I went to Bloomington, IL this week for the first time. And then for the second time. And then for the third. Two conferences at the Bloomington Farm Bureau in three days meant a lot of travel, a lot of new people (especially for a recent transplant like me), and a truckload of new information and opportunities. Amidst this deluge, it’s nice to have a rock to stand on and these meetings delivered. The general audience for both conferences was farmer trainers like me, but the hosts and scope were diverse. Monday’s Illinois Farmer Training Roundtable was directed at (you guessed it) farmer trainers in Illinois and was populated by university and extension staff, by a surprisingly large amount of community college staff, by farmers, and by non-profits like The Land Connection. The conference from Tuesday to Wednesday was, by contrast, sponsored by a new USDA program called Start2Farm that focuses on raising a new generation of American farmers that is diverse both geographically and practically. Despite the potential for contrast and even conflict between these varied approaches and agencies, strong themes emerged that made me feel hopeful and, thankfully, stable despite all the excited buzz of conference time.
One theme, raised on Monday by our friend Tom Spaulding of Angelic Organics Learning Center in Northern Illinois and cited repeatedly through the ensuing meetings, was “coopetition”. This is the notion that, while our agencies and organizations are often put at odds with each other and we must at times be in competition for students, funding, and attention, we must also engage in greater cooperation to be truly effective trainers, to reduce redundancy, and to make the best of the capabilities of each of our organizations. This is a powerful idea and I am very excited to begin the process of more deliberate regional engagement with our farmer training partners.
Another concept that met with resounding approval was the need for food aggregation and processing in central Illinois. According to a 2010 feasibility study and action plan on Illinois fruit and vegetable growers, “Illinois wholesale buyers cannot currently meet their demand for fruits and vegetables from in-state production…they resort to purchasing produce grown outside the state. If they could, they would purchase over $23 million in Illinois-grown produce on an annual basis”. Points of food aggregation, processing, and distribution, often referred to as “food hubs”, could prove invaluable for the viability of farms that need increased access to markets and value addition but are not able to do so within their individual means. There are already some food hubs in Illinois, and this is certainly not the first time a call for them has gone up, but the need for more was made clear by all attendees.
The conference theme that was most immediate and critical to my work, however, was “continuum”. This term has passed through my mind ad nauseam for over a month as we have begun to develop a bigger picture of The Land Connection’s farmer training programs. It is the notion that we should be able to offer training services and programs to farmers at whatever stage of development they are at, from “I’ve never even thought about where food comes from” to “I’ve been farming since I could walk but I sure wish I knew more about agritourism”. It was refreshing to hear from the conference attendees that they were considering the same term and the same concerns. We repeatedly referenced the need for a continuum of service to our communities and how we could fill the gaps from one training program to the next.
Some of this continuum-patching will be accomplished through coopetition, by working with other organizations to bolster and share efforts and, in the process, eliminate the need to create redundant programming. Some of this will be accomplished through efforts like food hubs, which can help our farmers cross significant barriers to viable markets. Some of these continuum gaps, however, are not found between being a prospective farmer and a new farmer, or between years five and six of a farm business, but out on the ends of the continuum, where dwell those hypothetical folks that I quoted above. While we have ambitions to expand our programming on both ends, we currently are working to push out the end of the training continuum for those experienced farmers who want to delve deeply into lucrative new possibilities for their businesses. This is the intention of our new three-day farmer training intensives. Our first of these intensives is being held June 23rd-25th at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Champaign, Illinois and is on the subject of agritourism. Participants in the intensive will hear from legal experts, tourism advocates, chefs, and farmers with successful agritourism activities, tour nearby farms and vineyards and have a chance to ask questions of their owners, and eat delicious meals prepared in the commercial kitchen at the farm.You can read more about it here.
We anticipate that participants in this intensive will be able to take home a significant package of knowledge and apply it directly to their own operations. We anticipate that an increase in agritourism in our region, and anywhere the intensive participants take this knowledge, will serve to improve their food systems and raise awareness of the health and the beauty of local food and farms. And we anticipate that this, and other forthcoming training intensives, will help advance our continuum of training for farmers.
This effort to strengthen our continuum means that there is a lot of work ahead for The Land Connection. More meeting, more strategizing and program development, more fundraising and friendraising. But if I drew anything from these conference days, it’s that we are not alone or isolated in our efforts and never were. We have each other’s strengths to build on, and from those we can all, together, build a stronger food system.