Taking tangible steps

This story was originally shared in the February 2024 Illinois FarmLink newsletter. Illinois FarmLink, a program of The Land Connection, provides farmland access services (including free advising) to farmers and landowners across Illinois. Illinois FarmLink helped make this farmland connection between the Harbecke and Kanchwala families happen in Kane County last year. Rozina Kanchwala is a new Climate Land Leader.

In October 2023, Mark Harbecke of the town of Sycamore in DeKalb County signed a five-year lease agreement with the Kanchwala family that lives in St. Charles in Kane County. Through the lease agreement, the Harbeckes, including Mark’s son Seth, will be transitioning just under 90 acres of land to organic grain production. That same arrangement enables the Kanchwalas, and especially their daughter Rozina, to take tangible steps towards stewarding the land in a way that they can feel good about.

The Kanchwala Story

Rozina’s parents at their farmland property in Kane County.

Rozina’s parents bought the parcel of land east of Maple Park in the 1990s as a financial investment. Today, because of their daughter Rozina, they see the land from a wider perspective.

Rozina, who has always had an affinity for nature, spent a year in India after college doing research on the causes of high suicide rates among farmers there. Through this research, her eyes were opened to the impact of a food and farming system dominated by corporate interests and the effects it has on the land and its people. Later, after a master’s degree in environment and sustainable development and more agricultural research in Ghana, she returned to the U.S. and entered the clean energy industry on the East Coast.

But she had caught the food and farming “bug.” She found much joy being involved in community gardening on the side. Returning to St. Charles during the covid pandemic, Rozina came to viscerally understand, as so many Americans did, the vulnerabilities of our modern food system and rediscovered the satisfaction of growing her own food.

Eventually, Rozina began to put all the pieces together and started asking her parents about how their farmland was being farmed. Those conversations, as well as a visit to the farm of long-time organic grain farmer Dave Campbell (also a Kane County resident and Rodale Institute consultant) led Rozina’s parents to consider changing how the land was farmed.

Coinciding with these developments was Rozina’s launch of her own environmental education nonprofit, Eco.Logic, to inspire environmental consciousness and action. Her intention was for the nonprofit to offer a variety of educational programming.

“I was intrigued by the idea of using the farmland as a venue for education,” says Rozina.

Out of respect to their long-time tenant, the Kanchwalas asked if he would be willing to move towards organic and regenerative practices. When he said no, Rozina and her parents asked for Illinois FarmLink’s help in finding an alternative.

The Illinois FarmLink team, in turn, sought out Dave Campbell’s advice, and he recommended Mark and his family. And on September 22, the team arranged for Mark to meet Rozina and her mother at the field.

The Harbecke Story

Two generations of Harbecke farmers, Mark and his son, Seth.

Interestingly enough, there were two junctures in Mark’s life where if he had made a different choice, he would not have been the one meeting the Kanchwalas.

Mark’s grandfather and father had both been farmers, but Mark’s path as a farmer was no sure thing. When he graduated college, he and his wife had had other plans. But when those other plans didn’t work out as expected, the farm life beckoned. After farming under his father, he took over the farm in 2002, continuing to farm conventionally as his father had done.

The year 2018 represented the second juncture. That was when Mark began transitioning their land to organic. There were many factors behind his decision to change farming methods. One was that his three daughters and son had been increasingly asking questions about where their food came from and how their farming was impacting the land. Another was that his friend, Dave Campbell, had been encouraging him to consider shifting to organic for many years.

“The transition is difficult,” Mark shared. “You’re trying to learn so many new things and making so many mistakes along the way. The market for transition crops is not great either, and though you are doing all the extra work that organic farming requires, you do not qualify for organic prices until you are certified. And that’s not to mention the need for added equipment. So it was not fun financially at first, but we were not tempted to quit. We love farming organically.”

There’s now an imperative for gaining more access to land. His son Seth, who just graduated from Iowa State University, wanted to farm with his father as his full-time job. So the opportunity to potentially farm the Kanchwalas’ land was very welcome.

The Connection

Mark and Rozina at the first meeting discussing farmland management and transitioning to organic.

The first meeting between Mark and the Kanchwala family in September was friendly and wide-ranging.

“I was struck by how thoughtful Mark was,” says Nathan Aaberg of Illinois FarmLink. “He asked many questions to Rozina and her mother, even beyond questions about the land and farming. He treated them as people worth knowing.”

“Mark has been very communicative and kind,” says Rozina. “He is very open to talking about his practices and answering our questions. He’s excited, too, to talk about his work and share his practices. He’ll be more than a tenant. I believe this is a start of a partnership.”

The story of the farm’s transition to organic and getting to see that transition take place fit with Rozina’s ideals. Part of Rozina’s nonprofit’s mission is to communicate and engage people around practical climate solutions, and land-based practices like organic and regenerative farming are examples of those solutions. She sees potential in people learning more about those practices by visiting the land and learning from Mark and Seth.

“Rozina and her family are great,” says Mark. “It’s great to have someone interested in how you are farming. Most people aren’t. We were really lucky to be connected with the Kanchwala family through Illinois FarmLink.”