Food:Land:Opportunity is pursuing systemic change in the food system through three major strategies while also reducing fragmentation in the system.
Increase Access to Land for Sustainable Farming
One of the biggest challenges local food farmers face in creating a thriving local food growing operation is access to suitable land in both urban and peri-urban settings. Land which is close to urban centers and markets is priced for development and often out of reach for small to midsize food production. Urban land has challenges regarding water access, soil remediation, and zoning regulations. FLO supports innovative models addressing land access challenges, which provide meaningful and viable pathways to land ownership, lease and cooperative arrangements, and navigation of complex relationships to fit the needs of farmers and landowners. These models also incorporate conservation values and protection of natural resources as well as building wealth in communities.
Grow Greater Englewood (GGE) has facilitated the development of Englewood Village Farms, a collective of independent farm businesses and organizations with the goal of cultivating a healthy and resilient urban food system. GGE supported site acquisition and preparation as well as farmer recruitment and training. GGE’s goal is to continue to grow a network of Black and Brown farmers with access to land and services to expand their businesses.This model of collaborative urban land access is providing economic opportunities and building wealth and local leadership.
The Conservation Fund (TCF) is launching the Working Farms Fund to provide affordable, secure land tenure and a patient pathway to land ownership for sustainable farmers. TCF buys suitable midsize (20+ acre) farmland parcels in the peri-urban area; supports growing farm businesses who are positioned for farm ownership in 3 – 5 years; protects the land with a conservation easement; and eventually sells the farm to the farmer at its reduced, agricultural value in a lease-to-own structure, which meets the needs of all parties.
Strengthen Supply-Side Business Practices
As local food producers and local food business entrepreneurs make their way through a complex food and farming system that is not designed for them, they need training, education, and support. FLO grantees service these groups with tools to address market innovation, skill building in regenerative farming and financial management, and peer collaboration and network building. Effective programs on strengthening business practices set up mentorships and peer-to-peer learning between experienced farmers and entrepreneurs with new and beginning growers and businesses. Many programs also promote leaders in the local food movement to be advocates for policy solutions that promote the growth of the local food system and facilitate market innovation. Farm business education is critical to farm viability.
Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA) is a coalition working to support and expand urban food production in Chicago. AUA connects growers to a strong network of educational resources and supports. AUA hosts “Good Practices for Growing in Chicago” workshops focusing on business development, food safety and legal compliance issues to help urban growers reduce their risk and scale up their operations. AUA also facilitates a Farmer-to-Farmer Mentorship initiative pairing experienced farmers with newer practitioners fostering a community of growers who provide mutual aid and skill sharing across the urban agriculture system. In addition, FLO funds a capacity building regranting program in which AUA facilitates an Advisory Committee of local growers who make small grants to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) growers to promote organizational stability and build and scale the urban agriculture system.
In 2021, McHenry County College (MCC) launched the Center for Agrarian Learning (CAL) and the Entrepreneurial Agriculture degree to provide both workshops and educational opportunities for existing food producers and a degree-seeking curriculum for students interested in pursuing careers in food-based agriculture. Both programs offer hand-on training opportunities for farmers, growers, and other food-based entrepreneurs from experienced and qualified instructors and practitioners. Workshops offered through CAL are responsive to identified needs and include farm business models that include specialty crop diversification and agri-tourism. The Entrepreneurial Agriculture associate’s degree program offers interdisciplinary coursework throughout the college and both on-site and off campus internships. These programs at MCC are a focal point for learning, education, engagement, and collaboration for farmers, buyers, educational institutions, and local food organizations in McHenry County, a prime location for local food system growth.
Attracting Capital to the Food System
Food:Land:Opportunity recognizes the need for innovative financing of elements in the local food system. While capital exists, it is difficult to access due to the parameters of traditional debt, equity and financing structures which do not fit the needs of local food producers and businesses. With the aid of consultants, FLO researched the region’s financing landscape and uncovered select gaps in availability of short term financing for working capital needs and longer term financing for land, infrastructure and sustainable cultivation. Access to financing for both long and short-term needs is significant for BIPOC and women-owned businesses. Concurrently, local food businesses have particular technical assistance needs to become eligible for financing. To bridge these gaps FLO is engaging in a multi-pronged strategy:
In 2019, FLO awarded two grants to Chicago based CDFIs ( Community Development Finance Institutions) to develop and deploy financing products to meet the various short-term and working capital needs of early and growth stage producers, distributors, processors, and retailers in the local food system. Greenwood Archer Capital and Allies for Community Business offer short-term loans and lines of credit to regional sustainable farms, producers, and a range of local food businesses that are located in or sell into the Chicagoland market. The program was originally launched to address short-term financing gaps for businesses that source, promote or grow foods in the region. As the COVID -19 crisis created significant needs for food businesses, these working capital loans shifted to address pressing short-term financing gaps. Short-term loans and lines of credit ranging from $25,000 to $250,000 are administered by the CDFIs. In addition, these FLO grants included funding to support financing technical assistance especially due to the pandemic disruption.
While short term working capital fills immediate financing gaps, to support a resilient local food economy, FLO recognized the need to address longer term capital needs. Our research showed that while there was capital in the system, few funds in the market incorporated all of FLO’s strategic mission-aligned criteria. Capital sources did not allow sufficient access, agility, or trust to effectively serve regional food system enterprises. Finally, there were other funders who shared a desire to create a more targeted deployment of capital and grant support. This led FLO to engage with other funders to create Proofing Station, an investment vehicle to address the common goals of advancing the Chicagoland regional food system, Proofing Station will focus flexible investment tools in these areas: Excluded Market Players, Sustainable Cultivation, Regional Infrastructure and Land and Real Assets.
The local food economy in the Chicago region continues to evolve and grow. Different elements of the system (urban and peri-urban farms, farmers markets, wholesale and retail opportunities, aggregation and food hubs, processing, commercial kitchens ,and food access programs) have grown at different rates. All of these elements were significantly impacted and disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. To reduce fragmentation across the system and support efficient, values-driven collaboration, FLO supports projects that facilitate networks, peer-to-peer learning and exchange, and growing the voice and visibility of local food. These projects build on existing community assets and foster resiliency for people, organizations and the environment.
Illinois Environmental Council and Illinois Stewardship Alliance work with local farm producers and advocates to reduce the barriers to successful growth of the food system through policy engagement. These organizations teach farmers and food business owners how to use their voice to share their stories and reach out to policy makers to make change. Through coalition building, leadership development, and education, local food advocates are making the incremental changes in policy that will support a growing sustainable food system.
Artisan Grain Collaborative is a network of stakeholders along the local grain supply chain (farmers, processors, end users, and advocates) formed to bolster the regional grain economy. Much of the agricultural landscape in the Midwest is dominated by two primary crops: corn and soybeans. The resulting lack of diversity causes a myriad of social and environmental problems, including reduced business and economic development opportunities and community food insecurity. Small grains like barley, oats, rye, and wheat can build and retain soil through crop rotation and less intensive growing practices, ignite new food and agriculture business innovation, and connect rural and urban communities. By convening stakeholders across the Upper Midwest staple crop value chain to collectively identify barriers and implement solutions, AGC believes landscape diversification and a just and equitable agricultural economy is possible.
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Director of Conservation Initiatives
The Chicago Community Trust
Senior Director – Community Impact
Images: The Conservation Fund, McHenry County College, Artisan Grain Collaborative, Illinois Stewardship Alliance