BY TERRA BROCKMAN
The Illinois Department of Agriculture has named a fifth generation central Illinois farmer, Harold Wilken, the winner of the annual R.J. Vollmer Award for Sustainable Agriculture.
Wilken, together with his wife Sandy and son Ross, are the proprietors of Janie’s Farm based in Danforth, Ill. The farm’s name honors Harold and Sandy’s daughter Janie who was killed in a car accident in 2001.
Janie’s Farm produces corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, pumpkins, black beans, alfalfa, popcorn and seed corn. Most of the 2,370 acres Wilken farms are USDA certified organic (1,900 acres) with 370 acres in second-year transition and 100 acres in first-year transition.
Although the basic rotation is corn, beans and wheat or oats seeded with red clover, some years the corn is popcorn or seed corn, and the beans may be black turtle beans or clear-hilum soybeans. Wheat may be spring or fall planted, and soft or hard. Pumpkins, alfalfa hay, oats and ancient grains such as Emmer and Einkorn fill out the mix of crops. Wilken points out that diverse cropping is like a diverse portfolio of investments. Even if it’s a bad year for one or two crops, you’ll still have other crops that do well.
Harold Wilken began farming 33 years ago, and credits his first landlady, 82-year-old Ivadelle Dubois, with trying to get him to “just say no” to chemical herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers. Wilken says that “Upon receiving her first herbicide bill from me in 1982, she said: ‘If you would learn how to set a cultivator, you wouldn’t have to waste money buying this crap.'”
In 2003, when Harold began transitioning his first field (33 acres) to organic, he quickly saw the benefits to the soil and to his bank account. Not only were his input cost much lower, he was making far more money per bushel with the premium prices on organic grains.
But to Harold, the community and health benefits are even more important than the financial benefits. Because more eyes and hands are needed on a diverse, organic operation, Harold has been able to hire more and more people.
“People are often told ‘don’t come back to the farm, there’s no room for you,’” he said. “But organic farming provides the opportunity to bring in a new generation of farmers.”
Not only are more man-hours needed to work an organic farm, more landowners want their land farmed organically, and more companies need organic grain and hay to meet consumer demand, so additional farmers are needed.
“If we in the U.S. don’t produce more organic grain, then companies are going to continue sourcing it from eastern Europe and other areas to meet consumer demand,” according to Bill Davison, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Educator.
Davison also notes that organic is becoming mainstream, as evidenced by a recent initiative to double the production of organic wheat in the United States by 2019. The initiative is from Ardent Mills, a joint venture with Cargill, ConAgra, and CHS.
“The thing I learned right after I started to transition to organic,” Wilken says, “is there are a lot of landowners out here who want their land farmed organically. I have been shocked at the number of people who have contacted us wanting to do this.”
He says the field is wide open for anyone wanting a more diverse, resilient and profitable business model for their farm.
Wilken is proud that his nephew, as well as his son Ross, who graduated from the University of Illinois in 2013, now work full-time on the family farm.
“My goal when I walk away, “Harold says, “is to have more people working the land. “
Harold was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer in 2008. Although no one can say with certainty what caused the cancer, Harold thinks that breathing agricultural chemicals may have been a factor.
“My son Ross will never have to handle a single pound of insecticide or herbicide,” he says, “and that’s very important to me.”
Harold, his son, and other members of his team are always looking for new crops and varieties to plant and for ways to add value to them. They are currently developing their capacity to mill their own grains so they can sell flour to local markets. This new venture bridges the gap between commodity production and the local food movement in which more consumers want to know who is growing their food and how.
“One of the things I’m proud of on my farm is that we’re feeding people. My goal is that everything we raise goes to human consumption,” he said.
Janie’s Farm is located at 2324 N. 1100 East Road, Danforth IL; you can follow the farm activities and farmers on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JaniesFarmOrganics