LEE – Bryan Flower seriously questioned his decision to run a small farm when he had to wrangle a testosterone-filled bull in the pouring rain.
A lightning strike had disabled the electric fence surrounding the bull, allowing the 700-pound animal to strut toward the cows.
It took a tractor chase to drive the bull back into its corral.
Despite the challenges Flower has encountered since he and his wife, Sarah, started farming three years ago, he hasn’t questioned his decision seriously enough to stop. In fact, he only hopes to grow his 12-acre farm in Lee.
“It’s a very rewarding process,” Flower said. “It’s a fun process, and it’s one that I really wanted my son to be able to experience.”
Flower runs one of the hundreds of small farms that the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports are in DeKalb County.
Those small-scale farmers represent an emerging and determined group of people returning to the land in hopes of connecting local people with locally grown food.
The number of acres a farm includes has no bearing on whether it is considered “small” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Rather, a farm is deemed small if it has annual sales less than $350,000, although the standard used to be $250,000 before last summer, said Andrew Larson, University of Illinois Extension local food system and small farms educator.
That includes many if not most of the farms in DeKalb County. According to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture released in 2014, 522 of the 880 farms in the county have annual sales less than $250,000.
Larson said small-scale farmers generally fall into three categories: idealists straight from college looking to make a career of farming; the “u-turn farmer” who has already had another career; and the retiree who plans to farm after completing another career.
“There’s definitely a heavy dose of nostalgia,” Larson said. “There’s definitely some idealism and thoughts about sustainability. There’s a dynamic between a desire to work the land and working for yourself.”
For Flower, 46, the decision came when he was working in the culinary program at Robert Morris University in Chicago.
He and his wife purchased property in Lee complete with a house and a 1930s barn, just inside the DeKalb County border.
They call it the Red House Farm, spending about $30,000 to add about 60 hens, five goats, about 10 hogs in the summer, honeybees and a handful of Dexter cattle, a small-breed of cow.
That’s not to mention the tomatoes, peppers, beets, onion, potatoes, hay and other produce they grow.
The farm requires dozens of hours of work weekly, but it isn’t either of their primary jobs. Flower is the Food Systems Lab coordinator at NIU, while Sarah Flower is a teacher in Plainfield.
They also have a 3-year-old son named Liam. The ideal situation would be for one of them to focus on the farm full time so they can cultivate it into an educational center.
“I honestly believe that ... if there were more people that did this,” Flower said, “that we would help people understand and get back to the roots of growing healthy food, being a little bit more self-sustaining and saving money they can put back into a healthy lifestyle.”
Across the county in Sycamore, 30-year-old Kate Whitacre is in the final days before she starts preparing seeds to grow on a half-acre plot she rents.
Unlike the Flowers, whose customers are mostly friends and family, Whitacre runs a community-supported agriculture farm where people pay her at the beginning of the growing season to receive a box of vegetables weekly during the summer.
“I feel it’s most fulfilling to grow food for a community that I know,” Whitacre said. “I think it’s wonderful to know the people I’m feeding.”
Whitacre has been farming since 2008, arriving in Sycamore with her husband, Brett, in 2013 to start Beets and Beats Farm.
On top of the weekly shares, Whitacre sells produce at the Sycamore Farmers Market and to a couple of restaurants in Chicago. Whitacre works the farm and raises her daughter while her husband works full-time as an artist and musician.
Her goal is to grow her land 20-fold in the next 20 years. She also hopes to see more small farms emerge, although she thinks some challenges such as the inability to get farm loans or subsidies for growing things other than commodity crops such as corn and soybeans will stand in the way for some.
The small-scale farming market will need to mature to thrive, and Larson said there’s a good chance it will. He sees the surge in local foods and small-scale farming as more than a fad.
To him, it’s a lifestyle that will not only sustain the county’s agricultural tradition, but make it more vibrant.
“It means there is a chance to reconnect with the way things taste when they’re vine ripe and fresh,” Larson said. “It means the entrepreneurial gene is alive and well. It’s a way to keep our rural landscape populated with people doing productive things.”