Radical Root Farm will become the first certified organic farm in Libertyville's history, operating at the centennial Casey Farm beginning in 2014.
Farm owners Alex Needham and Alison Parker are graduating from the Farm Business Development Center (FBDC), a unique program of the Liberty Prairie Foundation that supports the development of successful family farm businesses. Radical Root's transition to Casey Farm was made possible through an innovative partnership between Conserve Lake County, the Lake County Forest Preserve District, and the Liberty Prairie Foundation.
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Radical Root Farm produces certified organic vegetables and free-range eggs and their 100 member community supported agriculture (CSA) program serves customers in suburban Grayslake and Libertyville as well as the Lakeview, Edgewater, Lincoln Park, and Logan Square neighborhoods in Chicago. They also participate in Chicago's Logan Square and Green City Farmers Markets. Radical Root has been farming since 2009, and has participated in the FBDC at the Prairie Crossing Farm in Grayslake since 2010.
"The FBDC has helped us immensely with growing our business," says Alex Needham, co-owner of Radical Root Farm. "We could not be doing what we are doing if we had not had the great opportunity to join the FBDC and we are incredibly grateful for the help we've received. We're so excited to be able to graduate from this incubator program and move to Casey Farm. My wife, Alison Parker, and I are thrilled to continue to grow our business at a more permanent location."
Modeled after the business incubator model of the tech industry, the FBDC allows new farmers to establish their business on a small acreage and gradually scale-up to serve the local food needs of the region. The FBDC provides certified organic land, farm infrastructure, and a positive learning environment that helps beginning farmers develop the entrepreneurial skills, farming knowledge and market networks needed to become successful professional farmers. Farmers are a part of the incubator for no more than five years, at which time they "graduate" to the next level of independence.
"Today's beginning farmers don't have the capital resources to buy a farm and invest in infrastructure to start up their business," said Mike Sands, Senior Associate at the Liberty Prairie Foundation. "The FBDC gives them the opportunity to lease those resources and develop the necessary track record to work with a bank or other lender in the future. Including Radical Root, we have successfully launched 13 new farm businesses since we began the FBDC in 2005."
Launching sustainable local food businesses is a priority for many organizations in Lake County. In 2010 the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) adopted the GO TO 2040 regional plan, the first comprehensive regional plan since 1909. Sustainable Local Food was identified as one of 12 regional priority areas within the theme of Livable Communities. This created momentum for diverse organizations to partner to advance local food initiatives, and set the stage for Casey Farm's transition from conventional corn and soybean production to sustainable local food farming.
"The Lake County Forest Preserve is excited to partner with the Liberty Prairie Foundation and Conserve Lake County in support of farming in Lake County," said Ann Maine, President of the Lake County Forest Preserve District and Lake County Board Member representing the 21st District. "One of the goals of our land acquisition and preservation program is the preservation of farm land. Traditionally that has been corn, soybeans or hay. This unique partnership will allow the development of other agricultural products to be sold locally. Its location along an important trail corridor will allow many residents to learn more about farming. It is appropriate that this is occurring on the Casey Farm -- a centennial farm in Illinois."
Conserve Lake County purchased Casey Farm in 2007, in partnership with Libertyville Township and the Lake County Forest Preserve District. Casey Farm is located in the 5,800-acre Liberty Prairie Reserve, where public and private landowners have partnered for more than 20 years on land conservation, resulting in 3,400 acres of protected land. This strategic land acquisition allowed the organizations to preserve open space in the Reserve and enable a critical trail connection. Libertyville Township restored their parcel to prairie, while the others remained in conventional agriculture for the short term.
The Liberty Prairie Foundation helps farmers locate land as they prepare to graduate from the FBDC and launch their farm business in a more permanent farm location. Casey Farm presents a unique set of opportunities for a sustainable local food farmer given the shared common goal of advancing sustainable agriculture between all the involved organizations, and its location in the Reserve. Sustainable agriculture is beneficial to land and water health, compatible with the Reserve's conservation focus, and consistent with the missions of the involved organizations.
"We're very pleased with this partnership at Casey Farm," says Jim McConoughey, President of Conserve Lake County. "This is a great opportunity to demonstrate farming methods that take care of the land and water while responding to community demand for locally-raised foods and honoring the farming heritage of the area. And it shouldn't be forgotten that local food farming like Radical Root's enterprise at Casey Farm gives a boost to the local economy."
With farmland generally priced for residential or commercial development, it's unrealistic for small farm businesses to purchase farmland for food production in Lake County. Long-term farmland leases are a viable alternative if they can be found. Farmers who grow food sustainably, and who choose to become Certified Organic by the USDA, must follow organic practices for 3 years before becoming certified, and they need to continually build and enrich their soil. Short-term leases simply don't provide enough time or security for the farmer to make such a sizable investment in the land, both in time and money.
The Liberty Prairie Foundation's 10-year lease for Casey Farm is the first long-term lease of publically owned land for sustainable local food farming in the Chicago region. The Liberty Prairie Foundation is the leaseholder at Casey Farm and is subleasing the property to Radical Root for organic farming operations. The Foundation plans to use this pilot project to help create more opportunities for FBDC graduates to transition other public and privately owned agricultural lands in the region into local food production to meet the demand of the Chicago region.
"We're very proud of the success of Radical Root and all the other farmers who have come through our Farm Business Development Center, and their increasing ability to provide the Chicago region with locally grown organic food" said Brad Leibov, President and CEO of the Liberty Prairie Foundation. "We are incredibly pleased that Casey Farm will be sustainably farmed, and will become the first certified organic farm in Libertyville's history."