By Alison Martin
It’s lunchtime. After a chilly March morning of planting in the downstate Iroquois County field, Harold Wilken sets the table. His wife, high school teacher Sandy Wilken, serves bowls of her black bean chowder to the farm’s employees – son Ross Wilken, nephew Tim Vaske, bookkeeper Gerry Lunt, farm owner Ryan Wolfe and neighbor Lucas Haut. Nearly every day, the group gathers for this lunchtime tradition, bringing them together as a family rather than just employees.
“It’s time to share ideas with one another about how to be more efficient or what we can do to help each other out,” Harold Wilken said.
Since the organic farm’s founding in 2005, Harold Wilken considers himself “very blessed” to work with such a fine group of people. Through their hard work and dedication, Janie’s Farm Organics continues to grow. None of it, however, would be possible without Harold Wilken’s own perseverance and dedication to organic farming.
Born into a farming family in Iroquois County, Harold Wilken grew up on a conventional farm – one that used pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals in its fields. His great-grandfather homesteaded in Illinois in 1882. Today, Harold Wilken owns part of the original homestead.
In 1982, Harold Wilken began his own conventional farm. The next year, he and Sandy Wilken married. The two met at the the county fair, and she, too, came from a conventional farming family.
In the 1980s and ’90s, few farmers farmed organically, though the demand for organic food steadily grew. Amid controversy over what constituted organic, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which authorized a national standard of organic food and fiber production. The act ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set standards and regulations for producers, handlers and certifiers working with organic foods and fibers. In 2002, the final standards were issued.
Conventional and organic corn production costs and returns per planted acre in the Midwest, 2010
At that time, Harold Wilken still conventionally farmed his land, but the thought of transitioning to organic farming hovered in his mind. Organic crops sold at higher prices, and the practices promoted sustainability.
But turning a field from conventional to organic farming doesn’t happen overnight. Pesticides must be dissipated from the soil. The whole process takes 36 months. During that time, the yield of the acres is usually lower, and the crops sell at conventional prices – much lower than organic prices. For farmers transitioning to organic farming, these years can be financially difficult.
For help, Harold Wilken turned to Lunt, then his banker at Farmers State Bank in nearby Danforth, Illinois. Lunt had known Harold Wilken since he started in 4-H, and he knew what Harold Wilken wanted to do would be a long endeavor.
“You don’t just wake up and think ‘I’m an organic farmer,’” Lunt said.
With Lunt’s help and his family’s encouragement, Harold Wilken started transitioning his fields from conventional to organic in 2004. At the time, his biggest fear was what would his neighboring farmers think.
“If you think there’s peer pressure with teenage girls,” Harold Wilken jokes, “you’ve never met German farmers.”
Harold Wilken recalls a number of his neighbors doubting his decision, but he refused to let the nay-sayers bring him down.
In 2005, Janie’s Farm Organics was born. For all the farm’s successes, Harold Wilken says it wouldn’t be possible without his late daughter, Janie Wilken. He thinks of her as his “advocate on the other side,” and he remembers how she never knew a stranger. He says she loved to play sports – mostly so she could get to know the people on the other team. She passed away in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 15.
“So it made sense when we were coming up with a farm name that we dedicate it to her,” Harold Wilken said.
Janie’s Farm Organics produces corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, pumpkins, black beans, alfalfa, popcorn and seed corn. Roughly 10 percent of the land that Wilken now farms is his. The remaining 90 percent of the land is owned by other farmers who believe in organic farming but have conventionally farmed their fields. They hired him to transition and farm their fields. Most find him by word-of-mouth.
“If a person wants to farm organically,” Harold Wilken says, “they find us.”
Of the 2,370 acres that Harold Wilken farms, 1,900 acres are USDA-certified organic. Another 370 acres are in second-year transition, and 100 acres are in first-year transition.
Once Janie’s Farm Organics began growing, the farm needed more helping hands, and it became a true family affair. Ross Wilken grew up helping on the farm and started farming for himself when he was 15. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 2013, he started working full time on the farm and now farms 450 acres by himself.
Ross Wilken isn’t the only Millennial farmer. Vaske joined the team three years ago and is farming his first 80 acres. He grew up on a cattle farm in Kentucky and used to tell Harold Wilken how much he’d like to come work for them.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Harold Wilken jokes.
Another farmer, Wolfe, came to Janie’s Farm Organics eight years after Harold Wilken began the organic transition. He owned a grass-fed dairy farm, but wanted to get out of milking. He liked the idea of going organic and asked Harold Wilken to transition his conventional farm to an organic farm. Today he works mainly as the farm’s tractor mechanic.
Lunt came to the farm part-time after retiring from the banking industry. After working in an environment where people, he said, shouted and screamed at each other, he appreciates working in a “low-pressure, low-stress environment” with Harold Wilken and his family.
“Their ability to get things done, to work at it and get it done right is evident,” he said.
Harold Wilken’s passion for organic farming even inspired his young neighbor, Lucas Haut, who now works part-time on the farm during the school year and summer.
Last year, the Illinois Department of Agriculture awarded Harold Wilken the 2015 R.J. Vollmer Award for Sustainable Agriculture, for which he felt “very thankful.”
Today Harold Wilken continues to dream up new ways to expand the farm. Sandy Wilken calls him the “make-it-happen man” of the farm.” He says they’re considering new opportunities such as malting processing for breweries, and this fall, he hopes to begin milling his own grains into flour.
“I feel good about what I’m doing,” Harold Wilken said. “My landowner feels good about what I’m doing. My bankers feel good about what I’m doing. We continue to be blessed by people that come into our lives and situations that come into our lives. So I think the man upstairs is happy about it too.”