Organic Farm Thrives Amidst Illinois Monoculture
July 30, 2013 | Zavi Engles
Visiting Blue Moon Farm is a visual delight—an oasis of diverse organic vegetable production in a sprawling landscape otherwise filled with fields of conventionally grown corn and soybean. Long rows of kale, bok choy, and other greens dot the landscape while greenhouses filled with tomatoes and melons stand in stark contrast to the surrounding monoculture.
Jon Cherniss has been tending this land since 1997, finding ways of increasing profitability and longevity while maintaining a commitment to organic farming methods, which are often eschewed in favor of short-term gains in Central Illinois. Jon was raised on a chicken ranch in California and later worked on several large scale organic farms in the state before deciding to travel around the country, leasing land to grow and sell his own produce. Eventually, his wife Michelle Wander was hired as a soil scientist at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and the couple mortgaged twenty acres of land just ten miles outside of town.
Blue Moon Farm has been committed to organic production from the start. Lorien Carsey, the long time manager of the farm, believes that “organic food is exciting because it’s a win-win situation. You grow food that isn’t covered in pesticides and you’re also taking care of the soil…it also opens you up to the local scene and when you’re growing for the local scene, you’re able to grow all of these different, interesting varieties that you don’t have to ship.”
The commitment to variety is certainly clear to anyone who has seen Blue Moon’s large stand at the local farmer’s market, which overflows with a bounty of chard, bok choy, salad mix, various heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, squash, and peppers. The incredible production slows a bit in the harsh Illinois winter but, according to Carsey, “we still grow greens, all of the brassicas such as broccoli and cabbage. Really there are very few vegetables we don’t grow, but for the most part we try to grow the full range.”
Most of Blue Moon’s produce is sold at the local farmer’s market as well as a local food cooperative and to restaurants in the area. Additionally, they sell carrots and spinach to a wholesale distributer in Chicago during the winter season. Blue Moon has an incredibly high volume of production, especially considering that they only cultivate crops to sell on about six acres at a time on their twenty acre parcel of land. Carsey explained that the farm’s decision to produce only on a certain amount of their land comes down to their commitment to the soil. “Our major fertility system is cover cropping, which means you grow a crop like alfalfa, or a legume, or clover then you wait until it gets mature and then you till it in so you’re adding organic matter and nitrogen to the soil…It’s a really good system because otherwise the soil gets depleted and the soil structure breaks down if you continuously produce on your land.”
In addition to their intensive cover cropping, Blue Moon has incorporated other sustainable practices. Workers maintain a large compost system, use recycled materials whenever possible, and heat all of the greenhouses with used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants. The farm has also taken the route of increased mechanization in order to produce higher yields, and yet all of their machinery and parts have been collected secondhand from different sources and then refurbished. Finally, the farm is certified organic and therefore follows all of the protocol for such certification.
To keep up with the requirements of growing organic with the possible dangers of cross pollination or pesticide runoff from the surrounding conventional farms, Carsey explained that: “Because we’re not growing corn or soybeans, there’s no danger of cross pollination and [the other farmers] are usually really good about checking with us before they spray, or not spraying when the wind is coming towards us, but sometimes it does happen. We’ll actually go out and stop them. Other than that, the real problem that they bring is the pests, so we’re just constantly inundated with cucumber beetles and aphids and all of these things that happen when you’re surrounded by a monoculture.”
Like any other business, the farm grapples with a number of other challenges. Hiring and managing the labor force is perhaps the greatest challenge to Blue Moon as, according to Carsey, “there’s so many people working here and really it’s very labor intensive, so you have to have all of this labor but that means that there’s so much room for bad communication…I think one of the biggest challenges is how to develop a system where everyone knows what they’re doing, they’re doing it efficiently, they like what they’re doing, and you’re not creating all this waste, wasted time, and inefficiency with labor.” Despite the challenges in managing such an operation, the farm has managed to sustain itself and has seen increasing profits over the years, while also maintaining three to four full time workers during the summer growing season.
In the future, Carsey hopes that the efficiency of the farm’s daily operations will continue improving. “I’d like to have everyone like what they’re doing and work shorter hours…one of my goals this year is that we leave by five every day, and overall we’d like to have the farm be sustainable for the full timers and the managers like Jon and I, so we’re less stressed out. It’s all about making farming sustainable and fun.”