The Illinois Department of Agriculture has named central Illinois farmers Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell of Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery (PFFC) winners of the annual R.J. Vollmer Award for Sustainable Agriculture. The award will be presented at the Illinois Organic Growers annual meeting January 12 at 4pm. The meeting will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield, as part of the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism, and Organic Conference.
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery is located just north of Champaign, IL, and embodies core principles of sustainability including environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social responsibility. Cooperband said the award “celebrates the kind of agriculture that we practice — sustainable, diversified and value-added.”
Each year, the 80 milking does on Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery produce milk that the farmstead creamery transforms into some 15,000 pounds of artisan goat milk cheese, gelato, and other seasonal items such as cajeta and salted caramels. Prairie Fruits Farm’s award-winning cheeses range from creamy fresh chèvre to sharp, nutty Moonglo. Their specialty seasonal gelato flavors include red currant, lemon balm, and honey lavender.
The fruits at Prairie Fruits Farm include peaches, blackberries, pears, and apples, raised using organic practices. The farm’s products are marketed through a variety of wholesale and retail channels, including restaurants, grocery stores, the Champaign and Urbana farmers markets, a local CSA, U-pick, their farm store “The Real Stand, “ and during on-farm events, including the acclaimed Dinners on the Farm.
Cooperband and Jarrell both earned doctorates in soil science, and use their professional backgrounds to continually educate the community about organic and sustainable agriculture and the connections between food production and consumption. They also serve as a model for others interested in small-scale diversified farming systems, providing mentorship and beginning farm incubation, and leading by example. They collaborate with The Land Connection and host Central Illinois Farm Beginnings, a farmer training program.
As part of their ongoing efforts to become more sustainable, Cooperband and Jarrell worked with Amtrak in 2016 to use the mostly empty baggage cars to more efficiently transport their cheeses to Chicago restaurants. Because Amtrak trains already run from Champaign to Chicago, the cheese transportation by train had zero carbon emissions.
In 2003, Cooperband and Jarrell transitioned from their urban, academic life in Madison, Wisconsin to rural, agricultural life in central Illinois. In 2004, they planted over 350 fruit trees and 600 berry plants, and purchased their first four Nubian goats. This was the beginning of the process to transform their land from industrial monoculture to biodiverse perennial crops and livestock.
In August of 2005, Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery was licensed as a Grade A goat dairy, and became Illinois’s first farmstead creamery. Since then, Jarrell and Cooperband have expanded their herd to over 80 milking does, and have expanded their working acreage to include an 8-acre pasture, a 5-acre hay field and a 2-acre restored prairie.
In 2013, Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery was named one of the Illinois Agriculture Agri-Tourism Leaders for the Year. And in 2016, the farm was the subject of the documentary A Farmer’s Road, produced and directed by John Murray. Murray followed Cooperband and Jarrell through five years of food and farm life, documenting the challenges and rewards, and examining the relationships between production and consumption. Along with farmers Jarrell and Cooperband, the movie spotlights Alisa DeMarco, former Executive Chef at Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, who conceived and produced the popular farm dinners held every two weeks from May to December. The film also features Chicago celebrity chefs who use Prairie Fruits Farm cheeses, and who have been featured guest chefs at the Dinners on the Farm: Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco), Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat), and Paul Virant (Vie and Perennial Virant).
We are proud to have Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery as members of our Buy Fresh Buy Local Central Illinois Chapter. Check out the chapter website at www.buyfreshbuylocalcentralillinois.org to learn more about sustainable farms in Illinois and where to find farm-fresh products.