Illinois Farm Goes Small and Goes Home

Terra Brockman recruits and trains a new generation of farmers who use labor-intensive methods to restore rural communities and create an economic niche.

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Sometimes, a name fits the person.

Consider Terra Brockman, founder of The Land Connection and author of The Seasons on Henry’s Farm (Agate Surrey, 2010).

Terra is Latin for land or earth. The surname Brockman, in an old English rendering, means person who lives by the brook.

In this case, name is destiny.

Terra recently visited Western Illinois University to take part in an Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs’ all-day Sustainability Brownbagger, dubbed the Environmental Summit Lite.

A day spent with Terra reveals a person who is passionate about the land and the people on it. She is adept at weaving personal and family experiences into the wider, related realms of farmers and farming, rural communities, and local and global sustainability.

Her family is truly “earthtrepreneurial,” dedicated to sustainable business enterprises. Five generations of family members have lived on their Mackinaw Valley farmland in central Illinois. Their care for the land and surrounding community is deeply embedded in the three generations of family now engaged in agriculture.

A placard used by Henry's Farm.

Terra’s brother, Henry, the subject of her book, runs a broadly diversified “all organic … all the time” farm. The family farm markets directly to residents of Evanston, Iillinois, in Chicagoland on weekends and is a community-supported-agriculture (subscription farming) business for residents of the Bloomington-Peoria area. The farm supplies 85% of the family’s food needs.

As Terra notes, Henry’s annual income mainly depends on 26 weekends of direct sales to consumers. The farm is a profitable venture that serves 2,500 customers a week. It provides about 755 varieties of 100-or-so different types of produce. The diversity of varieties allows Henry to spread his risk. For example, a variety of early broccoli might not do well because of weather, but a later variety might be bountiful.

Her sister, Teresa, grows fruit and herbs organically on two pieces of land, three acres next to her home in Eureka, Illinois, and two additional acres on the family farm near Congerville, Illinois. Besides more traditional fruits, a specialty is Aronia, a native plant cultivated for its tart but tasty berries.

Terra expresses her passion for the land and communities through her writing, speaking and The Land Connection, a nonprofit she started in 2001 with the goals of saving farmland, training new farmers and connecting consumers with fresh, local foods.

“Part of my goal is to bring people back to farming, back to rural communities,” she said in one of her talks at the Environmental Summit Lite. Her model of rural revival includes training people who are interested in farming and willing to work in labor-intensive ways that rely on “sun-generated and farm-generated inputs.”

Her philosophy is built on the premise that conventional farming practices are not sustainable because of their dependence on nonrenewable, fossil-fuel-based inputs and practices that damage soil, water and communities. By revealing disconnections between industrialized farming and local communities, Terra unwraps a significant part of the core underlying rural community decline in many areas, especially her back yard in the Midwest.

“There is a problem with the way people and communities are treated in an industrialized approach to agriculture,” she said. Current farming practices are unsustainable. This is evident from the condition of rural communities.

“The emphasis on economic aspects of farming is not as ethical as an approach that focuses on sustainability more broadly defined to include people in the community,” she added.

Photo by Fred Iutzi, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs
Terra Brockman recruits and trains a new generation of farmers who use labor-intensive methods to restore rural communities and create an economic niche that’s about more than economics.

It is “hard to be a sustainable farmer: They have to make a living and also be socially responsible.” Terra said. Social responsibility is based on relationships with the community that promote a healthy environment, preserving and improving soil and water conditions while providing fresh food that is free from synthetic inputs.

“Sustainable farming sustains human relationships,” she said.

The Land Connection has trained 137 people in sustainable agriculture, not only as a practice, but in the business and marketing side. Of the 137 who have been trained, about 75% are active farmers. The organization tries to connect these farmers with farmland, especially landowners who are retiring. In addition, if there are more organic farmers, more people will have access to local, healthier foods.

For generations, people have left the land to move to cities and suburbs. Right now, “insecurity is driving people in their interest for farming,” Terra said. Farm internships and advanced training offer people a way to test their interests and abilities before they make the leap into running a sustainable agriculture operation.

The life work of Terra Brockman and her family appeals to what The Land Connection calls “Farm Dreams.” Terra calls it a “post-modern” approach to agriculture.

The Land Connection approach runs far deeper than historic back-to-the-land movements that put many settlers on the land with limited understanding of agriculture and natural practices. While we romanticize “yeoman farmers” of the nation’s past, the sad fact is that too many of them slashed away forests, plowed marginal land, fouled streams, destroyed wildlife and native plants and left behind lands that were in far worse condition than when they began to farm it.

 

A wall of lettuce at the Henry's Farm booth

The Brockman family’s approach to sustainable agriculture is thoughtful. It accommodates nature. It continues older, labor-intensive practices more in tune with the land and people.

Illinois is recognized as a leader in traditional corn and soybean production with sprawling farms. But in the Mackinaw Valley, a place of rich, ancient, dark soil in a river valley surrounded by low hills, Terra Brockman and her family are practicing, refining, and teaching about small-scale, community-oriented agriculture.

Henry’s Farm is on land that has been farmed traditionally, converted to modern agriculture and transitioned back to older ways that take advantage of newer technologies without synthetic chemicals. This is a case where organic approaches to agriculture can be successful financially and beneficial to the community at the same time.

Terra comes from a place where a close-knit family has nurtured the land, engaged in the community to provide healthy food, and shared its experiences in hopes of building a better world.

Terra Brockman. Remember a name that has meaning.

Her inspiring work of healing soil, water, and people can help sustain all of us in our dreams for a good life.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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