Prairie Crossing Programs Grow Organic Farmers
Young, organic farmers learn how to be successful growing local food at Prairie Crossing.
Prairie Crossing Developer Vicky Ranney has watched a vision of a housing development built around a farm grow into a thriving community over the past 18 years. Now Ranney and Prairie Crossing leaders want to share what they have learned in the hope that local farms could be more commonplace.
"The trend has been for ever larger farms with much less direct relationship between the farmer and the people who buy food. But that is changing," Ranney said. "We're going back to a model that is very healthy and forward looking, back to the future in a way."
Building Communities with Farms
Prairie Crossing released a report this month titled Building Communities with Farms that was the result of a two-day workshop with other community-farm developments. The goal is to share what these developments have learned.
"When we got started back in the '90s, it was something of an odd choice to build a community around a farm. I think most developers thought we were pretty weirdo," Ranney said. "In fact, they realized we were attracting people to come and live here because of the farm. A number of people came to farm events and bought houses. The initial marketing success the farm brought us, made other developers pay attention."
While the economy has stalled current development, Ranney believes, however, that innovative, farm-based communities could be part of the recovery. "A lot of people love the idea, but they don't have any experience. You can't just hire a farmer," she said.
The Building Communities with Farms report shares the experiences of Prairie Crossing, as well as farm-based developments in Georgia, Vermont, Virginia and Idaho. It reviews the benefits and challenges of modern farm-based communities, and provides case studies.
Prairie Crossing Farms Evolve
In the late '80s, the land that is now Prairie Crossing was slated for high-density development. A group of neighboring landowners and conservationists won a battle to stop that development in order to preserve the rural character of the land. Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley bought the land and formed Prairie Holdings Corporations. The Ranneys were asked to develop the land with a vision for the community that included restored prairie, open space, and a working farm.
Michael Sands, environmental team leader at Prairie Crossing and executive director of Liberty Prairie Foundation, has been there for 15 years, almost since the beginning. "When we started, we had multiple objectives for the farm. We wanted viable produce, an education component and marketing for Prairie Crossing. These are not always mutually congruent," said Sands.
The first farmers at Prairie Crossing were hired by the development. Besides running the farm, the farmers were also responsible for an educational component and were involved in marketing the development.
"Initially we had one farmer and all the homeowners who were interested would come and ask questions and volunteer at the farm. That was a lot of distraction for someone trying to make a living," Ranney said.
"When we were building and selling houses we could afford, as developers, to pay a farmer," Ranney said. But, they knew they would eventually need to find a farmer who could be self-sufficient.
The farms at Prairie Crossing were organic from the beginning. Ranney said it was a challenge finding experienced organic farmers.
In 2004, the farm was divided into three separate operations -- a commercial for-profit farm leased by Matt and Peg Sheaffer of Sandhill Organics; a non-profit Learning Farm, where school children and the general public can experience farming; and an incubator program, where new farmers can gain valuable experience in organic farming.
New Organic Farmers Learn the Business
The Farm Business Development Center at Prairie Crossing gives new farmers the opportunity to lease land, and gain organic farming experience.
"Most organic farmers come from non-farm backgrounds," Sands said. "They lack access to land and they don't have enough business experience to get a bank loan."
The center, referred to as an incubator for new farmers, provides support and resources for organic farmers. Currently there are six farmers in training.
Jeff and Jen Miller, residents of The Manor subdivision in Grayslake, are among participants in the program. The Millers lease land for vegetables and flowers, which they sell at the Lake Bluff and Deerfield farmers markets, and through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share program. Their business, Dea Dia Organics, also raises hogs and chickens.
Jeff Miller has a master's degree in landscape architecture. The Millers wanted to have a business of their own that was related to Jeff's degree. They gained initial training at Stateline Farm Beginnings, an initiative of Angelic Organics farm, in Caledonia, Ill.
The Millers, like many other beginning farmers, discovered that affordable farm land, near the metropolitan organic food market, was hard to find. They learned about the Prairie Crossing program from Sands, and came here in 2005.
"We wouldn't be able to have our own business, and I might not be a farmer, if this program did not exist," Miller said.
Miller and the other farmers at Prairie Crossing benefit from each other.
"Being part of this farming community really speeds up the learning curve. There's a lot of mentoring here," Miller said.
The different parts of the Prairie Crossing Farm benefit from each other, as well, Sands said. The Learning Farm serves the youngest farmers through its school and camp programs. "It benefits from being next to a commercial farm, where children can actually see a young farm family making a living. It makes the experience more authentic," he said.
Sands agreed the farm families benefit from each other. "They don't just share technical experiences, talking about a type of bug, they share emotional experiences. That kind of support is really important," he said.
"It's like what might have happened in the early 20th century; farmers would help each and discuss common problems," Ranney said. "This is a new version; it's not nostalgic and it's not a museum. This is how farming, we believe, can operate in the future."