It may finally be Henry Brockman’s year.
As commercial farmers battle record-high fertilizer prices, seed shortages and huge spikes in gas and construction costs, Brockman — who has operated an organic farm in Congerville, Ill., since 1993 — has been diversifying and rotating some 650 crops, and using his own methods sans store-bought fertilizer. He plans to load up his truck with spinach and herbs as he does every spring and deliver his produce weekly to the Evanston Farmers’ Market.
“Pretty much no matter what happens with the economy, it doesn’t really have any effect on me,” said Brockman, whose core business strategy is his CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture program, that delivers customers weekly farm boxes all season for one upfront fee. He also sells produce at the Evanston market.
“I’m not agribusiness. I’m just a farmer. And that kind of insulates me from a lot of the economic changes,” Brockman said.
Partly due to the war in Ukraine, the cost of synthetic fertilizer has skyrocketed this year, with farmers sometimes paying three or four times 2020 prices. Organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizer, and that — coupled with rising food prices at the supermarket — may give them and their customers an advantage this season. Several area farmers who use organic methods said their prices will remain steady compared to last year at the markets — good news for a sector that has had to battle plenty of other headwinds, including excess rainfalls, flooding and other likely impacts of climate change.
Some organic farmers described a tough few years leading into this one. 2019 was one of the wettest springs on record in Illinois, which affected Growing Home Inc., an Englewood-based high-production organic farming organization that also provides workforce development training. That year, heavy rainfall caused flooding that destroyed entire hoop houses full of crops. “That’s a minimum of 8,000 pounds right there,” said Shani Settles, Growing Home’s director of farm operations.
Then last year, Growing Home was hit by seed shortages and couldn’t find collard greens. The large-leafed green is a significant and culturally important food staple in the predominantly Black neighborhoods around the farm.
Despite these challenges, Settles said Growing Home remains committed to providing healthy, organic food to its community, which exists in a food desert exacerbated by the closing of a Whole Foods that was touted as a neighborhood anchor. “We want to make sure that we are able to provide what is actually needed for community wellness and growth,” Settles said. “We’re tending to the soil in such a way that it makes us good stewards. And because we’re such good stewards of our land, we’re able to be good stewards for the community.”
Star Farm, a nonprofit farm in Back of the Yards, also experienced flooding last summer and that impacted the farm through the start of 2022, said Executive Director Stephanie Dunn, who explained that what happens in previous seasons affects the farm for months into the future. “A lot of the growers that we work with, they’d be texting me pictures that they were kayaking in their fields,” she said.
Part of Star Farm’s mission is to increase local organic food access. The farm grows food all year, selling it through a CSA program, mobile market, farm stands and online. Dunn says winter is a busy time, because the weather can make it harder for area shoppers to get to the store — particularly in neighborhoods she serves that have been identified as food deserts. “What really helps carry us through the winter is those storage crops: apples, pears, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, onions, potatoes,” Dunn said. “There was definitely a marked shortage of those come January because of the flooding that happened the August before.”
Star Farm is in the process of building out a new farm site, which will allow it to double production, build on its wholesale program and open a co-op. But for this summer, Dunn will focus on maintaining the farm’s roster of CSA home deliveries and staffing regular booths at eight farmers’ markets and dozens of pop-up events.
“This is stuff we’ve been talking about for years and now I’ve started to hear other people talk about it who it never would have crossed their minds,” she said. “One of our challenges is just keeping that momentum.”
Laurell Sims, co-founder of Urban Growers Collective, operates eight urban farms primarily on the South Side that sell fruits, vegetables and herbs through local farmers’ markets, a CSA program and a mobile van. She, too, is trying to build a new farming campus, so she has felt some impact on the rising prices related to construction materials and gas. On the lookout for ways to save, she has ambitions on reducing a key cost — soil — by boosting her composting capability.
The collective currently does some on-site composting, but because its sites are spread across the city, they also must buy compost. For 40 yards of compost, UGC typically pays $200 to $300, with a shipping fee of $400 to $500. Sims says shipping costs have increased a few hundred dollars this year, due to rising gas prices. “Buying soil is the number one input for organic farms and for farms that are growing sustainably,” she said.
Expanding her composting operation means she will be able to create her own supply — and generate enough compost to sell it to other local farms, reinforcing the organization’s commitment to fostering a robust local food system.
Sims is encouraged, too, by a marked increase in customers of its Fresh Moves bus, which travels to different community sites to deliver produce. In Black and brown neighborhoods that have been historically divested, Sims said, the number of shoppers is now four times what it was before COVID. “We were seeing maybe 50 people a day and now we’re seeing consistently between 250 and 300 customers,” she said.
Though the collective is insulated from much of the larger market pressures, it is not insulated from the worries brought on by climate change. Sims cites the unpredictability of the weather as a major concern. Colder-than-average temperatures this year have the growers about three weeks behind schedule. “Things are just taking a lot longer this season to produce,” she said.
A 2021 report from The Nature Conservancy examined the impact of climate change in Illinois, the fifth largest agricultural producer in the country, and singled out warmer temperatures and increased precipitation. The average daily temperature had increased 1 to 2°F in most areas, with an increased warming of 4°F to 14°F likely by the end of this century. Precipitation had increased 5 to 20% across Illinois, with more wet weather likely on the way.
For farmers like Brockman, that has changed what he can grow on his central Illinois farm. “When I first started farming, we were too far north for really good sweet potatoes. We just didn’t have a long enough growing season,” he said. “They’re a major crop now. I probably grow 10 times as many sweet potatoes as I used to because it’s a warmer climate.”
On the flip side, he no longer plants greens like mizuna or arugula in the spring, because the weather warms too quickly.
Brockman, who has long used sustainable farming practices, says organic farmers have tried to teach the public for years about the importance of local food systems on health and the health of the environment. In 2020, he starred in a documentary about climate change and local food systems called Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm.
More recently, it seems, a younger generation of customers has started to listen. Brockman has cultivated that interest through a junior citizens CSA program, where customers in their 20s or those with children under 20 months can receive a 20% discount on a CSA subscription.
“For years and years, I hardly had anybody ever take me up on it,” he said. “About five years ago, they just started coming in.” This growing season, he predicts, about 1 in 10 customers will qualify for the junior citizens discount.
Brockman says the supply shortages brought on by COVID-19 may have helped consumers realize the importance of local food systems. For Henry’s Farm, business is booming.
Kerry Cardoza is a freelance writer based in Chicago.