Assisting Farmers in Crisis to Adopt Sustainable Marketing Alternatives

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2000: $98,590.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $15,502.00
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
John Masiunas
University of Illinois

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: potatoes, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Fruits: berries (other), melons, berries (strawberries)
  • Nuts: hazelnuts
  • Vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, rutabagas, sweet corn, tomatoes, turnips, brussel sprouts
  • Additional Plants: herbs
  • Animals: poultry, goats, rabbits, sheep
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, housing, free-range, grazing - multispecies, preventive practices, grazing - rotational
  • Crop Production: agroforestry, continuous cropping, application rate management
  • Education and Training: networking, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, community-supported agriculture, marketing management, feasibility study, agricultural finance, market study, risk management, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement
  • Pest Management: allelopathy, biological control, botanical pesticides, compost extracts, cultural control, flame, physical control, mulching - plastic, row covers (for pests), smother crops, soil solarization, mulching - vegetative
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, urban/rural integration


    Seven enterprises, including agritourism, agroforestry, aquaculture, free-range poultry, grass-based livestock, organic vegetables, and viticulture, were identified as having potential. A binder with information on the alternative enterprises was developed and workshops were conducted throughout Illinois. In the second year, we partnered with Michael Field’s Agriculture Institute to bring an Advanced Organic Vegetable Workshop to the state. Marketing symposiums were held at Claytonville and Evanston. The audiences ranged from five to 60 people and included farmers, Extension staff, students, and instructors. A mail survey indicated that the events were well received. Six instructors were trained and a pilot NXLeveL session held. Several problems with NXLeveL for this audience were identified and suggestions for changes developed.


    Small-scale farms are an important sector of agriculture that has been ignored by traditional extension and outreach programming in Illinois. Even the term “small farm” is debated, and definitions differ from gross sales of less than $250,000 (Perry and Johnson, 1999) to less than $5,000 (Thomas et al., 1996), or to farms with less than 100 acres. Because of the variance in definitions, we prefer to concentrate on farmers in crisis that will potentially be leaving agriculture.

    There are a variety of statistics about small-scale farms, many contradictory. This sector of agriculture accounts for over four-fifths of all U.S. farms, but represents only 24% of farm sales in 1992 (Tweeten and Amponsah, 1996). Small farms produce a substantial portion (38 %) of the value of U.S. farm production (Perry and Johnson, 1999) and hold much of the farmland of the United States (Perry and Johnson, 1999). They are key participants in environmentally-based government programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Program (Perry and Johnson, 1999).

    Small-scale farms differ from large corporate farms in a variety of other ways. Most families are on small-scale farms because it is a way of life or hobby that they support from off-farm income (Tweeten and Amponsah, 1996). In the limited studies conducted in Illinois, it was found that income from farming was higher for Swiss and German small-scale farmers than for Southern Illinois farmers (Herbst, 1979). The Southern Illinois farm families had higher income from off-farm work than did Swiss or German farm families (Herbst, 1979). Harper et al. (1981) surveyed 384 small farms in Peoria and Wayne counties of Illinois. Most of the small farmers bought the land and made a deliberate choice to begin farming. Thus small-scale farms are an important avenue for beginning farmers in Illinois. They found that the farms themselves did not contribute the full income needed to support the family (Harper et al., 1981). We have found that small-scale farms, those with less than 50 acres or with less than $250,000 in sales, dominate the fruit and vegetable industry in Illinois (Drury, 1996).

    The American public considers small-scale and family farms as an important part of our heritage that must be preserved (Tweeten and Amponsah, 1996). Yet, these farms are failing at an alarming rate. Tweeten and Amponsah (1996) reported that small farm numbers have been falling approximately 2% per year since 1987 while large farms have been increasing. They stated that what was once the most predominant category of farm operators, the full-time, able-bodied, small farm operator, is now an endangered species (Tweeten and Amponsah, 1996). Thomas et al. (1996), in a county-based analysis of U.S. agriculture, found that there has been a transitional shift from small farming to corporate and firm-orientated patterns of agriculture. This shift resulted in small farm counties declining from 43% of all counties in 1982 to 28% in 1992. This decline was due to the encroachment of corporate and firm-orientated farms into counties that were formerly dominated by small scale, family farms. In Illinois, this decline has been even more dramatic.

    What can be done to stop this decline? Technology and farm programs are oriented toward larger farms. Thus, these are not solutions. Improved extension education and human resource development offer some of the most promising public policy opportunities to help small farms (Tweeten and Amponsah, 1996). Several previous SARE and USDA funded projects offer possible options for small-scale and beginning farmers in Illinois. This project will be built upon those previous efforts.

    Project objectives:

    Our project is aimed at educating farmers in crisis -- small scale farmers and those wanting to begin farming -- to develop niche marketing opportunities that overcome poor grain and animal prices. Our specific objectives were to:

    (1) Provide producers with information on sustainable farming and marketing alternatives.

    (2) Develop an intensive workshop and mentoring program to assist farmers in crisis to adopt sustainable farming and marketing opportunities.

    (3) Evaluate the impact of these programs on farmers who participated in the project.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.