Seeing green: Interest in organic farming is growing

Harold Wilken points out the large amount of paperwork required before beginning a milling operation as Bill Davison, University of Illinois Extension local food systems and small farms educator, looks on. Wilken and his son, Ross, own The Mill at Janie’s Farm near Danforth, Ill., and farm about 2,500 acres organically in that vicinity. Wilken and Davison were among the featured speakers at the recent Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service field day at PrairiErth Farm.

ATLANTA, Ill. — A longtime organic farmer is seeing a growing interest from landowners wanting to shift away from “traditional” crop production.

“It’s actually the landowners who are going to change this landscape, folks. You have to have landowners onboard, and they are onboard. We’re getting more and more calls. So it’s the landowners who are going to make the difference,” Harold Wilken, owner and operator of Janie’s Farm Organics in Danforth, said at the recent Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service field day at PrairiErth Farm.

“The landowners are changing. The grandpa who did it the way Farm Bureau told him to do it for 70 years, he’s retiring or he’s passed away and the youth are coming up and they’re saying we don’t like this and we want it done a different way. And they also know the bottom line isn’t working out in conventional agriculture.

“It’s going to take time. It may take a whole generation, but it’s going to be the landowner that changes this landscape. It’s not going to be the conventional farmer, and it’s not going to be some regulator because there’s always going to be a way around something.”

Wilken and his family farm about 2,500 acres of owned and rented ground organically. The first parcels were certified organic in 2005.

Wilken said there are some organic farmers his age, 57, or older who don’t have another family member behind them to take over the operation. This notion makes ag education that focuses on organic production of the utmost importance.

“We need to somehow address with universities and high schools that this is a viable way to go, that this is a way that a young person can actually start with grass-fed beef on a few acres, pastured pork, pastured chickens, and then raise a few acres of hay and some specialty corn and pretty soon the next thing they know they have a little business going,” Wilken said.

“That’s what it’s going to take to make some changes out here so that we have youth coming in.”

Janie's Mill

The Wilkens started a new endeavor — milling — about two years ago and now are at the point of distributing product.

The Mill at Janie’s Farm mills grains grown by Wilken and other area organic farmers. The milled products then can be used by commercial and home bakers.

The Denmark-made features 3-foot encased millstones that feed into a bagging operation. Although the mill is new, it replicates ancient mills that feed whole grains between stationary and rotating millstones.

Wilken and his son, Ross, own the mill, and Jill Brockman Cummings manages the milling operations. Others assisting include Marty Gray of Gray Farms, Watseka, and Ryan Butzow of Crescent City.

One of the first challenges was getting the certifications required for a milling operation that included 16 different forms.

“We thought four or five was good enough, but we’re going to have to fill out 16 different pieces of paper, we’re going to have to do audits on each one of those, and have to have documentation behind them,” Wilken said.

“Talk about regulations and guess who wrote all of these laws? It was the big mills who are already doing this stuff who wanted to make sure that guys like us didn’t think it was a good idea to go into the business.”

Bright Outlook

Despite the hurdles, including, as he said, spending more time and money on its startup than he anticipated, the Wilkens are very optimistic as they met with two major buyers in the two weeks leading up to the field day.

“It’s going to take time because we have to get our product to the baker because the baker has to try it. So we’re out beating the bushes and trying to get our contacts done. It’s a long process, but it’s very positive,” he said.

Wilken anticipates reaching the point of having large weekly orders early in 2018.

“I talked to this distributor that said he had 220 customers, and I thought, ‘Harold’s not sending the truck to 220 places.’ I’m better off working with the person who has that infrastructure all set up already and who knows his bakers, knows everybody, has a good reputation and he can bring us in to these big bakeries as they try our product,” he said.

“So it’s probably going to be after the first of the year before we’re really up and rolling good. That’s a disappointment to me, except for when I hear this guy say to me, ‘we’ve needed you for a long time, and we’re looking forward to working with you.’”

The organic farming veteran is excited about what he’s seeing in the organic world and local food efforts.

“My distributor said to me, ‘that local shingle is almost as important as that organic shingle,’” Wilken said.

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.

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