WOODSTOCK, Ill. — Although Claire Hodge did not plan on a career in agriculture, that changed while shopping at a farmers market.
“I didn’t think I would go into agriculture, so I went to Illinois State University and got a degree in biology,” said Hodge, who grew up on her family’s corn and soybean farm south of Champaign-Urbana.
“I studied wildlife ecology and worked at zoos and as a wildlife biologist with the University of Minnesota, catching snakes and toads on restored prairies.”
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Hodge found it difficult to find a job in this field.
“At the farmers market, I asked a farmer if he needed help and I started working on his vegetable farm,” she recalled. “I loved it, so I guess I liked farming after all.”
Hodge became interested in the science behind how food is grown, soil health, water and nutrients and different varieties of vegetables.
“So, I decided to get a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture at the University of Minnesota and I researched organic dry bean production and cover crops, which I loved,” she said.
While working on her degree, Hodge also worked part-time on a vegetable farm with her husband, Nick, for two years.
“We would work on the farm in the summer and move to the city in the winter and I worked as a researcher at the university,” she said.
After moving to the Woodstock area, a family friend offered Hodge land to start her own business, Sunfleck Farm.
“A sunfleck is when the sun comes through the trees, the wind blows and you see a little light shine through,” she explained. “That describes me — someone who seeks opportunities as the wind blows.”
As a young person, Hodge helped her grandma who had a big vegetable garden and beautiful flowers.
“When my grandma found out I was in this career in agriculture, she reminded me of all the times we played in the garden,” she said. “And she said, ‘I think I had something to do with that.’”
When Hodge learned about a job opportunity at The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, she was quite interested.
“I’ve always like hiking, being outdoors and there was an emphasis on farming, so I thought this couldn’t be more perfect,” she said about the farm program assistant position. “And I wanted to connect with other women in this field.”
As the farm program assistant, Hodge is responsible for coordinating the Learning Circle for Women Farmland Owners.
“We did four events last year and we are doing three this year,” she said. “And last year we saw need for a transitioning to organic learning day, so we opened that up to men, too.”
Hodge enjoys partnering with other organizations and the networking part of her position.
“I like to be able to connect people,” she said. “I’ve collected information about organizations, people and resources over the past decade and I like to be able to share that.”
Hodge assisted with hosting a Common Ground Gathering with the goal of connecting landowners with land seekers.
“I want to show people the different land use arrangements that can work,” she said. “I like to see all the connections that are made at these events where people are thinking creatively.”
Serving as a host is the favorite part of the job for Hodge.
“This goes back to my grandma,” she said. “I like creating a safe place for people where they feel relaxed, cared for and able to open up and enjoy themselves.”
Hodge’s goal is for everyone to walk away from the event with a smile on their face.
“In all of my roles, I end up as the person who can talk to everybody,” she said. “Maybe that comes from a farming background.”
One of the reasons Hodge moved to McHenry County is the strong base of farming in the area.
“There are people here who are thinking creatively and supporting it,” she said.
As people pose questions, problems and concerns to Hodge, she often steps into a liaison position to help them.
“I want to get better at that to help people more effectively,” she said.
From working with the Savanna Institute and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Hodge has seen a need for technical service providers who write plans for farmers who are applying for funding through various programs.
“It seems like a clog in the pipeline, so I’m curious about learning how to write plans for people,” she said.
“I like to go to farms, walk it with people, learn about it and map the farm for them, so becoming a technical service provider is something I’m considering.”
Another goal for Hodge is to continue to reach more people.
“It seems like there are a lot of people in our groups who are thinking about conservation practices and sustainability,” she said. “I’d like to be able to reach more people in the community who aren’t thinking in that way.”