I meet Bob and Jennifer Borchardt in a parking lot in Edgewater. As soon as I walk through the gates I realize this is no ordinary parking lot; long wooden tables are crammed with buckets of colorful organic produce from the couple’s Wisconsin farm, Harvest Moon. An area is set aside for dining under the stars and a bartender is handing out miniature flights of organic sangria. This is Farmer Fridays at Uncommon Ground on Devon, one of the most intimate farmers’ markets to hit Chicago and it’s fast becoming something of an institution.
What’s all the more remarkable is that this is Harvest Moon’s first growing season. Drawn to farming by her love of food, last year Jennifer abandoned an 18 year career in publishing to learn organic farming from scratch. A side table is laden with the fruits of her labor. Buckets of heirloom Brandywine tomatoes sit beside bowls of golden beets and clusters of Aunt Molly’s ground cherries. Violet Queen cauliflowers, Napoli carrots – dubbed ‘candy carrots’ by organic guru Eliot Coleman – and yellow tomatillos complete the picture. Everything smells and looks great.
“I needed a new challenge” Jennifer tells me, as she slices juicy tranches of golden-fleshed watermelon for customers to sample. “I had been working in publishing for years and years and I was excited to try something new. Bob and I have always been passionate about working in the food business, promoting the importance of organic produce and looking after the land around us. Starting an organic farm seemed the right thing to do” she says.
The seeds of change were planted two years ago. “I found an exotic head of garlic on a trip to a farmer’s market in Telluride. When we came back to Chicago we tried to find something similar. Then we thought, why not try to grow our own?” Jennifer smiles.
At around the same time, Bob, who devotes most of his time to production company Cuisine Populaire, had recently returned from filming in Argentina, where he was taken aback by the variety and availability of fresh, local produce in markets. Next came an ad on Craigslist for a farm in upper Wisconsin, prompting the hunt for the perfect property, finally establishing Harvest Moon in Viroqua. Now Jennifer works in the field, supervises crop production and along with her husband, delivers their CSA boxes and fresh produce to customers and a growing number of acclaimed Chicago restaurants. Coursing through this is their desire to boost sustainability in the small farm community and encourage local buying wherever possible.
The couple has travelled extensively, and Bob’s European, Asian and South American food and wine related filmmaking adventures shine through in speciality crops like d’Avignon radishes and Morado Gigante garlic.
“One of the things is that there’s obviously a very large green movement in this country – and in others, too – and this was a way for us to treat the land with as much respect for longevity as possible, and to actually find a way to be in the food business. It’s great that I can be away filming in Tokyo and come back to have some downtime on the farm in Wisconsin” adds Bob.
Beyond the educational program they are ready to launch and Bob’s films, which explore culinary training and gastronomy, the couple is bringing a new approach – and a splash of culinary wisdom combined with responsible growing techniques – to conventional farming methods. Inspired by Brillat-Savarin’s classic culinary bible ‘The Physiology of Taste’, their culinary approach to growing has led to a synergy with chefs, and a nurturing of the relationship between the soil and the things that find their way to our plates.
And yet they are the first to admit that there can be nothing better than going back to basics. Their favorite recipe from Harvest Moon produce is a simple pasta dish with Amish butter, one of their 17 varieties of garlic and good old heirloom tomatoes.