By Cheri Siebken
Seven miles from the Knox campus, the land owned by Jim Purlee is flat, like most of the land around Galesburg. The soil is dark, nitrogen-rich, and crumbles easily in the hand-perfect for the demands of corn and soybeans.
Purlee, a member of the Knox Board of Trustees, worked as a teacher, principal, and as an executive at Gunther Construction before moving into farming full time. The first 11 acres he bought more than 30 years ago grew to 80, then 160, then 240, then 900. Today, Purlee owns close to 2,000 acres.
Purlee is on one side of a continuing trend in U.S. agriculture. The tradtional family farm of a few hundred acres is slowly being replaced by very large farms like Purlee's operation. He is also on the front end of another trend that is taking root in the ag industry-instead of hiring field hands to help during the season, over the years he's brought in partners to share the risk-and benefits-of Purlee Farms. Each partner owns a farm of his own. Added to Purlee's acreage and the land they rent, the partners farm more than 8,000 acres.
"It's very difficult to make a living as an independent farmer. Everything is so expensive-machinery, land, seed, chemicals, fertilizer," says Purlee. "If you have a crop failure, it's hard to recover.
"Working together-sharing labor, management and machinery-is more efficient. Our costs are about the same as a 1,500 acre farm, and we make fewer mistakes marketing and buying things at this size."
This unique approach led Purlee Farms to win the Innovation of Agriculture Award in 2002, an honor given to four farms nationwide. The farm also has placed as high as fourth in the national Best Managed Farms Contest sponsored by Farm Progress Companies.
"It's a great life and a good living, but I'm very humbled by it," says Purlee. "There are so many things that can go wrong, but this business has been very good to me."
On the other end of the farming spectrum is another trend-very small operations like that of Paul Hohe '59, whose California vineyard sits on less than an acre. For Hohe, farming is not a business, but a rewarding way to spend his retirement-a trend referred to as "lifestyle" farming. "It allows me to work with nature. I'm outdoors. I get sun. I don't have to do any weight lifting because I get enough in the vineyard to keep myself strong. I have to deal with weather, deer, and gophers. Sometimes it's frustrating, but it's a lot of fun-and it keeps me busy."
The obstetrician/gynecologist became interested in making wine when a friend invited him to his vineyard for a gleaning party. Hohe and the other guests scoured the vines, picking remaining clusters after the harvest. He took the grapes and learned how to ferment wine. "Those first couple of years I made it, you wouldn't want to drink it," he laughs.
From that inauspicious beginning, Hohe began buying different varieties of grapes and perfecting his skills. When he retired in 2001, he and his wife bought an acre of land 60 miles north of Santa Barbara, planted 300 vines, and built a house with the bottom floor dedicated to wine production and storage.
Hohe uses his Knox degrees in biology and chemistry daily when working with the plants and making wine. And the vines keep his doctor's instincts keen. "Grape vines are like people. If they're healthy, they're much more resistant to disease than if they don't get the right nutrition or enough water." Hohe and his wife even went back to college, receiving associates degrees in viticulture and enology. They now teach classes on small-acreage grape growing at their home vineyard.
Besides very large and small farms, another area of growth is in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where farmers and consumers share the risks and benefits of food production. Theresa Peura '03 grows vegetables for a 500-member CSA in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where participants pay a fee at the beginning of the season for a share of the produce that will be grown throughout the season. Members coming out to the farm weekly to pick up their share of whatever is in season at the time, be it lettuce, beets, turnips, tomatoes, corn, beans, or the myriad of other vegetables grown on the farm.
"There is a group of consumers who want to learn about where their food's coming from. They want to talk to the farmer, they want to see the animals, they want to be confident that growing the vegetables they eat doesn't result in excess fertilizer or pesticides in the water supply," says Peura.
While she didn't have a background in agriculture, Peura was interested in working on a farm when she graduated from Knox and jumped at the chance when she found an opening for an apprentice. "I fell in love with the work. One good way to get into agriculture is to find farms that will take on newbies-people who don't know much about farming-and train them."
The days are long and money is tight, but Peura enjoys the career she's chosen. "What attracted me was being able to work outside and being able to use both my mind and body. It's also a way for me to be involved and make the world better-to be part of the solution in growing food in a way that I think helps everyone out."
Large or small, for pleasure or profit, Peura emphasizes that anyone can have their own little bit of land and experience the pleasure of watching something grow, even if it's a bit of soil in a terracotta pot on the window sill for a few herbs or tomato plants on the terrace. "Everyone can grow something."