Success Story - Getting To Know “Farmer Brown”
Illinois Success Story
Getting To Know “Farmer Brown”
By: Paige Buck, NRCS State Public Affairs Specialist
Date: October 2010
USDA often touts their “Know Your Farmer; Know Your Food” initiative, designed
to assist small and local food producers and hook them up with businesses,
schools and families who want healthy food options. Well, if you live in
Illinois and if you or your children attend Southern Illinois University, then
you get an “A+” just for reading this story. Why? Because you will officially
KNOW something about your food and the farmer who grew it.
His name is Josh Brown. His family farm, home to his wife and their three
children, is located on 70 acres in Jackson County, which is in the southern tip
of Illinois. Sixty-five of those acres are hardwood trees, which only leaves
Brown five acres for his organic, local fruit and vegetable operation. Five
acres may not seem like much compared to most farms in Illinois, but for a small
scale, organic farm, five acres is more than enough.
In The Beginning–
Brown started out as one of the first CSA (Community Supported
Agriculture) farm in Southern Illinois. In a CSA, consumers buy “shares” in the
spring and every week they get a basket of whatever produce is in season. This
allowed him to get started because the capital was paid up front. He was able to
focus on production, not marketing or advertising early on in the venture.
Generally, CSAs are very diversified in terms of variety of vegetables, which
can be logistically challenging to manage. For this reason and many others,
Brown chose to simplify his operation which allowed him a way to develop a
better plan and a wholesale strategy focused on fewer crops.
Brown began growing vegetables and herbs and sold produce at small farmer’s
markets in Carbondale and southern Illinois. He offered a wide variety of
different veggies and became well versed in the art—and science—of small scale
crop production. “It’s a tough row to hoe,” explains Brown, “because organic
operations like mine are intense on labor and low on income—not the best recipe
Add to that equation a few very dry years followed by wet years and flooding and
a severe spring storm or two that took out 30 fruit trees. “We’ve got good
ground here. I’ve had some great people helping me out, and I’ve collaborated
with other growers and fellow farmers to learn more and more. I’ve been
persistent. It took all those factors working together—plus a few more--to make
our farm what it is today,” he adds.
In nearby Carbondale, Illinois Brown found a Co-op and began working that system
with some crops, vegetables and tomatoes. Brown knew if he was going to do this
and do it well, he needed to do it bigger. More importantly, he needed to do
some serious thinking and some planning. Strategic planning, that is. In 2009 he
developed a new Farm Plan. He decided wholesale distribution was the way to go.
That would mean more volume of crops and less diversity. And it would also
require more efficient use of time and labor inputs.
Time To Grow–
Whole Foods Market, one of the world’s leading natural and
organic grocer, has an outlet located in a suburb of St. Louis. With the ‘green’
scene picking up speed and consumers in search of more ‘local’ food, Whole Foods
faced a classic ‘supply and demand’ situation. They needed everything locally
grown they could get their hands on—whether it was certified organic or just
local—they wanted it.
“My bigger market? It was right here,” Brown explains with a smile “One of my
big markets was right here in Carbondale at Southern Illinois University (SIU).
Bill Connors, the food service director with SIU, became interested in local
food in response to the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act that requires state
institutions source 20% of their food locally by 2020.” SIU had a need. Brown
was there with a good product.
Brown recognizes it is not easy for every organic grower to find such sizeable
and sweet niche markets, but with good networks, successful outreach, and a lot
of persistence, it is possible to offer superior produce to clients, find new
markets and develop them over time.
Investing in Infrastructure–
“I’m a jack of all trades, but I’m no soil scientist,” Brown
explains. He knew he was farming a good Burnside silt loam with plenty of
nutrients. But, he knew he needed to create better tilth for long term
productivity. Organic matter was the answer. Brown knew some neighbors who had
more than their fair share of livestock manure and he made them an offer for 450
tons of it. Sold.
“I needed to invest in my infrastructure. For farmers, that’s your soil. So that
was the first thing we did. We built raised beds with 4-6 inches of composted
manure,” he explains. He also uses an ‘old-fashioned’ soil-building technique
called “cover crops.”
Brown is a firm believer in what cover crops like buckwheat, hairy vetch, and
rye grain can do to naturally reduce pests, slow weeds and provide effective and
low-cost inputs. “We took pictures, made movies of the whole process and posted
it on YouTube and there we were “Farmer Brown’s Production Company, LLC“ -- at
With information for his baseline soil data, they planted early in 2009 and
harvested that fall. Brown’s operation was already certified as organic by the
Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), a regional group that supports and
serves as a third-party organic certifier.
Even sweeter was the next chapter when as a now registered vendor, Farmer Brown
could supply his product without a contract. With refrigeration supplies and
sustainable containers, Brown provided 4,000 to 5,000 heads of lettuce to Whole
Foods and to Southern Illinois University Food Service for a price they liked,
an income Brown loved, all for a product customers want. That’s better than a
Brown’s lettuce options were wide—he could supply romaine, butter head and
red-leaf varieties. Tomatoes were okay, but it wet conditions hit hard in 2009
for good tomatoes. 2010 will be better. Brown has experienced some pest problems
but learns new creative and organic techniques with every passing season.
It’s important to note that organic farming is not Brown’s only business. As a
smart business owner knows, having a diverse approach and multiple income
sources is key to a successful long-term strategy. Brown’s wife works outside
the home, they manage and rent out a vacation home on the property as well, and
in Brown’s “spare” time, he plays in a band. “We have more than one iron in the
fire and we’ve tapped into agritourism markets for part of our income as well.
It’s a good, solid and sustainable system and it’s working well for us,” he
explains. The Brown family also has a Forest Management Plan hard at work on
their property. With this they create a sustainable forest and timber operation
Farmer Brown also opens his farm up to embrace and involve his local
community. He sponsors farm tours, supports the local Co-op and works with the
Illinois Stewardship Alliance to get the word out about quality local foods and
the benefits they provide. The off-shoots of that kind of PR results in new
friends, a steady supply of good workers/volunteers, good press and, as always,
Learning New Lessons, Making New Friends–
Farmer Brown has no livestock (just two dogs) and has transitioned his operation
more towards the production of low work level crops, more durable crops. For
example, Winter Squash is very durable and low maintenance (unlike Summer
Squash). His team has a system; they know their roles and perform in sync like
true professionals. He still depends on good planning, but he permits and
encourages flexibility whenever he can. He partners with other organizations and
people who can help him continually improve his operation like the Natural
Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
“I’ve created a five-year plan with my local NRCS folks and they’ve given me
great ideas for new options on my forested ground. Together, we’re doing things
that encourage wildlife habitat. We’re finding effective ways to control
invasive species, which can be a real problem down here,” Brown explains.
Like most organic produce growers in Illinois, Brown is pleased that USDA and
NRCS are actively reaching out to work with organic producers. “NRCS knows soil
and water like nobody else. And since those two natural resources are what makes
my livelihood thrive, I’m interested in what they can show me.”
Brown has a contract with NRCS for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program,
known as EQIP. He’s also signed up into the new Conservation Stewardship
Program. This Fall he will install his first ‘high tunnel’ greenhouse/hoop house
structure. As part of this organic conservation pilot practice, use of the high
tunnel and its affect on conservation issues will be monitored and compiled with
data gathered nationwide.
“I’m excited to see what the high tunnel equipment can do for issues like water
and moisture, pest management of ALL types, and maybe giving us more time at the
beginning and the end of the growing season—that could positively impact local
diet and health, veggie crop markets, and bumped up my profits a bit,” Brown
Jackson County NRCS District Conservationist Scott Martin and Brown have become
friends and have learned a lot from each other. “After working with Josh and
watching how he manages his land, I knew he was perfect for CSP. All of the ways
he farms—reduced tillage, regular use of cover crops, recycling of nutrients and
everything he does for soil quality—it’s exactly the kind of good stewardship
CSP was built for,” Martin adds.
Both Brown and Martin confirm that growing good food and growing it in a
healthy and sustainable way isn’t just good business sense. It’s more of a
movement. It has been for some time. There’s a new crowd coming into the
production side of things. Brown grows a lot of good things on his ground—but a
passion for taking care of the Earth, a feeling of gratitude and contentment are
priceless by-products for him and his family.
If the business and lifestyle described here include items you want to plant and
grow in YOUR garden, maybe organic farming is in your future. If so, keep in
mind that NRCS technical specialists, science-based technical assistance, and
conservation solutions and programs work for ALL types of Illinois producers.
Organic Profiles Brown (PDF, 1629 kb)