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Organic Farmer Grows to Meet Local Demand in Illinois

Organic Farmer Grows to Meet local demand in IllnoisBy: Paige Mitchell Buck, Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS Illinois

Josh Brown’s family farm, where he lives with his wife and their three children, is in Jackson County in southern Illinois. Sixty-five of his 70 acres are in hardwood trees, leaving five acres for his organic fruit and vegetable operation. Five acres is the perfect size for his small-scale, organic produce farm.

In the Beginning…

Josh’s farm was one of the first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms in southern Illinois. In CSAs, consumers buy “shares” in the spring, and every week they get a basket of whatever produce is in season. Because they receive payments up front, farmers can focus on production instead of marketing or advertising.

Josh began by growing vegetables and herbs to sell at farmers’ markets. He became well versed in small-scale organic production. “It’s a tough row to hoe because organic operations like mine are intensive on labor and low on income—not the best recipe for success.”

Time to Grow…

Josh knew if he was going to do this well, he needed to do it bigger and strategically. He developed a new farm plan and decided to get into wholesale distribution.

And his timing was excellent. The Whole Foods in St. Louis was facing increased demand for local and organic food. It needed locally grown food—whether it was certified organic or just local.

“One of my big markets was right here at Southern Illinois University,” says Josh. The Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act requires state institutions source 20 percent of their food locally by 2020. The university had a need and Josh was right there with a good product.

Josh provided 4,000 to 5,000 heads of lettuce to Whole Foods and Southern Illinois University Food Service for prices they liked. Josh loved the income. All for a product that customers want.

Investing in Infrastructure…

“I’m a jack of all trades, but I’m no soil scientist,” says Josh. 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. “I needed to invest in my soil. We built raised beds with 4-6 inches of composted manure,” said Josh. He also uses cover crops like buckwheat, hairy vetch, and rye grain to reduce pests, slow weeds and provide effective and low-cost inputs.

He has experienced some pest problems, but learns new creative and organic techniques with every passing season.

The Brown family also has a forest management plan. With it, they create a sustainable forest and timber operation and income.

Josh holds farm tours, supports the local co-op, and works with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance to get the word out about quality and benefits of locally-grown food. The results are a lot of new friends, a steady supply of good workers and volunteers, good press, and, as always, more opportunities.

Learning Lessons from NRCS…

“I’ve created a five-year plan with my local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) folks. They’ve given me great ideas for new options on my forested ground. We’re doing things that improve wildlife habitat and finding effective ways to control invasive species, which can be a real problem down here,” Josh explains.

Josh is pleased that USDA and NRCS are reaching out to work with organic producers. “NRCS knows soil and water like nobody else,” says Josh. “And since those two natural resources are what make my livelihood thrive, I’m interested in what they can show me.”

Jackson County NRCS District Conservationist Scott Martin and Josh have become friends and have learned a lot from each other. “All of the ways he farms—reduced tillage, regular use of cover crops, recycling of nutrients and everything he does for soil quality—are exactly the kinds of stewardship we like to see,” said Martin.

NRCS helped Josh get his first high tunnel that lets him grow later into the fall and earlier in spring. “I’m excited to see what the high tunnel can do for issues like water and moisture, pest management, and maybe giving us more time at the beginning and end of the growing season—that could positively impact local diet and health, veggie crop markets, and bumped up my profits a bit,” said Josh.

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. Josh grows a lot of good things on his ground—but a passion for taking care of the earth, feelings of gratitude and contentment are priceless benefits for Farmer Brown and his family.

To learn more about NRCS assistance for organic farmers, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/organic. To learn more about Josh Brown’s story, visit www.farmerbrowns.net. 

And don’t forget to eat your vegetables!

What Does Farmer Brown Grow?

  • Kale
  • Garlic
  • Bell peppers, hot peppers
  • Lettuce (variety)
  • Spinach
  • Butternut Squash
  • Acorn Squash
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Sunflowers
  • Cock’s Comb
  • Green Beans
  • Carrots
  • Winter Squash
  •  Flowers

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