(The Center Square) – The Illinois Conservation Fund has kicked off the Working Farms Fund program to enable new and young farmers to secure farmland for local food production.
Because land is expensive and scarce, too many farmers are leaving the profession and small and medium farms are being converted to other uses, said Emy Brawley, state director for the Illinois Conservation Fund.
“Inability to access farmland is the number one reason that people are leaving agriculture,” Brawley told Illinois Radio Network.
The goal of the Working Farms Fund is to help young farmers find affordable land, while at the same time protecting threatened farmland, she said.
“Illinois continues to lose high-quality farmland in metro-influenced counties to urban and rural development,” Brawley said.
In the past 20 years, half the farmland in metro Chicago that had been growing food was converted to other uses.
“That land close to the metropolitan market is the land that grows food and it’s the land that young farmers want,” Brawley said.
The majority of new and young farmers in Illinois today are not legacy farmers. Seventy-five percent of them come from non-farming families.
“The people who are looking for land are not inheriting a farm. They are starting from scratch,” she said.
This new generation of farmers is interested in being close to metro markets where they can work value-add, higher margin farms, Brawley said.
Demand for local food is growing every year. In the past 10 years, local food sales have increased from $5 billion to $20 billion nationwide.
The Illinois Conservation Fund’s Working Farms Fund is designed to be an innovative solution. The Fund acquires small and mid-sized local farms (20 to 500 acres) that are threatened by development and matches the land with farmers. The farmer gets a patient pathway to eventual ownership, while a conservation easement protects the land. A revolving loan fund then rolls the purchase dollars forward to the next farm.
The goal is to protect 10,000 acres of farmland in the next 20 years and support 150 farm businesses as they become successful and independent.
“We are very excited about this model,” Brawley said. “It has the potential to protect farmland near metro areas from conversion to non-farming uses. It will also help ambitious and diverse farmers scale up their operations and meet the demand for food in our population centers.”
Even though Illinois has some of the best farmland in the world, only 4% of food consumed in the state is grown there. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of local food for national security, Brawley said.
“A more local food system, anchored to the city, is much safer in times of shock,”