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A Dream Farm Come True

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On a recent mid-september morning I arose early and headed out in my puddle jumper from suburban Crystal Lake, Illinois, to the shrinking boonies of Marengo. Crystal Lake was in the boonies when I settled here thirty years ago, but over time the creeping megalopolitan jungle of Chicago has engulfed most proximate small towns and spread its tentacles of bumber-to-bumper cars and trucks from center city Chicago to fifty miles out and beyond. While acre upon acre of top-notch farmland has been surfaced with tarmac, a few agriculture-loving families are able to sustain the love of their lives: homestead farming and selling their own freshly-picked produce at farmers markets.

One such family is that of Lloyd Nichols, and my hood ornament is pointed toward their farm as I watch the sprawling suburban landscape dwindle in my rearview mirror. Motoring along state route 176 into Marengo and veering off on a few side roads, I soon find myself surrounded by a pastoral palette of farm fields. Golden and green hues, waving cornstalks, various crops and wildflowers beckon. In my head I can hear Leonard Bernstein’s rendition of Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel and the plants seem to move in unison with the music. I am more relaxed now, ready to touch and view long, colorful rows of sunlit vegetables. There is something very spiritual about seeing so many vegetables in a row; if the good earth can be equated with a church, perhaps this is it. In this state of mind I arrived at a conclusion: Lloyd Nichols and his family could be seen by some as merely farmers, but they are not. They are long-range planners and doers with a dream. They embody steadfast determination against many odds. They confront the rigors of farming because they love it, and pull together as a family in pursuit of their dream. To me, these folks epitomize good, wholesome living.

Let me give you a little history about the Nichols Farm. From 1967 to 1977 Lloyd Nichols worked on the airline ramps at O’Hare International Airport, and from then until 1990 he did double duty, working for the airlines and for himself on the land that he purchased in Marengo. It wasn’t until 1990, about the time I first met Lloyd’s son, Nick, a fellow vendor at farmers market, that Lloyd went into full-time farming. Since then, the Nichols family has continued to grow their business. Both of the Nichols’ sons are married and reside on the farm. This family’s business is successful because of their high work ethic and steady focus on their dream: growing the best produce and most interesting variety of vegetables possible. Their farming operation is not the result of simplistic annual plans with the intention to do the very same thing the next year; their approach is evolutionary, with more inventory and plants being planted each year. Their long-term planning represents a multi-generational approach to farming. It is the fruition (if you can excuse the pun) of a long-held dream and pursuit of a way of life.

Those who know about farming vegetables and fruits know that zone 5 is cold. According to Lloyd Nichols, Marengo is in zone 5, but in reality, many years we are zone 4. So to farm in such an area means you will sometimes get frozen out by September 15th. It also means that stone fruit trees such as nectarines or peaches will grow fine for six or seven years and then be killed by frost. So, it takes an especially determined farmer to continue to put in crops that require special protection or replanting. With respect to cold, elevation also impacts growing conditions; higher elevations are not the best for growing. The elevation of Lloyd’s farm is 1,265 feet. He commented, “Frost goes to the highest elevations and into the valleys, so it’s best to plant on a downward slope where there is good air flow.” Lloyd is a very determined farmer. In his thirty-two years of fruit growing, eight times the weather has plummeted to 28-29 below zero and twice to 29.5 below. He admits that he could have grown many of his fruits and vegetables better if he went to the other side of Lake Michigan, into Michigan or Indiana, but then “I [he] would have to live there.” I agreed because we in the Northwest area of Chicago think it is a great place to live, often citing cultural advantages over other areas of the Midwest.

Today Nichols Farm spans over eighty acres, having grown from ten in 1977. At first he had goats, Jersey cows, hogs, geese, chickens and a 4-acre garden and orchard. In 1978 he started planting apple trees, in the first year putting in 450 and annually adding about 400 in the following years. Now he has more than 10,000 fruit trees, including 300-plus varieties of fruit trees—such as 39 varieties of pears and 22 plum cultivars.

Never one to give up or be slowed by climatic conditions, Lloyd proudly showed me a dwarf peach and a potted fig tree in his greenhouse. We discussed unique varieties and he admitted that not all new and exotic fruits are accepted by the public. He has several varieties of Asian pears planted in the ground, but they never caught on. For an Asian pear to be best, it must be freshly pickled to remain crisp. That sometimes presents problems.

The farm has currant bushes and dwarf sour cherries. Their sweet cherries eventually died, and Lloyd said they had a hard time protecting them from birds—netting is an absolute requirement for many fruit trees. They also have gooseberries in all colors, and have considered planting lingonberries, but their soil pH presents a problem. Pawpaw trees have been grown too, but are difficult to bring along and require constant replacement until they are well established—young trees are unlikely to survive unless protected from day daylong direct sun by some sort of shading. Serviceberries or Saskatoons do very well in Marengo’s climate but they set fruit early, says Lloyd, and attract more birds than he’s ever seen in one place. “If they can find a way, they will,” he says. “You can’t even have holes in the bottom of the netting or the birds will get in and eat the entire crop.” The farm also has some young chestnut trees, but they have not set much fruit yet. Currently, the Nichols family participates in 14 different farmers markets each week. Their crews pick the crops and ready them for market and they organize their trucks with all of the fruits and vegetables in large colorful bins that stack in the trucks and can be carried out to the tented farm tables. They have a heated, insulated barn with drying racks for onions, garlic bulbs, shallots, and storage for other hard-shelled fruits like butternuts and acorn squash. At most markets they have no fewer than 3 to 4 tents up and are usually the largest vendor on site. In all the years of doing markets, they have participated in over 30 different ones. Altogether, Chicagoland and the rest of Illinois have more than 100 markets. You can view them at: Farmer’s Market Online and Illinois Department of Agriculture. Check out Lloyd Nichols’ website at nicholsfarm.com, where you can find more information on the markets they attend. If you are in center-city Chicago on a Tuesday, check them out at the Museum of Contemporary Art market or at the market at Federal Plaza or on Thursday at Daily Plaza or by Eli’s Cheesecake parking lot. They do five markets on Saturday: Oak Park, Evanston, Green Street, Division and Near North, and Lincoln Park. Sunday is Wicker Park. Friday is Schaumburg; and Monday is Hinsdale. Don’t miss trying their day-neutral (ever-bearing ) strawberries or some of their exotic Porter apples. They also grow the best blackberries. According to Lloyd, their primal-cane blackberries overwinter better than other varieties. Fruits will set on a primal cane in the first year, whereas other blackberries require two years.

My walk in the farm’s muddy fields was worth the effort. I saw popcorn, rows of emerging spinach for the last fall crop, Brussels sprouts, African eggplants, and fields and fields of pumpkins—to mention only a few of the astounding array of different varieties that can be seen at Nichols Farm. Finally, I asked Lloyd if he had any advice for the would-be farmer of produce for farmers market. He replied. “Realize it takes lots of hours and lots of work. You have to like the work, because you spend so many hours doing it. Realize you can’t do everything in your life. If too many things are in your life like sports, religion and other activities, you lose your focus. Business requires focus and energy. Only now can I back off some. I’m 65.” Now Lloyd’s sons are taking over more and more of the works, as it should be, but I still see Lloyd working more than most any “retired” person I know. For that reason he is a young and fit 65. So, if you want to stay in shape, clearly farming might be one dual-fold answer to the overweight issue. There’s a ready supply of healthful food and more than enough exercise to burn off the extra calories. I certainly saw no lazy or overweight people on this farm.

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