BLOOMINGTON — Organic food growers have seen a boost in demand since the pandemic began. There’s also demand for more people to farm the land.
But as more farmers get set to retire, it’s unclear if there will be enough farmers to take their place.
Ron Ackerman and his wife Angie grow corn, soybeans, grains and an array of vegetables on a 320-acre farm south of Chenoa in northern McLean County. The farm has been in the Ackerman family for nearly a century.
Ron Ackerman said he shifted to organic production about three decades ago. It wasn’t easy.
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“Back in the early 1990s, had I had a cell phone, I probably would have called my good friend at Chenoa FS and told him, spray these weeds, I can’t stand it anymore,” Ackerman recalled.
Ackerman said the shift to organic took a few years to take root and now he said it’s the only way to go for the sake of the environment. There weren’t many organic farmers back then. There are many more now. But quite a few of them, like Ackerman, will be retiring in the coming years.
Many in the industry worry what will happen to that farmland when that happens.
“We are in the middle of the largest generational land transfer in the country,” said Cassidy Dellorto-Blackwell, the farmer training program manager at The Land Connection.
The Champaign-based nonprofit trains new farmers across Illinois and advocates for community-based food systems.
Dellorto-Blackwell said a lot of specialty family farms are in jeopardy as children move away and don’t want to take over — and it’s not always easy to find a buyer.
Dellorto-Blackwell said new farmers looking to get into the business face obstacles. She said if they don’t have a family connection, acquiring land is expensive. Farmland values are rising. Smaller specialty growers don’t need and can’t afford the larger tracts of land most farmers are trying to sell.
There’s the cost of farm equipment, health insurance and for many, student loans, added Dellorto-Blackwell.
The Land Connection is fundraising to develop a program to help new farmers acquire land.
Still, Dellorto-Blackwell said there are plenty of young people looking to get into farming for various reasons.
“To some degree, there’s romanticism, it’s a romantic idea going back to the land. I assume for a lot of people it’s concern for the environment, concern about climate change, concern about health,” she said, adding farmers also can be successful selling organic produce. She said profit margins are higher and more diversity provides a cushion from market instability.
Katie Bishop and her family own PrairErth near Atlanta in Logan County south of Bloomington-Normal. Bishop said she got into farming because it was her way to make a difference in a way the corporate world couldn’t.
“I get to take this business and create avenues for people to get healthy food in the way that I want to, and we can make a difference in people’s lives in that way that I see more than just handling an auto claim,” Bishop said.
She and husband, Hans, started farming part time more than a decade ago. They now work the land full time and have 15 full-time workers during the growing season.
Katie Bishop said business keeps getting better as more people seek out locally-grown organic food. She said demand picked up during the pandemic, noting COVID-19 also provided an inflection point for their family. It caused them to reassess priorities to regain their lives beyond farming.
“We are moving forward in a way post-COVID where we can spend more time with our families and our friends,” Bishop said. “I didn’t realize how badly I missed them and wanted to be with them until I couldn’t be.”
The Bishops don’t plan to retire anytime soon, but they are scaling back. PrairiErth will no longer sell at the Bloomington Farmers Market during the spring and summer. Katie Bishop said they plan to rely more on what they sell to grocery stores and restaurants and through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. That’s where customers can sign up for regular produce pickups.
Katie Bishop said they don’t yet have a clear succession plan for when they retire. The Bishops don’t have children, and Katie Bishop said maybe some of their employees will want to take over the farm. She also said the family may want to turn it into a nature preserve, but wants to make sure the diversity the Bishops have built into this farmland will benefit future generations.
“My big thing is I just don’t want it either put back into corn and soybean rotation, or I don’t want houses built on it,” she said.
Terra Brockman does outreach for several of her family’s organic farms in central Illinois. Brockman said succession planning can’t start too soon and it must be regularly updated.
“It’s something that needs to be talked about and thought about before the funeral, which seems to be when most people start to think about it,” Brockman said. “Then they just put it up for auction and we know how that goes.”
Brockman said her brother Henry Brockman will likely farm until he takes his last breath. Terra Brockman said concerns about climate change in recent years have reinvigorated him. He’s tried to make his farmland in the Mackinaw Valley in Woodford County more resilient to floods and other weather events that have happened with increased regularity.
Terra Brockman said she understands why it’s hard for some families to plan for after retirement. She said their farms and their businesses are deeply personal.
“There’s real strong connections, generally multi-generational connections with no matter what kind of farm we are talking about. It’s not like you are selling widgets,” she said.
Ron Ackerman’s Chenoa farm won’t stay in the family much longer. Ackerman is 74.He hopes to farm for three more years to reach the 100-year anniversary of the family operation. Ackerman’s three children aren’t interested in taking over the family business.
Ackerman has an agreement with a young farmer, Aaron Hand, to take over the organic farm operation.
“This opportunity if it works out it more just landed in my lap than me going after it,” Hand said.
Hand, 32, of Chenoa, grew up on a farm family. He said he never planned to get into agriculture until he studied nutrition and how the western diet of highly processed foods was unhealthy.
He said he’s looking to acquire more farmland and eventually add livestock to his operation, but he plans to stay relatively small and organic. He said he’d like to see more organic farms in central Illinois, but he understands it’s not for everybody.
Hand said there’s plenty of farmland for organic and conventional farmers to feed the world.
“There can be a lot of animosity between organic farmers and conventional and everyone thinking the other side is their enemy,” Hand said.
But Ron Ackerman is more adamant in seeing small organic farms stay that way. Ackerman said he’s afraid they’ll eventually get gobbled up by the bigger ag companies that are more interested in mass producing feed for animals than food for humans. Ackerman said the quality of the food we eat will suffer.
“We are pushing farmers to produce more with less inputs over a quicker amount of time,” Ackerman said. “There’s only so far you can cut that window and have the same amount of nutrition.”
Ackerman said he’s glad to see wind turbines as part of the green energy movement going up around his farm. He said he wants ag companies to think about more than just the green in their wallets.
The Organic Produce Network reports organic food sales rose 14% in 2020. That outpaced the rise in sales of conventional produce.