by molly each
photography by kathryn barnard | October 28, 2011 | Food & Drink
An assortment of in-season produce
The Gentleman Farmer’s one-acre plot
Chef Gaetano Nardulli slices the ribeye at the table
Grilled ribeye is plated with roasted Brussels sprouts and braised Swiss chard
A jar of mums adds seasonal flair to any table
Brown butter and ricotta ravioli
Jessica and Dominic Green of The Gentleman Farmer
After the birth of their first son, Henry, three-and-a-half years ago, Dominic and Jessica Green began to evaluate their life together. “I was teaching Pilates and Dom was acting, and I would pace the halls thinking, What are we leaving behind? What is the legacy?”
That legacy would be at the forefront of Jessica’s mind is no surprise, as her family legacy is well established, and one that most Chicagoans are familiar with. She’s the granddaughter of Richard Duchossois, founder and chairman of The Duchossois Group, which owns Arlington Park, Illinois’s largest horseracing track, and the legendary Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Her family is heavily involved in local philanthropic organizations and are regular attendees at benefits across the city.
|Dominic gathers eggs in the early morning|
With their own growing family in mind (their second son, Oliver, was born last year), the Greens took stock of their interests, namely their shared passion for food. After toying with the idea of opening a restaurant, the duo realized that their dream lifestyle involved being outdoors and working with food. “Farming was the answer,” says Dominic. Jessica signed them up for a course through Stateline Farm Beginnings, a program that helps people establish their own farms. Helmed by Angelic Organics (whom Jessica calls “the granddaddy of small-scale farming in Illinois”), the six-month course offers guidance in business planning, hands-on training, and field-day workshops from CRAFT (the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training). Shortly after completing their course, they carved out an acre behind Jessica’s mother’s home in Barrington, which backs on to her family’s 600-acre horse farm, and dug in, practicing their skills during the 2010 season, in which they just provided vegetables to friends and family, before officially launching this year.
Lay of the Land
For a young couple to shun mainstream careers and embark on a life as farmers is a trend that is taking off across the country, thanks in part to increased government funding to young farmers—this year, $18 million dollars was given to help train growers with less than 10 years of experience. But while the idea is a romantic, novel-worthy notion, in reality, it’s a challenging, labor-intensive lifestyle. On a typical day, Dominic is in the field at seven in the morning, collecting eggs from his nearly 40 chickens, and works until sundown sowing new seeds and weeding by hand. “If you’re an organic farmer, 50 percent of your work is a battle against weeds and bugs.” The Greens’ farm is one of dozens of organic farms in the Chicago area (and one of thousands across the country). But actual organic farm statistics are hard to find: While many farms—including The Gentleman Farmer—are technically organic (they don’t use pesticides or herbicides, relying instead on natural methods like floating row-cover fabric and old-fashioned crop rotation to prevent pests and disease), most small farmers veer away from being legally certified. The process is expensive, and to many, the phrase isn’t as weighty or important as it once was. “The term organic, the designation, has been hijacked by big agriculture, so farms tend to stay away from the official certification,” says Dominic. “But customers know their farmers. They know where their food comes from and can visit the farm and see how we grow things. They can look [the farmer] in the eye, and know that if the farmer says he’s not spraying, they can trust him.”
Rather than hawking their fruits and vegetables in a farm-centric, brick-and-mortar market, Dominic and Jessica are building their farm business through the more personal interaction of offering a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, in which people subscribe to a weekly or biweekly box of what the farmer has just picked a day or two earlier. In Chicago, you’ll find nearly 50 available CSA programs, offering everything from fruits and vegetables to meats, eggs, and dairy. A CSA subscription comes with a wealth of benefits: because the goods are trucked in locally, it cuts down on transportation and greenhouse emissions; it simulates the local economy; and fruits and vegetables are more nutrient-rich when eaten closer to the moment they are harvested. Plus, at-home foodies love the element of surprise; if you’ve never cooked with a celery root before, here’s a chance to learn. While some farms distribute to subscribers via a drop-off location, the Greens deliver to theirs through a stand at the Logan Square Farmers Market, at which Dominic works each Sunday. It’s a chance for him to interact with the community, talk about the challenges and joys he’s had over the past week, and invite subscribers to come to Barrington to see the farm.
For the Greens, running a farm is a constant learning experience. “Farming is way more complex than anyone who hasn’t done it could imagine,” says Jessica. “There’s so much to schedule, and timing is so vital, and then you throw in variables like the weather… it takes real brains.” Dominic adds, “You’re really at the mercy of the weather. Everything can be wiped out in one go if you’re not prepared and don’t know how to respond.” He notes that almost every farmer he talks to, whether he’s been farming for five years or 15, says he continues to learn each season.
Crops aside, the journey away from a traditional working life is terrain that the Greens are constantly navigating. While their farm is still in its infancy, the Greens split their time between Chicago and Barrington: Jessica spends the week in the city with the boys to accommodate Henry’s preschool schedule, while Dominic stays near the farm in a small cottage on the property. “It’s challenging having a young family and working seven days a week,” says Dominic. “But we made a commitment to live a certain way, and we’ve worked to do that.” While the division of labor is established—Dominic mans the fields while Jessica helms the website and business aspect of the farm—at least once a week Dominic, Jessica, and the boys are in the field, harvesting together.
As for the name The Gentleman Farmer? “We didn’t want a typical farm name,” says Dominic, noting that they stayed away from anything too bucolic sounding. Jessica came up with the name on a whim, though it has little to do with the historical context of the phrase: Traditionally, a gentleman farmer was a land-owning man who took up farming as a hobby, rather than a way to make money. But for the Greens, who have put their previous careers on hiatus, farming is hardly a hobby—it’s their way of life. On a surface level, too, one conversation with Dominic—with his posh English accent and witty charm—and the moniker seems spot-on. Despite the name, the organization is a Green family business. “People ask if I’m The Gentleman Farmer, and I put my arm around Jess [and Henry and Oliver] and say, ‘No, we are. We are The Gentleman Farmer.’”
Host with the Most
Because small-scale farming is an industry rooted in community, hosting a seasonal harvest dinner is an essential component of the mission of many local farms. The Gentleman Farmer hosted their first such dinner in September. To turn their harvests into culinary masterpieces, the Greens bring in one of the local chefs with whom they work, offering their guests recipes based on the most recent pickings. Gaetano Nardulli, formerly the sous chef at Schwa, recently opened Near Restaurant a few miles away from the farm in Barrington and sources much of his produce from The Gentleman Farmer. “I love knowing that the [produce] Dominic brings me is freshly picked and delivered that same day,” he says.
To craft this holiday meal (see menu, right), Nardulli utilized a bounty from The Gentleman Farmer (with several additions coming from neighboring Radical Root Farm and Tempel Farms Organics) of fresh-picked produce, pairing it in entrees and side dishes that suit both carnivores and herbivores alike. To complement the food— and the sprawling green acres and white fences that offer unbeatable ambience—the Greens set a long farm table with natural burlap, accentuating the fabric with pops of color via orange dinnerware and candles, and fresh-cut orange mums in Mason jars. A fire lit several yards away in a fire pit provides an autumn aroma and is also the site for post-dinner s’mores and conversation.
It’s the perfect setting for the Greens to host their CSA members, whom they consider part of their “farm” family, and any volunteers who have assisted them during the growing season. But the dinners also play into their greater community-building mission. “Our goal is to offer a real forum, to have a place to talk and hang out and learn,” Jessica says. “We hope to be able to provide more opportunities for hands-on exploration at the farm and offer more harvest dinners.”
Whether it’s hosting dinners, maintaining a relationship with their CSA members, or manning their weekly booth at the farmers’ market, the Greens’ efforts have been enthusiastically embraced by Chicago’s farm-loving community: The Gentleman Farmer has heard constant positive feedback from all corners. “I don’t think I’ve spoken to a single person who when we said we were embarking on this farming adventure didn’t say, ‘Ah, I’d love to do that!’ It’s that slice of life that everyone [wants to] tap into,” says Dominic.
But it’s at the harvest dinners, sitting down at the farm table brimming with food, surrounded by friends and extended farm family, that Dominic and Jessica truly see the fruits of their small-scale farm operation—and experience the most joy. “It’s a very clear job that we’re doing,” says Dominic. “We take a seed, put it in the ground, grow some food, and give it not to a wholesaler, not to a store, but to people. And we know that night they’ll be eating the food. It’s very visceral.”