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Thursday, June 18, 2009 05:47 pm

Growing food, healing land

The good life on a three-family farm near Rochester

Garrick Veenstra and Andy Heck under their tent at the Old Capitol Farmer’s Market

It’s as inevitable as death and taxes: when growing vegetables without chemicals, weeds will be involved. Even though sophisticated mulching and planting techniques can minimize and, with diligence, even eliminate them over time, weeds are still there, lurking in the background, plotting their next invasion.

It’s a pearly morning. Approaching rain clouds make rows of lettuces, herbs, greens of varied texture, potatoes in full bloom, and a host of other vegetables almost luminous. Andy Heck and Garrick Veenstra are dealing with the grassy weeds around onions as it’s been done since crops were first cultivated thousands of years ago: on their knees.

The pair has more than the usual amount of weeds with which to deal, even considering this season’s rainy weather. Though they’ve both been growing and selling produce for several years, this is a new location for them — it had previously been a pasture.

It’s also a new partnership. Veenstra had been farming in Pana, and Heck grew his produce at an eastside Springfield location. But Veenstra had been looking for land closer to Springfield and his home in Taylorville. And Heck, whose gardening partner had gone to Florida to work at a sustainable operation and decided to stay, was also ready for a change. Their adjoining stands at the Old Capitol Farmer’s Market gave them the opportunity to get to know each other — and to realize that they shared similar goals and philosophies. So they decided to join forces.

Heck and Veenstra rent the land from Todd and Kari Vincent. It’s new land for the Vincents as well; they moved from their farm in Lake Fork last winter to a larger place just outside Rochester. The Vincents raise pastured chickens, grass-fed cattle for both dairy and meat, some vegetables — and their brood of eight children. Their products — which also include honey and eggs — are available for purchase at the farm. On the day of my visit, they were in the process of turning half of the free-standing garage into a farm store.

Todd Vincent tells me that the larger amount of acreage has given him the room he needs for mob grazing. It’s one of the methods combining innovative, eco-friendly concepts with age-old practices that’s revolutionizing sustainable farming. I assumed that “mob” was an acronym but it really means a mob: a mob of cattle in a small grazing area. The cattle, having a herd mentality, don’t mind hanging out close together – especially since they’re moved to fresh pasture three or four times each day. That’s a lot of effort for Vincent, but he’s seen immediate results. “My goal is to have a hoof, mouth, urine, or manure on every inch of pasture.” He tells me that when cows eat grass, they leave some of their saliva behind — saliva containing an enzyme that stimulates the grasses’ growth. Nature has created a perfect partnership between plant and animal, something Joel Salatin, a pioneer in sustainable techniques, calls “a beautifully symbiotic relationship based on essentially solar and instinctual energy.”

The Vincents, Veenstra and Heck have a symbiotic relationship, too. Vincent says Veenstra and Heck have expanded his knowledge of vegetable farming, while the Vincent children (and sometimes parents) pitch in to help during long days of transplanting seedlings as well as in other ways.

In fact, in busy times, it becomes a family affair, including the extended families of all three. “My mom’s on her way out here now,” laughs Heck. “She was never into gardening, but she comes and helps separate plants and does other stuff. My dad helps out, too.”

There’s a lot to do. Veenstra and Heck grow 45 different vegetables in an astounding 230 varieties. In addition to their twice-weekly sales at the Old Capitol Farmer’s Market, they have a 50-plus family CSA with pick-ups at the farm as well as deliveries in Decatur. In CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), members pay for a share of the season’s produce, with weekly pickups/deliveries. It gives members a steady flow of seasonal produce and farmers a steady income — shared rewards and shared risks. For most of the season, which lasts for 25 weeks from May to early November, each member usually receives at least seven different vegetables weekly. Their CSA is closed for this season, and there’s a waiting list for next year. Do they want to expand the CSA? Yes and no. Now they have got all the work they can handle. They’d even welcome competition, saying “We need more people doing what we’re doing.”

Garrick and Andy’s garden on the Vincent Farm outside of Rochester.

Certainly the Vincents, Veenstra, and Heck aren’t farming to get rich. “We live simply so we can do this for a living,” says Veenstra. It’s a way of life, but also a mission. “I want people to get to know me and know where their food comes from,” he says. “We’re constantly saying ‘Come out to the farm.’ We’re always hoping to get people out here. The most important thing is making that connection.”

Salatin says of his Virginia farm, “We are in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy and healing the culture.” It’s the same philosophy and belief that the Vincents, Veenstra and Heck bring to their work and their lives.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Garrick Veenstra and Andy Heck under their tent at the Old Capitol Farmer’s Market


If some of Veenstra and Heck’s gorgeous vegetables have drawn your eye, but you’re hesitant about buying them because you’re not sure how to prepare them, never fear. They have an entire file box filled with recipes and tips. Here’s a sampling:

The combination of beans and greens is a classic that appears in cuisines all over the world, in soups, tossed with pasta, or just as is.

  • 1 1/2 pounds kale, chard, or mustard greens, trimmed [of any thick stems] and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 15 oz. can white beans (Great Northern or Cannellini), undrained
  • 6 dried tomato halves, rehydrated and chopped [to rehydrate: cover with boiling water, let stand for 30 minutes, then drain]
  • 1/2 c. chicken broth [or substitute vegetable stock]
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary, crushed [OR 1 T. chopped fresh rosemary]
  • 1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes [optional or more to taste]
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts water to a boil. Add 1 T. salt to boiling water, add greens and cook until they are almost tender but still bright green, 5-8 minutes. Time will depend on type of green being used. Drain and set aside. (Greens can be cooked one day ahead; refrigerate until continuing with recipe.)

Heat olive oil in large skillet and sauté garlic until tender but not browned; stir in beans and cook and stir for 8 minutes, heating beans through. Some beans may break up; this is OK as it helps thicken the dish. Gently stir in greens, tomatoes, broth and seasonings. Cook and stir gently until heated through. If desired, top each serving with a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 4

Garrick Veenstra and Andy Heck under their tent at the Old Capitol Farmer’s Market


  • 3/4c. cocoa
  • 1 3/4 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1/4 lb. cooked, puréed beets
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 2/3 c. vegetable oil
  • Vanilla extract
Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Fold the beet mixture into the dry ingredients and pour into a greased 9-inch x 13-inch pan or two 8-inch round pans. Bake at 350° for about 30 minutes. Ice if desired.
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