- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2015

CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) - In the morning, Courtney Smith walks around the skinny dirt paths of her farm, sips dark coffee and makes the to-do list that never seems to end. There are weeds to pull, flowers to cut and more seeds to scatter. She walks by the wildflowers and the asparagus and the herbs, each overlapping in a messy mismatch, and decides what to tackle first.

This is it, she says. This is her dream, and she’s letting it grow.

When she was 35, those mornings in the dirt called Smith away from a desk job in graphic design. She gave up her high heels and her nice car and big house and got a loan from the bank so she could buy six acres of untamed land on the outskirts of Carbondale.

“It’s been an adjustment, to say the least,” Smith said. “All of a sudden, I’m on the farm all the time and my lifestyle is filled with really hard, intensive work.”

On those same mornings around Flora Bay Farm, if the sun is just so and her big-bellied cats are nearby and the honeybees do that special dance above the flowers, Smith forgets about hard it all is. She forgets about the stress and the long, sweaty shifts that never end. She forgets about waking up in the middle of the night, struck with worry about the crops and the weather forecast. And it slips her mind, for a moment, that she’s not making money — that she’s not making a living at all.

Not making a living

They won’t come right out and tell you, but these young small farmers struggle. They work 12 or 14 hours a day and they struggle to pay the bills.

“Not everyone who is farming got that land from their parents and have a ton of money to begin with,” said Jason Shoot, who started his own farm in Makanda. “To build it from the ground up, it takes so much more work.”

In 2013, the National Young Farmers’ Coalition surveyed more than a thousand young farmers, who were mostly in their mid-20s and 30s. Seventy-eight percent of respondents didn’t grow up on farms. As the average age of the American farmer swells to 65, the industry is in need for younger minds like Shoot.

Shoot was a young dad when he quit his landscaping job to start Frontwards Farm, where he raises chickens and grows a slew of greens and vegetables. He started his farm, like others in Southern Illinois, because of his foundational belief that communities need more sustainable family farms.

“People need to think about where their food comes from, just not reach for the french fries,” he said. “There’s a comfort in knowing exactly where your food is grown and I want more people to celebrate that.”

Smith and Shoot don’t receive government subsidies like big agriculture groups often do. According to USDA data from 2012, intermediate-size farms like theirs, when they actually start making money, obtain only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, and 90 percent from an off-farm source.

“I’m definitely not making a living,” he said. “I’m closer than I was last week. But when that reality hits, it can be depressing.”

Smith spends hours on Google looking for grants and she works part-time at the Neighborhood Co-op for some extra cash. And Shoot’s wife sells artwork on the side.

“We’ve always managed to make ends meet, but it’s not a good way to live forever,” Shoot said.

Is this enough?

Look at the rise of farm-to-fork cafes and “support local” bumper stickers and a bustling farmers’ market on a Saturday morning, and it seems like small farming might be having its moment.

“On the outside, it really does seem like pockets of people are buying into this,” said Shoot. “People are interested.”

But that doesn’t always translate to cash in the small farmers’ pocket.

“Instead of looking at like we’re hemorrhaging money, I’m trying to look at like something that will pay off later,” he said. “But we’re not making a lot of money.”

There are other sacrifices beyond the bottom line.

“Even if I’m at home, I’m not always being a dad. And it stresses my parents out that we’re not that stable and that’s a burden on my mind,” he said. “I hope at the end of the day, they understand why I am doing this.”

Sometimes, Smith stands in the middle of her small farm and cries. Sometimes, she cries in the kitchen while making bouquets for weddings. She misses the air conditioning and the stable salary and the nice work clothes.

And on her worst days, she can’t help but ask herself: Is it worth it? Is this enough? Did I do the right thing?

Maybe next year

After seeing the work her grandfather put into his land, Lisa Smith (who has no relation to Courtney) swore she would never go into farming.

But as the brand manager for Neighborhood Co-Op in Carbondale, she champions the local food movement and wants others in Southern Illinois to follow suit.

“We desperately need a more secure food system here,” she said. “If we had more of our food grown in Southern Illinois, it would be fresher and more reliable and it would drive our local economy.”

Even with hundreds of locally grown goods at the co-op, there is always the need for more, she says. And small farmers are always one crop away from losing it all.

“I want more people to be thinking about the connection they have to their food,” he said. “It’s easy to get food that appears cheaper and more convenient, but isn’t more interesting to know the person who grew that tomato or that other crop and support them?”

When would-be customers pass by her stand at the farmers markets, Courtney Smith tries not to take it personally.

“You have to be somewhat crazy to be a small farmer. You have to do things that most people don’t do. you have to love it. You have to be the most happy when you’re outside,” she said.

And after a bad day, when she’s sore and sweaty and tired, she finds the energy to wake up and do it again, to keep making the list. When she has bad seasons, she thinks about next year, and how maybe it will be better.

“And then I go outside and I see a butterfly or the frog pond or the flowers and I remember that I’m doing this for very big, touchy-feely kind of reasons, I’m doing this for the Earth and my own happiness and because I believe it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “My farm isn’t going to feed the world, but it’s a start.”

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Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, http://bit.ly/1VdQ67L

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Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com

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