by Marnie Record
In “A Sand County Almanac” published in 1949 Aldo Leopold writes, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” I felt this in my bones the moment I first read these words and am reminded of his writing every day that I encounter someone who grew from an early age in relationship with the land and its inhabitants.
Blaine Bilyeu, owner of Papa’s Pasture and a vendor at the Springfield Winter Farmers Market, embodies the persona of earth steward as much as anyone I have ever met. She is the person you want raising the animals you eat and managing the land upon which we live. She’s also the kind of person that we desperately need leading the charge for the next generation – humble, passionate, dedicated and radiating gratitude. Spend a few minutes asking Blaine why she labors at the farm while maintaining a full-time job and raising a child, and you’ll find a vast and deep ocean of inspiration.
Blaine grew up on a farm in Macoupin County where from a young age she experienced an intimate cohabitation with the animals around her. She observed the personalities of the individual pigs and cows and quickly learned which ones were gentle and nice, and which ones were stubborn and required distance. She noticed their ways of communicating with each other, and even had a pet pig that would come to her name being called.
Blaine inherited her first pigs in 2013 with a family farm after her father passed away. She experienced growing pains as a beginning farmer – figuring out the proper feed, pasturing systems and daily activities. She explains that for the heritage breed Berkshire hogs she raises it typically takes eight months for a pig to reach the proper size for processing, but she laughs as she says it took her first pigs a year and a half. Less than four short years later her products are sold at multiple farmers markets, to restaurants in St. Louis, in grocery stores in Edwardsville and Alton, and to individuals as whole or half animals.
In preparation for the Springfield Winter Farmers Market, I visited Blaine on her farm. After passing barren winter corn and soybean fields for nearly an hour, I came to the end of her road where a 122 acre oasis begins with a forest of trees, streams of water and rolling pastures. She lives in town and travels to the farm to care for the pigs. With Blaine hauling heavy buckets of feed, we traipsed across the land dodging brush and fallen branches. I felt like a little kid trying to keep up with mom’s long-legged stride. She moves with ease and purpose as she explains her role as a caretaker for the land and the animals.
The pigs are spread out on different sections of the farm, their placement part of the stewardship plan, definitely not to make it easier on the hand labored chores. During seemingly mundane tasks in a day without enough hours, Blaine manages to hold a global perspective for her work. She shares, “I feel grateful for the responsibility to raise animals for people to eat. The fact that people trust me to raise their food recharges my battery.” She goes on to explain, “It’s powerful to occupy space in people’s lives to nourish them.” Eating is one of the most intimate activities we engage in each day. It’s refreshing to know someone believes in this reciprocal relationship.
Blaine stays focused on giving her customers the best product possible by continually thinking and learning about how to improve her systems. While she maintains a full-time job to pay the bills, she dreams of spending her days farming. In this dream are double the number of pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits, turkeys and cattle. “A multispecies farm creates a synergy that strengthens the whole system,” she says. But she is content in the experience of learning and growing, being present to now because Blaine explains that “taking care of the land and the people is a pretty cool thing”.
What do you know about the person raising your bacon?
Discover some of the farmers in our community at the last Springfield Winter Farmers Market on Saturday, April 22 from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Third Presbyterian Church, followed by the start of the weekly market season beginning May 17 on Adams Street between 3rd and 5th Streets and at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Value-Added Local Food, Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.