For Louie Donnell, the family farm near Shelbyville isn’t just where he grew up – generations before him grew up there as well.
The family has the state’s designation as a Sesquicentennial farm and retains the land purchase documents signed by U.S. Presidents Martin Van Buren, James Polk and Zachary Taylor.
Today, keeping the farm in the family has meant agreements not to sell and expanding from corn and soybeans to organic produce and a winery. “It just brings a lot of pride to us,” Donnell says. “Our grandkids are now living in that house and that makes the sixth generation in our family to live on that farm.”
Since the 1970s, Illinois has registered more than 600 Sesquicentennial and more than 9,000 Centennial farms, says Delayne Reeves, program coordinator with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Roadside signs also provide visibility for the farms that remain family owned. It’s part of the state’s efforts to retain the farming heritage and show pride in the family farm. “Many families have faced many hardships to hold on to the land and pass it down to their children and grandchildren,” Reeves says.
Pride is key for many of the farmers who register with the program. Willard Carroll signed up after the four Stark County farms in his family all passed the centennial mark. He gathered up documents showing how the farms had been passed down and had them verified. All owners have to be able to trace themselves back to one common ancestor.
He hopes the signs erected on his land that designate his farm as a centennial farm give passersby more of a connection to the land and an understanding that families still own it. He also wants to pass down to his grandson ways to “keep the soil in place instead of letting it wash down the creek,” and keep the land producing as it has for more than 100 years.
His great-grandfather was a country doctor and bought the first parcels. They’ve worked hard to keep it in the family. “We’re conservative people, watch our profitability, make sure we have enough for payroll for another year and keep up with the machinery and so forth,” Carroll says. Keeping the land in the Donnell family has meant recent crop diversification.
Donnell and his wife, Tina, started growing grapes as a hobby on some pasture land a few years ago. Now Willow Ridge Winery near Shelbyville is packed on holiday weekends.
He wants to pass on to his children the connection he feels to the land and to his past. His daughter has started an organic produce business on a few acres making weekly deliveries of ripe veggies throughout the area. The grapes and produce are more labor intensive, but Donnell says they face the same issues of rainfall, diseases and insects as with row crops. “That crop diversity will help keep it together in the future,” he says.
How to Apply
Find an application at: www.agr.state.il.us/marketing/centfarms
• Farms must be in the same family for 100 or 150 years
• Title companies, lawyers, or a County Recorder of Deeds must verify the documents
• An agriculture property must have been owned by the same family of lineal or collateral descendants