A revitalized farm property is bringing new life to rural north-central Illinois.
Members of Willow Springs Mennonite Church in Tiskilwa began a project called Hungry World Farm toward the end of 2017. The farm will educate people about sustainable food production, nutrition and creation care with the intent to facilitate conversations about the kingdom of God.
“There’s the recognition that as humans, all of us have hungers in our life — hunger for food, hunger for relationships, and a deep spiritual hunger as well,” said Cal Zehr, pastor of Willow Springs. “The workers and volunteers on the farm own that vision — that the deeper life is going to involve walking with the Lord and working for the kingdom.”
Zehr envisioned the idea as a way to continue the Christian witness already associated with the 175-acre property.
In 1971, members of Reba Place Fellowship, a Mennonite intentional community on the north side of Chicago, purchased the property and began a similar community called Plow Creek Fellowship. Plow Creek became famous for its produce, selling fruit and vegetables at farmers markets and welcoming visitors to pick their own strawberries and blueberries.
Plow Creek members formed their own congregation and sought to imitate the sharing of life and resources as described in Acts 2-4. Several members lived in fellowship-owned housing on the farm property and in town. Up to 100 people sometimes joined in worship and shared meals.
Fewer than 20 members remained in 2017. They decided to close Plow Creek and transfer the property to a Christian organization.
“It was only a year ago that this Hungry World Farm was just an idea,” Zehr said.
Together with others from Willow Springs, he formed a steering committee for Hungry World Farm and obtained not-for-profit status at the end of 2017.
Part of God’s work
As the new farm season begins, work has started to maintain the operation.
Stephan Rauh of Metamora, Ill., began work as lead produce farmer in February. Although he didn’t grow up on a farm, he gained an interest in food production and distribution as a biology student at Wheaton (Ill.) College and while volunteering at a food pantry in Elkhart, Ind., with Mennonite Voluntary Service. Since then, he has had experiences with various farms and related organizations.
Rauh said he resonated with Hungry World Farm’s mission.
“This is about wholeness, well-being, shalom, right relationship,” he said. “We’re wanting to invite others into the consideration of what it looks like to be participating in God’s work of redeeming, restoring, reconciling, making relationships right.”
Plans for produce include “you pick” times during peak berry seasons, sales at the local farmers market, a small community-supported agriculture produce subscription program and sales to restaurants in the Peoria, Ill., area, about an hour south of the farm.
“I’m trying to start the production recognizing the broader work that needs to be done with Hungry World Farm,” Rauh said. “We’re trying to be conservative in what we do our first year.”
While produce will be grown using standards above and beyond those required for organic certification, the farm is not currently pursuing the status but may do so in the future.
Some of the members of Plow Creek who had worked on the farm are continuing to volunteer with produce, gardening and small livestock.
Those who have remained in the area have integrated themselves into the Willow Springs church community, which sees around 50 people on a Sunday.
“Willow Springs has been enhanced because of Plow Creek people engaging in worship,” Zehr said, acknowledging the difficulty experienced by Plow Creek members who lost their congregation. “Out of that struggle, there’s definitely some newness for Willow Springs, and newness for Hungry World Farm coming together.”
The farm project has attracted the attention of people in the agriculture-dominated area, including people who might not usually be drawn to a church. Although he has been pastor at Willow Springs for more than 26 years and has built many relationships in the town of fewer than 800 people, Zehr said that because of Hungry World Farm he’s had conversations with people he had never met before.
“There’s not a new church being formed, . . . [but] it’s a witness as a mission outpost of the kingdom,” he said.
Hungry World Farm is 55 percent self-supporting and seeks the remaining support from grants and donations. Donations can be sent to Hungry World Farm, P.O. Box 386, Tiskilwa, IL 61368 or made online at hungryworldfarm.com.
Rachel Stella was a member of Plow Creek Fellowship.
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