BY SUE LANNIN
2020 will mark my 11th year of serving on the board of The Land Connection (TLC), so this is a good time to reflect on TLC and why I support this nonprofit organization. In my childhood, I listened to stories from my dad about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Food was sacred, not to be wasted, and to be shared with those in need. Land required good stewardship. During my youth, the rural area in which we lived changed into suburbia. Farmland was surveyed into subdivision lots; a sin even worse than wasting food in my dad’s view was how rich black topsoil was scraped into mounds. I loved being outside as a youth, feeling a sense of wellbeing and connection to places I explored: a marsh, original prairie, our neighbor’s yard with duck pond and beehives, and our yard with cherry, apple, and plum trees and mom’s rhubarb patch. I often stayed part of the summer at a relative’s small dairy farm in Wisconsin, next to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
I learned that the soil is created from decaying plants, animals, insects, and microscopic life forms. This living soil, along with water, minerals, and sunlight, grows the plants that all animals, including humans, rely upon for food and shelter. Most Americans did not understand the importance of soil conservation until after the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when delicate prairie soils, in a precarious state from overgrazing and drought, were blown away by windstorms. The need for soil and water conservation is still vital today. With limited crop diversity, pests and weeds become resistant to poisons that are killing the soil’s microbial life and its capacity to hold water. And, with the past five years having been the hottest five years on record according to NOAA’s 139-year climate record, we need agriculture resilient to this trend of warmer temperatures and fiercer weather events.
Our lives depend upon the food that farmers grow and the ability of the soil to sustain life on earth. Nearly 90% of all flowering plants require insects and other animals for their reproduction. Pollinator populations are in decline, threatened by habitat loss, pesticides, and lack of food. The future of life on earth depends on how well we understand, value, and protect plants, and other wildlife, and the natural habitats that sustain our world. With heavier, more frequent rain, Midwest farmers were delayed in planting and harvesting corn and soybean crops this year, as heavy equipment cannot operate in soggy fields.
Support of local farmers is critical to building a healthy local food economy. As a central Illinois nonprofit, TLC plays a dynamic role in offering farmer training opportunities and growing the network of farmers, businesses, and community members who work to build a more equitable, healthy and resilient food system. TLC was founded by food writer and central Illinois farm family member, Terra Brockman, in Evanston, near the Evanston Farmers Market where her brother and sister sold fresh fruits and vegetables from their farms. I met Terra through friends active in anti-hunger and food policy issues. Terra witnessed more farmland being sold to development, fewer farmers owning the land they farmed, and land being managed for monocultures of corn or soybeans. Finding fresh fruits and vegetables in many rural communities became challenging, and still today less than 5% of the food Illinoisans eat is grown in the state, requiring hundreds of miles food must travel to reach people’s tables. Terra understood the economic, environmental, and public health benefits of having access to fresh healthy food grown locally. Food dollars spent and recirculated within a community, add to livelihoods and provide staff and funds for community life such as police and fire service, shops, libraries, and schools.
The TLC office moved to central IL to be where its field days and workshops are held and to recruit people interested in restoring the community to agriculture. Farm Dreams and Central IL Farm Beginnings began as a way to provide people who had an interest in growing food the chance to explore that interest, whether or not they had grown up on a farm. Through on-farm workshops on a wide variety of topics, TLC continues to offer farmers information in the use of cover crops, weed control, marketing, agritourism, soil health, farm safety, and more. TLC’s Organic Grain Conference provides opportunities to learn the latest news about grain varieties and markets while networking with industry experts, stakeholders, and farmers. The Artisan Cup & Fork, a culinary competition organized by TLC, pairs area chefs with local farmers, brewers, and other food artisans, highlighting healthy, tasty ways to prepare and enhance local foods, as it brings people from the community and from different sectors of the food system together.
Soils are the foundation of food production and food security, supplying plants with nutrients, water, and support for their roots. Regenerative agricultural practices minimize soil disturbance, fight drought/flooding, and, with the addition of compost, restore microbial diversity to the soil. Healthier soil on farmland brings economic benefits to farmers and environmental benefits to their families and communities and helps to protect sources of drinking water. Agroforestry in the Midwest could enhance farm profitability, ecological resilience, carbon storage, water quality, and rural job creation, according to the Savanna Institute, a non-profit based in Madison, WI, with whom TLC partnered this May for a field day.
A transformation in the way we produce food and manage land is needed to cope with a changing climate. Agriculture has a key role to play in sequestering carbon to maintain global temperatures at safe levels. I want children now and adults of the future to continue to delight in fresh, nutritious, locally grown food and to enjoy nature’s biodiversity. This is why I believe TLC’s mission and programs deserve my support and yours!