Stepping Up to the Plow
Farmer Renee Randall first remembers seeing a sign that read “organic produce” on a small table at a Treasure Island grocery store in Chicago. It was the early 1970s, a time when many farmers had transitioned to what is now considered conventional farming; a higher-yielding, often single-crop production that uses chemical fertilizers, pesticides, heavy irrigation and more machinery.
Randall, then separated from her now ex-husband, was studying to be a therapeutic nutritionist. She wanted to give her children clean food. “I was studying [nutritionist and author] Adele Davis at the time,” says Randall. “Adele warned about the dangers of pesticide residue and was also concerned that industrial farming was causing our food to be less nutrient dense. She was truly a woman ahead of her time.”
Randall started Willow Ridge Organic Farm (WillowRidgeOrganicFarm.com), formerly Sweet Earth Organic Farm, in Wauzeka, Wisconsin, in 1974. Randall had camped in the area for years and fell in love with it. The back-to-the-land and homesteading movements of the time had urbanites flocking to rural areas to reconnect with nature, with some buying up property. The locals, however, did not welcome these young progressives with open arms. “A friend knew a couple that had bought a farm after finishing their ministry program in Hyde Park. I drove in from Chicago, stayed the night, and over breakfast they told me they wanted to move back the the East Coast. They agreed to help me buy their farm.” says Randall.
Her initial partners in the farm were two young lawyers who started the People’s Law Office, a Chicago practice made famous by their defense of civil rights cases in the 60s and 70s. Although they appreciated the idea of a farm, the partners were not interested in changing day jobs. Randall eventually bought them out and the farm became her own. “I had six local farmers mentor me, and they were the old-timers!” exclaims Randall. “They were organic based on the fact that they never bought into industrial farming. I used draft horses, rebuilt the farm to milk cows and was completely fascinated by the growing process. Everything was sustainable. The hours also allowed me to be home when my kids came off the school bus.”
Through it all, Randall never gave up farming or her farm, explaining, “I was among a handful of Midwest farms to offer community supported agriculture [CSA] in the early days. I’m passionate about CSAs and the good they do. I sit on the board of Band of Farmers (BandOfFarmers.org), a coalition that offers nearly 50 CSA options in the Chicagoland area.” Willow Ridge Organic Farm offers a weekly CSA, July - November, with numerous drop-off locations in Chicago and northern suburbs. You can also find Randall (and her vegetables) at the Logan Square Farmers Market every Sunday.
Randall, now a grandmother, is both concerned and hopeful about the future of women in farming. Women now own or co-own nearly half the farmland in the Midwest, according to the Women, Food & Agriculture Network (wfan.org), but represent only 14 percent of farm operators, according to the 2012 USDA census, and are vastly underrepresented on policy-making boards, “We need more education and consumer support to grow sustainable and organic farming. Big agriculture is taking more and more land for single crop, large production farming. It’s destroying our soil and pumping pesticides into our air and food supply. Women are nurturers by nature. If more of us had a seat at the table, I think you would see real, positive change.”
In 1978, another future farmer, Jen Rosenthal, was born in Munster, Indiana. Like Randall, she was not part of a farming family. She moved to Chicago after college in the early 2000s and worked as a commercial artist designing slot machines. Organic was a universally recognized term by then, and grocery stores were stocking organic produce sections.
While Rosenthal had plenty of access to clean food, she wasn’t loving store-bought tomatoes, so she decided to grow her own. “I literally went to the garden center, bought a six-pack of tomato seedlings and planted them all in a small pot on my back deck,” she says. “I only got two out of that batch, but they were the best tomatoes I ever had!”
Gardening felt more meaningful than her day job, but Rosenthal didn’t realize her hobby could turn into a career until a friend’s wedding at Uncommon Ground’s Devon Avenue location in Chicago (UncommonGround.com). The restaurant had just opened their rooftop farm and needed a manager. Discovering her passion could actually pay was monumental. She soon enrolled in the apprenticeship program at Windy City Harvest at Chicago Botanic Garden (ChicagoBotanic.org/urbanagriculture) and worked in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, an “island” within the garden that houses 400 species of edible plants.
“The fruit and vegetable garden married my love of growing, eating and art. It’s like an edible canvas. I returned the next summer to work with their chef’s cooking series. I worked with chefs and learned their language.”
Rosenthal returned to Uncommon Ground after graduation, where she cultivated the sidewalk farm at their Clark Street location, earning the restaurant a mayoral landscaping award. She started her own business, PLANTED | Chicago (PlantedChicago.com), in 2012. She still manages gardens, but also grows specialty vegetables and provides custom cultivation for restaurants. She says, “I owe so much to Helen and Michael [Cameron], of Uncommon Ground, and chef Jason Hammel, of Lula Café (LulaCafe.com). They own their restaurants, so they understand the initial hardships of starting a business. They did everything they could to support me and still do today.”
This year, Rosenthal was a finalist for Routes2Farm.org Beginning Farmer of the Year award at Chicago’s Good Food Festival (GoodFoodFestivals.com), and recently partnered with Folk Art Restaurant Management to grow lots of specialty crops, including her original love—tomatoes. Each restaurant in the group pays a weekly share, similar to a CSA model. “Matthias Merges is the chef/owner behind these restaurants,” says Rosenthal. “We decided to try this model and it’s worked beautifully so far. The restaurants receive delicious, hyperlocal produce and I receive a steady income.”
Rosenthal is grateful for female farmers like Randall that have encouraged and made it easier for women to enter this field. Her land access, however, remains uncertain. “Windy City Harvest provides me a quarter of an acre to grow, but it’s only a two-year incubator program. So in addition to working 12-hour days, I’m also looking to secure permanent land to keep doing what I love.”
Kathleen Bolin is communications coordinator at Angelic Organics Learning Center, a nonprofit that builds sustainable local food and farm systems. For more information, call 815-389-8455 or visit LearnGrowConnect.org.