“We get a lot of people from the ag schools coming out here to learn how we farm.” Dian Moore was echoing something Vicky Westerhoff at Genesis Growers had also told me earlier in the day – students, professors, and extension agents are really interested in how diversified small farms manage to grow such a diverse array of crops and do so profitably. The focus of the ag schools is on highly intensive monocropping and vast fields of corn, wheat, and beans, and when it comes to animals, confinement operations where environmental variables can be eliminated to produce the kind of uniform, consistent product industrial food conglomerates want. Never mind that while they are controlling the environment they are degrading it – their goal isn’t optimal flavor, nutrition, or environmental stewardship – it’s maximum productivity of calories on as little land as possible, the consequences be damned.
It’s telling that the folks from industrial ag schools are interested in what these little farms are doing – In little more than 100 years, American agribusiness has lost the technology of the farmstead and they’re curious to see how the new generation of back-to-the-land growers is doing it. Turns out it’s a lot of work, but it’s also rewarding, the land fares better, and in the end, there’s more financial independence for the farmers who can get their produce to market. There are also more jobs.
A farmer growing organic peppers, for instance, can gross more than $7,000 on an acre. Compare that to $800-1,000 per acre on commodity field corn, and the commodity farmer has to buy inputs and very expensive planting and harvesting equipment. The vegetable grower, if diversified, can produce a continuous harvest throughout the growing season and employ many more people doing the work of planting, cultivating, harvesting, and processing.
Mark, our friend Jane, and I took a long day trip down to the Kankakee area in early August to see just how three of our regular farm suppliers are getting along, see some crops in the field, pull some weeds, and cultivate deeper relationships. As farm trips always are, this one was illuminating and a great deal of fun, even if I did forget a hat and sunscreen for my bald head.
Besides the ag school folks, Jim and Dian Moore, who raise nearly all of our eggs, also regularly train National Guardsmen in the ways of low input, high yield, diversified farming. The Moores grow several acres of vegetables for their CSA in addition to chickens for meat, eggs, ducks, beef, and pork. They also sell at the Champaign Farmers Market.
We started the day at Genesis Growers, one of our favorite vegetable farmers and home to the best peppers we can get our hands on.We were greeted by the sight of hoophouses and fruit trees, things we love to see. Vicky Westerhoff and her family work the small farm with the help of about four full time year-round employees and a few more seasonal workers, and sell at the Green City Market in addition to running a CSA for over 800 members. It’s quite and operation.
Our first stop was the processing shed, where they were washing up the morning’s harvest of peppers, including a personal passion of mine – heirloom pimientos. It wasn’t that long ago that pimientos, a type of pepper that is candy sweet while retaining great pepper flavor and powerhouses of vitamins A & C, were a common garden vegetable in the U.S., and especially the South.
In fact, the reason pimiento cheese is such a passion in South Georgia and the Carolinas is that the area was a hotbed of commercial pimiento production until just the last generation. When pimientos are everywhere, you think of more and more things to do with them. It probably has something to do with why paprika is so important in Southern cooking as well.
Vicky grows several varieties of heirloom peppers, and she grows sheepnose, lipstick, and round of Hungary pimientos. That’s a farmer after my heart. You’ve seen these both on the dish Reezy-Peezy, ca. 1830 and in our pimiento cheese, which has been all local since July.
The sites in the field were awesome, we got to help pull some weeds among tiny beets, saw neatly tended rows of peppers, a thick stand of celery, and hothouses full of ghost peppers, fig trees, and lots of other goodies.
Vicky shared with me some difficulties the season presented this year. Contrary to popular belief, peppers and tomatoes do not absolutely love ridiculously hot weather. Hot days are fine, but when you’re not getting temps down under 80 at night, they start to drop their blossoms and you wind up with a gap in production. Relentless hot sun and heat can also literally scald the peppers if the sun’s really intense.
As an amateur organic gardener of some years myself, I’ve long been familiar with the concept of intercropping, and at Genesis they are aces at it. A drip irrigation system drips water right over the root zone to maximize water usage, and rows of peppers are planted next to rows of beets and carrots. Different plants with different predator pests can confuse dumb insects and keep them from totally infesting your crop.
Next we went on the Moore Family Farm, where Dian and Jim Moore are going strong after more than 20 years of farming as a small, diversified operation. If you’ve eaten brunch at Big Jones, you’ve eaten their eggs. They’re superlative, and uniquely environmentally progressive.
The most astonishing thing when you approach their chicken coops, in a lush green pasture a decent hike out from the main farm shed – is the several large geese (if you close-up the photo you can see them looming on the stoop of the rear coop.) Geese are apparently very ornery birds and are quite adept at chasing predators away from the chickens, a key role to play when a few hundred chickens are just dropped down in basically wild territory.
The coops are ingeniously set upon skids with big tires that allow the Moores to move the coops every few days, about six feet. “If you move them any farther they can’t find their way home,” Jim chuckles. So, the pasture you see on the front end of the coops has been eaten up, and the chickens have returned nitrogen-rich droppings in its place. As the coops move on down the pasture, this land is recovered to green while the chickens have fresh green on the other side of the coops. As they munch down the fresh green, the coops move in and that becomes the new yard. Always moving, keeping the cycle of the land intact.
I was thrilled to see this on the walk back to the farm house – a pen with six Large Black Hogs in it – Large Blacks are a very rare heirloom breed known in Great Britain as “The bacon pig” for its exquisite belly and back fat. They don’t raise the hogs this way – they are here only for a week or two to breed. Once the girls are pregnant, they move back out to forty acres of timber on the Kankakee River to root for mushrooms, acorns, and all manner of forage, while the Moores supplement that diet with oats, corn, and barley they grow on the farm. We are very much looking forward to picking up a few of these when they are ready next Spring!
Finally we paid a visit to a real gem of a farm, Three Sisters Garden, where Tracey Vowell and Kathe Roybal grow a staple we couldn’t do without – white dent field corn. Do you love our cornbread? You love Tracey and Kathe then too!
Tracey worked as a cook, then sous chef, then chef de cuisine at Frontera Grill and Topolobompo for the better part of twenty years, and when she and Kathe, whom she met while they were both in college in Baton Rouge, La., planned their escape from the rough and tumble, endlessly tiring work in a busy urban restaurant, they settled down to farm near Kankakee. In addition to field corn, they also grow sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and in a little hoophouse, microgreens and pea shoots, one of our favorites and a staple in our cooking.
Tracey and Kathe named their farm Three Sisters Garden after the Native American farming tradition of intercropping the “Three Sisters” of corn, squash, and beans. These crops compliment each others’ soil and water requirements, and served as the foundation of Native American agriculture for millenia. Even our moderin industrial farming system rotates beans and corn. Corn is nitrogen intensive and beans fix nitrogen. If only our industrial agriculture applied more nurturing wisdom and less hard-nose drive to produce the most food the cheapest, all other factors be damned.
When you see three small, diverse farms like this all within 30 miles of one another succeeding in spite of the odds, it’s easy to hope we’re making progress in our culture. All three of these farms get a premium for their crops because of their high quality, and thus far they’ve found customers eager to buy what they have. Perhaps our movement of farmers and regular folks and chefs and food writers is moving America in the right direction.
One hundred years ago, Americans spent 25% of their disposable income on food. And, unless they were poor, they ate much better for the most part. Today, we only spend about 10% of our disposable income on food. Some would call this progress, that we have more money to spend on other things. They would say to go back to spending 25% of our income on food would be a return to the dark ages. I disagree.
With the current state of the economy there is a lot of talk about how fewer and fewer people control all of the wealth this country produces, and the data doesn’t lie – the American dream is less and less real all the time. Why do we continue to sacrifice our land and water, and the dignity of the animals that die for us, and even our own health, on the Altar of Cheap Price? In the meantime, we spend more and more money on health care as the Pharmaceutical interests and chemical companies make billions selling us drugs and poison and more drugs to fix the problems those cause. We pay into an entertainment system that sees salaries in the tens of millions for athletes barely out of high school. And our farmers suffer because the pressure is always to produce more and more cheaply, not more nutritious, not more flavorful, not more healthy.
A few weeks ago when I was setting up our composting program with Kenn Dunn of Chicago Resource Center, he got on the topic of City Farm. He pointed out that the city is sitting on 6,000 acres of unused and undeveloped land. “There’s at least three jobs in every acre if we plant them,” Ken mused. Of course I was befuddled. 18,000 jobs. Land that’s not producing anything. Seems to me we can put some people to work, but we have to continue thinking about our priorities. We’re making progress, and thanks to folks like the Westerhoffs, Moores, and Tracey and Kathe, and people like you who care, I think we’re getting somewhere, at long last.