Old-fashioned perfection: Twenty-something sells fresh, chemical-free produce
In rolling Grant Wood countryside, just past the Spoon River bridge west of Wyoming, Ill., are 101/2 acres of rich black soil farmed by a young college graduate excited not about his stock portfolio or his 401(k), but about fresh tomatoes, basil, sweet corn, edamame and green beans.
Lyndon Hartz, 26, makes it his business not just to grow pristine, chemical-free fruits and vegetables, but to get up before dawn on market days to pick his produce so customers are buying fresh from the field.
This graduate of Western Illinois University is banking on faith that people still value the taste of sweet corn picked at 4:30 a.m. and sold a few hours later with dew still clinging to the silks.
Research, for Hartz, is as important as his 30-horsepower compact John Deere tractor. A sign in his yard reads: "John Deere Parking. All Other Vehicles Plowed Under."
When Hartz researched organic certification, he concluded the cost and paperwork involved is outside the grasp of small farmers.
With that onerous paperwork, "the government took support away from the small farmer. You have organic in Wal-Mart from large commercial farms," he said. "If organic was supposed to be better for the environment, how come we’re trucking organic from California. That defeats the purpose of the small farm movement."
He inherited his interest in agriculture from his grandfather, his mechanical inclination from his father. He bought an 8-row weeder/cultivator for $95 at a farm auction and cut it down to 2 rows — compared with the cost of new at $1,500 to $2,500.
"I either build it or buy it used and make it work," he said.
His preferred strawberry is "sparkle," an ever-bearing variety with the flavor of strawberry honey and no tasteless white core inside. He put in 500 plants several years ago.
His preferred fertilizers on his Ipava and Tama silt loan soils are fish emulsion and liquid sea weed. He also uses cover crops and rotations.
By the third week of February, Hartz started working in his greenhouse. By April, he was out in his fields from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and when markets open, his days are longer still. He weeds by hand and uses lots of straw mulch.
Despite his extensive variety of produce, Hartz said green beans are still a staple crop. Last year he sold four to five bushels each Saturday.
"Last year a woman told me mine were the best green beans she’d ever eaten," Hartz said. "I know just when to pick them before the seed forms. You can’t beat that tenderness."
The commercialization of agriculture means size, shape and appearance are more valued than taste, tenderness and nutrition, he said.
"A lot of people have never had anything except supermarket vegetables," Hartz said. "We grew up with a garden and fresh vegetables. You just can’t go to supermarket produce after that."
Last year, Hartz was the only vendor with a limitless supply of edamame. He uses soybeans in his crop rotation and picks them at their peak.
"I hear a lot from people that I picked a hard way to earn a living. This kind of farming is sun up to sun down," he said. "I value work. It means a lot to me … part of who I am. There are not a lot of younger guys doing this. They don’t want to be outside in the fields on hot sunny days, but I don’t want to sit inside an air-conditioned office."
Caring for Cornish Cross chickens, bred for meat, is one of Hartz’s daily chores. His mother sells the eggs and poultry at the market in Wyoming because the extra fee to sell in Peoria is cost-prohibitive for him.
"There is a stigma that produce is overpriced at farmers’ markets. An educated consumer, rising fuel prices and the quality of supermarket produce that comes from Mexico and Honduras pushes people toward the markets," he said.
"When food is picked to ship thousands of miles, freshness, taste and nutrition are not there."
Clare Howard can be reached at email@example.com.