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Community Supported Ag Helps Area Farmer Weather 'Worst Year Ever'

Man wearing red and black plaid shirt at a podium with a microphone
Colleen Reynolds
Mackinaw Valley Farmer Henry Brockman says he survived his worst weather year because of the variety of crops he planted on his 12-acre farm that uses the community supported agriculture model

A Woodford County farmer who is the subject of a documentary called “Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm” says biodiversity and adaptability have been the key to surviving the worst weather year in his 26 years of farming.

Henry Brockman was among panelists at Wednesday's League of Women Voters of McLean County event focusing on the environment and local efforts that can make a positive impact.

The small-scale, organic farmer says conditions that saw his farm fields saturated from March through June had him worried.

"That posed a huge challenge, and we couldn't get the crops in the ground just like the corn and soybean farmers," he said. "The crops we did put in the ground weren't healthy. They weren't thriving, they weren't growing, they were just kind of sitting there, sticking it out."

Brockman's struggles with flooding a few years ago were highlighted in a documentary about his multigenerational farm. However, he said 2019 will go down as the worst ever weatherwise in the 26 years he's been working his land.

In July, Brockman's farm was producing only 70% of what it usually would, but by August the soil began drying out and eventually most of his varieties rallied.

"So we ended up having a good year when we look back over the entire year. How is that possible?" Brockman suggested it's because he had his capital up front, his customers were flexible, and he was able to spread his risk over time using a diversified approach to planting.

Man at podium points to screen with spinach leaves while a man and woman who are seated nearby look at the screen.
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
Sustainable farmer Henry Brockman says half of all produce is wasted and most goes to landfills. He calls farming close-to-the-consumer the most sustainable way of supplying food.

"I had maybe five total disaster crops this year. I had 95 more crops that could make up the difference," he said. "Also, I have a 26 (week) long season to sell all that stuff instead of the corn and soybean farmer who harvests just once. I harvest every week for 26 weeks so I can make up for a lot of damage that nature can do," Brockman said.

Specializing in biodiversity, Brockman plants 600 varieties of 100 types of vegetables and he services 250 individuals and families in Bloomington, Normal and Peoria who belong to his community supported agriculture (CSA) cooperative. He also hosts a table at the Evanston farmers market.

Brockman boasts his produce is picked and on people's tables within a day. On average, under optimal storage conditions, he says produce loses 30% of its nutrition within three days. For example, green beans lose 77% of Vitamin C in three days. According to Brockman, leeks lose half their carotene in that time.

Brockman's close-to-consumers approach also cuts down on food waste, and reduces carbon emissions from less methane gas and from fewer miles to transport to buyers. Skeptics don't believe this model of production and food distribution could be scaled to feed the world.

Brockman pulls out a laminated card and starts to read ratios of small-scale farms and what they can produce to meet the needs for populations in various cities. He's prepared this because he's been challenged enough times.

"Me and 99 other guys, each on 10 acres, could feed the entire population of Bloomington-Normal and Peoria for a half year, so I would completely disagree with the idea that his small farm model, and this directly-to-the-consumer, biodiverse, organic system cannot feed the world. I think that's completely false," he declared.

He envisions belts of farms featuring various fruits, vegetables and grains surrounding each community to help feed its residents. With so many greenhouse gases coming from agriculture, Brockman suggests this is one system that could be changed as part of a strategy to start reversing the impact of climate change and weather extremes that are already wreaking havoc.

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Colleen Reynolds was a correspondent at WGLT. She left the station in 2023.