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Six Great Midwestern Farmers

GOOD EARTH: By this time of year, one of the advantages of living in the Midwest is abundantly clear: farmers’ markets in every corner of Chicago brim with the season’s freshest offerings. Meet six dedicated land lovers who make summer delicious

Growing Power: Will Allen

Most of us don’t expect that performing a simple act of kindness will someday lead to recognition as a genius (by the MacArthur Foundation), showers of money (more than $1 million in grant funds), and working relationships with a former president (Bill Clinton) and a current First Lady (Michelle Obama). But that’s what happened to Will Allen, former professional basketball player and business executive, after he allowed a Milwaukee youth group to grow an organic garden on his property back in 1995. “They didn’t have any land, and nobody would help them out,” he recalls. After the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an article about the project, he says, “people kept calling, and that launched me into volunteering with other youth groups.”

Allen, who grew up the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, founded his nonprofit, Growing Power, later that year. Since then he’s become a leading authority on urban agriculture, now employing 40 people on ten farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, including a new seven-acre plot in Bridgeport. (His daughter Erika oversees the Chicago operations.) “I never planned to do this,” Allen says. “It just evolved over a continuum.”

“This” now includes much more than teaching inner-city youngsters how to grow some vegetables. The organization also helps schools and community groups establish gardens, conducts workshops on everything from beekeeping to aquaponics, runs job-training programs, works to influence national food policy, and researches things like converting energy from food waste into electricity. “We do about 70 different things around the food system,” Allen says. Oh, and they grow food. Lots of it. “We’re producing enough food to feed well over 10,000 people a year.” In Chicago, Growing Power’s goods are available at the Green City Market and through its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, Market Basket.

Allen believes that with universities, corporate sponsors, and now the White House getting involved in growing and promoting healthful food, what was once a movement has become a revolution, and he’s more than happy to lead the charge. So does he think of himself as a farmer or a CEO these days? “I’m not hung up on titles,” Allen says, “just getting things done.”

 

Three Sisters Garden: Tracey Vowell

Tracey Vowell seems like she must be joking when she says she left her job as the managing chef of Frontera Grill for an easier life as a farmer. She’s not. “Farming is hard work, but living on Frontera time is a really fast-paced life,” says Vowell, who spent 17 years at the restaurant, where the physical demands of her job destroyed the cartilage in her knees. “Spending your days walking around on dirt and grass and weeds is a whole lot easier than walking around on ceramic pavers.” Plus, she adds, “I felt it would be really nice to be outside and not function like a bat inside all day.”

These days you’ll find Vowell in the fresh air and sunshine of Kankakee County, where she and her partner, Kathe Roybal, sustainably raise about 75 different crops that they sell at the Green City Market and to about 18 upscale restaurants in the city. Pea shoots and sunflower greens are their most profitable. Three Sisters Garden also is one of only a few farms in the country that cultivate the temperamental and prized huitlacoche, better known as corn smut. “It’s as important to Mexicans as truffles are to the French,” Vowell says. “It’s really a big deal.”

That doesn’t mean Vowell and Roybal are getting rich—far from it. But Vowell’s former colleagues have got her back. Last fall, led by Prairie Grass Cafe’s Sarah Stegner and Urban Belly’s Bill Kim, about a dozen chefs, including Red Light’s Jackie Shen, threw a potluck brunch fundraiser that brought in $12,000, enough for Vowell and Roybal to buy two desperately needed used vans. “I thought Sarah was just making noise in the beginning,” Vowell says. “But she saw Bill and said, ‘This is one of our peers who decided to venture out in a different way—maybe we could give her a little support.’ It truly was a wonderful thing.”

 

TJ’s Pastured Free-Range Poultry: Tim Ifft

If you’re going to mention the name of Tim Ifft’s poultry business, please don’t leave out “Pastured.” “That word means a lot,” says Ifft. “‘Free range’ can be in a building with no windows and fans where chickens see no daylight, as long as they’re not in a cage.” Ifft’s chickens and turkeys, on the other hand, have two acres of grass and alfalfa to roam every day. “My favorite thing is the spring weather,” he says. “It’s cool and it’s fresh. We get up at 5:30 and open the doors for our chickens to go out to the pasture; they fly out, and our young turkeys run out, and they’re just free and happy.”

Ifft grew up nearby, in a farming family, and for the past 22 years has rented the 200-acre farm where he lives with his wife, Julie, and their four children. He spent the first ten years as a pig farmer, but high expenses and low returns pushed him out of the business. “We’d always raised chickens just for the family,” Ifft says. “My brother said, ‘Why don’t you raise more chickens and try to sell them? If you don’t, then I will.’” Ifft now sustainably raises several thousand chickens and turkeys a year, selling the meat and eggs to restaurants and at markets all over the city, including Café Bon Appetit in the AT&T building, Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, and Logan Square’s Dill Pickle Food Co-op.

Ifft says customers rave about the flavor of his goods, and the business is mostly holding its own. But staying afloat is a constant struggle. Processing the poultry at the state’s only organic plant, an hour and a half away, is labor intensive and expensive. The weekly trip to sell at the Green City Market costs $200 in fuel and 12 hours in lost labor time. And he’s frustrated by vendors who want to make the same profit on his product as he does, though they’ve invested nothing in producing it. “I love the life, and I love the farm,” Ifft says. “But it’s tough.”

 

Hidden Springs Creamery: Brenda Jensen

Brenda Jensen blames her husband, Dean, for her radical transformation from an MBA-wielding food-packaging executive to a sheep farmer. He’d long been fascinated by the Amish way of life and had big dreams of he and Brenda giving up their careers—he’s a therapist—to become full-time farmers. Raising milk cows was one idea. Too big to handle, Brenda said. Goats? Too far out. Well, then, sheep. “He would drag me to sheep dairy co-op meetings,” she recalls. “I thought they were kind of strange people. But we fit right in.”

In 2001 the couple moved from their small hobby farm onto a larger working farm about two and a half hours west of Madison, in a craggy part of the state known as the Driftless Region, where many Amish live. They bought 50 sheep, which they nicknamed the Ladies, and set about learning how to raise them. For the next five years, the couple worked twice-daily milkings around their day jobs, selling the milk to a local dairy co-op. Then Brenda happened to read an article about making artisan cheese and was inspired to take a workshop. “I got my hands in the whey and fell in love with the process,” she recalls. “I came out saying, ‘I think I could make some really wonderful cheese.’”

Jensen quit her job and began cranking out a light, creamy, spreadable cheese she called Driftless. That first year’s effort won half a dozen national awards. In three short years, she’s won nearly 20 other accolades, including a best-of-class honor at the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest for the basil and olive oil variety of Driftless, which she makes with a neighbor’s organic basil. This past March, her Driftless Natural placed second among soft and semisoft cheeses at the 2010 competition.

This year Jensen expects to double her output to 40,000 pounds of six different cheeses; Chicagoans can find her creations at Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park and Pastoral in the city. What makes her product so good? “I have to attribute it to the Ladies—they give good milk,” she says. “And the secret ingredient: It’s made with love.”

 

Genesis Growers: Vicki Westerhoff

In the midst of a battle with Epstein-Barr virus and chronic fatigue syndrome, Vicki Westerhoff couldn’t imagine engaging in physical activity ever again, let alone making her living as a farmer. For six years she dragged herself to the office manager job she’d held for 25 years, then came home and pretty much went straight to bed. “The only thing doctors were doing was B12 injections and antidepressants,” she recalls. “When I said, ‘I can’t live like this,’ they told me, ‘This is your life; you have no choice.’ That was my major wake-up call.”

Determined to find a cure, she researched every authoritative source available. “If I could find five people who said to do a particular thing, then I did it.” She eliminated most meat, began a heavy-duty vitamin and mineral regimen, and started looking for organic fruits and vegetables to juice. “That was 12 years ago, and here in our small town I couldn’t really find anything that wasn’t moldy and shriveled,” she recalls. So Westerhoff decided to grow her own produce, planting a single acre of her 20-acre property. The soil’s fertility had been severely damaged by a previous owner’s chemical use, and Westerhoff knew nothing about organic agriculture. But she learned, and within three months her strength began to return. “It took about a full year to feel all the way better. Then I decided I wanted to heal the land.”

Today, Westerhoff farms the entire acreage, selling her produce at the Green City Market and the Oak Park Farmers’ Market, as well as to nearly 400 community-supported agriculture subscribers throughout the city and suburbs. She anticipates getting organic certification this year, and, with 350 varieties of crops, there’s hardly anything she doesn’t raise. And if she ever forgets how far she’s come, she says, nature has a way of reminding her. “I may be out there and really tired or hot, then a butterfly flits past or I catch the scent of a wildflower, and it just turns me around. What was becoming drudgery—I just become blessed.”

 

Mick Klug Farm: Mick Klug

Being a fruit farmer is all Mick Klug has ever known. He owns the farm where he grew up, the one his parents originally bought in the mid-1940s. “They grew just about everything we raise now,” he says. That includes 15 varieties of peaches, 12 types of seedless grapes, ten different kinds of plums, both sweet and sour cherries, apples, red and black raspberries, and blueberries. Plus some purple asparagus, just for the heck of it.

Klug has been making regular two-hour treks into Chicago for roughly 20 years, beginning as a supplier to Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill. As Klug explains: “He said, ‘You’ve got to do this; chefs want fresh stuff.’” Now Klug provides fruit to about 20 restaurants in the city, as well as four farmers’ markets. He’s routinely up at 2 a.m. to pack the fruit—picked late the day before—drive into the city, and put in a 12-hour day before heading back to Michigan. How does he do it? “I take a nap before I drive home,” Klug says with a laugh. “You get used to four or five hours of sleep; that’s what I live on.”

Klug generally has been happy to see the boom in farmers’ markets. But as one of the longest-term vendors in the city, he’s frustrated by how that growth sometimes has been achieved. “I’m probably going to get myself in trouble, but at the Lincoln Park [High School] market they kept putting growers on till there were nine of us fruit growers,” he says, adding that making enough profit isn’t possible with so much competition. “That grinds me.”

He’s pleased, however, that so many younger people are discovering the joys of fresh food. “With the push of ‘buy local, know your farmer,’ the 20- and 30-year-olds are really jumping on that bandwagon,” he says. “A few years ago, our average customer was 45, 50. But now young moms are getting into canning and putting stuff up. That’s been a big plus for us.”

Where to Buy
All the farmers featured here (except for Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery) sell their goods at the Green City Market in Chicago; Jensen’s cheeses are sold in Chicago at Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine. For a full directory of where to buy, go to chicagomag.com/farmers.

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