Cultivating the Next Generation of Organic Farmers
By Mary Bergin | Photos By Mary Bergin 0
Bare feet. That’s one thing I remember about meeting Joel Kellum at his King’s Hill Farm. He walked barefoot as we toured his edible forest, met his animals and inspected crates of vegetables in his hillside shed, seven miles southwest of Mineral Point.
Those feet didn’t flinch as we walked across gravel, twigs and dry, brittle grasses. Confident and resilient, I thought. He’s a risk taker who loves the land, a natural farmer at heart. The push is on to find and help more like him because the average farmer is 57 years old. One-half of all the nation’s farmers are expected to retire in the next decade.
Joel and Jai, his wife, are in their mid-30s and moved to the 850-acre (300 tillable) King’s Hill in late 2007 after a soured business partnership, six-figure debt and prolonged flooding on 37 of their 40 acres near Viroqua almost spelled bankruptcy. Crop sales from 20 acres of rented land and aid from the Sow the Seeds Fund (an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy project) lessened the financial blow but left them discouraged.
They considered managing a nonprofit farm in California, but Jim Slama, president of FamilyFarmed.org in Chicago, caught wind of their situation. He knew of a Mineral Point farm owner in need of a land revival and made the necessary introductions. “These were great farmers, and we didn’t want to lose them,” Slama says of the Kellums. Workshops and networking at Slama’s annual FamilyFarmed Expo encourage smart, small-scale farming among new as well as veteran stewards of the land.
Today the certified organic King’s Hill Farm includes seven acres of perennials (fruits to flowers) and 15 acres of vegetables grown by the Kellums. The remaining fields of organic corn, soybeans, clover and other hay are farmed by neighbors. Joel chooses this way of life because he relishes the challenges. “Every season is different,” he explains, and farming “fulfills that craving for not knowing what’s going to happen next. Living plants bring some sort of fulfillment that nothing else can.”
Now the Kellums mentor others who feel the fire to sustainably grow and reap what they eat, and they are not alone in this effort. Through the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), headquartered in Spring Valley, the Kellums give advice and moral support to first-time farmers. They are matched with two small-scale (as in one- or two-acre) ventures near Verona.