever-expanding list. OSSI works with plant breeders who commit to making one or more of their varieties available exclusively under the OSSI Pledge to preserve the unencumbered exchange of plant germplasm for breeding purposes and guarantees the rights of farmers and gardeners to save and replant seed.

New seed saving opportunities and the increased consumer awareness of food and farming issues have many farmers excited about the future. Many of them find that selling food direct to consumers is gratifying and the appreciation they receive from people makes the hard work worthwhile. Dave Bishop from Atlanta, IL has farmed for 35 years and he says "this new connection with consumers and mentoring new farmers makes farming more fun than it has ever been."

Contact: Bill Davison, Extension Educator, Local Foods and Small Farms, (309) 663-8306, wdavison@illinois.edu

Horticulture and Nature Gifts for the Holidays https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_10781/ Thu, 26 Nov 2015 08:00:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_10781/ "Do you have a plant nerd or 'hortiholic' on your buy-for list this holiday season? Here are some plant gifts that will lead them further down the rabbit hole into the wondrous world of horticulture," says University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator, Kelly Allsup.

  • Make a succulent garden with your own personal touch. Buy a shallow pot that is no more than 3 to 4 inches deep and fill it with high-quality soil mix. Plant three to four small succulents in different colors and textures. Some may grow tall, some may trail and some may just spread. Plant entire root ball below the soil level and give a shot of water to each plant. You do not have to drench the entire pot until the roots have fully grown out. Use small pine cones, rocks, reindeer moss, seed pods, dried flowers, lotus pods, ornaments, figurines, pebbles or sand to dress up the top in order to create the miniature landscape feel.
  • Make a reindeer moss wreath. Reindeer moss is trending in the floral design world for its interesting texture. Reindeer moss is actually a lichen that is dried, preserved and colored. Glue reindeer moss to a wreath form or grape vine wreath and affix with a bow.
  • Place a tillandsia in a clear ornament. These strappy epiphytic plants come in different sizes, textures and colors. These epiphytes "air plants" use their minimal root systems to attach themselves to trees and rocks and absorb needed moisture from their leaves. Needing no soil to survive, they can be hung from the window, perched in small wine glasses or placed in clear plastic or glass ornaments. Air plants grown inside need water twice a week in the form of a heavy misting.
  • Purchase a home hydroponics system for fresh winter herb production. Miniature hydroponics systems can be used to grow herbs year-round. Hydroponics is the production of plants without soil; the roots grow in water. The herbs can be grown in your kitchen in just a few short weeks. The kit comes complete with lights, nutrient packs and seeds. The more times you snip your herbs, the bushier they grow.
  • Acquire a "grow-your-own mushroom" kit. There are many online sources for growing mushrooms at home. Mushrooms require a shady location and to be kept moist, but not wet. If watered correctly, you can have loads of oyster mushrooms before winter is up.

For the nature enthusiast in your life who spends the majority of their summers in the Illinois woods, I would like to share ideas from the University of Illinois Master Naturalist Coordinator, Rhonda Ferree.

Rhonda suggests a vest with lots of pockets or a durable backpack for accessories needed during the hike. Rhonda states, "The accessories required for the outdoor enthusiast follow four roles: to hydrate, protect, reference, and document. To hydrate, bring a refillable, environmentally friendly water bottle with a hook for hanging from a belt loop or bag. Bandanas also make great hydrators. On a cool day, soak a bandana in cool water and wrap it around your neck for quick cooling. Or even better, try one of the newer cooling wraps or towels.

Protection includes the obvious insect repellent, sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm, and sanitizer. Some people also like to use gloves and a walking stick. If you are going to be out for an extended period of time, be sure to bring along snacks and first aid supplies. Finally, a cellphone is a must in the event of an emergency – assuming cell phone service is available where you are hiking.

My favorite hiking accessory is the reference material that I bring along. Depending on the location I might include a map of the area, a GPS device, hand lens, and binoculars. As a plant geek I always bring along a wildflower and tree identification guide, though I sometimes use apps on my Smartphone instead."

Whether you know a hiker or a gardener, these gifts are sure to please them during the holiday season. If you need more information please contact Kelly Allsup, University of Illinois Extension-Livingston, McLean, Woodford Unit at (309) 663-8306 or email Kelly at kallsup@illinois.edu.

University of Illinois Dining Services to Source More Local Foods https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_10772/ Tue, 24 Nov 2015 16:03:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_10772/ "The students want to know the story behind the food. Sales increase when there's a story behind a dish," said Dawn Aubrey, Associate Director of Housing for Dining Services, at a recent local food workshop at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. That is good news for Illinois farmers. College foodservice is the birthplace of food trends and increasing university student demand for local food will translate into a lifetime of more mindful eating.

Student demand is just one component of the increasing opportunities for local farmers to sell to large-scale institutional buyers. At the same workshop, attendees heard from high-level officials from major food distribution firms interested in purchasing significantly more locally grown food. A second local food workshop hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau in Bloomington also revealed interest from large-scale grocery chains.

University of Illinois Dining Services spends $15 million a year on food. The percentage of this annual food budget that is spent on local food is likely to grow over time, as more students make informed food choices and demand higher quality, and as the university implements its climate action plan, adopted in 2010.

The climate action plan includes a goal of purchasing 30% local food by 2015, which means food produced within 100 miles of Champaign-Urbana. If the University reaches its goal of 30% local that will add $4.5 million into our local economy. Research conducted by Dane Hunter at University of Illinois found that "an important effect of local spending is that the effects can compound over time. When local spending increases and local businesses prosper, they can offer more products and services which in turn lead to more sales and more successful businesses."

Fortunately, central Illinois has the soil, the weather, and highly-skilled farmers who are ready to meet this challenge. According to Dane Hunter, it would take only 100 acres to supply all of the flour, bread and baked goods for campus, less than 20 acres to supply dry beans, and 300 acres to supply soybean oil. A transition from a meat-based diet to one focused on vegetables and grains would also help reduce the university's "carbon foodprint," up to half of which is attributable to the raising of livestock, according to Hunter.

Dane Hunter describes large institutions like the University of Illinois as "anchor institutions," which can significantly impact the region through its purchasing. "This economic investment has substantial potential to create regional jobs," Hunter said. In this way, the local food movement can provide rural economic development, increase the financial viability of area farms, allow more young people to farm, and provide fresh, flavorful and nutrient dense food to area residents.

Despite the perennial challenges of farming, many farmers are feeling renewed excitement about their livelihood. Bill Davison, local food systems educator for University of Illinois Extension, says, "The trend toward more local food is incredibly important for farmers, especially those who want to turn over a thriving family farm to the next generation." For more information please contact Bill Davison, Extension unit educator, Local Foods and Small Farms-Livingston, McLean, Woodford Unit at (309) 663-8306, or email Bill at wdavison@illinois.edu.

Summer Series of Organic Grain Field Days, Part 2 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_10550/ Thu, 17 Sep 2015 12:05:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw/eb343/entry_10550/ Ag Lender Cites Organic Commodities as Less Risky than Conventional

Changes to federal crop insurance over the past few years have put organic commodity growers in a territory that most conventional growers would envy: low risk to lenders. According to Richard Ritter of Flanagan State Bank, organic farmers are generating "more consistent income, more annual net income, and less risk for the lender with higher crop insurance guarantees."

During a talk at PrairiErth Farm near Atlanta, IL, Ritter and farmer/owner David Bishop cited Bishop's yield of organic corn and soybeans as an example of what's possible with organics in 2015. Last year, Bishop yielded 85% of the conventional average for soybeans, and 105% of the conventional average for corn. The PrairiErth organic grain field day focused on Bishop's 300 acres.

Using data from University of Minnesota's FinBin pricing database for the upper Midwest, Ritter projects a net return per acre 3.76 times higher than conventional for organic soybeans, and 15 times greater return for corn. Returns that remarkable aren't a matter of input costs—conventional and organic run about the same—the difference is consumer demand. For 2015, Ritter's not worried about yields. In the fields he has evaluated, he estimates corn and soybeans to be average to better than average, after accounting for water spots.

"When you look at those numbers and the profitability, it's pretty plain that it's a significant advantage," Bishop says of his organic transition.

Ritter recognizes his stance is unusual in the Ag Lending community, but he sees global markets declining for conventional growers, and the demand for organics growing at a rapid pace. Demand is growing so rapidly, that organics accounted for $947 million in imports in 2014 if coffee is excluded, while organic exports trailed at $553 million.

"The timing is really good if you're contemplating trying organic," Ritter concluded.

Bishop's notes what's different about his operation is the focus on crop diversity, soil health, community relationships, and that it a multi-generational farm. Bishop's son Hans and spouse Katie run the farm's popular CSA and market stands.

Dave Bishop has been farming for 35 years. In the mid 1990's, he was paying retail prices for his seeds, and selling his crop for whatever price he could get. Bishop began doing what he says farmers don't do enough of: considering how he connects to customers. Was he producing what people wanted to buy? It seemed to him that everyone was making money but him. To add value to what he produces on his farm, he started a transition to organic in 1997, adding specialty crops, and incorporating a livestock rotation to improve soil fertility.

"If it stops being fun, it's a heck of a hard way to make a living," says Bishop.

After 35 years, he says, the last five years have been the most fun.