A Mighty Oak Stands Tall - American Farmland Trust

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February 28th, 2024

A Mighty Oak Stands Tall

During a visit to Shirley Johnson’s farm in Peoria, Illinois, she introduced visitors to her “Mighty Oak,” a seedling just eight inches high. Shirley has a knack for envisioning the future, when one day, the oak will provide beauty and shade for the farmhouse nearby. In another testament to Shirley’s forward thinking, she donated her farm to American Farmland Trust in her estate plans.

Shirley grew up on the 176-acre farm with her parents and siblings but spent much of the last four decades in California pursuing a career in biotechnology. When she and her siblings inherited the farm, Shirley felt drawn to return in the summers, and she became actively involved in the farm’s management. As a scientist, Shirley embraced the opportunity to research agronomy and soil health, a knowledge she applied to conservation practices on the farm.

“I just love being at this particular spot on the farm,” Shirley said while describing an erosion management strategy. “From this vantage point, I can see an organic cornfield, a prairie strip for pollinators, and a dry dam to prevent erosion. These are examples of how I am taking care of the land.”

“Dad, don’t worry, I’m taking care of your farm,” she added with a smile, looking upward.

Shirley rents the cropland to a beginning farmer who is transitioning the land to organic corn and soy production. She collaborated with a researcher at the University of Illinois to install a bioreactor on the farm designed to reduce the runoff of soil nutrients. And she established pollinator habitats and strips of native prairie plants with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Shirley’s soil health practices and commitment to farmland protection are emblematic of what American Farmland Trust’s work in the Midwest hopes to achieve,” said Kris Reynolds, director of American Farmland Trust’s Midwest office, which works with farmers and landowners in Illinois to improve water quality and soil health, adopt conservation practices such as cover crops, and meet the state’s nutrient loss reduction goals.

Shirley returns repeatedly to the theme of collaboration when describing her approach to land stewardship. In 2011, Shirley and her sister faced a challenge when an unscrupulous developer sought to buy farmland in their area. Shirley and her neighbors successfully opposed the developer’s request to re-zone the land from agricultural to residential.

“We all worked together,” Shirley said. “At times, there were 40 neighbors who showed up to a zoning board meeting. We all wore bright green stickers that said, ‘Preserve farmland.’ When the elected officials saw the community support to keep this as farmland, it worked. It wasn’t easy, but we did it. The fact that we stood up for farmland protection here in our township shows that other people can do it. By bringing all our voices together to make one big voice, we can keep farmland as farmland.”

“When I look out there now, I see a beautiful field of corn,” she added, looking toward the neighboring farm. “I’m so happy to say that is still farmland.”

Shirley and her neighbors used research reports from American Farmland Trust to make the case for farmland protection. “When we talked with elected officials, we shared American Farmland Trust’s research on farmland loss and ‘cost of community services’ studies to back up our points,” she said. “I donate to American Farmland Trust because I think AFT has the right vision for farmland, and that is to keep it in the hands of farmers.”

Shirley’s foresight enabled her to see that if her neighbor’s farm was lost to development, her farm and the other farms nearby would be at greater risk.

“When I was a kid, I saw the development start to happen,” Shirley said. “As people retired or passed away, these farms were being sold to developers. The county built a road that runs diagonally through what used to be my dad’s very best field. Now it’s much harder for my renting farmer to plant and harvest the field.”

“The traffic has increased,” she added. “I said to myself, ‘We can’t keep developing farmland.’ First of all, we’ve got to feed the world. And second of all, we need to maintain the livelihood of Illinois. This is an agricultural area. How are we going to keep jobs in agriculture if we give away all the land?”

Shirley made the decision to leave her family farm to American Farmland Trust in her will, under the condition that American Farmland Trust will permanently protect the land.

“Shirley understands how important it is to pay it forward by protecting her land for future generations and supporting American Farmland Trust’s work, now and into the future,” said Jerry Cosgrove, director of American Farmland Trust’s Farm Legacy program, which works to keep land in farming as it transitions to the next generation.

“I’ve decided that this farm is the line where development stops. We need farms. We need agricultural production,” Shirley said.

“I want to put this farm in an agricultural conservation easement in perpetuity, and by donating my farm to American Farmland Trust, I am making sure the easement will be in place. I understand that American Farmland Trust may sell the land to another farmer in the future, but whoever buys it will know they can’t subdivide it for development, and that’s what is important to me.”

Like the seedling oak tree that will someday grow tall, Shirley’s legacy will last for generations to come.

“There have been quite a few changes in this area since my childhood,” Shirley said. “But when I stand here next to my Mighty Oak, I see the things that have not changed. I look at the barn and the chicken house and the farmhouse and think, ‘This is the farm where I grew up.’ It has the feeling of my childhood. It’s the same special place. And it gives me peace of mind that I’m partnering with American Farmland Trust to ensure that this farm will always stay a farm.”

Giving a family farm or ranch to the Farm Legacy program ensures the land’s long-term protection and availability for farming while supporting American Farmland Trust’s mission. To learn more about our Farm Legacy program, click here.

Note: This story was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of American Farmland Trust’s member newsletter. To learn more about becoming a member and supporting AFT’s work, please click here.