Our C-U Women Outdoors series is all about highlighting the women in our community who are passionate about the outdoors. Meet Traci Barkley, Director of Sola Gratia Farm and food security advocate.
Name: Traci Barkley
Occupation: Director, Sola Gratia Farm
Traci comes from a long line of Midwestern family farmers, and has been involved in community-level health-related work all her life. Traci joined the staff of Sola Gratia Farm in March of 2014 after nearly 20 years working to protect, conserve and manage water resources as an aquatic ecologist and policy specialist for a statewide clean water advocacy organization (Prairie Rivers Network) as well as the state’s environmental regulatory agency (Illinois Environmental Protection Agency). Barkley is responsible for directing all activities at Sola Gratia with primary focus on program development and implementation; community partnerships; fundraising; marketing; management of retail, wholesale and CSA programs; events; communications; staff and volunteer management; and outreach and education.
Traci earned a B.S in Ethology, Ecology and Evolution and a M.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences from the University of Illinois. Traci also spent two years as an Americorps volunteer training citizen scientists to collect scientifically valid data on the state’s threatened streams, forests, wetlands and prairies for rapid assessment of environmental health by state scientists. She has gardened since childhood, worked for a greenhouse operation, volunteered for a plant conservancy and two local farm operations, served on the local food cooperative board of directors and developed and co-led a “Garden School” for 4-6 year olds at Meadowbrook’s Organic Community Garden. Traci is mother to two children, two dogs, eight chickens and a growing collection of garden beds.
What does “outdoors” mean to you?
Being “outdoors” to me means being a part of both our natural and built environments, noticing and appreciating things that surround us like the weather, plants and animals and feeling a sense of belonging to something larger. My favorite “outdoors” is when I’m active and remote…paddling, swimming, cycling, or hiking with my family.
If the weather is nice on a fall Saturday, what can we find you doing?
At my kids’ soccer match or cross country meet, working at the Urbana Farmer’s Market, or walking/hiking with my dogs.
What got you started with Sola Gratia Farms?
I learned of Sola Gratia Farm when it was in it’s infancy after two years of farming 4 acres and meeting the mission to donate at least 10% of the harvest to the regional food bank. I was in awe of the bold and audacious project started by St. Matthew Lutheran Church and Faith in Place and wanted to be a part of its growth and development in serving our community members. I interviewed for a job that didn’t yet exist and spent the next two years as a Program Coordinator for the farm, advancing existing partnerships with the foodbank and CSA shareholders while establishing new ones with a soup kitchen, food pantries, the health department, farmers markets, food cooperatives and restaurants. I became the first Director of SGF four years ago and with a team of excellent staff and board members have transitioned the farm to official not-for-profit status, expanded the farm from 4 to 12 acres, have diversified and expanded our production, business, organizational and mission components, including nearly 30% of our harvest annually serving our limited access/low-income population.
In my personal and professional spheres, I find myself repeatedly drawn to nature and food. Both nourish the individual; bring families, friends and strangers together; and when care is taken and connection is made, contribute to environmental, economic and social sustainability on the smallest and largest levels.
Sola Gratia is very involved with the local community. What inspired such a close connection?
Our community has a 17% food insecurity rate despite being surrounded by some of the best farmland in the world. Sola Gratia Farm was established with the overall goal of building a regional food system where high quality, locally grown produce is available to everyone, especially those at an economic disadvantage. Sola Gratia Farm is a small-scale produce farm started as a project of St. Matthew Lutheran Church and Faith in Place. As a Church project, Sola Gratia Farm is required to provide at least 10% of the produce they grow to hunger abatement programs. Since 2012, Sola Gratia Farm has donated nearly 30% of its total harvest (over 75,000 pounds) to hunger abatement programs such as the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, Cunningham Township, Jubilee Cafe and the C-U Public Health District. In addition, we host a weekly pay-what-you-can market in a low-income neighborhood in Urbana; partner with Carle Mobile Health Clinics to offer produce and nutritional support to low-income families; distribute produce to clients of CUPHD’s WIC, SNAP and Seniors Program; and have nearly 20% of our farmers’ market sales coming from those served by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Sola Gratia Farm also strives to build community and does so by encouraging community involvement in the farm, not just through CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) membership, but through volunteer opportunities, monthly events and educational programming. Sola Gratia Farm is committed to increasing access and demand for fresh, healthy food and transferring sustainable food production skills, particularly to low income community members, while building and enhancing community.
To this end, Sola Gratia Farm has:
-offered farm tours to community, service, and school groups,
-partnered with the Champaign Park District and the Champaign County Farm Bureau to offer yearly summer "Beginning Farmer" day camps for low-income youth,
-supplied vegetable starts to several local community and school gardens including Prosperity Garden, the Lierman Community Garden, Randolph Street Community Garden, Mother Carr Farm, Leal Elementary school garden, and Thomas Paine school garden,
-offered workshops and activities to share food production skills,
-we are a work site for at-risk youth from the Cunningham Children's Home, the Champaign READY program and YES (Youth Employment Service).
What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing small and local farms today?
Whew, just one? First and foremost, changing weather patterns is likely to be the biggest challenge moving forward. More pronounced flooding, droughts, heat waves and deep freezes and the disease, pests, soil changes and damage to infrastructure that come along with them. Access to affordable farmland is hard for those wanting to get into farming today as well as finding good labor and being able to pay them what they are worth. Just to name a few…
If you had to choose just one, what is your favorite thing you grow on the farm?
Hakurei salad turnips, hands down.
Do you have any tips or advice for new or novice gardeners?
Don’t make grandiose plans…try a few small things first and pay attention. Commit to visiting your garden daily whether you have time for working on it or not. Pay attention to your plants- they let you know what they need. Notice who is visiting your garden…insects, birds, rodents, neighbors. Gardening is about a lot more than just planting and harvesting.
During the busy season, you probably spend a lot of time outside. Are there any other outdoor activities you enjoy in your free time?
I love wandering around with my dogs and pretty much anything on, in or near a river. Hiking, camping and cycling too though between soccer and farming, the time for these is dwindling.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Show up, stand up and speak up.
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Nothing in particular…I would just like to experience more of the natural world with my kids and spouse in low-impact ways. I guess I’ve always wanted to live somewhere where having a weathervane makes sense. ☺
Is there a project that you are a part of that you're most excited about right now?
I’m really hoping to have more of Sola Gratia Farm’s produce serve our school kids…for many, school meals are their best source of nourishment.