Preparing a new generation of Illinois fruit and vegetable farmers
September 5, 2012
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URBANA – The age of farmers in this country is top-heavy, with older farmers far outnumbering the younger farmers, particularly that of fruit and vegetable growers. University of Illinois crop sciences professor Rick Weinzierl and co-workers recently received a grant from the Beginning Farmer-Rancher Development Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a three-year project to address this problem. He and a team of researchers and extension educators, in partnership with the Illinois Migrant Council, will offer a year-long series of classroom and in-field educational programs to new and aspiring farmers in southern, central, and northern Illinois. 

Participants will be able to choose from locations in northern, central or southern Illinois. Each course will be one year long consisting of monthly meetings beginning in December 2012.  The course will include both classroom training and outdoor hands-on demonstrations.  University of Illinois Research and Education Centers at Dixon Springs, Urbana, and St. Charles have acreage that can be used for incubation sites where participants can practice their farming plan and see if they can make it work.

“We’ve got to get more people, new people, into farming or we’ll have a greater and greater consolidation of farmland into huge operations,” Weinzierl said. “I don’t think that’s what most people view as the best way for the rural landscape to look in the future.”

For information about the program and to sign up to receive application information, visit:

“The idea of using the stations is that you have somebody around who can help a little,” Weinzierl explained. “You’ve got irrigation infrastructure, you’ve got a little bit of equipment for land preparation, tillage, and pesticide application. You don’t have to buy all that; you use what’s here and get some advice as you go about it.”

The training focuses on fruit and vegetable production because starting a new fruit and vegetable enterprise is a more realistic venture than starting with commodity crops. A viable fruit and vegetable farm can be as small as 10 acres and cost as little as $100,000, whereas the buy-in price for enough land to grow commodity crops can easily exceed $5 million.

Weinzierl also hopes to be able to work with Land Connection, which has a program that links farmers to farmland, to help participants find land to buy or lease after they finish the program.

“It’s not as though there aren’t some motivated landowners out there who would like to see some of this develop,” Weinzierl said. “We need to connect with them to help get some of our participants onto their land.”

Weinzierl expects to have nearly 300 people go through the program. The training will cover a wide range of topics, including getting land; business planning; legal, insurance, and labor issues; as well as everything about actual production. Participants will also have a chance to network with producers. The training will be more basic and intensive than existing extension programs because participants are expected to have little or no prior experience.

There will be a complementary program done in association with the Illinois Migrant Council aimed at helping seasonal workers begin their own farms.

The main goal of the program is to increase the number of people growing fruit and vegetables in Illinois. It ties in well with legislative initiatives in Illinois that will require public institutions to buy a certain amount of their food from local sources and may help to respond to the growing demand for more farmers’ markets and local food in grocery stores.

Other goals are to train educators and develop a library of online resources in English and Spanish to support future educational needs. Agriculture teachers from local high schools and community colleges may do some of the teaching and at the same time will have the opportunity to learn new skills.

“At the end of the program, we hope to have helped them to develop greater expertise so they are better able to continue providing help for the famers,” said Weinzierl. “This audience is pretty knowledgeable already, but we hope we can help them to expand the range of what they can offer.”

Weinzierl warned that the program is not for people who think that farming is romantic or glamorous. His colleague, project manager Mary Hosier, agreed.

“If you think, ‘I like to garden and it would be kind of fun to know a little more,’ it’s not for you,” she said. “The Master Gardener program is for you. This program is for people who are interested in earning money from growing fruits and vegetables.”

It is also for people who want to make a long-term commitment. “If you end up saying, ‘Well, that was fine when I was 25, but now I’m 30 and I have kids, and I’m busy, and I can’t do this anymore,’ then we didn’t teach you the right kind of farm business plan to contribute in the long term in the way we intended,” Weinzierl said.

This project is supported by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19565.

To find more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers, visit, a component of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.