March 13, 2013
Two sustainable organic farmers growing at the Prairie Crossing Farm in Grayslake have been selected from farmers across Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin to receive the first “Farmer of the Year” recognition by the Upper Midwest Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) and Angelic Organics Learning Center.
Alison Parker and Alex Needham of Radical Root Farm have been named “Beginning Farmer of the Year” and Matt and Peg Sheaffer of Sandhill Family Farms have been named “Farmer Mentor of the Year”. The awards will be presented during the Good Food Festival and Conference March 14 – 16, 2013 at the UIC Forum in Chicago. “We’re excited and honored to receive this award,” said Alison. “It’s wonderful that there is growing interest in locally, ecologically grown food.”
Radical Root Farm and Sandhill Family Farms collaborate in the Farm Business Development Center, a unique program of the Liberty Prairie Foundation that supports the development of successful family farm enterprises. Modeled after the business incubator model of the tech industry, the FBDC has become a national model for launching beginning farmers. This program allows new organic farmers to cultivate their farming skills and business acumen on a small acreage, then gradually scale-up to serve the local food needs of the region, focusing on the production and marketing of organic foods. “We’re very proud of the success of Radical Root and all the other farmers who have come through our program,” said Brad Leibov, Executive Director of the Liberty Prairie Foundation. “We’re appreciative of the leadership of Sandhill Family Farms in serving as a mentor farmer at the Prairie Crossing Farm.”
Radical Root Farm is a small-scale, certified organic vegetable farm that grows nutrient-rich food for 160 CSA members and the Logan Square and Green City farmers markets in Chicago. Radical Root has been farming in the FBDC at the Prairie Crossing Farm in Grayslake since 2010, and this is their fifth season farming. Over the years they have gradually increased the amount of land they farm and the number of customers they serve, and are preparing to “graduate” from the FBDC. During the next several growing seasons, Radical Root is poised to expand their operations in a creative land-use arrangement that will allow them to establish a long term sustainable organic farm operation at a centennial farm in Libertyville.
Sandhill Family Farms was started by Peg and Matt Sheaffer 12 years ago in East Troy, Wis. They moved to the Prairie Crossing Farm in 2004, where they grew into a successful and widely-respected family farm serving almost 350 member families in the Chicago area. In 2012, the Sheaffers added a farm in Brodhead, Wis., and formed a partnership with Jeff and Jen Miller to help strengthen the economic viability of the traditional family farm business model.
Before joining Sandhill, the Millers operated their own vegetable business at the Prairie Crossing FBDC and have extensive experience in vegetable, poultry and pork production. Both families manage the two farm locations as one business, Sandhill Family Farms. Sandhill serves as an on-site resource and mentor for the FBDC, and an example of a successful larger scale farm operation.
According to Matt Sheaffer, serving as a mentor farmer is particularly rewarding. “When we started farming, it was challenging to find other nearby organic farmers to brainstorm with about various farm issues. Now that we’ve gained experience, we’ve enjoyed sharing that expertise with beginning farmers, and connecting with a community of farmers who are committed to similar goals. It’s been a learning experience for all of us.”
“Today’s beginning farmers don’t have the capital resources to buy a farm and invest in infrastructure to start up their business,” said Mike Sands, Senior Associate at the Liberty Prairie Foundation. “The FBDC gives them the opportunity to lease those resources and develop the necessary track record to work with a bank or other lender in the future.”
The FBDC provides land, farm infrastructure, and a positive learning environment that helps beginning farmers develop the entrepreneurial skills, farming knowledge and market networks needed to become successful professional farmers. The incubator provides support and resources to its farmers using a market-based fee structure. Farmers are a part of the incubator for no more than five years, at which time they “graduate” to the next level of independence. The FBDC is currently working with seven independent farm enterprises at the Prairie Crossing Farm.
The Liberty Prairie Foundation is celebrating its 20th year of developing a sustainable local food system, and is nationally recognized as a leader in developing and supporting enterprises that build and strengthen our local food system while enhancing the natural landscape. The Foundation provides leadership and financial support for local food system development, social entrepreneurship, land conservation, environmental education, and civic engagement. The nonprofit envisions a world where people of all ages are deeply connected to their food, land and community, and therefore make choices toward sustainable systems in nature and society.