I grew up milking cows and bucking bales on a family farm west of Rockford, but I would be lying if I told you I enjoyed every minute of it. Daily farm chores were relentless, and I felt like they got in the way of my studies and my social life (such as it was). I simply could not figure out why my family would choose this life of constant toil with seemingly minimal rewards. True to the old saying, I did not know what I had until it was gone. Or, more specifically, I was gone.
The farm is still there, but I went to college. I was in an urban environment, or at least what a farm boy would consider urban, studying environmental science, teaching biology, and tutoring writing. But I started to long for the rural lifestyle; I had an inexplicable urge to fix fence on a clear day, or fetch cattle from the woods in the lower pasture. I missed the surroundings, the serenity (which came in between family members yelling about one farm-related conflict or another), and the feeling I got after a long days work. So I began exploring ways to combine my abilities in the environmental sciences and teaching with my desire to live an agricultural lifestyle.
This exploration led me to graduate school in the environmental sciences where I taught horticulture and focused my studies on the interconnection between sustainability and agriculture. This opened the door to an entire progressive school of thinking, eating and living that I never even knew existed. All of a sudden, Im growing an organic garden, helping friends process pasture-raised chickens, and touting the benefits of local food. I realized the surprisingly close connection between the health of our landscape, the health of our food system, and our own personal health, and I decided that everyone ought to know this.
So I went to work for University of Illinois Extension teaching agriculture entrepreneurship and value-added food production and marketing. I rented a place from my dad, and moved back onto our family land. I have my own yard for the first time, a pasture with a dozen Holstein calves, fruit trees, an empty basement with all sorts of possibilities for starting transplants or micro-brewing, and a head full of ideas. Ive already sheet-mulched a new garden and pruned most of the trees, and Ill soon begin composting the manure pack in the calf shed. My dad/landlord has been very accommodating to many of my plans; sometimes I get constructive feedback inspired by his many years of experience, sometimes I get a simple roll of the eyes that tells me to go back to the drawing board. Its exactly what I need.
Im an aspiring-yet-tentative farmer, and while I slowly gain experience on the land and make mistakes that will become valuable lessons, I am going to continue to educate people about the benefits of a growing movement within the food and agriculture system. It involves consumers eating locally and seasonally; demanding healthy, tasty products with organic alternatives and being willing to pay what they truly cost to produce. It involves novice and veteran growers creating diversified, regenerative agricultural enterprises modeled after the example the natural landscape provides. It is about the food industry at large finally realizing there is profitable business to be done providing consumers with the good food they want.
Since returning to the Rockford area in this new capacity several months ago, I have found fertile ground on which to cultivate the budding awareness for agricultural stewardship and conscientious consumption. I am meeting organic farmers, owners of natural food stores and restaurants, not-for-profit organizations, and plenty of folks trying to determine where they fit into the picture. If you are a grower, a seller, a distributor, or simply an eater who thinks about the values inherent in your food, consider attending the Rockford & Four Rivers Food Security Summit at Rockford College Jan. 27-28. It will be an open forum to discuss the current state of our regions food and agriculture system with peers and professionals. Look for more information shortly from your favorite news source, or visit http://www.foodsummit.org/. Also, feel free to drop me a line. I am happy to respond to comments and questions regarding organic food, alternative agriculture, and entrepreneurship. Think global, eat local.
Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture with University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Jan. 4-10, 2006, issue