PrairErth Farm Field Day examines farming practices improving quality of food and quality of life - part 1

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[September 17, 2016]    LINCOLN - On Tuesday, September 6th, the annual PrairiErth Field Day was held on the farm owned by Dave Bishop of rural Atlanta. Locally, Bishop may be best known for his organic foods, more specifically vegetables, as well as beef, pork, and poultry. However, the garden style portion of the farm is only a percentage of all that is produced there, as the farm also raises conventional crops such as corn and soybeans following sustainable agriculture guidelines.

Bishop has been a proponent of organic farming for quite some time and is involved with stewardship projects as well as hosting University of Illinois research projects. The goal in sustainable farming practices is to reduce or eliminate toxic chemical use found in herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Organic and sustainable agriculture are terms often not understood by the general public. The field day is intended to educate as well as share resources and knowledge among professionals who have the same goals as Bishop – wise use of the land to grow premium crops and foods at a profit.

On Tuesday a diverse line-up of speakers would address a full-range of topics from field to table on agriculture, finances, marketing and health. Researchers, experts and representatives of agencies would address the various aspects of organic farming and sustainable farming, profitability in organic farming, and the health benefits to those who purchase fresh, whole, non-processed foods, or organically grown products.

Bishop opened the day by introducing a variety of vendors who supplied brochures and print information for guests. He then spoke briefly about the two primary elements necessary for successful sustainable farming programs.

Bishop said that first, the system used to establish sustainable farming needs to be a plan that can be used not just for the immediate season, but for the future. In other words, it needs to be a long-term plan that requires little adaption to work year-after-year.

Secondly, Bishop said that to be successful, a program has to be profitable. In contrast to conventional farming practices, Bishop said one key is to control the output, to not over-produce, because larger supplies will create lower prices. He said the goal is to avoid what is going on today in conventional farming where supplies are larger than the demand. Prices fall to make the abundant supply more marketable.

Dr. Nicole Florence, Memorial Health Systems, Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital

Bishop moved on quickly to the first guest speaker, Dr. Nicole Florence. Dr. Florence works with the weight loss programs at both Memorial Hospital in Springfield and Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital in Lincoln. She spoke about the obesity statistics that say one in three American’s is overweight. She then went on to talk about how the hospital programs are attempting to teach clients about making healthy choices, buying fresh fruits and vegetables, and how to cook in the home.

Florence said it is disturbing to realize how many people today do not know how to cook a real meal from scratch. They are eating fast foods, either at restaurants, or products that can be purchased at the grocery or convenience store, and placed in the microwave for a quick and easy meal. These are the same products that are loaded with additives, high in fats, and overall, not healthy.

Florence said that obesity leads to diabetes, and that is a $150 billion cost in the healthcare industry. She said that the goal of her programs is to break the chain through education. She said the motto of the program is “Eat like you matter.” The program includes teaching about shopping for food, using the practice of buying items that are cost effective over cheap, educating youth on the benefits of healthy eating, teaching families to cook, and helping to eliminate the barriers that prevent them from making healthy choices.

Florence said if obesity could be eliminated, diabetes would no longer exist. Doing away with this one disease would have an enormous impact on medical costs, insurance costs and more for all Americans.

When Florence finished, Bishop summed it up with a few words, “Food is medicine.”

Rebecca Huston, Illinois State Treasurer’s Office

It takes money to farm, whether it be an organic farm or conventional, operating cash is difficult to come by some years.

Huston was there to address a loan guarantee program offered by the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office.
She explained the AgInvest program. The program works through local banks to help secure loans and operating cash for area farmers. She said that there had been improvements made to the program that allows farmers to secure larger loans for longer periods of time and now offers fixed interest rates.

Huston noted that the program is not a state loan of cash, but it is a subsidy program for interest rates, to make the borrowing more affordable for the producer. She said there is also a long list of items that the state will permit in this program, such as money for crops, but also money for livestock, for buildings or infrastructure, and for the refinancing of debt. She also noted that right now, many people don't know about this program, including the bankers.

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Rebecca Osland, Illinois Stewardship Alliance

The next speaker was Rebecca Osland of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

From the Alliance website: “We envision a system where soils are treated as a precious resource, local food producers earn a fair, living wage, local food education is integrated into all levels of education, infrastructure is rebuilt to accommodate local food systems, and good food is available for all.”

Osland is just completing her first year with the Alliance. She is an attorney, working on State as well as Federal legislation that will help the Alliance achieve its vision. Osland noted to the group that she also has first-hand knowledge of the work at PrairiErth Farms because she worked on the farm for a time, learning about organic and sustainable farming along the way.

Osland offered an update on the four bills presented, all of which have gone through the state legislature; three have been signed by Governor Bruce Rauner, and the fourth was vetoed under an amendatory veto by the governor. While he rejected the bill, he suggested changes to it that he would support and it will be presented again.

Osland also talked about a new “trendy” program that is being promoted by the Alliance; seed libraries. She explained these are locations, often hosted in public libraries where that gardeners can get seeds that have been donated by other gardeners, and raise them in their gardens. They also have the option to save seeds from the produce they grow and donate it back to the seed library.

She said the program was voluntary, and the initial seeds were donated by growers, not necessarily seed companies. However, the Alliance had faced challenges with the program because the Departments of Agriculture wanted to place the same restrictions and controls on these seed libraries as they have over the seed companies. She said she had taken this matter up before the state legislature, attempting to relieve the program from these restrictions and had done so with some success.

Janet Beach-Davis and Lauren Denofrio-Corrales, Heartland Community College, Normal

According to Janet Beach-Davis many people do not realize that Heartland Community College offers an Agricultural Education program in its curriculum, but it does and it is a program that is growing. She and Denofrio-Corrales were happy to share what the college is doing in the line of agriculture education.

HCC recently purchased a farm next to its Normal campus. Davis said the farm is the prime location to develop small plot farming where students can work with food farming projects such as food forests and more. The college is also hopeful that portions of the farm can be divided out for livestock production as well.

Davis also noted that there is no longer a Farmer’s Market in Normal. With the purchase of the farm property and the development of food plots, it appears to be a natural fit that the college will develop a Farmer’s Market program. It would be held at the farm, which is conveniently located at the edge of town where there is plenty of space for vendors and shoppers.

Because HCC is a junior college, Davis said the programs are for those who are looking to learn the “how to’s” of food production, and not necessarily earn a degree in agriculture.

At the same time, Denofrio-Corrales said the college is working toward developing a two-year degree in agriculture. The two HCC representatives said that as they grow their program, there are needs. There is a need for instructors first of all. To teach at HCC, an instructor will have to have a master’s degree in agriculture. The college also needs sponsorships for the farm program, plus it is always looking for speakers who can add to the educational experience for the students.

Another thing the agriculture program needs in input from producers. The question is what do producers want from a young person completing the HCC Ag program, what skills and knowledge are going to make that graduate employable?

When the representatives from HCC finished speaking, Bishop said that the next portion of the day would include a tour of the University of Illinois Test Plot located just a few feet away from the site of the presentations.

Dr. Tony Yannarell, and graduate students Elizabeth Miernicki and Cassandra Wilcoxen each gave brief talks on the work that is being done at the test plot. Lincoln Daily News coverage of the September 6th field day will resume with the U of I presentation as well as other speakers.

[Nila Smith]


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