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Winter is Coming

“Winter is Coming” – motto of House Stark.

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Winter is coming, at least I thought so. The farm had heavy frost while I was pulling up plastic and now temperatures are back up into the 60’s. The farm is finished for the year and I have had time to reflect on 2017 growing season. We had a lot of successes and failures, similar to previous years. One of the biggest lessons we learned this year was that having a successful growing season doesn’t mean success all around. We had such a great year for tomatoes that we ran out of harvest containers, packaging supplies and storage areas. We did not have the time, space or equipment to process the 8,000 pound of tomatoes we hauled in over a span of four weeks :). This was a good problem but a problem none the less. The situation with the tomatoes caused me to reflect on the original plan for the farm. Are we even able to process excess food coming off the farm to store and redistribute during the winter months? I would say the answer right now would be no. I didn’t realize this until we had a year that was so successful we couldn’t handle what was coming off the farm. Should I plant less tomatoes and focus on storage crops? Are we going to have another weather friendly year next year where if I planted less tomatoes we would still be able to meet demand and maintain that high dollar value?

Tomatoes aren’t the only things in question as I am pretty sure none of the chefs want to see another Japanese eggplant ever again. 🙂

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All in all it was another great season. We grew a lot of vegetables, completed the first year of our SARE grant, met some new friends through The DREEAM House and participated in great events with our friends at The Land Connection, The Stewardship Alliance and SARE. I look forward to conference season, learning valuable techniques and chatting with old friends about their 2017 successes and failures.

I can’t thank the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences enough for this amazing opportunity by letting us lease land. Thank you to Jeremy Shafer for all that you do for us year after year. Thank you Matt Turino for allowing us to share your space and use your wash/ pack facility. Mary Hosier, you are such a great friend. You provide endless support and guidance, thank you. Thank you to The Land Connection for supporting us by sharing our story. I admire what you do for local farmers and the community. Thank you to SARE for providing us a grant to educate and spread the word about the importance of local food and seasonal cooking. Thank you to the chefs for supporting the farm with a special shout out to Jon Curtis, Kitty Kat Szymanski and Paige Pokorny for always saying yes even when you don’t want 20lbs of kale twice a week. Finally, thank you to the Hendrick family for supporting sustainability and making this opportunity possible!

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The Pros and Cons of Plasticulture

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The term plasticulture refers to the practice of using plastic materials in agricultural applications. – en.m.wikipedia.org

We use plastic to cover our bed tops for the majority of the farm. The plastic is laid in the spring and is buried about 4-6 inches on either side of the bed. It is a phenomenal way to control weeds around the plants, cutting down labor and increasing the overall health of the plant itself. It is important to control weeds specifically around the base of the plant to prevent disease and so the weeds do not out compete the plant for space and nutrients.

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While there are many advantages to using plastic there are also many disadvantages.  When lifting and removing plastic at the end of the year it is nearly impossible to remove it in its entirety. The plastic can easily rip causing pollution/ trash in the field, which is bad for the environment. That ripped plastic can also get into mowers and tractors causing mechanical problems. It is a lot of work taking the plastic out of the field at the end of the year, especially when the ground has already frozen.

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There is research being done on biodegradable materials to replace plastic but unfortunately they are still out of most small farmer’s price range.

I am going to rethink the amount of plastic we use in the field next year so that we can be better stewards to the environment while also using different organic methods for weed control.

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Microgreens: Is there a demand in an institutionalized setting?

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Microgreens, young vegetable greens, are all the rage! I first started hearing about them locally from the farmer circuit at conferences earlier this year. I have worked with microgreens for over a decade when I was in fine dining kitchens. I understood the application in that setting where they enhance flavor and stimulate visual appearance to those paying top dollar for their food. I never thought to apply/ grow them at our farm, primarily due to their high cost while working with meager budgets. Microgreens can be as expensive as $30/ 8oz, depending on the variety and where they are sourced.

After hearing farmer’s talk about trying to meet the demands of this new product I started to hear a few chefs within Hendrick House requesting them. I didn’t think there was enough interest to apply it to the 2017 crop so I invest a lot of energy into it.

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Towards the end of this growing season, we had some empty herb beds on the roof and I wanted to fill them with arugula. We were a little late in the season for them to mature to full size so what we got were microgreens. I harvested a small amount for my good friend and fellow chef, Kat, at Pi Beta Phi sorority. Kat, more affectionally known by the farm crew as Kitty meow, has been a huge supporter of the farm and is very knowledgeable about working with fresh produce. She was more than happy to test the arugula microgreens in a composed salad with red onion, feta, watermelon and balsamic reduction. I asked her to provide a very honest review from herself and the girls and she said they loved it!! I hope to sell the rest this week and maybe, after discussion at the 2018 chef workshops, this crop should be considered a contender after all.

 

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The Importance of Conferences

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It is incredibly important to attend local, regional and national conferences. These events are a phenomenal way to network within the industry. It is an opportunity to hear what worked and didn’t work from the previous growing season. It is also a really great way to learn from people who have been in the business for generations. I love being surrounded by people who share their love of local food.

I have spent the last two days at the Illinois Farm Bureau Conference in Bloomington, Illinois. My main reason for attending was to receive my Food Safety Modernization Certificate, which will soon be required by law (Food Safety Modernization Act). I attended a full day Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training yesterday and am now certified. It was such a rewarding experience, giving me the knowledge and tools to write a farm safety plan for Hendrick House Farm. This is important to protect not only consumers, but workers as well. It also gave me great direction in how to assemble a training guide for new employees. This is an area that has been somewhat overlooked in the past because we have had such a revolving door of people at the farm, usually starting during our busiest part of the season. This winter will be a perfect time to assemble our new farm safety program and new hire packet!

 

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And the BEET goes on…

***Click on the red circle for some snazzy tunes***

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We didn’t get the hard freeze we expected last week so “the beet (yellow beets) goes on..” and turnips and greens and onions and even peppers!! I keep expecting and preparing for the end of pepper season but am continually impressed at their resiliency to the cold temperatures. I truly think this is the last week for them but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong nor the last. Keep em’ coming, I say :).

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Turnips, not beets

Turnips continue to come in hot, smelling sensational, but that’s nothing new.

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Hendrick House owns the building the rooftop garden is on so it seems logical to use that space to expand our growing season, since we have control of that space year round. My idea was to put small row covers over the beds to keep them warm through the winter months. This seemed like the perfect solution….. in my head. Applying that was a whole different story. My first thought was to cover the roof with row cover to extend the life of the herbs. I do not want to rip out the beds that were just established with the new plan for the roof that was implemented this year. The row cover ended up being too thin so I took some extra hoop house plastic and planned to cover the beds with that, using the row cover hoops. The growing depth on the roof is shallow and underneath is a very tender membrane, so any structure that is put on the roof cannot be installed deep enough to be secure. I thought the thin row cover hoops seemed stable enough when pushing them through the growing medium…. that was until I tried to attach heavy hoop house plastic to them in 30mph winds with sleeting rain. It was like I was creating my own parachute to fly away. I wish I had pictures but alas I was too busy trying to stay grounded. Back to the drawing board on that project!

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Preparing for the first frost

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Leaves are changing, the air is crisp and our first frost is forecasted for tonight. Justin and I started preparing for this last week when we dismantled our irrigation from the farm and stored it for winter. We broke down the hydroponic system preparing for the farmers to turn off the water. I blew out the lines to the roof irrigation system with an air compressor this morning and now we just sit back and wait. I still have peppers in the ground that are producing but the quality has really diminished and I think these freezing temperatures will finally be the nail in the coffin.

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All the boys are now back in the kitchens, Justin having gone back on Monday. It’s always a sad farewell, especially since I was really hoping to use our season extension tools this year.

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We are on the downhill slide of harvesting our fall crop. Fall crop of the year is definitely our turnips. We grow a variety called Purple Globe. They are round with white bottoms and purple tops and they smell fantastically spicy!

 

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Fall Crops are In!!!

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It was touch and go there for a while with our fall crop. I talked about lessons learned in a previous blog post so no need to rehash. The good news is that the crops that were spared are now mature, harvestable and gorgeous!

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Now that things have slowed down I have had time to reflect on the 2017 growing season and there are a lot of things I am going to do differently in 2018, if given the opportunity. One of those changes will be to grow more storage crops. Storage crops, like beets, onions and potatoes are in such high demand with Hendrick House chefs that we can hardly keep them in stock let alone have enough to store! The key word in that sentence is “store”. The reason we have not done this previously is because I didn’t want to use much land for long season growth (like potatoes that are planted in spring and aren’t harvested until mid fall). When you don’t have much land it’s hard to watch a chunk of it sit for 3 months without production.

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Deciding which crop to focus on and which crop to cut can be tricky. It is incredibly hard to predict what the weather will do from season to season. It could be rainy and cool with heavy disease like the last three years or we could have an intense drought like this year. Also, each chef gets a new round of students in the fall so when we discuss items the chefs would like to grow during our chef workshops in January, it often changes by August and we are stuck with say … 2,000 lbs of unwanted eggplant, just as an example   ;-). BTW, that eggplant is never going to die!!! It’s like miracle eggplant! A month ago it looked like a prop in The Nightmare Before Christmas and now has beautiful foliage AND flowers. Justin and I are going to leave them in the ground just to see if they have enough daylight to produce.

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The eggplant a month ago… Nightmare Before Christmas Style

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It’s a MIRACLE … haha

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SARE Farmer/ Rancher Grant

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When we decided to embark on this farm adventure five years ago I did not take into consideration the educational components that would be involved. After completing the New Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers course through University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences in cooperation with the Extension’s Local Food Systems and Small Farms Team and acquiring a lease courtesy of the Department of Crop Sciences, I was more concerned with the transition of my career and becoming a great farmer. One of the biggest lessons I have learned along the way is that you can plant the ground and grow the crops but if you don’t have a market then the first part doesn’t matter. The goal of our farm is to assist in paving the way for a food revolution, changing the way people eat and think about food. Education is such a major component when focusing on local and fresh food.

 

There is a large disconnect between utilizing fresh, local food in kitchens and institutionalized cooking. Institutionalized food is the forgotten part of the food revolution, where pre-packaged, processed foods are being served instead of fresh homemade food. Processed food is cheap and nutritional guidelines are easier to track and maintain. Also, food service employees have little to no training so it is easier to serve pre-made food that takes less preparatory skill.

 

Children and adolescences have developed palettes for pre-processed food because that is what they are being served.

 

Local farmers are affected because the general population does not connect with the importance of reducing economic viability for these farmers. Small farms are faced with volume challenges when supplying large dining facilities.

 

Identifying and helping to solve these problems are important to Hendrick House because we are in the unique position of bringing change necessary to revamping the institutionalized food system, since we are producing fresh healthy food on our farm. As more chefs in the company purchase Hendrick House farm produce, our farm viability will also increase. It starts with education from all sides of the food chain. If we can change the way a generation looks at food, then it will have a lifetime impact for farmers, individuals, and the community.

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Luckily, there are so many great organizations that are working towards the very goals mentioned above. The Land Connection and Illinois SARE have been instrumental in helping to connect me with people and programs that have put me on the right path with the necessary tools to get the word out regarding local food. Cassie Carroll formerly with the Land Connection, informed me about a SARE grant that I might be eligible for to help assist me with costs of implementing these ideas. I spent the months of October and November of 2016 forming a plan and applying for the SARE Farmer/Rancher grant. For any of you who have written grants you know how tedious it is. There were a lot of revisions up until moments before submission. Cassie and Bobbie, board member and part owner of Hendrick House, were amazing and helped me all the way through until the deadline submission date of December 7.

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For the grant, I focused on targeting four population sectors for education. The first sector is youth in the community. I held a series of workshops for The DREAAM House this summer. DREAAM House is a school to college pipeline program to reach, teach and invest in boys and young men placed at risk with targeted focus on African American males. Thanks to Nicole Bridges, a board member for The Land Connection, she helped me identify curriculums suitable for each age group that attended. We had a scavenger hunt to identify different crops, we learned what it takes to grow healthy plants and we learned how to properly harvest crops for a healthy snack. It was really great to be able to host the children at the farm for the first half of the workshops then move to the kitchens for the second half, showing them both sides of the culinary world and what to make with the produce they harvested.

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The second sector of people I focused on were food service workers within the company. I wrote and assembled a book to be used as a field guide to educate them in health benefits and proper storage and also provide them with recipes to build on when transitioning to farm fresh cooking. (This workbook will be available through the SARE Learning Center and also through The Land Connection.) I am hosting four workshops, three hours long, twice a year during which we will be writing menus for upcoming semesters with the hope that chefs will order more local food and we will discuss reducing food waste by using more in house processing methods.

 

The third sector I am targeting is farmers. I plan to speak at the 2018 Specialty Crops Conference with the intent to increase business for local farms by sharing my knowledge on how to interact with chefs, packaging and receiving and what chefs look for regarding quality and reliability.

 

The fourth sector I am targeting is the general public. I write a weekly blog, which is also featured on Hendrick House Food Service’s Facebook page. I have hosted and participated in local foods dinners at Allerton Park and Retreat Center and also with The Stewardship Alliance for their annual Harvest Celebration Fundraiser. I am doing a market demo with my good friend and fellow chef Alisa DeMarco in October for The Land Connection to promote local food and fresh cooking.

 

Although the grant we received is a two year grant we hope to make a change in institutionalized food that will be ongoing beyond the scope of this grant.

 

Illinois SARE currently has several grants open for calls for proposals: the Partnership Program (deadline is October 26, 2017), the  Youth Educator Program (deadline is November 2, 2017) and the  Farmer Rancher Program (deadline is December 7, 2017).  If you have any interest in any of these grant programs contact Mary Hosier, SARE Project Manager. And follow SARE on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Happy farming and Happy educating!! 🙂

 

 

 

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Fighting the Foes and Folly of Farming

Growing in fall is so much easier than growing in the spring. There are usually less bugs, the days are shorter so the weeds have slowed their growth and the temperatures are usually cooler. Except for this week where temperatures will reach back into the 90’s. Yuck!

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Clearly missing some plants

We had a couple hiccups while trying to get our fall crops in the ground.

Hiccup #1: We had a terrible small animal/ bird pest problem this year. For those of you trying to grow small speciality crops in Central Illinois, I’m sure you can feel my pain. We have been in a terrible drought. Droughts are good and bad for us. The upside to a drought is it keeps pesky disease at bay, which is a great advantage considering the previous years when we have had to fight bacterial spot and septoria. The downside to a drought (and something we struggled with all year) is that the crops are not the only ones that are thirsty. Crows, rabbits, coyotes etc all need water as well. The crows were by far the worst! We have so many holes in our drip tape and lay flat it looks like a ride at Hurricane Harbor. This presents a real problem when you are replanting the same beds with irrigation that was laid underneath plastic mulch.

Hiccup #2: Those same small animals that were thirsty were also hungry. Every time we had an acre of fall crop planted the rabbits would swoop in (overnight it seemed) and eat our tiny transplants. I also think they were so thirsty and the crows were hogging so much of the irrigation water that the poor rabbits were trying to suck out water from the plants.

Hiccup #3: Don’t go on vacation in August if you run a farm. Unfortunately I have been trying to explain that to my family and they just keep planning these big events right smack dab in peak season. Each irrigation line has a valve and you can control whether the bed is watered or not with said valve. This is great for obvious reasons. However, if the lines aren’t constantly walked and each valve checked over the entire three acres of irrigation every time you run the irrigation, then a bed can get easily missed. This isn’t a big deal if the plants are mature but it is a very big deal if they are transplants and are small. Unfortunately, I returned from vacation to a very burned acre of fall crops.

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Where is all the cauliflower??

All in all we replanted about three times, filling in holes as plants went missing. Did I mention we plant on our hands and knees?? It was painful, emotionally and physically. There was definitely a point where we just gave up replanting due to lack of time in the season. The fall crop that did make it is beginning to show signs of life, two weeks behind schedule. I am still holding my breath on the broccoli and cauliflower but hopefully it will mature before we have our first blizzard :).

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There were many lessons learned this year but that is what makes us better. I am contemplating not using as much drip next year, instead switching to sprinklers. I am also definitely not taking a vacation at the beginning of August (forehead slap) :).

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