Fresh Harvest Farm
Farmers: Patty McPhillips and Jeanne
First season: 2004
What they raise: Mixed vegetables,
Location: South Chicago suburb
Marketing strategies: farmers’
market, farm stand, considering a CSA
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
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
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
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.