People have no idea what’s in season. At the supermarket, everything is in season all the time and everything tastes out of season all the time too. When local crops are available at farmer’s markets in the city, I’m there every week, usually twice, from the start of the season in May to the end on October 31st.
The first time I saw the lettuces, I was dazzled. Red and green Little Gem, Butter Crisp, romaine and frisée. The varieties were not unusual, but the quality of the crop was totally outside of mainstream agriculture, something more than you see even at farmer’s markets. The lettuce seemed to breathe. The beauty, freshness and taste vibrated with integrity—a respect for every step of the process from seed to plant to harvest to the arrival of the crop at the market. This is what can happen when experience, hard work, considerable talent, and lots of love coalesce—weather willing. It was my introduction to Marigold Hill Organics.
The Farm Business Development Center in Grayslake, Illinois is an incubator for new farmers making the transition from having an avocation to growing a business. The participants in the program are able to lease small parcels of certified organic farmland and have affordable access to water and tools, tractors, coolers, wash/pack equipment, greenhouses, and storage. Participants are expected to graduate to their permanent location within five years.
This is where Marigold Hill Organics began in 2013 with one acre of tillable land. Two years later, between six and seven acres of land are under cultivation, their crop is sold twice a week at the Green City Market and at the Evanston Farmer’s Market on Saturday’s. Greg’s wife Lynn, his partner in all things, runs the Saturday Green City Market and maintains her job as a banking executive. Their produce is also being sold to over twenty Chicago restaurants, including the Publican, Nico Osteria, RPM Italian, RPM Steak, Paris Club Bistro & Bar, Ramen-san, Boltwood, Parachute, Perennial Virant and Momotaro. The farm grows a variety of baby greens, arugula, baby kale, yukina savoy, lettuce mixes, chicories, escarole, frisée, napa cabbage, heirloom mini cabbages, pac choi, Walla Walla onions, scallions, beets, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, and peppers.
I was awed by the quality of the produce, familiar enough with the scene to realize this was a new vendor and intrigued by the farmer with whom I talked each week at the market. Marigold Hill Organics seemed the perfect place to celebrate great food and pay my respect to those who produce it.
Dinner at Momotaro. It’s my first chance to talk to Greg Simmons beyond pleasantries exchanged at the market. The farmer behind Marigold Hill and I are treated like royalty. Management and chefs come over to the table to say how much they admire the quality of Greg’s produce and then send gifts from the kitchen as a way of expressing their appreciation.
Greg grew up in a Sicilian family in Connecticut. There were always big gardens and good food. When he was around 11, his father moved the family to Southern California. Greg played bass guitar, hung out with an older crowd and was swept up in the LA music scene. By seventeen, he had moved to Northern California and then to Idaho, back to the land. Eventually, the life style began to pale and with his wife, he worked his way through Seattle to Chicago. Time there was divided between playing the blues at Chicago clubs, touring with Mississippi Heat and Son Seals, and working front and kitchen-side in restaurants. There were other odd jobs, but there were always the gardens and the intense desire to learn more about organic farming, about water, and about land conservation. Then there was a drive to do something meaningful with his life. In 2013, Greg made the move to the Farm Business Development Center in Grayslake, leased an acre, and the next chapter of his life began in earnest.
On a beautiful fall day, the photographer Eric Futran and I visited the farm. Before we went to see the fields, we watched Courtney Klemm work in the shed where the produce is prepped for market. I was curious about this process because Marigold Hill Organics produce has an incredibly long shelf life, remaining at peak quality. Lettuces and baby greens are harvested only in the morning and hand cut. They are washed several times and sorted for debris. The baby greens go into bags in a washing machine on the spin dry cycle and lettuces are shaken by hand to dry and then placed upside down in wax boxes with plastic liners to hold in moisture. The process is laborious but Courtney and crew can process 100 pounds of baby greens in three hours. Greg’s admiration for their work ethic is boundless.
We walked the fields to watch Jonah, Dan, and Dan harvest beets and lettuce. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe some kind of pastoral scene, but the tilled land runs right up against a railroad track. Greg said he used to feel bad about this, not being very far out in beautiful country, but now he thinks Marigold Hill Organics is exactly where farms are supposed to be, right on the edge of hungry metropolitan communities. He wants to have as low an impact on the land as possible. CD’s tied to a rope around the fields, sparkling in the sun with blinding intensity, and a cardboard coyote hopefully guard the lettuce crop from another devastating attack of wild geese. Greg is obsessed—on fire—with the desire to bring high quality, beautiful produce to the market and he inspires the seven people working for him to hold to the same standard.
But here’s the rub, is it possible to stay true to his standards for a quality crop and his ideals for land conservation while still making a living? And then there are the risks, things no one controls, like the weather. At age 59, with his wife considering retirement, how much is logical to invest in farmland and equipment? How does he control labor costs and at the same time, not compromise on quality? Greg Simmons is unwilling to let go of the dream. His learning curve in the last two years has been amazing. He has new plans: stay small but increase the growing season with hoop houses, create his own designs for economical equipment, and maybe find the right equity partner. If anyone is going to find a way, it’s Greg.