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Farming 101: Greatest Resource Is Like-Minded Community

A-photo-of-Colleen-NewquistPart of my desire to farm is fueled by my desire to shed the life that keeps me indoors, sitting on my butt in a sealed up building the majority of my days. So I had to smile at the irony of finding myself indoors on a beautiful October Saturday, sitting on my butt in a sealed up building in Bloomington, Illinois, as my first major step toward farming.

But there I was, along with 13 classmates—many of whom, like me, had driven a couple hours to get there—gathered for our first 6-hour class session of Central Illinois Farm Beginnings, a yearlong program on creating a sustainable, entrepreneurial farm business.

The day turned out to be worth every sunless second.

The classroom setting, the books, the in-class assignments, the guest speakers, the homework, all drove home an important point: I have SO much to learn. It feels a little ridiculous, really, to be thinking about if I want to focus on livestock or crops—and then somebody mentioned perennial crops, and I thought, whoa, now that sounds interesting—like I know what I’m talking about. My farming “experience” consists of having visited a few very small-scale farms, sweeping up after my friend as she sheared sheep, reading a couple books about farming, and dating the son of a pig farmer for about three months in high school. I recall being terrified of the geese, who hissed ferociously as they chased me to my car. 

I’ve grown a few tomatoes and lettuce and herbs—which are as about easy to grow as you can get—and I’ve consumed at least a large barnyard full of chickens, cows, and pigs over my lifetime, but that hardly qualifies me to embark on this adventure. Still, I’m determined. So there I sat, pencil in hand, eager to soak up the wisdom (and wonderful humor, it turns out) of the program coordinator, Micah Bornstein, and the farmers and other experts he will bring in with every class. 

The class focuses on farming as a business—because, despite romantic notions to the contrary—that’s what it is. Although it may be the only business people go into (by “people,” I mean me) without the expectation of making a living, or at least not expecting to make a good living. All along as I’ve mulled over the prospect of farming, I’ve consistently had in the back of my head (and often the front) that I’ve got to do something else in addition to farming because, after all, I’ll never be able to support myself that way.

Reading the text for the class,  The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff —and Making a Profit, by Richard Wiswall, got me thinking differently. I realized that it was foolish to undertake ANY business without the expectation of profit. I would never even consider another business proposition that seemed financially doomed, so why would I think of farming differently? Granted, my motivation for farming goes far beyond financial, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t expect success.

So what is my motivation for farming? Much to my surprise, a good deal of our first class dug at that answer. I knew from reading the book’s first chapter that identifying personal values and mission would be part of the program, but in the first session, it became apparent that it’s not just part of it, it’s at the heart of it. Through exercises conducted in pairs and individually, we explored what brought us to the program, what we consider our core values, what we’d do if we had six months to live.

Equally surprising is how everyone went along with this. And this is not a group you’d think of as a touchy-feely bunch. It includes a high-ranking officer in the Illinois corrections system, three attorneys, a former sociology professor, a wine salesman, and a school principal who became a volunteer firefighter after accidentally burning down 10 acres of corn. I love that story.

I learned more than a few things from and about my classmates that day, including:

  • Dry fields catch fire easily (more than one story was shared)
  • It’s possible to live in rural Illinois and practice law in Manhattan
  • When brainstorming ways to use a mason jar, more than one person will see it as a murder weapon

I’m not quite sure what to make of that last one, except that we’ve perhaps all read too many mysteries—and that we are all, in some way, of like minds. We shared a lot of laughs during the day, and by the end of the course, I expect we’ll know each other fairly well. Which is a good thing, because if there’s one lesson from the day that really stuck—and there were so many, I could write a small book—it’s that successful sustainable farming is not a solo endeavor. Even if you’re in business for yourself, you will at some point—perhaps at many, many points—need the knowledge, advice, experience, equipment, empathy, muscle, and kindness of fellow farmers. The greatest resource for farming, it appears, is a farming community. Getting to know each other, sharing and respecting our individual goals and visions, seems a better place than most to start.

So what is my vision? That’s the assignment for next session.

I’ll keep you posted. 

Colleen Newquist dreams of farming from her almost-country home in Park Forest, Illinois. Find more of her writing and illustrations at