Christine Johnson didn’t set out to be a farmer. Nor did she think she’d be lobbying for a federal Farm Bill. But that was before she became part of a growing movement of micro-farmers.
The Cary native first spent the summer of 2008 working at the Gauger farm near Richmond. Later, while working at farmers markets in Indianapolis, she became an advocate for providing local food to immigrants and refugees while
Eventually, she owned and operated a small urban farm – less than a quarter-acre of land – in Chicago while employed at a downtown law firm.
But when COVID-19 hit, Johnson decided it was time to “jump off a cliff” and dive feet-first into food production.
So in autumn 2020, she joined a roommate and another friend in starting Wild Trillium Farm – on that same Richmond land owned by the farmers she worked for while in college.
“We found safety by being able to grow foods for ourselves, our household and our neighbors,” Johnson said.
Johnson last week joined the Illinois Stewardship Alliance at the Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience and sponsored by Farm Aid, to lobby for a federal Farm Bill that also focuses on farmers feeding their neighbors.
In addition to marching from Freedom Plaza to the Capital Building while in Washington, D.C., Johnson and others met with lawmakers to have conversations about small farms and the federal legislation, she said.
“We had conversations about what the Farm Bill could mean for small farmers and how it could change our futures for viable, strong food systems in our communities,” Johnson said.
The federal Farm Bill is reauthorized by Congress every five years and is likely to see approval in fall or winter of 2023-24, Illinois Stewardship Alliance Executive Director Liz Moran Stelk said.
“We would love for it to be renamed the Food and Farm Bill,” Moran Stelk said, to take into account all areas it covers, from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to climate challenges facing producers.
What her organization would like to see is a Farm Bill that helps support small farmers, too, and allows for local food processing and distribution.
The last few years have “opened a lot of people’s eyes about how complex and fragile our food supply is,” Moran Stelk said. She also pointed out that although Illinois has 23 million acres in agriculture production, “we import 95% of the food we eat” in the state.
If there were federally supported systems for regional food production, Illinois farmers would have more opportunity to sell their products to residents, institutional users and restaurants, she said.
“It would make us more food-secure,” Moran Stelk said.
It is not just about selling in-season fruits and vegetables at farm stands, but rebuilding a grain and meat supply channel that both raises and sells locally.
We had conversations about what the Farm Bill could mean for small farmers and how it could change our futures for viable, strong food systems in our communities.— Christine Johnson, Richmond farmer and co-owner of Wild Trillium Farm
Johnson and her partners are trying to do that, she said. They offer a Community Supported Agriculture service to paid members, giving subscribers 18 or 22 weeks of seasonal produce raised on 15 acres.
“Your eater community pays for a season’s worth of product at the beginning of the year” that helps cover the cost of seeds, inputs and “getting things in the ground when income is low,” Johnson said.
As a small farmer growing several different kinds of foods, they have less access to crop insurance and subsidies than large Midwestern farms growing just one or two crops, she said.
“Our agriculture support system doesn’t work for (our) types of farmers,” Johnson said.
Neither does the Farm Bill have to set up dichotomy between large farmer and small producer, Moran Stelk said, but should have “policies in it ... for farmers and food system leaders to be able to rebuild the food systems, and help Illinois farmers feed Illinois.”
It is consolidation in the food system, like the four companies that process a majority of the meat in the United States, that has prevented farmers from feeding their neighbors, she said. Rebuilding or renovating “mothballed” local processing centers could change that and “make the field more competitive,” Moran Stelk said.
There is a movement to get the bigger farms interested in similar programs, Johnson said. Her off-farm job works with large grain producers, talking about other foods they can plant and bring directly to markets.
“There is a movement to get bigger farmers interested ... to increase systems to have regional hubs for new types of foods going to restaurants, food banks, hospitals and schools,” Johnson said.