Illinois Sustainable Farm Award to Harold Wilken

The Illinois Department of Agriculture has named a fifth generation central Illinois farmer, Harold Wilken, winner of the annual R.J. Vollmer Award for Sustainable Agriculture.  The award will be presented at the Illinois Organic Growers annual meeting January 7, 4pm, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield as part of the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism, and Organic Conference.

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Wilken, together with his wife Sandy and son Ross, are the proprietors of Janie’s Farm based in rural Iroquois County near Danforth, IL. The farm’s name honors Harold and Sandy’s daughter Janie, who was killed in a car accident in 2001.

Janie’s Farm produces corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, pumpkins, black beans, alfalfa, popcorn, and seed corn. Most of the 2,370 acres Wilken farms are USDA certified organic (1,900 acres), with 370 acres in second-year transition, and 100 acres in first-year transition.

Although the basic rotation is corn, beans, and wheat or oats seeded with red clover, some years the corn is popcorn, seed corn, or food-grade corn, and the beans may be black turtle beans or clear-hilum soybeans for tofu or soy milk. Wheat may be spring or fall planted, and soft or hard. Pumpkins, alfalfa, oats, and ancient grains such as Emmer and Einkorn fill out the mix of crops.

Wilken points out that diverse cropping is like a diverse portfolio of investments.  Even if it’s a bad year for one or two crops, you’ll still have other crops that do well.  For better financial, personal, and soil health, “I encourage others to look into the possibility of changing to organic,” Harold says, “or at least diversifying.”

Harold Wilken began farming 33 years ago, and credits his first landlady, 82-year-old Ivadelle Dubois, with trying to get him to “just say no” to synthetic chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers.  Wilken says that “Upon receiving her first herbicide bill from me in 1982, she said: ‘If you would learn how to set a cultivator, you wouldn’t have to waste money buying this crap.'”

In 2003, when Harold began transitioning his first field (33 acres) to organic, he quickly saw the benefits to the soil and to his bank account. Not only were Wilken’s input costs much lower, he found that he was making more money per bushel with the premium prices on organic grains.

At a field day in June 2015, Harold noted that the market prices for December corn were a little over $8 a bushel and $17 for soybeans.  He contrasted those numbers to contracts he had just signed “for 5,000 bushels of organic corn at $14.75 a bushel, picked up at the farm, and they pay the drying cost. Soybeans, I signed a contract for $23.60 a bushel.”

But to Wilken, the non-monetary benefits of organic farming are the most important. “One of the biggest things for me is bringing in the next generation.”  Because more eyes and hands are needed on a diverse, organic operation, “I have had the opportunity to bring my son Ross, my nephew Tim, and a few other young people into farming. They wouldn’t be farming now if I were a conventional farmer. It is so fun to have these young people working with me. They are excited and motivated, and see a future in this.”

The bright future also comes from the fact that more landowners want their land farmed organically, and more companies need organic grain and hay to meet consumer demand.

“If we in the U.S. don’t produce more organic grain, then companies are going to continue sourcing it from eastern Europe and other areas to meet consumer demand.” according to Bill Davison, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Educator.

Davison also notes that organic is becoming mainstream, as evidenced by a recent initiative to double the production of organic wheat in the U.S. by 2019.  The initiative was launched by Ardent Mills, a joint venture with Cargill, ConAgra, and CHS.

“The thing I learned right after I started to transition to organic,” Wilken says, “is there are a lot of landowners out here who want their land farmed organically. I have been shocked at the number of people who have contacted us wanting to do this.”  He says the field is wide open for anyone wanting a more diverse, resilient, and profitable business model for their farm.

Harold Wilken was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer in 2008.  Although no one can say with certainty what caused the cancer, Harold thinks that working with agricultural chemicals may have been a factor. “My son Ross will never have to handle a single pound of insecticide or herbicide,” he says, “and that’s very important to me.”

Wilken and his team are always looking for new crops and varieties to plant, and for ways to add value. They are currently developing their capacity to mill their own grains so they can sell flour to local markets. This new venture bridges the gap between commodity production and the local food movement, in which more consumers want to know who is growing their food and how.

“One of the things I’m proud of on my farm is that we’re feeding people. My goal is that everything we raise goes to human consumption.”

Looking to the future, Wilken says, “I think that in Central Illinois you’re going to see some shifts in the landscape, with younger farmers and more diverse crops, and I think it’s going to be for the better.”

Janie’s Farm is located at 2324 N. 1100 East Road, Danforth IL. You can follow the farm activities and farmers on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JaniesFarmOrganics