The author has been contributing a series of monthly essays on the Oak Park Farmers Market. This month’s essay profiles one of the vendors.
I’m a city girl who grew up without a garden. I knew about vegetables and fruit from going to buy them at the grocery store with my parents. As a young adult on a drive in the country, I was trying to impress my companion and commented on the field of corn that we were passing. Turns out it was wheat.
But I recently had the opportunity to visit Nichols Farm in Marengo to see where their produce at Oak Park Farmers Market comes from.
Doreen and Lloyd Nichols aren’t traditional farmers whose ancestors passed the farm down to them. Lloyd was brought up in Niles and Doreen came from a city in Iowa. They lived in Glen Ellyn/Countryside and had goats and a small garden. In 1977, when they learned that DuPage County wouldn’t allow them to keep animals on their property, they looked for a place with more land that allowed animals. They found and bought 10 acres in Marengo. In addition to goats, they raised pigs, a cow, chickens and had a garden. After a few years, they sold the animals and slowly expanded the farmland.
They expanded over time, acre by acre, tree by tree, greenhouse by greenhouse (21 now after adding four more new greenhouses this year). Currently, Nichols Farm comprises 587 sustainable acres, including approximately 100 acres of conservation land.
The Nichols are gracious and friendly people. I spent the morning and part of the afternoon at their farm. We chatted on the deck of their home, then Lloyd drove me around in his John Deere Gator, pointing out the sites and stopping to show me a barn and greenhouse. He also stopped to pick several ears of corn, berries, and cut a watermelon from the vine to take back to Oak Park.
Lloyd and Doreen met while working for TWA Airlines. Doreen was a flight attendant and Lloyd had several different positions, including ramp service and agent. They held down two full-time jobs: airline during the week and farm on the weekends. When they were asked to move to St. Louis for TWA, they opted to go all in with the farm instead.
Their first Farmers Market was in Evanston in 1979, and they have never missed a season with the Evanston Farmers Market. Nichols Farm has been a vendor at the Oak Park Farmers Market since 1982. Before the pandemic, they were a vendor at 15 markets and have cut back to 10.
The bulk of their sales has shifted from primarily farmers markets to CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, where consumers receive a box of in-season produce regularly, and also to bulk-delivering produce to 200 restaurants. If you have eaten at Rick Bayless’ restaurants, you may remember their Salsa Verde, which is made year-round from Nichols’ tomatillos.
I only saw part of the fields and was surprised to learn that they grow 1,000 varieties of fruit and vegetables, including 200 kinds of apples.
Lloyd planted 23 varieties of apples and 450 trees in 1978. He and Doreen also told me that they chose the different types of apples by looking at the seed catalogs, something they still do.
Farmer Chad Nichols, their oldest son, is the face of Nichols Farm at the Oak Park Farmers Market. Chad has two brothers, and all are involved with the farm: sales force, horticulture, and the business side.
I’m always curious about people’s families and asked how they would respond if any of their grandchildren decided on different careers like hedge fund manager or medical professional.
Doreen and Lloyd said they never told their offspring to make Nichols Farm their career. When the boys were little, they played in the truck while their parents worked at the markets. When they got older, they started working the summer markets. Now the grandchildren are also helping. Since many of the Nichols’ grandchildren are young, it’s too early to know if they will follow their grandparents’ or fathers’ career path, but the Nichols’ oldest grandchild is in college and studying pre-med.
Nichols Farm has grown to 40 employees. When I asked how they decide which new items to grow, they said, “Variety is our specialty. We try things and if they go well, we continue.” They also use seed catalogs, experiment, and take customers’ suggestions.
Joy Aaronson is an Oak Park resident, regular Oak Park Farmers Market shopper, and volunteer at the market. She was a regular contributor to Chicago Parent magazine and wrote the Kids’ World column for the former Logan Square Free Press.