Chicago Couple Opts for Peasant Life; Moves to Country to Fulfill Dream of Organic Farming
August 21, 2013 | Jenny Smiechowski
Among city-dwellers, there are those that dream of a different life. This dream often brings them out of the city, back to the land, and, in some cases, leads them to a life of organic farming. When Todd and Julia McDonald met they shared such a dream. Living in Chicago, Todd and Julia often entertained the idea of becoming organic farmers.
“I distinctly remember one of our first conversations in which we both disclosed our ideas for our futures, what we wanted to be ‘when we grew up.’ [Todd] said ‘I don’t have any great ambition. I just want to be an organic farmer,’” said Julia McDonald.
By the spring of 2007, Todd and Julia were done dreaming; they moved to a 20-acre farm 50 miles outside of Chicago in Manteno, Illinois to become, as they so lovingly put it, “peasants.”
The term peasant, as the McDonald’s explain on their website, has two definitions. The first refers to a class made up of small farmers, sharecroppers, and tenants. The second refers to a simple country person. Both definitions apply to the life the McDonald’s have created for themselves at Peasants’ Plot Farm.
Todd is the “Head Peasant.” In this capacity, he acts as lead grower, is responsible for all the field management, and works with 5 to 6 part-time employees and about 10 worker shareholders. Julia’s role on the farm has gradually become more “behind-the-scenes.” She handles marketing, blogging, finding and placing farm labor, communication with CSA members, and goes to the city every Tuesday for deliveries and the farmer’s market.
Through their desire, dedication, and collaboration the McDonald’s have managed to create a thriving CSA business. Their primary crops include salad mixes, lettuce, radishes, arugula, spinach, chard, kale, kohlrabi, beets, bunching onions, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, peppers, garlic, dill, cilantro and basil, which they chose to fit their CSA business model. “We want to offer a very easy-to-use CSA share with mostly what we consider staple vegetables,” said Julia.
Now, for the McDonalds, the key to their farming dream was contingent upon the word organic— and not necessarily in the “USDA certified” sense of the word. Like the word peasant, the word organic has multiple definitions (and even more connotations.) But to the McDonalds, the word organic refers to a broader mission of environmental and social responsibility. “Organic agriculture at its best implies ‘small farming’ and ‘local’ and ‘energy-efficient’ and ‘nutritious’ and ‘sustainable.’ In other words, quality over quantity,” Julia McDonald explains on their website.
To live up to their own vision of organic farming, the McDonald’s employ various sustainable practices. For starters, they always use land that has been free of conventional farming for at least 3 years. Then, they plant green manure crops to restore soil structure and fertility. In order to avoid the use of synthetic fertilizer, they use fish fertilizer as foliar spray and compost from neighboring horses. And, in order to avoid the use of herbicide, they rely mostly on good old fashioned weed pulling.
But just because the McDonalds have a firm ideological belief in organic farming, does not mean it is an idyllic life. “It is definitely not the easy choice,” said Julia McDonald, “Because sometimes we will lose a crop due to pests, but it is the easiest one by far to defend to customers and to ourselves.”
They also face the challenges that confront all farms, organic or not. Fluctuating weather and climate change are always looming issues because extreme weather often leads to unexpected expenses. Last year, for example, when the Midwest experienced a severe drought, the McDonald’s had to pump water to their crops almost constantly, the end result being a significantly higher electric bill.
In the long run, though, the McDonalds have managed to overcome these challenges and still stay afloat. According to Julia McDonald, the farm is self-sustaining, although not yet profitable. And they are continually looking toward the future. “We want to continue to streamline and to keep adding systems so that, ultimately, we can pass the business on to the next generation,” said Julia McDonald.
Reflecting back on their former life as city-dwellers with a simple dream of organic agriculture, Julia now realizes that their perspective at the time may have been somewhat unrealistic. But she also recognizes that some level of unfounded idealism is almost necessary to enter into this type of work, as well as to sustain oneself in it.
“Todd and I entered this industry not that long ago as starry-eyed, delusional newlyweds. We are still here and happy together,” said Julia. “I would tell new farmers like us that a certain amount of delusion is necessary to get things started, but just know that the learning curve is a lot steeper than you expect.”
Despite unexpected challenges, Julia McDonald appears to have no regrets. Ultimately, she understands that what they are doing at Peasants’ Plot Farm is incredibly important and one of the most ambitious jobs one can undertake. And she encourages others, both farmers and consumers, to join her in growing and supporting healthy sustainable food systems, like the system they uphold at Peasants’ Plot. “By participating in our food system like this, you are adding a vote in support of better land stewardship, cleaner environment, and popular control over the food supply.”