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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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A Change In Weather

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Chef Antonio preparing Carmen Peppers

The weather has shifted dipping down into the 40’s at night. This change means a slow down for peppers and a finality for tomatoes. We had a great harvest this year so I am not at all disappointed to see them end. We will start to harvest green tomatoes tomorrow before ripping out plants at the end of next week. I know the chefs are sad to see them go which means brainstorming to make the season longer with a later planting next year??

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Fall Radish going to Pi Beta Phi

I am ready for fall and it seems as though it is here. Fall growing is a pleasant shift from the hustle and bustle of spring and summer. It also means less pest and disease problems, which is always nice. We are still very much in a drought so that has kept most disease at bay. Even the crows have seemed to move on to other areas, which means less irrigation problems when we do irrigate.

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OMG this was so good!

The chefs continue to produce amazing food with the local vegetables they have been receiving. I had the most delicious sandwich last week from Hendrick House. Jon Curtis was serving a grilled pimento cheese with peppadews and Carmen peppers, tomatoes and onions from the farm. It really played to my southern roots! Soooo good!

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Chef’s Creations

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We have a lot of tomatoes but I feel like they are stealing the thunder from some other superb crops this year. We had a magnificent potato crop, harvesting nearly 900 lbs. We planted three varieties which were Yukon Golds (my favorite: buttery and delicious), Strawberry Paw Paw’s (beautiful pink color on the inside and out) and Kennebec potatoes. We were able to hold off the pesky potato beetle long enough so that the damage wasn’t killing the actual crop. We also used a tractor implement called a potato harvester which saved us immense back labor. I think everyone was surprised at the ease of this year’s harvest. Once the potato harvester dug out the potatoes from there it was like an easter egg hunt. Slight touch of the sides of the bed to dislodge any remaining potatoes and then just collecting them in a harvest container. Easy Peasy!

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I want to highlight one other phenomenal crop this year and that is the onion. I have no rhyme or reason why this is the first year we have grown them but hindsight is 20/20, eh? Beautiful harvest, no bugs, grown in plastic so very little weeds, 3 months later viola! We sold out of 200 lbs in a week! Very high demand with the chefs. We have another planting in the ground right meow so round 2 will be coming shortly.

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This picture does not do this creation justice! Apologies for the poor quality.

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The chefs are creating some AMAZING meals out of the produce they have been receiving. This is extra great for us as we like to be taste testers during deliveries. Lance the chef of AOPi created a blueberry/ tomato balsamic dressing to highlight his delicious pasta salad, also made with farm tomatoes. It was so delicious and the color was breath taking. I had never heard of blueberry balsamic until now and was very impressed. Those are some lucky ladies.

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It is no surprise to walk into an amazing lunch at Hendrick House. Jon, the chef of Hendrick House is as cool as they come. He is my biggest supporter, never saying no to produce and always finding new and creative ways to incorporate it into his huge operation. I honestly don’t know how he does it. Definitely a person worth knowing if you don’t already.

Thanks to all the chefs these last two weeks. Everyone is taking so much produce that we had to break out deliveries up into two runs. What a great problem to have! 🙂

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Total Eclipse of the Sun

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Happy 2017 total eclipse readers. If you were lucky enough to be near totality I heard it was pretty cool. No rest for the weary though! Me and the farm crew were back at it in full force yesterday, pulling thousands of pounds of tomatoes off the plants…. literally. They say a perfect harvest is supposedly 20 lbs per plant. I know this year we are getting more than that. I have never seen anything like this. It is creating some storage problems but I will take that over some of the other rotten years we have had, pun intended.

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The sororities are in full swing and the rest of the students are heading back this week. We have so many standing orders this year it has been a puzzle trying to piece it all together. We decided to try to get everyone on standing orders before they get too busy into the semester. So far so good. Organization is key! 🙂

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Justin, Rey and I are seeing a lot of our hard work being served during lunch. Chef Jon Curtis and his team have made some really delicious food this summer. I am excited to see what the other chefs do with the same product.

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Starting School

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The end of summer is here and the university students are days within moving in. This means crunch time for the chefs and the farm. We have been busy taking standing weekly orders to be delivered to sororities and fraternities as well as the dorms.

We are still having an abundance of tomatoes. In fact, we have so many tomatoes that we constantly run out of harvest containers and space to store all of them. We are playing a strategic game of jenga two times a week. I know Jon and Adam (two chefs that have been taking all of our produce this summer) are happy to have some relief soon.

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We are still dealing with bird and rabbits out at the farm. It has become a very frustrating problem because there isn’t a sure fire way to prevent the pest damage. The farmers at the U of I have put out a predatory bird caller but that only seems to help for a couple of days until the crows get used to the sound. I thought a dry year would be good for us and it has in some ways. Unfortunately, the crows have been looking for not only food but also water. It is a struggle trying to repair the drip irrigation overtime we need to water. It’s also really disappointing for me and my staff to see beautiful produce become unmarketable due to bites taken out of it. The rabbits are eating our small transplants faster than we can replant. Incredibly frustrating.

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On the bright side, we got our first onion crop of the history of HH farms. They are beautiful and currently curing in the greenhouse!

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