What does your farm name mean to you? How did you choose this name?
"Prairie" has always fascinated us, in part because of its tremendous ability to build soil (or earth) at a rate much faster than any other ecosystem. Dave, the patriarch of the farm, grew up hearing stories of his ancestors settling here in the 1830's and 40's, so he wanted a farm name that reflected respect for the landscape and the people on it.
Where is your farm located? How many miles do you travel to reach Common Ground? How many people work on the farm?
We are located just outside of Atlanta, Illinois. We’re about 60 miles from Common Ground. During the peak of the growing season we have 10-12 employees. That includes 3-4 apprentices that we train each year, a handful of farmers market helpers, a couple of full-time farmhands, some folks that come to work part time to help us harvest, our crew leader Jon and our Wash/Pack Coordinator John. We have a great group of people that we’re really proud to work with.
What do you produce/grow/raise? What is your signature product?
We raise many, many crops on 300 acres of certified organic farm land. We have 12-15 acres for vegetables. The remaining land is in cover crops, pasture for our livestock (grass-fed cows, pastured chickens for eggs and heritage breed pigs), hay, and grains like corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, etc. Beehives are scattered throughout the farm. We also have an acre of restored native Illinois prairie that’s home to our Monarch Butterfly Waystation, two orchards with apple, peach, and pear trees plus brambles like black raspberries and strawberries. Lots of acreage is in conservation programs, riparian buffers, hedgerows and the like. We’re not sure we have a signature product but we know our customers really like our carrots, tomatoes and lettuce. The eggs are so tasty they sell themselves. Hans and Katie handle the fruit, bedding plants and vegetable operation. Dave, who is Hans’ dad and the founder of the farm, is responsible for the livestock and grain crops. Dave’s other son Graham, who is 14, handles the pigs as a way to raise money for his college education. It’s a family operation for sure!
Many of our owners grow some vegetables at home. Do you have any growing tips for our owners?
Two things actually. First, plant some flowers and herbs that will attract beneficial insects. Borage, nasturtiums, anise hyssop, even cilantro (if you let it bolt and leave the flowers). It makes your job as a gardener much easier. You can even plant these in pots if you’re container gardening. Second, source your plants from local farmers if you’re not growing them from seed. Either directly from your farmers (we grow 1000’s of plants for our customers each year), or through Common Ground’s annual plant sale. Buying local plants is great for your local farmer but also your garden. Local plants are healthier, haven’t traveled across the country in a dark semi trailer in less than ideal conditions, been doused with synthetic fertilizers, left out on the sidewalk in the sun all day, improperly watered, etc. You get the point. Plus, the plants are usually varieties the farmers themselves grow. So you know they’re good producers with great taste. Gardening can be a challenge. Why make it even more challenging by starting with unhealthy plants?
For how long have you been farming?
Dave has been farming since the 1970’s. The farm was certified organic in early 2000’s and Hans and Katie jumped on board, adding vegetables, in 2009.
Is the farm your full-time or part-time job? If full-time, how was the transition?
We all work full-time on the farm. It didn’t start that way though. We all had other jobs but due to the great support from our community and our wholesale partners we were able to leave our “town jobs” and focus all of our energy on the farm. There is profound satisfaction and energy from doing what you love and believing in it with your whole heart. Also, we were able to leave our town jobs with some sense of security because we had access to more affordable health care so that really opened the door for us.
Where do you get your seeds?
The vegetable seeds we purchase are certified organic and come from sources such as High Mowing, Johnny’s, Baker Creek and Fedco (another co-op!). Our animals are fed our own organic grain.
Do you use organic or fair trade (natural) farming practices?
We have been certified organic for well over a decade.
What do you enjoy most about farming?
We probably all have different answers to this question, but some of the common reasons we share is our love for the outdoors and sincere appreciation and awe for nature. The personal satisfaction we get when we work hard. The passion we have for connecting with people over food. Our desire to preserve the land we farm and take the absolute best care of it. Our love of education and the opportunities farming allows for us to teach others. There’s so many good reasons to farm, it’s hard to pick one.
What do you find most challenging about farming?
Farming isn’t a job it’s a lifestyle. So it’s easy to take work home with you. It’s easy to let yourself become so absorbed with work that you forget to enjoy the sunset. There’s a learning curve when it comes to dealing with stress and the intensity harvest or planting can bring. Knowing the work and stress ebbs and flows helps, but it’s something only experience will teach you.
How difficult was the process of becoming certified organic, for you?
The record keeping and paperwork is always challenging for us, but the actual process was a continuation of what we were already doing.
Is there anything else you'd like Common Ground's customers to know about your farm?
We absolutely love Common Ground Co-op and all the customers that choose to purchase local products. It was because of that support that Katie was able to leave her full time job and farm with Hans and Dave. It’s because of the Co-op and it’s owners and customers that we were able to successfully sell in Champaign/Urbana in other ways too. We were able to make connections with chefs, we are able to participate in the Downtown Champaign market this year (The Urbana Market a few years back) and open up CSA shares for the C/U community. The Co-op and their customers allow us to grow and accomplish our dreams and for that we are very grateful.
(Photos Courtesy of Katie Bishop)