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Sustainable farming brings together local producers and customers

Fri, 28 Sep 2012 10:28:35 CDT
By: Jim Browne

Sustainable farming brings together local producers and customers
Consumers are becoming very savvy when it comes to their food. They want to know where it came from, what chemicals it's exposed to, and how fresh it is. That's resulted in a growing interest in locally grown food, and consumers known as locavores. WGLT's Jim Browne goes to the source in today's installment of our series, Farming: A Growing Concern.


Elaine Sebald, a supporter of the proposed store, "Green Top Grocery," talks about what makes that store special:


See photos of the Bishop's farm
See and hear other parts of the series.

Off of a one-and-a-half lane blacktop, about four miles east of Atlanta is Prairie Erth Farms. Prairie Erth Farms is run by the Bishop family, it's hardly noticeable from the road until you see the greenhouses in the backyard. Hans Bishop and his father David decided they'd pursue what's known as a niche in agriculture, in part to break away from chemically dependent practices:

"My dad bought it in the early, '80's, and, uh just kinda wanted to find a way to make a smaller acreage farm work."

Hans starts up a 60 year old tractor hitched to a flat trailer upon which he and the other farmhands are tossing garlic pulled from a weedy section of the 300 acres of land they tend onto the trailer. They also grow wheat, alfalfa, and soybeans along with other crops, many of which are destined for Community Supported Agriculture. CSA members buy shares of crops for delivery at harvest. A one year CSA costs $450. The Bishops originally used traditional farming methods, but Hans says they became disenchanted with the toll those practices were taking on the land:

"And that's why we diversified, and became organic."

Hans Bishop proudly waves toward weeds amidst the garlic, saying the unwanted plants prove the operation's organic. The Bishops also market their organic produce at farmer's markets. Another way of cultivating money from smaller farms is also showing up, according to the President of the American Farmland Trust. John Scholl grew up on a farm in McLean County. He says small acre operations like Prairie Erth Farms are becoming more common:

"I have seen, you know, a lot of operations that have converted to into, you know, direct consumption markets, providing food and our fruits and vegetables to institutions, hospitals, schools, that sort of thing. Uhm, as well as getting into things like agritourism."

Agritourism opens up farms to city folk who are willing to pay money to spend a day, or sometimes a weekend, living, and occasionally working, on a small farm. For people who otherwise wouldn't have a real connection with the earth, Scholl says it provides an opportunity to get back to the land.    Heather Wilkins is with the Land of Lincoln Regional Tourism Development Office. She says most eco tourists like to travel an hour or so from home to experience rural life. For some, Wilkins says, such farm visits are traditions:

"Taking pictures every year as their child gets older picking the grand pumpkin that's going to be on the front porch, it could be the outings going to the winery every year, uh, especially in southern Illinois Shawnee wine trail, they have beautiful accommodations, ranging from cabins to bed and breakfasts."

A key to sustainable agriculture is financial as well as ecological viability. Jon Scholl of Farmland Trust says all farmers have to balance the bottom line with environmental concerns, especially growing mono culture crops of corn and soybeans. But, Scholl says organic and agritourist operations also have a place. As cities expand, he says, smaller niche farms spring newly developed areas:

"If you look at where land conversion is taking place, in other words land taken out of agriculture and put into housing development, or roads, or whatever. That quite often is on an urban edge, where you have, quite often smaller parcels ."

Hans Bishop, of Prairie Erth Farms, hedges his bets on organic farming through Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA members. Prairie Erth Farms has a sizable group of 64 CSA's who make things a bit more predictable, according to Bishop:

"Kinda helps us through the wintertime, when we're not able to grow as much stuff. And, uh, just, helps us you know, pay the bills that are coming for the next season."

Sustainability and diversification could be the keys to smaller farms in the future. And a sampling of visitors to the Bloomington Farmer's Market shows an increased awareness of, and demand for, organic and other locally grown crops:
"Locally grown food that tastes a lot better than the stuff that you get in the supermarkets that's been trucked from, in sometimes thousands of miles away/Fruits are juicier, it's just, you can tell that it's been picked recently/Well I don't eat tomatoes that come from a grocery store. Only if they're from my own plants, or from here. And so I'm here to get good tomatoes."

Andy Ziel of Prairie Erth Farms is at the Farmers Market too, surrounded by a wide variety of the tomatoes she's looking for:

"Prudence purple, like a pink heirloom have a good a tart, sweet flavor, then there's striped German which are yellow with some blotchy red spots, so some people's favorites, those are called valencia, I think probably because the look kind of like oranges."

Ziel says people are very interested in where the food comes from, how it was produced, but the most important thing is taste:

"People can shop for you know, other reasons, but if it doesn't taste better than what you get at WalMart, then it's not going to last."

Just a half block away is an information booth for Green Top Grocery, which hopes to open up in the twin cities selling locally grown products.   So the future of sustainable agriculture may well look like it's past, small family owned farms selling food to people who live in the area.


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