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    Pumpkin patch gives farm a new life

    A mother’s desire to ensure that each of her three sons had pumpkins to carve for Halloween, spawned a pumpkin farm operation that gave new life to a family farm and is still going strong after 30 years.

    “In 1977, when our three sons were young, my wife decided to plant pumpkins in the garden so they would have Halloween pumpkins,” related Chicago Farmers’ October meeting speaker Bruce Condill, of The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur, Illinois.  “The patch did well and increased in size over the years. So much so that the boys set up a farm stand and sold the pumpkins. The proceeds paid for seeds for the next crop. We also invited our boys’ classes from school to visit our working farm, see the pumpkin patch, select a pumpkin to take home, and interact with our animals.”

    In 1988 when a severe drought threatened the Condill family’s corn, soybean, and alfalfa crops, those pumpkins sparked an idea to sustain the family farm, which had been in the McDonald family (Bruce’s wife’s family) for five generations. Mrs. Condill’s family migrated from Virginia to Arthur, Illinois, in 1859. “We were struggling in 1988 with the cash crops,” said Bruce.

    “My wife suggested that we expand the pumpkin patch with a variety of displays and mazes and open our farm to the general public,” said Bruce.  “It was a great idea. I don’t think we would have made it without The Great Pumpkin Patch.”

    Today, The Great Pumpkin Patch, which sits in the middle of Amish country, welcomes more than 60,000 people during the harvest season, which runs from September 10 through October 31.The farm is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It grows 300 varieties of pumpkins, squash, and gourds on 63 of the farm’s 200 acres.

    “We have three missions: the Homestead Bakery, the Great Pumpkin Patch, and Homestead Seeds,” said Bruce. “Amish bakers produce the baked goods for the bakery. Our son, Mac, is in charge of Homestead Seeds.   Our goal is to encourage the ordinary farmer to grow more gourds, pumpkins, and squash. Mac and his wife, Ginny, also own and manage The Homestead Bakery and The Great Pumpkin Patch.”

    He went on to say that the farm provides a safe place for people to experience the harvest season and get connected to the land and each other.  “We want them to know where the food they eat begins,” said Bruce.

    Squash, gourds, and pumpkins have a range of maturities from 70 to140 days.  Plantings are intended to be done on May 20, June 10, and June 20.  “This year was wet, which altered the intended planting dates, and was not good for pumpkins, but great for soybeans and corn, which we still raise,” said Bruce. “When the growing season is ended, we disk the remaining pumpkins into the soil and then soybeans are planted the following spring. When the soybeans follow the pumpkin crop, they are three to 12 bushels better per acre than when they follow corn. The pumpkins are a great fertilizer.”

    He noted that Mac is an expert on pumpkins and gourds.  He works with seed companies and sometimes grows experimental seeds.  Mac also works with botanical groups from around the world and with university specialty crop people.  Bruce noted that Mac appeared on the Martha Stewart Show three times to discuss gourds and the many varieties that are available. The Great Pumpkin Patch also was featured in an issue of Martha Stewart’s magazine.

    “The Great Pumpkin Patch has many unique ways of displaying all of the varieties that Mac has introduced to the farm,” said Bruce.  “The Patch boasts a Survivor squash, which came from a Kentucky farmer whose seeds came from a Holocaust survivor, thus its name.  The Patch has African, Asian, European, Australian, New Zealand, and Central and South American gourds, pumpkins, and squash.”

    The heirloom seeds used in the 63 acre pumpkin patch are purchased from commercial and private seed companies and also include seeds raised by Mac in his isolation plots.  These plots are planted at least one-half mile from any source of a cucurbit vine plant.  Bruce said that neighboring farmers allow them to use plots on their land so that seed purity is assured. Seeds are not taken from the large pumpkin patch because of the risk of cross-pollination.

    While the Great Pumpkin Patch is a highlight of the farm, there also are mazes, animals, and a restored one-room 1912 schoolhouse. The school and other attractions bring 4,000 school children on field trips to the farm in October.  In June, the farm sponsors the “Back Forty,” which is a Hob Nob arts and crafts event that features 75 vendors, crafters, and musicians. In the past, the Condills were hosts of “Farm to Fork” dinners that were attended by 100 diners at $80 a plate.

    “It was a five course dinner that included meat from our Amish neighbors’ farms, vegetables that were locally sourced, and wine from a winery,” said Bruce. “It was a wonderful way for people to learn about the source of food. It connected the farmer to the chef and to the people who ate the food.”

    The Great Pumpkin Patch also has been responsible for decorating Country Living fairs throughout the United States with its many gourds and squashes and flowers. The farm also decorated the White House grounds one year for a Halloween party. “It was a great experience,” said Bruce.

    This farm reaches new heights

    Two stories above the intersection of Devon and Glenwood Avenues in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood on the North Side and above first floor Uncommon Ground restaurant sits the first certified organic rooftop farm.

    This unique farm was the site of The Chicago Farmers’ 2018 Summer/Fall Program. The September 22nd date was perfect for a day on this organic farm. Blue skies and moderate temperatures contributed to a fun and educational experience for TCF’s group. Coincidentally, the morning of our visit, the rooftop organic farm had undergone its annual audit by the Midwestern Organic Services Association (MOSA).

    Created by Uncommon Ground restaurant owners Michael and Helen Cameron, the 10-year-old rooftop farm is an extension of the couple’s commitment to care for the environment and to provide their restaurant patrons with chemical-free food that is locally sourced. The rooftop organic farm, built on a floating deck, boasts 150 varieties of 70 crops and has 700 square feet of tillable soil. “It is a productive little area,” said Helen Cameron.

    Before climbing a couple of flights of stairs to the rooftop, we visited the restaurant’s patio area, which is shielded from busy Devon Avenue by a tall wooden fence that serves as a backdrop for planters that surround the patio’s perimeter and are filled with organic herbs and vegetables, all of which make their way into the restaurant’s kitchen. Concord grape vines twist around overhead trellises. The grapes are harvested and are incorporated into cocktails, jellies, and syrups. This fall, Helen said, the menu will offer peanut butter and jelly French toast, which is complemented by grape syrup made from the grapes on site. Red and black currant bushes also grow around the patio. The black currants will be used in the making of Kolsch beer by Uncommon Ground’s Greenstar Organic Brewery that is housed in Wrigleyville with another Uncommon Ground restaurant, said Helen. “We surround our patrons with growing food,” said Helen.

    As we made our way to the staircase, Helen pointed out the hops growing on vines that cover the restaurant’s brick wall. The hops too are organic and are sent to Greenstar. The brewery’s craft beer is available at the restaurants. A quick climb up a couple of flights of stairs took us away from the city sounds and sights to the roof, although a traffic light and the top stories of apartment buildings can be seen beyond the roof and reminds you of your location. Keeping in mind Uncommon Ground’s focus on conservation and care of the environment, Helen pointed out three solar panels that occupy a section of the rooftop and noted that the farm’s deck is made of recycled, reclaimed decking material.

    Helen introduced Allison Glovak-Webb, the city agricultural spot’s farm director. “Allison is in charge of keeping the place beautiful,” said Helen.

    Allison pointed out the garden beds that fill the deck and explained they were 10 feet by four feet with one foot of soil depth. They are watered via a drip irrigation system that comes from below and rests atop the beds, releasing a slow drip of water. Watering of the plants occurs twice a day for 20 minutes in peak season, said Allison. These beds produce about two pounds per square foot of growing area. There also are Earth boxes that are two feet by one foot planters that sit at the ends of each bed. They are watered from below via a water reservoir that is filled by hand from above. The Earth boxes provide about four pounds per square feet of produce.

    Allison went on to say that the planters are amended annually with Purple Cow organic compost. Initially, Happy Frog soil was used to fill the beds, but it is no longer organically approved. Currently, if soil has to be added to the beds, Allison uses Sunshine Advanced #4.

    Plants such as carrots, basil, squash, parsley, peppers, leeks, and edible flowers fill the densely packed beds and vines of beans grow on rope trellises that run along the length of the beds. The rooftop farm and the downstairs patio produce about 1,500 pounds of produce per year, said Helen. In the peak season, the two growing areas produce 10-20 percent of the restaurant’s produce. Annually, they produce two to three percent. Local suppliers supplement the restaurant’s other needs. Grassfed beef, pork, and chicken are sourced from Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

    “No one else was doing this when we started the rooftop farm so there was not a prototype,” Helen said. “We developed a system that works. We need to be sure that it is a cost effective venture and we want to be an example. It was important to determine how to do this without chemicals. We figured out the puzzle to make it work and we hired a great farm director, Allison. We selected the crops we like the best and that add a lot of value. We are able to manage the cost of input and the labor. We also have an organic garden on a smaller scale at our Wrigleyville site.”

    Helen’s one regret is that they are not able to compost the debris from the farm because they are in the city and composting is not allowed. The debris is hauled away, but it is costly to have it returned as compost to Uncommon Ground.

    Allison noted that all of the plants are grown from seed; some are planted directly into the planters and others are started in a grow room in the restaurant’s basement. “Most of our summer crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, are started downstairs,” said Allison. “We source our seeds from several catalogues. Among all these catalogues we have more than 3,000 varieties of tomatoes from which to choose. As a result, our organic farm has a large variety of tomatoes.”

    Allison said that she is able to harvest winter vegetables into the first week of December, weather permitting. When the rooftop plants are finished for the winter, Allison said that hairy vetch is used as a cover crop because it pulls nitrogen from the air and deposits it into the soil. It is a vining plant that helps to hold the soil in the beds. In the spring the vetch is chopped up and turned over into the soil.

    Helen noted that Allison has interns who work with her during the summer on the rooftop and patio crops. At the end of their time at Uncommon Ground they complete a summer project. “The young people are learning about growing and harvesting,” said Helen. “We are growing people who can grow food.”

    We ended our visit with a sampling of appetizers available at the restaurant. It was the perfect ending to our day on the rooftop farm.

    How tariffs are affecting agriculture

    Dr. Gary Schnitkey, the speaker at the Chicago Farmers’ September 10th meeting, opened his presentation with positive news for a large audience: 2018 will be a good year; yields will be high and incomes will be higher, too. Dr. Schnitkey, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, has opened a number of the Chicago Farmers’ new seasons with presentations on trends in agriculture. These meetings always draw a large attendance and this September meeting was no exception.

    While Dr. Schnitkey led off with good news about 2018, he said that 2019 probably would not fare as well due to the tariff proposals. “Next year is a year of concern because people are uncertain about what the trade dispute will do to prices,” said Dr. Schnitkey. “If you are a landowner, you will have to have tougher discussions with your renters.”

    Dr. Schnitkey said that in 2018, corn fetched $4.00 a bushel and soybeans fetched $9.50 a bushel, “Prices fell after May due to the trade discussions so don’t budget these prices for 2019,” he said. “We are predicting corn could be at $3.50 per bushel and soybeans could be $9 per bushel. The trade dispute has dashed people’s hopes for higher prices. Until there is more clarity or a resolution to the trade dispute, these are the prices that we project to be in place.”

    Soybeans have been at the $9.75 level since 2014, but trade discussions began in May and prices dipped. Dr. Schnitkey related that on Friday, September 7, the bushel price for soybeans in Decatur was $7.94. “We can expect a range between $7.94 and $8.20 for soybeans and just below $4 for corn throughout the harvest period. I suggest you build your expectations at these prices for next year.”

    Dr. Schnitkey pointed out that there would have been price declines even without the trade issue due to high yields, but the trade talks have taken another $0.80 to $0.90 off the price of soybeans.

    Additionally, corn prices are expected to fall going into 2019. Corn will look more profitable than soybeans and, as a result, farmers are switching from soybean crops to corn crops, which will depress corn prices. Dr. Schnitkey noted that western states are switching to wheat from soybeans. “The downward trend of soybeans will affect other crops. The trade dispute will have a long-term impact on prices just by being there,” he said.

    In discussing yields, Dr. Schnitkey said that since 2014 soybeans and corn have produced above average amounts in Illinois. “A plateau was created, but that does not mean that those yields will always be there.”

    Regarding cash rents, Dr. Schnitkey said that reports prior to the trade discussions indicated that 2018 cash rents experienced about a $5 increase. “Where it goes in 2019 is a big question,” he said. “Land values are holding relatively well and major declines are not projected. They are not making any more farmland and that is a motive to hold assets; however, we could see declines if the trade dispute continues. Landowners might want to consider using flexible or variable cash rents going forward.”

    In response to an audience member’s question about lenders’ attitudes during this period, Dr. Schnitkey said that lenders have watched working capital decline on farms and it is possible they will become more proactive. He said lenders want to see a positive cash flow. “If a farmer has carry-over debt, the lender expects that farmer to sell assets to wipe out the debt.”