Something Old, Something New
History and New Beginnings at Logan Square Farmers Market
In Logan Square, near the historic Illinois Centennial Monument, tables and tents sprouting on Sundays signal another season of the neighborhood’s farmers market. As it enters its fifth season, the Logan Square Farmers Market is welcoming new businesses, artisans, restaurants, and a substantial number of new farms.
Piedt Farms and Radical Root Farm are among those appearing at Logan Square for the first time this year. While the farmers behind these two ventures share a love of the land and passion for quality, there are more differences than similarities—but the differences are as wonderful as the things they have in common.
The biggest difference is age. For Alex Needham and Alison Parker of Radical Root Farm, this is not just their first year at the market; it’s their first year with their own farm. For Michael and Deborah Piedt of Piedt Farms, the land they tend has been in their family for 174 years.
“Our farm was purchased from the government in 1835, when Michigan was still a territory,” Michael Piedt relates. “Being the fifth generation to farm this land is an honor.”
Growing up on the farm was no guarantee Piedt would choose this course, even though he was an only child. However, his sophomore year in high school, he decided he wanted to farm with his dad. Until recently, he and his wife Debbie thought they’d be the last generation on the farm. They had encouraged their children to pursue their own dreams—and perhaps find something less risky than farming. But this year, twenty-year-old Ryan, their eldest, decided he would like to join his father as a farmer. “I felt honored that he would make that choice,” Piedt says. “Now, there’ll be a sixth generation.”
Long years of experience give Piedt perspective on farming. “I’ve always called farming ‘legalized gambling.’ It’s extremely hard work, at times with little reward. We’ve seen blessings, but also disasters—hail, frost, disease, and winter injury to crops. However, even in bad times, God has provided.” While ups and downs have been part of farming since soil was first tilled, Piedt has seen farming in the U.S. change. over the years. A lot of new regulations have been added, some good, some frustrating and bureaucratic. Piedt also observes rather sadly that medium-sized farms are vanishing. “There are big farms, which are usually corporate owned, or there are small farms that retail produce for themselves, but there are very few medium-sized farms left.” With the largest farms covering thousands of acres, the 250 acres of Piedt Farms might make them seem small, but in fact, that makes them one of that dwindling number of medium-sized farms.
Radical Root Farm, at two acres, is a small farm. Husband and wife team Alex Needham and Alison Parker lease their land from Growing Home, a nonprofit organization in Marseilles, Illinois, that helps people pursue careers in agriculture. Needham and Parker acknowledge that their choice of farming puzzled some family members. “Luckily, though, it’s sort of posh to be a CSA farmer these days,” Parker notes, “so one of our family members will occasionally send us some New York Times article about young organic farmers. Then maybe they get it a little more.”
Parker got hooked on the idea of farming when, at an Earth First! meeting, she discovered that there were people selling food they’d grown. “I had tried to have a little vegetable garden in my backyard in high school,” Parker relates, “but I never really thought about growing food as a job.” Needham and Parker pursued farm internships and began volunteering on farms. As a result, even though this is their first year with their own farm, they have a couple of years of practical experience behind them.
Parker and Needham consider caring for the soil a priority. “I want the food to be as nutritious as possible,” Parker states emphatically. “We use only organically approved methods, and our farm is certified organic.” They also focus on plants that will grow well in this climate. While they hope to expand their offerings to include fruit, at present, they are focusing on vegetables. This year, they will be offering greens, carrots, beets, salad mixes, beans, tomatoes—“hopefully a bit of everything!” For Parker, harvesting is the best part of farming. “Growing food makes you feel powerful,” she notes.
Piedt Farms, on the other hand, focuses on fruit, though they also grow vegetables. “My goal is to grow the best fruit and vegetables possible, and I’m willing to spend a little more to do so,” Piedt notes. For him, the best part of farming is seeing the fruit and vegetables mature. Once things begin ripening, they’ll be offering apples (their primary crop), tart and sweet cherries, apricots, peaches, blueberries, grapes, pears, plums, tomatoes, squash, peppers, raspberries, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, beans, egg plant, pumpkins, gourds, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, greens, sweet corn and some herbs.
Both families are delighted by the increasing interest in farmers markets. Parker enthuses, “Before I was a farmer, farmer’s markets were my favorite places to go. There’s a real sense of community there. Local food and local economy, for me, are signs of hope for the future.” Michael Piedt adds that farmers markets are the best way to get the freshest possible produce into the hands of consumers. He also notes that it is a benefit to the farmer, because when you sell to stores and companies, it can take up to two years to get fully paid. He’s also excited about the opportunity the market offers Ryan, who will most often represent the family at Logan Square.
Parker views the increased interest in local buying as being vital for survival. “People need to have easier access to organic food, and have a real sense of food security. The idea that the majority of the food sold in Chicago grocery stores is grown in California really scares me. That seems very temporary to me. We have to start thinking of food security long-term.” Piedt agrees, and adds, “I think we need to support the local farming community and protect the U.S. food supply. Once the farmers quit, it’s almost impossible to bring them back. Protecting American growers is vital to our country’s stability and safety.”
So get out to your farmers market. It’s not just the best way to get the freshest possible produce. You’re securing the future.