Back in January we received an email from a long-time advisee of Northeast Illinois FarmLink – Beatrice Kamau.
“Finally closed!” the subject line read. In the email Beatrice laid out the details of the property she had officially closed on three years into her farmland search.
A few weeks ago, Nathan and I headed out to Beecher to congratulate her and see the new place. As we walked the property, identifying native and invasive plants and snacking on puff-puffs, a traditional Kenyan street food, we were struck by the peace we felt from both the land and Beatrice.
For five years Beatrice participated in the Urban Grower Collective’s farmer training program and grew vegetables at one of their plots on the South Side of Chicago. This was a great option for starting her farm business. She was eager, however, for a long-term land solution where her farm business could firmly take root and she could begin expanding her production to meet the needs of African immigrant communities in the greater Chicago area. But finding affordable land right for farming was not easy. Stress, uncertainty, and disappointment were commonplace.
We could always tell there was something special about Beatrice though. As former Northeast Illinois FarmLink navigator Jim wrote in the January 2021 newsletter – “The first time we spoke with Beatrice Kamau, a native of Kenya who has now lived in Chicago for over 20 years, we felt there was something unstoppable in this soft spoken yet confident woman.” These words came full circle as we stood next to Beatrice on a six-acre farm property that is now wholly her own.
The property has most of what Beatrice was looking for: a three-bedroom home with extra space to host community workshops, open green space that a food forest and other edible perennials could be incorporated into, abundant room for chickens and vegetable plots, and proximity to Chicago markets.
There are signs, too, of the people who enjoyed the land before her – asparagus plants in the woody edges and what appear to be a few cultivated grapevines poking up in the field. And though it wasn’t on her original wish list, there’s even a little wood-fired sauna for the ultimate rural spa experience.
There are also a few small, diversified farms nearby, including Tulip Tree Gardens, Wild Thistle Farm, and Happy Life Ranch.
It took three hard years of committed learning, dogged hope, and persistent effort, but in the end, Beatrice achieved secure land tenure. We’ve learned a lot from her land access journey. Below we’ve outlined our four takeaway lessons in hopes that they will be helpful to other beginning farmers.
- Know how to pivot
When we asked Beatrice what her number one piece of advice would be for land seekers she said, “Be flexible and adaptable.” Originally Beatrice had her sights set on McHenry, Kane, or Lake Counties. And she focused on these counties for years – connecting to networks, attending events, and visiting properties. But the price was never right. Eventually she pivoted to searching south of Chicago in Will County, which was still within driving distance of the Chicago markets and her off-farm job. This led to finding the right spot at the right price. While we often recommend that seekers have a narrow search radius, knowing when your original parameters aren’t working and it’s time to change course is an important piece of the puzzle too.
- Seek out helpful community and networks
A consistent thread that runs through Beatrice’s story is her commitment to community and building networks. At the beginning of her land access journey, she reached out to the Northeast Illinois FarmLink team for an advising session and maintained consistent contact, sending updates and attending events, for three years. Now, entering the next chapter of her story, she’s once again building community. Beatrice has met and made friends with some neighbors and nearby farms. She plans to collaborate with them in various capacities in the future, from volunteer days to community workshops.
- Expect the unexpected
In the fall of 2022, Beatrice had settled on the Beecher property and was excited to move forward with purchasing it. She had done her due diligence and it seemed that everything was in place for the closing. Then she learned she would need a lease termination letter in order to secure the mortgage loan. This time-sensitive requirement led to several difficulties Beatrice hadn’t been expecting. While common in a land search, surprises like these put additional strain on a seekers energy and emotions. Luckily, Beatrice’s realtor was able to help her overcome this obstacle. “It’s a total rollercoaster,” says Beatrice.
- Be intentional about the setup of your farm
One thing that makes Beatrice’s situation unique is the flexibility her off-farm income gives her. Instead of having to jump in and immediately plant, Beatrice is spending much of this growing season observing the land and setting up infrastructure. We recommend observing the land intently before making any major decisions. Pay attention to wind patterns, where the light falls, what views you want to preserve, and how water moves on the site. These are all important considerations when planning the location of a high tunnel, an orchard, or a vegetable plot. Beatrice told us how, even before she bought the property, she visited when it was raining to see where the water flowed and whether flooding might be an issue.
You might expect Beatrice to be jaded from this process. But Beatrice has always kept the faith, thanks in part to her deep support network and the type of spiritual strength that often comes from farming.
During an interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farms, Beatrice said,
“I tell anyone who is willing to get into urban farming or beekeeping, Learn as much as you can. Have your vision, write it down, and always revisit it. And get started! Don’t procrastinate.“