Bob Borchardt's family goes way back with food. His great-grandparents owned a store that sold produce, meat, and dry goods in Pilsen in the 30s and 40s, and his grandparents ran a restaurant and bar where his grandmother made hearty midday dinners of braised meats and spaetzle for the truckers coming in and out of the nearby South Water Market. In the 90s Bob took over his father's company, which serviced restaurants with specialized tasks like maintaining professional stove hoods. And five years ago he started up Cuisine Populaire (cuisinepopulaire.com), a new-media and video-production company that makes DVDs on global food, wine, and culture. Some of them feature his brother, Bradley Borchardt, a Bangkok-based chef.
In 2005, watching one of his company's own videos about a organic farm in Argentina that has its own restaurant and packaging facility, Bob and his wife, Jennifer—who'd briefly attended cooking school but was working in textbook publishing—realized they were looking at something like their ideal business model. "We knew we wanted to help bring people back to a greater level of engagement with what they're eating," says Bob. "Understanding how and where it's grown, how it's transported, how to prepare it, and how to slow down and enjoy it."
Today Bob and Jennifer, both 45, own Harvest Moon, a 20-acre certified organic farm in southwest Wisconsin. They're in some ways a typical family-run organic outfit, selling whole and half CSA shares—including winter shares beginning this year. But they've also been innovative, teaming up with Uncommon Ground on Devon to offer "Farmer Fridays," a weekly farmers' market that runs from 4 to 8 PM. It's as much for the farmers as the patrons who'd prefer to shop after work: "We can't be getting up at two in the morning," Jennifer says.
This year Harvest Moon also began experimenting with growing custom produce for restaurants—a level of service more high-end restaurants in the area have started looking for. The Bristol's Chris Pandel, Bluprint's Sam Burman, and Nacional 27 mixologist Adam Seger signed on, and all three say they've been delighted with the results.
Toying with the CSA idea in the living room of their Roscoe Village house back in 2005, the Borchardts went on Craigslist and typed in "organic farm in Wisconsin." Up popped one with "a red brick house with pretty rolling landscape," Jennifer says. They went to see it, and although they didn't end up buying it, they became friends with the couple that owned it and spent the summer there "playing farmer" on a two-acre mixed vegetable plot. After that, says Jennifer, "I realized that I could do this as a vocation and finally be in the food business from the angle I wanted."
Jennifer enrolled in Stateline Farm Beginnings, a ten-month training and support program designed to help people plan and launch sustainable-farm businesses. The farmer-led initiative, based in downstate Caledonia, is a collaboration among the Angelic Organics Learning Center, the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), the Land Connection, and other partners.
For a year the couple searched for their dream farm. In 2006, after visiting nearly 30 possibilities, they found it in Viroqua, Wisconsin, about 30 miles southwest of La Crosse. It had everything they were looking for—including a trout stream, progressive, community-minded neighbors, and ten acres of natural habitat for the "critters" that help keep crop pests at bay.
Bob got busy clearing the other ten acres and, along with a four-person construction crew, built a 4,500-square-foot barn that also houses the office, a washing, packing, and storage facility, and a licensed professional kitchen. In March 2007 they borrowed greenhouse space from their Amish neighbors to start plants for their first year as a CSA, and by June, with the help of ten people over a four-day period, they'd planted their first crops, a diverse mix of mostly heirloom varieties, including beans, corn, lettuce, melons, peppers, tomatoes, and two kinds of hardneck garlic, which has larger cloves and less of an outer bulb wrapper than the softneck type commonly sold in grocery stores.
Early on, Bob says, he realized that though their land can grow "a hell of a lot of produce," they'd be more successful at filling and varying their CSA boxes if they teamed up with their neighbors. So the Borchardts started the Producers Guild, an association that pools the resources of other small farms within a five-mile loop of their farm. Right now there are eight farms in the guild; the goal is 20. Six of the member farms are Amish-owned, and four are certified organic. "It's been a great working relationship, as they have so much farming knowledge, which we need, and we have the market and transportation for product, which they need," says Bob—Chicago's a long drive in a buggy. The Borchardts are also working to get the guild fair-trade certified.
Earlier this year Jennifer, armed with seed catalogs, sat down with the Chicago chefs to pick out what Harvest Moon would grow for them. "Choosing varieties to grow together deepens the level of involvement and commitment on both sides," she says, and the process makes each party more aware of the issues and challenges the other faces. Plus, she says, "the chef has an idea of what he's getting, and we know we have a market for it."
"To have a farm growing items special for you is really a chef's dream come true," says Pandel, who got heirloom melons, beans, rhubarb, and asparagus, among other items, from Harvest Moon this year. "They plant around how we work." Bluprint's Burman notes that the direct chef-to-farmer relationship means there's very little product waste. And Seger says working with Harvest Moon allowed him to draw up Nacional 27's summer "Farm to the Bar" cocktail list in January. He calls the Borchardts' culinary background a bonus: "They are sophisticated urban foodies, so they understand how to connect their produce to Chicago restaurants," he says.
This is one of the main satisfactions of the job for Bob. "I can't tell you what it feels like to walk out of a restaurant that I've just done a delivery to and know how excited those chefs are to make dinner," he says. "Or when I go to a restaurant and see our farm's name on the menu. It doesn't happen every day, but it's the only reason we stay in this business."