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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Illinois-based Stewards of the Land Cooperative Generates Solid Returns for Local Farmers

October 30, 2012 |

When Marty and Kris Travis first founded Stewards of the Land, a cooperative of local family farmers in Illinois, they were fledgling farmers themselves.

“This was before any local food thing hit in this part of the state,” Marty Travis said. “Still, we felt like we wanted to do something to provide great, healthy food to the local community.”

At the time, Travis and his wife lived on Spence Farm, his family farmstead, with their son, Will. Though the 160-acre farm had been in his family for 175 years, his parents never worked the land. Tenant farmers managed the land throughout his childhood.

He never thought about becoming a farmer himself until shortly after the turn of the century when his wife asked him what he would do if he had to stop woodworking for health reasons. The two started working a single acre of land in 2005. Today, they actively farm 50 acres of the total 160 acre farmstead.

In the land of corn and soybeans, the Travis’ grappled with the challenge of finding a way to market their diversified products, which today include heirloom eggs, Iroquois white corn, and forest harvested onions, blossoms, morels, cattails, and pawpaws.

In their first year running Stewards of the Land the Travises teamed up with a couple neighboring farms and negotiated a deal with a local family grocer to sell produce from the farms on commission. The farmers set the price and retained 80% of the retail price.

Travis says they made just about $1500 that year, but that the concept started to gain some traction. The second year, a dozen more farms joined the partnership, and by the third year, they had maxed out with 25 partner farms, all without ever directly soliciting farmers.

Collective sales among the farms in the Stewards of the Land cooperative reached $1.2 million in just five years. This past year, the Travises have helped a second group of farmers to organize a similar cooperative partnership called Legacy of the Land.

Since that first year, steward farmers have found additional venues for marketing their produce. The Travises deliver produce from several steward farms to 160 Chicago chefs, in a diesel delivery van that runs on vegetable oil waste supplied by the restaurants. At first, the Travises brought other farmer’s goods to the city free of charge, but recently, the participating farmers have offered to pay a small marketing and distribution fee.

Many member farms offer their own Community Supported Agriculture programs and call on each other to help fill their boxes when yields are low. One volunteer farmer serves as the farmer’s market manager who helps coordinate a shared stand at a weekly farmers market. Any steward farmer can bring goods to be sold at the market stand. Farmers take turns staffing the stand each week.

As it happened, many of the farms had children under the age of 18 working the land, caring for livestock, and taking a large role in the stewardship. While Travis says that he never specifically sought farmers with children, he is pleased to be part of growing a new generation of farmers in a community where high school graduates tend to head off to college and never return.

“It all comes down to all of us working together and creating and rebuilding a community that in many ways has dispersed,” Travis said.

One steward farm is a small plot of land managed organically by two high school brothers. Their father is a confinement hog farmer with 2000 acres of traditional crops. The boys wanted to start farming organically and the Stewards of the Land helped to support that effort. Two 17-year-old girls are moving an average of 1000 pasture raised turkey each week. One 14-year-old harvests 600 pounds of produce each week.

“We have case after case after case where we are really empowering these young people to have opportunities and to have a future as farmers,” said Travis.

All participating farmers agree to use non-chemical methods of farming, though certification remains optional. Travis says that the concept has spread entirely by word of mouth and continues to spread. Since helping Legacy of the Land establish formulate their own bylaws, the Travises have cultivated a succinct consulting program to help other farmers around the state start their own cooperatives.

Next, the Travises and the Stewards of the Land have their eyes set on a new poultry processing plant. Currently, Illinois has only one such facility and it is already at capacity. The Travises have been working with area chefs who are interested in accessing more locally raised turkeys and chickens to find funding opportunities.

Travis believes this model could work anywhere in the country. While the Travises transitioned into farming slowly, relying on woodworking income to make it through their first year, they were able to turn a profit after just one year.  “Just do it,” he says to fledgling farmers. “You don’t need a feasibility study. People need to eat. People need jobs and people don’t need to wait for somebody else to do something for them. They just need to get together with likeminded folks and do it.”

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