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Winter Farming in Illinois: How the cold can help crops

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Trying to grow anything in the ground this time of year in Illinois seems like mission impossible- especially this winter. Not only are some Illinois farmers harvesting winter crops, as WGN’s Lourdes Duarte reports, one Illinois farm couple is hoping what plays near Peoria, will catch on all over the Midwest.

“See all the lettuce, it’s pretty huh?”  Lyndon and Kimberli Hartz are newlyweds who farm      ten-and-a-half acres in Wyoming, Illinois, about a 40 minute drive Northwest of Peoria. You can spot their place by the hoop houses. “The main difference between a hoop house and a greenhouse is that a hoop house doesn’t have a furnace or heater or anything like that. It’s all the sun,” explains Lyndon.

It was 22 degrees below zero this morning, but inside, the sun had warmed the hoop house some 50 degrees. “That snow, when it piles up on the side and even on the roof of it actually helps insulate it.”   A decade ago, Hartz began studying organic farming and local food.  He figured with a couple of hoop houses, he could start tomatoes in March instead of May.  That idea grew.  And the Hartzes now plant crops in the spring and the fall. “We planted spinach last fall and we’ve been picking all winter long.”

Spinach, lettuce, carrots, and beets, all do well, allowing the Hartzes to grow vegetables virtually year round.  “The way Lyn’s so passionate about his farm and about his produce growing organically and healthy, I wanted to be a part of it.” Some crops didn’t do as well this winter, more due to last summer’s drought than the bitter cold.  But, the Hartzes are happy with how cold increases the quality of their harvest.

“These carrots get they just get like really crunchy, texture to ‘em, really crisp, about the best tasting carrots you can get.” 150 miles Northeast of Hartz Produce, Rosario Maldonado shows us some of what’s growing this winter at Arturo Velasquez Institute in Chicago, a city college at 28th and Western.

“Here we have some leeks, kale, and as you can tell the spinaches we have here,” . They were all seeded in October. That’s a big challenge for people to grasp, the whole a farm has to be rural. This is technically a farm here, and it’s in the middle smack dab in the middle of the city.” Maldonado grew up in this Little Village neighborhood.  But, it wasn’t until a trip to South that she learned about an urban agriculture course in her own back yard.  She’s now one of those running this show at Windy City Harvest. “We come from a fast food nation and I think it’s really important that we remember that our food is like our health insurance.”

“We feel like this is something that people are really interested in,” says Kelly Larsen who manages the Windy City Harvest program.  It’s a partnership between Daley city colleges and the Chicago Botanic Garden.  There’s a nine month course for people who want to work full time in urban agriculture.  And, they offer Saturday workshops for the home scale sustainable farmer.

Larsen says the workshops cover everything from building small aquaponics systems, to crop planning, to season extension. “With your cold hardy vegetables and even some herbs you can get started much earlier than May 1st. These hoops that you see outside, we actually seeded the leeks last September and so we’ll be harvesting them now really early season. As soon as we can work the soil we will seed spinach and carrots in these low tunnels out here. So ya, it’s really shocking. I mean it’s February and there’s cucumbers.”

The Windy City Harvest greenhouse, hoop house and outdoor tunnels, show students and area residents what’s possible, even in winter, miles from corn and soybean about as good as it gets right there.”  Like Windy City Harvest, Lyndon and Kimberli will keep pushing the limits of winter crops, supplying themselves, and their co-op and restaurant customers with fresh produce, year round.  “I’m so excited and I can’t wait to get started,” says Kimberli.  “We’ve got big ideas and big plans we want to do this year.”  “Every year it’s been getting a little bit better since I started.  I do see it catching on.”

The manager of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association says there are no statistics available on winter farmers.  But there is definite interest and growth in winter farming in Illinois.  And the more local farmers come on board, organic prices will drop. Windy City Harvest has workshops coming up this weekend, March 8th, and in early April.  You can find more information by clicking the links below, and please share this story with family and friends.

Producer Pam Grimes, and Photojournalist Steve Scheuer contributed to this report.

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