To reach Breslin Farms, you drive through what feels like a sea of corn. The northern Illinois land is vast and flat, subdivided by a grid of country roads that meet at perfectly right angles before continuing on due east and west, north and south. The corn fields stretch as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by soybean fields and the occasional grain storage bin. You know something is different about Breslin Farms on the approach—a dirt road turns onto a small bridge, and suddenly the plants are not corn but tall prairie grasses and saplings, the ground is hilly around a stream, and birds fly out of underbrush and wheel overhead. Continuing onto the farm, the fields are different too. There are still row crops like the surrounding corn and soybeans, but the plots are smaller and the plants more varied. Next to the equipment shed are a vegetable garden and a large test plot—unusual sights on an Illinois row crop farm.
Molly Breslin and her father John grow organic and heirloom beans and grains; an island in the middle of the sea of corn. Molly's mother Peg's family farmed for years; when John married Peg, he helped out her father and brothers on nights and weekends. Years later, he began volunteering on an organic vegetable farm, becoming valuable enough to be hired as a farm hand. Molly meanwhile headed to college at Berkeley, where she got involved in cooking in the student cooperative houses. After graduation, she led outdoor education trips with teenagers in northern Minnesota, and interned with an organic apple farmer and produce distributor. She wanted to do something "more essential to life," she says, and something that would let her be outdoors, work hard and make a difference. Farming fit the bill.
As it happened, there was land in the family. Peg had inherited almost 90 acres of her family's farm, and agreed to let John and Molly try out their farming dreams on it. As John remembers it, Molly's first question—"we're going to do organic now, right?" —was obvious, if not easy or immediate, as the organic certification process takes three years. What to grow was more complicated. Beginning with nearly 90 acres of vegetables would have made a daunting project even more so, and there was already a thriving market in local produce. Their Farm Beginnings farm business and training class encouraged them to find and fill the gaps in their local food system; looking around at their local Chicago farmers' market, they found there was no local flour. "And in terms of food security and sovereignty," says John, "grains are really important."
In 2010, Breslin Farms began, growing red winter wheat, heirloom beans, sweet corn, field corn and soybeans. They also keep bees, primarily for pollination, and experiment with fruit trees and vegetables. The farm received its organic certification in 2012, and they have found that the market for organic grains and beans is significant. The wheat is milled for Chicago restaurants; the seed company buys back the soybeans for seed; the corn goes into the organic commodity market where it is mostly sold for chicken feed; and the edible beans are sold directly to restaurants and to distributors in Chicago and St. Louis.
In line with organic standards, the farm is surrounded by 45-foot buffer zones, with a total of five acres of land between its crops and the herbicide-reliant corn around it. Just as important, it has engaged neighbors who appreciate what Molly and John are doing, and may even be willing to learn from it.
Farmers tend to be traditional and resistant to change—"they're the last to throw out the old," says Molly. It's for good reason: weather makes farming inherently risky, and it's the rare farmer who wants to take on further risk when failure could cost their annual livelihood. Even the change to today's large-scale, mechanized, industrial farming model happened over decades; to shift away from that to an environmentally and economically sustainable model may take even longer, given the policy frameworks and individual farmers' investments that maintain the current system.
In many parts of rural America, farmers who vary from the corn-and-bean norm—whether growing organic, alternative crops, or even simply using conventional corn and bean seed instead of genetically modified—are looked at a little askance. Change can occur in a community, though, when the neighbor who is doing something different has clear success. Since each growing season takes a year, it's a slow process, but it can happen.
The Breslin farm is surrounded by the fields of two long-time family friends and Molly's uncle. "I don't think we'd be doing this at all if not for my uncle," says Molly. He's a conventional farmer, reliant on herbicides and genetically modified seeds, but he gives advice, helps out and loans equipment. Last year, he gave them 20 acres that were not producing good corn yields for him, suggesting Molly and John transition it to organic.
Molly's uncle remembers a different kind of farming; his father used to farm with horses, raising pigs and a few dairy cows on a diversified farm with a small orchard. He and the Breslins' other neighbors grow corn and beans now, but they are watching Molly and John with interest and respect. They don't spray their fields when the wind is wrong, and they let their young children and grandchildren work on Molly and John's farm because the Breslins don't use chemicals. John says, "The older guys, in my generation—they're never going to switch. They grew up using chemicals, that's all they know; I can respect that." But, he says, the farmers in Molly's generation are looking at the price difference in soybeans (organic sold for more than twice the price of conventional in 2014, according to John) and the Breslins' superior yields in the 2012 drought, and are starting to ask questions about cover crops, soil amendments and other practices outside of today's conventional farming norms.
Molly and John's goal is to grow food for people—unlike the surrounding corn and soybeans, which go into animal feed, ethanol and processed foods. A significant additional goal, says John, is to be "a demonstration to show people that you won't grow broke if you farm row crops organically in northern Illinois. Maybe we can be a benefit for farmers generally." With smart farming practices and good neighborly relationships, Breslin Farms is well on its way to meeting both goals.