Why Janie’s Farm in Iroquois County Transitioned to Organic Grain Production
Harold Wilken began working the land of Iroquois County in 1982 – a century after his great-grandfather first put down roots there. Long before “organic” and “farm-to-table” became buzzwords, his ancestors grew healthy food here for family and community.
Though he toyed with the idea of growing organics from time to time, Wilken followed modern farming practices for 23 years – until life began nudging him down the road less traveled.
Get the recipe: Buttery Holiday Stollen from Janie’s Mill
“I looked at organics in the mid-1990s, but it wasn’t right for me at the time, so I put it on the back burner,” Wilken recalls. A series of major life events, including health issues after a broken hose on his farm equipment left him doused in herbicide, would lead him to reconsider.
Beyond that, his son, Ross, wanted to continue the family’s farming tradition after completing his education at the University of Illinois.
“With conventional farming, there would have been no room for him. But I knew that going organic could increase the income of the farm,” Wilken says.
And then came the tragic loss of their 15-year-old daughter, Janie, in a car accident in 2001.
In tribute to a girl gone too soon, Wilken and his wife, Sandy, renamed the family farm Janie’s Farm.
The bubbly teen “didn’t know a stranger – and she was always helping out a friend,” Wilken says. A man of faith, he believes Janie still helps out with her namesake farm.
“After our daughter died, a lot of opportunities came up. I have to believe she’s on the other side helping to direct traffic,” he says.
In fact, a condolence letter after Janie’s death first planted the seed for Wilken’s future in organics. In expressing his sympathy, a neighboring landowner, Herman Brockman, mentioned that, when the time was right, he would like Wilken to help him transition a 30-acre plot to organic. In 2003, Wilken did just that; and by 2005, “I knew organic was the direction I wanted to go.”
He began with his 700-acre family farm. The decision, however, brought some growing pains.
“I was changing everything about the way I farmed,” says Wilken, who jokes that peer pressure among teenage girls pales in comparison to dyed-in-the-wool farmers. “When I started out, I was considered either a darn fool or darn lucky.”
These days, area landowners consider Janie’s Farm their go-to when they want to diversify into organics.
“We transition at least one farm every year,” Wilken says.
Working with his son, Ross, and nephew, Tim Vaske, Wilken farms 3,200 acres within a roughly 30-mile radius of Danforth. A three-year crop rotation helps control weeds and promotes soil health.
“We haven’t used any herbicide since 2004. We can tell a difference in the soil after a few years,” Wilken notes. “Soon, the soil starts to live – it becomes more than just a medium to grow things.”
From that fertile ground, Janie’s Farm grows certified organic corn, soybeans and small grains that include six types of wheat, rye, oats and buckwheat, which attracts pollinators and beer makers alike.
As a natural outgrowth of their organic grain production, an on-site mill made sense to Wilken. Janie’s Mill began operation in 2017, with a product line soon to follow.
Custom-made by a Danish company with a century-long history in the milling industry, Janie’s Mill feeds whole-grain kernels between stationary and rotating millstones. This ancient approach benefits from modern-day amenities, such as carefully controlled temperatures to preserve the nutrition of the whole kernel.
Beloved by bakers, Janie’s Mill produces and sells whole-grain, stone-ground flours, ranging from all-purpose and pastry flours to artisan bread flours and specialty heirloom flours like Turkey Red. The mill’s customer base grew exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought home the importance of access to healthy, local food.
“We were very fortunate to be able to provide flour for home bakers who could not find it at the grocery store and to be able to hire locally and put money back into the community during the health crisis,” Wilken says.
The mill has forged even deeper connections between Janie’s Farm and its customers.
“We like to talk to the bakers who use our products and ask what we can do for them,” Wilken says. “If they’re interested in an heirloom grain that we can’t grow here, I’ll look into partnering with other farmers.”
The mill’s customers include wholesale bakers, home bakers and distributors, and a growing number of regional breweries and distilleries in Illinois and neighboring states.
“This year, the individual bakers and grocery and health food stores became an integral part of what we’re doing,” Wilken says. “Bakers love to come out and see the wheat in the field that they will use to make bread. More people want to know where their food is coming from.”
And knowing that his family farm will help feed future generations brings Wilken great satisfaction.
“I’m very thankful that I have a succession plan. A lot of farmers don’t,” Wilken says. “I’m blessed that I came into organics at the right time. Organics has worked for us, but I am not here to tell other farmers to do it the way I do. I believe there is room for everybody.”
Learn more about Janie’s Mill and find delicious recipes at janiesmill.com.