Seven Illinois farmers traveled to D.C. to advocate for climate solutions in federal Farm Bill
Cary native Christine Johnson would love to sell the vegetables from her small farm in Richmond to local institutions like schools and hospitals -- but without a path for processing the produce into forms that large organizations can easily serve, it's extremely difficult.
Without the means to process the vegetables herself and without access to local food infrastructure such as a regional distribution hub, Johnson instead focuses on selling her goods to small businesses, as well as directly to consumers through community-supported agriculture.
To advocate for the resources to expand her farm's reach, Johnson traveled alongside six other Illinois farmers to Washington, D.C., earlier this month as part of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's "Farmers for Climate Action" rally.
The event saw hundreds of farmers from across the country participate in talks with legislators to discuss how this year's federal Farm Bill can help farmers address challenges due to the climate crisis and implement climate solutions. The bill is an omnibus package passed every five years that covers agriculture, conservation and forestry policy.
"The Farm Bill only comes around once every five years, and we have seen the impacts of climate change and farmers have felt it so deeply," Liz Rupel, a lead organizer with farmer advocacy group Illinois Stewardship Alliance, said. "Some have shut their doors, some had to completely pivot. They have faced struggles. There's some brightness to their stories, too, but there are a lot of challenges that climate change brings. For a farmer to go and have the opportunity to share their story with their legislator is so impactful."
When Josh Snedden of Fox at the Fork farm in Monee, Illinois, began farming full-time in 2022, he didn't expect to be advocating and sharing his passions alongside other farmers just one year later.
While the people he met farmed differently and farmed different things, he said they found common ground in that they each are farming sustainably and with a focus on keeping their communities going.
"It was story after story of people like me, but different in different parts of the country, who all had that story of the challenge they faced or the hurdles we can overcome," Snedden said.
When the Illinois Stewardship Alliance invited Johnson to attend the rally, she knew it was important to share her voice as a small farmer.
"(The Farm Bill) is the most significant player in how people access food. I've always known that it's really important, but never thought that a small person like me that farms only two acres has something relevant to say because big agriculture is so big," she said.
Born and raised in Cary, Johnson runs Wild Trillium Farm's two acres alongside two other women with an emphasis on sustainable practices. The parcel of land, which is part of a larger, 15-acre operation in collaboration with another farm, has been chemical-free since 1960.
While in Washington, Johnson talked with representatives about how the Farm Bill can support local farms by providing them with more financial and educational opportunities.
Because it is often small farmers that practice the most sustainable agriculture -- utilizing cover crops, planting in a rotation and refraining from chemical use -- supporting these farms is one of the best ways legislators can support the environment, Johnson said.
"One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle is how do you support really small acreage farmers and diversified farmers that are investing in practices on their farm that are better for the earth and their community?" she said. "Those support systems need to come from a bigger place, and that's why I've always stayed engaged with these policy pieces. I want to support farmers that are doing this work."
Johnson added while conversation about sustainable farming often pits small farmers against big agriculture, she doesn't want that to be a reality as the Farm Bill progresses.
"I would love for the conversation to be community and people-oriented. We are all doing our best and big farmers are suffering, too," she said. "It's really important to highlight that agriculture has this really amazing opportunity to shift our environment for the better and shift our communities for the better."
Drafted legislation supported by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition includes the Agriculture Resilience Act, which aims to expand pasture-raised livestock, support farmer centered-research, and provide financial incentives for farmers -- big and small -- to take up more conservation practices.
At the state level, Rupel of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance said there are a handful of bills being considered by the Illinois legislature that have similar goals in supporting farmers.
One bill looks to tackle soil health issues and gain long-term funding for the Partners for Conservation Fund.
Another would create a $2 million grant program to help farmers, food businesses and cooperatives in purchasing equipment for infrastructure that's needed to scale local food production and supply chains -- much like the ones Johnson is hoping to develop in Richmond.
"It would just be super exciting to see the landscape change a little bit, and for farmers to have that opportunity to create more entrepreneurial opportunities for themselves and to keep dollars local," Rupel said.
• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.