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Farming community weathering difficult season

Posted: August 18 2019 at 10:00 PM
Author: Anne Marie Gerhardt


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The Miller farm in Freeport, IL is taking a toll from the wet, cold spring that delayed planting.

On this particular hot August summer day, the sun shines on the fields. Cows peacefully graze up on the hill. Playful sheep flock in the barn. Hay bales sit neatly bundled ready for sale. Well-oiled and meticulously maintained tractors and combines idle on standby. All seems right on Greg and Sheila Miller’s farm in Freeport, Ill., but behind it all are signs of a challenging season.

“Farmers are under a lot of stress,” said Greg Miller who has owned his farm since 1989. He raises cattle and sheep as well as grows corn, soybeans, and alfalfa for hay. “Right now the economy translated with inflation is comparable to the 1980s farm crisis (which left many farms with heavy debt loads).”

Miller said the heavy rains this spring delayed and prolonged planting considerably. “We started planting late April and finished June 15,” he said noting that a dry July has added to the stress. “Feed quality is down by 30 percent, hay quantity is low and we bale what we can.” According to the USDA, Illinois farmers planted 1.1 million fewer acres of corn and soybeans combined this season.

The Miller’s farm was the first stop on a day tour by Bishop Sally Dyck and the Cabinet on Aug. 14 to hear the concerns of farmers in northern Illinois (read the Bishop’s Column).

Fourteen miles away at the Bardell family farm, chickens, hens, and pigs greeted the group on their second stop. The Bardells have been farming in Freeport since 1839 and have adapted to the unpredictable agriculture business through the years – slowly changing from a traditional, diverse farmstead to market gardening today by growing and selling vegetables, flowers, and herbs along with grass-fed beef and free-range eggs. The family participates in land conservation practices, is working to open a farm stand soon and has applied to become “certified organic.”

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Josh Richardson, a Garrett-Evangelical Theological seminary intern, shares how climate changes are affecting crops in northern Illinois.

“We had 1,000 square feet of land that flooded every year, so we stopped planting there,” said Margaret Bardell, who helps manage the family farm with her husband Trale along with his parents. “We just moved the planting to fields that are flat and drain well. With 100-year floods happening more frequently, we can’t keep just doing the same thing.”

The Cabinet tour continued on for lunch at First UMC in Freeport provided by the Miller’s downtown Freeport restaurant, featuring their homegrown beef and food. The visit included an informational session with Dan Obert from the Caroll County Farm Bureau and Josh Richardson, a student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Richardson is interning with the Rockford and DeKalb districts to build educational programs around climate migration to help churches gain a better understanding of the acute environmental issues facing northern Illinois and around the world.

“With rising temperatures and precipitation changes, conservative estimates project a 40 percent yield decrease for corn and soybeans by the year 2100 in northern Illinois,” Richardson said. “There’s no quick fix solution and we are at the point of mitigation. Understanding what’s happening in your community and being aware that this is a global situation is really important.”

Both the Bardells and Millers are members of Faith UMC in Freeport and appreciated the show of concern and prayers from their Bishop and NIC leaders. “It was a privilege to have them come out here and find out what the real problems we are facing are,” said Miller. "It was wonderful.”

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Margaret Bardell shows Bishop Dyck the tarped off area where they grow edible flowers and other plants.

Bishop Dyck gathered the farmers in a circle of prayer after each tour. “We thank you God for farmers and we pray for a prosperous harvest,” said Dyck. “We thank you for farmers who seek to practice earth-friendly agriculture endeavors. We appreciate their adaptation. May we all learn and grow from it. Bless their families.”

The Cabinet tour concluded in the DeKalb District at the Jonamac Orchard in Malta, a three-generational family farm, to learn about the growing agritourism business and how it's contributing to the economy.

For traditional farmers, Miller said the future is uncertain. As for harvest, the Millers are praying for a late frost so they can salvage those crops that have survived. “It doesn’t look good, but only time will tell,” he said. “We are taking it one day at a time, sometimes hour by hour.”

DeKalb District Superintendent Brian Gilbert asked Sheila Miller what the church can do for farmers. She replied, “pray, lots of prayers.”

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