Angelic Organics program trains to launch or expand sustainable farms

Staff Report

Angelic Organics Learning Center (AOLC) is seeking applicants for Stateline Farm Beginnings – a yearlong course that has trained 233 new farmers and 160 farm families in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and since 2005. The course attracts both rural and urban participants, with students hailing from Chicago, Rockford, Milwaukee, Madison and nearby communities. Applicants include those who are new to farming and those who would like to improve or expand their farming business. Applications for the 2015-16 course are available through October 2.

Stateline Farm Beginnings is part of the Farm Beginnings Collaborative, a national network that trains new farmers using the Farm Beginnings training model and curriculum. The course is  farmer-led, community-based and uses sustainable farming practices. Unique to Farm Beginnings is the opportunity for students to join a farmer network right away. While taking classes, students form relationships with farmers in the same community where they often launch their farming business.

“I cannot conceive of Hazzard Free Farm being where it is today without Farm Beginnings and Angelic Organics Learning Center,” said Andy Hazzard of Hazzard Free Farm Grains & Beans in Pecatonica, Illinois, just outside of Rockford. Hazzard started her farm in 2007 and completed Stateline Farm Beginnings in 2008. She was a young, single woman who wanted to continue her family lineage of farming. She now operates a thriving sustainable farm business that grows, processes, and distributes non-GMO, chemical free whole grain products to restaurants and kitchen tables across the Midwest. Hazzard serves as an instructor for Farm Beginnings courses and also mentors youth farmers in AOLC’s Roots & Wings program. Farm Aid recently named her a Farmer Hero, one week before the Farm Aid 30 concert in Chicago on September 19.

Stateline Farm Beginnings begins in October 10 with 10 course sessions that meet bi-weekly on Saturdays at Angelic Organics Learning Center (1547 Rockton Road in Caledonia). These sessions give students the knowledge and background needed to start and sustain their own farm. Sessions are taught by farmers and industry experts who offer first-hand knowledge on topics such as land and equipment access, accounting, marketing, selling and more. Students also assess values, goals and resources while developing a tailor-made business plan for their farming business.

The second half of the course is a combination of hands-on workshops and a mentorship period. Workshops are hosted and led by member farmers of Upper Midwest CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training), a coalition of organic, biodynamic and other sustainable farmers. Students are also matched with individual farmers during a mentorship period over the summer. Mentorship matches are made by identifying a student’s learning needs and then finding an experienced farmer for that student to learn from throughout the growing season. These relationships often last long beyond the formal mentorship period.

Cliff McConville of Barrington Natural Farms serves as a mentor for Stateline Farm Beginnings students. Cliff recently expanded his pasture-raised and organically fed meat, poultry and dairy operation in Barrington. He also collaborates with two Stateline Farm Beginnings graduates – Dominic Green of the Gentleman Farmer in Barrington and Bob Vierow of Bob’s Fresh & Local in Elmhurst – to offer CSA produce shares for his customers.

“People want a cleaner environment and healthier foods. If we are going to meet this demand, we will need to train more sustainable farmers,” said McConville. “Farm Beginnings helps improve our environment and food systems, one farmer at a time.”

The Stateline Farm Beginnings course concludes in September 2016 with a graduation ceremony and a potluck. The relationships built between graduates, however, do not end when the course is over. Many graduates stay involved with Upper Midwest CRAFT, as both a means of continuing education and sharing their skills with new farmers. Other graduates collaborate in their business ventures, and many remain friends for life.

Jen and Jeff Miller had high-powered careers in Chicago, but decided to make a change after their first son was born. The Millers started an organic produce farm in Grayslake called Dea Dia Organics in 2006 after finishing Stateline Farm Beginnings. “We wanted flexibility to be with our family and start a business that we could believe in and teach our children about,” said Jen Miller.

The Millers now co-operate Sandhill Family Farms with another farming couple, Matt and Peg Sheaffer from Brodhead, Wisconsin. The Sheaffers, coincidentally, have also served as instructors for Stateline Farm Beginnings. This partnership allowed the families to expand production and offerings without compromising commitment to quality, to customers, or to their young children. Jen Miller also mentors other farmers and Stateline Farm Beginnings students.

“We believe beginning farmers are crucial to organic, sustainable agricultural growth as an industry,” said Miller. “We think it’s ever more crucial to ensure that beginning farmers continue to be mentored through the hard challenges that you face a few years into farming.”

To apply or learn more about Stateline Farm Beginnings, visit LearnGrowConnect.org/SFB or call 815-389-8455. Applicants can also visit IllinoisFarmBeginnings.org to view all Farm Beginnings courses offered across Illinois.

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