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What began as a niche movement has become a consumer-driven demand for sustainable agriculture that is changing the way Illinois farmers produce their crops and livestock, and even the way companies, such as General Mills, source products.
Doug Gucker, an educator with the University of Illinois Extension Service, is a coordinator for SARE, or Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, for Illinois. He said that sustainable agriculture is likely the wave of the future.
Gucker said that during the agricultural recession of the 1980s, many farmers, especially younger ones, sought to sell directly to consumers as a way to augment their income. That niche has now become a booming explosion of farmers markets – Illinois has the third-most number of markets in the nation – and major agricultural companies have taken note. A burgeoning number of consumers want food that was raised responsibly and sustainably and the agriculture industry wants to sell it to them.
It can be difficult, though, for farmers to change from \traditional methods. That is where SARE comes in. The program offers a variety of grants ranging from $9,000 to as much as $200,000, depending on the project, to promote sustainable practices. Some go directly to farmers and ranchers, others to youth education, agencies that partner with farmers, academic research and more.
Gucker said all programs and research are conducted with input from farmers and/or ranchers.
“Sustainable agriculture is really agriculture, and (this is) just really about staying ability, a good income for the farmer and their family," he said. "We're also thinking about the environment and how that farm is going to move on into the future so that everyone, including the community around them, benefits from farming.