By TAMMIE SLOUP FarmWeek
Standing on a cranberry bog, a group of Illinois Farm Bureau Young Leaders felt the earth ripple as a peer jumped up and down.
“Whoa, the ground is moving,” one nervously announced.
Bogs are a type of wetland, characterized by a spongy, mat-like substance on the water’s surface, making it possible for the ground to slightly bounce. Cranberries grow on low-lying vines in bogs (or marshes) layered with clay, gravel, peat and sand.
“It’s something totally out of the norm for us in Illinois; just to feel how different the soil is to produce cranberries,” said Illinois Farm Bureau Young Leader Committee member Sadie Asher.
Asher joined nearly 40 others on the IFB Young Leader Ag Industry Tour July 11-15 in Massachusetts. In fact, much of the tour was “out of the norm” for Illinois farmers.
During their visit to the Bay State, the Young Leaders also:
Shucked oysters from Duxbury Bay.
Plucked and tasted berries straight from the vine.
Stood alongside lobstermen as they fished lobsters from Boston Harbor.
Explored more than a dozen agriculture, aquaculture and agritourism operations throughout Massachusetts, meeting and learning from young and seasoned farmers, as well as Massachusetts Farm Bureau leaders and staff.
Massachusetts’ climate and soil — largely heavy, clay subsoil — nourish the nurseries and fruit and vegetable farms spanning the rolling hills, broken in the state’s center by the Connecticut River Valley.
Agriculture is not a major industry in Massachusetts, which is nearly 50% urban. Land is expensive, and farms are smaller, averaging 60 acres.
But Young Leaders saw firsthand how the state’s farmers — many first-generation farmers — are doing more with less.
“A lot of these farmers here have been first generation and while they’re in one of the oldest parts in the United States, they’re still beginning their businesses here,” said Caitlin Morris, a primary science teacher from Vermilion County.
For example, Ryan MacKay is a 31-year-old first-generation farmer who has built upon his agriculture endeavors since high school.
He treated the group to tours of two locations on his Lilac Hedge Farm in Rutland — his pasture-raised livestock farm and packing facility for home-delivered meals and grocer clients, and what he describes as his more “public” farm, featuring Airbnb residences, a farm bar and kitchen, farmstand, bandshell and a walking path where guests can get up close with emus, ostriches, a camel and other animals.
“A lot of it was figuring the kinks out as we went,” said MacKay, who is also the Massachusetts Farm Bureau vice president. “No other farm has the offerings we do and we pride ourselves on that.”
Young Leaders frequently commented on the progressiveness of the state’s farmers.
“They have to take risks because the cost to invest is so high due to urbanization, and it causes them to have to look around for other ways to make money,” said Lucas Hanke, who works on his family’s corn, soybean and wheat farm in Clinton County.
Johnathon Lock, Fulton County Young Leader chairman who farms with his dad, said he was surprised by the small farm sizes and specialization of operations.
“And just the amount of risk that some of these farmers are having to take out here,” Lock said. “Obviously, all farmers have risks but I’ve just been amazed at how much that they are risking, and are still thriving through these times and not being beat down.”
First-generation farmers also have an advantage, Morris added.
“They’re not sticking to the ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’ because they haven’t been around for as long. They’re really looking forward to make sure that they’re moving with the market and growing as the market needs them,” Morris said. “It’s incredible.”
Many of the farmer hosts have received state and federal funding to help build their operations.
“One thing that has really stood out to me is how many young farmers are applying for grants and using the USDA to get their farm up and running,” said Illinois Young Leader Committee member Ida Hand of Montgomery County. Hand grew up on a row crop and beef cattle farm and now works for Farm Service Agency. “That really shocked me because I feel like in Illinois, not a lot of people use USDA, or even apply for grants that they hear about.”
And it’s not just newer farmers broadening their operations and creating niche markets.
Third-generation cranberry grower Cassander “Cass” Gilmore, who operates Bogside Acres and Benson’s Pond with wife, Erin, has seen agritourism take off in recent years. And he wasn’t about to be left behind. The couple converted the former screenhouse on the property into a farm wedding venue. With views of the 40-acre cranberry bog, the venue is booked three years out.
He also offers tours of the cranberry bog, which is owned by the Gilmore family, a member of the Ocean Spray Cooperative.
When it comes to ag innovation, Barstow’s Longview Farm’s motto says it all: “Looking forward since 1806.”
Denise Barstow is part of the seventh generation on the Hadley farm, which is nestled between a mountain range and the Connecticut River.
The milk market crash in the early 2000s fast-tracked the family’s decision to diversify their dairy farm. They opened an on-site farm store and bakery and installed an anaerobic digester that creates enough energy from methane gas to power 1,600 homes. A USDA grant, along with local investors, afforded the family the unique opportunity to install the digester.
“It’s one of the first digesters that also runs on food waste,” Barstow said, adding food waste is collected from area restaurants. “It offsets our carbon footprint by 85%.”
Challenges shared between farmers in both states include drought conditions this year, as well as staffing issues. Many of the host farmers said they struggle to find workers, especially seasonal help. A handful of the farmers rely on H2A workers, many of whom are Jamaican.
But even the H2A program can be costly and is heavily regulated, farmers said, adding that requirements mandate everything from housing conditions to the number of silverware pieces needed for each worker.
From aquaculture to fruit plants and orchards, Massachusetts agriculture looks little like Illinois’ sprawling corn and soybean fields. But Young Leaders say opportunities such as the Ag Industry Tour bring farmers together to share ideas and challenges.
“We pigeonhole ourselves in trying to make sure we educate our own consumers when we need to make sure that we’re educating ourselves about agriculture outside of our state,” Morris said.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.