Standing on a cranberry bog, a group of young leaders from the Illinois Farm Bureau felt the earth ripple as a peer jumped up and down.
“Whoa, the ground is moving,” one announced nervously.
Bogs are a type of wetland, characterized by a spongy, mat-like substance on the surface of the water, allowing the soil to bounce slightly. Cranberries grow on low vines in bogs (or marshes) covered with clay, gravel, peat and sand.
“It’s something totally out of the ordinary for us in Illinois; just to feel how different the ground is to grow cranberries,” said Sadie Asher, a member of the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Young Leaders Committee.
Asher joined nearly 40 others on the IFB Young Leader Ag Industry Tour July 11-15 in Massachusetts. In fact, much of the tour was “out of the ordinary” for Illinois farmers.
During their visit to the Bay State, the Young Leaders also:
Shucked oysters from Duxbury Bay.
Berries picked and tasted directly from the vine.
Stood alongside the lobsters as they fished for lobsters in Boston Harbor.
Explored more than a dozen farming, aquaculture, and agritourism operations throughout Massachusetts, meeting and learning from seasoned young farmers, as well as Massachusetts Farm Bureau leaders and staff.
Massachusetts’ climate and soil – a largely heavy, clayey subsoil – nurture the nurseries and fruit and vegetable farms that span the hills, interrupted in the state’s center by the River Valley. Connecticut.
Agriculture is not a major industry in Massachusetts, which is nearly 50% urban. Land is expensive and farms are smaller, averaging 60 acres.
But the young leaders have seen firsthand how the state’s farmers — many first-generation farmers — are doing more with less.
“A lot of these farmers here are first-generation and despite being in one of the oldest parts of the United States, they’re still starting their businesses here,” said county science teacher Caitlin Morris. from Vermilion.
For example, Ryan MacKay is a 31-year-old first-generation farmer who has put his farming efforts to good use since high school.
He offered the group tours of two locations on his Lilac Hedge farm in Rutland – his pasture-raised cattle farm and packing facility for meals on wheels and grocers, and what he describes as his farm more “public”, with Airbnb residences, a farm bar and kitchen, a farm stand, a bandstand, and a walking path where guests can get up close to emus, ostriches, a camel, and other animals.
“A big part of it was solving problems as they happened,” said MacKay, who is also vice president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. “No other farm has the offerings we do and we’re proud of that.”
Young leaders frequently commented on the progressivism of farmers in the state.
“They have to take risks because the investment cost is so high due to urbanization, and that forces them to look for other ways to earn money,” said Lucas Hanke, who works at the farm. family of corn, soy and wheat. in Clinton County.
Johnathon Lock, president of Fulton County Young Leader who farms with his father, said he was surprised by the small size of the farms and the specialization of operations.
“And just the amount of risk some of these farmers have to take here,” Lock said. “Obviously all farmers have risks, but I’m just amazed at how much they risk and continue to thrive through these times and go unbeaten.”
First-generation farmers also have an advantage, Morris added.
“They’re not sticking to ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ because they haven’t been around that long. They’re really eager to make sure they evolve with the market and that they grow as the market needs them,” Morris said. “It’s amazing.”
Many host farmers have received state and federal funding to help them grow their businesses.
“One thing that has really stuck with me is how many young farmers are applying for grants and using the USDA to start their farms,” said Ida Hand, a member of the Illinois Young Leaders Committee, from Montgomery County. Hand grew up on a row crop and beef cattle farm and now works for the Farm Service Agency. “That really shocked me because I feel like not many people in Illinois use the USDA, or even apply for grants that they hear about.”
And it’s not just new farmers expanding their operations and creating niche markets.
Third-generation cranberry grower Cassander “Cass” Gilmore, who operates Bogside Acres and Benson’s Pond with his wife, Erin, has seen agritourism take off in recent years. And he was not going to be left behind. The couple converted the property’s old fence into a farm wedding venue. With a view of the 40-acre cranberry bog, the place is reserved for three years.
It also offers tours of the Cranberry Bog, which is owned by the Gilmore family, a member of the Ocean Spray Cooperative.
When it comes to agricultural innovation, Barstow’s Longview Farm motto says it all: “Looking Forward Since 1806”.
Denise Barstow is the seventh generation of the Hadley Farm, nestled between a mountain range and the Connecticut River.
The milk market crash of the early 2000s accelerated the family’s decision to diversify their dairy farm. They opened an on-site farm shop and bakery and installed an anaerobic digester that produces enough energy from methane gas to power 1,600 homes. A USDA grant, along with local investors, provided the family with the unique opportunity to install the digester.
“It’s one of the first digesters that also works with food waste,” Barstow said, adding that food waste is collected from area restaurants. “It offsets our carbon footprint by 85%.”
Shared challenges between farmers in both states include drought conditions this year, as well as staffing issues. Many host farmers said they struggled to find workers, especially seasonal help. A handful of farmers rely on H2A workers, many of whom are Jamaican.
But even the H2A program can be expensive and is heavily regulated, the farmers said, adding that the requirements prescribe everything from housing conditions to the number of pieces of silverware needed for each worker.
From aquaculture to fruit crops and orchards, Massachusetts agriculture bears little resemblance to the vast corn and soybean fields of Illinois. But young leaders say opportunities such as the agriculture industry tour bring farmers together to share ideas and challenges.
“We rank in trying to make sure we educate our own consumers when we have to make sure we educate ourselves about farming outside of our state,” Morris said.
This story was distributed as a cooperative project between the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and agriculture news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.