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The Future of Farming in DeKalb County, Illinois: Organic Farming

As told by Allison Vidales, Katherine Theriault, Jared Clausen and Jacob Dean
DeKalb County, Illinois

Story Narrative:

Organic farmers Jake and Randy Willrett talk about the farming community in DeKalb County and how they encourage conventional farmers to go organic. Glen and Justin Bolander add to the discussion about the increase in consumer conscientiousness about what they eat. DeKalb County History Center supported the production of this story by Sycamore High School students Allison Vidales, Katherine Theriault, Jared Clausen and Jacob Dean.

Jake Willrett: My name is Jake Willrett. I'm a sixth-generation family farmer. I went to college at Iowa State and graduated with a degree in ag business and economics. And I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to come right back home after college and jump into business with my dad on the farm.

Randy Willrett: [0:23] Well I'm Jake's dad; I'm Randy. I'm a fifth generation farmer. We were born into it, you might say. The family has farmed for multi-generations.

Jake Willrett: [0:36] Overall our main goal is to take care of the land and keep our land sustainable for generations to come. We encourage conventional farmers to go organic because we want to help the community, but also there's room in the industry in itself.

Randy Willrett: [0:51] Back in the '90s there were several of us neighbors. With the three of us we worked back and forth and we established a community. When I grew up on the farm, the neighbors got together. They shelled corn; they threshed the grain. They baled the straw and the hay. And all those jobs were too big for any one farmer to do by themselves.

Randy Willrett: [1:16] In the early days, farming organically, it was exactly like that because we would help one another back and forth. And I just felt that that community was so important to how we progressed and how we became successful organic farmers. We were kind of a laughing stock. So, the first ten years I would say, of farming organically, we kind of had to have broad shoulders.

Glen Bolander: [1:44] We understand that not everybody cares what they put into their body, but we know there's a lot of people out there that do care. And that's huge for us, is to be able to produce good food for good people, is what our, kind of our slogan is.

Justin Bolander: [2:03] I think that's where I think I see our farm going, being closer, farm to table, with the consumer.

Glen Bolander: [2:11] We're passionate. We feel that we're treating the soil better. We're treating our food that we're growing for people, whether it's the animals that we feed or the consumer that consuming the organic Cheerios, and so forth, that it's chemical free, and there's a healthier choice.

Glen Bolander: [2:38] Our farming community is second to none. When it comes time, when a neighbor, a farmer friend is in need, this community is here. Nobody asks for any compensation. Nobody expects anything in return. It's just something that it's kinda rare. We're willing to go out and help the next person in need, next farmer in need, whether they're a farmer or not. We were able to give combine rides this last Fall.

Justin Bolander: [3:16] It's awesome to see these little kids come out and their faces just light up like a Christmas tree when they see this combine, and riding in the combine, seeing what's doing. You can't get that anywhere else.

Jake Willrett: [3:31] Sustainable is kind of the foundation of what our farm is. And it's doing that environmentally, and it's also doing it economically. Economically, it's bringing more returns to the farm. It's giving more opportunity for growth. And it's just a strong business model. Over the years, you know there's been a lot of scrutiny that organic has been a fad. But I think that it's been proven that it's not. I mean you're seeing it more and more in the grocery stores. You're seeing it more and more in the fridges of everyone across the United States. The biggest benefit I think, is we promote a healthy lifestyle and that just doesn't stop with food. I mean I think exercise, eating right, I mean just doing good for your body to preserve a longer and happier lifestyle, is very important to us.

Randy Willrett: [4:13] You gotta believe in it. It's a lot of work. And you gotta believe in it to pull it off.

Jake Willrett: [4:22] You always have to be able to adapt. That's what you need to be able to do in this industry. You can't be afraid to try, or change. And like my dad always says to me, and I'll always remember is, you're only limited by your own creativity. Dad is the experienced one. He has seen a lot more than I have. So I came into the farm and I just kinda took on the role of learning as much as I could from him, from those experiences, and incorporating technology into the farm.

Justin Bolander: [4:53] I think drones, I think they do have their place in agriculture. I think it's just gonna be a hard sales pitch right now, cause your average farmer is 65 years old. Some of 'em do like technology and some of 'em don't. But I think my generation is going to use 'em a lot more.

Jake Willrett: [5:17] If you ask me, what is my favorite part about being an organic farmer, it's working with our organic community. Agriculture in general is better off working together, than working against each other.

 Justin Bolander: [5:28] Seeing something really succeed is my favorite part.

Jake Willrett: [5:34] I'm just really proud and really happy to be part of this industry. I'm proud to be part of change. It's hard to predict what's gonna happen in agriculture. The future doesn't scare me, the future excites me. Because I am an organic farmer, I can say that. Cause I know a lot of people that have a different opinion. A lot of conventional farmers are scared of what's going to happen. But I'm not. I think that staying optimistic in this industry, or in agriculture in general, is a way healthier way to look at it.

Randy Willrett: [6:07] Back in the '90's there were several of us neighbors, three of us, today there's over a dozen. And I'm in hopes that in ten years they'll be two dozen. Maybe some day, we'll all be doing it this way. I hope so.

Asset ID: 8563
Themes: Crossroads, organic, farming, family, sustainability, earth optimism
Date recorded: 2019
Length of recording: 6:26 m
Related traveling exhibition: Crossroads: Change in Rural America
Sponsor or affiliated organization: DeKalb County History Center
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