Prospective produce growers apply for UI startup program starting this December
URBANA — Terry Neutz Hayden and her husband hope to nurture orchards and a berry farm on 17 acres north of Monticello that they bought five years ago.
Although they've already planted apple trees, cherry trees, blueberries and other fruit, Hayden would be among the first to admit she has a lot to learn about fruit farming.
That's why she has applied for a new program offered by the University of Illinois that aims to help new and aspiring fruit and vegetable farmers.
The program, slated to begin in December, will offer classroom and hands-on training one Saturday a month for a full year.
The course will cover marketing, business planning, soil testing, irrigation, pesticide application and a host of other subjects for prospective farmers.
The class will be offered in three locations — Urbana, St. Charles and Dixon Springs — and a similar course will be geared to migrant workers and other seasonal farm workers who want to start their own farms.
The program, announced earlier this month, was made possible by a $632,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Rick Weinzierl, the UI crop sciences professor who is coordinating the program, said it's aimed at bringing new blood into farming.
He said the average age of farmers nationwide is 55.3 and the average age of fruit and vegetable farmers is 57.7.
For someone just entering farming, fruit and vegetables are easier to go into because they're not as capital-intensive as corn and soybeans.
Those crops generally require spreads of at least 500 acres, Weinzierl said, while a fruit and vegetable farm may take only 10 acres.
With land prices of $10,000 an acre, land for a grain farm could cost $5 million, while land for fruit and vegetables could take only $100,000.
Hayden, 54, said the fruit and vegetable business appealed to both her and her husband, whose name is also Terry.
"We both love being outdoors, and going into the retirement years, this is something we would thoroughly enjoy," she said. "We enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, and we enjoy people."
Some of the other crops they plan to grow are plums, pears, apricots, peaches, raspberries, pumpkins, cucumbers and herbs.
Hayden, who does graphics work from home, said both she and her husband plan to balance farming with their other careers.
Another applicant for the program is Simon Pearish, a doctoral student in ecology, evolution and conservation at the UI.
Pearish, 30, said he hasn't done any farming yet, but he's interested in sustainable agriculture and making locally grown food available to people.
Starting a fruit-and-vegetable farm might be one way to do that — and educate people about food in the process, he said.
Weinzierl said last week that the program has received 57 applications for the first year so far — and is still accepting applications. Evaluation of the applications will begin this week.
He hopes to have about 20 program participants at each of the three locations, up to a cap of 30 people at each site.
"The response has really been good so far," he said, adding that applications have been lighter in southern Illinois than in northern and central Illinois.
The grant is for three years, so the program will be repeated and enhanced in two succeeding years. Classes will hear from UI faculty, research station staff and Extension educators among others.
Participants will get a chance to use small incubator plots at the three sites. Those in Urbana will likely use vegetable plots southwest of First Street and Windsor Road in Champaign and plots at the UI fruit farm southwest of Race Street and Windsor Road in Urbana.
Weinzierl said the UI hasn't offered a similar course in the past. But other programs in Illinois have offered beginning-farmer classes that emphasize the business side of farming.
The UI program will include not only the business side, but also technical aspects of production, he said.
The program plans to address organic production, as well as systems that make use of pesticides and fertilizers.
There's no cost to participants, but they should be prepared to make a $300 deposit that will be refunded, provided they attend the sessions.
The class aimed at seasonal farm workers — operated in cooperation with the Illinois Migrant Council — is expected to start in January and will follow much the same format as the other class.
It will make use of interpreters since some farm workers know only limited English or none at all.
For program participants who don't have their own land, the program will work with the Bloomington-based Land Connection to see what acreage might be available for them, Weinzierl said.
Weinzierl said a number of Illinois growers have been "quite successful" in producing fruits and vegetables.
Some sell to farmers' markets, others to grocery stores and wholesalers, and some do direct marketing, he said.
Certain retail grocers are making a point of buying locally grown foods, and some legislative initiatives encourage schools and other public institutions to buy a percentage of their food locally.
Hayden, the Monticello grower, said she has consulted with Extension educators and gone to "Living on the Land" programs — but felt "it was like scratching the surface" of finding out everything she needs to know.
She said she's looking forward to the UI's program because "you'll be able to sit down and get things in depth."
Course for aspiring produce farmers
Title: "Growing a New Generation of Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers"
For: New growers, those interested in becoming growers and high school and community college teachers interested in the subject.
When it meets: One Saturday a month for 12 months, beginning in December. Sessions usually run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Three different locations — Urbana (central Illinois), St. Charles (northern Illinois) and Dixon Springs (southern Illinois)
Topics include: Land acquisition, insurance, food safety, use of high tunnels, tillage, pruning and thinning, harvest practices and more.
Cost: None, though participants should be prepared to make a $300 deposit that's refundable if participants attend classes.
For information on applications: http://illinoissare.org/new_generation.php