by Kim Erndt-Pitcher
For the past several years The Land Connection has partnered with Prairie Rivers Network and numerous other organizations across the state in an effort to regenerate Illinois’ food system. In fact, that is what we have named our collaborative: ReGenerate Illinois. By using each organization’s unique mission, vision, and resources we are working together to foster the growth of resilient, diversified farms that produce food in a way that protects biodiversity and regenerates land, water, soil, and rural communities. And we are working together to ensure that there are markets, infrastructure, and policy in place to support this new food system. How we grow our food is as important as where and why we buy our food. It all works together to either regenerate or degenerate. And each partner, with its own organizational goals, wants to ensure that the food choices available do more good than harm.
We envision farmers earning a fair and just wage for the hard work they do producing the amazing food we eat. We envision everyone having access to healthy food, every day. We see food as medicine, wildlife coexisting with agriculture, and clean water and air as a right for all. But this vision involves a different way of farming. This is not the vision of industrial agriculture; this is regenerative agriculture.
One of the most exciting and fulfilling parts of our work together is our common interest in expanding the resources farmers need to make these changes successfully. For us, this comes in the form of the IDEA Farm Network, or as we call it, the IFN. The IDEA Farm Network is just what it sounds like, a place where farmers (and researchers, and NGOs, and interested eaters) grow ideas of how to farm better and smarter. The network is a place where farmers share information, ask questions, build support, make friends, and find new ideas.
The network was just an idea for a long time. But in the winter of 2017, the IFN began with small, largely farmer-led meetings in East Central Illinois. Topics ranged from no-till organic crops with cover crops to soil health. At the time, there were around 40 farmers, researchers, and NGOs meeting to discuss better, more ecologically friendly ways to farm. While some farmers were coming from outside of East Central Illinois, the majority of meetings were held in the Champaign and Ford county areas. In 2018, however, the IFN saw new growth, thanks to additional funding and two new farmer-leaders. The group initiated new meetings in the Bloomington/Normal area and near the Illinois/Indiana border, and membership in the network surged to over 280 members in 2018 – a clear sign that this type of community was sorely needed in Illinois.
The IFN continues to grow. There are almost 500 members in the Google Group, and we have a total of five “hubs” across the state where field days will be hosted. Our hubs now include East Central Illinois, NE Illinois, IL/IN border, Bloomington/Normal, and Carbondale/Southern Illinois. These “hubs” will hold meetings, field days, and tailgate sessions on exciting new topics this year. The expansion will allow more farmers to connect, learn, and share. So far, in 2019 we have had meetings on pollinators and biodiversity in farming systems, growing organic grains, agroforestry, and a “tear in your beer” social where folks gathered to connect with friends and share the ups and downs of a year of wild weather and tough farming. 2020 will be another great year for learning with engaging meetings and trainings around the corner.
Helping to make this expansion happen is a part of my job that I absolutely love. I get to learn new things, build strong relationships across all sectors of the agriculture system, and work closely with great organizations like TLC, which co-hosts several IFN trainings each year.
IFN updates and information are frequently shared on the email list. This includes information on field days, equipment demos, conferences. You can learn more about the IFN and find out how to join the Google Group by visiting https://www.regenerateillinois.org/ifn. We hope you’ll join us!