Beginning Farmer of the Year

Beginning Farmer of the Year Award


Angelic Organics Learning Center and the Upper Midwest CRAFT farmer alliance launched the Beginning Farmer of the Year and Mentor Farmer of the Year awards in 2013 in order to celebrate and promote the individuals who are entering sustainable farming and the experienced farmers in regional farmer alliances who generously mentor the beginning farmers. The winner of this award selects the Mentor Farmer of the Year, honoring an experienced farmer who generously provided mentoring at some time during their first ten years of startup.  Beginning in 2016, these awards have been sponsored by the collaborating Farmer Alliances in Routes to Farm, serving beginning farmers across the greater Chicago foodshed.


Award Details
How to Nominate (Eligibility & Selection Criteria)

Voting begins on October 15th and will run until November 1st, 2021!

This poll is no longer accepting votes

Choose a farmer!

2021 Nominees

The Land Connection

Colleen Ruhter


My name is Colleen Ruhter. I am a professional engineer, but my true passion is sustainable farming. I grew up on a small farm. Though I spent years trying to get away from it, I eventually rediscovered my desire to grow my own food.


In 2014, my family moved to Illinois after years on the East Coast. We wanted to be closer to family, to help my in-laws with their bison farm, and to start a homestead. Three years later, we attended The Land Connection’s Beginning Farmers class. My husband Jeremy and I learned about the business side of farming, while also researching and growing our farm plans. That Little Farm in the Country was born.


We always enjoyed the pork from our homestead pigs, but not what they did to our pastures. They rooted badly, while still eating about ten pounds of feed each day! Then we heard about Idaho Pasture Pigs (IPPs), which are known for grazing grass, minimal grain input, minimal rooting, and a friendly demeaner. It sounded too good to be true. But it wasn’t! We got our first IPP feeder pigs, and soon after drove 22 hours to get breeder piglets from Jodi Cronauer at White Bison Farm, who oversees the IPP Registry. Jodi has been our best farm mentor. She has proved us with so much help and guidance on the care, breeding, selling, and marketing of these amazing pigs. As a registered IPP breeder, we sell high-quality piglets so others can enjoy raising these wonderful animals. Our pigs have been purchased by other farmers in six states! Now into our fourth year with IPPs, we will never raise another breed of pigs.


And what’s the point of pigs? Pork!


IPP pork is NOT the other white meat. The iron in their grass consumption gives the pork a deep red color and an amazing taste. Because grass is approximately three-quarters of their diet, our IPPs receive only about three pounds of non-GMO feed daily. This is a much more affordable and a much more sustainable way to raise pigs!


While our love for our IPPs runs deep, we also raise hens and meat chickens on pasture as well. The yolks of our eggs are deep yellow and so is the fat in our meat. The beta carotene from eating grass contributes to the nutrition in the products we sell. This provides a healthier, yet absolutely delicious diet for customers. Our goal is to produce food people can feel good about eating while creating a healthier environment, animals, and community.


Not only are we passionate about our animals, we are also passionate about building our community. We love to see the joy on our customers’ faces as we describe our meat, how our animals are raised, and how delicious our products are. Customers can’t wait to take our products home to try for themselves, and regularly return for more of our delicious food. Most of the folks in our little town of Sidney, Illinois know about our pigs and how much we care about them! It turns out Sidney cares about us, too. The community provided us with over 500 pumpkins, gourds, and squash last fall that our IPPs happily ate until Christmas, after we posted a request on Facebook.


We also offer advice to piglet customers and non-customers alike. The IPP community all across the country knows that That Little Farm cares about others’ success at raising these pigs. Due to the high demand for our piglets, we now have a waiting list for future litters.


In years past, we shared a booth with Ruhter Bison at the Urbana Market at the Square. This year, we decided to get our own booth. This helped our sales increase by a factor of about ten! We hope to double our sales next year, by increasing the number of animals we raise, including expanding our offerings to include lamb and turkeys. Additionally, we hope to create an on-farm store in the near future, ultimately providing our customers easier access to our products.


We also raise and sell mealworms to homesteaders feeding their own flocks, wild birds, pets, or even as fishing bait. Mealworm frass is also sold for fertilizer as a value-added product.


Aside from our animals and their value-added products, our farm also offers hand-made tools (like mealworm sifting trays, and a lever used to easily remove the wheels of a chicken tractor without help) and other one-of-a-kind merchandise. Our very own IPP logo was created last year when I realized there was no IPP merchandise available. The stickers were an instant success. Since then, I branched out to include shirts, hats, and more. We have since added other farm-themed designs to the online store with a goal of helping other farmers express their passions in fun and unique ways.


I am really proud of how happy all our customers are. I’m overjoyed when we get a photo of someone’s bumper sticker or t-shirt, an update on a pig, or when people brag about how great the meal they made was. We even once had a self-proclaimed vegetarian buy bacon for her son, and came back raving about how good SHE thought our bacon was, and how SHE had to have more!


All along this journey, we have tried to show our customers how much we care. From our newsletters and Facebook updates, to our hand-calligraphed thank you notes, we hope everyone can feel our passion for this life and our farm as we happily share our stories, photos, and food!


Winning this award would hopefully move That Little Farm past the tipping point so many farms struggle with. The money would help us expand, while the publicity would help us gain potential customers; propelling us past that point where the farm is big enough and well-known enough to sustain sales and create a profitable platform that makes the years of so much hard work and caring worthwhile.

Angelic Organics Learning Center

Vanessa Quiñones


Victory Garden Farm (VGF) sits on 5 beautiful acres in Fredonia, WI. VGF’s mission is to raise high quality, nutrient dense food using sustainable, organic farming methods with a specific focus on heirloom produce and heritage animal breeds. Ever since its inception in 2015, the farm has secured multiple certifications, with a clear and continuing commitment to sustainable and organic practices. VGF is USDA-Certified Organic through Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), and certified Animal Welfare Approved through A Greener World.


Vanessa Quiñones, the dynamic owner-operator of VGF, joined the farmer training community in 2014 as a Stateline Farm BeginningsⓇ participant. She started with some field experience and a farm dream. Since completing the course, Vanessa’s accomplishments are abundant. She built her farm business completely debt-free and VGF has increased profits each year. The farm operates a successful farm store, with its products having been featured on many local restaurant menus. Quiñones understands the need to pivot and the viability of her farm has strengthened in just a few short years. This year, despite the constraints of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, VGF doubled in size and hired its first two employees. Her latest accomplishment? Vanessa went on vacation at the end of the 2021 growing season – something all farmers know as a feat to behold.


Vanessa is an excellent role model to beginning farmers. She uses her experiences and accomplishments as an opportunity to give back to others and embodies leadership in the community. At the height of the COVID pandemic, when many farmers were struggling to restructure to meet increased demand, Vanessa launched the first REKO ring in the state of Wisconsin as a way to partner with and support other local producers and feed her community. Her impact came full circle when she returned to in Stateline Farm BeginningsⓇ in 2021 as a farmer panelist and a mentor to a current program participant and aspiring farmer.


Vanessa masterfully balances her passion with the realities of the unforgiving trade. When asked, what advice do you wish you would have listened to in pursuing your farm dream? Vanessa says: “Start small! Do not take on too many enterprises at once.” Great advice from a farmer who has learned to roll with the punches.

Advocates for Urban Agriculture

Kwamena Jackson


If someone had told me I’d be a farming activist in Chicago ten years ago, nominated for an award, I would surely have given them an odd look. Even with me being from rural, hill country Texas, I probably would not have accepted that reality then. In the past 7 years of me living in Chicago I’ve realized that this is exactly where I’m meant to be. An affinity to food has always been my lane and my vocation to it has evolved over the years. It threw me off a bit to be asked why I deserve this award honestly because I never asked for any of this. I’ve just been following my passion like my daddy told me to and allowing for my intuition to guide me. When I voluntarily took a break from the restaurant industry it was with the intention to dive into another realm of food. I wanted to see the source. I was fortunate to be able to work in world-renowned restaurants and was inspired by the locally sourced produce we’d bring in weekly. Once I began volunteering at Chicago Patchwork and Catatumbo Farms it was quite clear to me that I had seeds to plant for visions of collective liberation. My involvement with the #LetUsBreathe Collective and Sunflower Soule Farm provided me a platform and literal space to sow and watch these seeds grow. What has blossomed has purely been a reflection of the love and support poured into me by tribe and community. I deserve this because we deserve this. There would be no farmer version of me without community and it has always been my desire to share my successes with those that trusted me and my vision. I deserve this because my vision for liberation includes centering all marginalized voices especially black, queer and trans femme. We deserve this because our close knit tribe and partnering organizations in and around Chicagoland have been doing the true work of prioritizing our relationship to self, each other and the land. My nomination would not have been possible without the effort put into relationship building. My efforts would also not be possible without the selfless sacrifices of my mother who has recently transitioned into ancestorhood. All my abilities to gracefully show up for community have been because she was the most beautiful steward of life and my first mentor on how to cultivate this garden of existence. She deserves to see the fruit of her labor even though I am devastated she won’t experience it earthside. I wish I could have given her the flowers she deserves while she was here and I will spend my life growing gardens of them in her and her granddaughter’s name. This is just the beginning of what I feel like could be a sustainable and replenishing journey. The journey will continue with or without the award. Thank you for the consideration and I hope everyone reading this recognizes that I am just mirroring them and our dreams for the future.

Illinois Stewardship Alliance

Christine Johnson


Christine has seen all the ups and downs of breaking into a career in farming. When she had to abandon her first urban farm after three years, she regrouped, she persisted, and she came back stronger with a new farm founded along with two lifelong girlfriends. Christine’s tenacity, her passion, and her commitment to supporting other farmers is what makes her an outstanding candidate for Beginning Farmer of the Year.


At first, Christine set out to make the world a healthier place through the law. But when she realized that wasn’t the right fit, she decided she could pursue her dreams through farming. She launched an urban farm in Chicago that would supply folks with local, healthy, seasonal produce that they may not have access to while also working to tip the scale of our food system to be in a better balance.


She didn’t come from a farming family so as a first generation farmer, the challenges were relentless. There were obvious ones, like access to land and capital, but there were other barriers too– like lack of access to crop insurance to protect her farm from disasters and a system that was designed to benefit big businesses instead of helping small businesses thrive. At the end of three years of farming, she felt alone and exhausted.


She found work elsewhere, but her heart continued to call her back to the land. After being laid off from her job in the food industry during the pandemic, she got a second chance at farming – and she couldn’t pass it up. With two of her oldest friends, they decided that together, they would feed themselves and the community when they needed it most.


In 2020, the trio founded Wild Trillium Farm, a sustainable farm that grows vegetables, flowers and herbs with the intention to leave the Earth healthier than it was before. The farm is a partnership with Natural Farm Stand in Richmond.


Christine was determined that this second chance at farming would be different. She knows that a network and relationships with other farmers will keep her career in agriculture sustainable. Afterhours on the farm, she helped launch a new chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, the Northern Illinois Young Farmers chapter. She also volunteered for Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s Local Food Farmer Caucus, a new network to bring farmers together, discuss the issues and opportunities facing their farms, and work on solutions. Right away Christine saw the value. It was exactly what she had been missing.


She not only joined the Caucus, she decided to lead it. In 2020, Christine put forward her name as a potential leader for the group. Later the Caucus voted to approve Christine as the Co-Chair, trusting her to guide the Caucus forward and provide leadership as the group finds its footing. Christine helps by facilitating quarterly meetings, setting and approving agendas, serving on policy subcommittees to advance our legislative campaigns and works with her fellow Co-Chair to brainstorm new ideas to build a robust culture for the group that is rooted in farmers supporting one another.


Christine has continued to engage in advocacy around systemic food policy issues by speaking at a press conference for Representative Lauren Underwood’s Farmers Fighting Climate Change Act, hosting a roundtable conversation on her farm with Rep. Underwood and other area local food producers to talk about issues and solutions that can support local food farmers, and serves on Rep. Underwood’s Agriculture Advisory Committee to help inform federal policy changes that support farmers in her district.


Christine also worked with the Alliance to host a Summer Shindig on her farm to bring area Alliance members together to celebrate the past year’s work with food, farm tours and socializing. Christine also continues to serve as the Chapter leader of the Northern IL Young Farmers Coalition where she hosts or facilitates educational events, social meetups and farm tours for members.


This year, Christine alongside her business partners are mentoring a young farmer through the Stateline Farm Beginnings program. Additionally, part of her business model on the farm includes donating produce and monetary funds through the farm’s Community Share to local food markets and food banks. This season, Christine’s farm has donated over 1000 lbs of produce to Food Not Bombs Humboldt Park through the initiative.


Christine remains dedicated to growing healthy food for her community while supporting beginning farmers as they pursue their own farm dreams. All of these efforts show that despite the limited amount of extra time as a farmer, Christine prioritizes building relationships and supporting the people around her.


You can find out more about Christine and her farm by visiting

2020 Beginning Farmer of the Year


Angelic Organics Learning Center

Dulce Morales

I’m Dulce Morales, manager of Cedillo’s Fresh Produce urban farm in Chicago with my husband and business co-founder, Juan Cedillo. Since 2017, Cedillo’s Fresh Produce (CFP) has grown and sold a wide variety of locally and organically grown vegetables at community-based farmers markets in south Chicago. I lead our farm’s marketing and outreach.


Cedillo’s Fresh Produce began our operation in 2017 at Angelic Organics Learning Center’s Eat to Live incubator farm in Englewood. We market our vegetables through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets. In 2019, we sold 15 CSA shares and at 6 different markets but shifted to sell 30 CSA shares this year in response to coronavirus, because we worried that many markets wouldn’t open. Our CSA shares sold out within 2 weeks, proving demand for their food is growing, and we will still sell at 2 farmers markets. We also coordinate volunteers and production at the Princeton Street community garden, which is located directly across the street from the incubator farm.


Part of our success is due to the fact that CFP intentionally grows food for African-American and Mexican communities who live in our local neighborhoods. Local residents have historically only had access to foods detrimental to their physical health, at supermarkets selling vegetables shipped in from other places. CFP wants to ensure everyone has access to delicious, locally-grown organic produce. We’ve seen demand for our vegetables continue to grow and often are tagged on social media by many of our excited CSA customers when they cook with our produce. We’re excited to see how people utilize our produce and also how happy they are with the freshness of our vegetables.


We currently sell at Plant Chicago, at Davis Square Park and we’re also active in establishing new markets. We’ve worked closely with the Jardineros de la Villita Coalition for the past two years to establish a new farmers market in Chicago’s primary Mexican neighborhood, La Villita. CFP will be one of 6 farmers to offer fresh, organic and locally grown produce in this neighborhood for the first time this summer.


A big part of the incubating experience is about sharing knowledge, resources, and even helping hands when necessary. Cedillo’s Fresh Produce has benefited from what others have shared, and we’re now at the point of paying it forward. We participated in Advocates for Urban Agriculture’s Farmers Mentorship Program, which was a grant program designed to pair up farmers with a few years’ experience with brand new farmers. Within this program, we were able to share our experience growing for African American and Mexican communities with Catatumbo Co-op, a new farming cooperative with a similar mission. It was a wonderful experience where we could turn around and offer similar help that we’ve received from Angelic Organics Learning Center, Windy City Harvest and Plant Chicago to other beginning farmers.


It would be a great honor to win Routes to Farm’s Beginning Farmer of the Year award. We are passionate about farming and growing organic produce, and are equally passionate about supporting lower income communities with fresh, healthy food, especially in difficult times like these. If I’m honest, there are times we neglect our own needs in order to fulfil our life’s passion. This award will raise visibility of our farm within the community to help us increase business, which will in turn help us support our family. Whether working at the Eat to Live incubator farm or at the Princeton Street community garden, we are dedicated to being an oasis of fresh organic food for our neighbors and fellow low income community members. Thank you so much for your vote.

2019 Beginning Farmer of the Year


Illinois Stewardship Alliance

Mariah and Greg Anderson

Triple M Farms: Mariah's Mums & More

2018 Beginning Farmer of the Year


Upper Midwest CRAFT

Yoram Shanan

Sandbox Organics