by Claire Mesesan, communications manager at Iroquois Valley Farms
“Women are leading the way in sustainable and organic agriculture,” according to Lindsay Lusher Shute, Executive Director of National Young Farmers Coalition – and why shouldn’t they be? Young Farmer Land Access Program Director for Iroquois Valley Farms and former Executive Director of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), Teresa Opheim, shares that in her work at PFI, “almost half of the young farmers are women – they are bringing their commitment, skills, and a new vibrancy to agriculture in Iowa and all over the country.” Sustainable, organic farming creates meaningful work that allows people to live out their values. Organic agriculture allows people to participate in a local, healthy economy while restoring the land. While women are certainly well represented within the small-scale organic community, there are fewer stories of women involved in mid-scale organic agriculture.
Enter Iroquois Valley Farms – a farmland finance company dedicated to providing land access to mid-size organic family farmers. Iroquois Valley Farms currently owns 30 farms in eight states (holding over 4,000 acres) and leases to 70 percent millennial farmer tenants. The company relies on impact investors to provide capital for land access opportunities; in turn, Iroquois Valley farmers rely on the company to be reactive to their needs and support them, especially during the transition to organic years. Now offering farmland financing in addition to leasing, Iroquois Valley Farms is a triple bottom line company connecting investors to local and organic food producers. Here are a few stories of some of the women in Iroquois Valley’s farm families sharing how they participate in the organic movement.
Raya Carr grew up in a farming family in central Illinois; her father, Harry Carr, runs Mint Creek Farm, a diversified organic pastured livestock operation. Her brother, Jonathon, is the farm production manager and accountant, and she is the sales manager (which incorporates their popular community supported agriculture program – CSA). As sales manager, Raya works to directly market Mint Creek’s products through Chicago area farmers markets, CSA deliveries, and through the farm’s website. In fact, Raya is supported by a team of three women who ensure that Mint Creek Farm’s sales, marketing, and distribution run smoothly. “I am proud to be a part of the organic movement because counter-acting unhealthy, destructive farming methods is what it’s all about. On top of that, the organic movement is about keeping our community, ecosystems, and natural resources healthy.” As the millennial face of Mint Creek Farm at market, Raya connects with and builds their customer base. Mint Creek’s CSA program provides essential revenue and working capital for the entire operation.
Iroquois Valley Farms completed its first refinancing project in February with Mint Creek Farm. While organic products may seem readily available, support for organic farmers is harder to come by. Truly prioritizing sustainable, organic agriculture would require the financial industry and policy to change; currently conventional agriculture is still subsidized by both the government and banks. Meanwhile, demand for organic agriculture is only increasing, leaving farmers with few options. “I cannot stress enough how important Iroquois Valley Farms’ involvement, guidance, and financing support has to been to our family farm. Financing can be very hard to get for the farmers focused on organic, holistic, diversified farming methods. It is incomprehensible to those that are conventionally minded and come from mono-culture corn and beans farming backgrounds.” Raya and her family’s vision for their farm relies on growing their business to meet the growing demand of their customers. Raya sees Mint Creek Farm growing alongside an improved local ecosystem and active community.
2016 marks the first Western purchase in the Company’s nine-year history – a parcel in northern Montana for the owners and operators of Vilicus Farms. Anna Jones-Crabtree, one half of the business, “is motivated to create a more sustainable way to inhabit this one planet, given the realities of climate change.” As true land stewards and conservationists, Anna and her husband Doug, believe that “organic and sustainable agriculture represents a way to spur other helpful outcomes for [the] world – to grow community and collaboration, to participate in and grow local economies, to restore natural systems, and do well for the earth and thus ourselves.”
A civil and environmental engineer by trade, Anna entered organic agriculture when she was forty and brought her sustainable systems approach to the field. She and Doug are first generation farmers and are understandably passionate about helping other beginning farmers. Accordingly, they run an apprenticeship program on Vilicus Farms, which is committed to modeling agricultural land stewardship at a scale that matters, and to developing a community of like-minded farmers who share their vision. With their focus on land stewardship and conservation, Anna and Doug recognize that organic agriculture is not the end-all and be-all; there must be innovation in sustainability to really consider the farm as an integrated system within the greater environment. This translates to the way they lay out crop strips to minimize wind erosion and their extensive planting for pollinators. In the future, they want to expand their apprentice program to include other mentors and work to become net positive in their energy use at the farm headquarters.
Indiana is home to the Ambrioles – the family that holds the most amount of property with Iroquois Valley Farms. In addition to their diversified row crop operation, the Ambrioles have created a lifestyle around sustainability. Catie Ambriole homesteads, each year growing a garden that provides fruits and vegetables throughout the year (and even raising goats for milk and cheese), while her husband Andy focuses on the grain operation. Catie’s emphasis on creating a diverse, self-sustaining system through homesteading prioritizes soil health on a small scale, while Andy works to produce healthy food through cash crop farming on a larger scale. The need for healthy soil in both operations is essential. Both Catie and Andy come from farming families and participated in 4H while in high school. Catie is proud to be able to show her daughters how organic farming “preserves the soil better and will create healthier ground for them in the future.” By using organic methods, they can grow more with less. Catie believes that although they are the minority (all of their neighbors farm conventionally), organics are catching on – “hopefully, people are seeing that healthier soils are leading to healthier foods.”
As a triple bottom line company, Iroquois Valley Farms prioritizes not only financial returns, but social and environmental impacts as well. In truth, a healthy environmental movement must support the people working to achieve healthier food systems and ecosystems. Sustainable, organic agriculture creates a path to a brighter future – for farmer innovators, for inspired consumers, for healthier and more active pollinators and insects – and most importantly, for the land itself. The women interviewed for this piece all recognized and spoke to the power of organic agriculture to heal and create more inclusive opportunities to do better – not just in business, but for the world and for ourselves.
About Iroqouis Valley Farms Iroquois Valley Farms has a private debt and equity offering open to accredited investors until June 30, 2016. To learn more about making an impact investment with us, please visit our website at www.iroquoisvalleyfarms.com . Supporting organic family farmers since 2007.
Article by Claire Mesesan, communications manager at Iroquois Valley Farms. Claire completed her bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and French from Loyola University Chicago in 2014. Within philosophy, Claire gravitated toward the fields of environmental and agricultural ethics. After graduation, Claire spent a year in Madison, WI working as an AmeriCorps Farm-to-School educator. She joined Iroquois Valley Farms as Communications Manager in 2015, where her work contributes to creating a more sustainable, just, and empowering food system. Claire resides in Chicago where she spends her free time creating urban garden spaces and art.