By JO ANN HUSTIS
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Leslie Cooperband enjoys speaking to audiences about farming and the many intricacies involved in feeding the world.
“I like to share my knowledge with other farmers and whoever else is interested in agriculture,” Cooperband, a former professor and university extension specialist, noted about her role as a participant in the newly created Farmer Speaker Bureau (FSB) of the nonprofit Illinois Stewardship Alliance.
“I talk about our farm and how we got started, how we raise our livestock and how to make cheese because we make cheese at our farm.
“I do think the public’s knowledge of farming is increasing and that they are really curious about where their food comes from and how it is produced,” she added. “They assume food is produced in this country every day, and they should know how it is produced and what the consequences of those types of production are.”
Cooperband’s occupation is in small-scale milk and cheese production, sustainable farming and fruit orchards on the seven-acre Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery spread she operates with her husband, Wes Jarrell. The two began with a cover crop of buckwheat, then planted 350 fruit trees, 600 berry plants and bought four goats – the impetus for today’s 70-goat dairy and farmstead creamery. They rent another 15 acres for pastureland, hay and prairie grasses.
Nearly 20 knowledgeable speakers are available through the FSB to discuss agricultural topics. The database consists of farmers who are ambassadors and educators for local food and sustainable agriculture. The farmer-speakers have expertise on a wide variety of topics such as the health effects of local food, advantages of cover crops, rare breeds of chickens and wholesale organic vegetable production.
FSB Speaker Adam Dahmer of Marion, Ill., specializes in cover crops. He said the public likes to hear from individuals who have experienced the good as well as the bad. He’s worked with cover crops more than 15 years. During this time, he and his coworkers have made mistakes, but taken them in stride, he noted.
“I felt it was my responsibility to help share the information – to help guide the program,” he said of his participation in the FSB. “The public is concerned about farm practices today, so when you spread the news about cover crops and what we’re trying to achieve with these crops, they are all very excited.”
Neighbors would much rather see something growing in a field on a year-round basis than experience dust clouds floating aloft from soil erosion because the ground is bare.
“Even for members of the general public uneducated in the concerns of those of us involved in agriculture, it’s not hard for them to figure out that if the water’s brown, we’re in trouble,” Dahmer noted. “They don’t like to see that.
“It’s something agriculture is going to have to get more proactive on. When it comes to Mother Nature, our food sources and water quality, they tend to get really serious about it. When it comes down to water and soil, that’s our lifeline and if we don’t take care of those, we’re not going to have any food source.
“The public sees things taking place and they can notice change,” he added. “They question why one farmer’s crop doesn’t look as good as that of another farmer. They notice plant health. They know healthy plants are a better food source. They’re thirsting for knowledge, I feel.”
ISA Outreach Coordinator Molly Gleason noted many times there is no better source for knowledge about conservation, local produce and other ag topics than farmers involved in day-to-day agriculture work.
“Our speakers are doing really innovative things in sustainable farming,” she said.
“We hope the Speaker Bureau will generate more opportunities for these farmers to share their knowledge and help more people understand the importance of where their food comes from and how it’s grown.”
The list of FSB members is available on the ISA webpage at www.ilstewards. org/about-us/farmer-speaker-bureau-2/ farmer-speaker-bureau-profiles - those interested in speakers may scroll through the profiles for the speaker who best suits their needs.
Also, a stipend request form for up to $500 is available for organizations that need financial assistance to cover time and travel expenses incurred by the farmer-speakers.