Forest Preserve looks to future with farming pilot program – nwitimes.com

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Forest Preserve looks to future with farming pilot program

Mark Yunker, left, and his son, Doug Yunker, are shown at one of their existing organic farm fields. The Yunkers will be farming the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s first organic parcel. 

Provided/Cindy Cain, Forest Preserve District of Will County

Mark Loehrke
Times correspondent
As consumer attitudes toward environmental sustainability have evolved, many companies have jumped to do whatever they can to associate their products with the notion of organic production . But for the Forest Preserve District of Will County, the shift to organic farming is more than just an attempt to ride the coattails of the latest trend — it’s a key investment in the future.To that end, the district’s board of commissioners in August awarded its first organic farm license to Manhattan Township-based Yunker Farms, which is operated by third- and fourth-generation farmers Mark (father) and Doug (son) Yunker. The Yunkers, who have been farming in the region for more than 100 years and  have around 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, will use their six-year license with the district to transition and farm 147 acres in Jackson Creek Preserve.“Going organic seems like a really good way to take our conservation farming to another level,” says Forest Preserve agriculture specialist Michelle Blackburn. “We are one of the first conservation agencies in the area to have a bid and a license for organic farming.”Blackburn says the idea behind the organic license is to build up the area’s soil and resources instead of draining them. Organic farming, she says, will help improve the soil structure, reduce erosion and eliminate pesticides and runoff into Jackson Creek.The license allows the Yunkers three years to transition the land to certified organic, during which time no pesticides or herbicides will be used, organic seeds will be planted and cover crops (including winter wheat, rye and clover) will be used to prevent weed growth. The remaining three years of the license will allow the Yunkers to farm the land for corn, soybeans and wheat.“It’s a whole different management mentality for growing the crops,” says Doug Yunker of organic versus traditional farming, noting that the family has farmed around 400 acres organically elsewhere. “We have to use different tools and implements to help control the weeds. But we know what we’re getting into — we know the risks and challenges involved — so we should be able to work with that experience. We’re just really looking forward to it.”The district has more than 3,000 acres in its farm license program, land acquired along with a sensitive natural areas during capital campaigns. Farming is used to keep invasive species and woody vegetation off the land until the district has the funds to restore it, and the goal behind the use of organic farming methods is to make those transitions even smoother. In the coming years, Blackburn says the district will work to move even more of its farmland to certified organic acreage, with a goal of having 20% to 25% under that designation by 2030. She hopes that the eventual success of this project in Will County will serve as an example and an inspiration to others.“Hopefully through this pilot program, we can get other conservation agencies in the area to follow suit and we can act as a resource for other farmers who might want to try this,” she notes. “It’s important for people to know that this is possible. We’re trying to be the best stewards of this land that we can be.”

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Mark Yunker, left, and his son, Doug Yunker, are shown at one of their existing organic farm fields. The Yunkers will be farming the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s first organic parcel. 

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