Reinvention Recipes: The Farmer’s Perspective

The Midwest’s food scene depends on its farmers. And those farmers depend on its restaurants, food purveyors and individual customers to stay afloat.

One place where farmers, chefs and customers gather every Saturday is the Green City Market in Chicago. The non-profit market began in 1998 in an alley outside the Chicago Theater. Now, white tents fill a lawn in Lincoln Park during summer Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the displays move indoors come November.

I’ve been a frequent shopper at the Green City Market during my time as senior editor of Changing Gears. As I’ve strolled through the displays, I’ve noticed that many the farmers are from my home state, Michigan. I’ve also noticed that many of those farmers are charging more than they could there. A basket of apples that might sell for $3 at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market fetches $4-5 here. A quart of raspberries that could go for $5 at home cost $7 here.

But behind every box of apples and every bunch of radishes is a story like Rene Gelder’s.

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She run runs the Ellis Family Farm in Benton Harbor, MI. Three days a week, she drives as many as 215 miles round-trip to deliver products to six Chicago area markets. She has no farm stand or store at her 58 acre farm on the southwest side of the state. Without these outlets, she says bluntly, “we wouldn’t be farming.”

Once small farms like these had another option. They could sell at the wholesale market in Benton Harbor, the heart of Michigan’s fruit belt. I wrote about the market for The New York Times in 2007. But many of the farmers are now dwarfed by bigger purveyors who truck their wares to Benton Harbor, and much of the fruit these small farmers sell wouldn’t survive the trip from Benton Harbor to points across the country.

Farming has never been an easy life, and it has gotten harder in the current economy. Gelder says it takes her 12 to 15 weeks a year to sell enough produce, like apples, asparagus, and berries, to cover her costs. But the market season only lasts for five months. “We’ve got 20 weeks to make our living,” she says.

That’s something market goers don’t always understand when they complain about prices. “They get a pay check,” Gelder says. “I have to make all of it in 20 weeks.”

But Gelder has gotten support from the chefs who shop here. She sells some of 12 varieties of apples to the Hoosier Mama Pie Company, which has a shop in Chicago and sells its pies at the market. 005 And she received a grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation, established by chef Rick Bayless to support small farmers. The money paid for equipment she needed to prepare her strawberry crop, cutting eight to 10 precious days off the growing process.

She believes the market has helped educate Chicago shoppers about new possibilities in their kitchens. “People didn’t know what to do with asparagus and rhubarb,” she said. “There’s a whole new generation that’s getting it.”

Even if they aren’t cooking with the market’s produce, many Chicagoans are eating it in area restaurants. Mick Klug’s fruit is now listed by name at Bayless’ restaurants and at restaurants like Floriole, a French-inspired cafe in Lincoln Park.
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Klug works side by side with his daughter, Abby, 26, at his Green City Market stand.

Abby Klug has degrees from Michigan State and Wayne State, and works part time as a school counselor in Bridgman, MI. But she wants to play a role in the family business, which has mushroomed since the Klugs began selling here. On his first trip to a market in Chicago, “my dad sent one person with 7 flats of raspberries. Now it’s his whole income,” says Abby Klug. The Klugs sell at six different markets in Chicago, which provides the opportunity to charge more than they would back in St. Joseph, MI, where the family has farmed the past 31 years.

“The demand is pretty high here to get fresh, local produce,” she said. But even brand-name fruit sellers can’t escape the economics of farming. “On a rainy day, we’ll sell half what we would on a nice Saturday,” Abby Klug said. “There’s a lot of risk involved.”

That’s especially true for the market’s newest participants. Two years ago, “I was one of the people with lettuce in my hand,” said Dave Dyrek, the owner of Leaning Shed Farm. “I’d think it was a little bit pricey. Now I think it’s worth it.”

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Dyrek exemplifies the philosophy behind Reinvention Recipes. In 2004, the 49-year-old, who owned a heating and cooling business in Chicago, bought a 30 acre farm in Berrien Springs, MI, about five miles east of Lake Michigan. This year, he began selling at the Green City Market for the first time.

Leaning Shed Farm started out as a hobby for Dyrek and his wife, who liked to garden and thought it would be fun to grow their own organic vegetables.

But after a few years of offloading excess tomatoes on their friends, the Dyreks decided to see if they could farm for a living. Dyrek decided to focus on Asian and European varieties, such as mustard greens, the Chinese cabbage called Bok Choi, and 10 types of radishes, ranging in taste from peppery to sweet.

What he didn’t expect was “just the amount of work,” Dyrek said. “It’s dark in the morning. It’s dark at night.It goes on seven days a week. I’ve never worked so hard for so little money in my life.”

He gets help from his wife, his nephew and his nieces, and he’s been ribbed by some veteran farmers who questioned whether the newcomer could make it. But the teasing had the opposite effect. “The more they laughed, the more determined I was,” Dyrek said.

His venture has paid off in some high-profile customers. Dyrek sells to 30 different restaurants, including Alinea, whose chef, Grant Achatz, has ties to Michigan. Given that, Dyrek says he’s focused on making his reinvention a going concern. “I wouldn’t say this is for the rest of my life,” Dyrek says, “but it is for now.”
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For this week’s recipe, we turn to another Michigan farm, Seedlings Orchard, of South Haven, MI. Its owner, Peter Klein, is often on hand at the Green City Market as well as the Thursday night summer market in the parking lot at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor. Klein is an evangelist for using fresh fruit in season. His sorbet has just two main ingredients: fresh fruit and simple syrup. If you have an an ice cream maker, this recipe will work for you. Let us know what you make with it!

Seedlings Sorbet

Simple Syrup
Bring 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to boil.
Simmer until no sugar is visible.
Cool.

Sorbet
2 pints fruit
1 cup simple syrup
In a blender, puree fruit and syrup until smooth.
Freeze in ice cream maker according to directions.
Note: syrup quantity can be reduced according to fruit’s ripeness.

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