Spence Farm: Lessons from a Successful Farming Collaborative

August 17, 2023

In July 2022, Spence Farm hosted its annual “Down To Earth” session - an intensive 2-day workshop sharing ecological farming techniques. Participants listened and watched the farmers, Marty and Will Travis, father and son, walk through their most vital practices, from rotational livestock, sap analysis, cover crops and permaculture to record-keeping, collaborative marketing and making a profit.

FarmRaise sent two members of our team to learn from Spence Farm’s success and share these lessons with our farmer community.

A Snapshot of Spence Farm’s Ecological Practices:

Marty and Will Travis grow a diverse set of heirloom crops, native trees, and heritage animals on 160 acres in Fairbury, IL. They use organic, biodynamic growing practices in combination with years of observation. With guiding principles like, “listen to your weeds, they’ll tell you what your soil needs” or “Mother Nature bats last,” their family's intentional cultivation is founded on sound, generations-old principles.

Sap Analysis

One of the most important tools at Spence Farm is sap analysis. Similar to a soil test, farmers conduct sap analysis to discover what the plant needs in terms of soil amendments, foliage sprays and other tools of the farmer. The advantage of sap analysis data is how it indicates the nutrient levels of a crop, allowing for proactive nutrient management that reduces pest and disease pressure, while maximizing flavor and nutrition. Think of it as a blood analysis for your plants!

Spence Farm Experience American Guinea Hog - FarmRaise


Another vital, whole-systems approach to growing food is seen in their silvopasture of American Guinea Hogs and Pawpaw trees. Silvapasture is the deliberate integration and intensive management of agroforestry and livestock on the same land. These pigs, whose diet is entirely foraged, provide natural fertility to the soil as they are rotated among the native Pawpaws.

read your soil needs by looking at your weeds

Reading Soil by Weeds

Weeds are your soil’s way of communicating with you. You’re a detective and the weeds are clues as to how to replenish your soil. So who dunnit? Grass-type weeds like crabgrass could be an indicator of nutrient depletion and a need for calcium. Deep taproot weeds (like dandelions) could indicate compacted soil and a need for aeration. Henbit is an indictor of high levels of nitrogen in your soil. When you come across weeds, see them as an opportunity to boost your soil health by adding amendments specific to its needs.

Spence Farm’s practices are a model for respecting the land’s natural ecology. However, their success as a business relies heavily on their innovative, personal approach to collaborative marketing and distribution of their vegetables, grains, fruits and meats.

Collaborative Marketing with Local Farmers and Chefs

“One farm can’t do it all.”

- Marty Travis

The success of the Travis family business relies on the coordination of other local farms to collectivize their bargaining power, scale distribution and marketing, and give more time to farmers to focus on what they do best - growing food.

Farmers in the local area pay to participate in their marketing and distribution service, Down at the Farms LLC. Each week, Will dedicates countless hours to on farm tasks and management, keeping the farm running smoothly.  His father, Marty, coordinates and receives estimated yields from other farms, which is then sent to local chefs who request wholesale amounts from as many of these farms as they’d like.

By working with chefs, farmers avoid the time and investment of farmers’ markets, where competition for direct-to-consumer sales is high. Additionally, chefs understand the vital role of farmers and the quality of their produce. Not only are they willing to pay a fair price, but they can also accommodate changes in production according to seasonality and climate change.

How do you communicate your value as a farmer to the chef, compared to conventional, wholesale food distributors? Marty has an answer.

”When time and the opportunities allow, we work hard to bring chefs and even other customers to the farm for a walk and talk. Seeing where their food is coming from and tasting the difference between great locally grown produce and other off-the-truck products, can make all the difference. With a chef, they have a better insight and a shorter food chain between the farm and their guest. With a food wholesaler, the product and the farmer are another step removed from the end user.”

Taking Advantage of Nonprofit Grants

Spence Farm received grant funding from the Frontera Farm Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Chef Rick Bayless to promote small, sustainable farms serving the Chicago area. The organization provides farms with capital development grants up to $12,000, encouraging sustainable, regional food produced across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Will and Marty took advantage of this grant funding to purchase necessary equipment to scale their production. Large equipment purchases are not often eligible through USDA grant funding. Nonprofit organizations often allow more flexibility to use funds how the farmer sees fit. Here at FarmRaise, we track USDA and non-USDA funding opportunities to find the best fit for the farmer’s needs.

For example, the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit protecting biodiversity among farm animals, offers microgrants for producers raising heritage-breed livestock listed on the organization’s Conservation Priority List. Because Spence Farm raises the American Guinea Hog, they could receive up to $2,000 to improve welfare conditions on the farm. That could mean a new sow hut or livestock trailer! Read more about the Livestock Conservancy Microgrant in your FarmRaise dashboard.

As a diversified, ecological farm operation, Spence Farm is a great applicant for many nonprofit funding sources, as well as classic USDA grant funding such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. To learn about more opportunities that might fit your operation, check out FarmRaise’s Funding Library today.

Relationships Are Key to Success

“Build a relationship with someone that’s nice and that eats!”

- My Farmer, My Customer: Building Business & Community Through Farming Healthy Food by Marty Travis

Is farm success really as simple as building relationships? From the start of his farming journey, Marty understood that interpersonal relationships play an important role in building a business. This foundation built on meaningful relationships impacts all aspects of their work. A solid relationship built on kindness and mutual trust will bear much fruit in the years to come - not to mention, it’s more cost effective!

For example, many business owners can attest that advertising and marketing are expensive aspects of business. But at Down at the Farms LLC, not a dollar is spent on advertising. How have they grown their business so successfully then?

It’s all through word of mouth.

Word of Mouth Advertising: Nurturing Emotional Connections

When you’re wowed by an experience or product, it’s natural to want to share with friends and others in the community.

Instead of spending money on advertising, Will and Marty invest in curating good experiences. Whether touring his farm or interacting with Chicago top chefs, Marty represents the Spence Farm story in an unconventional way.

The Travis family fosters those “feel-good experiences” with all their collaborators, visitors and fellow farmers.

By taking the time to actively listen and ask thoughtful questions, they allow the person in front of them to feel seen and understood. They listen not only with their ears but they also listen to a person’s body language. This creates a connection between the two people and they begin to develop a solid relationship. That emotional connection to the experience is a crucial piece, too.

Some may consider it to be an old-school way of farming, but developing strong relationships is key to receiving support when things go wrong on the farm, getting a fair price for your work and growing quality produce.

Nurturing Emotional Connections

Will and Marty have learned through experience that one of the most efficient ways to market is through nurturing emotional connections. If a way to a person’s heart if through their stomach, the way to a chef’s memory is an emotional connection with the farmer and his or her produce. When you have a “feel good” interaction with someone that you also do business with, you’re more likely to remember that person and you’re more likely to want to tell a friend about it.

This circles back to word of mouth advertising and works efficiently in business interactions.

FarmRaise team members Gaby and Nick visited Spence Farm to share lessons from a successful farming collaborative with the FarmRaise community. Pictured here in the middle are Will and Marty.

Building Community with your Fellow Farmers

What about choosing who to do business with?

Marty has some words of wisdom when it comes to who you choose to do business with: Develop relationships with nice people.

"My favorite part of working with farmers is hearing their vision for the farm, it is super inspiring. I work hard to understand their needs, and provide the right tools to further what being a farmer means to them!"

Emotional connections have a practical advantage as well. If you choose to do business with someone who’s “nice and eats” you’ll likely to save yourself from many complications and headaches in the future. By creating a strong bond with like-minded business partners, you’re creating a community of people who look out not only for their interests, but also for the interests of all stakeholders.

Within Down at the Farms LLC, if a producer is not able to deliver on a crop that they expected to have in bounty, another farmer may step in and be able to fulfill that order. Everything works in symbiosis!

Parting Words from Marty

When asked, “What are you most excited about growing right now?” Marty answered:

"Right now, in all honesty, I am most excited about growing more farmers. In our ecosystem  here, we have landed a rather large account for next year and will need a number of new farms to join our group. Offering these new opportunities to more families and individuals is really satisfying. There is the same process in working with the new farmers as there can be in working with a new variety of crop. First you kind of have to do your research, what is it you are looking for. Second, you want to plant a few seeds and see if any of them sprout and take hold. These new sprouts need some constant attention and care, and nourishment. And then once they start blooming or producing, you want to be able to share this excitement with others. Thinking of ourselves within a total ecosystem helps all of us to work together in a sense of harmony and support for each other. Kind of like companion planting!"

If you're looking to build your farming community or try out some of Marty and Will's tips, let FarmRaise help. Follow us in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for helpful farm funding tips. Our team of Farm Funding Advisors are "nice and eat." We're a farmer-obsessed team that can help build your operation's profitability by connecting you to farm funding opportunities that best suit your needs. So if you want to try regenerative farming practices like Spence Farm does, see how FarmRaise works and get connected to funding opportunities today!

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