Stephen Grace
BACK ON FARM: Stephen Grace followed a winding road back to his family’s Urbana, Ill., farm, armed with a degree in religious studies and employment experience at a Chicago-area brewing company.

A farm boy’s steep learning curve

Cultivating Master Farmers participant Stephen Grace shares his winding road back to the farm, and how he’s had to learn fast.

The cars that whiz past Stephen Grace’s farm on Route 45 just north of Urbana, Ill., juxtapose precisely with his past and his present. Grace grew up not exactly on the farm — a farm boy in name only. Though his parents farm, they live in Urbana, and Grace grew up a town kid. College took him to the University of Illinois for a religious studies degree, and then he took a job with Two Brothers Brewing near Chicago.

But the farm’s pull was strong — as was the slower pace of life away from the city. Today, Grace is back on the farm and planting his third crop. He’s also a member of the Cultivating Master Farmers Class of 2019, and he has the same concerns that a lot of other young farmers express.

“I’m concerned about being able to sustain or grow the business without getting squeezed out by larger operations,” Grace says. “That and wrapping my mind around the capital I need — and living with a million dollars in debt.”

3RD CROP: The 2018 crop will be Stephen Grace’s third since joining his family’s operation.

Grace laughs as he explains that he’s had an accelerated learning curve, jumping back into the farm as an apprentice after having far less exposure than the typical Illinois farm kid. He also took over more responsibilities in early 2017 when his father, Roger, had unexpected surgery, which means they’ve accelerated their five-year plan.

“Transition is on everyone’s mind,” Grace says. But the No. 1 goal? Keep all interested parties involved and on the same team.

That’s no easy task in their operation, where land is held among 14 different stakeholders — all family members. His dad sends quarterly reports to everyone, but Grace plans to add more frequent details to improve connections and relationships — emails and digital communication such as “We’re planting your ground today!”

In the fertile soil of northern Champaign County, the Graces raise primarily corn and soybeans, and will have a little more non-GMO crops this year, due to premium availability. Grace farms with both his father and uncle, hiring one full-time employee plus seasonal help as needed.

They’ve also seen the city creep ever closer. “It’s important to protect the land already in production and not let urban sprawl dictate the opportunities available to the farming community at large,” Grace says.

Cultivating Master Farmers has played a big part in Grace’s plan for climbing the learning curve. The two-year mentorship program, which facilitates relationships between Master Farmers and a select group of young farmers, has allowed Grace to meet other young farmers and learn from Master Farmers. He hopes to continue building personal relationships and carving out areas where they can all help each other out.

CMF is sponsored by Prairie Farmer, Growmark, Illinois Farm Bureau, Monsanto, Compeer Financial and Farm Credit of Illinois.

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