Our local farms produce a bounty of good food, and not just in summertime. Chris Linden visits a unique year-round farmers’ market that celebrates the joys of local food and small-scale harvests.
If you were handed a purple pepper, would you know how to cook it?
Izabella Kowalski knows that no question is too silly when she’s educating shoppers at a farmers market.
“I can’t laugh at customers when they say to me, ‘what do I do with this purple pepper?’” says the co-owner of Pure Prairie Farms, in St. Charles. “I have to realize they’re not being smart alecks – they genuinely want to know what to do with a purple pepper. After all, how often do you see a purple pepper?”
Look around any grocery store, and you’ll see fruit and vegetables shipped in from all around the globe. But at the year-round Geneva Green Market, you’ll only find those grown within 200 miles of this Fox River town.
Green Market vendors always have something in season. In spring, farmers sell freshly harvested radishes, asparagus and greens. In summer, they sell everything from sweet corn to kale, and in fall, they sell carrots, fruits and squash. Come winter, you’ll find onions, sweet potatoes, honey and preserves.
The extra effort it takes to eat strictly seasonally is well rewarded. Bite into that St. Charles-raised pepper or that Hampshire-raised melon, and there’s a freshness, a rich flavor that can’t compare with the homogenous products at the supermarket. After all, this fruit was picked just yesterday – literally.
“Lots of times, the customers say they genuinely feel better,” Kowalski says. “They have more energy, they feel more alive, and it tastes better, so they don’t need to add so much salad dressing.”
There’s far more to local foods than eating well. Local food is about relationships, about supporting our neighbors and our local economy. It’s about reducing carbon emissions, and avoiding chemically laden food. It’s also about returning to a simpler, smarter way of capturing our region’s abundant resources.
“The whole thing about buying local is that you know your farmer,” says Mike Petersdorf, of Muirhead Farms, in Hampshire. “I can tell you all about your product, where it came from, how it was grown, what we do to it, what we don’t do to it, and when it’s picked. And, if you don’t like it, we’ll make good on it.”
The Early Crowd
Every Saturday morning from November through May, Green Market vendors gather in the basement of First Congregational Church, 321 Hamilton St. On any given week, about a dozen farmers share their fresh picks: bread baked last night, microgreens harvested yesterday, fresh goat’s meat, warm soup, scones coming out of the oven. A few hundred visitors will stop by, many of them scooping up items for supper.
A customer approaches the stand where Mary Maly sells fresh chicken eggs, brought in this morning from Ferndell Farm, in Newark.
“Do you have jumbos?” the customer asks.
“We don’t have jumbos – I took my hens in for stewing, so the jumbo eggs are down. But I’ve got extra-large.”
“Perfect!” the shopper says, and asks about the chicken meat in the cooler behind Maly.
“I have stewing hens, for something that’s a slow dish, otherwise I have some small whole chickens.”
In early spring, very little is ready for harvest, even when it comes to eggs.
“Hens go dormant if you don’t put light on them,” explains Maly. “Their egg-laying is controlled by a hormone, and the hormone is sensitive to the length of the day. So, if they have a short day, they are not going to continue to lay eggs.”
Offseason, there are other ways to eat well. Maly raises four types of turkeys, as well as guineafowl, a bird that lays eggs and provides meat. Whether it’s chickens, turkeys or guineafowl, the leftover bones make a delicious soup stock, Maly says.
Across the room, Larry Geddes shares a variety of homemade honeys and preserves, made from ingredients raised on his 16.5-acre farm near Delnor Hospital. Whatever he can’t sell at farmers markets during the growing season is creatively preserved.
He makes fruit leather from his homegrown pears, and creates jellies from ingredients such as butternut squash, jalapenos or cranberries. They’re sweet and naturally flavorful, and can complement roasted duck or certain cheeses.
“The only way you can extend the season we have in Illinois is to stock up on what you grew last summer,” he says. “We can either freeze it or can it. Grandma did the same thing, and that’s how they got by – they just lived on what was in their root cellars.”
On the far side of the room, near the kitchen, Connie Weaver is brewing up warm, delicious aromas. No matter the time of year, she and husband Mark transform the farmers’ bruised and leftover produce into delicious dishes.
On a Saturday in early spring, Connie is tending a giant pot of carrot squash ginger soup. The morning’s scones, hot out of the oven, are made with blueberries harvested in Michigan and cheeses produced in southern Wisconsin.
“Our food is minimally processed with simple ingredients,” says Mark, also co-owner of Inglenook Pantry Catering, Geneva. “And, we’re food rescuers. If Izabella has some tomatoes that won’t sell, we’ll use them.”
From Farm to Market to Table
It was a box of produce that inspired Connie Weaver to create the Green Market with Karen Stark. The two Geneva residents had bought into a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), where consumers buy a stake in the harvest of a local farm. The farm produces a bounty of fresh foods for several weeks in a row.
“We bought into a CSA that was on the other side of Naperville,” Connie says. “It was maybe an hour, hour-and-a-half in rush hour traffic to go the farm and pick up our produce. One day, we said, why don’t we start our own farmers market?”
But the two went beyond an ordinary market. Stark had recently survived breast cancer, and was wary of genetically engineered plants, agricultural chemicals and food additives. Educating consumers became the duo’s first mission. Food came second.
The pair modeled their market after Chicago’s Green City Market, held year-round in Lincoln Park. Like that market, which began in 1998, Weaver and Stark founded their market as a nonprofit, and sought to serve foodies and chefs, while also educating consumers on sustainable food sources.
Since launching the Green Market in 2006, Weaver has secured grants from the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Frontera Farmer Foundation, a group supported by Chicago chef and Green City Market board member Rick Bayless, star of the PBS TV show “Mexico – One Plate at a Time.” Stark has since moved to Philadelphia.
Today, most Green Market farmers come from the greater Geneva/Batavia area, though some fruit producers come from Michigan. Weaver personally vets each vendor, to ensure that they stick with the market rules. Vendors must raise non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) plants, either organically or naturally – distinctions indicating a minimal or prohibitive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and growth agents.
“To be fully organic, you have to go through this process of government certification, and it can be pretty rigorous,” Weaver says. “Here, they can say ‘naturally grown,’ and the farmer can tell the customer that this is how I spray, and this is what I spray.”
Petersdorf, of Muirhead Farms in Hampshire, isn’t shy about educating visitors at the Green Market. He fields a lot of questions about his pest control methods.
In some cases, simple remedies will keep pests away, like a glue-covered ball that traps apple maggots, placing fabric over young vegetables, rotating crops and planting beneficial plants next to each other. But when it comes to cucumber beetles, Petersdorf says he must spray or risk losing all of his pumpkins. And the apple trees have to be protected against fungus.
“I’ll spray about five times, and the last spraying is done about two to three weeks before harvest,” he says. “So, you have to ask yourself, is that a concern for you? I was honest with one woman last year, and told her that the last spraying had been done two or three weeks ago. She looked at the apples and thought they were just fine. Grocery store apples are often sprayed every week.”
Petersdorf carries 18 varieties of tomatoes, so he also can explain the differences, or share samples.
“You buy local and you’re getting it when it’s ripe, when it’s supposed to be picked,” he says. “I’ve had people who say, ‘I really don’t like melon.’ But we’ll give them a cut of our melon and they’ll say, ‘Oh, this is so juicy, and it’s so flavorful.’ Well, that’s because we picked it when it was supposed to be picked.”
Kowalski sees that same reaction at her booth, though it’s usually from curious youngsters. Her table has a “Touch and See” box for children.
“I want to encourage that curiosity about food,” she says. “Last summer, I had parents that would come by because little Suzie loves our tiny yellow tomatoes. Nobody else in the house will eat them, but she sampled them and fell in love with them. If children want to try a yellow tomato, please allow it, because it could make a difference.”
Beth Neu, of Batavia, has noticed a big difference between store-bought eggs and Maly’s farm-fresh eggs.
“The yolks are so much tastier and richer,” says Neu. “We’ve noticed a huge difference, my husband and I, and our dogs – they love the eggs. And her chicken products, I have not come across any chicken in the grocery store that compares with the tenderness and the flavor of her chickens.”
Maly’s strictly humane-raised fowl also feed on seeds and foraged foods, such as grasses, bugs and worms.
“These eggs have a more colorful yolk,” she says. “The more colorful the yolk, the more intense the color, the more nutrition it has for you.”
There’s more to local food than good eating. In fact, the 8,100 farmers markets held in the U.S. last year also produced a tangible economic benefit.
Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that every dollar spent at a farmers market generates 58 cents in additional economic benefit, and every dollar earned by farmers generates an additional 47 cents in economic income.
A study in West Virginia showed that farmers markets there could generate $656,000 in labor income and almost 70 full-time jobs – enough to outpace big-box supermarkets.
Geneva Green Market’s vendors are mostly small, family-owned businesses. Petersdorf works land that has been in his wife’s family since the Civil War. Geddes has owned his farm for 25 years. Kowalski and her partner, Bill Sheffler, started in 2010, inside an old flower nursery; they currently rent 4.5 acres from the St. Charles Park District. Maly, a retired pharmacist, began raising poultry in 2010, on 12 acres that she owns, and has kept chemical-free since 2005. She rents another farm around the corner.
Alicia Butron, of Aurora, serves up homemade Bolivian food at the winter market, relying on recipes her mother taught her in South America. On Saturdays, Butron fries up fresh empanadas, pastries filled with savory or sweet fillings. She also makes cheese bread, chicken couscous and a sweet milk flan.
“She likes cooking and she used to do it at a hospital,” explains her son, Carlos, who joins her at the Saturday market. “She loves cooking for others, and someday, she wants to open her own place. People said we should do a farmer’s market first.”
It seems what’s old is new again. Back in the late 1940s, Bill Kautz’ parents started raising fruit and vegetables, selling them to passing traffic. By the 1950s and ’60s, the family was raising more than 75 acres of sweet corn, supplying local grocery stores and restaurants with fresh produce while maintaining their century-old dairy farm.
“My mother would sell the whipping cream from our cows’ milk and make butter,” says Kautz. “The skim milk was then fed to the pigs, so we had pork raised on skim milk. It was phenomenal pork! You read about people doing this now, but we were doing it 60 years ago.”
Kautz’s family has owned this land along Illinois Rt. 38 since 1864. This summer, he’s using it to support local chefs and farmers by opening a micro-food hub. Buildings on-site will become a wholesale market for local chefs, while fields outside will become testing grounds for those who someday want to launch their own farms. Kautz is even working with Roquette America, an international starch manufacturer located next door. The European-based company supports non-GMO organic products, and partners with Geneva community members on healthy eating programs. Kautz expects to join Roquette in raising local produce on-site and opening a microbrewery. It’s the Green Market, on a chef’s scale.
“We’re trying to help these farmers to build their own businesses, to a point where they’re self-sufficient,” says Kautz. “We’re trying to develop something here that can help them, and feed our community.”
No matter why you support local food, there’s something to be said for knowing where your food comes from, and how it arrived at your dinner table.
“We love telling people that this is where your butternut squash soup comes from, and cream of asparagus soup,” says Weaver. “You can tell them it came from 15 miles down the road.”
Geneva Green Market is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., November through May, at First Congregational Church. From June through October, the market is held just outside the church on Thursdays.