Growing the Ground: My Weekend on an Organic Farm Retreat – Part One

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September 15, 2015 at 6:23 am

Jessica Goes Farming

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Because I have a healthy sense of adventure, a tenderness for excellent produce, and a similar affinity for free stuff, I jumped at the chance to go on a weekend retreat to Angelic Organics farm in Caledonia, Ill. Sent by The Local Beet*, I expected to meet some friendly animals, take some pretty pictures, eat some tasty things and do some yoga. I didn’t expect to sample the best produce I’ve had outside of Europe. But funny things happen on an organic, biodynamic farm.

My mother has always claimed that I am going to grow up to live on a farm due to a deep-seated love for animals (see: birthday requests for a chicken named Penny the Henny since age four). If I ever make that commitment, I hope it’s a farm like Angelic.

Only 90 minutes away from my home in Deerfield, Angelic Organics might as well be another world. A mile off of I-90, the farm smell starts: dense, rich, sweetly rotten. I roll my windows down all the way, breathing in the stench of growth in harmony.

Kicking up dust, I pull into the visitor’s center parking 15 minutes late – courtesy of a forgotten wallet. A wall of corn (as high as an elephant’s eye) blocks my vision on one side as I walk down the gravel path. The squawk of a rooster jars me from my reverie and the smells of wet grass, hay and manure gust in on a soft breeze. The air feels different out here, lighter and softer somehow.

I stop to pet a cat with white boots and a belly swollen with field mice and chipmunks outside the Learn Grow Connect center, the non-profit partner of Angelic Organics; I am one of the last there. We go around in a circle and say our names and why we are there. I say that I am covering the retreat for a website called The Local Beet and please excuse my scribbling. Nobody looks as impressed as I would like.

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We begin the day with a tour of the farm, starting inside the Learning Center itself. With walls made of straw and plaster, it has a lumpy, fairy-tale appeal from the outside. On the inside, twisted tree trunks take the place of load-bearing beams. The floor is uneven and the hot water smells violently of eggs, but like the farm, it is real and unrefined.

We begin to walk around the goat pen, towards a shady grove of large burr oak trees. As we walk, trip leader Katie Townsend begins to tell us about the land itself – how Illinois and much of the Midwest is home to some of the best soil in the world.

“If you haven’t thanked a glacier in a while, you should,” Katie tells us. “The glaciers are responsible for all the mineral deposits that make this soil so dark and healthy.” A five-year veteran of Angelic Organics, she left a comfortable job of two decades in recreation management in order to join Angelic’s Urban Initiative, bringing gardens to nearby cities. During the fall, she spends most of her time on the farm leading school trips and loves her renewed relationship with people and the land.

Katie gestures at some absurdly wooly cows – a Scottish Highland/longhorn stock breed meant to stay out of doors in the winter – and explains how the cattle are moved around the farm so as to evenly distribute the valuable manure they deposit. The animals at Angelic Organics are there for three reasons, Katie explains: meat, milk and manure. Perhaps the most valuable of those is the manure, which helps keeps the soil rich and healthy. The cows laze in what Katie calls the oak savannah, chewing their cud and eyeing us beadily. They are not cute up close.

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Angelic Organics comprises 20-odd acres of farmland as well as grazing space for a small herd of Scottish Highland cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, geese and two very fat cats. Not only is the farm organic, it is biodynamic as well; all parts of the farm work in synchronicity with each other so that everything has input. Food scraps are either composted or fed to the livestock, livestock is paddocked on a rotating basis to enrich the soil, the soil grows some of the most beautiful vegetables I have ever seen and the cycle goes on.

We stop at a small grove of gnarled fruit trees: Asian and Bartlett pears, Granny Smith apples and an unknown varietal that could be a cousin of the McIntosh. The fruits are just as wizened as the trees, with many blemishes and dark spots, but the sweet smell of the apples is strong in the air and they are jewel-bright shades of red and green.

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We pick two dozen or so and then collect fallen fruits to give to the pigs. Five squealing, pink tanks run to the fence inanticipation, shouldering each other out of the way to nose at half-rotted apples and pears. Katie points out their sharp teeth and cautions against presenting the fruit like a present. When all the fruit is gone, the pigs remain at the fence, smiling benignly up at us and waiting for more. That’ll do pigs, that’ll do.

Continuing our tour of the farm, we pass two goat pens; currently the males are separated from the females as it is nearly mating season. Come spring, there will be a host of new goat kids wandering around the large enclosures, snacking on burdock and brush.

Near a small room filled entirely with garlic, we meet Farmer John Peterson, the owner. Bought by his parents, the farm originally centered on dairy and poultry and expanded to crops in the 60s. When the financial crisis came only a few decades later, the Petersons nearly lost everything. Acres upon acres were sold off until only about 20 remained. Today, the farm is back up to nearly 200 acres, thanks in great part to the community of shareholders and donors that have bought and leased  land – but with a much different purpose than the acres of Farmer John’s childhood. In 1990, Farmer John began his quest to turn the farm into Angelic Organics – a farm rooted in biodynamic strategies and community supported agriculture. Today, the farm sends 2,200 boxes of produce a week to shareholders all over Illinois.

Farmer John looks the part as he climbs out of his olive green pickup truck. His straw hat is battered and ripped at the brim, his sandals (paired with black socks) are starting to part way with their soles and the edge of a cigar peeks over the top of his shirt pocket. He begins to tell us about his efforts to feed people real food without chemicals or pesticides in it and how much opposition he faced.

“It’s amazing how distraught people were about paying more for healthy food,” he says despairingly. He has since stopped trying to convert people and lets the produce speak for itself. Conventional farms grow crops, we learn, but organic farms grow soil. Without good soil, there’s no chance for good produce.

Suddenly, Farmer John decides to lead us on a backstage tour of the farm, taking us into the old barn, which is still under construction to become a small visitor’s center, and explaining how it takes into account Rudolph Steiner’s scientific philosophy. Often considered the father of biodynamic farming, Steiner also combined practices of spirituality with his scientific work.  Farmer John’s interpretation of Steiner’s views and his descriptions of the spaces we see are meandering, confusing and I find myself less than illuminated.

IMG_4782Trooping out into the hazy sunlight, Farmer John takes us next to his private office. The space is light and airy. High, arched windows lend a churchlike feel, and the walls are painted with layers of watery color: starting with pale pink in the east and ending with blues and greens in the west to mimic the trajectory of the sun. It’s a space that makes you have thoughts you might not experience otherwise, Farmer John says, and this time I truly agree. Closing his private tour, Farmer John speaks of the importance of intention – being very certain of whom you let into your space and your life, what you eat and why you eat it. With these words of wisdom, he climbs back into his pickup truck and trundles away. I am hungry. I am ready to get out into the fields, something I’ve been waiting to do pretty much my whole life.

IMG_4777We walk past a large patch of what looks like corn but is actually a mixture of sorghum, burdock and other plants, meant to revitalize the soil in between crop rotations. We are led first to a tiny forest of curly kale plants. They grow like palm trees, sticking straight up out of the soil. I would be enamored, but I despise kale with an almost indescribably visceral hatred. There is not enough Sriracha in the world to cover up the dirt taste that is kale. We also pluck beautiful, pale green heads of lettuce – much more up my alley – and peppery arugula. Leftovers, Katie tells us, from the first harvest for the community supported agriculture boxes.

IMG_4779 Rotating every two to three years, the fields rest so as to revitalize the nutrients found naturally within the soil. As we tote our vegetable haul back to the learning center, we are surrounded by the silent regeneration of the land around us.

Lunch is mostly vegetables, ordered in from a caterer, as well as some store-bought hummus and cheese and a densely seeded loaf of wholegrain bread. Sticks and stones bread, my cousins and I used to call it when we were little. I am ravenous and there are not nearly enough calories to satisfy me.

After our meal, some of the group goes to harvest peppers, carrots and tomatoes while others stay behind to begin prepping for dinner. Quinoa is simmering on the stove and our chef in residence, Amanda Skrip, is issuing friendly directives for kale massaging and lettuce washing.

Slight, and looking not at all her 32 years, Skrip is a natural foods private chef and wellness coach. She is here to help lead us on a culinary excursion using the produce we have harvested from the farm, as well as show us some new recipes to bring home with us.

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Clad in beat-up Chuck Taylor shoes and a plaid shirt, Skrip is welcoming and incredibly approachable. I grill her about her descent into the world of clean food and her responses are refreshing in their lack of bullshit. She doesn’t espouse an all-organic diet, juicing or a return to millet. She just thinks everyone should focus more on what comes out of the ground as opposed to what comes out of a factory.

Additionally, I like Amanda very much because she lets me eat some of the almonds we will use later to make nut milk. I take the given inch and run a mile, dumping a giant handful of almonds into a cup and spooning a chunk of gritty raw honey onto the side. It is floral and intensely sweet, the best honey I’ve ever tasted. I am entranced and totally useless for the next 15 minutes as I snack.

Eventually, I get with the program and help wash lettuce, chop carrots and squash and photograph the chickpea mixture that will soon become our baked falafel. As I rinse carrots and chop peppers, I am struck by the physical imperfections and the intense flavor of the produce. Although there are no v-shaped carrots at the grocery store, there are also no carrots so orange they look fluorescent and so sweet they could be dessert. The arugula may be slightly careworn but the flavor is so intense and peppery that one can easily forgive its tattered appearance. The tomatoes, splitting at their seams, lumpy and irregular, spill juice onto the cutting board. They are an entirely different species from the pale, mealy hothouse tomatoes from Jewel-Osco. In preparing dinner, the true purpose of Angelic Organics shines through. If you want to eat well, grow carefully.

IMG_4792While the falafel bakes, we go see the henhouse. As a person who is wholly entranced by chickens, I am nearly delirious with joy. Not only do I get to hold an actual chicken (who sprints away from me as though I have done her a grievous wrong as soon as I let go) but we collect gorgeous tan and pale-blue eggs from the hutch Katie calls the EggMobile. The brown chickens, called Americanas, are the ones responsible for laying the Easter egg-hued clutch we find in one of the nests. Later, a Brahma chicken with feather-festooned feet pecks at my bright orange Nikes and is upset to find they are not actually slices of tomato.

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Dinner comes early, at six, and we eat outdoors. Magic hour illuminates the fields and our plates with a buttery glow. On the menu: a lemony tabouleh salad (with the massaged kale that I do not hate, presumably because hunger is the best condiment), baked falafel with a zesty avocado sauce, a crisp salad with carrot ribbons and a mustardy vinaigrette and raw heirloom tomatoes, the best I’ve tasted outside of Spain, with a pinch of salt. It is, in a word, sublime.

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After dinner comes goat’s milk ice cream. It’s funky, but tempered by heavy cream and floral honey. I feed two spoonfuls of it to the barn cat, Ribbons, who attempts to nurse from the spoon as she would a teat.

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Katie then takes me to the goat enclosure to make some new friends. We hop a barn gate and trek through some low brush to where the kids are grazing. I meet Floppy, Pretzel and Feta, whose twin brother Gyro is conspicuously absent. The kids are sweet and playful, jumping onto our thighs and nibbling my fingers when I attempt to take pictures with them. Hay and gorse release their sweet scents into the air as I scratch first one goat and then another behind the ears.

Katie and I chat as we play with the goats. I ask whether all these kids will stay at the farm for breeding purposes and she says probably not. Katie is in no way a vegetarian, she tells me, but she wouldn’t feel bad to eat an animal from this farm.

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“For these animals, there’s just one bad day,” she tells me. “One bad day compared to hundreds of happy ones? That seems a fair price to pay.” And indeed, the goats are seemingly as happy as goats can be. I am enamored by their square eyes and the funny nickering sounds they make. I fully intend to take one home while Katie isn’t looking but the plan goes to pot when the kids troop off to their mothers.

Eventually, it’s time to head out for the evening. I snap countless pictures of the glorious sunset over the fields and unhappily head back out onto the freeway for a night’s stay in nearby Rockford.

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Up next: Part 2 of Growing the Ground

*Jessica’s visit to the Organic Farm Retreat was sponsored by Angelic Organics.

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