Around here people still call farms by a previous owner’s name. The place next door, for example, is still the Gar Lee farm even though two successive families have owned it since Gar and Cora Lee sold out over 20 years ago. Gar was the farmer and Cora was a local school teacher beloved and remembered by everyone. The place at the top of Grade School Road is still the Farb Place even though the Farbs haven’t lived there for 15 years. The land across the road is still being called Marv Johnson’s land even though the Doetch family owns it now. We’re no different. There is a sign down by the road that says Kinnikinnick Farm. But it’s still called the Johnson farm by most people around here. Seaver Johnson’s family put our land into production before the Civil War as a mixed dairy, livestock, and row crop farm. and it has been farmed or owned by Johnsons ever since. We do wonder, sometimes, what our neighbors will call our place twenty years from now.
When we bought the farm in 1987 during the Farm Financial Crisis while we were still living in Chicago, the last remaining Johnson had become an absentee landlord, the farm had become a conventional corn and bean farm, and the farmstead had been abandoned. But, we discovered, the Johnsons left something behind. The original log cabin on the farm was still there. It was hiding behind plaster, lath, and faded wallpaper as the center room in the abandoned farmhouse. Over the years, the Johnson family had built their farmhouse up, out, and around that log cabin. When we renovated the farm house we uncovered the logs. It’s now the warm, rustic center of our farmhouse as well.
Today, Kinnikinnick Farm is a 114 acre farm, not quite half the size of Seaver Johnson’s original 240 acre quarter section. It’s located along the Kinnikinnick Creek, 2 miles south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border and 6 miles east of I-90. 30 acres of our farm are certified organic pasture. 7 acres are for growing certified organic produce. , 3 acres are devoted to our Farm Stay program. 3 acres are set aside for an insectary and wild life habitat. 62 acres are in alfalfa hay, rented out to a local dairy farmer. The farmstead and border buffers comprise the remaining 12 acres.
In the early 1990’s Susan and I sent our last child off to college, sold our Chicago coop apartment, put a 30 foot camper trailer on the farm, moved in, and started the long process of rebuilding the soil’s fertility and restoring the farmstead and the farmhouse. In 1994 we planted a half acre certified organic market garden.
The farm grew and prospered over the next 15 years as an organic market garden farm that could produce high quality produce with intense flavor. I was the full time farmer. Susan took an off farm job as the Major Gifts Officer and Director of Planned Giving at nearby Beloit College. We sold produce at Chicago and suburban farmers markets and developed a trade with Chicago chefs and restaurants. Our cropping plan called for growing larger quantities of a limited number of vegetables: arugula, lettuce, several varieties of Italian cooking greens with names like Cavolo Nero, Spigariello, Minestra Nera, di Cicco Broccoli. We also included Tropea onions, cylinder beets, squash, sunchokes, a few culinary herbs, and tomatoes of all different sizes, shapes, and colors in our cropping plan. We expanded the quantities we grew and started to sell to wholesale distributors and institutions and to chefs in Milwaukee as well as in Chicago. We began a value added product business. For years we had donated lettuces and greens to the First Slice Pie Café’s outreach program to feed homeless people in Chicago. We contracted with them to process our basil, arugula, and some of our mint into pestos. The farm’s future looked secure.
Then disaster hit. Financial trouble. During the two year period from 2009 to 2011. It began with the weather. The erratic weather patterns that had been developing over the years got worse and began to take a toll. Wet summers followed drought summers. Cold summers followed wet ones. Cash flow became unpredictable. In 2009, during an unseasonably cold and wet growing season, an early Late Blight pandemic destroyed our entire tomato planting in three days. Tomatoes had, by then, become the financial lynchpin of our vegetable business. It quickly became clear to us that a cropping plan that grew a limited line of vegetables had become problematic, risky, and unprofitable. Susan retired during that period and Dr. Bill, Susan’s Dad and the family patriarch who lived at the farm, grew more and more infirm, which increasingly diverted our attention from farming. He passed away in 2010. Gross profit margins dried up. The farm’s bottom line began to turn red. We were faced with two alternatives: re-imagine and retool the farm or abandon it altogether and sell out. We decided to retool by diversifying the farm’s production.
Instead of diversifying by increasing the variety and number of crops, we decided to reduce the size of our vegetable operation and diversify the whole farm. We had a good balance sheet. Rising land prices and our practice, every year, of continuing to invest in ourselves and the farm made that possible. We had become land rich and cash poor. We borrowed money. We shelved our pride in being veteran farmers and became beginning farmers all over again. The first thing we did was to start bringing livestock onto the farm. We began small, just like we had with vegetables, and increased our livestock numbers every year. First came broiler chickens. Then laying hens for eggs. And then bees for honey and crop pollination. Then pigs and goats. And finally sheep. Every year we became more proficient and knowledgeable about livestock farming and the production of quality eggs, pork, and chicken. The second thing we did was to import 5 large, family size, housekeeping tents from Holland to create a unique farm stay program. Our farm stay program is now fully booked every year and has made Kinnikinnick Farm a destination farm for Chicago area families that want to experience the daily rhythms of small farm life. The last thing we did was to start maintaining the section of the farm that was rich with milkweed plants and willows along Kinnikinnick Creek as an insectary for monarch butterflies and beneficial insects . . . and as a wildlife habitat.
Over the next few years, the farm regained its economic viability. It is now more sustainable and ecologically resilient than it ever was when it relied on vegetables alone. The mix of guests, livestock, and vegetables stabilized the farm’s income stream. The farm began to retire debt and move into the black. Now, every year, we become more proficient at developing quality and taste in our eggs and meat that matches the quality and taste of our produce. Every year, customer demand grows for the tastes of the farm. Every year we re-define and improve the pastures for our chickens, goats, and pigs. Every year, the presence of livestock enables us to cycle and recycle on-farm nutrients. The insectary and wild life area has attracted a small kestrel falcon that, in the process of protecting its hunting ground, wards off larger birds of prey from the farm.
Life, in all its complexity, regained a foothold at Kinnikinnick Farm.