Born in rural Poland, Karolina Kowalczyk of Blacksmith Acres has a deep love for growing and preparing beautiful, delicious, and healthy foods. Having completed the Stateline Farm Beginnings course through the Angelic Organics Learning Center in the spring of 2018, she was ready to take her lifelong passion for gardening to the next level and become an organic vegetable grower that summer.
Finding land and starting her farm would prove challenging. Karolina lived in Chicago, worked there full-time, and was searching for farmland in more rural counties like Kane and McHenry where she had few connections. With the growing season fast approaching, she was nearing a state of desperation in her search for land.
“I was under a deadline,” said Karolina, “so I looked at what resources I had available to me now. Who do I know now that I can ask for help? Is there something close to where I live? Is there a way I can get access to land in a non-conventional way? I knew I needed to be creative about it at that point.”
Her preference was to purchase, but she also knew leasing was less risky at this early stage in her farming career. Karolina worked with a realtor, pursued every lead she had, but still generated few results. With no alternative options, she signed on at a community garden plot in St. Charles – a one-hour drive from where she lived in Chicago. Two friends also rented plots, giving Karolina enough space to begin growing and selling at a couple of farmers markets.
This began what she now calls "the hardest year of my life." Four to five times a week Karolina traveled to St. Charles, farmed as long as she could, then went on to complete a full workday back in Chicago. Karolina recalls, “On the hardest days I would get up at 2:45 a.m. and drive an hour, work for a few hours and then drive downtown Chicago to work. I would time my arrival with the sunrise so I could get as much work in as possible.”
In 2018, our Nathan Aaberg connected Karolina with fellow Polish native, Anna Lipinska of All Grass Farms in Dundee, IL. This was a breakthrough opportunity as All Grass leases from the Kane County Forest Preserve District at their Brunner Family Forest Preserve along Route 31 and had extra land available there. All Grass ultimately gave her the chance to grow her vegetables on their leased land in 2019 and offered her a job managing their on-farm store for a year.
In 2020, Karolina expanded her growing at All Grass to 3/4 of an acre. And in 2021, Karolina and All Grass negotiated an agreement for Karolina to grow on one acre with access to half of an existing hoop house and to install two of her own hoop houses. In addition to her wholesale customer, she is now beginning a CSA and selling at multiple farmers markets.
Although it played out differently than she expected, Karolina also saw a long-time dream realized at the end of 2020 – becoming a homeowner. Karolina and her partner, Chris, couldn’t be happier with their lease arrangement which has afforded them the opportunity to build a farm business while simultaneously building enough equity to own a home.
Karolina’s story touches on so many lessons in land access, but here are some that stand out:
- Starting sometimes means accepting a less than ideal situation: Needless to say, a community garden plot one hour from home was not “plan A” when Karolina started out. “Even if the land is not ideal,” expressed Karolina, “I was so grateful for it, because it was a very necessary step to where I am now.” Karolina kept a positive attitude and used her experience there as a learning opportunity and stepping-stone.
- Be prepared to share about your search: “I was never good at promoting myself or talking myself up, so it was something I realized quickly that I needed to be able to do.” Karolina explained, “My friend gave me good advice to just share with others what you are doing and what your goals are, and you never know what might click, maybe a friend of a friend might be able to help.” Your story is a powerful tool. Know it well, share it often, and see your odds of making the right connection increase.
- Small steps mean less risk and a better foundation for growth in the long term: Touring Karolina’s farm, it was evident her decision-making approach to growing her land base, equipment, and enterprises was careful and calculated. Sometimes, this even meant deferring plans, like her original intent to purchase land right away.
“I was finishing paying off massive student loan debt,” Karolina stated, “I didn't want to live again with the stress of large debt, so I changed my plan.” Operating within her financial safety zone allowed her to live out her dream and recently purchase a home.
Karolina and Chris are optimistic as they head into their fourth growing season. She remains extremely grateful for this opportunity and is committed to seeing her relationship with All Grass remain strong year after year. To learn more about Karolina and her farm, visit www.blacksmithacresfarm.com.
We also want to remind you that Nathan and Jim are happy to offer a free advising session if you are looking for feedback and recommendations in your own search strategy as a farmer or landowner.