Archive for May, 2013

May 30, 2013

Early season look at the Peoria Farmers Market at the Metro Centre

Peoria,IL: Although I farm I haven’t given up my day job here in Downstate Peoria. Since I work in Peoria this gives me a chance to hit some of the farmers markets there from time to time. I had a little time at lunchtime today and checked out the oldest farmers market in Peoria, and although it is early in the season, there are a few good items to be found at the Peoria Farmers Market at the Metro Centre.


The farmers represented today at the Metro Centre had a few early season crops like radishes, green onions and lettuce.

DSCN1575                 DSCN1576

They all had potted vegetables and herbs.


I took advantage of this and bought a few herbs that we need in our herb garden.

DSCN1584 2                     DSCN1583

There were a few tomatoes grown in a hoophouse, like the ones from the Garden Spot, a farm and farmstand in Princeville, Illinois run by Jim Buckley along with his mother Lillian Jacobs. I bought one to see what the low acid tomatoes taste like.


I spoke to Ron Dieter, who has a greenhouse at his place in Brimfield, Illinois and whose wife Donna happens to help start many of the heirloom seeds that I grow. He was helping out at the Garden Spot table and he said “the market really gets going in late June and July when there is much more produce available and many more vendors.” The Peoria Farmers Market is about a block long and there is space for many vendors but there were only a few today.



Some Southern Illinois Strawberries stretching what is “local.”


According to The Peoria Farmers Market ‘s Local Harvest listing: The Peoria Farmers Market at the Metro Centre was founded in 1977 by community leader Marvin L. Goodman. It was his vision to promote healthy eating while bringing-together consumers and farmers from all over Central Illinois to a marketplace with a wide variety of fresh, locally grown produce. Thirty plus years later his vision still holds true.

I have been to this market in the past as it shares its Metro Centre location with another Peoria local food purveyor, Pottstown Meats. For dinners that she serves in her wine shop in Galesburg, my wife often needs sausages or unusual cuts of meats that you would not find in a supermarket and Pottstown has always come through. Having a meat market that has meat from local farms such as Kilgus Farms in Fairbury, IL across the parking lot from a farmers market is a convenient way to create an almost totally local meal!

Potts 1                          Potts 2

Metro Centre 4700 North University Peoria, IL 61614 Peoria Farmers Market:

Pottstown Meat and Deli:

May 23, 2013

Stumbling Upon a Relic, Connecting with the Past

Many of the things that make gardening and farming worthwhile are not apparent until you stumble upon them. Obvious enjoyment in the act of working the soil comes from the sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency they provide.  The cheap produce grown with your own hands and the knowledge of what went into creating the produce are another plus.

After a while, while musing about your garden and what you are planting, you realize that you are gleaning knowledge that should make you eligible for college credit. You gain experience in soil science, biology, botany, meteorology, geology, and of course, agriculture. Gardening and farming can also give you a sense of connecting to history. A couple of ways this may happen is through the heirloom vegetables you are growing or the old fashioned methods you use to grow your crops. Another way you can connect to history while gardening or farming, which crosses over to a different realm outside of these two pursuits, happens when you find artifacts in your soil.

I started gardening as a kid in Franklin Park next to a house that was built in 1915. Over the years as I turned the soil over I dug up parts of old, obviously antique bottles, chunks of coal, and for some reason marbles, tons of marbles! These finds always made me think of the people who lived in my house in previous decades. Who were the kids who played in the yard with all of these marbles? Where are they now? How old are these marbles? From the coal, it was clear to me that the house must have been heated by coal at one time. This made me think, did they make the kids who played with the marbles shovel the coal? I once found some kind a campaign coin that advertised “Vote twice for Alderman Anton Cermak President and Member, Board of County Commissioners.” Another prize from that old garden was an arrowhead made by some long ago Native American.


Alderman Cermak campaign coin

(Click on pictures for better view)

These days we are gardening, and raising livestock, out at our farm in Knox County and the relic discoveries have intensified. Many relics pulled from the soil at the farm are just discarded junk, old electrical fixtures, broken jars, and bricks. Others have novelty value such as a nice collection of 1960’s era soda pop bottles churned out of the soil by the action of our hogs. They were possibly tossed aside by some farm kids of the time who were later chewed out for losing what were then returnable bottles. Two very intriguing relics that I also have to give my hogs credit for finding are more Native American relics. These were lying around for some time after being dug up but their importance was not apparent until further inspection revealed that they were ancient tools of some kind.

Porcine Archaeologists

Porcine archaeologists on staff at Smiling Frog Farm

Soon after it became clear that these were in fact relics, my wife looked up a website that listed relics found in Illinois. From this we deduced that the one old tool is a celt. A celt is an axe like tool which can also be used like a hoe. It is something like an adze. The other tool was not as easily identifiable. It looked like to us it was some kind of a hammer or, as the website described, a war club.  The age that the website put on these objects was incredible! They were said to have been used from between 2000 to 3000 years ago! I had been a little skeptical of this assessment as the website was selling relics and could be overstating the age of any relic posted to boost the price.

Metate and Celt

Metate and unfinished Celt


As I said gardening and farming can connect one to history in many ways. The arrowhead, celt, and the other object that have been uncovered in various gardens over the years made me wonder about the Native Americans who made them. How were the tools used? Why were they discarded? Where could I find this information? As luck would have it Kelvin Sampson of the Dickson Mounds State Historic Site spoke at the KnoxCountyHistoricalMuseum in Knoxville, Illinois on Sunday. He gave a great information filled presentation assessing any relics brought in by the general public. I, of course, brought in the arrowhead, celt, and the other object.

According to Mr. Sampson, the first object was indeed a celt, but one that was not finished. It did not have the polished surface that a finished celt had. Other people did bring in finished celts and he used them as examples. The second object, the one we were not so sure of, was next. He had looked at objects that other people had brought in and determined that, although they looked like man-made objects, they were natural pieces of stone shaped by water. The assumption suddenly came over me that our stone may be just that, a stone. But when Kelvin looked at it he held it to the audience and showed two dimples, one on each side. This told him that although it looked natural it was man made. He determined the relic to be a metate, or mealing stone. It was probably used to smash open acorns or nuts. These two relics were appraised by Mr. Sampson as being around 3000 years old confirming the website information.

I found the arrowhead when I was about 11 or so. Since that time I have always wanted more information on it. After reading up on the Native American history of the Chicago Area, I always assumed that a Pottawatomie had been hunting in Franklin Park back before the white man settled there and discarded the arrowhead.  I also assume that this was sometime before there was any trade for guns and other tools that the white people had to offer, probably before the 1600’s. But the first thing that I learned from Kelvin Sampson about the arrowhead was that it was not an arrowhead. An arrowhead is about the size of a dime and this object was about two inches long.


Dongola Scraper

Dongola scraper, spear point, or knife

What I have is a knife, spear point or a scraper. Also, it was made of what is known as “Dongola chert.” This chert comes from far Southern Illinois or Southern Indiana and was traded up north following the extensive trade routes of the time. The biggest thing that I learned though, was that after the Native Americans began to grow corn the need for the types of tools, like the one I thought was an arrowhead, were no longer necessary. So the object was much older than I had ever imagined. It may be between 3000 and 8000 years old!

I was 11 or so when I found the scraper. The other kids that I showed it off to would almost always erupt “That’s not worth anything!” of course referring to money. But the value this object had was the connection that it gave me to a person that lived centuries ago in the same spot where I grew up. Long before there was a Franklin Park, a person dropped a scraper. It became buried and possibly moved by later farmers, house builders or home owners trying to grow a lawn, only to be found by a curious gardener. Long before there was a KnoxCounty, somebody left their tools behind. The tools have marks on them that probably came from being hit by plows or disks so they probably were moved around many times as well, only to be found by curious hogs. Yes, some of the things that make gardening and farming worthwhile are not apparent until you stumble upon them!

May 22, 2013

Roy’s Calais Flint Corn – planting history in the garden

It seems like everybody out here in Western Illinois who has a garden grows sweet corn. Of course, there is much city grown sweet corn, but since gardens in the country are larger than their city counterparts and there is more room to grow corn, it is a more common crop in country gardens. Also, regular field corn (or dent corn) is so common out here that it is not given much thought. It is just part of the landscape. But besides sweet corn and field corn there are other kinds of corn. Popcorn comes to mind but what about pod corn or waxy corn? Have you heard of flour corn or shoepeg corn or amylomaize, developed for its starch content?

High Amylose                                      Shoepeg

Electron micrographs of native high amylose starch, ×3000                                   Shoepeg Corn

The Journal of Nutrition                                                                                               General Mills

Most of the corn grown in the United States is dent corn, 85% of which is genetically modified. There are old heirloom varieties and varieties still grown in remote valleys of countries like Mexico and Bolivia that may hold the key in their genes that will revive the world corn crop in the event of a calamity, such as disease or pest that the current corn varieties have no defense against.  These varieties are usually very hardy and can be, through saving the seeds of the best specimens, be acclimated to most growing areas.  I myself have always wanted to grow an heirloom corn variety that I can grind myself for cornbread such as a flint corn. After some research I have found one heirloom variety of corn that do all of the above so this year I will try,  Roy’s Calais Flint Corn.

According to the website of Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste:

Roy’s Calais flint corn is an open-pollinated flint corn originally cultivated by the western Abenaki (Sokoki) people in     Vermont, and subsequently grown and maintained by pioneer farmers, including Roy and Ruth Fair of North Calais, VT. In 1996 Tom Stearns obtained the seed from local farmers like Mike and Doug Guy, who had received the corn and seed-saving information from Roy Fair.

ark-prod-royscalais_flint_corn-02                                             Roy

Roy’s Calais Flint Corn

Slow Food USA, Ark of Taste

Roy’s Calais Flint Corn is also a variety that has come to the rescue once during a past calamity. According to legend, it was one of the few varieties of corn planted in Vermont in 1816 that produced a reliable crop during what was known as the “Year without a Summer”. There were food shortages that year due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in what is today Indonesia. This eruption sent a huge cloud of ash into the atmosphere and crops worldwide were lost that year. Having come from a colder region where most corn varieties do not do well, Roy’s Calais Flint Corn has the genetics for a shorter and colder growing season.  Since I am busy in the spring I am not able to get all of my crops planted in time for the length of their growing season. With its shorter growing season (90-95 days) Roy’s Calais Flint Corn is a variety that I can put off planting until later. It is also said that it makes excellent cornbread and polenta. I will try this variety this year and if it turns out to be one that I like I will save the seeds for the future.


Polenta with Wilted Escarole and Olive Oil Fried Eggs

Brigitte Derel of the High Mowing Organic Seed Company wrote a terrific narrative about  Roy’s Calais Flint Corn This is where I first became interested in this variety and where I first became informed about its interesting history.

Roy’s Calais Flint Corn is available from:

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Fedco Seeds

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May 16, 2013

Pattypan squash – a great summer squash!

Dahinda, IL: Pattypan squash is a type of summer squash (species Cucurbita pepo) that is easy to grow and is worth a try this summer. In different parts of the country they are called sunburst squash, scallop squash, button squash, or white squash. I saw them listed as “pepo” in a Mexican store once. It can be used in much the same way as any other summer squash, like zucchini. It great sliced and fried in butter, stuffed, or grilled. It is sometimes even pickled. I have been growing them for years and have had great success with them.

According to Wikipedia: “The name “pattypan” derives from “a pan for baking a patty.” Its French name, pâtisson, derives from a Provençal word for a cake made in a scalloped mould. The pattypan squash is also known as scallop squash, granny squash, custard marrow, or custard squash.”

There are several varieties of pattypan squash ranging from white to bright yellow to green. They should be started well after the last frost and after the soil has warmed. They generally grow in a bush form, rather than a vine, so they are great for those who don’t have much room or for growing in containers. They benefit from adding compost or manure to the soil and do well when kept well watered and weeded. Plant the seeds directly in the soil and keep the plants 2 to 3 feet apart. They grow rather quickly, maturing in about 50 or so days.


Pests that attack pattypan squash are pretty much the same as other cucurbits. Squash bugs, striped cucumber beetles and the squash vine borers are the most common pests you may encounter. The cucumber beetles can be picked off by hand. If you see your pattypan plants suddenly wilting it may be squash vine borers or squash bugs. You may control these by using neem oil or other organic type insecticide but if your plants are wilting it may be too late. Clearing debris around your plants discourages these pests as they lose any place to hide.

Powdery mildew may sometimes attack the squash plants. It will appear as a dusty covering on the leaves. This may be prevented by siting plants where they will have good air circulation, and exposing as much leaf surface as possible to direct sunlight, which inhibits spore germination. Spraying plants with a little baking soda dissolved in water will also slow the spread of the disease. Pick off any affected leaves and burn or throw them away.

 Pattypan squash are generally picked when they are kind of small. As with zucchini, if they are left to get large they become woody and seedy. They can be stored for several days in a refrigerator but do not store well over the long term as a winter squash will. The plants will rapidly set fruit after flowering and the fruit itself will grow quite quickly. Attention therefore should be paid to your pattypan plants.

I will be growing a couple of different varieties of pattypan out at the farm this summer including “Y Star” from Johnny’s Selected Seed and “Organic Benning’s Green Tint” from High Mowing Organic Seed.


Johnny’s Selected Seed:

High Mowing Organic Seeds:

May 15, 2013

Hoop House in the Wind – a word of caution

Why a sane person build a hoop house, covered in plastic, in a place as windy as Dahinda, Illinois? We ask ourselves that. A combination of keeping up with the Joneses of the area’s local food scene and wanting a year round source of fresh produce piqued our interest in a hoop house. A grant from the Department of Agriculture sealed the deal. So with a catalog from Farm Tek and a promise of help from several friends we planned to put up a 40 ft. X 20 ft. hoop house. We forged ahead ignoring the warning that the winds were giving us having faith that we would be successful. We were, sort of, and we learned a lot along the way as well.

Illinois is renowned for its flatness. The Wisconsin pejorative for Illinoisans, “flatlanders” does have some credence when one drives across most parts of the state. There is an exception to every rule though and for a flatlander it is found in an area running from approximately Bloomington west/ northwest to the Galesburg area. This strip of land running just north of the Interstate 74 corridor, has many hills, deep valleys, and winding roads making the area look more like you are in the foothills of the Appalachians than any region of Illinois. Some of the hills, such as the one my farm sits on, are very scenic, offering views into valleys that stretch for miles. But combine the winds Illinois is also famous for and the unbroken access the winds have to a hilltop farm and in hindsight it seems like we should have though it out more. But we went ahead wind notwithstanding!

I ordered the hoop house and since the company delivering the hoop house would only deliver to a place with a loading dock, the order was delivered to a local farm services company that my neighbor worked at. After picking it up and unpacking the parts I set about to assembling my new hoop house. The frame went together in a snap. One other thing to consider in hoop house assembly is finding a very level place to build it. After checking several areas we decided on a place. After putting together the pipes that make up the frame, it was easy to put them upright. The two sides were made of a tough material that had zippers installed so they acted as doors for the hoop house. These were pretty easy to install but this also gave me the first hint of what was to come. Standing on a ladder while trying to hold the material a stiff wind whipped up and I felt like I was up on the mast of a ship during a storm. Luckily I was able to attach the side to the frame before I blew away!

Then came putting the plastic cover on. Several friends helped on a day that seemed to be wind free. We tied rope to the plastic, as per the instructions, threw the ropes over the frame and started to pull the plastic over. Of course, at this point, the wind again whipped up and we all nearly took a kite ride! Several attempts at throwing the ropes over and pulling the plastic over failed but eventually we were able to pull the cover over and secure it with the spring clips and tracks that are used to hold the plastic in place. At this point, there was no damage to the plastic or the sides.

There was an assembly for a crank up side vent system that would open the sides up 4 feet to allow for ventilation. There are bottom pipes, 40 feet long, which run along each of the longer sides of the hoop house. We did attach the bottom of the plastic to these pipes assuming that I would be able to get to the rest of the system later. The next day, after coming home from work, the wind was in its usual 40 mile an hour howl and both of the 40 foot pipes had ripped off of the plastic with one laying near our barn 50 feet away! The bottom of the plastic cover was so damaged that I put off even trying to install the rest of the ventilation system. The hoop house walls, below the 4 foot area for the vent system, were now flapping wildly on the wind. The hoop house looked like it had wings! My father in law and I were able to keep the bottom of the hoop house from flapping by using the 40 foot pipe and some fence posts pounded in to secure the pipes. We just wrapped the plastic around the pipe to secure it.

The two sides were next. The zippers for the flaps worked fine at first but the wind from day to day began to take its toll. Keeping them closed made the entire hoop house move back and forth like it would soon be ripped out of the ground. Keeping them open negated the point of the hoop house, since this was March and we wanted to grow early vegetables. We decided to keep the zippers open and secure the sides with the straps that came with the product. This proved to be totally ineffective as the wind worked the straps until they were loose and the sides flapped violently. Soon they were tearing and I had to replace them.




Damage to the roll up vent

I cut up an old translucent garage door into 6 foot sections and secured them to one side of the hoop house. I also installed some windows and an old screen door to this side. I cut away the old side material and attached the rest to this assembly. The wind over time has blown out the windows and this past winter it blew out the Plexiglas windows in the screen door as well! I replaced all of the windows several times. On the other side, we are beginning to install several patio doors we bought at the local annual church auction. These seem strong but who knows what the wind has in store for these.

The news is not all bad though. The hoop house has provided up with a place to grow early lettuce and other cold weather crops. It has also allowed us to actually grow eggplant. Our previous attempts to grow eggplant at our farm here in Dahinda, Illinois had been met with failure. The flea beetles are so bad, and apparently crave eggplant leaves so much, that the leaves looked like some kind of lace artwork! Other crops are not so affected by flea beetles but the eggplant would just die off before setting any fruit. Once we put them in the hoop house the extra heat seemed to repel the flea beetles and the eggplant thrived. I have grown about 10 different varieties of eggplant in the hoop house and all have thrived.

Several years after building the hoop house, the main body of the plastic cover has held up pretty well considering what has happened to the rest. The area that was to become the vent system it very much in tatters and the vent system may never be installed. The sides are an ongoing project and I am expecting more damage in the future. We have been able to use the hoop house but the repairs we have made, along with the extra work, have eaten away any gain we made from the USDA grant we received to build the project. If there is one nugget on knowledge that I have taken away from this whole experience is to advise anybody to not build a hoop house in a very windy area!


No windows left after last winter’s blizzard



New doors to replace the sides




May 14, 2013

A farmer’s perspective 5/14/2013

Dahinda, IL: I have started to plant a few things like tomatoes and peppers. We suffered some wind damage to our hoop house over the winter so we were not able to utilize it much. Smiling Frog Farm will not have a CSA this year. We will use much of what we grow this year ourselves or sell some extra to Knox College; or at the farmers market in Oneida, Illinois. We are still selling eggs this year though from our free range chickens and ducks. These are available from our farm and at Vintages Tasting Room in Galesburg, Illinois. We have also been raising hogs for several years now and had a new litter earlier this year. I am also planning on growing many varieties of hot pepper; okra; and several ethnic vegetables such as Italian cucumber/melon, Italian zucchini, some Chinese melons, Chinese long bean, and komatsuna; some heirloom varieties of other vegetables like Roy’s Calais Flint Corn from High Mowing Seeds.

May 13, 2013

Illinois Stewardship Alliance aims to grow membership

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Stewardship Alliance is aiming to add 100 new members during it’s second annual membership drive.

Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a statewide nonprofit that works to increase the use of local food and promote sustainable agriculture, will kick-off its membership drive on May 15 at the Old Capitol Downtown Farmers’ Market in Springfield, IL.

“Members are what make Illinois Stewardship Alliance such a vibrant and exciting organization to be a part of,” Wes King, Illinois Stewardship Alliance interim executive director, said. “Members are everyone from farmers to chefs to consumers. We rely on their input to decide what topics to address and where to focus our work. Our members’ energy and dedication to good food and stewardship of the land is unrivaled. We’re hoping to build on that by at least 100 new members during this drive.”

Anyone who joins during the drive, which lasts through June 30th, will be eligible to win dinner for two to one of Illinois’ premier farm-to-table restaurants or luggage from Patagonia.

Anyone interested in becoming a member of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance can join by visiting or by calling 217-528-1563.

(Also, if you did not want to be a member ISA would greatly appreciate any size donation!)

For more information contact:

Drew Thomason

ISA outreach coordinator



May 2, 2013

Sponsor the Knox County Fair Produce Building!

Knoxville, IL: The Knox County Fair is held in August of each year in Knoxville, Illinois. Growers from Knox, and surrounding counties, display home grown produce and potted plants in our Produce Building during the fair. For the 2013 fair, we are selling sponsorships for the Produce Building.
The Produce Building at the Knox County Fair is where all of the entries in the Agricultural Products and the Junior Gardeners departments are displayed. By sponsoring the Produce Building, you will help defray the costs of holding the fair as well as the costs of the premiums offered to the exhibitors.

The sponsorships for the Produce Building are just $25. For sponsoring the Knox County Fair Produce Building, you will have an 11×17 inch sign placed above the tables that the produce is displayed. All of the people who come through the Produce Building during the fair will see your sign. The content of the advertisement on the sign that will be displayed is up to you. There may be other opportunities for sponsorship as well. Please feel free to discuss any ideas you may have! If you are interested please contact me at (309) 351-5159 or
So, if you have a business, large or small, that you want to promote, please consider sopnsoring the Produce Building during the 2013 Fair!

May 2, 2013

A farmer’s perspective 5/2/2013

Dahinda, IL: I have started to write blog posts to The Local Beet. It is a Chicago Area local food blog. You may start see some of what I write over there appear here.
It finally warmed up allowing time for some planting. I have some tomatoes and eggplants planted and will get more in this weekend along with peppers. I also planted some shallot starts. I grew them from seed in a previous year and it did not work out so well due to the weather and other factors. I have a flat of King Arthur bell peppers to plant. They performed tremendously the last two years despite the drought. I will not plant California Wonders again. I think that they are for a California climate or any place with a longer growing season than Illinois since they do not start producing in abundance until September. The peppers themselves are small as well.
I also got several Marglobe tomato plants. I have not grown these in years but remember that they really do well. They are listed as an heirloom tomato now as they are an open pollinated variety. Better Boy tomatoes are a hybrid version of these, I believe.
I will continue to work on getting the hoop house back in shape after the heavy wind damage during the winter. We have 3 Mallard and 2 Pekin ducklings that were given to us by a woman who wanted to give them to her grandchildren for Easter. The children’s mother said no and we have them now.
We have set up an area outside for them since the adult Khaki Campbells that we have do not get along with them. We set them out last weekend and turned our backs for a second. In that time the male Khaki went after them driving the Pekin ducklings away. It took us hours to find where they were hiding and they were obviously roughed up. Lesson learned! The adult ducks were not even in the vicinity when we let the ducklings out but a couple of minutes are all it took!
We put our current litter of piglets back in with their mother now that they are weaned and mom is dried up. They had been out on the same pasture with the llamas and goat but they could not stay. As they grow up they would have plowed the entire pasture up leaving no food for the llamas and the goat. They have an area roughly half the size now to run around in and seem happy. They seem to be growing much faster than the last littler. The last litter was raised during the winter and probably had to fight off the cold as well as put on weight. A tall order! This will probably mean that this litter will require less feed to bring to market weight (250lbs or so).