When I picture farmland in Illinois, I imagine the farms of my youth with their high, green rows of corn that stretch as far as the eye can see. These are precise, square plots; the kind that look like building blocks if you were peering down from an airplane. The rows are tidy, the colors uniform.
These are the farms of industrialized agriculture with its mono-crops of corn and soy brought to life through the heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
My childhood vision of the typical Illinois farm was shattered on Sunday when I visited Epiphany Farms, an organic farm in Downs, Illinois (population 760). Run by three guys in their mid-twenties, the farm looks like the creative doodles of a preschool drawing—not the clean design of an architect. This is farming as the earth intended.
In the front of the property, sloping into the south-facing sun leans a greenhouse constructed of curving wood. Next to that are three cold frames built entirely from recycled window panes. These stand not far from a pig pen. Around the bend is a field planted topsy-turvy by hand with slanting rows of beans, lettuces, and broccoli, and decorated by weeds. Adjacent are more pigs, most of them babies suckling on their mother. Farther a-field are cattle and chickens. Around the corner are bee hives and fruit trees.
The life on this farm teams with diversity, leaving no square outline to be seen from the air above. Instead, it winds with the hills and the forest tree line.
This is Epiphany Farms, the brainchild of Ken Myszka. He’s actually not a farmer, though he’s learning to become one. He’s a trained chef by trade, having worked for some of Vegas’s finest restaurants. But the more he has learned about cooking great food, the more he has wanted to be responsible for every step of the cooking process—including growing his own groceries.
So one year ago, Myszka packed up and moved back to his childhood home, conveniently located on 72 acres of farmable land in central Illinois. He brought along two buddies and fellow culinary geniuses Mike Mustard and Stu Hummel, who were also cooking in Vegas at the time.
Mustard is a native of Sacramento, California, while Hummel’s roots are from Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Like Myszka, the two wanted to be responsible for the production of the food they serve their customers.
Together, the three spent their first year as farmers studying and learning as much as they could about the craft. This year, they’ll see how successful they can be at harvesting bounty from their fields. And by next March 2011, they hope they can finally pull their vision together to start feeding the good folks of Bloomington, Illinois from their farm-to-fork restaurant. Vegetables and farm-fresh produce will be the stars of their menu, while protein (including their own grass-fed beef) will simply run support on the plate.
After touring their farm this past weekend, the chefs-turned-farmers offer me and a group of about 20 interested patrons a sampling of their cooking. This is no ordinary farm BBQ. Instead of hotdogs and chips, we are served a gourmet lunch of garden herb-seasoned potato salad (the lightest, freshest potato salad I’ve ever enjoyed), Asian noodle salad studded with grated carrots and radish (bright and flavorful), giant burgers made from Epiphany cattle and topped with both homemade mayonnaise made with their farm eggs and caramelized onions. For dessert: alpine strawberry muffins and coriander custard topped with powdered oats. Divine.
We dined as we looked out at cows chewing grass, chickens pecking, and vegetable plants blowing in the breeze.
Although other farmers and chefs will tell you that Epiphany Farms is breaking the mold, Myszka will tell you, “I’m not inventing anything. I’m not trying to be the first.” Instead, his goal is practical, “When I research about eating locally and eating healthy, and then I try to educate others, where can I tell them to go?”
For decades, there wouldn’t have been many answers to that question in rural Illinois. Today, there’s Epiphany Farms.