Illinois is known for many things – the Land of Lincoln, City of Big Shoulders, home to Superman, the Chicago Bears, Cubs and White Sox, and the list goes on. Agriculture is a major economic driver and 85 percent of the Prairie State is covered in fields, most which grow corn. However, there are some agriculture producers that have branched out in new and interesting ways.
What do you do with fertile soil in the wet Mississippi River bottoms of southern Illinois?
In the early 1900s, the Gerard family farmed on an island near Cairo in far southern Illinois. They grew wheat and alfalfa, but as the levee system increased in size, so did the flooding. When the river is high, water literally comes up out of the ground.
It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention” and Blake Gerard, a Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative member, knew he had to come up with a way to make a living from the land other than corn, which needs drainage. “We wondered what in the world we would do. We didn’t have crop insurance back then. I thought, this is absurd, I have to find something that will grow in water,” says Gerard. “I thought about growing fish, but it doesn’t work here. Then, the river showed me how to take something that was my nemesis and turn it into my friend.”
That is how Gerard discovered the perfect grain to grow in soggy conditions – rice.
About 20 years ago, he and partner Jim Crain began by growing seed rice and started their own seed company, River Bend Rice, located in Cairo. They are the northernmost growers in the Midwest on the fringe of how far north rice can be grown due to seasons and temperatures.
They transformed around 1,000-1,500 acres of fertile farmland into a rice levee system, which are water control structures. The fields are slightly sloped to hold water about 4 inches deep on one side and 2 inches on the other. The agronomic principles are similar to other crops. They converted farm machinery to run on tracks due to the wet ground, and the growing season starts around April 1 or whenever the ground reaches 50 degrees.
Harvesting rice is similar to that of corn or soybeans. Once the grains are harvested, it goes to the facility in Cairo to be dried, cleaned, packaged and shipped down the river.
Gerard always wanted to have his own brand. Bob Butcher, a friend, discovered a high-protein rice being developed at Louisiana State University (LSU) which is not genetically-modified. The grain was developed through traditional breeding with no foreign genes or DNA inserted.
The university discovered a heritage strain of rice that had naturally-occurring higher protein and crossed it with a traditional variety with good cooking characteristics and milling properties, similar to a Cypress variety that was in high demand in Latin America. Gerard, Crain and Butcher bought the marketing rice from LSU and have been growing it on 150 acres for the past few years.
They named the new product Cahokia Rice because of the history of the Cahokia tribe of Native Americans who farmed in the area generations ago.
Gerard says the high protein rice has been popular. Typical table rice has 33 grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of protein; an 11-1 ratio. It’s starchy and causes a blood sugar response, so you need to eat meat with it to reduce the glycemic response. Cahokia Rice still has 33 grams of carbs, but with its 6 grams of protein, it changes the ratio to 6-1, which reduces the blood sugar response. That’s a big deal for diabetics.
Cahokia Rice was first sold in January 2018. They have one employee who markets the brand and are actively seeking a distributor in order to have it in grocery stores. Word has gotten out among restaurants and the university school system. “Illinois State University and others have picked us up,” Gerard explains. “Universities tend to like the protein content because many students are self-conscious about what they eat, and many eat vegetarian or vegan. Chefs told me Cahokia Rice is a good fit for them because they are always looking for ways to add protein to things they are already serving. There are others selling high protein rice, but it’s an additive, not part of the kernel itself, like ours.”
The rice is being used in dishes at several Illinois eateries including American Harvest, Springfield; Epiphany Farms, Bloomington; Firefly Grill, Effingham; and Blue Sky Vineyard, Makanda. It can currently be purchased at some County Market stores, Dierbergs, Arnold’s Market or online at www.cahokiarice.com.
Check out the Finest Cooking pages to find recipes made with Cahokia Rice.
In 2000, Grover Webb, a SouthEastern Illinois Electric Cooperative member and native Pope County farmer with a taste for innovation, started the first freshwater shrimp (also known as prawns) farm in Illinois. Webb, wife Shirley, and brother, Richard, are partners in Tanglefoot Ranch which consists of 950 acres of corn, soybeans, sheep, beef cattle, hi-tunnels that house tomatoes and raspberries, peaches, pumpkins and freshwater shrimp.
“We were looking for a different type of ag enterprise and discovered that as far as temperature, we have a good location,” says Webb. “We also have a clay soil here that holds water, so it was easy to build the ponds we needed. We first looked at raising catfish, but we didn’t have enough warm days, the necessary water supply and it was going to be a large expense to feed them.”
The State of Illinois Alternative Agricultural loan program, administered by the Illinois Treasurer’s office, enabled them to start the prawn enterprise.
Each spring, the Webbs prepare two 5,000-gallon heated water tanks in Richard’s basement. It is about a three-week process to fill the tanks, get the water pH right and aerate to remove chlorine. They travel to Texas to pick up around 60,000 post-larval shrimp, each about the size of a gnat. “That’s the joke,” says Grover. “You’ve got to trust people in this business because they deliver about 60,000 of them in a bag that probably weighs about a pound and a half. You can barely see them.”
They have less than 24 hours to get them home and introduced into the tanks. The Webbs also operate a regional prawn nursery that helps supply six to 10 other growers from surrounding states with juveniles for their ponds.
What juveniles remain are divided among the farm’s three ponds once the water has reached 70 degrees. The prawns are placed in the clean aerated ponds, which are closely monitored for water quality. Using a four-wheeler, they blow pelleted cattle feed across the ponds with a leaf blower.
“Shrimp are bottom-feeders and eat what rots and sinks to the bottom,” he explains. “By feeding them the cattle feed, which sinks, they have a cleaner flavor. Before harvest, we stop feeding for a couple of days to help reduce the size of the mud vein, which gives them a fresher taste.”
Prawns grow by molting, as many as 40 times, before reaching full size at around 120 days. They closely watch the water temperature as September rolls around because they need to begin harvest before the water drops below 60 degrees. When harvest begins, the ponds are drained and the shrimp are caught as they exit through a pipe in fresh water. They are processed by removing the heads and “within an hour and a half of swimming in the pond, they are being frozen,” says Webb.
In an average year, they produce between 1,500-2,000 pounds of prawns. There are approximately 10-12 per pound and are sold frozen in 2-pound bags. The shrimp are available from Tanglefoot Farm, year-round, and can also be found at the Golconda Shrimp Festival, held the third Saturday of September.
For more information about visiting the farm or buying products, visit Tanglefoot Ranch on Facebook, call 618-695-2640 or visit tanglefootranch.com.
Along a country road just a hop, skip and a jump from Monticello stands Lieb Farm. As you approach, you may see livestock looming in a pack in the distance. As you get closer, you discover these large, shaggy giants are not cattle but bison.
Lieb Farm has around 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans in both Eastern Illini Electric and Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative territories. However, for the past 20 years, its most interesting “crop” has been its herd of bison.
It was the late Terry Lieb’s desire to raise bison, and his sons, Jake and Josh, continue that tradition to pay homage to their father.
According to Jake, it was his father’s passion for history and the old West that fueled his interest in the animals. He wanted to return bison to the land they roamed 200 years ago. The wild gene has not been bred out of their bison.
“As a bison producer, we take pride in keeping the herd as pure as we can. It’s the bison producers’ creed to let them breed naturally,” says Jake. “We don’t select the winners and losers. It’s Mother Nature that does that. Basically, the biggest, baddest, strongest bulls do the breeding. That results in the tough ones passing on their genetics.”
As far as the differences between raising cattle and bison, infrastructure must be stronger. “Everything is heavier, taller, stronger,” says Jake. “You can’t force them to do anything. If you approach a cow in a corral, nine times out of 10 it will feel that pressure and turn away from you. A bison will square off and paw the ground as if to say, ‘go ahead, bring it on.’ If its tail goes up in the air, you’d better get out of there fast.”
Josh says the bison are usually fine in the 60-acre pasture and can often be found running laps. “We are always mindful of them when entering the pasture; they are wild animals and we’re in their home. They are inquisitive and will often find us, even when we are working on the other side of the pasture. It’s when we have them in a corral, and they don’t have any room to escape, that their ‘fight or flight’ instinct kicks in. That’s when it gets dangerous. The corral is made of power poles and highway guardrail, and they make every attempt to get out.”
“Just a couple of weeks ago, I had to jump the fence to get away from one,” says Jake. “Our goal is to not hurt them or ourselves in the process, and so far, we’ve been successful.”
The bison are grass-fed, and the Liebs bale the grass in the summer to feed them in the winter. Everything they consume comes from the land. There is a creek where the bison usually water, but when it freezes, there is a heated tank that provides water for the herd.
Bison are naturally healthy animals and rarely sick. They calve in May without any additional help usually necessary with cattle. In winter, they have a heavy coat which they shed in warmer weather. At full size, bison may weigh 1,300-1,400 pounds. Josh says they are quick on their feet and could easily jump the fence, if desired, but if content they stay. The Liebs have never had a problem with them leaving the pasture.
Currently, the Liebs have 42 bison but expect another 18 in May. The animals are processed in a USDA-inspected facility in Eureka, which is certified to handle wild game. Selling the meat is a secondary source of income. Bison is healthier than beef with less fat and cholesterol and higher in protein. Josh says the meat doesn’t have the gamey flavor of most wild animals.
The Liebs provide the meat to local restaurants and a food cooperative in Champaign. Otherwise, all meat is sold from their farm. They don’t ship it due to the added expense and their prices are reasonable, around $8.50 per pound, compared to most stores. Visitors from surrounding states come purchase their meat and the Liebs have no desire to increase the size of their herd.
“Raising bison isn’t for everyone,” says Jake. “But the rewards are worth it. We take pride in seeing these animals back in their natural environment. It’s pretty cool to see them in the pasture when the grass is tall and the wind is blowing. I think dad would be proud.”
For more information about Lieb Farms go to www.liebfarms.com. For bison meat, call 217-762-9277.