Chicago Area Farmers Struggle to Keep Land

January 8, 2013 08:33 PM
Chicago Area Farmers Struggle to Keep Land

Family’s biggest fear drives success

Many know the Hayden family of Lake County, Ind., for their involvement in Farm Bureau and 4-H and for helping host Ag Awareness Days. Susie Hayden, who has never lived more than five miles from where she does now, farms with her husband, Jerry, and two of her sons, Matt (40) and Bobby (26). They are the faces behind Eagle Rock Farm and together they farm 4,000 acres on the outskirts of Chicago, Ill.

The Haydens own 500 of the 4,000 acres and run a primarily corn-soybean rotation with some wheat. In making it all happen year after year, they work with more than 20 different landlords in a 10-mile radius.

Farmland in the area is assessed at $1,630 per acre, according to the Lake County Assessor’s Office. Farmland in the county gives way to development as more people move to or need quick access to the Chicago market. Getting and keeping ground is really competitive, Jerry notes. "Some of our landlords track the markets and have a good idea of what’s going on, while others take a more hands-off approach," he says. "You have to learn to manage both styles and keep everyone happy. There’s no book for that."

"You have to learn to
manage both styles and
keep everyone happy.
There’s no book for that."

The Haydens go out of their way to keep landlords pleased by mowing the roadsides, investing in the fields by making sure soil nutrient levels are replenished, and being good stewards. Jerry explains that some tenants, knowing it’s a competitive market, come in for a short run but don’t make the investments to keep fields in good condition.

Chicago now stands as the third largest urban agglomeration in the world in land area, trailing only New York and Tokyo. The Chicago urban area covers more land than Los Angeles, Calif. The 2010 census shows Chicago’s population has grown at an annual rate of 3.9% since 2000, which is below average. However, Chicago’s outer suburbs grew at an annual rate of 16.5%. The suburbs continue to sprawl and eat up acres of farmland.

Development Not All Bad. Many businesses and service-oriented companies are located on the perimeter of Chicago. This allows them access not only to customers and a strong work force, but many modes of transportation. They can move goods in and out by water, rail and interstate. One of these businesses, Cargill, operates several facilities in the region.

The Haydens have contracted with Cargill for nearly 20 years, growing high-starch, food-grade corn. "It yields about the same as dent corn," Jerry says. As part of the contract, they store and deliver the corn throughout the week to a Hammond, Ind., plant, where it is ground for cornstarch and syrup. They recently switched to a schedule where they deliver Monday through Friday from 7 to 10 a.m. In return, they receive a nice premium.

Located right off Interstate 65 and 30 miles from the plant, they can easily make the trek. "Even with transportation and storage costs, it just makes sense for us," Jerry says. They own four semis to haul grain year-round. In 1999, they purchased a 60,000-bu.-capacity grain storage  facility and have since added three new bins for a total capacity of 220,000 bu.

Most recently, the family added a new truck scale and scale room for the 2012 growing season. "This makes it really easy to track grain, manage inventory, print out tickets and keep records," says Bobby, who lives on-site and has been farming fulltime for seven years.

"Each truck has a bar code. When a truck pulls on the scales, we scan its bar code and the software keeps track of the loads moving in and out," he says. Everything is synchronized; when a grain sample is provided, the system stores test weight, moisture and the appropriate field. The new setup helps the family better manage its 20 landlords.

In addition to providing Cargillwith high-starch corn, the Haydens grow dent corn, which is delivered to an ethanol plant nearby, and wheat, which is delivered to Cargill at the Port of Indiana on Lake Michigan. "These facilities can always do better than our country elevator on a basis level," Susie says. "One farmer in Rochester only gets a 30¢ premium. In a way, we’re blessed by our location, even though we have concerns about encroachment."

The family plans to farm as long as they can. Top of mind for Susie is setting up a succession plan to transfer the farm. "The hardest part is we want to be fair; two of our sons are active in the day-to-day farm operation, and we have a son and daughter who have other careers."

If the family is one day no longer able to farm because of encroachment, they don’t intend to leave ag. "We’re open to options such as creating an agritourism facility," Susie says. "However, it has to be worthwhile to stop the combine for a pumpkin patch. As we lose ground, we have increased opportunity to teach people why it’s important to keep it, and that’s important, too."

A glance at Eagle Rock Farm

Jerry and Susie Hayden began farming in 1972 with 200 acres. They have built Eagle Rock Farm from the ground up and now farm with two of their sons, Matt and Bobby. Matt is responsible for the purchase and application of all crop protection products and Bobby is responsible for seed selection and planting.


  • 4,000 acres
  • Own 500 acres
  • Rent 3,500 acres


  • High-starch corn
  • Dent con
  • Wheat


  • 60 miniature Herefords


Integrity…we make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.

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