NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Fresh Harvest Farm, Mokena IL

New horizons
As their second year begins, these ambitious farming partners are considering some major expansion plants.

By Patty McPhillips


Jeanne Phelan and 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

March, 2005. Winter has found us working hard to get the word out about CSA and our farm. Jeanne managed to get a local paper to do a feature article in the Sunday business section, and I have had a couple of speaking invitations from community groups. We have set a goal of 50 members, but are still short—18 as of 3/10/05. We’re hoping March and April will find people thinking about gardening and fresh veggies.

Deciding and planning to take on 50 member families and expand to 2.5 acres has, of course, brought a number of issues to bear heavy on my mind. Can we find a larger piece of property, say 10-20 acres—where we can practice long crop rotation, continue to grow our membership and incorporate animals? Can we make that happen this winter in order to plant there in spring? If we stay at our current location, what is the best way to deal with the creek bottom clay that was dumped on the new growing area and spread by bulldozer last year? How are we going to deal with our need for cold storage, dry storage, potable water and electricity?

In November we got wind that a newly incorporated town in our area had applied for funding to restore and develop an 80-acre farm that had been donated by the aging landowner. We also heard that the plans included an organic farm and that the person slated to handle the operation of the farm was moving away because of personal issues. Sounded like a perfect spot for us. We jumped in the car and checked out the land—it looked good and was in a great location! We met with the Township Trustee in charge of the project and found that the village was not inclined to allow a for-profit venture on their land. I suppose that makes sense and is not really a surprise. At that meeting, we also learned something that is much more disturbing than our personal land acquisition situation; we learned that none of the townships in our area have designated any land in their village development plans as agricultural. Will County, Illinois, is home to some of the finest cropland soils in the world and our city planners are paving it over at an alarming rate. I know our situation is not unique, and urban sprawl is a lament on many people’s lips; we will be keeping our eyes and ears open for opportunities to express our opinion about the importance of urban farming and local food production to our local administrators and neighbors.

In December it looked like our landscape contacts were coming through for us again. Jeanne was working on a project that involved the installation of a native Illinois prairie. She contacted Doug Short, a prairie ecologist to consult on the project. As they worked, Jeanne told Doug of our CSA and, wouldn’t you guess, he knew of a landowner in the neighboring town of Frankfort who might be interested in our vegetable adventure. The absentee landowners have 190 acres that they are interested in preserving as organic farmland and native prairie. With Doug’s help they have already started prairie restoration on a 20-acre piece and plan to ultimately restore 40 acres. The balance is farmed in corn and soybeans and is on track for organic certification in 3 years. We met the landowners just before Christmas, after which they headed south for the winter. We communicated some by email and phone and just last week, while the landowner was in town for a few days, we had a meeting to see if we could agree on a suitable spot for our vegetable operation. As it turned out, we came away from the meeting with a realization that we have a lot more work to do in order to accommodate all the parties involved, and it is not something we will rush into. We will split our operation between the two sites for 2005. We will grow things that do not require immediate refrigeration or a lot of washing at the Frankfort site while using our current Mokena location as our home base. Share pickup and storage is more easily handled from there.

Staying at the Mokena location for the 2005 growing season means that we will have to deal with the creek bottom clay. The area was fallow for five years prior to covering, and the landowner has offered to scrape/push the top layer of clay/soil off with a bulldozer. I am afraid of the weight of the bulldozer and the danger of working when it is too wet, so I think I will work with the clay instead. I just sent a soil sample in and am waiting for results. I am thinking of growing everything I can as transplants, inoculating with mycorrhizae and making planting holes a little larger than necessary, then filling with compost mixed with gypsum, and maybe some rock powders, feeding the soil with seaweed, fish and molasses and then being ready to foliar feed with the same throughout the season. I am also contemplating overwintering radish as a cover crop to open the clay soil. Any and all comments and suggestions from those of you out there with more experience would be greatly appreciated--write to me in the New Farmer Forums. Nightmares of sickly tomatoes, malformed peppers, and insect infestations are starting to rumble through my head.

Speaking of crops, I am excited about the giant Excel spreadsheet I have created to help with crop planning and data collection. I purchased a set of forms on CD but prefer my own version for now. For each variety I have captured supplier, product number, package size and price, quantity ordered, estimated yield, germination rates, row feet to be planted, in-row spacing, number of succession plantings, total number of 100’ beds per variety, number of flats needed, optimum germination temps and (my favorite part) a planting timeline. The timeline is broken down to weeks of the month and provides information on what and how many seeds to be planted each week, what and how many transplants need to go out and when the first harvest is anticipated. My husband has a laptop computer he is not using, and I plan to take that to the field with me to collect actual data on site since I am terrible about transferring data from paper onto the computer at the end of the day or week.

Our prearranged greenhouse accommodations turned out to be grossly inadequate, and we have moved the acquisition of a hoop house to the very top of the wish list. But for now we will again be starting transplants in the homes. This year we have taken over Jeanne’s basement and are hanging lights from the rafters and building shelves with cinder blocks and scrap lumber. I suspect that watering with fish emulsion will not be well received by the other members of her household, so maybe we will stick with seaweed and compost tea.

We have taken advantage of a number of educational opportunities this winter. We attended the Small Farm Trade Show and Conference in Columbia, Mo.; I found a 16-week Organic Farming night class at a local community college; and we spent four terrific days in the Advanced Vegetable Production Workshop at Michael Fields Ag Institute in East Troy, Wis. We met a wonderful group of fellow new farmers and had terrific teachers—Richard DeWilde of Harmony Valley Farm, Steve Pincus of Tipi Produce, and Paul Ehrhardt and Kay Jensen from JenEhr Family Farm. They were awesome. We were treated to the culinary expertise of chef extraordinaire Julie Jasinski, who prepared three meals a day using seasonal produce and meat supplied by the teachers and MFAI. It was hard to come home to a nearly empty refrigerator.

I am looking forward to getting out into the field again and feel better equipped for the challenge than ever before. We are developing a network of fellow farmers and like-minded souls that gives us the courage to plow ahead.