Will work for food: Community farm offers free garden plots, outreach
By Rachel Baruch Yackley | Daily Herald Correspondent
Published: 7/26/2010 12:00 AM
Have you ever dreamed of having your own farm, where you can grow fresh, healthy food for yourself and your family? Now you can, and for free, too, thanks to the efforts of a few local Geneva residents.
Making something from nothing and sharing all with the community is the heart of what's happening at Pushing the Envelope Farm, a nonprofit community farm in Geneva.
Full-time farm manager Libby Voss and a wealth of volunteers hoe, till, plant and harvest edibles at Pushing the Envelope Farm. This venture offers 10-by-20-foot plots, free, to anyone in the community, as well as to Continental Envelope employees.
Diana Morin of Geneva works on her quarter of an acre at the farm, which is bigger than the plots farmed by families for home use.
Morin sells some of what she grows on her plot at the weekly Geneva Green Market, held on Thursdays at 75 N. River Lane.
Lovage, dill, snow peas, sorrel, and Swiss chard have been her biggest producers, so far.
"I've been (farming) here only this year, but I've been doing this for four years, and taken what I grow to the Market," said Morin, as she bent over her rows of plants and plucked out the weeds.
Owner Fred Margulies also farms his own plot, where Brussels sprouts, collards, tomatoes, borage, and lemon verbena can be found.
Kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, peas, asparagus, raspberries and more fill the rows of the farm's one-acre market plot, also called The Market Acre. Money earned from the weekly market goes toward covering the farm's expenses.
Thirteen years ago, brothers Fred, Norman, and Sheldon Margulies bought 23 acres of land on Averill Road in Geneva, just north of Roosevelt Road. About seven acres were used to build their business, Continental Envelope.
At that time, most of the remaining land was used by a local farmer, who, in 2008, decided to farm elsewhere. The land lay fallow for a time, until Fred, his wife Trisha, and their adult children decided to start a community farm on their property.
"Our three younger kids (Elisheva, Elan and Ariel) are very helpful and knowledgeable, and concerned that the values we're working on are transmitted. We have learned from them. The values we're working on now are values our children have taught us," Trisha Margulies said. "This whole enterprise is one they are involved in. It's very fulfilling."
The seeds for the farm idea sprouted three years ago, after Fred, Trisha, Elisheva, Elan, and Trisha's mother, Esther Shendelman, attended the annual Hazon Food Conference, first in 2007 and then again in 2008, which "inspired us," Margulies said.
Hazon is a Jewish organization which work to "create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community and a healthier and more sustainable world for all," which parallels the Margulies's vision.
"It's about being more aware of choices, more aware of food, responsibility for family and for the environment," said Margulies. "It's about families planting, growing, and eating together."
Getting started was a big hurdle, as the Margulieses had never done anything like this, before.
"I went to the Geneva Green Market, where I met people and introduced myself. I was amazed there was such a commitment here, with the Green Market, and two organic farms, nearby," said Margulies, who began meeting with people like Green Market founder Karen Stark, as well as the owners of Erewhon Farm in Elburn and Heritage Prairie Farm in La Fox, for advice and help.
"They said this is what you have to do with the soil: let it lie fallow, and put in coverage crops," she said.
Finally, in 2009, Tim Fuller of Erewhon Farm came out and plowed the land.
Then it was time to bring the concept to life.
"We wanted to make this a community farm for people who didn't have land to grow their own food. And we wanted to do it as a nonprofit," Margulies explained.
"We want to help people know what it is like to grow and pick a fresh carrot. We want to share diversity. We want to teach people from farm to table, and do it for the whole community."
The first people to dig in the dirt were employees of Continental Envelope. About a dozen people from the factory plus several area residents each have their own plots.
Various groups have also gotten involved, including a group of Asian refugees in a mission program from Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles, who have their own plot.
Volunteers are always welcome to work on The Market Acre. A group of young people age 18 to 24 from Maywood, who are gaining valuable experience through a Loyola University Medical Center outreach program - Cook County Green Corps - come out weekly and work on weeding and harvesting produce for the Geneva Green Market, as well as clients from AID (Association for Individual Development) in St. Charles.
Voss, the farm manager, who came from Washington State with a wealth of knowledge and experience, will have her first intern when a student from the Hadassah College in Jerusalem arrives for the summer.
It's not all about growing and weeding: the farm also offers educational opportunities to learn about food consumption, the morality of food production, and the importance of a locally produced meal.
There is a religious component to all that's being done here, too. The Margulies family is dedicated to contributing to and enhancing the Jewish community in the area. As such, they are offering the farm as a place for children working on their bar or bat mitzvahs to do the typically requisite mitzvah project - a volunteer outreach project - by volunteering in The Market Acre.
Members of Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors in Geneva, as well as interested people from area synagogues, are encouraged to contact the farm about starting their own plots and getting involved.
Plans are already underway for a Jewish nature camp, programs on Jewish holidays, and educational opportunities on the relationship of Judaism to agrarian traditions.
In the secular community, school-age children are equally welcome to volunteer on the farm, as well as college students looking for alternative learning experiences.
"The bottom line is we all need more education. We can't eat better, nor grow better, if we don't know better," Trisha Margulies said.
This is not a certified organic farm, but keeping things natural is the focus. Hence, no chemicals are used. Use of the land is free, and "farmers" need only provide their own seeds and plants.
"You can always do short season stuff and have things (to eat) throughout the season," said Voss, who reminds everyone that almost any produce can be preserved by freezing, canning and pickling, to "extend the eating season," and enjoy all year long.
More from the farm
• Visit the Pushing the Envelope Farm stand on Thursdays, at the Geneva Green Market, and buy truly locally grown produce. Keep an eye out for a future On-Farm Stand, as well.
• Volunteers are welcome to come out to the farm to lend a hand and gain knowledge about farming.
Anyone interested in farming a plot for themselves should contact Voss for more information.
• Free community potluck and movie nights are planned for the fourth Saturday of the month this summer. A potluck dinner gathering kicks things off at 7:30 p.m., and the movie starts at 9 p.m. Bring a dish to share and your own washable dishes. These movie nights are appropriate for all ages.
• Contact farm manager Libby Voss for more details on all the opportunities at the farm, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to check out the Web site: www.pushingtheenvelopefarm.org.