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Ecotourism in India

ECOTOURISM IN INDIA

Guavas, papayas, exotic fruits, vegetables, and endangered species!

Day 1 – January 13, 2017

Driving from New Delhi Airport to Marriott hotel.
Driving from New Delhi Airport to Marriott hotel.

Tim and I flew to New Delhi, India without a planned itinerary. We had booked a discounted luxury suite at the JW Marriott Hotel for the first night. In India, taxes are often quite high on luxury hotels, sometimes upward to 48%,  since taxes in some areas are based on the basic rack-room rate, regardless of any discount for the room. Such was the case for our discounted JW Marriott Hotel room. We usually recommend the boutique-hotel option when traveling in India so enlightened souls can “tour like a local.” Boutique hotels in India will provide the best cultural experience and are a “best buy!” On this trip, we stayed at 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-star hotels to experience the difference between the various starred accommodations. Although the JW Marriott Hotel is supposed to be a top, luxury hotel, we found it to be our least favorite hotel of the trip, and would recommend traveling further from the airport for the best New Delhi experience.

Day 2 – January 14, 2017

Domestic air travel in India can be hectic. After arriving at the airport in the morning, we found it hard to secure a flight to Jaipur. Our US credit cards would not work on any direct-airline-booking sites, so we headed to the airport to try and secure a seat to Jaipur. We missed our first flight. We tried one airline after another and had no luck getting any air tickets because of full flights. We ended up giving up on flying to Jaipur and found out that now our luggage was lost. We waited until midnight at the airport to get our “misplaced” luggage back; then we decided to call a travel agent for options. We weren’t going back to the Marriott hotel.

Day 3 – January 15, 2017

Restaurant manager offering sweet mango lassi on our 2 AM travel stop, New Delhi to Jaipur.
Sweet mango lassi at road stop.

We located a well-rated business online called India by Car Chauffeur.  We debated about calling at 12:01 AM, but the ad said “24-hour service.” We figured we would get an answering machine, but the call was answered by a half-asleep man named “Kul.” After we apologized for the late call and explained our situation, he said, “No problem!” “Want a car and driver to drive you to Jaipur tonight?” Four hours later we were in Jaipur sleeping in a narrow, but comfortable, bed at the quaint Dera Rawatsar Hotel at a cost of $91 US (5898 rupees) for room, taxes and a British/Indian influenced breakfast. Kul also provided a car and driver for 6 days at a cost of $462 US.

Street fruit juice vendor, Jaipur, India
Street fruit juice vendor, Jaipur, India

Mid-morning, we road from Jaipur to Ranthambhore. In route, we visited farms growing berries, guavas, wheat, cotton, tobacco, citrus, hot chilies, methi (fenugreek) (Trigonella foenum-graecum – a semi-arid leaf and seed crop with the sweet taste of maple syrup), and cumin (spice, dried seed of Cuminum cyminum). Many regions of India produce guavas, Psidium guajava L. Two crops per year are produced and guavas are evidently grown where the soil will not support citrus fruits. Twenty percent of crops in the state of Madhya Pradesh have to be irrigated, and the guava orchards we saw along the road to Ranthambhore were irrigated. States in the south of India produce the most fruits, like mango, apple, pomegranate, sapota, guava, banana, pineapple, grapes, litchi, papaya and citrus, but the state of Madhya Pradesh, where Ranthambhore is located, produces “rabi or winter crops of barley, wheat, pulses , and oil seeds. Pulses are nitrogen-fixing crops and India grows many different types like chickpeas or green gram [mung]. Kharif crops or summer crops like bajra (pearl millet), pulses, jowar (sorghum), maise, and ground nuts  are seeded in June and July and harvested in September and October. But in the areas we traveled, guavas were everywhere and in many served foods. Our Jaipur hotel served guava preserves or mixed fruit/guava preserves daily. No wonder guava production in India is second only to their citrus production. For more information on fruits grown in India, please open this link.

Guava farmers we visited on the main road to Ranthambhore.
Guava farmers we visited on the main road to Ranthambhore.

We visited one family’s guava orchard where they showed us their essential irrigation system. We were greeted gleefully and offered refreshments and ripe guavas, as if we were long-time friends. Guava trees are typically grown with wheat plantings in between the guava plantings, allowing for crop rotation and sufficient water for all. Orchards are often on small plots of land, with entire families working to irrigate, pick, and wrap the fruit for shipping.

Irrigation pipes to the right of the road; wheat growing
Irrigation pipes to the right of the road; wheat growing.
On the road to Ranthambhore, India
On the road to Ranthambhore, India
Watermelons for sale on road to Ranthambhore, India.
Watermelons for sale on the road to Ranthambhore, India.
Sun-dried, circular fuel of cow droppings and straw for cooking and heating.
Sun-dried, circular fuel of cow droppings and straw for cooking and heating.
Fields of mustard growing near Ranthambhore.
Fields of mustard growing near Ranthambhore.

Day 4 and 5, January 16-17, 2017

Ranthambhore National Park, India
Ranthambhore National Park, India

Our safaris in the Ranthambhore National Park were arranged by “Kul,” but one can also get the desk clerks in Ranthambhore hotels or tent camps to book space for you. There are morning, afternoon and night safaris. We did a morning safari on day 3, and an afternoon safari on day 4. Both were wonderful. We tracked several tigers in our jeep and heard them roar, but did not see one. However, we did see a very rare and elusive jungle cat, other creatures, and copious flora.

 

Tiger paw print, tracking tigers in Northern India’s Ranthambhore National Park. Bengal tigers have been protected there since 1973.
Tiger paw print, tracking tigers in Northern India’s Ranthambhore National Park. Bengal tigers have been protected there since 1973.

In the park, one might see a Bengal tiger, Sambar deer, mountain lion, Muntjac deer (known as barking deer because they bark like a dog), sloth bear, jackal, chital (spotted deer), Indian leopard, striped hyena, mugger crocodile, southern plain grey langur, gazelle, Indian Hare, porcupine, jungle cat, chinkara, mongoose, nilgai, wild boar, monitor lizzards, marsh crocodiles, monkeys, or any one 272 species of birds, and 300 species of flora like banyan, dhok (most noticeable), mango, pipal, imli, kadam, Khair, khajur, neem, mahua, kakera trees and blackberries. The largest banyan trees in India are located here.

Local birds include black-naped monarch, stork-billed kingfisher, brown shrike, mottled wood owls, golden-fronted leaf bird, blue-beard bee eater, lora, green sandpiper, wooley-necked stork, purple sunbird. chestnut-bellied nuthatch, long-tailed shrike and many more.

Ranthambhore National Park, India

Abarar Place and Jungle Camp is located in Ranthambhore and has quite a few rare fruit trees which are labeled. Many were tall and shaded, so they were difficult to photograph, but Karonda, Carissa carandas, was among them. Karonda has small fruit, turning from green to red to finally black and shiny when ripe. Seeds are flat and brown. Unripe fruits are made into pickles and ripe fruits are used for medicines, dyes, tarts, puddings and jellies.

Abarar Place and Jungle Camp, Ranthambhore, India
Abarar Place and Jungle Camp, Ranthambhore, India
Gooseberry Tree or Phyllanthus emblica (embic, emblic myrobalan, myrobalan, Malacca Tree, or amla) at the Abrar Palace and Jungle Camp. The fruits of this tree are edible.
Gooseberry Tree or Phyllanthus emblica (embic, emblic myrobalan, myrobalan, Malacca Tree, or amla) at the Abrar Palace and Jungle Camp. The fruits of this tree are edible.
Madhopura Village, (population = 987 in 2011, literacy rate = 71%), washing clothes with water from a tank, as their pond water was totally covered with algae.
Madhopura Village, (population = 987 in 2011, literacy rate = 71%), washing clothes with water from a tank, as their pond water was totally covered with algae.

We also visited nearby Madhopura Village. The women were happily washing their colorful clothes by their community water tank. Their streets were so narrow only motor bikes could pass in many places—rural, village life was in fully display. Indeed, we had become show pieces for many curious villagers, because most villagers had seen few Americans before, or maybe they had never seen any. No one spoke English there. Luckily, we were taken to this village because our private, English-speaking driver enlisted the expertise of a local citizen. In the afternoon we drove back to Jaipur.

Day 6, January 18, 2017

Hand appliqued quilt, shop in Ranthambhore.
Hand appliqued quilt, shop in Ranthambhore.

Noticing the wonderful quilts on our beds at the Dera Rawatsar hotel, we asked where they had bought them, so the owner arranged for us to go to Sodhi Textiles and Home Furnishing in Jaipur. I ended up purchasing 5 quilted bedcovers, 3 reverse-appliques table clothes of organdy, and 3 wall hangings for about $493 shipped to my door in Crystal Lake, IL. One might easily pay $493 for one of these quilts in the US.

 

Weaving wool rugs at Sodi Textiles. Wool are dyed there with many natural dyes from indigenous plants.
Weaving wool rugs at Sodhi Textiles. Wool are dyed there with many natural dyes from indigenous plants.

 

Fruit stand, Jaipur
Fruit stand, Jaipur

After shopping. we drove by many fruit and vegetable markets. There were arabi (mustard leaves), haldi (a tuber/root similar to turmeric – priced at 80 rupees per kilo), karalla (bitter cucumber), lokji ( opa squash), muli (white daikon), black and red gajar (black and red carrots – 30 rupees per kilo), nimbu (ginger), pyaz (red onion), mukka (baby corn), sakarkund (sweet potato), and more.
We saw bael fruit for sale, which grows in Gujarat town as a wild, indigenous tree. We were told there were no established bael orchards, as it grows wild. Bael (Aegle marmelos Correa) has fragrant flowers and all parts of the tree (stems, bark root, leaf, flower, seed oil and fruit in all stages of ripening) are used in Ayurvedic medicines.

Street vendor in rural India.
Street vendor in rural India.
Fruit and vegetable stand, Jaipur, India
Fruit and vegetable stand, Jaipur, India

We then continued on to Agra, India, also passing by many rock monument companies which lined the main road for miles.

Monument purveyors line a long stretch of road from Jaipur to Agra
Monument purveyors line a long stretch of road from Jaipur to Agra

Day 7, January 19, 2017

View from the backside of the Taj Mahal showing the partly built foundation of the Black Taj. Extensive gardens with fruit trees in this area, but most trees are not well identified.
View from the backside of the Taj Mahal showing the partly built foundation of the Black Taj. Extensive gardens with fruit trees in this area, but most trees are not well identified.

In Agra, we went to see the Taj Mahal, but instead of doing the normal tourist route, we went to the back side of the Taj Mahal. The back side includes a fruit park and a view of the “uncompleted” Black Taj Mahal. If we had it to do again, we would have skipped Agra totally and gone to more fruit farms around Jaipur and then headed back to New Delhi or opted go further south in India. But then we are nature lovers, not monument lovers. Note: the inside of Taj Mahal can be viewed online, despite the ban on photography there.

We arrived back in New Delhi and stayed at the Shanti Home Boutique Hotel which was located in a beautiful and ritzy district where the ambassadors had their homes. This hotel had a tandoori kitchen on its roof and all of the rooms were special and unique. Escalated hotel taxes similar to those charged at the Mariott hotel were not charged by this hotel, and it is also relatively close to the airport. Evidently taxes vary by district. Lesson: go where the ambassadors go.

Tamdori chicken and naan baked in a tandoori oven.
Tamdori chicken and naan baked in a tandoori oven.
India by Car Chauffeur
India by Car Chauffeur

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Salak or Snakefruit: The star of Bali’s farmers markets

Bali
Rama Beach Resort and Villas
Rama Beach Resort and Villas

The first morning in Bali began with a huge breakfast buffet at the Rama Beach Resort and Villas, in Kuta. My son Tim and I had chosen the best resort and the right location for our primary goal of eating and photographing Balinese fruits. This resort is proximate to shops, the airport and main roads to the various farming and market areas. As a plus, it also has huge swimming pool complete with a well-stocked bar, serving special bogo fruit drinks at happy hour. The breakfast buffet offered all sorts of local and international cuisine, but most noticeably beautiful platters of tropical fruits: papaya, pineapple, jackfruit, dragon fruit, melons, lychees, bananas, mango, pomegranates and many other tropical fruits that most readers would probably have previously sampled.

Salak plantations are dense with vegetation and thorns, lots of thorns
Salak plantations are dense with vegetation and thorns, lots of thorns

But then, there also was a huge bowl of snakeskin-like fruits called salak or snakefruit! These cobra-skinned fruits were not peeled, but served as hand fruit. Asian travelers and locals were taking them, but Americans, Australians, and Europeans were passing them over without so much as even looking to see what they were. Having done my homework, I knew what they were and was eager to eat some, so I piled several on my plate. Suddenly, those around me were alarmed. “Are you going to eat those?” My response was “Most certainly! How about you? Want one?” Nobody wanted one. They didn’t even know what they were or that these toughly clad fruits were as common in Bali as apples in the U.S. They had an opportunity to try something new, but they did not even want to try them! I was disappointed. If the grade school teacher in me had emerged, I would have coaxed them, but I was on vacation, so their loss!

Salak fruit cluster protrudes from trunk
Salak fruit cluster protrudes from trunk

At my table, I peeled, sliced, and tasted a salak fruit which looked like a jumbo, peeled garlic and tasted similar to pineapples and lemons or banana. It was deliciously sweet, firm and slightly astringent! One fruit was slightly crunchier than the other, but both were quite acceptable. I wished I had brought my juicing machine along; these fruits would have made a terrific juice ingredient for cocktails. So, I grabbed more to eat in my room and at the pool. Our waitress, who was very friendly, commented that salak could be cooked into jam, stuffed raw into dates, or fried into chips, but that most islanders just ate them out of hand. Salak is a healthy fruit; it has lots of vitamin B2 and C in addition to iron, calcium, and phosphorus and also provides some protein, fat and fiber. Some locals told me that salak is good for problems of the digestive tract.

Vendor opening a salak for photo shot
Vendor opening a salak for photo shot

To see Bali Salak or Salacca edulis (syn. Salacca zalacca) growing in Bali, one must go to the villages of Sibetan, Nongan and Batusesa which lie in areas near Candidasa Beach and the Besakih Temple. We hired a car whose driver was familiar with the area, which enabled us to take photos of small-sized salak plantations and see plants fruiting in their natural state. We did not walk through the imposing and dangerous ground area a round each palm plant, due to the barbs that had fallen everywhere. We were cautioned that injury from these plants was common, and that farmers were especially trained to harvest the fruits.

 

 

Salak peeled with single seed exposed
Salak peeled with single seed exposed

Salak fruit is conical in shape and covered with hard, medium-brown, triangular scales with thorns, giving the appearance of snake skin. It has scrumptious white flesh consisting of three lobes enclosing a single seed. When ripe, the thorns on the fruit come off and the color fades from brown to light brown or yellow; the fragrance also indicates the state of ripeness. Clusters of 10- 20 fruits (typically 2 to 3 clumps per tree) are found in the lower part of the plant, attached to a very short trunk; the leaves shoot up like spears arranged around an upside-down cone. Salak is an indigenous fruit in Indonesia; at least 30 cultivars are known and cultivated. Salak also grows in Thailand and has been introduced in New Guinea, the Philippines, Queensland and North Territory of Australia, Ponape Island, China, Surinam, Spain and the Fiji Islands.

Salak sold at Gianyar Central Market, north and east of Kuta
Salak sold at Gianyar Central Market, north and east of Kuta

The farmers we met stated S. edulis need to be grown in highland conditions (700- 1,000 feet above sea level) with adequate sunshine and warm ambient temperatures between 18-25°C (64-77°F). Terracing the salak crop in the same way as the interspersed rice fields is also desirable, as good water and wind circulation is essential for this plant to thrive. It takes about 4-5 years to create a fruiting plantation. The best harvests are during the rainy season of January and February, but fruits can be found from December to April. We saw varying sizes of the clusters in both fruit size (3-6 cm in diameter) and weight being sold at the markets and by fruit vendors stationed along the main roads. Most of the plantations we saw were small operations with the farmers selling their produce in markets or at roadside stands. We were told locals make salak into wine and use the smaller fruits for juice. Salak fruit can last up to two weeks without refrigeration, a little longer if refrigerated or frozen. While some fruits are shipped to Singapore and other locations in Indonesia, the demand for high-quality fruits exceeds the production. Much of the fruit is consumed locally.

View along the road where rice paddies are alternated with salak plantations
View along the road where rice paddies are alternated with salak plantations

There are two other well-known types of salak found in Bali besides S. edulis. These are Salak pondoh (sic), known for its intense aroma, and Salak manojaya (sic). Salak pondoh is typically grown around the city of Yogyakarta in Java, about an hour from Bali by air, although one can go overland and by ferry between the two locations. There are several excellent variations of Salak pondoh: pondoh super, pondoh hitam (black pandoh), and pondoh gading (yellowish-skinned pondoh). Salak manojaya is grown in the Manonjaya district of Central Java. A famous and expensive variety of salak grown in Bali is called the white sugar salak, Salak gula pasir (sic); we saw it growing in the area from Sibetan Village to Rendang village where the elevations are ideal (800-1,000 feet above sea level). The term gula pasir literally means “sand sugar.” This variety is the sweetest of the salaks, and has a fine granularity to its texture. Other conditions in this area such as the fertile soil (from the 1963 eruption of Mt. Agung) and good wind circulation help to produce superior salak crops.

It appears that worldwide production of salak is increasing as demand grows. However, the future of salak appearing in stores in North America anytime soon is doubtful. More areas in the world will need to produce the fruit, and better methods of quickly getting them to the point of sale will be needed. At this point, it appears that locations near Bali and Indonesia already want salak fruit and that demand alone can’t be met. Only time will tell, but it is unlikely that many Americans are ready to eat this fruit. So when in Bali or Indonesia, please do try this delicious fruit. Then spread the word.

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Ecotourism in Bali: Ever wanted to try some Kopi Luwak?

Bali, Indonesia

Bali is a small, tropical island in Indonesia, measuring about 90 by 50 miles (about 140 km by 80 km) in size. The island has two seasons, and enjoys an average ambient temperature of about 82˚F (28˚C). Bali lies about 8 degrees south of the equator, between the islands Java and Lombok, and is roughly 800 air miles from Australia. Bali has always attracted tourist due to its cultural and environmental lures, but recently ecotourism has begun to grow there. With Bali’s beauty, hot tropical weather, spiritual uniqueness, and friendly people, foreigners can’t help but be drawn to Bali. The locals live a spiritual life, thriving with their God-given gifts from the land and ocean, making daily flower and food offerings to their gods and by promoting a positive philosophy of kindness towards all.Bali, Indonesia

Bali, IndonesiaAccording to a 2010 census, 85.5% of Bali’s population practice Balinese Hinduism, with the rest adhering to Muslim, Christian, or Buddism religions. Tall, brown-black and moss-covered temples are ubiquitous features on the island, as is lava; the entire island is dotted with family and public temples juxtaposed between homes, terraced rice fields, fruit trees and bodies of water. Bali also has volcanos. The most important one, Gunung Agung, is still active and considered sacred by the local people. Many lava cutters can be seen about, cutting lava stone for temple construction. It is hard to appreciate the impact of so much religious adherence in belief and practice until you are there. Indeed, it is hard to take it all in when you are there. Bali is just a very special place.

Bali, Indonesia Bali, Indonesia

A car and driver can be hired for around $75–$85 a day, and is a good way to view the island at your own pace. Crops grown there include sugar cane, coffee, copra (dried coconut meat), tobacco, fruits and vegetables. The rainy season runs from October to April, sustaining rice that needs five months to mature. Everywhere were chickens, cattle and hogs. We visited batik artisans (Legong in Denpasar), fabric stores, the art town of Batuan which is famous for Batuan painting since the 1930s, several jewelry stores and extraordinarily talented wood carvers who were sitting on the ground, carving beautiful sculptures by hand (Mas Village, Ubud).

Bali, IndonesiaBali, Indonesia

We visited Kebune, Bali and Jl. Raya Uluwatu Badung, Bali, known for its agrotourism. This tourist attraction has walking trails for observing the different crops of coffee and other exotic plants they grow; they have a demonstration of how luwak coffee is made. Kebune is located fairly close to Uluwatu Temple (famous Hindu temple on a rock cliff) in Pecatu. Their tasting session features many flavorful and medicinal teas, coffees, and chocolate. The offerings include: mangosteen peel tea (excellent), lemongrass tea, ginger tea, lemon tea, rosella tea, red ginger tea, ginseng with coffee, Bali coffee (Arabica), cocoa spice coffee, vanilla coffee, Bali chocolate, coconut coffee and luwak coffee. Their demonstration of the various steps for making luwak coffee was very interesting. I found the information that mangosteen-peel can be dried and used to make tea, the most valuable information from this stop. Indeed, they sell mangosteen peel tea in their gift shop.Luwak Coffee, Bali, IndonesiaLuwak Coffee, Bali, IndonesiaLuwak Coffee, Bali, Indonesia

Civet, Bali, IndonesiaKopi luwak, or civet coffee, comes from the Asian palm civet (Paradixyrys hermaphroditus). The civets select and eat fresh, ripe, coffee beans, thereby partly digesting and fermenting the beans which are defecated and collected by luwak coffee producers. The protease enzymes in the civit’s digestive tract changes the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Ostensibly this makes a better, less-acidic cup of coffee. I drank some. It tasted good, but wasn’t the best cup of coffee I ever had. Also, there are other concerns and considerations with regard to luwak coffee production. First is the very high purchase price of the beans in comparison to the quality of the coffee. Second is the practice of force-feeding caged civets to get these special beans. There were two caged civets at Kebune Bali, but the guide declared that they were only to display the animals for the buying public. To obtain enough civet-processed beans to make any quantity of ground coffee, a producer (such as Kebune Bali) must collect civet excrement from the wild, from animals contained in fenced areas or keep animals in cages somewhere. PETA and others advocating for civets argue: the caging of civets is cruel and force-feeding of non-civet-selected beans reduces the quality of the coffee and threatens wild civet populations.Luwak Coffee, Bali, IndonesiaCivet, Bali, IndonesiaLuwak Coffee, Bali, Indonesia

Luwak Coffee, Bali, IndonesiaHistorically, coffee production in Indonesia was established in the early 18th century by the Dutch in Java and Sumatra and they also brought Arabica coffee from Yemen to Indonesia, so there is a lot of coffee in Indonesia. Today, kopi luwak is retailing for around $700 us per kilo, but prices may vary, especially civet coffee beans that are purchased from other producers in other countries such as the Philippines.Luwak Coffee, Bali, IndonesiaLuwak Coffee, Bali, IndonesiaLuwak Coffee, Bali, Indonesia

Farmers markets are in many locations in Bali and many vendors line the main roads. I attended a few and saw most of the vegetables that we know and a few that were uncommon. I will address this topic in further articles, as I have many beautiful market photos of different fruits and vegetables. There is also a chocolate museum in Singaraja, Bali which may interest some ecotravelers. The snake fruit or salak is one of the more unusual agricultural products from Bali. Its name comes from the fact that the fruit’s exterior looks like a snake’s skin. Watch for more on this fruit and other exotic fruits in future Jamlady articles.

Bali, Indonesia
Peanut vendor
Bali, Indonesia
Peeling garlic
Bali, Indonesia
Cocoa pods
Bali, Indonesia
Snake fruits
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A Dream Farm Come True

IMG_8956

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.