Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
Henry Brockman — Patrick Madden Award Winner
To commemorate the 20-year anniversary of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education's innovative and collaborative programming, we are featuring a series of interviews with this year's winners of SARE's Patrick Madden Award. Every two years, SARE presents the Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture to farmers or farm families who advance sustainable agriculture through innovation, leadership and good stewardship. Winners are selected from each of SARE's four regions: North-Central, Western; Southern, and Northeast. This month Tammy Hinman, ATTRA Agriculture Specialist, talked with Henry Brockman, Patrick Madden North-Central Region Award winner, and organic vegetable farmer. This month's Conversation from the Field is the second in our series of four interviews with SARE's 2008 Patrick Madden Award winners.
Illinois farmer Henry Brockman runs an intensive, profitable and highly biodiverse vegetable farming business—with help from three generations of family. Henry's Farm preserves biodiversity with more than 600 varieties of about 100 distinct vegetable types, sold through a CSA and a farmers' market in the Chicago area. In 2006, Brockman wrote Organic Matters, a book now included in curricula at Illinois Wesleyan University and at Prescott College in Arizona.
Q. Can you describe how you became interested in farming?
A. I grew up on small farm... I guess you could call it a hobby farm because my dad had another job. We had about 6 acres of diversified crops. It was more of an old fashioned, or subsistence farm, where we grew our own food, including fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs. I then left Illinois and worked abroad for several years—1 year in Israel, then a number of years in Nepal and Japan, usually in more urban settings. Living in the country was more appealing and I virtually ended up back in the place that I started out in—at the same farm in Illinois that I grew up at.
Q. How did your travels change your perspective when you came back home to farm?
A.In Israel I worked on a flower and fruit farm. I spent a lot of time in rural farming communities in my travels. The experience in Japan affected me in that they had the CSA model in a different form than what is here in the US... Housewives would essentially subscribe with one farmer for their vegetables. My knowledge of farming was raising hundreds of acres of corn and soy. Seeing these other models taught me that there were a lot of different ways to farm. In Nepal, I learned the importance of conserving our natural resources. There was so much pressure from overgrazing and large populations using limited resources. That experience helped me see the future...if we do not change the way we are farming, high populations can deplete the environment and natural resources we depend on for farming.
Q. How have you seen sustainable agriculture develop and change in your years as an organic farmer ?
A. I have been thinking in the past year about sustainable energy use.
I thought that I was using less energy as an organic farmer and did not really consider myself using a lot of energy on my farm, but I still use a lot. I have a diesel truck and tractor. I would like to think about and work toward more energy self-sufficiency on my farm. My truck and tractor are run from biodiesel from cooking oil. I also have an Allis Chalmers G.... I parked it because it was using so much oil and gas. I am planning on converting it to electric soon.
Q.A trademark of your farm is high biodiversity with multiple varieties on your farm—how did you make the decision to move in this direction on your farm ?
A.Truthfully, I love it, and it helps with the bottom line. I love to experiment with anything I am interested in growing... to have the diversity at the farm and to bring it to the market. I have what is known as "The Amazing Wall of Lettuce" at the Evanston Farmers Market, and customers love the variety of colors, shapes, textures. We also have many requests for different crops. If it can grow in this climate, I try to grow it. Also the more you grow, it is like a kind of crop insurance. I do not go to the government for insurance or subsidies. My diversification is my insurance. For example, I had a total loss in my eggplant crop last year. But you would never know that I lost an entire crop from my bottom line. I believe that nature has the best type of model for farming—the biological cycles and diversity that exists in nature do not typically exist in a farming system—you do not have that "web of life." The more my farm looks like nature to bugs and diseases, the less I will have pest, disease, or even weed outbreaks. We recently had a weed survey done on the farm and I was happy to find that I had the most diverse weed crop.
Q. Some of those weeds are edible too.
A. I just sold several bunches of lambs quarters at the farmers' market. I also sell purslane, and amaranth.
Q. Is there a lot of diversity in your farmers' market customers and does that help you to market these unusual crops ?
A. I go to the Evanston Farmers Market—north of Chicago. West of there, there are a lot of Russian and Eastern European residents. There are also many African American neighborhoods in close vicinity to the market. Since I was featured in a Chicago-based Japanese newspaper, my Japanese customers have increased. Some drive up from the University of Chicago, about 45 minutes south of the Evanston Market. There is Northwestern University in Evanston as well, which increases the diversity of my customers. Evanston also has a lot of "foodies,"; who are into new things ...I can get them to at least try just about anything I grow, from Egyptian spinach to bitter melon. I also do a small CSA in Bloomington, a more conservative town 150 miles south of Chicago. I try to give them more standard vegetables, but I slip in a few new things every once in a while. Some of them appreciate it and some just tolerate it.
Q. Do you also provide recipes for your new products?
A. Our weekly e-mail, "Food and Farm Notes" (or http://henrysfarm.com/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1) goes out to the CSA and we also send another version of the Notes out to about 1000 people who signed up at the farmers market. The mail tells people what is happening on the farm that week—with the weather, the weeds, the varmints, the family, the interns, the dogs—whatever happened of interest that week. We also feature a specific vegetable each week and provide history and lore, along with recipe suggestions. We used to run copies off, and hand them out at the CSA and the market, but that got expensive. It is sent out via e-mail and anyone can subscribe through our website.
Q. How have your farming practices evolved over the years?
A. Not too much, but somehow I have managed to get better at it. I started with 2-4 acres, then 5-6, then eventually expanded to 10 acres. I do not have the desire to get much larger and I have managed to produce more food every season. I have learned when to harvest and weed etc. for all the different crops that I grow. I have learned over the years the idiosyncrasies that each crop has. I have changed my rotations, and diversified, but other than that there hasn't been much of a change. I am beginning to focus more on energy conservation on the farm.
Q. What words of advice would you give to those who are just starting out in organic farming?
A. Not to change that much... that it is important to try to set your farm up in the beginning how you originally envision it. Once you set it up this way, you have the equipment and the skills...try to get close to your ideals the first year by starting out the way you think it should be done and stick with it. I thought that I would go to the big markets in Chicago for just a few years until we established some markets locally, and 17 years later, it hasn't changed. It is a 3-hour drive up and longer to get home. When I started out there were no local markets. We had a local market stand and the sales were dismal... The only thing I could get people to stop for was sweet corn or tomatoes. I believe in staying on the farm. Just doing one market a week and the CSA gives me more time on the farm.
Q. Any final comments?
A. Small and sustainable go together and small-scale farms are more often organic. Now organic is sold in every grocery store. But with much of the organic food in the supermarkets, we are headed back to the factory, large-scale, streamlined model of conventional food production. But I think that if you are making a living, why try to sell more just to make the same amount of money? We need a lot of small-scale sustainable farms, or just small farms because that is what I think is sustainable. To me, small scale sustainable farmers, selling to local markets, is true sustainable agriculture. Every year, my neighbor at the farmers market asks me why I do not expand and go to more farmers markets. He goes to one every day of the week...he cannot understand what is wrong with me—why I am not growing and expanding my markets like he is. I caution people not to do more if you do not have to. If you're making a living, why stress out and do more. Growers get caught up in this idea of having to get bigger. I have no desire to get any bigger.
This page was last updated on: August 25, 2014