Andrew Banks

Andrew Banks, who farms in Jackson County, is a product of a conventional ag education as well as internship programs that provided him with practical knowledge of farming.

MAKANDA, Ill. — Andrew Banks didn’t jump into farming. He eased into it following training programs that he believes are partly responsible for his early success.

The establishment of Five Hen Farm is the result of not only a university education, but hands-on training across the pond and here in southern Illinois.

Banks got a conventional education at Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale, where he majored in agricultural education. When he and his wife, Sarah Newman, decided to try their hand at farming, they completed a Farm Beginnings program offered by the regional organization Food Works.

So far, it has worked for the couple. They are enjoying success with their niche operation that features grass-fed hogs and poultry.

Their first step was participation in the global organization WOOF — Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. He and Newman spent the summer of 2011 getting their hands dirty on farms across Ireland. They participated in an internship program in which they were paid only with room and board.

“Going to Ireland was something we did when we were able to,” Banks said. “We both wanted to go to Ireland and both wanted to farm, so we worked for room and board.”

They toiled at vegetable and livestock farms while overseas, then got a practical education in farm business when they returned to Illinois.

“Farm Beginnings was more related to the business side rather than the production side,” Banks said. “We had to come up with a business plan, and list strengths and weaknesses, where and how we were going to market. It took our big ideas and streamlined them. It was nice to get those ideas from our head on paper.”

Banks is among many new farmers getting a head start in their farm dreams.

Training comes in many forms and at many venues. At Vienna Correctional Center, one county over from Five Hen Farm, about two dozen inmates participate in an educational program that provides them with basic agronomic and marketing skills.

Farm Beginnings is a year-long program with three main parts, including mentorship.

“Students work through their ideas, such as what type of farming they are interested in doing, and what will be economically viable,” said Jennifer Paulson, executive director of Food Works.

Students attend field days throughout the growing season, getting a taste of what other sustainable farmers are doing.

“We also bring in a lot of professionals who talk about various aspects of interest to the students,” Paulson said. “As beginning farmers, they don’t typically start out with a ton of resources. We encourage them to start small and look at what is going to be their most profitable enterprise, then gradually build their business as it evolves.”

Banks is following that path. His farm began in 2011 with a Christmas present from his father-in-law of a chicken coop with five Rhode Island Reds, hence the name Five Hen Farm. He purchased a plot of land in the rolling hills of southern Jackson County and set up shop. While Banks works full time here, Newman has a job outside the farm.

He raises broilers, turkeys and layers, and feeds out hogs. This year he added ducks to the mix. Banks also keeps a gaggle of “guard geese” to cut down on losses to predators, which include raccoons and hawks.

The farm now consists of 6.5 acres, but Banks plans to greatly expand it next year, adding another 15 to 30 acres. All animals are rotated daily or weekly, depending on the species.

“During peak season, we have 1,500 to 2,000 animals on the farm at any one time,” he said. “We buy feeder hogs at 6 to 8 weeks old and raise them to 10 months.”

Portable electric fencing is solar powered. The pastures consist of natural grasses and legumes.

“Whatever’s in the seed bank is what they graze on,” he said. “I’ve had good luck with what’s out there.”

Banks markets all his good directly, selling at farmers markets and to individual customers. He sells to two restaurants and has picked up three more for next season.

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.