DOWNS, Ill. — A Heartland Community College class used a 75-acre farm as its textbook on Sept. 12.
Heartland’s introduction to regenerative agriculture class toured Epiphany Farms to see firsthand a working farm and event venue that focuses on sustainability and a farm-to-fork concept.
The course is taught by Dave Bishop of PrairiErth Farm near Atlanta, Illinois, and is part of Heartland’s Regenerative Agriculture Certificate program.
“What we’re trying to show here is how local agriculture works, diversity, and one of the tenets of regenerative agriculture is keeping the ground covered and the utilization of plants and livestock together,” Bishop said.
“Here you see a diverse number of livestock. He has chickens, pigs and cattle. You see a variety of different crops and how that all works together to create fertility. The animals create the fertility. They spread it across the land rather than the need to buy fertility. Pest and disease cycles are broken up by the constant rotation of all of these various crops.
“It’s an example not only of how regenerative agriculture works, but how you can preserve the wealth that you’re creating here in a community rather than exporting it out of the community. This is one good example of an integrated system, and it creates an interesting point for people in the community not only to enjoy the food, but to see how it’s done.
“I think it’s important that people see how regenerative agriculture works so they would know what I’m eating here is a really good, healthy, nutritious product, but it’s also being produced in a way that helps my community flourish.
“The public simply needs to know that. How else would you make informed decisions if you really don’t understand how the system works?”
The food produced at the farm is served at Epiphany Farms Restaurant, Anju Above, Bakery and Pickle, and Harmony Korean BBQ, all in nearby Bloomington, and part of Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group.
Ken Myszka, founder and president of Epiphany Farms, gave the students information about the farm and led them on a tour.
The farm’s plan for this year includes producing over 300 varieties of vegetables, raising 100 hogs furrow to finish on pasture, 5,000 broiler chickens, 100 ducks, 500 laying hens, 150 rabbits, a vineyard expansion and wine production, the propagation of fruit and nut trees, and a focus on forest products.
The farm also participates in community-supported agriculture program with a goal this year of increasing shares to 100 weekly pickups of its products. The shares are similar to a subscription where shareholders receive a portion of the farm’s products during the growing season.
Myszka told the students his interest in food began in the eighth grade and continued at Tri-Valley High School in Downs.
“All of my friends at Tri-Valley were in FFA while I was in Future Homemakers of America for cooking,” he said.
After high school he worked in the produce department at a Bloomington grocery store and then as a cook at Jumer’s. He went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York and then was a cook at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.
It was during his studies for a hotel and restaurant management degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that his interest shifted to sustainable food production.
Myszka was asked what led to him into the direction of regenerative food production.
“It clicked when I was working as a chef in Las Vegas at some really high-end restaurants. I started to realize the unsustainability of the menus that we were offering, and I was inspired by Michael Pollan’s book, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ and the practitioners like Joel Salatin and Eliot Coleman,” he said.
Having grown up surrounded by central Illinois farmland, he said he was excited about “moving back home and trying to set up shop here in McLean County.”
He moved back to central Illinois in 2009 and started a small garden, bought some chickens and pigs and had a greenhouse on land he rented.
Making such a move required research and a business plan.
“I was in Las Vegas for four and a half years going to college there at UNLV and I did everything I could possibly do to turn every class project into the Epiphany Farms business plan,” Myszka said.
“When I first read ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ I think I was 22 years old, and I started the company when I was 25. I just have the fortunate background and I never really veered from this track.
“I was always connecting the dots from one job to the next, and I saw a need in our community, and they’ve embraced us and they accepted us, and I’ve been so fortunate to be able to cultivate the soil here.”
“I came at agriculture from food as a chef. I call myself a ‘chefarmer,’ not necessarily a farmer,” he said of the combination of “chef” and “farmer”.
With his chef background and training he is not only focused on taste and quality, but also healthy food.
“I started to realize well what’s the purpose of a restaurant and what’s going to give me an advantage as a restaurateur,” Myszka noted.
“I was working at a French restaurant at the time, and I kept hearing them say the chef was a restaurateur (from the Latin term restaurator or restorer). The root word of a restaurant is to restore and so I really knew that if my restaurants were going to be successful, I needed to focus on the purpose of a restaurant as restoring people’s health.
“Like I like to say, use the dinner table for a platform of social change.”