Introducing the new generation of farmer: Andy Heck, Gus Jones, and Sean Coleman.
They didn’t grow up on farms. They don’t have any interest in row crops. They don’t own any land. Heck, you won’t even find them in the countryside.
But with a budding urban farm in the heart of Springfield, they’re bringing farming back to its grass-roots, quite literally, and proving that to be a farmer, the only thing you really need is heart, a little bit of gumption, and of course, a sturdy set of overalls.
Prairie City Farms, tucked behind a daycare and a few commercial businesses, is virtually unseen from the road. You’d never guess that a sprawling, 14 acre lot of land was waiting just out of view. But there it sits, a little piece of country in the middle of a highway jungle. Pulling into the drive feels almost exactly as you would expect one might feel if you walked into an old wardrobe and fell into Narnia…like falling into a different world.
For Gus, Andy, and Sean though, this world is very real. In fact, it’s been a dream a long time coming. Not being able to enter the farming industry in the typical way, through taking up the family business or inheriting a large piece of land, they’ve had to carve out their own paths into the field of agriculture.
Gus Jones, hailing from Roscoe, Illinois, discovered his passion for agriculture in San Francisco. He was working for a company called Veritable Vegetables, trucking organic produce to local health food stores up and down California. “At the end of the day I would have back haul where I would have to stop at organic farms, and in that way I got to meet a lot of organic farmers, and it kind of turned me onto farming, and I thought I’d rather be a farmer than a truck driver,” says Gus. He moved back to Illinois where he decided to give farming a shot on a small plot of land his grandmother owned behind her house in Springfield.
Andy Heck, from Buffalo, Illinois, found his passion at a young age when he started helping out in his dad’s garden. After graduating from SIU with a teaching degree in biology, he came back to Central Illinois to teach, using his summers off to hobby farm. Gradually,he began to spend more time farming and less time teaching until he decided it was time to make a career change.
Sean Coleman, of Chatham, had always gravitated toward working with plants. He started off working at greenhouses, nurseries, and landscape companies around Springfield shortly after high school. In that line of work, he propagated a lot of vegetable plants for retail sale. “We had a lot of leftovers all the time so I took them home and planted them in my garden, so I always had free vegetables in my garden, and over the years it just grew and grew.” Eventually, he began hanging out at the Jubilee farm just outside of Springfield with Mark Moore who was taking care of the farm at the time. One day in the spring, Mark asked Sean if he’d found some land to farm on yet. Sean hadn’t even been thinking about farming full-time at that point, but the question struck a chord, and by that same fall he had found 12 acres of land for lease in Auburn and was ready to start farming.
Breaking into farming was one thing, the path to starting Prairie City Farms was another.
It was during Andy’s first year of farming that he met Gus at the Old Capitol Farmers’ Market, selling his produce at a table with his grandmother. The two struck up a friendship and soon were partnering together to create Hill Street Farm on the plot of land owned by Gus’s grandma. They successfully farmed that land for four years, and even today still harvest the perennial blackberries, flowers, and rhubarb that they planted there. But after four years of work with Hill Street Farm, Gus began looking for ways to extend his farming season and learn even more. He started searching for warmer climates to farm in during the cold Illinois winters, and soon after, made the bold decision to move to Florida to work for an organic avocado farm called Paradise Farms. A year later, he continued his agricultural education by completing an apprenticeship program at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California Santa Cruz, after which he put his skills to work in New York for three years. During that time period he worked for both the non-profit organization EATS and the Staten Island Botanical Gardens and helped to establish gardens in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Manhattan.
When Gus made the move to Florida in 2009, Andy teamed up with Garrick Veenstra, of Veenstra’s Vegetables and through the new partnership, the two created Heck’s Harvest and Veenstra’s Vegetables. It was during that time that Andy and Sean met through a chance encounter over a beer after a long day at the Old Capitol Farmer’s Market.
It was Thanksgiving of last year when all three men, home for the holidays, actually sat down for the first time, and the idea of forming a partnership was born. They began looking for land that would allow them to live and work in Springfield, avoiding long commutes to their farm. It was Sean, who scrolling through google maps one day, stumbled upon 14 acres in the center of Springfield which was owned by the Catholic Diocese. He then contacted the diocese and asked if it would be possible to submit a proposal for the use of the land, and with that, Prairie City Farm was born.
“So you can blame the Brewhaus and the Farmers’ Market” says Andy of their new venture, referring to his chance meetings with Sean and Gus years ago.
Currently, Prairie City Farms is in the very beginning stages of its first spring planting. The guys have been working hard, preparing the beds, creating a compost pile, mulching, planting starter seeds, and even constructing two homemade greenhouses out of PVC pipes.
“We did everything on a tight budget this year,” says Andy as he explains that they were able to build both greenhouses for under $400 each, and even added heated flooring, via an ingenious design by Sean, to one of the greenhouses to help aid production. Just peeking inside the greenhouses, you can tell they’re doing something right. “Right now, the plants are ‘growing mad,’ and they grow mad until one day, that madness has stopped and then they’re mad they’re still in that container,” explains Gus, who expects they’ll be transplanting soon and will have their first harvest in under 40 days. “Everything in farming is all about timing,” he adds.
This year, there are over 80 different varieties of fruits and vegetables being grown at Prairie City Farms, which also aims to be as organic and sustainable as possible. No herbicides or chemical fertilizers are being used, and crop rotation will allow the crops from one year to grow on the nutrients left behind by the crop of the previous year. Beyond being just a farm however, Andy, Gus, and Sean also envision their piece of land as a means of improving nutrition and education in inner-city Springfield, with hopes of launching educational programs for nearby schools once the farm becomes a bit more established.
“How great is it that a piece of land like this exists within an urban area where people go hungry and there are real access problems and nutritional density problems. People want to have more access, and well, here it is. We’ve got this big piece of land, and you can find everything here that you would find in the produce section of a grocery isle. It could be a really great thing for the whole city,” explains Gus.
It’s clear that for these men, farming is much more than just farming, it’s a way of life. Gus sums it best by saying, “The Amish believe the closest thing you can do to be in touch with God is be working the land. That’s one of the oldest beliefs. We owe everything that we have here to agriculture and there’s no way that we affect the Earth more than through agriculture. It’s important how we do it. And I think being an urban farm it’s going to be fun to be hopefully visible and be able to set some kind of example.”
Words to live by. Thank goodness for this next generation of farmers, and may they pave the way for generations to come.
You can find Prairie City Farm selling at Springfield area farmer’s markets, so be sure to pop by their table. You can also get your weekly dose of vegetables via a Prairie City Farm CSA. To learn more, visit their facebook page, email at email@example.com, or call 217-891-3570
By: Molly Gleason