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They are following their dreams – to acquire a piece of farmland, raise fruits and vegetables, all pesticide- and commercial fertilizer-free, and sell them at the Riverside Farmers Market.
Riverside has three “gentleman farmers” raising organic, sustainable produce – and two of them are women. Randy Brockway, Cindy Gustafson and Carol Rodriguez are late-bloomers when it comes to agricultural life; all have had other careers. And all three are discovering the rewards and heartbreaks of commercial agriculture at the “micro” level.
Learning from the 1940s
Randall Brockway, 56, leases three acres to grow vegetables from a Will County farmer about 50 minutes from home. Brockway grew up on an 18-acre Iowa “pick-your-own” strawberry farm.
“I thought I was smart. I went to college and sat in an office for a long time,” he says.
A landscape architect by training, for years he designed farmers’ markets for the feds at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Administration.
Demand for landscape work has dwindled, allowing him to devote more hours to the farmette. He enjoys sharing the farm with his wife and 7-year-old daughter of Chinese ancestry.
“She has agriculture in her heritage,” Brockway says.
This is Brockway’s third year as a farmers’ market vendor, and his first season farming full time. He sells “sustainably grown” herbs, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, green beans, kale, Swiss chard, greens, carrots, beets, sweet corn, argali, zucchini and acorn squash. Because he rents his land, Brockway says he won’t try for certified organic status – a multi-year process overseen by the USDA.
Brockway carries a tattered book that he calls his “vegetable bible.” It’s a 1947 commercial agriculture how-to called Vegetable Growing by James S. Shoemaker. He is devoted to re-learning agricultural practices used before the advent of petroleum-based commercial fertilizers.
“Decomposed horse manure is the best organic fertilizer,” he says.
Harvesting, he admits, is more back-breaking than he expected. “And there’s no shade!”
At first he brought his landscaping crew with him to the farm but now he says, “I would welcome teenagers asking me for a job.”
Former Riverside Trustee Cindy Gustafson, 49, caught the hobby-farm bug after classes through the University of Illinois Extension office. She and her husband bought 90 acres in 2005 near Kankakee Sands, an hour away.
Gustafson had no previous agric-experience. But she and husband Jim Adams, who co-own a construction company, do not fear adventure. On their Kankakee land, Gustafson devoted two or three acres to the plow.
“I always grew my own vegetables but this is a whole different animal,” Gustafson says. “When you get out there you think, ‘Holy crap, this is a big piece of property.'”
The sandy soil is great for vegetables, she says.
“In April everything grew. When you plant 300 feet of carrots, you suddenly say, ‘How the heck do I get these out, and what do I do with these?'”
Gustafson also planted onions, potatoes, radishes, turnips, beans, peas, squash and watermelon.
Then it rained almost every day in May and, “I went out in the fields and my boots sank in up to my knees,” Gustafson says. “The sandy soil made it quicksand.”
No farm work could be done. “It’s like nature cut things down to a manageable size. God knew we couldn’t handle it this year.”
Last weekend she salvaged, “a couple bushels of beans and some other things. But the weeds were totally out of control.”
Market fees can be expensive. Gustafson paid more than $200 to reserve a weekly Riverside market space. She paid $500 for liability insurance.
“I thought, ‘How many carrots do I have to sell to cover that?'”
It was a learning experience, she says, with a laugh.
“I have a sense of humor, but I’m tired of learning experiences.”
Expanding her home garden
Retired nurse Carol Rodriguez, 64, always grew vegetables and flowers as an antidote to work. For 40 years she labored as a staff nurse in an industrial steel mill and a tobacco factory.
Five years ago, when she and her husband bought land in Princeton out in Bureau County, she suddenly had a couple acres to expand her garden. Using no pesticides or commercial fertilizers is important for her family.
“We know what we’re eating,” Rodriguez says. “We can’t know that in [food from] a store.”
Rodriguez delights in trying new varieties and heirloom plants. Some of her favorites this year are “8 ball” round zucchini, touchstone gold carrots, heirloom beans (appaloosa and china yellows) and beets, turnips, patty pan squash and neon-light Swiss chard.
Pesticide-free growing has drawbacks, she admits.
“These cabbages were twice as big, but they were so slugg-y this year, I had to peel off half the leaves.”
The May rains destroyed this year’s broccoli and cauliflower crops. Producing attractive produce is time-consuming. She spends lots of time “grooming” her vegetables. “My four grandchildren field-clean carrots right out of the ground,” she says.
It’s a lot of hard work, and Rodriguez is realistic that she won’t get rich selling her produce at the market.
“My husband asked me, ‘Did we earn enough money to pay for the ice today?'” she laughs.