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NewCityNet Farm Stands

Catching up with a crop of small farmers

By Margaret Wappler

AUGUST 28, 2000:  As children, we think of farms as cozy homesteads in the country, with a cow named Polly and a red barn for the horses. It's not until later, after a few drives in the country, that we learn most farms are giant, hulking things, spread across miles and managed with all the distance and callousness of any big corporation. However, small farms continue to persevere, and tend to do things a little differently than the big cheeses.

Often utilizing organic methods of growth, small farms have to take extra steps to set themselves apart from the herd. For David Cleverdon, practicing organics was a must: "I didn't see it any other way. It seemed better than anything else because you can produce the best stuff that way. The philosophy is; you build the soil, you get good crops. I don't see myself as purely an organic grower. It's automatic, like telling the truth."

Cleverdon, who owns Kinnikinnick Farm in Boone County, with his wife Susan, calls himself a "city kid" who fell in love with farming. "It became a personal passion," he says. "I had a garden that kept getting bigger and bigger, so I bought a farm." Cleverdon sells his produce, which includes a wide variety of tomatoes, baby greens and "phenomenal" asparagus, to a host of markets in the Chicago area, like the Evanston market and Green City Market. His background, which, at first glance, might seem unusual for a farmer, is the norm, Cleverdon ascertains, for small farmers. "There is a small, but growing, group of people that are market growers. They don't fit the typical farmer profile. These are college graduates, often coming from other professions. This is my third career." Cleverdon, who was at the Board of Trade for eleven years, dabbling in "a bit of everything," also managed political campaigns in the sixties and seventies. "Out of everything I've ever done, this is the most challenging -- physically and intellectually."

Denise Peterson, who manages Prairie Crossing Farm in Gray's Lake, with her husband Tom, also saw her decision to have 15 acres of the farm maintained organically as the only option. "I'm a huge supporter of organic [methods]. I want this to be a safe place with a diverse ecosystem." And like Cleverdon, neither of the Petersons were born with pitchfork in hand, though their careers did relate to farming. "My husband was a geologist and I was in environmental conservation," Denise says.

Prairie Crossing Farm utilizes methods that are not only beneficial for the land, but for the community as well. In addition to donating to a local food shelter, the Petersons also run "a 100-member CSA, which stands for community supported agriculture. We have 100 families in the spring that buy shares [in the farm], and they pick up their produce through out the season." The trend of CSAs is becoming more widespread around the country, Peterson says, especially embraced by organic farms.

Although the Petersons have chickens on the farm, they use them for the eggs and not the meat. Are small farms that raise animals for meat able to get a leg up when the big "factory-style" farms churn out tons each year? Sure, when your product is good, as Paul Willis of Willis Free Range Pork Farm in Iowa, is quick to point out. Willis, who comes from generations of farmers, is the Midwest coordinator for a network of about 100 small farms, spread mostly over Illinois and Iowa, who raise hogs for Niman Ranch, a meat company and ranch based in Oakland, California. Niman is the only ranch that has been approved by the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., as employing sustainable agriculture techniques that are humane for animals.

"I like to say that the hogs only have one bad day on my farm, as opposed to a lifetime of them," Willis says, referring to how the pigs have free roam, with barns and bedding in the winter for warmth. And like with organics, Willis' humane efforts don't just make for good karma, but excellent product. "An animal that can live outdoors has enough body fat, are less prone to stress and they've experienced life. You can taste the difference in the eating quality." In the end, quality is the bar that all the farmers work to achieve. But more than organics or anything else, it takes hard hours to get there. Lloyd Nichols, a former airline attendant who's now been a farmer for more than twenty years, speaks of the grueling schedule: "The hours are the tough part. I don't have as many growers as I need. It's physically a brutal schedule. I have sons who help me. It's almost required, to have people help you that you feel good about."

Along with busting your tail to catch any curve ball nature may throw their way ("There is no such thing as a perfect year," Nichols says), the farmers all seem to bask in an envious personal satisfaction. "I love everything about it; the whole puzzle of it, from beginning to end," Cleverdon says. Denise Peterson agrees: "This is the best job in the world."

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