What happens when a lifelong conventional grain farmer falls in love with a committed organic vegetable gardener?
Large-scale sustainable vegetable production, that’s what.
Debbie Flannery and Roger Bock were raised in separate worlds. She a Chicago native with a green thumb and big ideas, and he a Central Illinois farm boy with a knack for engineering. Despite their widely varying backgrounds and being on the opposite ends of two conflicting ideologies in the agriculture industry, the two are breaking ground together in a new venture that just might re-shape the way Illinois does agriculture.
Soaring grain prices along with crop insurance subsidies have meant that corn and soybean fields have dominated the landscape of Illinois for the greater part of the past century. Small family farmers, in an attempt to stay competitive with large farming corporations, have had to purchase and clear more land for grain production, apply more chemicals to get higher yields, and abandon many of the conservation practices that were once a part of the farming way of life, or risk being forced out of the farming industry that they’ve always known and loved. But today, with land prices at an all-time high, for many family farmers simply acquiring more land is no longer an option.
“With what we’re doing here there is a lot less foot print and there’s a lot more productivity per ground,” Says Deb, “and when ground is so expensive, this is the way we figure you can get your money back out, intensive planting.” And their budding success in the wholesale vegetable market proves they just might be on to something.
Roger is the last Bock working farmer on the 100 year old Bock Trust farm just outside of Williamsville, Illinois. Having been born into a farm family, Roger’s agriculture education began at a young age. He began running the tractor on his parent’s farm even before he could reach the pedals, using wood blocks as a stand in until he grew tall enough to reach the controls without aid. Farming, it seems, was in his genes.
While Roger grew up living and breathing farming though, Deb had to find her own way into the agricultural world.
From a young age, Deb felt the pull of her green thumb. Fed by gardening stories from her father’s childhood in California and an innate curiosity, Deb planted her first seed at the age of 6. Her mother had purchased a set of encyclopedias from a traveling salesman, which young Debbie considered good reads. After nosing through a section on planting seeds, she raided her cabinets for the only seed she could find, a popcorn kernel, and planted it in the back yard. Several months later her father handed her an ear of corn from that same plant, and Deb’s destiny was sealed. Although she would hold various interesting jobs throughout her adulthood, working in her family’s vending machine company and running her own clothing business, she would forever be growing something.
So when Deb moved onto the Bock Trust traditional corn and soybean farm five years ago, it was only natural that she would bring some farm dreams of her own: organic vegetable production that is. It was the end of July when she arrived, not typically the time of year that gardens are being planted in Illinois, but this did not deter Deb. She went to the nearest seed store and asked for whatever they had left. She took it and planted it, and on Christmas morning, she was digging up marketable carrots. “And I thought, this is going to work,” says Deb of her idea to begin growing vegetables on a large scale, “If it works like this now, this can work.” And while most organic growers start small and sell locally through farmers’ markets and CSA’s, Deb and Roger were thinking big.
The next year, she and Roger hauled in mushroom compost and expanded their garden to include plots on marginal ground on the outskirts of several corn and bean fields. Today, they have about 3-5 acres in vegetable production, all of it sustainably grown. The vegetables, which are mostly started from seed, are given the royal treatment. They are intensively grown in raised beds with grass strips between to allow access for people and equipment, so as not to compress the soil. Mushroom compost is used as a fertilizer and once the pollinating insects, such as bees, become scarcer, a mixture of coconut oil and water is sprayed on the plants as a pest deterrent. A new well was dug last year and by a great stroke of luck, came back clean of chemicals (most wells in Illinois contain high amounts of chemical run-off), giving Deb and Roger the go-ahead with their vision of a water conserving sub-surface irrigation system, which they installed this summer.
Although they’ve chosen to forego applying for the “certified organic label” just yet, a lengthy and expensive process, they are doing everything by the book. Everyone on the farm is Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) trained, the produce is cleaned well, the proper drainage systems are in place, they’ve recently acquired on-site refrigeration, and they’re using the most sustainable practices possible.
They now grow up to 40 different vegetables and varieties, although the exact number of each crop is not determined by them, but by their buyers. “We take this list and we go to the Buyers Meetings, and we show them what we’ve done and tell them what we can do, but we tell them we don’t know what your customers want, that’s your department. So if you can look at this list and tell us what you think will work for you, then we would like to be your growing partner,” says Deb.
Today they sell to a variety of retailers across the state and grow produce for names such as Heinen’s, Hy-Vee, and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
The past five years of their wholesale organic vegetable venture hasn’t always been a smooth ride however. There have been compromises and learning curves on both sides, as the couple has navigated their way into a scarcely heard of industry in Central Illinois.
“The combination of Roger and I is that Roger is a commodity crop farmer, and I am a vegetable farmer, and together we’re both learning how to meet in the middle. I don’t like heavy machinery, and he likes heavy machinery. You know, so we have to be careful. No compression on the soil. That was a hard one for him. Compression is bad and actually so is the vibration of the machinery, but then I have to give a little bit on the equipment in order to get that crop ground going where we need it to go, because we have to earn money or it can’t pay for itself.”
Simply compromising on production methods was the least of their hurdles. A great deal of experimentation and research had to take place before they were able to make their business profitable.
During their first three years of operation, while they were still learning about intensive planting techniques and trying to break into the wholesale market, they donated much of their produce to women’s and children’s centers. “We wanted to learn, and they wanted what we had,” says Deb, who also notes they have no plans to stop supporting these centers with food donations. Roger and Deb also began attending vegetable production conferences across the U.S. in order to learn more about the vegetable market and the methods and processes for growing vegetables on a large scale. What they found was startling.
Out in Colorado, home of the National Onion Growers’ Association, Roger toured one of the onion farms and asked the farm manager how he was able to plant 1000 acres of onions: “He said, ‘you take a stick you put a whole in the ground, you put the onion in you do it again.’ How many people does it take to do that? I asked. ‘A small army, it takes a small army.’ I’m here in the onion growing capital of America and these guys are still doing a thousand acres by using a stick and putting them in the ground?”
And while they found that not all wholesale farms are still resorting to an army of cheap labor, the U.S. seems to be severely lagging in the large-scale vegetable production industry on a global scale.
“America is horrible for equipment,” says Roger. “If you go to Western Europe, Pacific Rim, Australia, they are so far ahead of us it’s not even funny.” Roger and Deb note that most of their recently purchased equipment comes from all over the world, “We’ve gotten two pieces from the Netherlands and one from New Zealand, and the farm machinery shows that we’ve been told we need to go to are in France and Germany,” says Deb. Roger explains, “Most people in America do this sort of thing where they have mechanical transplanters that put seeds one in a row, with thirteen inch rows. This company that’s based in Australia has one unit, it all has to be grown in plugs, but it’s like loading a gun. You’ve got one guy in a tractor and it’s got GPS and auto steer and everything. He’s throwing these trays in there and it’s popping out eight at a time. They’re in five inch rows and that one machine by itself can plant 80,000 plants in a day’s time. And if you want to spend the money for the photo-optics, it can find the cells that didn’t germinate and will skip it! I can’t wait until we get big enough to justify some of this stuff,” he adds.
Roger himself, searching for a more efficient way to plant the 120,000 onions that were ordered this year, welded together his own dibbler, a square iron piece filled with prongs and pushed into the ground to create seed holes of pre-determined spacing.
Although Wolf Creek Farm boasts a few pieces of equipment from around the world, much of their planting and harvesting still requires a decent amount of man power, for which Deb and Roger are happy to pay an honest wage. They hire people of all ages and abilities on the farm. This year, Deb’s niece and nephew brought their high school and university friends out to Wolf Creek to earn a few extra dollars and some organic farming experience over their spring break. Many older retired folks throughout the area also come out to work. Curiosity has even gotten the better of the hired hands that help with Roger’s corn and soybean fields, who now often stay at the end of the day to lend their services to the new vegetable production side of the business. It’s clear that Deb and Roger care about setting an example of treating workers with respect in an industry that, nationwide, has been dominated by low wages and harsh working conditions.
The final obstacle in their wholesale venture has not been finding buyers, but finding buyers in Central Illinois. Although they have a small trailer for deliveries, transportation is expensive, and currently, most of their sales are to grocery stores and markets in Chicago and St. Louis (with the exception of the New Berlin School District) hundreds of miles away. They hope to one day grow large enough to be able to load their produce on the passing semi-trucks that run down I-55, just miles from their farm, but they hope even more to be able to sell their produce close to home. This may mean that Central Illinois buyers will have to start taking a more concerted interest in how their food is grown and where it is coming from.
Despite the overwhelming odds though, Deb and Roger have managed to break into an industry that few people in Illinois have considered as a viable farming option, and what’s more, they’re proving they can do it in a way that is both environmentally and morally conscientious. What makes Deb Flannery and Roger Bock so exemplary though, is not that they are the bridge between two opposing factions in the agriculture industry, small-scale organic agriculture and large-scale conventional agriculture, and not their early success, but that they are visionaries in sustainable wholesale vegetable farming, and they might just be changing not only farming in Illinois, but industry standards as a whole.
“We are studying the world and trying to go forward,” says Deb, “I would say the biggest term on this whole operation that I could pass onto anybody else is just ‘try’, because that’s all we’re doing.”