March 21, 2024 |Kelly Larsen

Sustaining Chicago’s New Farming Generation

“Farmer” probably isn’t the first profession that comes to mind when you think about metro Chicago, but the metro area has a vibrant agricultural community. In fact, Illinois saw a 7.9% increase in Young Producers over the last five years based on the recent USDA Ag Census data, versus the national average +3.9%. At the same time, metro Chicago continues to lose farmland to development, compounding the biggest challenge facing today’s next generation of farmers: finding affordable and secure access to farmland.

Chicago Metro/Midwest Farms Fund Impacts

Since launching in Chicago, the Farms Fund has secured four farms, totaling 154 acres, which are serving 28 individual farmers. The supported farm businesses produce vegetables, leafy greens, herbs, garlic, turmeric, ginger, pasture-raised eggs, chickens, pork, and goat-dairy and are over 70% BIPOC-owned.

While some focus more on wholesale and others more on direct-to-consumer sales, all Chicago Farms Fund farmers are sending products directly into the emergency food relief system, helping address food access and equity. This is a proof point that increasing food production through access to land can have a direct and meaningful immediate community impact.

We’re excited that a new era is blossoming for Chicago-area farms.

Photo by K. Gamble.

The Innovative Farms Fund Model

A lot goes into farming — seed, feed, equipment, transportation, hard work, sweat and so much more. But none of that matters without land. If farmers don’t have access to land, they can’t farm. Period.

Figuring out how to connect the next generation of farmers to the land they need has been a major piece of the puzzle when it comes to building resilient regional food systems and achieving locally grown produce at a systems-level scale. That’s where The Conservation Fund and our real estate know-how, conservation finance expertise and experience in protecting working lands comes in.

You can learn details about how our innovative Buy-Support-Protect-Sell model works here.

Aerial view of Garlic eScape. Photo by The Conservation Fund.

Meet the Farmers of the Chicago Metro/Midwest Farms Fund

Being on the edge of change is exciting and inspirational, and we’re thrilled to be able to do our part to support a resilient regional food system. But at the end of the day, it’s the diverse, entrepreneurial generation of farmers who will make the transformation of our food system possible.

The four farm teams below have all been matched with land through the Farms Fund program to date:

Rustic Road Farm’s Marc and Luis Bernard

Marc and Luis Bernard. Photos by K. Gamble.

Prior to starting Rustic Road Farm, Marc Bernard was an executive chef and practiced sustainable sourcing and farm-to-table ethos decades before it became on trend. His husband, Luis, is a special education teacher and supports the operation with off-farm income. Today, Marc and Luis have expanded their farm operation with 30 acres purchased for them by the Farms Fund, and grow vegetables, bush and tree fruit, honey, dairy, heirloom pastured pigs, free-range chickens and pastured eggs. They’re all about keeping it sustainable and organic and connecting local food to the local community. Rustic Road has an onsite farmstand and offers a 750 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box program. The farmers run a delicious grab-and-go line with fresh farm produce and livestock ingredients called The Soup Company. They also donate their farm products to the Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry.

Marc says, “Owning land has been a critical aspect to the long-term viability of our farm business. However, purchasing land isn’t always accessible for young entrepreneurs or small businesses like ours — that’s why the opportunities provided by The Conservation Fund are vital to the future of local farms.”


Kakadoodle’s MariKate and Marty Thomas

Marty and MariKate Thomas (left) and the team (right). Photos courtesy Kakadoodle.

MariKate and Marty started Kakadoodle in 2020 with a vision: focusing on good, honest food, making a difference and producing the healthiest eggs around. That means raising chickens out in the pasture on 74 acres that The Conservation Fund recently purchased for them in South Cook County. They say Kakadoodle isn’t just about selling eggs — it’s about bringing a piece of their farm and their journey to local kitchen tables. Like many families who have overcome or are grappling with illness, Marty’s experience surviving cancer shaped the couple’s view that food is medicine, and this informs their giving mindset — a portion of their eggs are distributed through ShareFest Food Bank and Loves and Fishes Community Services. Kakadoodle also runs an online marketplace with delivery service focused on local producers aggregating from 11 fellow farmers. Kakadoodle has scaled to also supply Brookhaven Market, Randy’s Meat Market and Dunnings Market with their pastured eggs.

According to MariKate, “Every chicken we raise, every seed we plant, it’s more than just farming; it’s a commitment to a healthier, more sustainable future for our community.”


Garlic eScape Farm’s Silvia Abel-Caines and Arturo Caines

Silvia Abel-Caines and Arturo Caines. Photos by The Conservation Fund.

Silvia, too, has a passion for making the healing power of food accessible to all and has a keen interest in growing plants with high content of medicinal compounds — especially garlic. Today, with the Farms Fund’s help, she and Art are turning that passion into a thriving business on 30 acres of land outside Chicago. They produce certified organic garlic, turmeric, ginger and medicinal herbs along with tonics, pickled garlic, and gift baskets, providing nourishing food from sustainable plants and teaching their community about the benefits of living and eating in harmony with nature. Silvia hosts community groups on farm and volunteers for USAID to train farmers in the Caribbean, South America and Africa.


Chicago Urban Farm Solutions’ Deshawn Willingham

Deshawn Willingham (left) and the Chicago Urban Farm Solutions team (right). Photos by Urban Farm Solutions and The Conservation Fund.

Deshawn, along with the rest of the Chicago Urban Farm Solutions core team, has been producing sustainably grown vegetables for 5 years, with a strong wholesale business model that intertwines with community health objectives. Originally producing on land through the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest farm business incubator program, along with five acres of leased land, Deshawn is now producing on 20 acres that the Farms Fund team purchased for him, and which he will one day own, in south suburban Chicago Heights. The farm’s location close to Chicago markets limits transport time and costs and is ideal for bringing fresh produce to hyperlocal wholesale markets as well as 2 local food pantries and a prescription produce box program with a local Federally Qualified Health Center.

If We Build It, They Will Lead

This first group of farmers helped put our national Farms Fund program on the map in Chicago.  As each farmer completes the pathway to ownership in 3 to 5 years, The Conservation Fund’s investment in their farm can roll forward into land for the next farmer via the program’s buy-support-protect-sell model. With a robust and diverse pipeline of more farmers ready to be matched with farmland now, we are actively fundraising to build a dedicated pool of revolving funds for the rewarding but capital-intensive first step of this program — buying the land.

These farmers are not only leaders of their small to mid-sized businesses; they are leaders in taking care of their communities through the co-creation of a more equitable and resilient food system. They, and we, cannot do this work alone. Please join us!


Written by

Kelly Larsen

In her role as Midwest Farms Fund Program Manager, Kelly Larsen supports Farms Fund farmers to scale their businesses and achieve land ownership, protecting critically endangered farmland in the Chicago Metro region. She provides technical assistance to establish farm operations and leverage available resources to meet their goals.

Kelly has 20 years of experience in sustainable agriculture, including farm production, design and operations. Her work has focused on equity including small farm businesses development support through USDA beginning farmer training programs, as well as market channel identification for farmers.

Kelly has a degree in environmental studies from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and lives on the west side of Chicago, where she runs a community farm and native gardens with her partner.