last week i finally visited with one of the first farmers that i had approached regarding this project. her name is izabella. she and her business partner bill operate pure prairie farm. izabella has been involved with the local food movement in and around geneva for a number of years but recently acquired a few acres in dundee, il and made arrangements with an area non-profit (we grow dreams) to use a half dozen greenhouses at the back of its property in west chicago (in a future post i will be able to focus on the dundee farm). as summer came to a close, both locations were far from ready for seeding but izabella and bill set a goal to transplant their seedlings in enough time for pure prairie farm to bring fresh produce to market during the winter months. in order to make that a reality the greenhouses not only had to be recovered with new plastic, they actually had to be made accessible. more than three years of sitting unused had found them buried in grasses reaching eye level. to top it off, the original business that had used the greenhouses grew ornamentals which meant that the floor was covered with gravel, not soil. the challenge became how to grow and how to do it affordably. the first house was set up so that all the plants would be grown in pots (they re-used hundreds of pots from landscaping companies – saving money and landfill space) and they built shallow beds in a second house. two more houses were set up to raise hundreds of tomato plants which, sadly (due to circumstances beyond their control), all succumbed to the cold just days before they were to be ripe enough to take to the markets in late fall. a soil mixture was developed by bill that would help the vegetables survive even the coldest winter days and hoops were arranged over all the plants to provide a second layer of plastic for additional warmth. but even the best intentions and planning don’t always equal perfection. as november approached, izabella was still seeding, which meant that all the transplanting would not be finished in time for the plants to mature enough to harvest through the cold winter months. it wasn’t ideal, but the work had been done and they now set their sights on helping the young plants ride out the winter cold and preparing to bring their produce to the local markets as early as possible. with no additional heat – just two layers of plastic and sunlight for warmth – the plants have endured temperatures inside the greenhouses that dropped as low as zero fahrenheit (the day i was there it was nearly 30 degrees warmer inside than the outside temperature). the soil was enhanced with vitamins and molasses (referred to as “anti-freeze”) to provide the nutrition the young plants would need. inside air and soil temperatures were monitored by no fewer than a half dozen thermometers and two trash cans filled with water enabled them to observe freeze and thaw cycles. the plants themselves were given no water until halfway through this month when the temperatures began to rise. its amazing, but somehow only a small portion of the lettuces actually suffered any damage from the cold. even the seedlings still in trays looked like they were in a far warmer climate. as the weather starts to make the turn to warmer days, pure prairie should see its greenhouses spring back to life. izabella let me sample a few different greens and, while they were perfectly edible, she was quick to point out that the cold temperatures keep the leaves more bitter than desired. with some added nutrition, izabella insisted that by early april pure prairie will have a variety of delicious produce available to its local customers. i promise to be one of the first to try it.
alimental prologuephotographer justin b. paris explores the farms and practices of the growers that help make up the geneva green market (geneva, il). from marengo to west chicago, this microcosm of the local food movement shares its land, animals, vegetables, homes, and time to educate the public through justin's eyes and words.
- all content © justin b. paris 2010-2011
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