Homer Glen Specialty Growers are a Perfect Pick
The Illinois Specialty Growers Association reports the average American will eat enough vegetables to fill 16 pickup trucks over the course of his or her lifetime. Why not buy at least some of your share locally? Thanks to specialty growers such as Pick. at Garden Patch Farms in Homer Glen, you can easily find diverse, high-quality produce grown right here in Illinois.
[infobox alignment=”right” title=”If You Go…”]
Location: 14158 W. 159th St. in Homer Glen
Winter Hours (Nov. 1-March 31): Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday,10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Closed Sunday through Tuesday.)
In-Season Hours (April 1-Oct. 31): 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Phone: (708) 301-7720
Admission: $5 per person to enter the fields for Pick. at Garden Patch Farms
Produce availability depends upon the weather. Please call ahead before traveling long distances.[/infobox]
Henry Hiller purchased this northeast Illinois farm in 1938. His son, Earl, took over farm operations in 1983 and planted the first apple trees on site in 1997. Nearly 20 years later, those trees have grown into an important part of Pick. at Garden Patch Farms, a U-pick and farm market business co-owned and operated by Earl Hiller’s grandchildren, Anthony Ndoca and Lexie Miller.
Ndoca and his sister grew up working weekends on the farm, and they purchased it from their grandfather in early 2013.
“We learned a lot on this farm,” Ndoca says. “I don’t think we liked the thought of the farm not being in the family anymore.” The pair hopes to maintain the business built by previous generations while striving to make improvements, such as an increased online presence. Their grandparents still live on the farm and remain involved with the business.
Today’s visitors to Pick. at Garden Patch Farms enjoy access to 20 acres of original farmland, plus an adjacent 10 acres leased from a neighbor, Ndoca says. He and Miller also own a separate 80-acre plot they hope to use for additional vegetables in the future. In addition to a thriving U-pick business, the farm houses nine greenhouses and a year-round farm market.
Springtime at Garden Patch Farms
Wondering what you can expect from a spring visit to Pick. at Garden Patch Farms? The farm does a brisk garden center business from February through June, selling vegetable plants, fruit trees and hanging baskets. Those who stop by during the early spring months will also find fresh herbs, tomatoes, peppers, kale, lettuce and asparagus for sale in the market. Later in the season, the selection broadens to include onions, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli and more.
Visitors can also purchase live butterfly garden kits that allow them to send away for larvae that progress through the various life stages during an approximate three-week period. Then, on May 14, families will release their fully grown butterflies as part of the farm’s annual Butterfly Festival. This popular event also features educational booths, food and fun for all ages.
The end of spring (typically around June 1) heralds the beginning of strawberry season at Pick. at Garden Patch Farms, Ndoca says. It also marks the annual kickoff of the farm’s U-pick business for both fruits and vegetables. For $5 per person, visitors receive bags, field access and wagon transportation to their preferred picking spots. U-pick regulars can save with a $25 season pass that grants unlimited access plus a 10 percent discount on all produce, Ndoca says.
Beyond spring crops, the farm produces a staggering variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs throughout the year. Ndoca explains that while U-pick fruit farms are common, “You never see [a single farm offering] apples, peaches, plums, pears, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, strawberries and grapes like we have.” Looking for a particular favorite? Sign up for email notifications about specific fruits and vegetables at pickthefarm.com.
Specialty Grower Success
In addition to Pick. at Garden Patch Farms, the state counts a number of successful specialty growers. The Illinois Specialty Growers Association defines a specialty grower as “any grower of fruits, vegetables and herbs,” says Diane Handley, the group’s manager. The broader state-level definition also includes members of the Christmas tree and wine industries.
Every Illinois county currently has specialty crop growers, Handley reports. The most commonly grown fruits include apples and peaches, followed by various berries. Popular vegetables consist of lettuce, green beans, mushrooms and, of course, pumpkins.
“We’re huge in pumpkins in Illinois,” Handley says. The state ranks first nationally and produces more than 80 percent of the country’s processing pumpkins and a large number of jack-o’-lantern pumpkins. Illinois also ranks tops in horseradish thanks to Collinsville, also known as the Horseradish Capital of the World.
Handley attributes Illinois’ recent growth of specialty crops primarily to increased public demand for locally grown food.
“Consumers are more and more wanting to be aware of where their food comes from,” she says.
Of course, excellent growing conditions don’t hurt. Most parts of the state have excellent soil, and the southern region benefits from temperatures conducive to certain specialty crops.
No wonder specialty growers like Ndoca enjoy their way of life. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “Every day is a new challenge.
[infobox alignment=”full” title=”In the Mood for Local Food”]If you’re ready to start buying produce grown close to home, Handley recommends Prairie Bounty of Illinois as a great place to start. Head to specialtygrowers.org to view this searchable directory containing hundreds of fruit, vegetable and herb farmers, farmers’ markets, and agritourism businesses.[/infobox]