The young farmer from Richmond goes to the Washington, D.C. rally, pushing the Farm Bill – a local sho
Kristen Johnson did not plan to be a farmer. Nor did she think she would push for a federal farm bill. But that was before she became part of a growing small farmers movement.
Native Curry first spent the summer of 2008 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 during
Eventually, she owned and operated a small urban farm—less than a quarter of an acre of land—in Chicago while working for a law firm downtown.
But when COVID-19 hit, Johnson decided it was time to “jump off a cliff” and dive headfirst into food production.
So in the fall of 2020, she joined her roommate and another friend in starting Wild Trillium Farm—on the same Richmond farm-owned land she worked with while in college.
“We have found safety in being able to grow foods for ourselves, our families and our neighbors,” Johnson said.
Last week Johnson joined the Illinois Stewardship Coalition at Farmers Climate Action: Rally for Resilience and sponsored by Farm Aid, to push for a federal farm bill that also focuses on farmers feeding their neighbors.
In addition to the march from Freedom Plaza to the Capital Building while in Washington, D.C., Johnson and others met with lawmakers for talks about small farms and federal legislation, she said.
“We had conversations about what the Farm Act could mean for small farmers and how it could change our future for strong, viable food systems in our communities,” Johnson said.
Congress re-certifies the federal farm bill every five years, and it will likely get approval in the fall or winter of 2023-2024, said Liz Moran Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Coalition.
“We would like to rename it the Food and Farm Bill,” said Moran Stelk, to take into account all the areas it covers, from the Supplemental Food Assistance Program to the climate challenges facing producers.
What her organization would like to see is a farm law that helps support small farmers as well, and allows food to be processed and distributed locally.
The past few years have “opened many people’s eyes about the complexity and fragility of our food supply,” Moran Stelk said. She also noted that although Illinois has 23 million acres in agricultural production, “we import 95% of the food we eat” in the state.
If there were federally subsidized regional food production systems in place, she said, Illinois farmers would have a greater opportunity to sell their produce to residents, institutional users, and restaurants.
“It will make us more food secure,” Moran Stilke said.
It’s not just about selling in-season fruits and vegetables on farm stands, but rebuilding the supply channel for locally raised and sold grains and meat.
We had conversations about what the Farm Act could mean for small farmers and how it could change our future for strong and viable food systems in our communities.
– Christine Johnson, Richmond farmer and co-owner of Wild Trillium Farm
She said Johnson and her partners are trying to do just that. They offer a community-supported farming service to paid members, giving subscribers 18 or 22 weeks’ worth of seasonal produce raised on their 15 acres.
“Your carnivore community pays for produce for a season at the beginning of the year,” Johnson said, helping cover the cost of seeds and inputs and “getting things in the ground when incomes are low.”
As small farmers who grow several different types of foods, they have less access to crop insurance and subsidies than large farms in the Midwest that only grow one or two crops, she said.
“Our farming subsidy system just doesn’t work for (our) types of farmers,” Johnson said.
As Moran Stilke said, the Farm Act does not have to establish a separation between the large farmer and the small producer, but it must have “policies…for farmers and food system leaders to be able to rebuild food systems, and to help Illinois farmers “Feed Illinois.”
She said it was uniformity in the food system, such as the four companies that process the majority of meat in the United States, that prevented farmers from feeding their neighbors. Moran Stilke said that rebuilding or renovating “stalled” local processing centers could change that and “make the field more competitive.”
Johnson said there was a move to get larger farms interested in similar programmes. Her off-farm job works with major grain producers, talking about what other foods they can grow and bring directly to markets.
“There is a movement to get the largest farmers interested…to increase systems to have regional hubs for new types of foods that go into restaurants, food banks, hospitals and schools,” Johnson said.