MARSEILLES — Holly Hughes’ health was weak when she moved back to Illinois to be near family seven years ago. Changing her diet to include plenty of healthy farm-grown produce improved her Parkinson’s disease symptoms so much that she is active in helping others do the same now.
It has also led to other farming opportunities.
She started growing vegetables on one acre of her family’s 5-acre farm in Grand Ridge in Northeast Illinois five years ago.
She soon had enough produce to sell at farmers markets, and three years ago started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that brought customers to her farm in LaSalle County.
She offered weekly pickup of vegetables, herbs and cut flowers grown on her farm, aptly named Grateful Plains.
But the CSA wasn’t gaining steam. It dropped from a high of 27 customers one year to 15 the next, with fewer repeat customers than she had hoped. She wondered if it was her farm’s location for pickup, or if she needed to provide more education about how to use the vegetables.
“Creating a market is the hardest (part),” said Hughes, who was so busy in the field, she didn’t have time to do as much marketing and education as she would like.
“For a beginning farmer, cash flow is a struggle,” she said.
Everything changed in terms of volume of vegetables she could produce, contacts, employees to help with the physical work, facilities and a prime location when she teamed up with CL Farms, owned by Peter Limberger and his wife, Inga Carus, in nearby Marseilles.
The couple also operates Tangled Root Brewery and The Lone Buffalo, a farm-to-table restaurant in nearby Ottawa.
“It was challenging for me to walk into an outfit this big,” Hughes said.
She became CL Farms farmers market manager, responsible for seven times as many acres and more crop varieties.
A large portion of what Hughes grows goes to the restaurant. She also produces for the CL Farms Farmers Market on Wednesdays, the Old Town Ottawa Farmers Market on Saturday mornings and for the CSA.
Hughes got her new job by first working with CL Farms’ manager, Tim Koster, who farms land across from Grateful Plains. They soon found working together benefited all involved.
Now, CL Farms is a picture of diversity, with vegetables at the front of the property, a large grain elevator and other farm buildings segueing into 2 acres of sweet corn with traditional field corn behind that.
Koster, who has 25 years of experience as a corn and soybean farmer, is also expanding his horizons with different crops as he manages all the farming operations at CL Farms.
“It’s in my blood,” he said of agriculture.
He is responsible for 2,200 acres of corn and soybeans, 40 acres of barley for malting sold to Sugar Creek Malt in Indiana, and is gearing up to grow 200 acres of hops. The CL group eventually plans to build a hops processing plant.
Hughes, a farmer and certified master gardener, helps manage the farmers market efforts of two other farms within 50 miles and coordinates a larger CSA for all of them.
She also offers a summer day camp for middle schoolers, teaches a master gardener junior program and is active with Homegrown by Heroes, working with military veterans who are growing farming skills.
CL Farms, about 8 miles from Grateful Plains, offers the advantage of cold storage for produce, air-conditioned space for education and meetings, and cooking facilities for teaching.
“CL Farms is just one of many large farm operations seeking to transition into specialty crops and (one of the few) interested in becoming an agricenter of all aspects of connecting community through food,” she explains. “It’s exciting for me to witness the willingness for integration.”
She sees plenty of room for growth, with farmers and processors working together to provide foods consumers want. For example, a company that produces non-GMO tofu is trying to find farmers to grow non-GMO soybeans in mass quantities, she said.
Currently, she can easily grow enough to meet the demands of her CSA, with the capacity for as many as 50 members and hopes of eventually serving 100 members.
She aims to earn $7,000 per acre on the market garden land, which requires successive plantings, intensive labor, marketing and a little luck with the weather.
The group of farms she manages plans for produce together throughout the season. They offer 23 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, seven different kinds of squash, green and white radishes, golden beets and rainbow carrots.
“Some of it looks almost too beautiful to eat,” Hughes said.