October 2, 2017|By Kenny Fahey

“Do you go on a lot of farm tours?”

This was the question that Jen Miller, Director of Farm Entrepreneurship at Liberty Prairie Foundation, asked me as we walked out into the open field. The tour was being conducted by Alex Needham and Alison Parker of Radical Root Farm, a young couple running a nine-year old farm business supplying organically grown produce in the Chicago metro area.

PC1Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

I do go on a lot of farm tours, certainly more than I would have predicted before joining The Conservation Fund in 2015. But this particular tour was special. My colleague Stacy Funderburke and I were in Lake County, about 45 minutes outside of Chicago, to visit with the Liberty Prairie Foundation and learn from a truly remarkable, now multi-decade experiment called Prairie Crossing where community development, conservation, and a 100-acre organic farm co-exist and reinforce one another.

But first I should back up with some context on what brought us here.

Most of our country’s metro areas are growing fast, causing an unprecedented rate of farmland loss across the country. Land that is still available as farmland often sells at a higher price, which is reflective of its development potential, not as its value as farmland. This makes land financially inaccessible to many next-generation farmers, causing them to seek land opportunities further away from city centers, not to mention their consumers, many of whom seek locally-produced food. The result is a food system that becomes increasingly inefficient and cannot reach its full potential for farmers, consumers and for good conservation practices.

In June 2017, The Conservation Fund received a USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) award. The funds will enable us to pilot a first-of-its-kind investment vehicle to accelerate the pace of working farmland conservation and provide a pathway to land access for next generation farmers in the Atlanta metro region. This innovation in conservation finance grows out of what we see as the two greatest challenges to scaling up local food systems in metro areas: 1) the loss of our working farmland; and, 2) the often impossibly steep capital requirements for accessing land and launching new, profitable farm businesses.

We aim for our investment vehicle solution to protect critical farmland and natural resources against fragmentation and development, while supporting the next generation of farmers as they scale the supply of local food closer to the communities who demand it.

Which brings us back to Chicago and Liberty Prairie Foundation. Stacy and I had brought a group of local food system stakeholders from Atlanta on this “fieldtrip” to greater Chicago to learn from a national example of scaled, local food production in a major metro area.

Prairie Crossing was founded in 1993 by George and Vicky Ranney and built around conservation principles to model an alternative approach to community developments in major metropolitan areas. You can feel what makes the place special the minute you drive onto Prairie Crossing. The development consists of 359 single family homes and 36 condos built among tall prairie grasses and intentionally clustered on 135-acres. Prairie Crossing joins the much larger 5,770-acre Liberty Prairie Reserve to the east, imbuing the place with a sense of naturalness unlike any other suburban community I’ve encountered.

Perhaps the most innovative feature of Prairie Crossing, and the reason for our visit, is the 100-acre organic farm that nestles within the community development.

PC2PC3


The Conservation Fund was an early participant in the project, holding an almost 200-acre easement on the property, ensuring its permanent protection. Photos by Stacy Funderburke.

Liberty Prairie Foundation runs the farm for food production and pioneers models for integrating sustainable agriculture and local food into the community development at Prairie Crossing and the broader Chicago metro area. It also builds greater capacity in the local food system through its Farm Business Development Center, which cultivates the next generation of farmers through farming and farm business education.


We sat down with Bradley Leibov, Executive Director of Liberty Prairie Foundation, to tease out some of the greatest challenges and opportunities to scaling local food production in metro regions.

What does the local food system of the future look like in a metro region?
Bradley: A local food system of the future will be more diversified in production, more balanced between local and export markets, and more sustainable in the use of soil, water, and human resources.

What is Liberty Prairie Foundation currently doing to reach that vision?
Bradley: The possible interventions into the food system are endless. We’ve chosen to focus primarily on farm viability, farmland access, education, and policy as ways to help realize our vision for a more diversified, balanced, and sustainable food system. Through our Farm Business Development Center program at the Prairie Crossing Farm, we work with emerging farm businesses to reach and demonstrate profitability in the local marketplace. We’ve found that profitable farmers growing sustainably and serving local markets are very powerful, dedicated, and persuasive food system leaders. We also have created innovative programs for farmland access, youth education, and food system policy.

What are the biggest gaps that remain? Where are the greatest opportunities?
Bradley: Simple. We need more farmers, more long-term access to affordable farmland, and more policies that are supportive of these efforts. Enormous gaps remain in the system – training programs for sustainable food farmers are few and far between and often under-resourced; programs to create long-term access to affordable farmland are making a difference but are inconsistent across geographies; and policy efforts often focus on incremental change or pieces of the system rather than the system as a whole. To see a local food system be successful and sustainable over time, we need policy strategies to support, incentivize and remove institutional barriers which by default support our current agricultural system.

Reflecting on our visit to Prairie Crossing, Brad’s observation that the possible interventions into the local food system are endless rings true. The task of scaling up local food production in metro regions is an enormous one. But walking the fields of Prairie Crossing was also a reminder that the extraordinary is achievable. The NRCS CIG award provides the Fund with the opportunity to accomplish transformational change in the Atlanta metro region. For us, that change begins with protecting working family farms and supporting the future farmers of America.