Three miles west of Western Illinois University on a stretch of Adams Street, John Curtis is at work in all seasons planting and tending to a colorful, edible landscape that feeds hundreds of mouths in the Macomb, Ill., area each year.
His market garden, Barefoot Gardens, symbolizes his commitment to being a good steward of the land. It's a gentle, attentive and cooperative approach to growing food by treading lightly in nature, an interest that was sparked for Curtis more than 20 years ago during his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, where he assisted with a model farm project.
"I fell in love with walking out into the landscape and finding food," he says.
Family connections drew Curtis and his wife, Karen Mauldin-Curtis, back to the Macomb area about 15 years ago. Barefoot Gardens is built on the three acres he now tends three miles west of Macomb.
At first he grew produce and sold at farmers' markets, but he felt like he spent too much time harvesting and not as much time growing as he would like. Plus, the unpredictability of demand at the farmers' markets created too much waste in some cases and a shortage in others.
Having heard about CSAs, he soon shifted in that direction. In its first year in 2003, Barefoot Gardens had 20 shares and the growing season ran from June 1 to Sept. 20. In 2013, there are 65 shares and the growing season goes from May 1 to Dec. 31.
The extended growing season is made possible by two hoop houses added to the property within the last few years — paid for, in part, by a capital campaign supported by Barefoot Gardens' loyal shareholders — and also by a growing philosophy that bucks the habit of putting in the garden in spring, and ripping it out in the fall.
For Curtis, there's more than one planting season each year. "To me, fall is like the second spring," he says.
By July, he's planting again — putting in another round of crops to replace what's already been harvested, and in winter, he's harvesting carrots so sweet and crisp they shatter if they hit the pavement.
Sharing the fruits (and fun) of the harvest
Initially, Barefoot Gardens followed the model of most CSAs, in that the growers harvested the produce, herbs, berries and flowers, and filled baskets for shareholders to pick up. In the first years, they even offered delivery.
But what Curtis soon realized, especially for the delivery customers, was this kind of arrangement denies people the chance to experience what got him involved in growing food in the first place — walking out into the landscape and finding food.
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So, at Barefoot Gardens, shareholders do the majority of the harvesting. On Monday nights, a covered porch area becomes a place for socializing, sipping wine, nibbling appetizers and sharing recipes before customers head out into the gardens to pick what they want with their own hands. They bring baskets, coolers, Ziploc bags, knives and pruning scissors — and they get their hands dirty, literally, gathering their own food.
"It's very social. I've heard people talk about it as a 'third place,' " Curtis says, referring to the concept of a place separate from the home or the workplace beneficial for socializing.
While Curtis does harvest some things to avoid waste or damage, having his customers do the picking for the most part decreases his workload while it increases people's connections to the landscape and the food.
A thoughtful planting strategy
Curtis knows his customers well, from the hot-pepper fanatics to the beet lovers, and he's able to grow what they want in the quantities they'll want it, then plant something else once it has been harvested to provide a greater variety throughout the growing season — and to keep things interesting for shareholders.
Popular items — such as herbs and kale and Sungold cherry tomatoes — are strategically planted where shareholders can get to them first. Curved garden rows and a constantly changing and evolving list of crops hint at Curtis' creativity and his passion for what he prefers to call edible landscaping instead of gardening or farming.
Over the course of the growing season, he'll grow a large variety of greens, vegetables, cut flowers and herbs, as well as blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. Deer-resistant crops are planted on newly cultivated tiered plots, with other plants safely growing inside the hoop houses or behind fences in beautifully landscaped beds.
Curtis says there is a very vibrant local food scene in Macomb. Faculty at Western Illinois University are teaching courses about local food movements and the economics of modern agriculture, and younger families are paying more and more attention to where their food comes from. Adding to that vibrant scene are a series of gardening workshops that Curtis now teaches each spring.
Likewise, Curtis' work with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance is helping to develop a vision for the future of Illinois' agriculture in which legislation supports and encourages family farmers, food entrepreneurs and operations large and small that protect rather than exploit natural resources.
"It evens that playing field a little bit," he says of the ISA's work.
Jane Carlson is a frequent Radish contributor. Barefoot Gardens, 3201 W. Adams St., Macomb, is still accepting CSA memberships for the 2013 fall extension. Visit their website at barefootgardens.org for more information.