Harold Wilken and His Passion for Soil Health
by Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
Regenerative agriculture — which promotes soil health and biodiversity while capturing greenhouse gases — is one of the hottest topics in the sustainable farming world. Good Food Insights, a partnership of New Hope Network, SPINS and FamilyFarmed, recently published an article on New Hope Network’s website that focused on The Rodale Institute’s effort to create a Regenerative Organic Certified Label.
The following related article brings the regenerative principle to the grass-roots level by focusing on Harold Wilken, a leader among Illinois’ organic grain farmers, who owns Janie’s Farm and The Mill at Janie’s Farm.
Farming practices that constitute “regenerative agriculture” have been in use for ages. But the concept did not emerge as a trend until five years ago, when Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute began to strongly advocate the concept, leading to its ongoing effort to create a Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) label for food products.
In the short years since, regenerative agriculture has become one of the most discussed topics in the Good Food world. The Natural Products Expo West — produced by Informa and New Hope Network, March 5-9, in Anaheim, California — will feature a panel on an ongoing ROC pilot program. This follows upon a five-panel cluster on the topic at last year’s Expo West.
FamilyFarmed’s Good Food EXPO, marking its 15th anniversary in Chicago March 22 and 23, will feature a panel on regenerative agriculture during the first day’s Good Food Trade Show. Erin Meyer — who owns the Basil’s Harvest consulting firm and is a partner in the ReGenerate Illinois organization — will be a member of the panel.
A former executive director of Illinois’ Spence Farm Foundation, which advocates sustainable practices and encourages young people to farm, Meyer provided this succinct definition of sustainable agriculture for those less familiar with the concept: “Regenerative agriculture is farming that improves soil health, promotes diversity, builds a foundation for nutrient-dense food, and has a positive impact on climate change.”
Many sustainable agriculture advocates tout what they believe are sweeping positive impacts. With its emphasis on cover cropping, strong root systems and biodiversity, regenerative practices are credited by many with sequestering carbon in the soil, thereby reducing the risks of global climate change. An emphasis on organic soil amendments encourages composting, which in turn reduces food waste and the production of greenhouse gases from food decomposing in landfills. Healthy soils held in place by healthy plants are less likely to run off in rain or be blown away by wind.
For farmers such as Harold Wilken, though, the concept is much more basic and it is built into the term “regenerative.” Wilken, who owns Janie’s Farm in Danforth, Illinois and The Mill at Janie’s Farm in nearby Ashkum, was in the vanguard of local organic grain production when he started transitioning in 2005. His mission, to regenerate life and health in soils “mined” by conventional practices, has not altered since.
Wilken had farmed conventionally for 23 years, but says he “hated it” for the last six. When Herman Brockman, a forward-thinking landowner, asked him to transition 32 acres to organic, Wilken jumped at the opportunity. He subsequently obtained more farmland through Iroquois Valley Farms, a company that buys land to keep it in cultivation and rents it to family farmers who convert it to organic. [Editor’s note: Bob Benenson, the writer of this article, and his wife sold her family’s farm in Peotone, Illinois to Iroquois Valley Farms in 2012.]
To Wilken, the capacity of organic/regenerative practices to restore soil health never gets old. “One of the biggest benefits of going organic is seeing the change in the land,” Wilken said. “We end up transitioning some new land every year for new landowners, and it still never ceases to amaze me how we take the land from kind of a barren soil with no life in it and make it into organic. We do that with cover crops and shallow tillage, and it works.”
Wilken grows organic wheat, corn, oats and rye, which are ground into flours and meals at the mill he opened three years ago. The mill serves the growing number of commercial and home bakers, distillers and food processors who are meeting the rising demand for organic grain.
He also grows organic soybeans, much of which are sold to Phoenix Bean Tofu/Jenny’s Tofu, a Chicago company owned by entrepreneur Jenny Yang, one of the most successful graduates of FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Accelerator program. Wilken participated in a segment of the PBS series Tastemakers that focused on Yang, and even gave a shout-out to FamilyFarmed, noting that he first met Yang at a previous Good Food Festival.
Wilken and The Mill at Janie’s Farm will again exhibit in the Good Food Marketplace at this year’s Good Food EXPO. He also is selling flour to Manna Organics, a bread company in Lisle, Illinois, through a deal facilitated by FamilyFarmed’s Market Development program.
Wilken has helped spark increasing interest in organic growing among his region’s farmers, and says the amount of acreage producing organic grain in Illinois’ Iroquois County has increased seven-fold since he transitioned. Illinois remains dominated by conventional commodity crop farming, but organic and regenerative have established beachheads, and Wilken continues to lead by example.
“You can put in all of the commercial fertilizers and pesticides and stuff, and you can raise a crop. In fact, they raise big ones,” Wilken said. “But what does it do the the health of the soil, its long-term productivity, and ability for the crop to fight disease and withstand droughts? We find by transitioning it to organic and using the cover crops it actually makes the soil healthier. We actually see benefits in a weather-challenging year.”
So to paraphrase a popular slogan, if you eat Good Food, thank an organic and regenerative farmer. Like Harold Wilken.
Meet Harold Wilken, Jenny Yang and many of the Midwest’s other top farm and food producers at FamilyFarmed’s 15th Anniversary Good Food EXPO at Chicago’s UIC Dorin Forum. Tickets for the Friday, March 22 Good Food Trade Show and Networking Reception can be purchased here. The Saturday, March 23 Good Food Festival is free, but online registration is requested.
Attendees at New Hope Network’s Natural Products Expo West will have an opportunity to learn more about Good Food Insights during a panel titled Working Together Toward a Good Food Future on March 8. Presented by New Hope’s Esca Bona program, the panel will feature Carlotta Mast of New Hope Network, Anubhav Goel of SPINS and Jim Slama of FamilyFarmed.