Farm Fresh Perspectives: Growing our land resource

There’s one agricultural commodity that everybody wishes they could grow more of: land. Unfortunately, I think we’ve already got all we are going to get on this cozy, little planet. I have had numerous conversations with start-up and would-be farmers, and one of their most frequently cited obstacles is getting access to farmland.

Demand and development are on the rise, and a lot of that pressure is stemming from the Chicago metro area. As a farm kid visiting the Magnificent Mile, with its vast differences in culture, commerce, atmosphere, and infrastructure, I thought I was in a different world. Mentally, Chicago was light years away. In truth, downtown Chicago is only 100 miles from my doorstep. If you count the suburbs as part of the city, you can practically cut that distance in half. So, landowners within Chicago’s immediate scope of influence are literally able to sell their 60-80 acres in the suburbs and buy upward of 1,000 acres downstate. Chicago’s influence is also affecting land values in the entire northern half of Illinois, not to mention Wisconsin, Indiana and even Iowa. For the last decade, Illinois farm land prices have been going up, up, up, with the biggest increase of around 11 percent happening last year. Average farmland values for the entire state are around $2,900 per acre. That means it is not hard for people in the Rockford area to see price tags more than $5,000, depending on the location and quality of the land.

Aside from development pressure and urban influences, the competition for land among farmers is fierce as well. The current conventional corn-soybeans rotation that dominates the Illinois agricultural landscape requires economies of scale; that is, a grower already has to make a major capital investment for all of the building and equipment required to operate a farm, so the more land they can grow on, their cost of production is spread out over a larger area and increases their overall return. Despite the drastic loss in the number of Illinois farmers over the past decade or so, the statistics for losses of productive agricultural land aren’t nearly as astounding. The situation becomes apparent; farms are getting bigger. When one farmer goes out of business, his neighbors are all going to be at his land sale, eagerly but apologetically, hoping to up their production and keep their own businesses afloat.

This state of affairs serves to fairly effectively exclude people who want to get into conventional farming but were not born into a farm family. The initial capital outlay is simply too much to overcome. On the other hand, many would-be farmers are starting to get interested in small, diversified agricultural ventures as a result. Such alternative farm enterprises would instead have more intensive production practices on a smaller piece of ground, thus producing higher-value crops that return more per acre than corn or soybeans would. They are more likely to grow vegetables, orchards, berries, herbs, and even small livestock like pastured poultry, sheep or goats. Plus, they are more likely to be direct marketers that sell their farm-fresh products within the region, providing nearby consumers with great food and providing the community with a small source of economic development. And they don’t need that much land; I know of people who have started a successful community-supported-agriculture farm on 1 acre of land. One acre.

It seems to me that available land and new farmers are both hot commodities, but with new farmers broadening their thinking and their production to include small, intensive enterprises, the rest of us may need to change our perception of “available” land. I know for a fact there are a lot of 3-acre and 5-acre lots in rural areas that are producing nothing more than lawns. I know there are a number of small fields that conventional farmers would just as soon not rent because it is not as efficient to put some crops on such small parcels. Others just have old pastures or farmsteads lying fallow. Depending on the zoning of the parcel and temperament of the owners, these kinds of situations all sound pretty available to me.

So let’s do something about it. If you are a landowner who would like to make an acreage of almost any size available specifically for a small/alternative/organic farm venture, contact me and tell me about your land opportunity. If you are a person looking to start up such a venture, and you are looking for land, contact me and tell me what you’d like to do. Let’s see if I can’t do a little matchmaking here in the stateline area. Together, we may be able to help get some new farmers off to a running start.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the Feb. 8-14, 2006, issue

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