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Tania Chen/MEDILL


Dea Dia Organics thrives in a booming farm economy

by Tania Chen
Nov 23, 2010


DEADIA farm

Tania Chen/MEDILL

Dea Dia Organics leases land and rents equipment from Prairie Crossing's farm incubator.

It’s 4:30 a.m. and Jeff Miller is getting up to meet a crew of hired hands on his farm, Dea Dia Organics, in Grayslake, 40 miles north of Chicago. He’ll spend the next twelve hours weeding and planting alongside his crew.  

Tomorrow, they plan to till the land and set up an irrigation system for Dea Dia, named for the Roman goddess of growth. If weather permits, Miller might be able to harvest a batch of beets and arugula to take to his in-laws for Thanksgiving.  

The 33-year-old is part of a new generation of farmers who strayed from their parents’ and grandparents’ farming roots, but are now returning to the land, driven in part by rising farm incomes and demand for local crops.  

Soaring commodity prices, due in part to a weak U.S. dollar, have boosted earnings. The average operating family farm income is expected to grow by 5.8 percent to $81,670 in 2010 from $77,169 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

“Some of it I readily knew but the whole picture of running a business and farming, I had an idea but it was a little bit of a naïve idea,” said Miller, whose great-grandfather was a farmer in St. Charles. 

Prior to Dea Dia, Miller worked as a landscape architect. After years of discussion and saving, he and his wife, Jen, finally decided to live their dream of starting their own business aligned with their environmental values.  

“We knew we wanted to have our own business, a business that my wife and I could own and operate,” said Miller. “We thought, if we could pick anything and leave money aside, farming was the one thing we kept coming back to.” 

With the nation’s unemployment rate stuck at 9.6 percent, farming is looking attractive to more people, said USDA economist Mary Ahearn.  

In Illinois, small farms like Miller’s, with annual sales of less than $10,000, now make up 47  percent of the total state farm population, up from 41 percent in 2002 and 36 percent in 1997.   

But starting a new farm is not without obstacles. For one thing, farmland near large urban epicenters is increasingly hard to come by and expensive. “We had not a lot, but a little money in savings,” said Miller.  

It was an incubator program called the Farming Business Development Center (FBDC) at Prairie Crossing Farms in Grayslake that finally was the impetus for the Millers to make their move. In 2006, they moved to the small town north of Chicago. 

Mike Sands, director of FBDC, says that new farmers need the confidence to grow. 

“The challenge comes when they want to really start to develop the business,” said Sands. “They need a reasonably safe space to start that where they have no paper trail or existing financials to demonstrate their existing capacity.” 

The incubator program gives new beginner farmers the chance to develop their own market and expertise while demonstrating financial growth and credit. 

“We started pretty small and pretty modestly, and the FBDC helped with the land and the limited amount of equipment that was already here,” Miller said. 

Including a deposit fee of $500 and annual property rent of $500 for five acres, the family invested an initial capital of $5,000 overall.  

Sands charges beginning farmers $100 per acre to lease land, less than the market rate of $150 per acre in Lake County. He says more fertile and higher quality land in central Illinois could run for $250 per acre.  

Five seasons into the program, Dea Dia Organics is making a return close to $15,000 per acre on 40 different crops.  

Miller attributes the aggressive growth to the strong demand for organic produce in Chicago. Just in the Chicago metropolitan area alone, annual organic produce sales are an estimated $60 million to $80 million based on a survey of buying trends in Dominick’s, Jewel-Osco, and Whole Foods by the Prairie Partners Group.  

But only 3 percent of purchased produce is supplied by local farmers. Most retail grocery outlets ship produce from distant locations such as California, Florida and Mexico. 

“There was just more and more of a market, so we kept trying to meet the needs that we saw,” said Miller. “Ultimately it put a strain on how many vegetables we would grow and how much time it would require.”  

Despite the family’s struggles to meet demand, Miller says it was an easy transition into sustainable farming.  

“From the get-go we were certified organic,” said Miller, who had worked on a farm in college. “As we talked through the idea of the farm it was always going to be sustainable.”  

Dea Dia participates in the Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program, which charges clients a membership fee early in the year for a weekly or bi-weekly pick up of produce that feeds about two adults and one child. A full summer or 20-week share of organic vegetables, fresh eggs and pasture-raised heritage pork, an older breed of pig, is $550.  

Dea Dia also has a booth at farmer’s markets in the Chicago suburbs of Deerfield and Lake Bluff. 

“You would typically pay 5 percent to 10 percent more than what you would pay for at a farmers market,” said Sands. “But that 5 percent is the interest customers are paying in better food instead of cash.”  

The family works hard to interact with clients and uses social media such as Twitter and a blog, deadiaorganics.blogspot.com, to exchange recipe ideas and keep customers updated on the progress of their crops. 

In past decades, large agricultural corporations have pushed small to midsize producers out of business, making them next to impossible to compete, according to Susan Prolman, executive director of National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. 

“These systems are financially unsustainable it takes millions of dollars in debt to get them up and operating,” said Prolman. “[Small farmers] need technical and financial assistance to farm and the environment to do it in a manner that benefits their community and a way they can survive economically.”  

Surrounded by four other farm incubators and a commercial farm, Dea Dia Organics is considered one of the more successful farmers-in-training. The enterprise expanded to seven acres in its third year and doubled the number of client shares from last year.  

“The good thing about [FBDC] is the community, we can see how other people are growing similar crops like are they planting them closer or further apart?” said Miller. “I don’t think we would be where we’re at if we didn’t have the group of people here.” 

Prairie Crossing, a foundation, is made up of 676-acres of land bought by private landowners and developers in the 1970s. The foundation is financially supported by $40,000 grants from the Illinois State Department of Commerce for Economic Opportunity and the US Department of Agriculture Beginning Farmer and Rancher Loan. 

In 1994, 100 acres were set aside for exclusive regional agricultural practices. The non-profit organization employs eight full-time staffers in three separate divisions: Sand Hill Organics commercial farm, educational Learning Farm, and the Farming Business Development Center.  

The incubators agreed under contract to pay for the land and the use of greenhouse and equipment by the hour.  

“Very little of the money goes into the land, most of it goes into soft capital investment such as developing composting systems and irrigation systems,” said Sands. “If they are covering all their costs in the first year, they’re doing pretty well,” 

“We’re preserving farmland by acquiring farmland property ourselves and we can provide farmland at fairly reasonable costs in an urban setting,” said Steven Barg, executive director of Liberty Prairie Conservancy. 

Most beginner farmers have to work a part-time job on the side or have a spouse who works a full-time job, according to Sands.  

Jen Miller, who helps out with publicity for Dea Dia Organics, has a full-time marketing job in Milwaukee that provides health insurance for the family. 

Despite her 56-mile daily commute, the family plans to stay in Grayslake for the next five years, but hope to get a long-term lease on 20 to 50 acres of land in Lake County.  

Prolman says success stories like the Millers’ are crucially important for the farming sector.  

“The average age of the American farmer is mid-fifties,” said Prolman. “New farmers are so important because we need a new generation of sustainable production.” 

At the end of the day, Miller steps off the field and takes off his gloves to pick up his two-year-old son from daycare.  

“Sometimes he wants to be a farmer but on other days he wants to be a fireman,” joked Miller. “It’s nice to have a cap on the day because it’s the kind of job it can just go on and on until you realize you’re too tired to stand up.”