Hundreds of Oak Parkers flock to the Pilgrim Church parking lot on Saturday mornings each summer and fall, braving crowds and the elements in search of donuts and fresh produce. But they may not know exactly how their tomatoes, steaks, or flowers came to be at the Farmers Market early on Saturday morning.
John Sondgeroth, owner of Heartland Meats, says that when he tells customers he’s located two hours to the southwest, near Mendota, they ask, “How far away from Nebraska is that?” (It’s not too close, about seven hours away.) Semi-city slickers in places like Oak Park just don’t have a clear picture of the rural lifestyle.
“People don’t realize what it takes to get that 5-ounce ribeye to the Oak Park Farmers’ Market at six o’clock on a Saturday morning,” he notes.
But Sondgeroth has an idea about how to get suburbanites to learn about farming: He’s willing to open up a few bedrooms at his farm, and host people each weekend. But since not all of our readers may be able to journey west into the famous cornfields of Illinois, we’ve done a little research on two of the vendors at the market. One sells organic produce, another meat. Here are their stories:
Shucks: Neil Fernandez works furiously for 4-6 hours each Saturday filling bushel baskets with sweet corn to sell to hungry Oak Park produce aficionados. His day starts at 5:30 a.m. His last day, like everyone else’s, is this Saturday.
An organic cure
For six years, Vicki Westerhoff of Genesis Growers, an organic produce farm, was frustrated and suffering. She had chronic fatigue syndrome, and no treatment seemed to be helping. Doctors finally told her she would have to learn to live with her illness.
But Westerhoff couldn’t accept that. She started doing research, and decided to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, eliminate the chemicals from her diet, and take vitamins. What she found, though, was that the products she wanted weren’t available in the area around her home in St. Anne, which is two hours due south of Oak Park. “I thought, ‘This is so silly. Just raise the crops yourself,'” she decided. “I began raising vegetables for myself, and I healed myself.”
Soon, she realized there was a market for organic vegetables. She also began to notice disturbing changes afoot on her 20-acre property. “I saw how our land had died under conventional agriculture,” she recalls. “I could no longer find worms or toads, and the birds were gone.”
Westerhoff decided to start growing as if she were a certified organic farmer. Now, eight years later, when she walks through her fields, she says she often feels revitalized by all the living things around her. A bright neon green dragonfly flies in front of her face, birds sing in the distance, two swallow-tail butterflies swoop up and down in the breeze, and a quail mother and her young keep each other company in the grasses.
Moments like these keep Westerhoff happy with her rural lifestyle. “I can look up at the sky and see the clouds,” she says. “I don’t have traffic, and I don’t have bustle. There’s a calmness and a peacefulness that you just can’t find in a metropolitan area.”
But farming, of course, can also be difficult. Not all of the living things on her farm provide welcome joys-she has a particular hatred for cucumber beetles and squash bugs. And the work week is grueling. “It’s long, hard, hot, dirty hours,” she says, laughing nonetheless. “There’s always one more thing to do. It can be very, very tiring.”
Westerhoff and her eight-person crew rise at dawn or earlier seven days a week during growing season, putting in 12- to 14-hour days. On two market days each week, they’re up by 1:30 in the morning to load the truck at 2:30 and be ready for shoppers at 7. The growing season is not just a few short summer months either. Westerhoff quits delivering vegetables in December, and later that same month she starts growing 50,000 onions in her greenhouses, to be harvested in April.
The work has its pleasures. Westerhoff loves growing heirloom crops-old-fashioned varieties from seeds that sometimes date back as far as the 1600s. And there is time for fun. One of her workers stopped and said to her, “I really miss throwing watermelon across the field-how long till they’re ready?”
Those seeking riches, however, had better find another line of work. Westerhoff says economic conditions for small farmers are “horrible.” They’re not subsidized by the government like their larger competitors, so it’s more difficult for them to afford the necessary equipment, and the costs of traveling to markets to sell produce are high.
It’s worth traveling to the Oak Park market though, she says.
“Oak Park does a phenomenal job supporting farmers. I used to do markets in our little hometown here, and they said, ‘I don’t care what you do to it, just give it to me cheap.’ The people in Oak Park say, ‘Thanks so much for bringing us this crop and sacrificing.’ The Oak Park people make farmers feel appreciated.”
Westerhoff is hoping to increase the percentage of her business that comes from community-supported agriculture (CSA), a program of direct sales to consumers (through subscriptions). Currently, 20-25% of her revenue comes from CSA, about 10% from sales to restaurants, and the remainder from markets like ours.
But Westerhoff sees more than economic gain in farming. She sees a message for everyone. “Often we as individuals look at the big picture and think it’s too big for us,” she says. “But if we each take responsibility for the realm that we live in, big, major things can happen. All I did was work on the little part of the puzzle that I had control over. And it really is one of the most rewarding things to see that our little piece of land has come back to life.”
Cash and carrot: Lloyd Nichols sells a variety of produce and helps people out at the Nichols Farm stand each Saturday from June through the end of October.
Meat at the market?
Unlike Westerhoff, members of the Sondgeroth family have been farming the same plot of land near Mendota since 1903. John Sondgeroth, the fourth in a long line of farmers, never had much interest in doing anything else. “I was born and raised into it,” he explains. “It was in our blood.”
Sondgeroth’s Heartland Meats was one of the first meat vendors allowed into the Farmers’ Market last year. “We’re treading new territory,” he says, excitedly. “The consumer is not accustomed to buying meat at a farmers’ market. We can prove that it can be done, and it can be done very safely.”
Sondgeroth sells Piedmontese beef, which, he explains, is heart-healthy. “You can get a product with half the fat, but still all the taste and tenderness,” he says.
Though they sell very different products, Sondgeroth has a work week that’s just as intense as Westerhoff’s. “Saturday’s the worst day,” he says. “We leave at about 1:30 a.m. and by the time we get back, it’s 8 or 9 at night.” And the next morning, they have to be on the road again at 4 a.m. All told, Sondgeroth and his crew spend about 100 hours a week at farmers’ markets. “Twenty-five weeks out of the year, there’s not a lot of sleeping time,” he laments. “It’s not an easy way of life.”
On days when there aren’t any markets, Sondgeroth is busy making sure crops are grown and his cattle get tended. His business is unusual in that he grows crops for his cattle and markets the meat himself. He is constantly looking for ways to make his business more profitable without turning it into a mega-farm. He runs a meat shop out of the farm, sells beef to well-known Chicago restaurants like Wishbone and Ina’s, and is helping his daughter with a dinner preparation business. Together, those three ventures account for about 40% of sales: farmers markets make up the rest.
Business is tough these days, Sondgeroth says. “9/11, mad cow, and 8% interest all affect people’s buying habits, and beef, being an expensive product, is usually the first thing cut,” he says. “Too many people look at us as an impulse buy, and not as a weekly grocery buy.”
Sales are good, though, at the Oak Park market, which is one of Sondgeroth’s top five favorites. The market is well set up, he says, and he marvels at the way the Pilgrim Church setting changes on Saturday mornings.
“The most unusual thing about the Oak Park Farmers’ Market is that you have to sit on the street until 6 in the morning, and then all hell breaks loose,” he says. “It’s amazing how you see a parking lot transformed in less than a half-hour-from black top to grocery store.”
Sondgeroth does have one reservation. “The only thing I could see we need more is we just need more of a consistent consumer base that uses us as a grocery store. Two-thirds of our sales are impulse-buying. I want to be used more as their primary source of protein and meat products.”
Despite the difficulties Sondgeroth loves many aspects of his work. One of them is the chance to stay close to his wife. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he says. “My wife and I, we work at least a hundred hours a week in the city, for the most part together. After that, then, we’re doing bookkeeping, we’re doing meat carts. You’re working with your partner all the time. Almost 30 years of farming.” If they had to go off to different jobs, he notes, “that’d be really hard. That’s two different lives, but right now we’re together, and we’ve got one life.”
He also obviously enjoys his country lifestyle. “You can see forever,” he says. “A month ago, you could smell the corn pollen. It’s a smell that only comes once a year, and it’s just phenomenal. Or in the middle of January, you have that 6-inch snow that’s just come down, and the sun’s glistening off it.” He pauses, and then adds: “It just doesn’t get any better than that.”