Tim Frillman has been an “unofficial” farmer his entire life, but he’s only devoted himself full time to the profession since the beginning of 2012, specializing in eggs, heirloom vegetables and honey. At eight acres, Frillman’s Farm, located in Prairie View, is exactly the type of small, local producer that a loose collection of Chicago chefs, dubbed Ground Up, formed to assist.
One of the group’s first efforts: an indoor farmers market held every Tuesday night, 5 – 8 p.m., at BrownTrout, 4111 N. Lincoln Ave.
Ground Up grew out of a field trip organized by Chef Tom Leavitt of White Oak Gourmet who, along with the Spence Farm Foundation, lured a handful of his Chicago peers to Spence Farm for a weekend-long Chef Camp. Participants emerged with a commitment to bridge the gap between farm and city and created Ground Up around which to organize their actions.
The market is the brainchild of Ground Up founding member and BrownTrout owner Sean Sanders, a long-time supporter of local and sustainable cuisine (he’d buy from foragers if it were legal). “I love that I can place where all my food comes from. It makes me so much more proud when I’m telling our guests what’s on the plate.”
Sanders pitched the idea of a market that could serve as an incubator of sorts for fledgling farmers, “people just trying to get their feet wet,” by providing them a venue with access to a larger number of consumers. He offered up his restaurant, typically closed on Tuesdays, to house the market and recruited a handful of vendors for last week’s debut, combing through past invoices to contact purveyors.
“You’re going to see different farmers than at Green City,” says Sanders. The fee alone, $25 versus $400 for other markets, makes BrownTrout’s version more palatable to newbies like Frillman, who barely has crops to sell at this point.
“We’ve got eggs and meat,” says Lori Leavitt, partner in White Oak with husband Tom, of the market’s current range of goods. “We’ll have more variety in coming weeks.”
The idea was to launch the market in May to build awareness and work out any kinks by the time June and July’s bumper crops roll around. To augment farmers’ spring offerings, BrownTrout reached out to producers of artisanal goods, such as Puffs of Doom, which operates a pastry food truck.
Sanders will also teach a cooking class to youngsters as part of the Tuesday market and serve a special BrownTrout menu. The bar is open as well, designed to “cause a little more social activity.”
The intimate setting certainly encourages conversation. We had the opportunity to chat with all of the farmers on hand – meet the folks who grow your food.
Tim Frillman, Frillman’s Farm
“My great-grandpa was a farmer,” says Frillman, a Stevenson High School grad who quit his job as a John Deere mechanic to revive a dormant family tradition.
“There’s such a movement toward local agriculture and the benefit of knowing your farmer,” he says, “so I’m jumping in head first.” He’s raising 160 chickens – personally hand washing all of their eggs – planted 135 varieties of vegetables and has five bee hives for honey production. “I kind of started with my eggs and hopefully I’ll be supplying a lot of restaurants.”
Essentially a one-man operation, Frillman harbors no grand ambitions. “I don’t want to be big; I want to be the local small farmer,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work, it’s not the easy way out. But is it extremely rewarding? Absolutely.”
Jackie and Trent Sparrow, Catalpa Grove Farm
The Sparrows live on the farm where Jackie grew up; the couple raise goat, lamb and veal, using the goat’s milk to feed the veal calves. In 2007, they lost their barn, half their livestock and a significant piece of equipment in a fire. “We’ve been building back from that,” says Jackie. Both have full-time jobs off the farm: Trent works as a mechanic and Jackie is a 9-1-1 dispatcher as well as a paramedic.
Meat can be a challenging sell at farmers markets, partly because it’s impossible to display and partly because of consumer skepticism. “We don’t use any hormones,” she says. “The people really have to get to know you to trust you.”
Sticker shock is another issue, especially at more rural markets. No, you won’t be getting your goat for 69 cents a pound. “We’ve got a $3 million insurance policy,” explains Jackie.
Meat farmers also have to pass a cruelty-free test that, say, potato farmers don’t. Customers frequently expect some sort of reassurance that their little lamb chop lived a good life, although Jackie has learned that displaying photos of animals frolicking on the farm actually discourages sales. Apparently it makes for too strong a farm-to-table connection.
“People want to know where their food is coming from, but they don’t want to know where their food is coming from.”
Emma Lincoln and Kiyoshi Mino, Lucky Duck Farm
The husband-and-wife team moved onto their farm in July 2011, having come to the profession in a rather roundabout way; this is their first growing season.
Lincoln was a preservation librarian, taking a job at the Library of Congress while Mino finished up his schooling at the University of Illinois. Having served in the army in Afghanistan, Mino was leaning toward a career with foreign aid and development organizations. Inspired by time spent in remote villages, he became convinced that “we need to be more like them, live a simpler life, pay more attention to community.”
With their life’s goals on separate paths, “we decided we needed to change course,” says Lincoln. The couple questioned, “What can we do, what kind of work can we do to build a life together that’s good for the environment and good for us?”
The answer was farming. The only hitch being, “We didn’t know how to farm,” she says.
They spent a year at a farm school in Massachusetts and then came back to Illinois looking for land. They’re leasing 10 acres of a much larger parcel formerly used to grow corn and soybeans. Six acres are devoted to pasture for chickens, ducks, sheep and a lone cow. The remaining land is reserved for vegetables, with the couple specializing in Asian varieties.
“Everything’s very small scale. We’re trying to keep it manageable for the two of us,” says Lincoln. “It’s daunting, but at the same time we’re starting slowly.”
They were cheered to find themselves surrounded by a vibrant community of like-minded small family farmers. Says Lincoln, “We’ve been embraced by our neighbors. You can’t do this kind of farming in a vacuum.”