Skip to content

Bringing diversity, quality,community & livelihood back to midwest farming with heirloom and indigenous varieties!

Losing the family farm is a familiar story. Getting it back less so.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times; Food Stylist: Jill Santopietro   (A version of this article appeared in print on August 30, 2009, on page MM20 of the New York edition.)

Once Marty Travis’s family was finally able to piece together its 179-year-old farm, buying back the homestead and its parcel of land that was sold by his grandmother and slated for developers, the intention was to rebuild the dilapidated buildings. But over the last decade, Marty and his wife, Kris, have restored not only the farmhouse but the farming community in Fairbury, Ill., as well.

Though the Travises never set out to be farmers, in the five years since they started gathering wild ramps from a cousin’s woods — he had asked them to help get rid of the invasive weed — their Spence Farm has come to sell produce that is obscure or nearly extinct to Chicago’s best restaurants. In saving their central Illinois farm, they’ve managed to save some American crops too.

They sold more than 4,000 pounds of ramps that first spring. The next year they were selling to chefs whom they met through a farming nonprofit. Then Rick Bayless and Brian Enyart of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, respectively, began asking what else they had. “We slowly went from gardening into full-scale farming, which is a whole different issue,” Kris, a trim, bright-eyed woman with cropped hair, told me. “When you start doing 1,500 squash blossoms a week, you’re not talking 10 plants.” In the past year, they have been able to supply restaurants like Paul Kahan’s Blackbird, Avec and the Publican, plus dozens of others from their 10-acre vegetable plot.

Chefs who want ramps and Galápagos tomatoes are not looking for the usual edible suspects. The Travises immediately caught on. “One of our passions is to find the new and exciting thing that you can’t get anywhere else,” Kris says. The couple scour seed catalogs and Seed Savers Exchange online to find unusual varieties like popping sorghum. They comb the woods and fields for things like green pine cones (which the chef at Tizi Melloul freezes and grates into butter) and papaw. They bag weeds, like purslane and stinging nettle, that other farmers spray. “Radish-seed pods — we sell the dickens out of them!” says Marty, who has lived within five miles of the farm for most of his life and spent decades making Shaker reproduction furniture for the likes of the Smithsonian and Oprah Winfrey.

The Travises’ corn-and-soybean-growing neighbors think they’re crazy to harvest such oddball crops. Yes, they have corn and beans, but neither will be made into fuel or feed. Take the Kickapoo bean. A distant relative sent Marty a package of seeds, asking if he grew the legume. It turns out that the chief of the Kickapoo tribe had given Marty’s fourth-great-grandfather the seeds when he settled the land, and they had been passed down through the generations. Now the Kickapoo bean is flourishing again on Spence Farm.

Their most-sought-after crop is white Iroquois corn, which they’ve helped bring back from near extinction. Rick Bayless had bought it from an Iroquois Nation tribe for his Mexican restaurants, but the tribe stopped selling the corn after the chief died a few years ago. He asked Marty to grow it for them, not knowing that only one company still carried the seed or that only a few pounds of it remained. Marty bought it all. This year, he says, he hopes to produce at least 1,000 pounds of oak-roasted, coarsely ground white cornmeal, which has a forthright sweet-corn flavor and a slight smokiness that has chefs across the country scrambling for Bayless’s leftovers.

Sitting on the now-solid porch of his pristinely rehabilitated farmhouse, Marty points out that his original goal was to share history, not live it. “We wanted to make the farm valuable not only to the family but to the community,” Kris adds. In 2004, they received a grant to educate students of all ages about a time when farms grew more than corn and soybeans. Soon, she recalls, “we realized they couldn’t teach others about saving their small family farms if we couldn’t make this one viable.”

Bayless praises the Travises’ vision, which goes beyond produce: “They have field trips for kids who live on farms to come see what it’s like to be on a real farm!” he says. Marty and Kris teach hundreds of students that they can farm on fewer than 1,000 acres and that they don’t have to raise yellow corn and pink pigs. Marketing, community building and relationships with chefs are also crucial. “You see all these guys,” Marty says, pointing to the sea of corn surrounding his farm, “the only relationship they have is with the guy at the elevator who says, ‘Yeah, you can dump it in the bin over there.’ ”

A few years ago, the Travises helped found the Stewards of the Land, a group of 25 farm families who sell to the local grocery store and to Chicago restaurants via the Travises. Most members are under 18. The goal is more than financial or educational — though two teenage Stewards, Justin and Trent Kilgus, are earning about $40,000 through their new goat farm.

Many jaded diners deride it as trite when a restaurant lists farms on its menu, but it has an enormous impact when a Steward sees his or her name in print. “It really launches them into farming in a different way,” Kris says. “You can’t do this with the other guys that are growing the conventional stuff. They don’t get to go to a restaurant and say, ‘Oh, this is my corn patty!’ ”

“This is amazing,” Marty says. “It’s also a replicable thing: every community across the country could be doing this.” On Sept. 27, the Spence Farm Foundation will host a benefit featuring food from Bayless, Kahan, Chris Pandel of the Bristol, and others. A band will play Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” (“Gift to Be Simple” seemed fitting, Marty says.)

In only a decade, Marty and Kris Travis have made significant changes — in their lives, their land and the next generation of Illinois farmers. Last year, their 18-year-old son, Will, was made a third partner in the farm; he has already single-handedly revived Spence’s commercial maple-syrup production. Asked his biggest accomplishment to date, Marty folds his hands in his lap and smiles, proud and clearly content: “I think we’ve been able to breathe life into this farm again.”

Posted in Politics/Legislation, Sustainability, Sustainable Business.

Tagged with , , , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.