The food economy encompasses the growing, distribution, and marketing of food. It includes farmers, lawyers, accountants, commodity traders, manufacturers, logistic specialists, marketers, chefs, grocery store workers, and eventually, the consumers.

Consumers are increasingly becoming concerned as they learn more about what goes into their food by way of chemicals and hormones on the farm and more chemicals and additives in the manufacturing plant. The many food recalls due to health and safety concerns make people think about how much processing occurs in big plants and how many people touch what we eat. Finally, there is a concern with how far food has to travel to get into our supermarkets and what nutrients are lost in that time.

These concerns have increased demand for locally grown, organic, free-range, grass-fed, and seasonal items, which means farm owners are looking to diversify what they grow and sell. New entrepreneurs are looking to develop land-based food businesses with access to local populations through farmers' markets and co-ops. Colleges across the country are addressing the needs of these food entrepreneurs.

Local Answers to Increasing Local Food Production

McHenry Community College opened the Center for Agrarian Learning (CAL) in late 2019. Their mission is to "teach, engage, and inspire our community to seek new solutions in all aspects of the food economy - bringing people together around growing and selling locally, helping you build more rewarding professional lives, and improving our stewardship of the planet."

CAL offers a certificate program in Entrepreneurial Agriculture (McHenry College offers a degree program). They also have non-credit workshops designed for farmers in the winter months and hobbyists and eaters at other times of the year. For example, they have GardenFest in April. This past winter the Forefront: Ideas in Food and Farming Speaker Series was very successful. They showcased innovative thinkers who are solving problems and want to share what they are doing with others.

The certificate program has been surprisingly successful during the pandemic. The young people who sign up are interested in growing things and want to be involved hands-on in the whole process. CAL's focus is to train food growers to be successful with best farming practices while also ensuring that they create viable businesses. Students are learning about plant and soil science as well as food systems. As a sign of the times, there's significant interest in hydroponics, aquaponics, and hemp.

The Woman Who Runs it All

All of this is run by Sheri Doyel, a woman who is passionate about organic farming and wants to mentor others. Sheri grew up on a pistachio farm in California that her uncle farmed. She has a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and has always been interested in the structure of plants from an artist's perspective. Sheri had the idea of growing the flowers for her wedding and was hugely successful. She went on to get her Master Gardener certification and also became a Chicago Farm Forager in 2006. She later worked at Angelic Organics Learning Center, which is a CSA farm and educational center just south of the Wisconsin border. Today, Sheri and her family live on a 5-acre farm in Lake Geneva, WI, and provide mentoring for others interested in farming as well as organic seedlings for backyard gardens.

Sheri is committed to the Entrepreneurial Ag program and practices what she preaches. Her commitment to helping small farmers be successful in providing for their local area is obvious. Sheri and those like her will ensure that if people want locally produced, minimally processed food, it will become easier to find.

Photo Credit: Sheri Doyel. Students enrolled in the Entrepreneurial Agriculture Program.