Will County Forest Preserve District

The Forest Preserve District of Will County (FPDWC) made history on May 7th when it officially released a bid request for a farming license for the 147 acres of tillable land at the Jackson Creek Forest Preserve in Green Garden Township. 

The fact that a forest preserve district or a conservation district would need a tenant to farm one of their farm fields is not unusual at all. The forest preserves and conservation districts in our region own and manage over 15,000 acres of farmland. This is largely because a large percentage of open land preserved by the districts is farmland, but restoration of farmland and ongoing natural area management can take more funding than is available.

What is historic about the bid request from the FPDWC is that it requires the farmer to convert the 147 acres to certified organic row crop production. 

This has, to our knowledge, never been done before on public land in the Chicago area.  

This is an exciting land access opportunity for row crop producers who want to grow organic. It is also a promising sign that public farmland-owning agencies in the area are becoming more committed to managing their farmland in conservation-minded ways. Organic certification means, among other things, that herbicides like dicamba and insecticides like neonicotinoids, will not be used.

This map shows the land Will County will begin transitioning to organic row crop production in 2022.

“There is great potential for public landowners to be leaders in demonstrating soil-building, life-sustaining, profitable farming methods,” says Nathan Aaberg of the Liberty Prairie Foundation. 

One of the most significant features of the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s commitment to careful farmland management is the fact that it has a dedicated, full-time agriculture specialist – Michelle Blackburn. During Michelle’s time at the FPDWC, it has been taking steps forward. For example, the Forest Preserve only allows no-till and strip-till operations under any of its 20 licenses that govern the farming done on its 3,000 acres of row crop farmland. The District also has had contour prairie strips installed on two properties by the licensed farmers, reducing erosion and providing insect and bird habitat. 

And because information is the foundation of good management of anything, the FPDWC has developed a database for tracking data related to each farmland parcel, including what fertilizers and pesticides were used.  

Michelle highlighted the three motivations for the FPDWC to seek a farmer-partner to transition the Jackson Creek parcel to organic. 

“It starts with broad equity,” she says, “We want to make land available to all types of Will County farmers, including organic.”

She also highlighted the environmental benefits of certified organic production that the Forest Preserve cares deeply about.

There is a community benefit as well. “The tenant farmer, as part of the license, will allow or even help the Forest Preserve,” Michelle said, “to conduct tours or visits for those interested in learning about organic farming.”

The license’s term – six years – is significant. Most public farmland leases and licenses are three years long or even shorter. Short leases discourage a farmer from undertaking soil-building practices, like cover crops, because the farmer doing the work may not be around to benefit from the heathier soil those practices create.

The beauty of the six-year lease in this case is that bidding farmers will make two sub-bids – one for the first three years which will cover the 36-month certification transition period (when crops can’t be sold as organic) and one for the following three years when being able to sell certified organic crops will command higher prices and higher profits. (And, yes, good lease designs are beautiful… at least in our eyes).

“Our ultimate goal is to get more of the Forest Preserve’s land transitioned to organic,” says Michelle.

The FPDWC is not the only Illinois public entity enhancing its farmland management. In future newsletters, we’ll share more news of other conservation districts and forest preserve districts doing good things. 

Please note – the pre-bid meeting will be happening this Friday, May 14 and the application deadline is Friday, May 21. Click HERE to go to the FPDWC website and request the RFP to be sent to you.