It’s no secret the dream of the small, independent family farm is dying swiftly. A report published in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found 51 percent of the total value of American farm production in 2015 was generated by large farms with at least $1 million in sales per year — vastly different from 1991, when that number sat at 31 percent.
But John Tamblyn, of Tamblyn Family Farm in Manteno, is working hard to keep the dream alive, both for his own family and for others in the area.
Today, Tamblyn Family Farm sits in the same place it did when John’s grandfather started farming in the late 1920s. John was born in the second house on the property, where his aunt and uncle lived. He has fond memories of traveling the short distance from his own parents’ home down the road to spend time outdoors, on the land. Sometimes, all the kids would gather and watch the 1980 film “The Hunter” with Steve McQueen, which was filmed on the farm. Their favorite scene was where their grandfather briefly appears, driving a combine out in his field.
When John’s grandfather retired from farming in the late 1980s, the land was rented out to other farmers. Tamblyn, still passionate about agriculture, studied the subject at the University of Illinois in Champaign. And when he brought his family of six (wife Megan and four daughters Emilie, Samantha, Allison and Olivia) to live on the old family farm in 2010, he had a vision of doing things the old-fashioned way — the way he remembered his own grandfather farming.
To Tamblyn, the old fashioned way is “outside in the fresh air and sunshine with plenty of room to roam and grow.” He has 27 female pigs (sows) that are a durable cross between the endangered Large Black hog, the Duroc and the Berkshire; and a flock of 17 Katahdin sheep, a heritage breed originating from Mount Katahdin in Maine that doesn’t need to be sheared but instead sheds its own coat every spring.
Tamblyn prefers spending time with animals over time driving a tractor or tending to rows and rows of crops, which is why his 25 acres consist of just grass, pasture and hay. But he’s closely connected to many local farmers who do spend their days planting and combining, as he gets ingredients from them to make non-GMO livestock feed at his own mill.
“[When I first started farming] I was looking around trying to find good, fresh feed and it was hard to find a local source,” Tamblyn said. “So, that started me on my quest to fix up some buildings and make a feed mill.”
The feed mill blends 15 different non-GMO feeds for a variety of livestock. While most of the feeds offered are for your typical barnyard animals such as pigs, horses and sheep, Tamblyn also mixes specialty feeds for customers, like the woman who came to him asking about feed for her pet deer. Everything he creates is not genetically modified and made from locally sourced whole grains.
“A lot of our customers have 2- to 50-acre farms; they’re relatively young and relatively new to farming and they really enjoy their 30 chickens,” Tamblyn said. “They don’t like chemicals and they eat fresh, so they want to feed their animals what they would eat.”
Costing just $10 to $22 for a 50-pound bag, Tamblyn’s feed is significantly cheaper than most organic feeds, since it is so local and most organic feeds must be shipped from outside the U.S. This, he hopes, will help other small family farmers without a lot of capital grow their operations.
“There’s so many risks with the weather and the market, that a lot of times it’s hard to get the capital to expand,” Tamblyn said. “If you’re buying organic feed and it costs $50 a bag, you might only be able to have 10 laying hens. But if you’re buying non-GMO feed, you might be able to have 100 hens. People want farm fresh eggs and chicken, and if the feed is more affordable, my theory is people will be able to have more livestock.”
Tamblyn has been able to grow his own small family farm through a partnership with Niman Ranch, a unique company out of Colorado that pays more for pork from humane, independent farms. Farmers actually receive a bonus from Niman if their pork is a deep red color — a far cry from the white pork you often see at supermarkets that comes from large factory farms. Tamblyn is speaking on a panel at the company’s coming Rooted in Resiliency Farmer Appreciation Dinner and hopes to grow with the company as it works to double its size.
Besides growing his pork operation, Tamblyn also hopes to increase sales of his feed while helping local farmers through a dealer program at the mill.
“We want to start branching out and if another family farm or small independent person wants to have our feed in their area, we want to expand in that way rather than through stores or markets,” Tamblyn said. “We want to be able to help somebody else with a [mice-free] garage or outbuilding; they could start small and market our feed. Right now we just make a couple hundred bags of feed a day — a very small amount compared to what we could be doing.”
Tamblyn Family Farm products are available at Panozzo’s Amish Furniture in Bourbonnais and at tamblynfamilyfarm.com.