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Struggling in the drought: Organic farmers plead for help

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Updated: September 6, 2012 6:15AM



The swollen, green tomatoes are beginning to blush — a sign they’ll soon need to be picked.

Bob and Jen Borchardt, a North Side couple whose small organic-produce farm sits in a wooded hollow in southwestern Wisconsin, are expecting a bumper crop of Speckled Roman, Japanese Black Trifle and other heirloom tomato varieties.

So perhaps it seems odd that the Borchardts recently issued a drought-related plea for donations to help keep their fledgling farm afloat.

“We have some issues that we face, and we’re reaching out to our community for some help,” says a solemn Bob Borchardt in an online video posted on the Harvest Moon website in mid-July.

A drought that might be remembered as one of the most catastrophic in Midwest history turned the soil hard and dusty on the Borchardts’ 35-acre farm in the town of Viroqua, and it wiped out about 80 percent of their kale and chard crop — greens destined for Chicago area stores, restaurants and homes.

The Borchardts had hoped to use the proceeds from those sales to bolster their irrigation system and pay workers to pick and box the tomatoes, which have thrived in the heat.

The Borchardts say they don’t want to think about what might happen to their farm if they can’t reach their $150,000 goal.

“We’ve just decided at this point that it’s best to focus on the short term,” Bob Borchardt said during a recent visit to the couple’s farm. “We need to get through the next 90 days.”

Across much of the Midwest, crops are baking and shriveling in fields. As of July 31, 71 percent of Illinois was experiencing “extreme to exceptional” drought conditions, and another eight percent in southern Illinois is dealing with “exceptional” drought — the most serious of five drought categories, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau. The Bureau’s John Hawkins recently visited a farm at the southern tip of the state.

“There was just nothing there,” Hawkins said. “You had sticks. The corn plants had virtually just died right in the middle of the field — no ear, no corn. It was just completely desiccated.”

Wisconsin has fared a little better, with 60 percent of the state enduring abnormally dry to severe conditions.

Left city jobs in ’07

Harvest Moon Farms lies in a deep hollow, surrounded by steep, wooded bluffs.

Only the distant whine of a weed whacker interrupts a soundtrack of bird song and chirping crickets during a recent trip to the farm.

The Borchardts chuckle at the suggestion that theirs is a tranquil life.

“We certainly love the area,” Jen Borchardt said. “But it’s not a fairy tale. . . . It’s hard, hard work for very little money.”

The Borchardts left jobs in the city in 2007 — she sold college textbooks, he made promotional videos for food, wine and spirits companies — to see if they could turn their love of food and gardening into a business.

“I didn’t want to go work in a restaurant,” Jen Borchardt said. “I loved growing stuff. I seemed to have a knack for it — at least in a garden.”

There were back-to-back “floods of the century” to contend with and a fungus that wiped out most of the Borchardts’ tomato crop one year.

“We lovingly called them ‘cityots,’ ” said Midge Fredrickson, a neighbor whose husband, Kevin, is a fourth-generation farmer and owns 470 acres. “They were wide-eyed and bushy-tailed — thinking they were going to raise yummy vegetables down in deer and raccoon country.”

At the local hardware store, the manager still searches for the Borchardts’ account under “Chicago Bob and Chicago Jen.”

The Borchardts — who live in an apartment in Edgewater when they’re not farming — had at least two things going for them: A host of potential clients from Bob’s video work and a strong work ethic.

The couple started out delivering their product — which has included everything from beets to broccoli and tomatoes to tomatillos — directly to Chicago area restaurants. These days, large-scale wholesale distributors do that for them.

Each week, Harvest Moon Farms ships out about 250 boxes of produce throughits “Community Supported Agri­culture” program, mostly to families and individuals. Members essentially buy a share in the farm and, in exchange, they get a different selection of seasonal vegetables and some fruit each week.

“They’ve gained our respect enormously,” Fredrickson said. “They’re very hardworking and motivated, intelligent. They are very devoted. They are putting everything into it.”

And now, the Borchardts have their neighbors’ sympathy.

Just as the harvest began for the couple’s greens in mid-May, it stopped raining.

“The last consecutive days of rain we had were in April,” Bob Borchardt said.

In late July, the soil is cracked and dry. It takes something hard and sharp to break the surface.

Armadas of fluffy white clouds stretch out as far as the eye can see, but the Borchardts know from experience that they won’t bring rain.

Bob Borchardt crouches down and plucks a leaf from a green “curly” kale plant. Instead of a healthy dusty green, the leaf is yellow — and about half as long as it should be.

“We could never, ever bring this to the wholesale market,” Borchardt said.

The Borchardts have farm insurance, but collecting on a claim can be complicated for organic farmers — many of whom mix crops in a single field to help combat insect infestations.

“It’s just a very difficult process to get those claims filed easily and fast,” said Ellen Phillips, an agricultural expert with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

And no immediate help from the federal government is forthcoming either. A deal to provide relief for drought-stricken farmers fell apart Thursday, and Congress isn’t expected to address the issue until September when it returns from its August break.

$15,000 in help

Jen Borchardt said she was reluctant to seek help. She said it’s not in her nature. But she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing her bountiful tomato harvest going to waste, she said. One of her varieties — the Aunt Mary — comes from a seed the local Amish grow. Amish horse-drawn carts are a common sight in and around town. The Aunt Mary tomato is big, pinkish-red and shaped like an ox heart. It’s sweet and rich in flavor, without being acidic.

“That’s what made me sit down and do that video,” Jen Borchardt said. “We have worked so hard. This crop is so beautiful and it’s so healthy. We’ve got to get the resources to get to the place to get these things off the vine.”

And so far, the Borchardts’ customers and friends have been receptive — to the tune of about $15,000. There are plans for a benefit concert at Metro Chicago in Wrigleyville.

Michael and Helen Cameron, co-owners of the Uncommon Ground restaurants on the North Side, have created a special three-course menu — $5 of which they donate to the Borchardts’ cause.

Helen Cameron said she and her husband are eager, whenever possible, to support local organic growers.

“I’m the type of person who has trouble asking for help; that can definitely be a detriment to success,” Cameron said. “This is very important to save. We don’t want to see organic farms not succeeding because of something like this. If we have the resources to help, and someone is asking for help . . . we are happy to help.”

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