NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Fresh Harvest Farm, Mokena IL

Trial and error
Two friends new to farming learn many lessons growing veggies in the ’burbs.

By Patty McPhillips

Farm-At-A-Glance

Fresh Harvest Farm
Mokena, Illinois

Farmers: Patty McPhillips and Jeanne Phelan

First season: 2004

What they raise: Mixed vegetables, herbs

Location: South Chicago suburb

Marketing strategies: farmers’ market, farm stand, considering a CSA

February, 2005. My farming partner, Jeanne Phelan, and I opened the gates of Fresh Harvest Farm in 2004. We grow vegetables, herbs and flowers on 2.5 acres in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago, specifically in the town of Mokena. Although we are new farmers, we are not ‘young’ farmers. Both Jeanne and I are mothers of college-age children, and Jeanne had the joy of becoming a grandmother in 2003.

Jeanne and I met in 2001 and, through our mutual experiences as independent landscape and perennial garden designers, formed a fast friendship. We began our farming adventure in the winter of ’02/’03. I have long harbored a dream of farming, however something was not quite right with the picture in my dream. When I thought of farming, the only model I was familiar with was of conventional, large-scale agribusiness. I could not see myself doing that. There is no farming tradition in my family and I own no land; I knew of no other option. I satisfied my farming urge by growing food for my family and friends in my small suburban backyard, by attending night school horticulture and landscape classes at the local junior college, by volunteering on various environmental restoration and data collection projects, and by going into business for myself doing landscape and perennial garden design, installation and maintenance. In the fall of 2003, I happened upon Andy Lee’s Backyard Market Gardening (Good Earth Publications, 2000) and devoured the text. Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower (Chelsea Green Publishing, 1995) was next. This was a type of farming I could do, and my dream gained clarity. I shared what I was learning with Jeanne and she was in! Together somehow, somewhere we would farm.

One of our landscape customers owned 10 acres on which he had a small tree nursery. He was not using a back corner of the property and kindly agreed to give us a chance to try our hand at growing vegetables on half an acre. He would even let us use his tractor for field preparation. We used the winter to plan our market garden and loved the idea of a CSA, of connecting our customers to their food and creating a community around the farm. We attended the University of Wisconsin School for Beginning Market Gardeners in January, 2004. It was three days of bliss. Here were people actually doing what we were thinking and dreaming about. The farmer/teachers were open and helpful, the information was invaluable, and we were thrilled. One of the farmer/teachers talked about new farmers who are unsure of their production skills reducing their stress levels by using farmers markets as an outlet for their produce instead of CSA. After all, if you don’t have a crop at the farmers market no one is disappointed, but if you fail to produce a crop for a CSA share stress levels rise rapidly. At our age, we realize the value of keeping stress levels down and decided to sell our produce at one farmers market and to work on developing a network of steady weekly customers rather than using CSA for the first year. We were uncomfortable asking people to make a financial commitment when we were unsure of our ability to produce on the scale we were now working with and on land we had yet to set a plow blade to. In addition, we still had/have our landscape businesses to run. How would we get it all done?

We decided to start our own transplants – tomato, eggplant, pepper, onion, broccoli, cabbage, salvia, veronica, brussel sprout. Jeanne became the keeper of the onions (10 flats) and they turned out to be our prize crop, gorgeous red ‘Mars’ and yellow ‘Copra’. We are still enjoying them today. The balance of the flats inhabited my kitchen and back porch. My dad built a light table out of PVC pipe, a 4’ x 8’ sheet of pressboard and six fluorescent fixtures. It held 20 flats. Another dozen flats resided on a four-shelf light table (also built by my Dad) that I have had for several years. I installed both light tables in the kitchen while my husband was away fishing. He walked in the door upon return from his trip and promptly put on his sunglasses! There was no need to turn on any other light in the house for the next three months. Our transplants were fair at best; most were started too early, and delayed planting in May made them leggy.

Since we did not find a home for Fresh Harvest Farm until December, 2003, we were unable to prepare any beds for early spring planting. In mid-April, we plowed and disced the field. Then the rain set in; May in Chicago brought a record 12 inches. We skipped the peas altogether. We got our onion transplants into the ground but that was about it. I was afraid to touch the sodden, heavy clay soil. Things dried out in June and we had everything planted by the end of June/mid-July. Succession planting is one of the big lessons learned in 2004! We simply did not do it (big mistake); we had beautiful green beans but only for 2 weeks. We had great radishes, but they were soon to sell. We had delicious carrots that were picked too late and looked awful, so we never sold them. We smooshed lots of cabbage worms, which really was an effective method of control, and our cabbage, kale and broccoli were nice. We grew some beautiful tomatoes but also lost a lot to vermin and rot because we did not get them trellised in time and they laid on the ground. So many lessons.

We brought our beautiful filet green bean, young heirloom zucchini and pattypan squash, lovely beets, tender sweet cabbage, and herbs, to the farmers market in July, only to discover that we had missed the boat yet again. The market had opened in early June, but, having very little to sell in June, we did not attend. Unbeknownst to us, booth locations were assigned on the first market day based on a first-come first-served basis. We were last to come and, hence, last served. Our booth space was literally around the corner from the rest of the market. We really had to work to pull people over to our table and, by early August, decided that our time would be better spent in other ways – weeding and developing our customer base around the farm location.

When all was said and done, we had fallen well short of recovering our materials investment and we could hear Donald Trump saying “You're fired!” But we had had a great time, gained a handful of wonderful customers who are excited about what we are trying to do, and our freezers were full. We realized there was no place else we would rather be than working on the farm. I found the mantra that ran through my head as I drove home in the evening was “I am so lucky, I am so happy, life is so good.”

Plans are well under way for 2005. With our landowner’s blessing, we are expanding to 2.5 acres and are working hard at acquiring 50 CSA members (we have 5). As of this writing we have our seed selection down and a greenhouse lined up for growing 20 flats of transplants; maybe my husband can leave his sunglasses in the car. We want to incorporate cover crops in our rotation to smother weeds and enrich the soil, we will sow our walkways to clover and under-sow squash with hairy vetch. Our plans include succession planting in a big way, and we are acquiring stakes and trellising materials now so that we can get our tomatoes off the ground in a timely manner. We will incorporate foliar feeding of fish and seaweed emulsion and want to try some compost teas. Learning to make good compost is another subject that is high on the ‘learn how’ list. So many things sound simple and straightforward when you read them in a book, but when you get into your field a million questions arise and you just have to try something and see what happens.

You know, I think that is another one of my favorite aspects of farming – nothing I have done to date challenges me to think for myself, formulate a plan, put the plan into action, observe what happens, and assess the results like farming.

I am so lucky, I am so happy, life is so good.