Work never stops at Heritage Prairie Farm

 
 
  • Swiss chard flourishes as farming goes on through the fall at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn.

    Swiss chard flourishes as farming goes on through the fall at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Carlos Palomares and Delia Hollbach harvest leeks at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn.

    Carlos Palomares and Delia Hollbach harvest leeks at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Farm manager Ted Richter packs produce at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn.

    Farm manager Ted Richter packs produce at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Carlos Palomares heads back to his truck with a tray of freshly harvested lettuce at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn.

    Carlos Palomares heads back to his truck with a tray of freshly harvested lettuce at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Leeks are harvested at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn.

    Leeks are harvested at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Pepper destined for a farmers market wait at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn.

    Pepper destined for a farmers market wait at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Sunflower seeds sprout at Heritage Prairie Farm.

    Sunflower seeds sprout at Heritage Prairie Farm. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Published: 11/4/2009 12:16 AM | Updated: 11/4/2009 6:39 AM

By now, most of us have picked the last tomatoes from our gardens, uprooted the shriveled zucchini vines and canned that last jar of peach jam. With our harvest (however large or small it may have been) a pleasant memory we take the next six months off and occasionally day dream about next year's plot.

There's no such rest for the farmers at Heritage Prairie Farms near Geneva.

Even on unseasonably cold and rainy days in October, farm manager Ted Richter and his crew harvested Swiss chard, beets, celery root, fennel and other vegetables still growing at the organic farm.

"We have six acres, but we farm one acre in six plots very intensely," Richter says. Once parsnips and carrots are pulled from the soil, the ground gets turned, prepped and planted for a new crop.

One recent afternoon Richter's crew, with the help of volunteers from a local farm education program, pushed portable greenhouses through the mud to new plots in order to protect chard, spinach and other greens from the harsh Illinois weather.

Under roofs of other such greenhouses, tomatoes continued to ripen on 8-foot-tall vines while their cousins outside had fallen victim to an early frost, ruby and pale green fruits awaiting a harvest that will never come.

"With the green houses, we can harvest (tomatoes) all the way until Christmas," Richter says.

During autumn weeks the full-time farm crew, which includes Nate Sumner and Carlos Palomars, uproots heirloom turnips, beets and leeks and preps them for sale at farmers markets in Geneva and Chicago that continue to operate after most other area farmers markets have closed for the season.

"There's a ton of stuff still growing - arugula, asparagus, lettuce - outside as well as in the houses," Richter says.

Spinach, especially, and some root vegetables benefit from frosty conditions, growing sweeter each time the mercury dips below 32 and rises again.

"Spinach you can get in January is the best spinach you'll ever have," farm director Portia Belloc Lowndes says.

Lowndes, long a supporter of the Slow Food and local food movements, manages the books and operations (including classes, camps and green weddings at the farm) while Richter oversees the farm's four-season operation. The four-season growing system was pioneered by Eliot Coleman, a Maine farmer, back in the 1970s. Coleman continues to farm his six-acre site year-round and be a strong proponent of small farms and organic farming.

"We're a small farm," Richter says. "This (four-season farming) allows us and other small farms to compete with larger farms.

"It's about using the land most efficiently," Richter says.

The portable green houses and smaller "hoop houses" (a tunnel-like structure covering 100-foot long rows of plants) allow plants like onions, kale and bok choy to continue to grow through the winter and keep the soil from freezing so spring planting doesn't have to wait until after the last frost, generally in May.

After the last of the winter vegetables have been harvested in March, "we close up the green house and get it as hot as we can," Richter explains. "On April 15 we're planting and we're a month ahead of those waiting for the last frost. It's a no brainer. If you can, you have to do it; it's the only way (for local farms) to complete against California and Georgia.

"We were the first to market with local tomatoes this year," he says. "We gave customers a good product and they stayed with us all season long."

On days when they're not heading to the markets, the crew clears the land and plants seeds for tiny tender salad greens that will be sold to chefs at restaurants in and around the suburbs.

"The work here never stops," Richter says.

"Every three to four weeks a new crop is going in," says Lowndes. "We don't like to have any unused land.

Lowndes spends many of her fall days in the kitchen, creating soups, tarts and other dishes from the produce that wasn't "pretty" enough to go to market.

"I'll cook whatever they bring me," she says eyeing a crate of bruised beets. "Nothing goes to waste; I'll turn these into beet soup."

Apples grown on the farm become tarts and get churned into cider sold at farmers markets and at the farm store. Heritage Prairie Market also sells honey processed on the farm, as well as locally produced eggs, cheese, meats, grains, wines, beer and other beverages.

She also consults with suburban and Chicago chefs to determine what specialty and heirloom produce they want on their menus next spring so they can get it in the ground now.

"If we were just a farm doing cucumbers and plain Jane tomatoes, we wouldn't make a dime," Lowndes says. "We got $90,000 worth of produce out of 1 acre.

"When you grow for the chefs and grow products you can't get at a major grocery store, you can charge a higher price," she says.

And once diners see it on restaurant menus, she explains, they want to be able to cook it in their own kitchens and that increased awareness and demand will allow the farm to continue to prosper.