Adams Farms: Building a Legacy of Sustainability

Written by Bekah Wright

Alan Adams was studying agriculture at the University of Illinois in 1970 when the first Earth Day event took place. A passion took hold. “I got turned on to the environmental part of it.” Adams’s enthusiasm for sustainability was embraced by his entire family. As a result, they ramped up their sustainable farming approaches encompassing economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. The beneficiaries of these efforts: the land and local ecosystems, the cows, the community, the food chain, and the planet.

Seven Generations Strong

A love of the land and a love of family is evident when speaking to Adams. Both he and his wife, JoAnn, have ties to Sandwich, Illinois, dating back to the 1840s, when their families homesteaded in the area. Now, seven generations and 1,200 acres later, the Adams Farms are still going strong. Alan and JoAnn’s son, Ross, has come on board at the farm, too, with his wife, Jessie, and their two children. “Sustaining our family legacy and living on the land is part of the sustainability movement,” Adams says. Giving this stance even deeper meaning, he says, “Spending each day working with people you love—it doesn’t get much better than that.”

More than 90 percent of farms and ranches in the U.S. are family owned. Stroll on a farm and the sighting of rabbits, butterflies, ducks, deer, and chipmunks frolicking brings forth the realization: These timber pastures are habitats for myriad wildlife. They also serve as veritable playgrounds for humans looking to connect with nature through activities like camping, hiking, and cycling. 

A Focus on Environment and Evolving Cattle Farming Methods

A multitude of beef farmers shares Adams’s sustainability mindset. This has propagated beef production innovations over the decades, one reason a 2021 study on reducing climate impacts on beef production lauded the United States for the successful reduction of its carbon footprint. This speaks to the mission of Adams Farms to use environmentally friendly cattle farming practices. “We want the farm to be better than it was when we took over,” Adams says. How does the family target their efforts? “You’ve got soil, water, and air, and it’s paramount that these three things are kept clean.”

Preserving Soil

When approaching soil conservation, Adams Farms uses efficient grass production, enhanced by cattle grazing, to keep their soil from rain exposure, which leads to erosion. Beyond growing crops, Adams Farms raises livestock, as much of their acreage lends itself to pasture. “Many of those acres are too fragile from a soil erosion standpoint to crop, but they are perfect for cattle,” Adams says. 

Using this land for grazing brings with it multiple benefits. The cattle feeding component of Adams Farms is intended to mimic nature. Cows give birth in the spring, when plenty of grass is available to feed their young through summer months. “When the grass stops growing in the fall, we rotate our cows to cornfields where they can spend the winter grazing leftover stalks and leaves,” Adams says. By farming in this manner, Adams Farms can utilize crop residue instead of it becoming waste – this is called upcycling. 

As cows are ruminants, mammals with specialized digestive tracts that acquire nutrients from plants through fermentation, another version of upcycling comes into play. “Upcycling is a cow’s sustainability story,” Adams says. “It has the ability to take a grass product that’s virtually indigestible by people, then turns it into a perfect protein with all the essential amino acids for a human body’s nutritional needs.”

The soil also reaps benefits from cow manure. “We recycle 95 percent or more of the nutrients from the cattle back as fertilizer for the growing crop,” Adams says. This is done through a process where the nutrient-dense manure is returned to the soil, increasing soil health along the way. The subsequent soil slowly releases plant nutrients, which improves its ability to hold water and withstand drought.

Conserving Water

Adams’s efforts toward assuring the farm’s water supplies are clean stretch back to his college senior project, which focused on ensuring the feedlot on the family’s farm didn’t pollute the creek running through their acreage. “This can be as simple as building fences and moving the cattle on a regular basis to make sure they’re distanced from and don’t create runoff that ends up in creeks.”

In terms of water usage in the beef industry, studies have found more than 90 percent of the water footprint for beef production is green water,  or in other words: rainfall. This means that much of the rainwater enhances the natural ecosystems that cattle inhabit, which also happen to be home to many species of wildlife and native plant populations. 

Clean Air

A misnomer Adams commonly encounters is solely equating cows with methane production. “Bison, deer, sheep, goats, antelope, giraffe … these are all ruminant animals who graze on grass,” he says. “Anytime a bacteria ferments with a fibrous material in the digestive system of a ruminant animal, methane is given off.” The life cycle of methane, he says, is approximately 10 years. “Then it breaks down into carbon dioxide to photosynthesize back into grass and crops.” This process is enhanced by the grazing of cattle. For now, with an awareness of the impact of greenhouse gas, Adams is studying how new farming technology might reduce methane produced by livestock.

Adams Farms is constantly evaluated by a conservation management group out of the University of Illinois, which looks at the environmental footprint of each field based on the amount of carbon dioxide utilized. “We have fields where we’re sequestering more carbon dioxide than we’re putting out,” Adams says. “As we’ve started using the latest farming methods, we’ve found that the crops, as they break down, put carbon dioxide back into the soil, and if we’re careful, it stays there.” 

Sharing Sustainability

Adams Farms relishes being part of the Sandwich community and sharing its efforts toward sustainability. “From a social standpoint, sustainability is important to our schools, churches, T-ball leagues… all the social structures that make a community viable,” Adams says. “To me, the farm has to add to that.” This leads Adams Farms to examine: “Are we good neighbors? Responsible citizens? Do we add to the community?” 

With these questions in mind, Adams Farms has taken steps such as hiring college graduates to work on the property and inviting elementary students to tour the farm and learn about their sustainability practices. Additionally, the family volunteers for environmental causes. By opening the farm to the community in various ways, the Adams family is essentially welcoming their neighbors into the family. And family, after all, is the legacy of Adams Farms.