A Labor of Love: Smart Farm Provides Produce, Education for Barrington

From a sustainable gardening venture to a powerhouse for local food pantries, this Barrington-area nonprofit is touching lives across our region.

Mia Spade and farm manager Chris Cubberly are two staples of Smart Farm, in Barrington. Smart Farm grows and donates roughly 16,000 pounds of produce each year.

More than a decade ago, Kathy Gableman started kicking around an idea. The Lake Barrington resident wanted to teach her community about sustainable gardening, and to do so in a way that helped to local food pantries with healthy produce.

The result was the nonprofit Smart Farm.

“Kathy started the farm in 2009 with help from some close friends,” says Stacy Cushenbery, farm coordinator. “She wanted to start simply and see where it would go from there.”

Where it went was beyond Gableman’s wildest expectations. Smart Farm quickly grew into a 3,000-square-foot community garden run by a small staff and a dedicated volunteer base. Together, they donated more than 1,000 pounds of produce to local food pantries in that first year.

Smart Farm got a boost when Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, in Barrington, offered the nonprofit a $1 lease for land on its campus. Today, Smart Farm operates out of a spacious greenhouse that was built in 2012 with a grant from the Barrington Area Community Foundation, and it has capacity for staff offices, a kitchen and meeting rooms.

In 2013, Smart Farm donated more than 6,700 pounds of produce to food pantries, and the trend continues to this day. Smart Farm partners with eight pantries from Barrington, Cary/Fox River Grove, Palatine, Carpentersville and surrounding areas. Deliveries and pickups are made on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Smart Farm also works with nutritionist interns from Harper College, who come to look at the produce and write healthy recipes to share with the food pantries.

One of the recipients of Smart Farm’s efforts is D300 Food Pantry, a school-based food pantry serving more than 1,200 families in northern Kane and southern McHenry counties. Craig Raddatz is the group’s founder and has been working with Smart Farm for five years.

Raddatz picks up crates of lettuce, turnips, radishes and other items once a week.

“In the food pantry industry, the most expensive items for families to purchase are fruits and vegetables,” he says. “It’s a critical part of a healthy diet for families. When we can get fresh produce donated straight from a farm, you can’t get any better than that. What we’re getting from Smart Farm will typically last our families about two weeks.”

Cushenbery joined Smart Farm as coordinator at the beginning of this year. Her responsibilities include documenting and devising the farm’s strategic plan for the next 20 years. She previously spent 10 years working on sustainable farm planning for Midwest farmers in Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan. “I would sit down with farmers at their kitchen table to discuss everything from their farm operations to finances and planting,” she says. “My entire career has centered on agriculture, so joining Smart Farm was a good fit for me.”

The entire staff is new at Smart Farm. Farm manager Chris Cubberly has 15 years of farming experience, and he’s also worked in the restaurant business. The other full-time employee is Mia Spade, who recently joined the team as program manager. Spade’s role will be to work with volunteers and special events.

Smart Farm relies on volunteers, but that program was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The staff is in the process of ramping it up once again.

“We’re reassessing how many volunteers we need on the farm at one time,” Cushenbery says. The goal is to have 10 volunteers working on the farm each week to handle a variety of jobs including harvesting, planting and packaging produce for the food pantries.

Planting usually begins in March, but that’s subject to change. “This year we started planting in March, but the goal is to grow year-round thanks to the hoop house,” Cushenbery says. The hoop house is a small, semi-portable structure that can be used for starting seedlings and raising vegetables that rely on warmth. “Heading into 2022 we want to harvest in March, as opposed to planting in March, and go longer than November with our greenhouse.”

Smart Farm works from a philosophy called permaculture gardening, which is a holistic approach to gardening using natural forces like the sun and rain to provide food, shelter and water for crops.

Smart Farm is run by a small staff and a dedicated volunteer base.

“The education component of Smart Farm comes from Kathy, and the premise is that food is our best medicine,” says Cushenbery. “The best way to take care of ourselves is to eat a healthy diet. Part of the farm is in permaculture design. The farm mirrors the ecosystem. That is a cornerstone of Kathy’s work and passion.”

Smart Farm grows everything from carrots to Swiss chard and everything in between.

“We raise crops organically in a responsible way,” says Cushenbery. “We grow annual peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes, and bi-annually we grow strawberries as well as more permanent food sources like blackberries and raspberries.”

Cushenbery hopes in the future to raise chickens for eggs.

In 2015, the farm purchased a tractor for cultivating the soil. The land that produces the fruits of their labor is sacred, and the staff treats it as such.

“We need to give the land a rest,” says Cushenbery. “There is a real need to discontinue growing in the same spot. If we can expand and have more opportunity to rotate our crops, we can protect our water and soil quality. We need to put back what our vegetables are taking out.”

Soon, Smart Farm plans to open a market stand so the community can purchase produce, including honey made from three beehives on the farm. The market also opens a new revenue stream for the farm, which is funded solely by grants and donations.

“The community has been so supportive of Smart Farm,” says Cushenbery. “We want to be respectful of the support we’ve received, but we also want to show the community that we can be financially independent and give back, and not rely so much on grants as we have in the past.”

There are other big plans in the works. Smart Farm hopes to welcome back area students in 2022, after school trips were shelved during COVID. Another item on Cushenbery’s to-do list is to form a board of directors and an advisory board.

Smart Farm raises several organic crops, including carrots, Swiss chard, lettuce and turnips.

Cushenbery is excited about the future. While Gableman, the founder, has taken on a more advisory role, the new staff, Cushenbery says, is ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

“Our team comes with a ton of experience, and we’re deep analytical thinkers,” she says. “Every bit of the farm needs to be examined, along with the community’s needs. What do people want from Smart Farm? Is there an appetite in the community for Smart Farm produce, or more programming, or more consistent volunteering? We’re eager to find out those answers.”

To Raddatz, from the D300 Food Pantry, Smart Farm has already filled a tremendous void.

“The staff and volunteers are people who love to give,” says Raddatz, who has occasionally volunteered at Smart Farm. “They’re always smiling, willing to answer questions and helpful. They’re always trying to come up with more ways to help our community. We’re fortunate to have them here.”