Food Oasis: Illinois' Peasant's Plot


We have been enjoying the bounty of our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share this summer and thought it was time to toil the land with Todd and Julia, our farmers at Peasant’s Plot.  We have been threatening Todd every week at the Lincoln Square farmers’ market, that we would join him for a break-breaking day of farm labor.  The day was upon us, let’s farm.

After a morning coffee and a struggle through the Chicago expressways, open land appeared ahead.  Just past I-80 on I-57, the landscape downshifts from tract-home subdivisions to the no less vapid fields of inedible corn, with an occasional industrial plant thrown in.  Illinois’ proud corn and soybean fields teem with about as much life as throw rug.  Since most of Illinois’ corn and soybeans is the Roundup-Ready-Monsanto variety, the applied pesticides and herbicides destroy all life, aside from the crop, of course.  These crops are then processed and turned into all sorts of dry goods, from hair dryers and batteries to ketchup and Twinkies.  The use of chemical fertilizers adversely effects everything living downstream via the watershed or downwind via the gentle country breezes.  These chemicals are near impossible to extract from our water supply, which might be behind the recent spikes in Atrazine, a common weed killer that is now being linked to birth defects and abnormalities.  By the way, the European Union has banned this chemical, not because of health risks so much, but only because it could contaminate groundwater.  Leading me to believe there may be other, non-wine and chocolate reasons the French live longer than Americans.

Peasant’s Plot is nestled into a sea of Monsanto’s brew in Manteno, just in between Peotone and the, now defunct, Joliet Arsenal.  We arrived under a steel gray overcast and light mist, but clear skies were ahead, it is always sunny on the farm.  Todd and Julia cultivate on acreage owned by Todd’s family since the mid-1800’s, and after a brief stint in Arizona and Chicago, Todd is back on the land his forefather’s plowed.  Despite the dearth of edible, chemical-free food grown in the area, our Peasant’s grow without the use of synthetic chemicals (USDA organic certification coming soon, I’m told) and have to maintain a vegetated boundary between their edible food and the substances grown adjacent.  As Julia says, “shouldn’t the boundary be on their land!?”  They also do all the other stewardly things edible-food farmers do, like covering ground with manure, using chickens to assist in fertilizing and weed control, and rotate and plant cover crops.

After stashing away our happy hour treats in the fridge and visiting the chicken coop, also know as Todd’s workshop (coop is under construction), we got started on the weeding.  Just down a grass path, about 100 yards from their front door we passed fingerling potatoes, zucchinis, tomatoes, squash blossoms, curly kale, carrots, cucumbers, and then arrived at our office for the day, the lettuce rows.  Our job was to clear the weeds, careful to leave the drip tape and lettuce starts in place.  We rolled up our sleeves and starting pulling, weeds that have gone to seed in the bucket, the rest, toss over your shoulder.  Todd kept us company for a while, we talked about the half-pipe skate board park he built in his hangar sized shed (explains his scrapes and bruises), crazy libertarians, his neighbor who grows corn from afar but parks his fertilizer tanker on his land, a run-in with the Ex-Governor, the farm plans for next year, and corn subsidies.  Todd then left us to finish constructing his new chicken tractor.

A couple of hours and two sore hamstrings later, Todd whipped up lunch and I popped open a few Eliot Ness’ from Great Lakes Brewing.  It was then I realized my favorite part of real-food farming… lunch!  For me, there is such an enjoyment from eating what I sow (not that I sowed this particular lunch).  The cycle of cultivation is one, I contend, you can taste.  The taste is not just what falls on your taste buds, but your labor and connection to the land transformed to taste.  It is the synapse of memory and flavor.

While we munched on the sauteed kale Todd and Julia talked about their neighbors both in Manteno and at the farmers’ market, and I’m still not sure I know which kind of neighbor is more genteel.  Nonetheless, I don’t get the impression Todd and Julia would rather be living any other kind of life.  It takes a hardy personality and perseverance to be a real-food farmer, and those united traits can be tasted in every Peasant produced lettuce leaf, potato, and squash.  After a brief, self-guided farm tour we motored back to the City, taking a little bit of the farm with us, mostly on our shoes.