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The last farmers in Cook County



On this morning in late July, in a far-south-side corner of Chicago, there's a funny smell in the air. You're passing Reds II, advertising "burgers-fries-chili," but that's not the source. Neither is it the Mount Greenwood Auto Body Shop, the Ford dealership, or the Saint Casimir Lithuanian Cemetery along the road to the north and west. It smells a little bit like onions. You scan the horizon for a smokestack, thinking it might be a misleading factory belch. But the sky is an unmarred blue. Then you notice the field to your right, too cultivated-looking to be a vacant lot.

Shimmering in the summer heat is a bit of the last farm within the city limits. And yes, the smell really is onions: onions still embedded in rich, black Chicago soil.

To the average city dweller, the idea of farming in Chicago or its hardly pastoral environs might sound like a joke. But why do you think they called that western suburb "Rolling Meadows"? There are still farmers out that way who not only recall the pre-prefab housing days, but who plant grain and vegetables in what's left of those meadows.

At last count, in 1986, 428 families were making a living off the land in Cook County, hard by the steaming, traffic-clogged, suburban tollways and freeways. And according to Alden Kilian, director of the Cook County Farm Bureau (an organization that on the face of it seems oxymoronic), in 1982 there were 42,000 acres of Cook County land in farm. Amazingly, the Cook County Farm Bureau, with its 26,000 members, is the largest county farm bureau in the nation, Kilian proudly points out, larger than any of the farm bureaus in 26 states.

Most of the Cook County Farm Bureau's members do not farm, however, and in fact its members have a wide variety of reasons for joining. Says Kilian: "A lot of these people have an interest in agriculture. Their parents or grandparents had farms. And as we view it, anybody who eats three meals a day has an interest in agriculture." The bureau offers loan programs and other assistance to farmers; it has an insurance program and special co-op deals for its nonfarmer members.

Cook County farms, like most of the farms in Illinois, produce mainly corn and soybeans. But since the farms have the advantage of being near a major consumer market, much of the land is also devoted to intensive vegetable growing. Such is the case with the only remaining farm within the city limits.

Pete and Angie Ouwenga have rented the last city farm from the Chicago Board of Education since 1948, growing onions, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, and other goodies (like rhubarb) to sell at their roadside stand at 111th and Longwood. Now their son has taken over much of the business. But the "retired" farm couple was busy working the stand in late July.

"In 1948, the land was all around us," said Pete Ouwenga, a tall, burly 70, surveying the trim homes and businesses that have sprouted along the Alsip border, just to the south of his fields. "In 1961, we started the stand. Before that we used to sell at the South Water market downtown and to companies like Campbell Soup," which used to buy his tomatoes.

Ouwenga says that more farmers from downstate have discovered how lucrative the Chicago farm stand business is and have been moving in, taking business away from the last city farm. "Business at the stand used to be better, but now there are too many markets to compete with. A couple of times a year now, the guys from outside the city come in with big truckloads." Three of the Ouwengas' four children have left the farm business--"they got smart and quit," says Ouwenga, with a twinkle that says he doesn't mean it.

The Ouwengas don't know how long their son will be able to farm their 58-acre plot. The school board has built a magnet school on the property, the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. The school has attracted the attention and assistance of large Chicago agricultural concerns (including the Board of Trade), which have decided to loan it $15 million to expand. That money, the Ouwengas believe, spells the death of their farm.

"If they build more on the school, will the farm still be here? They say they've got $15 million to play with. Why keep this? I don't know," says Ouwenga. (When asked whether the school's expansion would encroach on the farm, board spokesman Ken Moses hedged: "Well, somewhat. I don't know if it would take up all the land, but there is no way yet to say what the effect will be on the farmers.")

Garry Raymond, an ag teacher at the high school, is excited about the prospect of expanding it to accommodate 1,500 students instead of its current 360. He justifies the expansion by pointing out that the school, 60 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic, and 60 percent female, offers minorities and women the opportunity to get into occupations traditionally dominated by white males. Although the students, all members of the Future Farmers of America, will probably not become landowners, they are being groomed for careers in agriculture-related fields, such as food science and commodities trading.

"This school is trying to break down some barriers," Raymond said. "It kind of does shake up the state when we show up at fairs downstate with bus loads of black kids--who actually win prizes in agricultural competitions," Raymond said.

The Ouwengas aren't alone: encroaching development threatens most of the farmers in Cook County, and usually it's development that isn't as high-minded as the magnet school. Although Cook County has never been known for its farm economy, for years the city's growth has been wiping out farms at a rapid rate. In 1950, according to Illinois Department of Agriculture statistics, there were 3,236 farms in the county, with 202,444 acres of land in farm. Twenty years later, the acreage in farm had been cut by more than half, and the number of farms was down to 713.

"The farmers feel pressure constantly from developers," Kilian said. Farmland in Cook County currently sells for between $4,000 and $8,000 an acre, compared with $1,800 for "the best prime farmland in northern Illinois" farther away from the city, according to Tom Mendelson at the Northern Trust Bank. "The land value is all speculation. It is not the value today for farming, it's the value tomorrow for housing and industrial use. We have had land that's being farmed go for $200,000 an acre." Farming, bankers are quick to point out, is not considered the "best use" of Cook County land. However, some landowners try to keep their land in farm to drive down their assessments. Thus a lot of land being farmed in the area is rented.

South Barrington farmer James Goebbert, who has watched industrial office complexes (like "Barrington Pointe" and the "South Barrington Office Centre") go up in quick succession during the past ten years, noted the economic subtleties of farming in Cook County. To the lanky, slow-talking Goebbert, 58, a vegetable and grain farmer, farming here has a remarkable transience: "A lot of growers around here rent their land from speculators who buy land and wait for the price to rise." When the speculators find the right price, Goebbert said, the farmers are out of a field.

Goebbert, who owns about 50 acres just off the Northwest Tollway, also rents 160 acres there. And he just bought 160 acres in Hampshire, 20 miles to the west, because he foresees the day when he won't be able to rent farmland anymore. "We had a couple of guys this spring out here making offers to us," he said. "There's a big demand for housing now. I would say that within five years, we won't have the 160 acres that I rent. Thirty-eight acres behind this were just sold." He glanced out the window and gestured to the field behind his house. "But we have no intention of selling. A lot of our friends have moved west. I have no desire to do that. I like it here."

Goebbert and his family already have been pushed west once. They moved from Arlington Heights to their present farm in 1972: "When we moved here, it was country all around us."

Surprisingly, Goebbert says that his farm has not suffered much from the development. He said the only pollution problems he's faced involve jet-fuel-oil fumes from O'Hare damaging the more delicate products, such as cantaloupe. However, drainage problems sometimes result when former farmland is converted to construction.

Goebbert himself had flooding problems in Arlington Heights when the Northwest Tollway was built. When farmland is developed, its drainage systems, made of tiles set in the fields, are disrupted. "When they put the tollway in," Goebbert said, "you either had to live with it or retile." Still, Goebbert believes the government usually tries to cooperate with farmers.

Arlington Heights farmer Nicholas Skoufes disagrees. For the past five years, he has been suing Elk Grove Township for putting in a road without proper drainage and flooding one of his fields. Skoufes says that the drainage runoff is pouring oil and salt onto "rich, really heavy black soil" where he used to grow things. "Somebody's palm was greased not to put storm sewers in out here," said Skoufes.

Skoufes, who has been vegetable farming since 1955, has seven acres, on which he grows tomatoes, peppers, green beans, shallots, squash, beets, lettuce, and carrots, which he sells at stands in Evanston and Elmhurst. He says he is being crowded in on both sides by apartments and factories on land he used to rent and farm. His farm is sandwiched between industrial parks housing a garbage disposal business, an optical factory, printing outfits, and an excavation company.

But, undeterred, he says he won't sell the farm, which is his livelihood. "This year, the bad drought has hurt the small stuff," he said. "But we make a living off it."

It does seem that the government has not always been particularly receptive to the needs of Cook County farmers. Although their property is now taxed at a rate congruent with rates for farmland elsewhere in Illinois, no law requires Cook County to continue to do so. The lower "farmland assessment rate" common to most counties in Illinois was removed from the books years ago by Mayor Daley. And occasionally the Farm Bureau has had to intervene with the county on behalf of some farmer who is being taxed at a higher rate simply because he put up a greenhouse, pushing the assessment into commercial-zone rates. But Kilian is careful not to criticize the County Board, insisting that farmers have a good relationship with county government.

However, they face numerous other obstacles, large and small.

"I always allude to fellows who farm in this area as pioneers, because they face new problems every day," said a staff member at Capital Agricultural Property Services (CAPS) in Oak Brook, which manages farmland in 38 states. Local farmers face three major problems, he said, which affect the value of the land for farming: field size (fields are constantly being reshaped and shrunk by development); reduced productivity, which is related to field size; and accessibility.

Accessibility does not mean to a farmer what it does to the average city dweller. Farmers don't like well-traveled roads. For moving field equipment, a nice, sleepy dirt road beats a four-lane highway with a 65-mile-an-hour speed limit. Accidents between slow-moving field equipment and cars usually cost farmers a lot more money than they do car owners, because of lost field time.

A fourth problem faced by Chicago-area farmers is the dearth of agricultural products, such as seed and machinery, and of agricultural services, such as grain elevators. "To really get this stuff, you have to go to Elburn, 50 miles west," said the CAPS staff member. "That's where you find the nearest elevator, the nearest seed, the nearest chemicals and machinery parts."

But Goebbert and his wife, like many other Cook County farmers, are full-blooded farm folk, and they won't give up. Goebbert's farming roots in the Chicago area go back three generations. His wife's grandfather, he said, farmed land within blocks of what is now Wrigley Field. And of his three children, two run markets selling the food they grow and one manages their farm in Hampshire.

If he sold his land and got out of the business, Goebbert said, "We certainly couldn't make enough money [in a sale] to replace making a living on the farm. We really work the land intensively."

Goebbert's top money crops are sweet corn, tomatoes, and pumpkins, in that order. He says he sells 200 tons of pumpkins every fall. Goebbert's phenomenal pumpkin business surprised even him. It is a function of his location, near both the city and its family-filled suburbs. He says the first year he grew pumpkins for Halloween, he planned to let his children set up a small table by the road and sell them for pocket change. But before the first day was over, business was so brisk that he and his wife had to help out. Now he hires 20 people to work the market in October, when, he says, 20,000 people a day file through.

The area near Chicago Heights and South Holland, to the south of the city, has fewer office complexes and more heavy industry, including steel and chemical plants, than Goebbert's neck of the woods. But driving along the verdant rural roads three miles past the smoggy junction of Interstate 80 and the Calumet Expressway, one sees nothing but fields, dotted here and there with a farmhouse or a fruit-and-vegetable stand.

This is onion country, says Howard Paarlberg, 59, whose Dutch ancestors helped settle nearby South Holland: "The lake breeze is good for onions here. A lot of people say that, without the breeze, the crops would burn up. [Onions are cold-weather plants.] When my grandmother first moved here, there were wild onions all over the place. That's where Chicago got its name."

Paarlberg's onion farm, about seven or eight miles from Lake Michigan, is smack in the middle of what might be called southern Cook County's farm belt. From the hill near his house you can see the Sears Tower on a clear day. Three miles north, cars and trucks rumble by on the Dan Ryan. But from Paarlberg's kitchen window, we see only his fields and a sleepy subdivision, Lynwood, the only sign of encroaching metropolitan development in the area.

"Ten years ago, we used to farm that land," Paarlberg said, gazing at the conglomeration of brown frame homes now flush with his backyard. "If I had bought it at that time, it would not be a subdivision." Nonetheless, Paarlberg believes there is a "proper time" to sell off farmland--when the price is right. "When land is worth $15,000 an acre, you can't compete in terms of the interest that would draw," he says.

"But I'm a farmer and my son is a farmer, and I would like to see that privilege continue for him." Paarlberg and his son farm 500 acres, about half of it rented.

On the day of the interview, in mid-August, the Paarlbergs had just completed the onion harvest for the summer. They were to be found under tractors, grease-covered, cleaning their field equipment to put away for the winter. A 30-yard-long shed nearby was filled halfway to the ceiling with onion sets drying on huge fans. (Onion sets are seeded onions that have grown into bulbs, which can be used to plant both green and cooking onions the next year. The south Cook County area, Paarlberg said, has been called "the onion-set capital of the world." Twenty farmers in the area grow them, then sell them cooperatively under the brand name "Dutch Valley Onion Sets.")

Paarlberg has not seen much civilization encroaching in the form of office buildings or roads, but he has had problems with thieves, who he believes are coming from nearby suburbs and the city. Twice this year they've stolen farm equipment ($5,000 worth) from his barn.

Neither Paarlberg, Skoufes, nor Goebbert makes it into the city very often, usually just once a year for the Farm Bureau's annual convention at the Palmer House. Paarlberg does say he takes his wife shopping occasionally, and he has a few favorite restaurants, among them the Golden Ox and Lawry's. But the proximity to Chicago produces more ironies than connections.

"When we hear the weatherman on TV talking about nice weather for the weekend in Chicago," Paarlberg said, "it seems ridiculous to us to be thinking about the weather for pleasure."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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